Digging for Romans in China
Song Guorong’s genealogy gets hazy just a few generations before his own. But follow it back further--by 2,000 years--and he’ll tell you exactly who lies at the root of his family tree.
“I know my ancestors were Romans,” the lanky 39-year-old says in a matter-of-fact voice as he navigates the rutted lanes of this dusty hamlet deep in China’s interior.
It’s a remarkable claim to make, in a place as far east of Rome as New York is west.
But at its center lies a historical puzzle that has teased scholars and adventurers for decades: Did an ancient band of Roman legionnaires fight and work their way into China two millenniums ago, settling here on the edge of the Gobi Desert long before a man called Marco Polo ever set foot in old Cathay?
The village of Zhelaizhai, which may hold the key to the mystery, has so far refused to give away its secrets--such as who built its crumbling city wall centuries ago, where they came from, and why, even today, some residents of this remote area sport curly brown hair and light-colored eyes instead of the classic Chinese features of their curious neighbors.
But a cadre of history buffs and experts--armed with ancient documents, new discoveries, a dead man’s unpublished manuscript and a dash of romanticism--is out to prove the theory that Roman soldiers once made China their home before Jesus was born, despite skeptics who dismiss the idea as fantasy.
The stakes, proponents say, are high.
“If we can uncover the truth about this, we’ll have to rewrite world history, Roman history and Chinese history,” Guan Heng, whose father devoted the last 20 years of his life to trying to verify the Roman presence in China, declared with a fair amount of hyperbole.
Guan’s lofty ambitions are rooted in a mystery complete with epic battles, imperial pretensions, personal obsessions and colorful characters, all wrapped up in a tale even Marco Polo would have had trouble dreaming up.
The improbable quest for Romans in China begins with an American with an improbable name: Homer Hasenpflug Dubs.
A noted China scholar at Oxford University, Dubs was the earliest academic to flesh out the possibility of “a Roman city in ancient China,” as he put it in a lecture before the China Society in London in 1955.
Dubs was intrigued by the mention of a city and county called Liqian in a government land register of AD 5, compiled at the height of the Han Dynasty.
At the time, Liqian (or Li-jien, in some transliterations) was also the ancient Chinese word for Rome or the Roman Empire--a name derived, perhaps, from Alexandria, then under Roman control and a place with which the Chinese had indirect contact.
Only two other Chinese cities on the official rolls, Kucha and Wen-siu, bore the names of foreign places. Both were given their names because immigrants from those foreign lands--ancient kingdoms in Central Asia--lived there.
If that was the case, Dubs thought, then why not Romans in Liqian? Because of the origins of the other cities’ names, “it should follow that people from the Roman Empire immigrated into China and founded this city,” he wrote in a monograph.
The problem was how such an event could have come about. Even with the opening of the Silk Road, the fabled trade route connecting East and West, Roman travelers could not have reached China without passing through the Parthian Empire (encompassing modern-day Iran and Iraq, and beyond), one of Rome’s sworn enemies.
Drawing on ancient texts, from Western classical poets to official Chinese court histories, Dubs proposed that the Romans of Liqian were legionnaires who had been swapped as prisoners of war or mercenaries from empire to empire until they finally wound up in China--more than 4,000 miles from home.
These Were ‘Very Tough Men’
The soldiers first set out in 53 BC under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who ruled Rome along with Julius Caesar and Pompey. The Greek biographer Plutarch records that Crassus led 42,000 men on an abortive campaign against Parthia.
The Parthians mowed down their attackers with a hail of arrows, wiping out half of the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae, near the border of modern Turkey and Syria. Ten thousand Roman troops were taken prisoner, a portion of whom were moved to Central Asia to help Parthia guard its eastern frontier, according to the historian Pliny.
Pliny doesn’t mention how many of the legionnaires actually reached the East, a journey of more than 1,000 miles. But these were “very tough men,” Dubs wrote, seasoned veterans who made their living by fighting.
“Then they disappeared from Western history,” David Harris said.
