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Digging for Romans in China

Ancient documents hint that soldiers from the West lived on the edge of the Gobi Desert more than 2,000 years ago. Some of the compelling evidence includes the light- colored eyes and curly hair of the villagers there today.

August 24, 2000|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZHELAIZHAI, 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But a cadre of history buffs and experts--armed with ancient documents, new discoveries, a dead man's unpublished manuscript and a dash of romanticism--is out to prove the theory that Roman soldiers once made China their home before Jesus was born, despite skeptics who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.

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