In Search of the Blonde-Haired, Blue-Eyed Chinese

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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Yan Zheng Qiang (centre) and friends, Liqian village

20 thoughts on “In Search of the Blonde-Haired, Blue-Eyed Chinese

  1. Homer Hasenflug Dubs sounds up there with Gavin Menzies (1421) insofar as both attain big historical conclusions based on very little hard info. Good on you both for at least attempting to get to the source of the best blonde joke ever to have come out of China.
    Such scholars like to to see wie der Hase lauft but in my opinion, this one is schon lange geflogen!!
    Love to you both. Mike

  2. for one who seriously lacks the brain to absorb all this new technology I am facinated with your walk (odeal….maybe) I am working on the census….delivery and then collection…census here is Aug 8. This body is suffering…..much walking and climbing stairs…apts 80 plus…..gets me out and moving…..How different our worlds are!!! I will catch up with all your movements soon. Working 8-10 hours a day. Take care…..have fun….your mate…..Margot

  3. Hi from very sunny San Antonio. Just wanted to pass on that we had a wonderful visit with you Mum, Emma during her visit to the states last month. Enjoy your trek. Be safe. Jack and Gloria Sullivan (you can delete this)

  4. Hi Brendan and Emma,

    I’ve been enoying your blog. MS Outlook reminds me to check the site every very 4 weeks.

    All the best with the journey.

    Brendan (of the non-trekking type from Hamilton Watts)

  5. Hey intrepid explorers,

    This is one of the best blog posts ever! I love your informed and humourous tales. Good luck on the journey!

  6. I think that the descent from Romans is a long shot, although the DNA will prove it one way or another. My suggestion is that the European features of this village derive from an older source. Liqian is in the same general area as Urumqi and turpan, where there have been found desert-dried mummies of blonde, brown and red-haired peoples dressed in Celtic type woven clothing. They date from the time when the Indo-Europeans were moving around. WHile most groups ended up in the areas we now know as India-Pakistan-Agghanistan-Iran and Europe, isolated tribes were in what is now China, using the roads that would eventually become the Silk Road routes.(where there were oases). That there were Indo-European speaking peoples still in this area in the MIddle AGes,(eg the Sogdians and Tocharians) indicates a more likely source of the European DNA showing up in these isolated villages than the possible descent from lost Roman legions.

  7. Pingback: gooregan » Romans in Ancient China

  8. It has the explaination on that. it’s not because roman influence in their blood that made they have blond or blue eyes, normally Italian has dark hair and dark eyes…so roman?
    and ligien people have blue or green eyes with light hair that come from their settle land is nearby
    the desert with dry weather. remember DRY WEATHER influences to light eyes color and thick skin. so I don’t believe it cause of roman influence from 3000 years ago.

    I know some japanese with green or blue eyes too. it’s rare but dosen’t mean they don’t exsite. ( but could have that too because of tatar (turk or urguy influence) just try look at the photo of shabat, the afghan girl with cat gren eyes of national geography book? it could happened this appearance in people whom live nearby dessert, unhumid.

    it so impossible that liquen people still have feature of western people existe in them while the time goes by thoundsand years? myself I got western anchestor also,only 300 years ago, that’s not much generation when compare with 1000 year ago? but even that my appearance almost has noting look like western anchestor. only have more prominant detail on face than several asian people such as bigger eyes,bridge nose or taller…

    especially if you were descendent from western mixed with chinese. you’d look like chinese more than western when compare with the mixed-race between western and thai or western and India, those people’d look completely like caucasian.( because normally chinese has stronge pure blood than the other race in asia.

  9. I think is going to be hard to prove relation with the Romans, Italians, so romans, are usually olive skinned, black haired, brown/black eyed(I am Italian myself, I know my people), so how could those dark romans create an offspring of light people with the black haired locals? The only explanation would be that all the members of this legion were all belonging to the 1% of Italian with light coloring, but I see it hard………..I also think that even this kind of mix would have happened with pure blonde scandinavian people, those light charachters would have disappeared after 2000 years.
    The explanation must be found somewhere else.
    Ciao

  10. The ancient Romans don’t have relation with modern italians. In Italia have very non-europeoan descent.

  11. Red hair and light eyes were not that rare in Rome; a couple of prominent families were famous for having that colouring and only marrying women who were the same. Plus, in the north, Italy shared a border with Celtic tribes, so I suspect a bit of interbreeding went on there. I personally went to school with an Italian guy who had blond curly hair and blues eyes, and was as pale as me (Celtic redhead!)

    I tend to think those characteristics would have been bred out of the natives of this village by now tho.

  12. Ancient Romans were descended from the same stock as Gaulish tribes, Brithonic tribes, and even Germanic tribes encompassing the Danube region. The light haired Germans and red haired Celts of various northern tribes made up a large portion of the populace in that area throughout antiquity and medieval times the introduction dozens of new invaders from the middle-east and Slavic areas during the migration period. Please give that Italian features have had close to 1550 years since the fall of the empire to introduce new looks and color pigmentation to the peninsula.

  13. in search of square eggs! why look for them, even if they do exist, who cares? what makes them special? are they any more special than the black haired, black eyed, tan skinned Irish that are equally sparce throughout Europe?

  14. It might evoke a big argument on morden human’s origin. What if we are from orangutans and out of the orient? I’ve seen many chinese with light colored hair or eyes in the countryside in China! Mostly redish color! I could e-mail you some photos if you want!

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