Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Romans in China? Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Erling Hoh

Baffled peasants in a windswept village in Gansu province are being described by Chinese newspapers as blond-haired, blue-eyed descendants of Roman mercenaries who allegedly fought the Han Chinese 2,000 years ago. While no one in the modern town of Lou Zhuangzi is fair and there is no proof that the Romans ever set foot in Gansu before the Christian era, the reports have revived discussion over whether a group of Romans offered their services to the Hun warlord Jzh Jzh in 36 B.C. before settling in the Gansu village of Liqian, thought by some to be Lou Zhuangzi.

This idea was first proposed by Homer Hasenphlug Dubs, an Oxford University professor of Chinese history, who speculated in 1955 that some of the 10,000 Roman prisoners taken by the Parthians after the battle of Carrhae in southeastern Turkey in 53 B.C. made their way east to Uzbekistan to enlist with Jzh Jzh against the Han. Chinese accounts of the battle, in which Jzh Jzh was decapitated and his army defeated, note unusual military formations and the use of wooden fortifications foreign to the nomadic Huns. Dubs postulated that after the battle the Chinese employed the Roman mercenaries as border guards, settling them in Liqian, a short form of Alexandria used by the Chinese to denote Rome. While some Chinese scholars have been critical of Dubs' hypothesis, others went so far as to identify Lou Zhuangzi as the probable location of Liqian in the late 1980s.

Ten years later, still no academic papers have been published on the subject, and no archaeological investigation has been conducted in Lou Zhuangzi, but the media and local government remain unfazed. County officials, sensing potential tourist revenue, have erected a Doric pavilion in Lou Zhuangzi, while the county capital of Yongchang has decorated its main thoroughfare with enormous statues of a Roman soldier and a Roman woman flanking a Communist party official.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America