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Title: Cathay  
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Subject: Names of China, Orlando Innamorato, Bento de Góis, Khanbaliq, Hyborian Age
Collection: History of China, Names of China
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"Chataio" on Fra Mauro map (ca. 1450). Note that the south is on top

Cathay () is the Anglicized version of "Catai" and an alternative name for China in English. It originates from the word Khitan[1] (Chinese: 契丹; pinyin: Qìdān), the name of a nomadic people who founded the Liao dynasty which ruled much of Northern China from 907 to 1125, and who later migrated west after they were overthrown by the Jurchens to form the Qara Khitai centered on today's Kyrgyzstan for another century thereafter.

Originally, Catai was the name applied by Central and Western Asians and Europeans to northern China; it obtained wide currency in Europe after the publication of Marco Polo's book (he referred to southern China as Manji).


  • History 1
  • Cathay and Mangi 2
  • Identifying China as Cathay 3
  • Etymological progression 4
  • Use in English 5
  • In the names of organized entities 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • References 8
    • Citations 8.1
    • Bibliography 8.2


On this 1570 map by Abraham Ortelius, Cataio is located inland of China (referring to today's Guangdong) and Chequan (Zhejiang), and borders on "Thebet" in the southwest and "Camul" in the west. There is also mysterious Mangi (between "Cataio" and Xanton (Shandong)). The objects in "Cataio" are based on Marco Polo's description and include the capital Cambalu, Xandu, and a marble bridge

A form of the name Cathai is attested in a Uyghur Manichaean document circa 1000.[2] Soon the name became known in Muslim Central Asia as well: when in 1026, the Ghaznavid court (in Ghazna, in today's Afghanistan) was visited by envoys from the Liao ruler, he was described as a "Qatā Khan", i.e. the ruler of Qatā; Qatā or Qitā appears in writings of al-Biruni and Abu Said Gardezi in the following decades.[2] The Persian scholar and administrator Nizam al-Mulk (1018–1092) mentions Khita and China in his Book on the Administration of the State, apparently as two separate countries[2] (presumably, referring to the Liao and Song Empires, respectively).

The name's currency in the Muslim world survived the replacement of the Khitan Liao dynasty with the Jurchen Jin dynasty in the early 12th century. When describing the fall of the Jin Empire to the Mongols (1234), Persian history described the conquered country as Khitāy or Djerdaj Khitāy (i.e., "Jurchen Cathay").[2] The Mongols themselves, in their Secret History (13th century) talk of both Khitans and Kara-Khitans.[2]

Cathay and Mangi

As European and Arab travelers started reaching the Mongol Empire, they described the Mongol-controlled Northern China as Cathay (in a number of spelling variants) as well. The name occurs in the writings of Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (ca. 1180–1252) (as Kitaia), William of Rubruck (ca. 1220–ca. 1293) (as Cataya or Cathaia).[3] Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, ibn Battuta, Marco Polo all were referring to Northern China as Cathay, while Southern China, ruled by the Song dynasty, was Mangi, Manzi, Chin, or Sin.[3] The word Manzi or Mangi means the recalcitrant ones, i.e., those who did not submit to the rule of the Yuan dynasty. The name for South China used most commonly on medieval maps was Manzi.

Identifying China as Cathay

The division of China into northern and southern parts ruled by, in succession, the Liao, Jin and Mongol Yuan dynasties in the north, and the Song dynasty in the south, ended in the late 13th century with the conquest of southern China by the Mongol Yuan dynasty.

While Central Asia had long known China under names similar to Cathay, that country was known to the peoples of South-East Asia and India under names similar to China (cf. e.g. Cina in modern Malay). Meanwhile, in China itself, people usually referred to their nation state based on the name of the ruling dynasty, e.g. Da Ming Guo ("the state of the Great Ming"), or as the "Middle Kingdom" (Zhongguo 中國); see also Names of China for details.

When in the early 16th century the Portuguese reached South-East Asia (Pearl River estuary in 1513), they started calling the country by the name used in South and South-East Asia.[4] It was not immediately clear to the Europeans whether this China is the same country as Cathay known from Marco Polo. Therefore, it would not be uncommon for 16th-century map to apply the label "China" just to the coastal region already well known to the Europeans (e.g., just Guangdong on Abraham Ortelius' 1570 map), and to place the mysterious Cathay somewhere inland.

Gerardus Mercator's placing of the "Kingdom of Cathay" (Cathay Reg.) on the Pacific Coast north-east of China remained typical for a number of maps published in the decades to follow

It was a small group of Jesuits, led by Matteo Ricci who, being able both to travel throughout China and to read, learned about the country from Chinese books and from conversation with people of all walks of life. During his first 15 years in China (1583–1598) Matteo Ricci formed a strong suspicion that Marco Polo's "Cathay" is simply the "Tatar" (i.e., Mongol) name for the country he was in, i.e. China. Ricci supported his arguments by numerous correspondences between Marco Polo's accounts and his own observations:

  • The River "Yangtze" divides the empire into two halves, with 9 provinces ("kingdoms") south of the river and 6 to the north;
  • Marco Polo's "Cathay" was just south of "Tartary", and Ricci learned that there was no other country between the Ming Empire and "Tartary" (i.e., the lands of Mongols and Manchus).
  • People in China had not heard of any place called "Cathay".

Most importantly, when the Jesuits first arrived to Beijing 1598, they also met a number of "Mohammedans" or "Arabian Turks" – visitors or immigrants from the Muslim countries to the west of China, who told Ricci that now they were living in the Great Cathay. This all made them quite convinced that Cathay is indeed China.[5]

China-based Jesuits promptly informed their colleagues in Goa (Portuguese India) and Europe about their discovery of the Cathay-China identity. This was stated e.g. in a 1602 letter of Ricci's comrade Diego de Pantoja, which was published in Europe along with other Jesuits' letters in 1605.[6] The Jesuits in India, however, were not convinced, because, according to their informants (merchants who visited the Mughal capitals Agra and Lahore), Cathay – a country that could be reached via Kashgar – had a large Christian population, while the Jesuits in China had not found any Christians there.[7][8]

A typical early 17th-century depiction of "Cataia" as China's northeastern neighbour. Jodocus Hondius, 1610

In retrospect, the Central Asian Muslim informants' idea of the Ming China being a heavily Christian country may be explained by numerous similarities between Christian and Buddhist ecclesiastical rituals – from having sumptuous statuary and ecclesiastical robes to Gregorian chant – which would make the two religions appear externally similar to a Muslim merchant.[9] This may also have been the genesis of the Prester John myth.

To resolve the China-Cathay controversy, the India Jesuits sent a Portuguese lay brother, Bento de Góis on an overland expedition north and east, with the goal of reaching Cathay and finding out once and for all whether it is China or some other country. Góis spent almost three years (1603–1605) crossing Afghanistan, Badakhshan, Kashgaria, and Kingdom of Cialis with Muslim trade caravans. In 1605, in Cialis, he, too, became convinced that his destination is China, as he met the members of a caravan returning from Beijing to Kashgar, who told them about staying in the same Beijing inn with Portuguese Jesuits. (In fact, those were the same very "Saracens" who had, a few months earlier, confirmed it to Ricci that they were in "Cathay"). De Góis died in Suzhou, Gansu – the first Ming China city he reached – while waiting for an entry permit to proceed toward Beijing; but, in the words of Henry Yule, it was his expedition that made "Cathay... finally disappear from view, leaving China only in the mouths and minds of men".[10]

Not convinced by the Jesuits, John Speed in 1626 follows Jodocus Hondius' layout: he shows the chain of Silk Road cities visited by de Góis (Cuchia, Chialis, Turfan, Camul) – but has it directed not toward China's Shaanxi (Xiamxii? Sancii?), as shows by de Góis, but toward the mysterious "Cathaya, the Chief Kingdome of Great Cam", northeast of China. Naturally, Cambalu and Xandu are shown in Cathay, while Shuntien (Beijing) is in China

Ricci's and de Gois' conclusion was not, however, completely convincing for everybody in Europe yet. Samuel Purchas, who in 1625 published an English translation of Pantoja's letter and Ricci's account, thought that perhaps, Cathay still can be found somewhere north of China.[8] In this period, many cartographers were placing Cathay on the Pacific coast, north of Beijing (Pekin) which was already well-known to Europeans. The borders drawn on some of these maps would first make Cathay the northeastern section of China (e.g. by Gerardus Mercator), or, later, a region separated by China by the Great Wall and possibly some mountains and/or wilderness (as in a by Jodocus Hondius, or a by John Speed). J.J.L. Duyvendak hypothesized that it was the ignorance of the fact that "China" is the mighty "Cathay" of Marco Polo that allowed the Dutch governor of East Indies Jan Pieterszoon Coen to embark on an "unfortunate" (for the Dutch) policy of treating the Ming Empire as "merely another 'oriental' kingdom".[11]

Cathay is finally gone: this 1689 map by Giacomo Cantelli da Vignola from Modena identifies it (and Mangi) with China

The last nail into the coffin of the idea of there being a Cathay as a country separate from China was, perhaps, driven in 1654, when the Dutch Orientalist Jacobus Golius met with the China-based Jesuit Martino Martini, who was passing through Leyden. Golius knew no Chinese, but he was familiar with Zij-i Ilkhani, a work by the Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, completed in 1272, in which he described the Chinese ("Cathayan") Calendar.[12] Upon meeting Martini, Golius started reciting the names of the 12 divisions into which, according to Nasir al-Din, the "Cathayans" were dividing the day – and Martini, who of course knew no Persian, was able to continue the list. The names of the 24 solar terms matched as well. The story, soon published by Martini in the "Additamentum" to his Atlas of China, seemed to have finally convinced most European scholars that China and Cathay were the same.[8]

Even then, some people still viewed Cathay as distinct from China, as did John Milton in the 11th Book of his Paradise Lost (1667).[13]

In 1939, Hisao Migo (Japanese: 御江久夫, a Japanese botanist[14][15]) described and published Iris cathayensis (meaning Chinese Iris) in the 'Journal of the Shanghai Science Institute'.[16]

Etymological progression

Below is the etymological progression from Khitan to Cathay as the word travelled westward:

In many Turkic and Slavic languages a form of "Cathay" (e.g., Russian: Китай, Kitay) remains the usual modern name for China.

