Hellenism in East Asia

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The spread of Greek language and culture across Asia has often been a topic of discussion in our posts, for which see "Selected readings" below.  Now we have a long, richly illustrated article that summarizes much of what has come to be known on this subject, a large part of it aptly from the pages of Sino-Platonic Papers.

"The Ancient Greek Kingdoms of China"
By Arunansh B. Goswami, Greek Reporter (December 1, 2022)

Note that the author is an Indian.  South Asia was an important conduit for the transmission of Sino-Hellenic cultural elements across Eurasia during antiquity.  This is not a conclusive, academic paper, but a convenient, comprehensive survey that usefully introduces many themes for the further study of Greek influence in Eurasia during the last two millennia and more.

A few excerpts, starting from the beginning:

Most are unaware that there were Ancient Greek kingdoms in China and that Hellenism spread all the way to Japan and Korea via India. However, the fact is that the Greeks were indeed in China, and, in addition to this, Hellenism spread to the entirety of the East Asian Buddhist world. In fact, the first anthropomorphic statue of Buddha was created by the Greeks.

The famous Silk Road that connected Europe to China actually opened because of a war between Greeks of Alexandria Eschate. Alexandria Eschate, meaning “Alexandria the Farthest,” is located in the Fergana Valley in what is modern day Tajikistan and was founded by Alexander the Great as his northernmost base in Central Asia. During the Chinese Han dynasty, it was known as “The Battle for Heavenly Horses.”

With the fall of the last Classical Greek kingdom in the world, located in India, the power of Greeks in Asia was decimated. Yet, the culture, art, and philosophy they shared with Asians are still present. Mahayana Buddhism has been greatly influenced by the Greeks and has found plenty of adherents in several nations of Asia.

As per Lucas Christopoulos, several Hellenistic antiquities have been found in this city region of China. An archaeological dig revealed coins of Hermaios (Ermayasa) in the region of Khotan. These may indicate a continuous relation between the Greco-Bactrian kings and Khotan kingdom from the time of Euthydemos through to Hermaios.

A tapestry possibly representing a Greco-Scythian king was discovered at the Sampul cemetery situated near Khotan. The king appears with his spear and the centaur Chiron playing the trumpet and wearing the causia, a large Greco-Macedonian hat. A lion skin covers him.

In the city of Niya (Jingjue) in 1906, Aurel Stein discovered a series of clay seals with impressions of Pallas-Athena, including aegis and thunderbolt. There were also depictions of Eros, Heracles, and possibly a different Athena, Athena Alkidemos.

Given physical evidence such as coins with Greek lettering being excavated from Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) sites in Shaanxi and elsewhere, it is hard to deny Hellenic presence in the East Asian Heartland during antiquity.  Numismatic, textile, sculptural, artistic, architectural, and other types of data (as illustrated in Goswami's article) from the classical Han through the medieval Tang (618-907 AD) period, and sometimes even earlier, attest to transcontinental transmission.  For an instance of linguistic contact, see the first two items in the following bibliography.

It is no accident that the great Hungarian-British archeologist cum ethnographer, geographer, linguist and surveyor, Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), during his four expeditions to East Central Asia, was primarily interested in documenting Greco-Roman and Greco-Indian cultural presence.  He, and his fellow explorers and archeologists like the Swede Sven Hedin (1865-1952) and the Frenchman Paul Pelliot (1878-1945), were not concerned with Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Europoid mummies.


Selected readings


The following is a bibliography of related works by Lucas Christopoulos, who has decades of experience researching combat sports (especially wrestling) in Central and East Asia.  More recently, he has been focusing on Greek themes in East Asian civilization more generally, but especially via art and archeology, and as textually corroborated.

Works by Lucas Christopoulos in Sino-Platonic Papers (SPP) — pdfs of all issues available for free at the site:

-Dionysian Rituals and the Golden Zeus of China     #326 (2022), 123 pages

-Jin Dynasty Greco-Buddhist Atlas at the Zhongshan Grottoes     #297 (2020), 16 pages

-Greek Influences on the Pazyryk-style Wrestling Motif of the Keshengzhuang Bronze Buckles     #260 (2015), 13 pages

– Hellenes and Romans in ancient China (240 BC-1398 AD)     #230 (2012), 79 pages

– Le gréco-bouddhisme et l’art du poing en Chine     #148 (2005), 52 pages

The author has additional publications dealing with Sino-Hellenic cultural contact in other notable philological and sports journals, e.g.:

– Combat sports professionalism in medieval China (220-960 AD). Nikephoros:  Zeitschrift fur Sport und Kultur im Altertum; Graz University, Austria n.26 (2015)

Greek combat sports and their transmission to Central and East Asia. (pdf) Classical World Review: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. n.106.3 (2013)

– Early combat sports in China and the rise of professionalism (475 BC-220 AD)  Nikephoros: Zeitschrift fur Sport und Kultur im Altertum; Graz University, Austria. n.23 (2010)


  1. Scott P. said,

    December 4, 2022 @ 3:31 pm

    Given physical evidence such as coins with Greek lettering being excavated from Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) sites in Shaanxi and elsewhere, it is hard to deny Hellenic presence in the East Asian Heartland during antiquity.

