The Armenian and Chinese people knew about each other’s existence from immemorial times. The word “Armenia” in Chinese sounds “Ya-mei-ni-ya,” hieroglyphs of which mean “the beautiful maid of Asia.”
In Armenian sources, legends, and fairy tales, China is called a country of chenes, Chinumachin, or Chinastan. According to the preserved thousands-years-old information, Armenians visited China for trade and imported silk, porcelain, and other goods from there to Armenia.
In China, Armenian medicine, vegetables, mineral paints, and insects were in high demand, especially the Armenian cochineal, which was used to paint the best Chinese and Indian silks. Armenian merchants traded silk, jade, and other goods.
Various Chinese products were brought to Armenia through the Great Silk Road, including fabrics embroidered with silver and gold threads.
Archaeological material (Chinese porcelain, celadonite) revealed during the excavations of the Armenian cities of Garni, Dvin, Ani, and the Amberd fortress proves the Early Medieval Armenian-Chinese economic ties.
A certain connection was between medieval Armenian and Chinese pictorial art. In miniatures of Cilician schools, there are images of Chinese dragons, dog-lions. In Vaspurakan’s art, Chinese household items have been frequently portrayed.
Movses Khorenatsi, Anania Shirakatsi, Stepanos Orbelian, and King of Cilicia Hetum wrote about China in their works, giving a detailed description of the country of chens, its nature, culture, people, and traditions.
There is a legend about the Chinese origin of Armenian princely families Mamikonyan and Orbelian. In his work “History of Armenia”, Khorenatsi tells how and where the Mamikonyan family appeared from:
“… In the days of Shapuh, some said that the ancestor of the Mamikonian family came to Armenia from north-east, from the noble and great country, the first among the northern states, namely the land of chenes.”
The first Armenian colonies in China began to appear as early as at the beginning of the 13th century after the conquest of Armenia by the Mongols. The Armenians went deep into the country, reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and settled in the city of Canton (Guangzhou).
Armenians knew the roads to India and China, the local languages, the traditions, and the specifics of the local populations very well. Many Europeans hired them as guides and interpreters for a safe journey.
Academician Hrachya Acharyan stated that in the 17th-18th centuries Armenians, taking advantage of being under the protection of Chinese authorities and the sympathy of the population, have achieved significant influence in various regions of the country.
“China has always kept its doors closed to foreigners, especially Christians. But the Armenians were an exception and had absolute freedom.
Armenian traders were so known in China that the Jesuit preachers disguised themselves as Armenian merchants for free entry and exit from the country,” Acharyan wrote.
One of the most famous Chinese Armenians was Hovhannes Ghazaryan, known as John Lazar. At the beginning of the 19th century, he was the first to translate the Bible into Chinese.
At the end of the 19th century, construction works of the Chinese Eastern Railway began under Russia. In this regard, many Armenians from Russia as well as Syunik and Artsakh moved to China. In the first half of the 20th century, Armenians lived in Manchuria, Harbin, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Macau, Changchun.
In Harbin, there were up to 400 Armenian families, an Armenian church (later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution), and public organizations. After the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, most of the Armenians left the country and went mainly to the US and Australia.
Now, the Armenian community in China includes about 500 people, who live in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
The photos below were taken by director and writer Ruben Giney during the work on the documentary “Andin. Armenian Journey Chronicles”.