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The Li-Kan Question

Copyright © 2002
John Hill

The question of the identification of the name "Li-kan" in early Chinese texts has preoccupied scholars for well over 100 years. It was, I believe, F. Hirth in his book, "China and the Roman Orient" who first proposed that it might refer to Petra (as a Chinese transcription of the Arabic name "Rekem" which, like "Petra" signifies "Rock"). The alternate suggestions since then have been legion - an excellent summary of them may be found in the indispensible book by A.F.P. Hulsewe and M.A.N. Loewe, "China in Central Asia : the Early Stage : 125 B.C.- A.D. 23" Leiden. E.J Brill. 1979, p. 117, n. 275.

It seems to be pretty generally accepted now that Li-kan did not represent Petra but stood for some or all of the Seleucid empire and was later used to designate those territories taken over by the Romans.

There is, however, a 3rd century Chinese text, the Wei lue, which does seem to mention Petra and a number of other Nabataean sites and routes. Many of the identifications of place names require long and complex arguments to establish. Some of them are based on Chinese attempts to transcribe local names, while others are mainly descriptive in character.

You can read the Wei lue texts and my accompanying notes by following the links on the China Text page of CLICK HERE

If you or any of your readers have particular questions about any of them please feel free to contact me directly at: and I will do my best to answer them.


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