    Remember the archaeological truism that pots ≠ people. Hellenic objects don't on their own tell us whether there were Greeks present.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 4, 2022 @ 4:57 pm

    @Scott P.

    Being an archeologist myself, I was quite aware of that when I wrote what I did. But pots, coins, sculpture, technology, etc., etc. do equal something significant.

  3. Kingfisher said,

    December 4, 2022 @ 8:46 pm

    Aren't all of the places mentioned in the Tarim Basin or further west? Is it really accurate to describe this region as "China"? Han did not even convert the local kingdoms of the "Western Regions" into official government districts, like they did in Vietnam or Korea.

    I admit to being perplexed by the recent trumpeting of Han's war against Ferghana as a civilizational crossroads. Of all of Emperor Wu's military adventures, this one would be a contender for the most wasteful and pointless. Private trade to and from Han had already been going on, and even Zhang Qian's journeys only resulted in diplomatic exchanges between Han and western states. One would think the whole episode would be hushed up.

    If I'm not mistaken, it was after envoys from western states began visiting Han that Emperor Wu began entertaining them with the 角牴 games. Would these have been wrestling in particular (and maybe the forerunner to sumo), or just broader "fits of strength"?

  4. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    December 4, 2022 @ 9:35 pm

    @ Kingfisher
    It was Ying Zheng (Qinshi Huangdi) who institutionalized wrestling in the Empire (Jiang wu zhi li, ba wei juedi shi shi 講 武之禮, 罷爲角抵是時). It came as a result following the physical contact with the Greco-Bactrians (Greeks and Hellenized Irano-Scythian horsemen) in Gansu at the end of the Warring State period. The contact (alliance) evidences are the twelve chryselephantine statues of “Di barbarians” from Lintao and the golden colossal statue of king Xiutu found a hundred years later in Gansu as well.

  5. 번하드 said,

    December 5, 2022 @ 1:40 pm

    Seeing this post made me remember something I had nearly forgotten.
    Many years ago on a trip to Korea, I saw an exhibit at the Gyeongju National Museum that gave me a strange mediterranean feeling at the time, but I thought this cannot be.
    So today I searched for and found the exhibit and was very surprised to see that the name of the royal tomb it was found in was… 천마총 (Sky Horse Tomb)!
    The object: https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/%EC%B2%9C%EB%A7%88%EC%B4%9D_%EA%B4%80%EB%AA%A8
    The tomb: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheonmachong

    So maybe I wasn't hallucinating after all? Or is this just a coincidence and a few bridges too far?

  6. Gerald Weber said,

    December 5, 2022 @ 10:08 pm

    Aesop's fable of the broken sticks was present in the Secret History of the Mongols. The actual origin of this theme is unclear, but could have been transferred to Monolia by the Iranian speakers. Skilurus, gives this tale to his kids in the 2nd century BC.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 1:26 am

    @번하드 (Bernhard)

    A thousand thanks for digging up these references!

    Now I will have to write a post on 천마총 (Sky Horse Tomb), particularly the "Sky Horse" part.

    Does anyone know if it is an old term in Korean?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 1:32 am

    And a thousand thanks to you too, Gerald Weber, for that marvelous reference to the Aesopian fable told by Skilurus to his children.

    The wondrous power of Language Log!

  9. Kingfisher said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 10:28 am

    There was one instance of the "broken arrows" lesson in Central Asia in 424 AD, when Murong/Tuyuhun Achai commanded his twenty sons to support his younger brother as his heir. The most famous instance of this sort of tale might be with Mori Motonari and his sons in the Sengoku era of Japan.

