Manichaeism: Manichaeism in Central Asia and China

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The diffusion of Manichaeism in Central Asia is documented only in Manichaean historical sources found in Chotcho near Turfan by German explorers at the beginning of the twentieth century. These were recovered in fragmentary condition, but they clearly once belonged to handsome codices produced in the Uighur kingdom in the tenth and eleventh centuries ce, when Manichaeism was the dominant state religion. From these historical texts we learn that the religion was under the leadership of Mar Ammo, one of the best known of Mani's disciples, who was chosen for the evangelization of Eastern Iran because of his knowledge of the Parthian language. He was accompanied by translators, which explains why Manichaean texts in Parthian often show traces of direct translation from Mani's original Syriac. Mar Ammo was also honored in later Manichaean tradition as the first missionary to cross the River Oxus into Khorasan.

Once established in the territories of the former Kushan Empire, Manichaeism came into competition and synthesis with Buddhism, and Manichaean texts in Parthian in particular acquired a large number of Buddhist terms and concepts, such as vairocana, parinirvāa and sasāra. In addition, Mani came to be worshiped as the Buddha of Light, but the Feast of the Bema, which commemorates Mani's death, remained a unique and important ceremony for the sect. At some point, Middle Persian-speaking Manichaeans also migrated into Central Asia, and the city of Merv probably became a merging point for both the Parthian-speaking and Middle Persian-speaking branches of the sect. As Manichaean missionaries moved eastward along the Silk Road, many of their converts would have been Sogdians or Sogdian-speakers, and their religious texts were translated into Sogdian, and also into Bactrian and Tocharian. Along the Silk Road, Manichaean missionaries probably performed a variety of roles, including those of musicians, scribes, and information gatherers (especially on prices of goods and exchange rates). Manichaeism was unique among religions in Central Asia in that it maintained three principal languages (Middle Persian, Parthian, and Sogdian) for its scripture. There are some examples of texts (such as Mani's Evangelium, of which only a few leaves have survived) that are diglottal (Middle Persian and Sogdian).

At the end of the seventh century ce, an important schism broke out between the followers of Mihr (the Mihrijja) and those of Miqlas (the Miqlasijja) in Mesopotamia over how strictly certain rules governing daily living should be followed. This dispute was continued by Manichaean communities in Central Asia, which generally followed the stricter Miqlasijja branch. The Sogdian Manichaeans also paid considerable attention to the hierarchical distinction between the elect who were committed to a life of ascetical living and the hearers who were members of the second rank and who were more involved with commercial activities along the Silk Road. The elect members who were mainly priests had to rely on the hearers for their sustenance and in return they absolved the hearers from their sins. The religion became synonymous with the dynd'r or dyn'br (Sogdian for "elect"), and when the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang traversed Bactria and Tocharistan circa 630 ce, he noted that the religion of the Tinaba was a heresy among the Persians. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest that Manichaeism was already established in the Turfan area prior to the conversion of the Uighur Khaghan in 762 ce.

The Early History of Manichaeism in China

Little was known of the precise history of Manichaeism in China until the discovery of genuine Manichaean texts in Chinese from the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang in the first decade of the twentieth century. These came as a surprise to Sinologists who believed that traditional China was highly impervious to foreign religious influences other than those of Buddhism and Islam. No account of the gradual diffusion of the religion from Eastern Iran to China via the Silk Road had come down to us from a Manichaean source. Chinese sources mention the sending of Mozak (a Manichaean priest of a high grade) by Tes, the King of Cazanistan and Tocharistan, to the Tang court in 719 ce. Mozak was reportedly well-received by the court because of his skills in astrology. Moreover, the Manichaeans in China preserved the tradition that the spread of the religion in the Middle Kingdom was brought about by the earlier arrival of Mozak during the reign of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang dynasty. Mozak's pupil, Mihr-Ōhrmazd (Mi-we-mo-ssu), who held the rank of aftadan (fu-to-tan, or episcopus ), later also came to China and presented himself to the royal court, where he was granted an audience by the Empress Wu. According to later Buddhist sources in Chinese, Mihr-Ōhrmazd presented to the court a Manichaean work entitled the Sūtra of the Two principles, which was to become the most popular Manichaean scripture in China.

The religion was clearly popular among the Sogdian (i.e., East Iranian) merchants and there were attempts to win Chinese converts. In 731 ce a Manichaean priest was asked to provide a summary of the main tenets of the religion. It is interesting to note that the version of the summary (the Compendium of the Teachings of Mani the Buddha of Light ) that was found among the Dunhuang documents already shows clear attempts to depict Manichaeism as a form of Buddhism; Mani was seen as an avatar (reincarnation or remanifestation) of Laozi, the traditional founder of Daoism in China. Many Chinese believed that Laozi had not died but had gone to the west, where he reappeared as the Buddha. This legend was used by the Manichaeans as a passport to the multireligious scene of Tang China. The legend was also welcomed by syncretistic Daoists who were keen to absorb the new religion into the mainstream of Chinese religions through this putative connection with the founder of Daoism. The response of the Tang government to the Compendium, however, was the prompt passage of a law in 731 that restricted the dissemination of the religion among foreigners in China and banned its spread among the indigenous Chinese. By then a substantial number of Manichaean texts had already been translated into Chinese from Parthian and Sogdian; one of the longest Manichaean texts in Chinese, a version of the Sermon of the Light-Nous (a popular Manichaean text in Central Asia) contains a character that was forbidden after the reign of Empress Wu.

In addition, the third of the three Chinese texts from Dunhuang, the Hymnscroll, contains hymns that are both transliterated and translated from Parthian, indicating an early period of contact with Manichaean communities in Central Asia. Some canonical Manichaean texts (non-extant) were listed among the Nestorian Christian texts translated by the famous Nestorian missionary Jing-jing, which may explain why the sacred writings of the Nestorians and Manichaeans in Chinese shared some common theological vocabulary. Beyond that, there was very little in common between the two sects, except that the Chinese authorities considered both to be of Persian origin until the Nestorians petitioned successfully in 745 to have the epithet "Persian" replaced by "Roman" in the title of their religion.

Manichaeism as the Official Religion of the Uighur Kingdom

A major landmark in the history of Manichaeism in China was the conversion of Moyu (Bogu) Khan of the Uighur Turks to the religion in 762. Since 755, Tang China had been fatally weakened by the so-called An Lushan rebellion; the Uighurs became the only effective fighting force in the service of the Tang government, and their troops garrisoned the sensitive frontier between China and Tibet. The conversion that was proclaimed on a trilingual (Old Turkish in runic script, Sogdian, and Chinese) inscription found at Karabalghasun at the end of the nineteenth century proudly announces the adoption of strict prohibitions, such as vegetarianism and the abstention from alcohol. Under the patronage of the Uighurs, Manichaean temples were permitted to be established in both the capitals of China (Chang'an and Luoyang), as well as four other major cities in North and Central China. The sudden collapse of the Uighur Empire in 840 led to the closure of most of the temples, and after the proscription against Buddhism and other foreign religions in 843, Manichaean priests were publicly humiliated and executed. The remnants of the Uighur Turks were resettled in the region round Chotcho.

Manichaeism continued to flourish and followers were rewarded with productive agricultural lands, which, despite the religion's rules against intoxication, were used for the cultivation of wine grapes. The brief period of foreign patronage probably only lasted a century, but it was the period in which most of the Manichaean texts that were recovered by the German Turfan expeditions were produced by highly professional scribes and artists.

Manichaeism as a Secret Religion in China

The religion reemerged during the Five Dynasties period (907960) as a popular secret religion in Central and, in particular, South China. The earlier use of the myth of the Buddha Mani as an avatar of Laozi enabled the Manichaeans to pass themselves off as Buddhists or as Daoists. The religion was particularly popular south of the Yangtze, especially in and around the cosmopolitan port city of Quanzhou (Zaitun in Western medieval sources). The followers of the religion were sufficiently well connected for some of their scriptures to be accepted into the Daoist canon in 1019 (since then removed).

In 1120 a major rebellion took place under the leadership of Fang La, the owner of a lacquer grove, in protest against a special impost on luxury goods. It was widely believed by the authorities that many of the rebels were members of secret religious sects (castigated by authorities as "vegetarian demon worshipers") and that their meeting places were loci of political protest. This led to widespread crackdowns on unauthorized religious assemblies and the confiscation of noncanonical scriptures. A list of the latter was given in a memorial of 1120, which shows that much of the typical Manichaean terminology found in texts translated from Central Asian languages during the Tang period was still in use by members of the sect in South China. An exchange of letters between a Daoist abbot of a former Manichaean temple and a Confucian scholar, composed in 1204, shows that the strict commandments of the sect (on vegetarianism and sexual abstinence, as well as a requirement to pray seven times a day) still had admirers in Central China, though there were few devotees.

Manichaeism in South China under the Mongols

The Mongol conquest of South China in 1280 brought a century of freedom of persecution for the Manichaeans in that region. It is highly probable that the secretive "Christians" whom Marco Polo and his uncle Maffeo encountered in Fuzhou were in fact Manichaeans. Nestorianism also returned to China; many of the Mongol administrators and military commanders were Turkic-speaking Nestorians. Bishop Mar Solomon (d. 1313) is given the title "Bishop of the Manichaeans and Nestorians of the various circuits of Jiangnan" on a bilingual Turko-Syriac (i.e., Turkish written in Nestorian Syriac script with Syriac loanwords) and Chinese inscription discovered during the Sino-Japanese War (19371945) at Quanzhou. It was under the Mongols that the Manichaeans took over a Buddhist temple on Huabiao Hill in Jinjiang near Quanzhou and refurbished it as a Manichaean temple with a statue of Mani as the Buddha of Light. This statue, which was recovered from a former Manichaean temple in North China, shows many similar features, especially in the design of its garments, with the famous portrait of a Manichaean leader as depicted on a wall painting from Chotcho that was destroyed in World War II.

The Nestorian community in South China, judging from the abundant remains of their funerary monuments in syncretistic Buddhist and Christian art forms and inscriptions in half a dozen languages (including Chinese and Turko-Syriac), was clearly reintroduced from Central Asia by Mongols to serve as administrators. Their presence in Quanzhou and their high social status probably enabled the Manichaeans to claim protection as a privileged foreign religion. However, as soon as the Mongols were expelled in 1368, Manichaeism found itself once more under persecution with the accession of a more inward-looking Ming dynasty. Nevertheless, as late as the fifteenth century, the followers of the sect would still count Jesus and the "primal man" among the religion's chief deities. The religion probably finally died out in the first decades of the twentieth century in South China. The temple on Huabiao Hill, which local worshipers call a cao'an (thatched nunnery), is still used daily as a Buddhist temple in which Mani is worshiped as a local Buddhist deity with special powers.

See Also

Chinese Religion, overview article; Mani.


Primary Sources

Of the three genuine Chinese Manichaean texts recovered in Dunhuang, the longest is a version of the Sermon of the Light-Nous, which is well represented in Parthian, Sogdian, and Old Turkish. The best edition, translation, and study remains Edouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot, Un traité manichéen retrouvé en Chine I (Paris, 1912; reprinted from Journal Asiatique [1911]: 499617). The second longest, the Hymnscroll, was translated by Tsui Chi as "Mo-ni chiao hsia-pu tsan, the Lower (Second?) Section of the Manichaean Hymns," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 11 (1943): 174219. The third, known commonly as the Compendium, was partially translated by Gustav Haloun and W. B. Henning as "The Compendium of the Doctrines and Styles of the Teaching of Mani, the Buddha of Light," Asia Major n.s. 3 (1952): 184212. This text was more completely translated by Nahal Tajadod, Mani, le Bouddha de Lumière: Catéchisme manichéen chinois (Paris, 1990). All three texts were translated into German by Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, Chinesische Manichaica: Mit textkritischen Anmerkungen und einem Glossar (Wiesbaden, 1987).

A small number of Manichaean fragments in Chinese were also found in Turfan. On these see Th. Thilo, "Einige Bemerkungen zu zwei chinesisch-manichäischen Textfragmenten der Berliner Turfan-Sammlung," in Horst Klengel and Werner Sundermann, eds., Ägypten, Vorderasien, Turfan: Probleme der Edition und Bearbeitung altorientalischer Handschriften (Berlin, 1991), pp. 161170.

Secondary Sources

The second and third parts of the monograph by Edouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot, Un traité manichéen retrouvé en Chine II (Paris, 1913; reprinted from Journal Asiatique [1913]: 99199 and 261394), remain a mine of high quality information. Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (Tübingen, Germany, 1992), pp. 219304, gives a general study. A useful study on Manichaeism among Sogdian merchants is Étienne de la Vaissière, Histoire des marchands sogdiens (Paris, 2002). Peter Bryder, The Chinese Transformation of Manichaeism: A Study of Chinese Manichaean Terminology (Löberöd, Sweden, 1985), is a seminal work, and the same author's "Where the Faint Traces of Manichaeism Disappear," Altorientalische Forschungen 15, no. 1 (1988): 201208, traces the history of the sect in South China. More specialized aspects of the history of the sect in China are dealt with by Samuel N. C. Lieu in Manichaeism in Central Asia and China (Leiden, Netherlands, 1998). For bibliographic information, see Gunner B. Mikkelsen, Bibliographica Manichaica: A Comprehensive Bibliography of Manichaeism through 1996 (Turnhout, 1997), especially pp. 281301.

Samuel N. C. Lieu (2005)