Harris, an Australian writer, became enthralled by the long-lost city of Liqian in 1988, when he first came across Dubs’ work. To get to the bottom of the legend, he sold his belongings and moved to China as an English instructor at Lanzhou University in modern Gansu province, where Liqian was reputed to be located.
“I thought, it’s not another Yeti or another ‘Chariots of the Gods.’ This looks real,” he said from his current home near Adelaide. “There are a lot of mysteries out there, a lot of rubbish, and I didn’t want to get caught up in a wild goose chase. But this came from a very good source.”
Teaching classes by day and pursuing his real passion during his off hours, Harris eventually met Guan Heng’s father, Guan Yiquan, a Chinese-history professor whose own interest in Liqian had been piqued in the 1970s.
Both men believed, following Dubs’ speculation, that a number of the Roman soldiers somehow managed to escape Parthia and flee about 500 miles northeast to the land of the Huns, who were, like the Romans, enemies of Parthia. There, the theory goes, they hired themselves out as mercenaries to the mighty Hun leader Jzh-Jzh, whose vast empire stretched across the grasslands of Mongolia.
A restless conqueror, Jzh-Jzh had always cast a hungry eye on China to the south. But in 36 BC, the Chinese army decisively defeated Jzh-Jzh’s men at their encampment somewhere near today’s Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
An account of that battle, recorded in the ancient “Book of the Late Han Dynasty,” provides crucial evidence for Dubs’ hypothesis that Romans came to China via the Huns.
Defense Strategies Typical of the Romans
The account describes Jzh-Jzh’s citadel as being ringed by a double palisade of wood--a defensive barrier of stakes used only by Romans at the time.
Even more remarkable, more than 100 of Jzh-Jzh’s foot soldiers lined up outside the gates with their shields linked in a “fish-scale formation,” which Dubs identified as the testudo, a stratagem not found anywhere outside Rome.
“That’s an astounding piece of evidence,” Harris said. “Only the Romans linked their shields in the testudo formation. It’s a highly difficult maneuver. How do you explain it?”
For him, the case seems clear: The soldiers were the lost legionnaires, who, though they were far from their native land, still did as the Romans did: arranged themselves in their usual battle formation.
The victorious Chinese brought back 145 prisoners with them to China, as recorded in the “Book of the Late Han Dynasty.” These captives, Liqian buffs contend, were the Roman soldiers who had set out 17 years earlier to fight the Parthians.
Eager to make use of the POWs’ experience, the Chinese installed them as border guards in what has always been a strategically vital point in China’s northern frontier in modern Gansu province, Dubs postulated. This isolated outpost, which grew into a city and county, was then named Liqian in honor of the men who hailed from the West.
As a further bit of proof, official documents show that in AD 9, the city was briefly renamed by Emperor Wang Mang as Jie-lu, which means “prisoners taken in storming a city.”
Eventually, the Roman legionnaires intermarried with the local population, then finally died out--well before the first recorded diplomatic contact between the Roman and Chinese empires in AD 166, when an envoy dispatched by Emperor Marcus Aurelius arrived in the Chinese imperial capital of Luoyang.
The last mention of Liqian came in AD 746, when the city was overrun by Tibetans.
But one question remained: Exactly where was Liqian?
From his and Guan Yiquan’s calculations, Harris determined that all roads led to an area around Zhelaizhai, about a five-hour drive northwest of Lanzhou, the provincial capital.
In the spring of 1989, Harris and a group of other interested parties drove out to the area and stumbled across an ancient wall slightly west of the village. But the group was prevented from entering Zhelaizhai proper, where officials have since found further ruins--the tiny stretch of wall still visible today.
Both the remnants to the west and inside the village are rough stone structures consistent with Han Dynasty construction, evidence that a city existed in this area around the time Liqian was recorded in the imperial land register.
In Zhelaizhai, little is left of what originally stood. Local farmers have hacked away at the stone for personal use over the centuries.
Likewise, critics of the Liqian story have also emerged to hack away at a theory that Harris admits is still based on partial--if suggestive and tantalizing--evidence.
