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Romans in China


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They came, saw and settled

So it's said, anyway

IN A remote village of western China, high on the dusty pastures that stretch toward the Qilian mountains, the local branch of the Communist Party is finishing off a new headquarters that stands out from the local buildings, all built of compacted earth. This building has a classical Roman portico, made of concrete, at the entrance. The local party chief and his deputy both think they are the descendants of Romans.

Their village, Zhelaizhai, is separated from what was the Roman empire by about 6,500km (over 4,000 miles) of forbidding terrain. To get to this little place in Gansu province, a Roman would have had to cross all of Central Asia and the Middle East, encountering fierce tribes en route. Yet some people believe that a group of Roman soldiers made this journey 2,000 years ago and then stayed.

It may be wishful thinking, but so captivating is the notion of a Roman town in ancient China that for 50 years it has inspired a disparate variety of supporters, among them an Oxford University professor, an Australian adventurer and the abbot of a nearby Buddhist temple. The abbot says prayers for the ghosts of Roman soldiers, who, he reports, visit his temple to petition for salvation. Through an illiterate woman who acts as a medium, the abbot has discovered that Julius Caesar himself spent his final days in Yongchang county and died a Buddhist. Caesar's assassins apparently got the wrong man.

The curious physical features of the local Communist chiefs, Zhang Jianxin and Song Guorong, strengthen their belief that they are of Roman stock. Both have long straight noses, which any Chinese will tell you is the hallmark of a foreigner. Mr Song has long brown hair tipped with curls—quite different from the straight black hair of most Chinese. Mr Zhang tells of his delight when a group of foreigners arrived in the village in the early 1990s and told him about the Roman-settlement theory. “It was good to be connected with the Romans. We felt we'd discovered our ancestors.”

Evidence of a Roman town in Gansu province would indeed be exciting—if it could be established. One of the strangest aspects of China's history is that such a cultivated civilisation should have stayed isolated from its counterparts to the west for so long. The existence of not just a foreign settlement but a western settlement, some 13 centuries before the arrival of Marco Polo and 16 centuries before the Portuguese established a colony in Macau, would require some rewriting of history.


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Funny stuff: 166 and all that

The earliest recorded official contact between China and Rome did not occur until 166AD, when, according to a Chinese account, a Roman envoy arrived in China, possibly sent by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Remarkably, that was the only contact between the two great powers of which a record survives. The Romans referred to the people of the remote east as the Seres—the silk people. But that term could have referred to the Central Asian tribes whose trade with the Chinese no doubt included silk—which the Romans long thought grew on trees. The secret of silk production reached the West only in the sixth century, from the Byzantines.

An ambitious and relatively liberal-minded official, Jia Xiaotian, who took over as local party chief in 1993, was one of the first to see the potential of establishing a Roman connection—tourism. Few tourists reached Yongchang. If they came at all, they usually stopped there only briefly on trips tracing the historic silk road, the trading route along which, by the first century AD, Chinese silk made its way to Rome. Yongchang was several hours' drive from the nearest tourist attraction and a world away from the booming coast.

Mr Jia committed what some officials must have considered a heresy: at the top of the main street of the county town he erected statues of three towering figures. They stand there still: in the middle is a Chinese of the ethnic-Han majority. To his right is a woman of the Muslim Hui minority, the second-biggest group in the area. And to his left is a Roman. A plaque notes the Romans' contribution to “social progress and economic prosperity” in Yongchang.

Mr Jia was promoted to become head of the provincial tourism authority in 1998. Soon afterwards, he published a script about the arrival of the Romans, and officials say he is negotiating film rights with an American company. The authorities meanwhile had declared that a 30-metre stretch of battered earthen wall was to be considered part of the city wall of the Roman settlement. Locals say the wall was about 200 metres long until the 1970s, when peasants blew up most of it in order to scatter the earth on their increasingly barren fields.

Yongchang is relatively well off by the standards of impoverished Gansu, but the town's museum does not have enough money to buy from the local peasants the ancient pots and coins that they dig up on their land. Even so, to get visitors in the mood, the county paid for a little Roman-style pavilion to be built atop the foundations of an old temple.

The museum will soon put on show an exciting new find: the skeleton of a Roman inhabitant, some believe. It was found last year in a 2,000-year-old tomb unearthed during the laying of China's great west-to-east natural-gas pipeline, which runs through the county. The skeleton is of a 1.8-metre (5ft 11in) male. The average Chinese was then much smaller. In a grubby, bare room, the museum's officials proudly point to the bones, drawing attention to the straight teeth and long lower limbs—both features unusual among ancient Chinese.


