How a Forgotten Religion Shaped China
This article is the second in a series on the culture and history of Quanzhou.
On July 25, UNESCO officially added 22 historic sites in the southeastern port city of Quanzhou to its World Heritage List, including factories, tombs, temples, statues, bridges, and docks dating to the Middle Ages.
Quanzhou rose to fame as a trading port, but it is the city’s unique and curious legacy as a religious melting pot that has caught modern observers’ attention. At its peak from the 10th through the 14th centuries, Quanzhou drew a diverse array of merchants from across Eurasia, including Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Nestorian Christians. After settling in the city, they dedicated altars to their faiths, built temples, and erected statues — many of which still stand today.
Among the most noteworthy of these sites is the Cao’an Temple and its Radiant Buddha Mani wall carving. Its name is somewhat misleading: The carving does not depict a Buddhist deity, but the third century Persian prophet Mani, the founder of the Manichaean faith. The story of how his likeness wound up on a temple wall half a world away from where he was born is one of persecution, resilience, and the vast networks of exchange that make Quanzhou worth remembering now.
Mani was born in Babylon in A.D. 216 and grew up in the city of Ctesiphon, near modern-day Baghdad. After working as a painter and healer, he began preaching the tenets of a new religion that divided the world into light and dark. The Sassanids’ Zoroastrian ruler Bahram I did not welcome this new faith, and Mani was hanged from a tree outside the capital in 274. Under mounting pressure, large numbers of Manicheans fled east to Central Asia, where they settled in important cities like Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan and Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan.
At the time, Central Asia was under the control of the nine city-states of Sogdiana — politically independent entities that shared the profits of the Silk Road trade that crossed their borders. Markets prospered and different faiths were generally tolerated, allowing Manicheanism to flourish.
This would last until the eighth century, when Arab armies reached Central Asia. Their invasion of Sogdiana created the conditions for Manicheanism’s next — and final — great migration. Followers of the faith split in two. One branch moved south, following the Amu Darya river to India before setting sail along maritime trade routes and eventually arriving in Quanzhou.
The other branch fled east along the Silk Road, over the snowy Pamir Mountains. They traversed the Taklamakan Desert before ultimately arriving in Turpan, in what is now Northwest China.
In Turpan, the Manichean elders successfully persuaded Bögü, the third Khagan of the Uyghur kingdom of Qoch, to promote their faith. In this, they benefitted from an unusual skill: Manichean prayers unearthed at the nearby Silk Road entrepot of Dunhuang and written in the Sogdian script indicate that Manichean sages were known for their ability to conjure rain, a powerful tool in the arid regions around the Gobi Desert.
The Turpan outpost of Manicheanism largely adhered to the faith’s Persian roots. In documents and silk paintings unearthed in Turpan by the archaeologist Albert von Le Coq in 1900, the prophet Mani is depicted as quintessentially Persian in both appearance and dress. In one, he is shown as a tall and slender man dressed in a white robe with red trim, surrounded by white-clothed disciples eating melons. In another, he wears a tall white hat with a black rim and is flanked by two angels in red robes.
The beliefs of the Turpan community of Manicheans gradually spread east into China’s Central Plains, where they were Sinicized and adapted to local conditions. Even today, residents of cities and towns like Jiexiu in the northern Shanxi province and Kaifeng in the central Henan province continue to perform temple rituals that can be linked to Manicheism. Carrying statues of city deities similar in appearance to Mani, they beat drums, light joss sticks, and pray for rain using essentially the same prayers found in Manichean texts in Dunhuang.
Mani has a decidedly more Buddhist appearance in Quanzhou. The images of the prophet still visible at the Cao’an Temple today depict him with a halo or with the sun behind him. Although he still wears the white robes characteristic of the faith, his features resemble those of a Han prince, with an oval face, thin eyebrows, and a serene smile. To the locals, he is the Radiant Buddha Mani, whose blessings bring warmth, happiness, and prosperity.
The Cao’an wall carving hints at how Manicheanism fused with Buddhism and Chinese folk tradition over the years. This process was not always peaceful. Manicheanism’s exotic roots and highly visible signifiers of belief, including white robes and vegetarian diets, made it well suited to the needs of various underground secret societies and rebellious elements. Rightly or wrongly, Manicheanism became associated with rebellion in China’s popular imagination, most famously in the classic 14th century novel “Water Margin,” but also in Jin Yong’s famous 20th century martial arts stories.
In opera, the term mo — one of the five primary character archetypes of traditional Chinese opera — may also have Manichean roots. Rather than “last,” as the ideogram would suggest, the term could be an abbreviation of the Chinese transliteration of Murmani, the name of a Manichean elder. Although today it simply describes the opera character who leads the choir, its roots reflect the way followers of Manichaeism helped propagate their religion through popular art forms such as operas and musical storytelling in the late Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties.
Most of Manicheanism’s legacy is similarly obscure today, but that shouldn’t blind us to its lasting significance. The Radiant Buddha Mani wall carving and the temple that houses it are the only clear, direct representations of Manichaeism still standing anywhere in the world — not in some abandoned ruin, but in a living temple that remains in use today.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: An exterior view of Cao’an Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province, 2018. Liu Jie/People Visual)