  10. 번하드 said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 11:08 am

    @Victor Mair

    Thank you very much for confirming that I'm not just caught up in 뇌피셜!
    It is so easy to see a pattern and get excited, so yesterday I stopped digging and decided to rely on your judgement. If you had said that it's just a fluke, I would have let it rest.
    Currently I already found the museum catalog in front of me, which I bought after the visit.
    Digging for two more paper sources I know must be somewhere in my room:-)
    I will also check the museum site https://gyeongju.museum.go.kr/ and a blog post I found, https://blog.naver.com/tea119/130092563398
    Looking at https://postfiles.pstatic.net/20100820_288/tea119_1282293225307JWJud_jpg/%B0%E6%C1%D6%B1%B9%B8%B3%B0%F8%BF%F8%C5%F5%BE%EE_%B4%EB%B8%AA%BF%F8_22_%C3%B5%B8%B6%C3%D1_tea119.jpg?type=w2 (lines 6-8) it seems to be as I had suspected: the grave got its name at the time of archeological excavation, because of some of the artifacts found. I will provide you with the translation of the relevant passage in another post or email.
    The name-giving artifacts are flying horses with 8 legs, painted on white birch bark.
    But there also seems to have been some debate about those horses not being horses at all, because when one looks at HDR pictures, it seems that there could be two (or even one!) horn…
    The blog post is long and contains a lot of references to external sources that I didn't check, yet.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 1:29 pm

    @번하드 (Bernhard)

    Thank you for your continued digging and researching.

    I had also asked some of my Koreanist friends about how old the expression "Sky Horse" is in Korean. Here are some of the answers I received:


    Ross King:

    The tomb you're referring to wasn't called 천마총 until 1973 or so after it was excavated, and there is controversy over whether the 'horse' image found in it is really a horse or something else (a kirin 麒麟).

    I'm afraid there is no quick and easy way to determine how old the term 천마 (天馬) is in Korea. I suppose one could search it in both the 三國史記 (1145) and 三國遺事 (1281), but any earlier attestations would have to come from inscriptions (and even if they were found, would not likely predate the 6th-century tomb in which the image was found…


    John Whitman:

    Yes.천마 is 天馬. It’s the name given to a painting of an eight-legged horse on a birchback saddle flap, that eventually was given to the whole tomb in Kyeongju. I don’t know of any mention of a celestial horse legend in the Samguk Sagi/Yusa or any other older Korean source.


    Frank Chance:

    The Cheonmachong (천마총, 天馬銃) is indeed famous, and I have been there. It is now modified so that visitors can “enter” it and get a sense of how it was made, with a stone chamer containing the coffin and other grave goods, including a birch bark saddle on which the eponymous “Heavenly Horse” is painted. It was excavated in 1973. See details at https://www.orientalarchitecture.com/sid/315/korea-south/gyeongju/heavenly-horse-tomb

  12. Chau said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 6:19 pm


    Thanks a million for bringing up the 天馬塚 'Heavenly Horse Tomb'. This eight-legged Heavenly Horse dates from the Silla era between the fifth and sixth centuries.

    Now compare it with Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir in Norse Mythology. The extant depictions date from ca. 700-900 AD.

    (1) The Tjängvide image stone from Tjängvide, Alskog Parish, Gotland, Sweden:


    [VHM: If you have difficulty seeing this large, clear jpg, you may view a smaller version of it under "Archaeological record" in the Wikipedia article on Sleipnir cited below.]

    This image is said to depict the Norse god Odin on his horse Sleipnir in Vallhalla. It also can depict a killed warrior on his way to Vallhalla greeted by Valkyries with horn goblet in their hands.

    (2) The second picture stone is from Ardre Parish, Gotland, Sweden. Now at the National Historical Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.


    [VHM: If you have difficulty seeing this large, clear jpg, you may view a smaller version of it under "Archaeological record" in the Wikipedia article on Sleipnir cited below.]

    For reference on Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir, see the Wikipedia article:


    Since in Norse Mythology, Vallhalla is where dead warriors are received, the unusual hor[VHM: If you have difficulty seeing this large, clear jpg, you may view a smaller version of it under "Archaeological record" in the Wikipedia article on Sleipnir cited below.]se signifies the best means for transporting the honored dead to the other world. The Korean image of the eight-legged horse in a *tomb* may imply the same belief.

    Also to be noted is that the depiction of an eight-legged horse in the Korean Heavenly Horse Tomb (if proven to be 8-legged indeed) predates the Scandinavian depictions by a couple of centuries.

    In the founding myth of Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 AD), there is a Divine Animal that resembles a horse (有神獸, 其形似馬) that leads the way for the Serbi people to migrate southward from northern steppe land (Wei Shu 2). Northern Wei is the first dynasty that northern nomads governed central China.

    I eagerly await Professor Mair's post on Sky Horse Tomb.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 6:43 pm


    Thank you for your lengthy and much welcome comment. Lucas Christopoulos had independently and almost simultaneously sent in this note:


    For the Sky-horse tomb in Corea, it is linked with Pazyryk (and some Hellenistic influences [?]). But the representation of this horse reminds me more of the eight-legged horse Sleipinir [sic] from Norse mythology rather than Pegasus. Maybe a remaining legendary horse from Xiongnu (Huns) mythology travelling from Mongolia through Russia? [VHM: or in the opposite direction]



    See also Kristen Pearson, "Chasing the Shaman’s Steed: The Horse in Myth from Central Asia to Scandinavia", Sino-Platonic Papers, 269 (May 2017), 21 pages.