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All too recent to be anything but sensitive

But this is China, and even archaeological remains can be politically controversial. The provincial government had refused your correspondent permission to visit Yongchang, saying the Roman connection was a “sensitive” issue involving ethnic minorities. After two unauthorised days there, your correspondent was accused of conducting “illegal interviews” and ordered to leave.

It may well irritate some of the proud custodians of China's cultural heritage that it was foreigners who first promoted the theory of the Roman settlement. Homer Dubs, a professor of Chinese at Oxford University, raised it in a lecture delivered to the China Society in London in 1955. According to Dubs, the journey to Gansu began in 53BC when Crassus, who together with Julius Caesar and Pompey formed Rome's First Triumvirate, decided to make up for his lack of military glory by going to war with the dreaded Parthians.

Crassus's legions were no match for the Parthian archers, nimble horsemen who could loose their arrows off even as they turned. Of the 42,000 Romans who set out, 20,000 were killed and 10,000 were captured in the battle of Carrhae, in modern Turkey; it was one of the most spectacular losses of Roman military history. According to Pliny the Elder, the Roman prisoners were used by the Parthians as guards on their eastern frontier in what is today Turkmenistan. From there, Dubs conjectured, some escaped and joined the Huns as mercenaries. In 36BC, Chinese troops on a punitive venture defeated the Hun ruler Zhizhi in today's Uzbekistan. Among their captives they found 145 Romans. Dubs says the Chinese kept the ex-legionaries as frontier guards, installing them in a specially created town called Liqian in what is now Gansu.

If only there were proof. Dubs's theory rests mainly on tantalising hints found in ancient Chinese historiography, none of which refers specifically to Romans. There is a reference to the use of a “fish-scale formation” by soldiers in Zhizhi's army, which Dubs said described the testudo formation of overlapping shields “made only by Roman soldiers”. And Zhizhi's town had a double wooden palisade outside its wall—a type of fortification he said was often used by Romans and not by the Huns. Then there is the name of the town, Liqian, which may have been used at the time to refer to the Roman empire. In 9AD the name of Liqian was changed for a few years to Jielu, which may mean “prisoners captured in storming a city”. In the sixth century Liqian ceased to be used as a placename.

Dubs was not the only one to believe in the Roman connection. Guan Yiquan, a Chinese scholar in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, also became convinced that Liqian had links to Rome. From 1978 until his death 20 years later, he laboured on a huge 450,000-character tome on Liqian. According to his son, Guan Heng, it was not until 1988 that he saw a copy of Dubs's lecture, which happened to dovetail with his own views. Unfortunately, as the younger Mr Guan admits, it too contains no clincher.

Chinese officials would probably not have cottoned on to the tourist-pulling potential of the Roman story had it not been for an Australian writer and adventurer, David Harris. Mr Harris, virtually penniless and upset by the break-up of his marriage, decided to set out for China in search of the town mentioned by Dubs. With the help of the elder Mr Guan, he narrowed his search to the village of Zhelaizhai. His experiences are described in his travel book, “Black Horse Odyssey”.

Mr Harris's efforts drew attention from the media, as well as from the authorities. Even the Communist Party's main mouthpiece, the People's Daily, carried an approving article. But there were sceptics aplenty. Liu Guanghua, a retired professor at Lanzhou University, says the name Liqian derives from the second and third syllables of the word for Alexandria, the Egyptian city sometimes used by the Chinese as a term for the Roman empire in general. Yet Alexandria was not conquered by the Romans until 30BC, and it was only after this date that the Chinese began to use the name in this way. Some scholars also think Liqian was founded well before the Romans were supposed to have settled there.

As for the somewhat foreign-looking faces of a few Yongchang residents, it would hardly be surprising to find some mixed racial features in the county, given that it straddles what was once a major trading route and borders on Central Asia, whose peoples look quite different from the Han Chinese. For a few among the people of one of China's poorest provinces, there is perhaps romantic consolation in the thought that they share their blood with Caesar. But the abandoned shell of a new luxury hotel and the dark empty corridors of the main guest-house in Yongchang suggest the romance is proving slow to take hold more widely.

