A mock temple commemorating the history of the lost Romans of Yongchang County
We weren’t sure if it was a vicious rumour or a thrilling, little-known secret. Could there really be a whole village of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Chinese in Yongchang County in Gansu, descendants of Romans who settled in the area?
In 2005, Xinhua published an article, “Romans in China stir up controversy,” detailing the supposed history of ancient Romans settling in this part of Gansu. In a 1957 book, Homer Hasenflug Dubs, professor of Chinese history at Oxford University, argued that some Roman prisoners taken by the Parthians in 53 BC eventually made their way east to China, where they took up arms against the Han Dynasty and ultimately settled permanently near Yongchang. According to Xinhua, there is scientific work being done to establish a DNA link between villagers in the area and the “Romans,” but so far as we’re aware no results have been reported.
Yet rumours still circulate of curly, blonde-haired Chinese with aquiline noses in one particular mountain village called Liqian.
We thought the tales were at best an exaggeration, at worst Gansu’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. But we had a day off in Wuwei (a mere two-hour drive away) and decided we wouldn’t forgive ourselves if we let this opportunity slip by.
After two attempts at finding a driver (we ditched our first one because his car was too noisy), we then had to try to explain to him and his friend, in our best Chinese, that we wanted to go to a village about 20 kms south of Yongchang. Did we know the name? Well, we knew the ancient name. Did we know any more about how to get there? No. What did we want to do when we got there? Drive around then go back to Wuwei.
Finally: Is there something distinctive about this place? We told the driver about the rumours and the ancient Roman ruins. Aha, he had also heard about it! He opened his mobile phone and made a few calls, stopped at a few roadside fruit stalls to ask directions, spoke to a group of men playing chess on the footpath, and finally found the southbound road that we were to take.
But first he drove us by the town of Yongchang. There, close to the centre, were three huge statues, one obviously of a Roman man. The trail heats up.
Well, honey, that guy on the right sure looks like a Roman
When we got to the village of Liqian, our driver found a village elder who took us to some recently discovered ruins that one group of archeologists believed to belong to Romans, though this theory has its detractors.
Could these ruins be the foundations of a lost Roman city?
Then he took us to a plaque housed within a temple (recently constructed) of slightly Doric-looking columns, telling the story of how a group of Romans were captured by the Chinese 2000 years ago and subsequently settled in this part of China (see the picture at the top of this post).
A group of students turned up while we were there, but they seemed more interested in hamming it up for the camera than the history of the area
Though we searched and looked and asked for any local villagers with blonde hair, we didn’t see any and we weren’t shown any. It seems hard to believe that after 2000 years, Roman characteristics could still be evident on the faces of the local people. But you never know what they’re hiding under those hats.
Yan Zheng Qiang (centre) and friends, Liqian village