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Cathay is the Anglicized version of "Catai" and an alternative name for Chinamarker in English. It originates from the word Khitan( , Qìdān), the name of a nomadic people who founded the Liao Dynasty which ruled much of Northern China from 907 to 1125, and who had a state of their own (Kara-Khitan Khanate) centered around today's Kyrgyzstanmarker 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).


A form of the name Cathai is attested in a Uyghur Manichaean document circa 1000. Soon the name became known in Muslim Central Asia as well: when in 1026, the Ghaznavid court (in Ghaznamarker, 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. 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 (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"). The Mongols themselves, in their Secret History (13th century) talk of both Khitans and Kara-Khitans.

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).. Rashid al-Din, ibn Battuta, Marco Polo all were referring to Northern China as Cathay, while Southern China was Mangi, Manzi, Chin, or Sin.

Identifying China as Cathay

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

When in the early 16th century the Portuguese reached South-East Asia (Afonso de Albuquerque conquering Malaccamarker in 1511) and the southern coast of China (Jorge Álvares reaching the Pearl River estuary in 1513), they started calling the country by the name used in South and South-East Asia. 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 the coastal region already well known to the Europeans (e.g., just Guangdongmarker on Abraham Ortelius' 1570 map), and to place the mysterious Cathay somewhere inland.

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 thecountry he was in, i.e. China. Ricci supported his arguments by numerous correspondences between Marco Polo's accounts and his own observations:
  • The River "Jiangmarker" 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 Empiremarker 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.

China-based Jesuits promptly informed their colleagues in Goamarker (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. The Jesuits in India, however, were not convinced, because, according to their informants (merchants who visited the Mughal capitals Agramarker and Lahoremarker), Cathay - a country that could be reached via Kashgarmarker - had a large Christian population, while the Jesuits in China had not found any Christians there.

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.

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 Afghanistanmarker, Badakhshan, Kashgariamarker, and Kngdom 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, a few months later, confirmed it to Ricci that they were in "Cathay"). De Góis died in Suzhou, Gansu - the first Ming Chinamarker 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".

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. 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. 1595 map by Gerardus Mercator), or, later, a region separated by China by the Great Wall and possibly some mountains and/or wilderness (as in a 1610 map by Jodocus Hondius, or a 1626 map by John Speed).

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 Leydenmarker. 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 Calendar. 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 Europeans scholars that China and Cathay were the same.

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

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., , 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". However the terms "China" and "Cathay" have histories of approximately equal length in English. The term may still be used poetically or in certain proper nouns, such as Cathay Pacific Airways or Cathay Hotel. A person from Cathay (i.e., a Chinese) was also written in English as a Cathayan or a Cataian.

In the names of institutions

The flag airline of Hong Kongmarker was named Cathay Pacific because the founders envisioned that one day, the airline would cross the Pacific Oceanmarker from Chinamarker.

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

References in popular culture

  • Cathay is mentioned several times by John Blackthorne, the protagonist in James Clavell's novel Shōgun.
  • 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.
  • Hart Crane mentions Cathay in his poem The Bridge.
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay mentions Cathay in her poem "To The Not Impossible Him".
  • Cathay is the name of a short story by Steven Millhauser in his collection of short stories "in the penny arcade"
  • The Suede song "The Power" from the album Dog Man Star includes the line, "through endless Asia / through the fields of Cathay".
  • In Gore Vidal's novel Creation, which takes place between 510445 BC, Cathay is a pivotal setting.
  • In Thomas Costain's novel 'The Black Rose' (1945), Cathay is the destination of the protagonist. Also made into a movie, the novel takes place in the 12 century.
  • Robert E. Howard named a China-like civilization Khitai in his Hyborian Age backdrop for Conan the Barbarian.
  • In the 2007 Animated Film Sword of the Stranger, the antagonists are a group of Chinese warriors referred to as the Cathay.
  • Brian Eno's song "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" wonders, "How does she intend to live when she's in far Cathay?" from his album, Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)
  • Mick Jagger plays the fictional Emperor of Cathay in "The Nightingale" (1983) from Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre series.

In role playing games:

See also


  • 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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