Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, and Islam

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Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, and Islam


Persian Faith. Zoroastrianism, a Persian monotheistic religion whose adherents believed in the dualism of good and evil and who practiced their faith in a ceremony that included fire as a major element, began to appear in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), mostly to meet the needs of Persian refugees who fled to the east after the downfall of the Sassanian empire and the conquest of Persia by Muslims between 637 and 642. The last Sassanian ruler, Yesdegerd (Yazdegerd III), asked the Chinese for help against the Arabs, but the Tang court refused to send military forces to assist him. Later, Firuz, the son of Yesdegerd, together with other refugees, fled to Chang’an where he was appointed a general of the imperial guard. After Firuz’s death the Tang government allowed Persian refugees to construct temples in order to practice their faith, but Zoroastrians were not aggressive in trying to convert the Chinese. During the great persecution of all foreign religions between 842 and 845, Zoroastrianism vanished from China.

Manichaeanism. The influence of Manichaeanism, another Persian religion that accepted a dualistic view of the world (good versus evil) and said that the spirit was released from its material form at death, was far more extensive than Zoroastrianism. Manichaeanism, which emerged in the third century, appeared as early as 694 in China, but it was not until the early eighth century that Uighurs were converted to the faith, from whom the Chinese later learned of it. Since Uighurs gave useful military assistance to the Tang emperor during the rebellion of An Lushan (755), after the revolt was suppressed, the Tang court allowed the Uighurs to settle within China and tolerated the spread of Manichaeanism and the construction of their temples. From 766 to 779 Manichaean shrines were built at Jingzhou in Hebei, Yangzhou, Nanking and even as far south as Shaoxing in Zhejiang, where many Chinese were converted to Manichaeanism.

Port Cities. Trade relations by sea with the Persian Gulf in the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) periods resulted in the construction of temples to serve the needs of different foreign communities located in big commercial ports. Manichaeanism was one of the allowed religions. The picture of Mani, placed in the central hall of the temple, was totally different in style from any Buddhist image. A great halo of light surrounded his

head and two long plaits of hair trailed down past his shoulders.

Decline. After the Khirgiz defeated the Uighurs in 840, Manichaeans in the Tang empire could no longer depend on Uighur protection. Thus, in 843 the Tang emperor confiscated their properties, burned Manichaean manuscripts, and destroyed their temples and images. More than seventy Manichaean nuns were killed in Chang’an, and everywhere in China Manichaean monks were forced to throw out their characteristic clothes and accept lay status. Manichaeanism in China never restored the influence it enjoyed before the persecution, although its teachings wielded extensive influence down to the Song and Yuan dynasties. The believers of Manichaeanism were slowly absorbed into Buddhist or Daoist sects in the later Ming period.

First Contact. Arabic kingdoms became more powerful in the seventh century, and by 713 they posed a threat to both India and Tibet, whose governments asked the Tang court for military aid. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Tang leaders dispatched an army to Tibet, but it was defeated by the Arab army. The Mohammedan general then sent to China a group of ambassadors, whose approach was so arrogant and aggressive that the emperor met them with every token of favor and sent them back with letters of companionship. This policy, together with internal rebellions within the Muslim empire, saved the Tang empire from attacks by the Arabs.

Muslims in Tang. Led by a Tartar chief named An Lushan, an awful rebellion against the Tang dynasty started in 755 in northwestern China. An Lushan, who had been the general in charge of the northwestern frontier, declared his independence and attacked the capital. The emperor called for help from Arab and Uighur armies stationed on the borders of Turkestan. An army of several thousand soldiers came to help the Tang government, defeated the rebellion, and restored the dynasty. Thereafter, many of these soldiers settled near Chang’an and married Chinese women, which resulted in the expansion of the Muslim population. The first mosque was constructed as early as 742, and more were built in the following years. Toward the end of the eighth century, Arab troops again fought alongside Tang armies against Tibet in the southwest; as a result of this activity, many Muslims settled in Yunnan after the campaign.

Arab Technology. When Mongol troops invaded coun-tries occupied by Muslims in Central Asia and eastern Europe, many Muslims were slaughtered, but Genghis Khan saved the intellectuals and craftsmen, sending them back to China. Thereafter, many distinguished Muslims served in the Yuan government and its armies. With them they brought Arabic sciences, technology, and other technical skills. Muslims presented Kublai Khan with seven astronomical instruments, and they also impressed him with the skill of manufacturing catapults for military use in siege warfare. In Ming times the first Chinese emperor to retake the throne even ordered Arabic books on science for the Imperial Library and hired scholars to translate them into Chinese. Introduced into China from outside, Islam, though influential in the West, was not an important part of Chinese religious life, affecting only a small fraction of the population.


E. R. Hughes and K. Hughes, Religion in China (London 6c New York: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1950).

Jonathan N. Lipman, Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in North-west China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).

D. Howard Smith, Chinese Religions (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968).