Use in English

Travels in the Land of Kublai Khan by Marco Polo has a story called "The Road to Cathay". In the English language, the word Cathay was sometimes used for China, although increasingly only in a poetic sense, until the 19th century when it was completely replaced by "China". A person from Cathay (i.e., a Chinese person) was also written in English as a Cathayan or a Cataian. However the terms "China" and "Cathay" have histories of approximately equal length in English. The term is still used poetically.

In the names of organized entities

Cathay is more prevalent as proper noun in names, such as Cathay Pacific Airways or Cathay Hotel. The flagship airline of Hong Kong is called as such because the founders envisioned that one day, the airline would cross the Pacific Ocean from China.

Cathay Bank is a bank with multiple branches throughout the United States and overseas.

In popular culture

  • Ezra Pound published a collection of poems entitled Cathay: For the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga, London: Elkin Mathews, 1915.
  • In Hart Crane's epic poem The Bridge the word Cathay is used throughout to develop a symbol of (at first) Columbus' quest, and eventually the American experiment itself, having a mystical goal outside of simply a trade route to China.
  • In Gore Vidal's novel Creation, which takes place between 510–445 BC, Cathay is a pivotal setting.
  • Mick Jagger plays the fictional Emperor of Cathay in "The Nightingale" (1983) from Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre series.
  • John Brunner's "Times Without Number" takes place in an alternative history where the Spanish Armada won and conquered England and where – among numerous other changes – China is still called "Cathay" in the 20th century.
  • There are regions named Cathay in the settings of the 7th Sea and Earthdawn role playing games. Cathay is a region with Chinese inspirations in the Warhammer Fantasy setting.
  • Brian Eno mentions a girl going to Cathay in his song "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More", on his "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)" album.
  • The band Suede sings "Through endless Asia, through the fields of Cathay" in their song "The Power" on their "Dog Man Star" album.
  • The American author Nathaniel Hawthorne writes of Cathay as a remote, exotic and difficult to reach location in "Footprints on the Seashore", a short story from his 1837 collection Twice-Told Tales. On listening to the sea's unchanging voice the solitary author writes: "This is wisdom, and therefore will I spend the next half-hour in shaping little boats of driftwood and launching them on voyages across the cove, with the feather of a seagull for a shade. If the voice of ages tell me true, this is as wise an occupation as to build ships of five hundred tons and launch them forth upon the main, bound to "Far Cathay." Yet how would the merchant sneer at me!"



  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e Wittfogel (1946), p. 1
  3. ^ a b Wittfogel (1946), p. 2
  4. ^ Matteo Ricci, writing less than a century after the events, states: "Today the people of Cochin and the Siamese as well, from whom the Portuguese learned to call the empire China, call this country Cin". (Gallagher (1953), pp. 6–7)
  5. ^ Gallagher (trans.) (1953), pp. 311–312. Also, in p.7, Ricci and Trigault unambiguously state, "the Saracens, who live to the west, speak of it [China] as Cathay".
  6. ^ Lach & Van Kley (1993), p. 1565. Pantoja's letter appeared in Relación de la entrade de algunos padres de la Compania de Iesus en la China (1605)
  7. ^ Yule, pp. 534–535
  8. ^ a b c Lach & Kley (1993), pp. 1575–1577
  9. ^ Gallagher, p. 500; Yule, pp. 551–552
  10. ^ Henry Yule (1866), p. 530.
  11. ^ (specifically pp. 185–186)
  12. ^ van Dalen, Benno; Kennedy, E.S.; Saiyid, Mustafa K., «The Chinese-Uighur Calendar in Tusi's Zij-i Ilkhani», Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften 11 (1997) 111–151
  13. ^ "Why Did Milton Err on Two Chinas?" Y. Z. Chang, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jul., 1970), pp. 493–498.
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^


  • Karl A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History of Chinese Society: Liao (907–1125). in Transactions of American Philosophical Society (vol. 36, Part 1, 1946). Available on Google Books.
  • Trigault, Nicolas S. J. "China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Mathew Ricci: 1583–1610". English translation by Louis J. Gallagher, S.J. (New York: Random House, Inc. 1953) of the Latin work, De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas based on Matteo Ricci's journals completed by Nicolas Trigault. Of particular relevance are Book Five, Chapter 11, "Cathay and China: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Jesuit Lay Brother" and Chapter 12, "Cathay and China Proved to Be Identical." (pp. 499–521 in 1953 edition). There is also full Latin text available on Google Books.
  • "The Journey of Benedict Goës from Agra to Cathay" – Henry Yule's translation of the relevant chapters of De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, with detailed notes and an introduction. In:
  • . Volume III, "A Century of Advance", Book Four, "East Asia".
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