How a Forgotten Religion Shaped China

This article is the second in a sequence on the tradition and historical past of Quanzhou.

On July 25, UNESCO formally added 22 historic websites within the southeastern port metropolis of Quanzhou to its World Heritage List, together with factories, tombs, temples, statues, bridges, and docks courting to the Middle Ages.

Quanzhou rose to fame as a buying and selling port, however it’s the metropolis’s distinctive and curious legacy as a spiritual melting pot that has caught trendy observers’ consideration. At its peak from the tenth by the 14th centuries, Quanzhou drew a various array of retailers from throughout Eurasia, together with Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Nestorian Christians. After settling within the metropolis, they devoted altars to their faiths, constructed temples, and erected statues — lots of which nonetheless stand at the moment.

Among essentially the most noteworthy of those websites is the Cao’an Temple and its Radiant Buddha Mani wall carving. Its identify is considerably deceptive: The carving doesn’t depict a Buddhist deity, however the third century Persian prophet Mani, the founding father of the Manichaean religion. The story of how his likeness wound up on a temple wall half a world away from the place he was born is considered one of persecution, resilience, and the huge networks of alternate that make Quanzhou price remembering now.

Mani was born in Babylon in A.D. 216 and grew up within the metropolis of Ctesiphon, close to modern-day Baghdad. After working as a painter and healer, he started preaching the tenets of a brand new faith that divided the world into gentle and darkish. The Sassanids’ Zoroastrian ruler Bahram I didn’t welcome this new religion, and Mani was hanged from a tree outdoors the capital in 274. Under mounting stress, giant numbers of Manicheans fled east to Central Asia, the place they settled in necessary cities like Samarkand in what’s now Uzbekistan and Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan.

A 2002 map of Silk Road trade routes at the peak of the Tang Dynasty, from the exhibition catalogue of the Museum of Asian Art (Berlin). Courtesy of Mao Ming, edited by Sixth Tone

A 2002 map of Silk Road commerce routes on the peak of the Tang Dynasty, from the exhibition catalogue of the Museum of Asian Art (Berlin). Courtesy of Mao Ming, edited by Sixth Tone

At the time, Central Asia was beneath the management of the 9 city-states of Sogdiana — politically unbiased entities that shared the income of the Silk Road commerce that crossed their borders. Markets prospered and totally different faiths had been usually tolerated, permitting Manicheanism to flourish.

This would final till the eighth century, when Arab armies reached Central Asia. Their invasion of Sogdiana created the circumstances for Manicheanism’s subsequent — and ultimate — nice migration. Followers of the religion break up in two. One department moved south, following the Amu Darya river to India earlier than setting sail alongside maritime commerce routes and ultimately arriving in Quanzhou.

The different department fled east alongside the Silk Road, over the snowy Pamir Mountains. They traversed the Taklamakan Desert earlier than in the end arriving in Turpan, in what’s now Northwest China.

In Turpan, the Manichean elders efficiently persuaded Bögü, the third Khagan of the Uyghur kingdom of Qoch, to advertise their religion. In this, they benefitted from an uncommon ability: Manichean prayers unearthed on the close by Silk Road entrepot of Dunhuang and written within the Sogdian script point out that Manichean sages had been recognized for his or her potential to conjure rain, a robust instrument within the arid areas across the Gobi Desert.

A Tang Dynasty illustration unearthed in Turpan in 1900 shows a gathering of Mani worshippers. Mani is in the white robe with red decorative trim. Courtesy of Mao Ming

A Tang Dynasty illustration unearthed in Turpan in 1900 exhibits a gathering of Mani worshippers. Mani is within the white gown with purple ornamental trim. Courtesy of Mao Ming

The Turpan outpost of Manicheanism largely adhered to the religion’s Persian roots. In paperwork and silk work unearthed in Turpan by the archaeologist Albert von Le Coq in 1900, the prophet Mani is depicted as quintessentially Persian in each look and gown. In one, he’s proven as a tall and slender man wearing a white gown with purple trim, surrounded by white-clothed disciples consuming melons. In one other, he wears a tall white hat with a black rim and is flanked by two angels in purple robes.

The beliefs of the Turpan group of Manicheans progressively unfold east into China’s Central Plains, the place they had been Sinicized and tailored to native circumstances. Even at the moment, residents of cities and cities like Jiexiu within the northern Shanxi province and Kaifeng within the central Henan province proceed to carry out temple rituals that may be linked to Manicheism. Carrying statues of metropolis deities comparable in look to Mani, they beat drums, gentle joss sticks, and pray for rain utilizing primarily the identical prayers present in Manichean texts in Dunhuang.

The beliefs of the Turpan group of Manicheans progressively unfold east into China’s Central Plains.

– Mao Ming, archaeologist

Mani has a decidedly extra Buddhist look in Quanzhou. The photographs of the prophet nonetheless seen on the Cao’an Temple at the moment depict him with a halo or with the solar behind him. Although he nonetheless wears the white robes attribute of the religion, his options resemble these of a Han prince, with an oval face, skinny eyebrows, and a serene smile. To the locals, he’s the Radiant Buddha Mani, whose blessings convey heat, happiness, and prosperity.

The Cao’an wall carving hints at how Manicheanism fused with Buddhism and Chinese people custom through the years. This course of was not all the time peaceable. Manicheanism’s unique roots and extremely seen signifiers of perception, together with white robes and vegetarian diets, made it effectively suited to the wants of assorted underground secret societies and rebellious parts. Rightly or wrongly, Manicheanism turned related to riot in China’s fashionable creativeness, most famously within the basic 14th century novel “Water Margin,” but additionally in Jin Yong’s well-known twentieth century martial arts tales.

The carving of the Radiant Buddha Mani in Cao’an Temple, Quanzhou, Fujian province. Xinhua

The carving of the Radiant Buddha Mani in Cao’an Temple, Quanzhou, Fujian province. Xinhua

In opera, the time period mo — one of many 5 main character archetypes of conventional Chinese opera — can also have Manichean roots. Rather than “final,” because the ideogram would counsel, the time period could possibly be an abbreviation of the Chinese transliteration of Murmani, the identify of a Manichean elder. Although at the moment it merely describes the opera character who leads the choir, its roots mirror the best way followers of Manichaeism helped propagate their faith by fashionable artwork kinds reminiscent of operas and musical storytelling within the late Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties.

Most of Manicheanism’s legacy is equally obscure at the moment, however that shouldn’t blind us to its lasting significance. The Radiant Buddha Mani wall carving and the temple that homes it are the one clear, direct representations of Manichaeism nonetheless standing wherever on the planet — not in some deserted wreck, however in a residing temple that is still in use at the moment.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header picture: An exterior view of Cao’an Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, 2018. Liu Jie/People Visual)

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