Hear an Ancient Chinese Historian Describe The Roman Empire (and Other Voices of the Past)

Those who see the world from only one nar­row point of view get called a num­ber of things–parochial, provin­cial, and worse–and are encour­aged to seek out oth­er per­spec­tives and broad­en their view. Not every­one can trav­el the world, but the world comes to us through immi­gra­tion and the inter­net, restau­rants and recipes. Most of us, if we are inclined, can learn about and appre­ci­ate the cul­tures, cuisines, and his­to­ries of oth­ers.

But can we see our­selves the way that oth­ers see us? This is a hard­er ask, I think, espe­cial­ly for Amer­i­cans, who are used to the world com­ing to us and to defin­ing the world on our terms, whether through soft pow­er or mil­i­tary force.

When we read about his­to­ry, we might diver­si­fy our sources, tak­ing in per­spec­tives from writ­ers with dif­fer­ent ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments and beliefs. But how often do we hear the obser­va­tions, say, of Japan­ese his­to­ri­ans, record­ing their impres­sions of the U.S. as they saw it in the 19th cen­tu­ry?

A great part of why we don’t read such his­to­ries is that we gen­er­al­ly don’t even know they exist. The YouTube project Voic­es of the Past aims to rem­e­dy this, intro­duc­ing view­ers to pri­ma­ry his­tor­i­cal sources from the past, and from all over the world, that show pro­fes­sion­al his­to­ri­ans and ordi­nary peo­ple record­ing events across bar­ri­ers of lan­guage, cul­ture, nation state, and social class. At the top, we have a read­ing from “Konyo Zuk­ishi,” writ­ten in 1845 by Japan­ese geo­g­ra­ph­er and his­to­ri­an Mit­sukuri Shō­go, who, in turn, based much of his knowl­edge of the out­side world on Dutch books, “as they were the only Euro­pean trad­ing part­ner through the Sakoku peri­od of iso­la­tion,” a cap­tion in the video informs us.

Mit­sukuri Shōgo’s his­to­ry accepts as fact that the ter­ri­to­ries of North Amer­i­ca “didn’t even have a name” before the arrival of Euro­pean set­tlers, com­plete­ly ignor­ing the pres­ence of hun­dreds of indige­nous nations. The descrip­tions of those set­tlers are charm­ing­ly reveal­ing, if not whol­ly accu­rate. “Sev­er­al tens of thou­sands of Eng­lish­men, who refused to sub­scribe to the tenets of the Angli­can church, were arrest­ed and sent to this dis­tant coun­try,” we learn. “These peo­ple lacked suf­fi­cient food and cloth­ing at that time, but they pri­vate­ly rejoiced because there were no rulers in this land.”

Fur­ther up, we have an ear­ly third cen­tu­ry com­men­tary writ­ten by Chi­nese his­to­ri­an Yu Huan. Hun­dreds of years before Euro­pean nav­i­ga­tors set out to find and appro­pri­ate the rich­es of the Indies, only to end up in the Amer­i­c­as, the Chi­nese wrote of a world his­to­ry that includ­ed the Roman Empire, reached by way of Egypt, which is called Haixi, “because it is west of the sea,” and which con­tains the great city of Wuchisan, or Alexan­dria. Yu Huan writes as though he’s giv­ing dri­ving direc­tions, and leaves every impres­sion of hav­ing made the jour­ney him­self or tran­scribed the words of those who had.

Above, a young sol­dier in Napoleon’s Grande Armée describes the real hor­ror of the death march­es through Rus­sia in 1812 in excerpts from Jakob Walter’s Diary of Napoleon­ic Foot Sol­dier. He calls one march “inde­scrib­able and incon­ceiv­able for peo­ple who have not seen any­thing of it,” then goes on to paint a gris­ly scene in the kind of grim detail we do not get in Napoleon’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tions of the inva­sion, below, tak­en from The Cor­si­can: A Diary of Napoleon’s Life in His Own Words. There are many more his­to­ries we rarely, if ever, encounter, which show a world that has been net­worked and con­nect­ed for thou­sands of years, as in excerpts below from an Ara­bic com­pi­la­tion of trav­el accounts, Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī’s “Accounts of Chi­na and India,” writ­ten in 852.

Hear many more fas­ci­nat­ing and usu­al­ly inac­ces­si­ble pri­ma­ry sources from ancient and mod­ern his­to­ry read aloud at Voic­es of the Past.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Get the His­to­ry of the World in 46 Lec­tures, Cour­tesy of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

Free Cours­es in Ancient His­to­ry, Lit­er­a­ture & Phi­los­o­phy 

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, “the Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Grace Ann Torres says:

    I lis­tened to each of the audio dia­logue.. I found it very inter­est­ing.. I enjoy learn­ing about oth­er peo­ple oth­er cul­tures archae­ol­o­gy and ancient history..hearing these audio dia­logues is kin­da like lis­ten­ing to the oral his­to­ry of a peo­ple in their time.. pret­ty cool..thanks..if only they would incor­per­ate this type of engag­ing expe­ri­ence into my grand­kids school curirculum..sorry this app wont let me change the spelling its tor­tur­ous

  • SS says:

    Thanks for enlight­en­ing your read­ers amaz­ing infor­ma­tion that keeps one spell bound and in Awe.

  • Grant Mackay says:

    Howdy… This site seemed to be tai­lor made for me… It is an inter­est of mine that I nev­er tire of.…. Cur­rent­ly run­ning out of good read­ing mate­r­i­al… start­ed with a good­ly stack… But now the stack is shrunk down to a cou­ple of days read­ing its becom­ing scary.
    Did you also become pan­icky as your mate­r­i­al began to shrink
    ..? Ha ha.
    Any­way… Hope you con­tin­ue to enjoy your Close Encoun­ters of the Third Kind read­ing’s… I will cer­tain­ly be keep­ing a look out for any­thing I may have missed over the years… 🙋‍♂️🤑🙏👽🌹🙏😁

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