Written by Samuel Lieu.

The Silk Road as an artery for the exchange of goods, people, ideas and religions reached its apogée during the time of the Mongol Empire under Qinggis (Genghis) Khan. Beginning in 1206 with the unification of all the tribes in Mongolia under his rule, Khan created a world empire stretching from the Pacific to Central Europe. The Mongols expanded eastwards into North China in 1215 and westwards into Khwarizm in Central Asia. Merchants from China were therefore able to travel along the Silk Road to Persia, and when 450 of them were executed on the charge of espionage, Qinggis invaded. By 1231, the Mongols were in control of most of Persia and of Asia Minor. The earlier conquest of Constantinople by Frankish Crusaders in 1204 had ushered in a new phase of Mediterranean history, which included the establishment of numerous Venetian trading colonies in the Levant and also into the Black Sea region. Among them were two members of the Polo family, Niccolo and his brother Maffeo, who were established at the Crimean port of Sudak in 1260 where they were well positioned for trade with Mongol-held territories in the so-called Golden Horde. Kubilai Khan (reigned 1260-1294), the grandson of Qinggis, requested that the two merchants visit him at his capital (which was then in Karakorum) and that they bring skilled artisans from Europe with them. The two returned to the West and, after what seemed like an interminable delay, returned to the lands under the control of Kubilai in the mid-1270s together with the young Marco (Marcus), the son of Niccolo.

The conquest of Southern China between 1277 and 1280 made Kubilai Khan Emperor of the whole of China and founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368). It was this extension of his rule into China proper that enabled the Polos to travel through the heartland of China, acting as Kubilai’s special envoys. Marco would later claim that for three years he acted as governor of Yangzhou – a city then much visited by other Italian merchants.

Marco Polo at Quanzhou

In 1278, the young Venetian traveller Marco and his uncle Maffeo began a journey from Khanbaliq (modern Beijing), which would take them through the part of the Kingdom of Cathay known as Manzi, i.e. China south of the Yangzi River. The same journey would also take Marco to Yangzhou, where he claimed to have held a senior administrative position. Shortly after the Polos had crossed the Yangzi, Marco noted that two Nestorian churches had been established in the mercantile city of Zhenjiangfu by the bishop Mar Sargis (Sergius), who also governed the city on behalf of the Mongols. What is fascinating about this encounter is that the activities of Mar Sargis were reversed after the expulsion of the Mongols; a record of his confiscations has survived in a Chinese text. Doubters or deniers of Marco Polo’s sojourn in China should bear this rare coincidence in mind. On their way, the Venetians also came across a secretive sect which exhibited some features of a vestigial Christianity at the city of Fuzhou. A delegation of this sect was duly sent to Kublai Khan and the sect was subsequently claimed by leaders of several major religious sects in China; however, these delegates aligned themselves with the Christians.

Quanzhou (Zayton) as a centre of Nestorianism under the Mongols

The final destination of the Polos was Qaunzhou (also known as Zayton after the zhitong tree), then the most important seaport on the South China coast. It was from Quanzhou that the Venetians left China for good c. 1292. Quanzhou today has only a river port, as her once famous harbour has fallen victim to thick layers of silt, but the city nevertheless ranks third behind Xi’an and Beijing in the possession of the largest number of medieval buildings and historical relics. Since 2001, a team of Australian scholars under the leadership of Professor Sam Lieu has been working on the Manichaean and Nestorian remains in both Quanzhou and in the nearby county of Jinjiang, where there is known Manichaean site.

The Manichaean shrine on Huabiao Hill at Jinjiang had been known to scholars since the middle of the last century, but civil strife in China followed by foreign aggression and revolutionary conflict meant that the site was not properly studied until the late 1970s. The shrine, built using the cliff-face as a back wall, possesses the only known statue depicting Mani as the Buddha of Light.

The religion of Mani (c. 216-276 CE) came to China from Iran along the Silk Road and was adopted by Uighur mercenaries in the service of the Tang Government. Through the patronage of the Khagan, the religion was sufficiently well established among the indigenous population for it to survive the expulsion of foreign religions in 845 CE. The religion went underground in South China, where the cosmopolitan seaports like Quanzhou gave it shelter. The shrine on Huabiao Hill was not built as a Manichaean shrine, but was taken over by the sect during the period of Mongol rule in South China. Epigraphical evidence and archaeological findings of inscribed pottery clearly identify the presence of the sect as the principal occupant of the site well into the sixteenth century. What is most extraordinary is that the well-preserved statue of Mani as the Buddha of Light led to the creation of a new Buddhist sect, centred on the worship of the statue of Mani as Buddha at the beginning of the last century.

In 2000, the site was visited by delegates attending an important conference on the Maritime Silk Road held in Quanzhou as part of the UNESCO Integrated Study of the Silk Roads project, despite the fact that Manichaeism clearly came to China by land and not by sea. The epigraphical evidence harks back to the period when Parthian and Old Turkish were used as the primary languages of the Manichaean sect. This survival of the link with the terrestrial Silk Road has been confirmed by the more recent discovery of a large hoard of Chinese Manichaean texts at Xiapu, also in the province of Fujian, which were clearly derived from Parthian.


Image of Mani at Huabiao Hill (Photo: Sam Lieu)

The remains of the Church of the East (also known erroneously as Nestorians) at Quanzhou came to light in the course of the Sino-Japanese War of the last century, but they were little studied until the Australian team began to systematically photograph and analyse the many fine funerary monuments and tomb inscriptions. The latter exist in a plethora of languages: Chinese, Phagspa, East Turkic in Syriac script and also in Uighur script, and even one inscription in Latin – the tombstone of Andrew of Perugia, a Catholic missionary bishop who died and was buried in Quanzhou in 1332 CE. The decipherment of the texts in East Turkic presented many problems, and alternative readings are likely to emerge for years to come. The fine quality of the funerary remains show without doubt that the Turkic-speaking Christians who served under the Mongols, and were the governing class in Quanzhou, were a wealthy community with their own monastic church. The most intriguing of the tomb inscriptions is one dedicated to Mar Solomon, who died in 1313 CE, and who had the title of ‘Bishop of Christians and Manichaeans’. Such a feat of ecumenism is hard to find anywhere outside the Mongol empire and the most likely explanation is that the secretive sect which the Polos encountered at Fuzhou were in fact Manichaeans, and the bishop of South China (Manzi) found himself in charge of two antithetical sects thanks to the intervention of the famous Venetian visitors to China.

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Photograph of a Christian tomb inscription in East Turkic language and written in the (Nestorian) Syriac script discovered in 2002. (Photo: Sam Lieu)

Samuel Lieu is a Professor of Ancient History and Co-Deputy Director Ancient Cultures Research Centre at Macquarie University. Image credit CC by Rajesh/Flickr


In order to alert the learned world of this remarkable and continuing discovery of Christian and Manichaean remains in Quanzhou, the Australian team established a website at the early stages of their project, which can be viewed at here.

The main results of the Australian team were published in the form of a major monograph located here.

  1. N.C. Lieu et al,. Medieval Christian and Manichaean Remains from Quanzhou (Zayton) = Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum : Series Archaeologica et Iconographica 2 ISBN: 978-2-503-52197-8http://www.brepols.net/Pages/ShowProduct.aspx?prod_id=IS-9782503521978-1

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