The Study and Analysis of the Role of Ancient Iranians in the Expansion of Asian Religions in China
Author(s)Hamidreza Pasha Zanous
Keywordskeywords: ancient iran
buddhism and manichaeism
Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
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AbstractAbstract One of the most important aspects of the relationship between Iran and China in ancient times is religion that has so far not been addressed independently. According to Chinese sources, all major religions of China, except Taoism and Confucianism, are non-indigenous, and other religions such as Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, and Islam are all from outside China. These religions were brought to China by the Iranian elites. Apart from the expansion of Iranian religions in China, Iranian elites have played an important role in introducing non-Iranian religions, including Christianity, to the Chinese people. In the second century BC, some Parthian Buddhists immigrated to China. For several centuries, they persisted in China in translating Buddhist texts into Chinese. The first school for translating and teaching Buddhism was established in Luoyang (capital of the Han dynasty) by the Parthian prince, An Shigao. In addition to An Shigao, other teachers of the school were Iranians such as An Xuan and Yan Fotiao. There they engaged in teaching Buddhism for two hundred years. The prefix “An” in China, pertained to the people who lived in the Parthian Land. The progeny of An Shigao was active in two areas from the 4th to 8th century AD. The Chinese kings sent some of them as their ambassadors to Central Asia. For example, some of them reached high positions in Sabao 薩保, the Chinese state agency for foreign trade. In his study, Forte tries to recognize the descending branches of An Shigao and other Parthian Iranians residing in China. It is said that some descendants of An Shigao found high stature within the Chinese Court. Governmental and religious posts of the “An” clan in China is an indication of the high status this elite Parthian clan held. Their power and influence were to the extent that they hold the highest governmental ranks in the Chinese Court. Their status, however, was tottered in the middle of the 8th century after the uprising of An Lushan安禄山 (703-757 AD). An Lushan’s uprising, which persisted after his demise, was referred to as the “An Shi Rebellion 安史之乱” in the Chinese sources, probably referring to his Parthian origin. The result was the Tang Empire’s feeling of anger toward the Iranian originals, inasmuch as the Iranians and Sogdians residing in China concealed their foreign origin. The best example can be An Chongzhang 安重璋, the war minister of Tang Court. He changed his surname in 756 AD, and upon being asked about the reason, he reiterated that he is ashamed of having a name similar to An Lushan. He chose Li Baoyu 李抱玉 as his name. Religion activity of the Iranians in China continued in the Sassanid era as well. As the official religion of the Sassanid Kingdom, the Zoroastrian religion paved its way to China probably in the advent of the 6th century AD as the two nations experienced a thaw in their political and economic ties. Gradually, four Zoroastrian temples were established in Chang'an, two in Luoyang, and some in Kaifeng. The Zoroastrian religion was called “Xiān祆” in China. No doubt, the Sogdian tradesmen played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Zoroastrianism as they did for Buddhist, Manichaean, and Christian religions. For example, Zoroastrian symbols found in China on the gravestone of a Sogdian tradesman named Wirkak is an indication of the fact that the Sogdian immigrants following Zoroaster lived in China. Later, Nestorian Christianity is another non-Iranian religion disseminated in China by Iranians. The oldest available document about the Chinese Christians is the writings on a Nestorian inscription belonging to the year 781 AD, containing matters on the 150-year history of Chinese Christianity. Found in Chongren temple in China, the inscription is written in Chinese and Syriac languages and is currently in the Beilin Museum in Xi’an. It tells that a group of Nestorian Christians arrived in Xi’an in 635 AD under the guidance of a Persian monk named Āluóběn. The Manichaean religion was also imported into China by the Iranian elites. According to the Chinese Manichaean tradition, the religion was formed, thereupon, the arrival of a Manichaean Mōzak at the time of Emperor Gaozong who reigned from 649 to 684 AD. From 762 AD, the Manichaean religion set to be the formal religion of the Khanate of Uighur. After the fall of the Great Khanate of Uighur in 840 AD and due to the propagation of the Manichaean religion in China, the Emperor Wu zong of Tang (840-846 AD) issued an order in 844 AD, prohibiting the Manichaean religion along with some other Iranian religions including Zoroastrianism. However, this was not the end of Iranian religions in China and some of these religions persisted in China. For example, the Manichaean followers and priests shuttled between Central Asia and the Chinese Court until the end of the 10th century AD, constantly wearing white garments and hats. By the same token, according to a Chinese reference called Mingshu, a Manichaean priest escaped to a southern area in China called Fu-tang and propagated his religion in Fujian province. The religion endured in southern China from the 10th to the 17th century (1600 CE). All this information mentioned above will be discussed more so that the ways of the introduction of these religions into China and the level of their influence on Chinese culture could be realized.