“We’re amassing a mound of circumstantial evidence, but there’s no clincher,” he said. “There’s no body we’ve dug up wearing Roman clothes and brandishing a sword.”
Skeptics point to the lack of almost any physical proof to back up the claims of Liqian fans.
But it hasn’t been for want of trying, supporters say. After Harris’ discovery of the wall at Zhelaizhai sparked a frenzy of publicity, an Australian team of scientists applied to the government for permission to take aerial photographs and satellite images to determine if ruins lay beneath the village.
They were turned down--partly because of the restrictive political atmosphere and suspicion toward foreigners that prevailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Since then, interest has cooled among foreign researchers. Most Chinese scholars, too, have expressed little interest in the Liqian mystery.
Historian Liu Guanghua at Lanzhou University notes discrepancies in the dates when Liqian was supposedly established. Recent discoveries of Han Dynasty documents suggest that a city called Liqian was founded as early as 60 BC, two dozen years before any Roman legionnaires could have made it to China after the battle against Jzh-Jzh.
“Up to now, the theory’s supporters haven’t published anything to prove that their theory is well-grounded,” Liu said.
Guan Heng responds by pulling out and stacking 19 manuscripts on his living room table. Between their plastic yellow covers are photographs, maps and writings containing a total of 450,000 Chinese characters--the exhaustive survey his father was working on when he died in 1998, laying out all the historical evidence for Romans in Liqian. The final two chapters were left unfinished.
The younger Guan has so far failed to find a publisher willing to print a book of such limited appeal.
“This is my father’s contribution to the country,” he said angrily. “The government should publish it.”
Supporters of the Roman theory also counter the recently unearthed Han Dynasty records with fresh finds of their own from around Zhelaizhai: a Roman-style pot, a water bowl and, most intriguingly, a helmet inscribed with the Chinese words zhao an, or “one of the surrendered.”
“The evidence that critics have is not as much as what we have,” said Chen Zhengyi, who also teaches at Lanzhou University.
Some of the most compelling evidence, Chen said, can be found walking the dirt tracks around Zhelaizhai, a poor farming village of 70 families who live in clay-brick houses. The area is home to people like Wang Zhonghua, a teenager with curly brown hair and light-colored eyes, and Yan Qishou, who has reddish hair.
Then there’s Song Guorong, the man who is convinced of his heritage and who does boast some semi-European features.
To test such claims of a Western connection, a Beijing geneticist took blood and urine samples from 200 villagers last year and ran DNA tests. No results have been formally announced, but Guan said 40 of the test subjects showed some kind of genetic link with Europeans--perhaps not so surprising for an area along the old Silk Road, a point that enthusiasts concede.
For now, the case for a Roman city in ancient China remains largely circumstantial. Believers such as Harris acknowledge that a comprehensive argument will not be built in a day. Local officials, who have seized on Liqian as a tourist possibility--even erecting a Roman pavilion and statues of a Roman man and woman--say they would welcome an archeological excavation.
But best of all, perhaps, would be a source of confirmation hinted at in a now-lost footnote by a Dutch scholar named J. J. L. Duyvendak. According to the senior Guan shortly before he died, the Dutchman mentioned a set of eight terra-cotta plates, discovered in an imperial Chinese tomb, that depict scenes of the battle against Jzh-Jzh--and possibly of the soldiers who lined up in the strange fish-scale formation.
Rumors surfaced that the plates ended up in a private collection somewhere in the West, but the plates’ existence and whereabouts remain a mystery within a mystery.
Harris is undeterred. He wrote a book about his experiences in search of Liqian and is talking with an Australian production company about a documentary, which he hopes would inspire further research.
“I’m very confident in saying that . . . we’ve got a site that was Rome in China, and nobody’s proved me wrong,” he said. “Liqian remains elusive and a mystery, and every time you get close, it gets further away.
“I’m not disturbed by the time that we’re taking,” he added. “We’ve already waited 2,000 years.”