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What I find rather comical is the idea that, after some 2000 years, somebody's nose should be taken as 'proof' of Roman blood. There are several first-generation Eurasians that wouldn't pass the test.

It's also possible that many of these legionaries weren't 'Roman' at all, but provincial troops. If all we're talking about is 100-200 stray POWs, their chances of survival as an isolated community after 2000 years is embarassingly close to zero.

This being said, the town is clearly trying to emulate Kaifeng (with its claims of a Jewish settlement and the tourism industry attached to it) and I have sympathy for these guys. After all, tilling the land in Gansu is no fun. And the idea of the Chinese being related to everyone else is one that makes lots of sense, because, obviously, they are.

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  • 3 years later...

A slightly different story, but my copy of Lonely Planet 2007 says that Romans came to trade in Guangdong during the second century BC. As far as I know, there is no decent evidence for that. Is there some?

(as I've just written elsewhere the same book talks about nothern lights in Heilongjiang, China, when I would guess China is much too far south. I wonder who they are employing these days?)

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I was disappointed with the Lonely planet after seeing their description of the Shaolin temple which I thought was out of line, but mostly because of their (three line) description of the neighbouring cliffs (a truly stunning sight), which were described as "There is some path you can walk over there, bring a friend".

Then they spend two pages on some restaurant in Beijing.

Sorry for the off-topic. I found the Lonely Planet useful, but it's not what it used to be.

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There are many people in central Asia who look like Middle Easterns with big noses and everything. So why Romans?

Because being related to Romans would sell better than being related to the Middle Eastern people? Because Rome is farther from China than the Middle East is and therefore makes a more intriguing story?

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Roman coins have been found in India, and we have a extant book, The Periplus of the Erithean Sea, which describes how to travel as far east as Ceylon for Roman traders. It also mentions ports and trading places on the east coast of India and perhaps as far east as modern day Burma (although it appears the author himself did not go that far).

Roman coins have also turned up in Korea and Vietnam (as well as Roman glass) so Roman items themselves were traded this far east. Wether they were taken by the Romans themselves though is open to question. Personally, since there is strong evidence of Roman trading outposts in India, I can imagine some traders going as far as Guangdong but I don't think anyone can give a true answer.

Finally, I would argue against 2nd century BC and would say either early first century AD (under Augustus) or 2nd century AD.

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Personally, since there is strong evidence of Roman trading outposts in India...

During the Roman Empire's days, there were Jewish settlements in India around Madras/Chennai. The Apostle Thomas went there.

Wealthy ancient Roman households had silks from China. This doesn't necessarily mean that any Chinese made it to ancient Rome, just their goods. But to track down any Roman contact in China, I'd start tracing the old Nestorian roots that are in China but those don't show up until the 7th Century AD.

More important than silk, when did toilet paper come out of China to the rest of the world?

But who cares about the Romans. How about the Greeks from Alexander's time. We know that a bunch settled as far east as Kandahar in modern day Afghanistan. Greek blood could have gotten as far as modern Chinese borders before Rome was an empire.

I was disappointed with the Lonely planet

Lonely Planet is a joke of a publication. The British DK Witness series is also questionable. DK Witness China manages to not say a whole lot about British in China in the 19th century. hm.

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More important than silk, when did toilet paper come out of China to the rest of the world?

A man after my own heart. This is truly a far more critical question requiring deep probing research.

The toilet paper trail starts long ago in China and leads us to a New Yorker who really cleaned up with this technology.

From wikipedia:

the first use of toilet paper in human history dates back to the 6th century AD, in early medieval China. In 589 AD the scholar-official Yan Zhitui (531–591) wrote about the use of toilet paper:

"Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes".

During the later Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) a Muslim Arab traveler to China in the year 851 AD remarked:

"They (the Chinese) are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper."


The 16th century French satirical writer François Rabelais in his series of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel, discussing the various ways of cleansing oneself at the toilet, wrote that: "He who uses paper on his filthy bum, will always find his ballocks lined with scum", proposing that the soft feathers on the back of a live goose provide an optimum cleansing medium.

So internationally throughout most of its history toilet paper has gotten a bum rap, so to speak. It became the commercially critical product as we know it today when Seth Wheeler of NY created perforated rolls of toilet paper in a dispenser in 1871.

Today, "toilet paper is commonly available in hundreds of different designs, colors, and prints" throughout the world. However, when you go into a Chinese toilet, you had better bring your own.

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