Two of my favorite topics when teaching about China’s geography, as many of my students know, are the cultural mixing that has occurred historically throughout China’s frontiers, and the ways localities in China have contrived all sorts of fantastic cultural narratives and landscapes as they seek to brand themselves for tourism and cultural development. I recently came across the story of Zhelaizhai, a village in Gansu’s Yongchang county where both of these wonderful aspects of Chinese cultural geography come together. In 2004, The Economist ran a brief story about the village. That story focused on the efforts of a Yongchang county tourism bureau director to promote the idea that Zhelaizhai’s residents are descendents of Roman legionnaires who were captured by the Parthians in the battle of Carrhae (in modern Turkey). This story was, in fact, floated in the 1950s by an Oxford history professor – Homer Dubs – who proposed the following seemingly unlikely chain of events that could have brought a band of Roman soldiers to Han Dynasty China: that the Parthians may have stationed the Romans captured at Carrhae (there were altogether some 10,000 of them) on their eastern frontier (in modern Turkmenistan), that some of these Romans may have escaped their posts and joined the Huns, that the Romans may have then been captured (again!) by the Chinese when the Huns were defeated by the Han army in 36BC (in modern Uzbekistan), and that the Chinese may have then stationed those same Romans as frontier guards in a garrison called Liqian. Liqian is today’s Zhelaizhai, in present day Gansu Province.
Well, it’s quite a story. And the tourism bureau director may have seen in it an opportunity to tout contemporary China’s multinational heritage. Or, he may have simply seen a cash cow for milking. Whatever he saw, one of his first acts was to erect a statue in the center of Yongchang, featuring a traditional-looking Han Chinese scholar-official, a Hui Muslim woman (with headscarf), and – yes, it’s true – a Roman. It’s a statue of multinational unity (民族团结) for sure, and there are hundreds of such ‘ethnic harmony’ statues scattered throughout China’s frontier regions, but the inclusion of a Roman suggests a more deliberate nod toward building a “new Silk Road” of global connections beyond China’s frontiers.
Many in Yongchang county of embraced the Roman connection with enthusiasm. The Economist, for instance, refers to the local abbot of a Buddhist temple who says that the ghosts of the Roman soldiers still visit his temple in search of salvation. And, even better, “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.” This is the kind of thing that makes China such a wonderful place to me!
On the less fanciful side of things, recent DNA testing was conducted on Zhelaizhai’s residents, and found that some villagers had DNA that was as much as 56% Caucasian in origin. And indeed, many of the villagers have blondish hair, blue eyes, and Caucasian features. What interests me most, though, is not so much the mystery behind their actual origins, but the ways their story has become a form of cultural development in today’s economy of contrivances. That and the truly international efforts that have gone into to producing the story in the first place (in addition to the Oxford connection, there was also an Australian David Harris, who wrote a book about his 1980s quest to find Zhelaizhai: Black Horse Odyssey: Search for the Lost City of Rome in China).
This video offers a useful roundup of the current situation, and usefully links the story with the broader cultural economy of contrivance in China today: