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Saturday January 14, 2012

Legend of the blue-eyed Chinese

Villagers in Gansu province believe they could be the descendants of an ancient Roman legion that was allowed to settle down in a Han dynasty village named Liqian.

FOLKS of Liqian Village in China’s northwestern Gansu province are used to being interviewed by the media. They have received foreign and local media, scholars and historians since a theory first spread in the 1980s that the village used to be a settlement for war prisoners during the Western Han dynasty, and linking some of the villagers to a lost Roman legion.

Villagers with wavy yellow hair, hooked noses and blue or green eyes would charge 50 yuan (RM25) for an interview. Their Caucasian features are what prompt some historians to believe the theory is true.

“We usually can only entertain interviews approved or requested by our village committee and tourism bureau,” said Luo Ying, who agreed to be interviewed without an interview fee this time.

Reliving the history: Three villagers from Liqian and Xingshuzhuang dressing up as Roman soldiers at Liqian village.

“I have many features that are different from the others. I have thick eyebrows and a high nose bridge.”

The 35-year-old, who works at a nearby construction site, said he used to have blue eyes, which earned him the nickname “blue-eyed boy” in class when he was a child. But his eyes have since turned hazel.

Many in his family, especially the males, have Caucasian features. His grandfather had blue eyes and his beard was yellow. So, too, his father, who had a long nose and blue eyes, Luo added.

Wang Xushou, from nearby Xingshuzhuang Village, has hazel eyes, deep eyesockets, yellow hair and a large nose. He said his daughter looks very much like him, and several others, among them his nephew, have similar features.

“When I was growing up, the villagers refused to call me by my name. They called me ‘wai guo ren’ (foreigner),” said Wang, a farmer.

Both Wang and Luo believed that they might be the descendants of a Roman army that ended up in this part of China, as suggested by several historians between 1950 and 1990.

In 53BC, a Roman army under the command of general Marcus Licinius Crassus was defeated in the Battle of Carrhae against Parthia in Turkey.

Crassus was killed and about 6,000 Roman soldiers disappeared after the battle.

In 1957, the late American sinologist Homer Dubs, who had since the 1940s researched on a possible military contact between Romans and Chinese some 2,000 years ago, published A Roman City in Ancient China, largely recognised as the theory’s origin.

Dubs suggested that the defeated soldiers were captured by the Parthians and turned into mercenaries who later fought for the Huns in the Battle of Zhizhi in Kazakhstan against the Chinese during the Western Han Dynasty.

The Western Han Empire was so impressed by the Romans’ fighting abilities that they were incorporated into its army to guard an outpost and settled them in Liqian.

In the 1980s, Australian scholar David Harris and several Chinese researchers including Lanzhou University professor Chen Zhengyi visited the village and reaffirmed it as the ancient Liqian as recorded in Chinese classical books such as History of the Later Han and History of the Jin Dynasty.

In 2006, Luo went to Beijing for a DNA test arranged by the Institute of Archeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The discovery that he is genetically 46% Caucasian makes him more convinced of his Roman ancestry.

About 30 villagers from Liqian, Xingshuzhuang and two other nearby villages have foreign looks and are believed to be the descendants of ancient Liqian.

Liqian Culture Research Association president Song Guorong, who has spent years studying all the historical records on Liqian, said there was no question about the existence of ancient Liqian, but the theory of ancestral links between the villagers and the Roman army remained unconfirmed.

In 2007, DNA testing of 93 villagers by Lanzhou University found that 77% were closely related to Chinese ethnicities, mostly Han Chinese. But, Song added, the DNA test results did not mean the theory was not true.

“Apart from History of the Later Han that mentioned Liqian, later scholars from the Qin dynasty also said in their history records that ‘Liqian was built to relocate Liqian people from the Battle of Zhizhi’ and that ‘Liqian people were soldiers who surrendered’,” he noted.

“In 1920, a book, History of Transportation Between China and OutsideWorld, suggested that Liqian was an ancient Roman city.

“The DNA results showed some of the villagers have European, Central Asian and Mongolian traits. The Roman empire encompassed a multitude of races and many soldiers in the legion were mercenaries.”

In an interview with some local media last year, Chen said there should be a reason why a village suddenly emerged as a settlement for war prisoners on Han Dynasty territory.

“Why was the village called Liqian, which sounds like ‘legion’? It cannot be explained as simply a coincidence,” he added.

However, historians concede that the theory lacks archaelogical evidence like Roman coins or weapons.

However, a recent discovery that provided physical proof was a human skeleton in the area that was believed to belong to a European because of its 1.8m tall frame.