    Within the next week, I will make a separate post on these matters.

  14. 번하드 said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 6:55 pm


    Wow, now this was really unexpected. I'm still digging, but seeing your post…
    Looking at the fascinating pictures, thank you!
    Flying horses "sky horse"/천마 (no idea about how many legs) seem to already have been well-known from wall paintings in graves from the Koguryeo kingdom.
    Their role? Bringing souls to the other side. Hmmm.
    The current grave was exciting (possibly another cause for naming it) because it was the first time to see sky horses in a Silla context.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    December 6, 2022 @ 9:06 pm

    From Sung Shin Kim:

    I don't know how far the expression goes back in Korea. So I searched 天馬 in the Korean history database (https://db.history.go.kr/) and the earliest I found was in the Samguk Saki (三國史記), going back to the 12th century, as a geographical name (天馬山). Another appearance of it is in the Pohanjip (補閑集), a work of literary criticism from around the same time, quoting a contemporary Korean poem: '天馬足驕千里近, 海鰲頭壯五山輕.' Perhaps interesting to mention that Kim Kŭkki (金克己), the Koryŏ author of this poem quoted in the Poahnjip, did visit Jin China.

  16. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 3:52 am

    Regarding. "[VHM: If you have difficulty seeing this large, clear jpg, you may view a smaller version of it under "Archaeological record" in the Wikipedia article on Sleipnir cited below]" — Starting only yesterday, I think, I have been experiencing difficulties following some (but by no means all) links from Language Log. On clicking on the link, all I get is a grey rounded square with maybe sixteen part-length radii appearing in turn. If, on the other hand, I right-click and select "Open in new tab", the link opens normally. Looking at the source I see nothing odd about the link — one such reads

    <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tj%C3%A4ngvide_image_stone#/media/File:Tj%C3%A4ngvide.jpg" rel="nofollow ugc">https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tj%C3%A4ngvide_image_stone#/media/File:Tj%C3%A4ngvide.jpg</a&gt;

    Any thoughts ?

  17. AG said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 6:20 am

    does this mean there was a community of buddhists on the island of helgo, sweden?


  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 9:13 am


    No, but the Helgo Buddha was pretty much a one-off. For east-west Eurasian cultural exchange, we have thousands of artifacts, large and small.

  19. Elizabeth W. Barber said,

    December 17, 2022 @ 2:27 pm

    Hilda Davidson, who did so much with Norse mythology, suggests the origin of the 8-legged horse Sleipnir, which can carry its rider to the Land of the Dead (often believed to be ultimately in the sky), is actually 4 people carrying the bier to the grave, and compares it to "a funeral dirge recorded by Verier Elwin among the Gonds in India. It contains references to Bagri Maro, the horse with eight legs, and it is clear from the song that this is the dead man's bier… One verse of it runs:
    What horse is this?
    It is the horse Bagri Maro.
    What should we say of its legs?
    This horse has eight legs.
    What should we say of its heads?
    The horse has four heads…"
    (Davidson, Gods and Myths of the Viking Age (NY, 1981) 142-3)
    (We discuss it further in our book, When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Minds Shapes Myth (Princeton, 2004) 57-8)

  20. Pamela said,

    December 21, 2022 @ 1:32 pm

    "Given physical evidence such as coins with Greek lettering being excavated from Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD, 25–220 AD) sites in Shaanxi and elsewhere, it is hard to deny Hellenic presence in the East Asian Heartland during antiquity." except it is. goods and coins are more likely to be produced by trade and travel than people from the original culture actually appearing. so if by "presence" one means presence, this may not be the question. ancient Greeks and ancient Chinese knew of each other, not because they met, but because their merchants and travelers had got as far as Sindh, where they exchanged information.

    as for Hellenistic influence across Eurasia, i'm definitely for it, and it is a primary theme of my book Hammer & Anvil. on the side, i think one of the most intriguing theories of actual Greeks in China is that they not only inspired but may have helped craft the terracotta warriors. i have no informed comment on that. partly because the Chinese researchers claimed it meant there was Greek presence in China "before the Silk Road." that's a bit bizarre. the trade network origins date to the Bronze Age at the latest, and were active long before the Qin empire. the comment might have meant, before the "Silk Road" was extended to China. but this one i find intriguing though murky.

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