Edward Schafer and Spice Route Travelers – II

The Southern Sea Routes
Before Marco Polo



“The Po-Lo-Mi (jackfruit) is the size of a pumpkin, its outer skin covered with nodules like the hair on a Buddha’s head.  Its color is green while growing, and turns yellow when ripe.  The pulp is of extreme sweetness.” — Zhao Rugua“Even in Dunhuang, further out on the camel road, grape wine was an expensive addition to an important celebration, like champagne for our festivals.” — Edward Schafer


Edward Schafer researched the movement of men, goods and ideas along the Silk Road, especially in the Tang Dynasty, around the 8th century. He shows us the movement of vegetables, fruits, spices and aromatics like cloves and cinnamon along the Silk Road

Tang Dynasty Camel,
From the Oases, 8th Century

Schafer’s book, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, focuses on the Central Asian trade route, and The Vermilion Bird gives more information on the influences from India and Indonesia on Chinese cuisine..

The Second Trade Route

There was another, southerly, Silk Road, or Spice Route, running to the South and navigated by sea.  This route was important especially during the Yuan Dynasty.

The Yuan was a Mongol dynasty established by Kublai Khan in 1271, which lasted until 1368.

It was a time when Chinese traders and explorers were involved with Arab seafarers in India, Southeast Asia and Africa.

This route wound around the Indian Ocean as far as Madagascar and Eastern Africa. Many of the food and drug items that were a part of this early East-West trade extended as far West as Sicily.

Around the time Laufer began researchers on the Central Asia trade route, two Western Sinologists, Friedrich Hirt and W. W. Rockhill, translated the Chronicle of Chau Ju-Kua (Zhao Rugua), a chronicler of the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Description of Barbarous Peoples: Zhao Rugua was a customs inspector who authored a collection of information about foreign countries as well as detailed reports of trade goods.  He described especially the goods that moved along the Maritime Silk Road.

Zhao’s writings — his Description of Barbarous Peoples — give a picture of early trade in a number of food-related items between old China and other regions.

“Zhao Rugua deserves to be named among the most prominent writers on the ethnography and trade of his time. Throwing light on the medieval trade with the Far East, then in the hands of Arab and Persian merchants, his works compete successfully with Marco Polo.” — Hirt and Rockhill

Hirt and Rockhill’s translation into English was published by he Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg shortly before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Why St. Petersburg? Rockhill was American Minister to the Russian court then, so it was probably convenient to do the publication there.  Who were these two spice route travelers?

Hirt was a German-American Sinologist who had worked in the Chinese Imperial Customs and was later professor of Chinese at Columbia University.

From St. Petersburg to Honolulu: Rockhill was a colorful character: He was from a New England family that expatriated to France — like some of the figures in the time of Henry James or the artist John Singer Sargent.

The Expatriate: Rockhill graduated from the French military academy at St. Cyr, served in the French Foreign Legion and later studied Oriental languages in Europe.

After a spell of ranching in New Mexico, Rockhill joined the U.S. Foreign Service, where he helped settle the Boxer Rebellion.  He later authored the Open Door Policy toward China and helped negotiate conflicts between Tibet and the West.

Tibetan Scholar: Rockhill was the first American to learn Tibetan and was the father of Tibetan studies in America.

After a distinguished career in the American Foreign Service, Rockhill’s final assignment was as Minister to Russia.  So it happened that he and Hirth completed their translation of the Description of Barbarous Peoples and prepared it for printing at the Russian Imperial print works in St. Petersburg shortly before the First World War.he

Rockhill retired and spent his final years in Honolulu.

Zhao’s account predates Marco Polo by about a century.  It contains notes on the many Asian and African countries visited by Chinese traders around this time.  It also gives details about many of the foods and spices that were a part of this early trade moving from East Asia as far as the Mediterranean.

Some of the foods and drugs in Zhao’s accounts —

  • Aloes
  • Asafoetida
  • Cardamom
  • Cloves
  • Coconut
  • Jackfruit
  • Nutmeg


“There are no goods of any special importance to be got in Taiwan, but they do have a small export trade in leopard meat jerky.” — Zhao Rugua

As important as these two trade routes, there was a third one that helped establish our Asian menus, the route of the Manila Galleon, where the Spanish and Chinese worlds met and introduced new foods to each other.  We’ll take a look at this route and its explorer, William Schurz, in the concluding section of this Article.

For Further Information:

[1] Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand —   http://www.amazon.com/Golden-Peaches-Samarkand-Study-Exotics/dp/0520054628

[2] Friedrich Hirt and W. W. Rockhill, Chao Ju-Kua  —  http://books.google.com/books?op=lookup&id=9EkJMwEACAAJ&continue=http://books.google.com/books/about/Chau_Juskua_His_Work_on_the_Chinese_and.html%3Fid%3D9EkJMwEACAAJ%26hl%3Den


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