Jan 4, 2007
Residents of a remote Chinese village are hoping that DNA tests will prove one of history's most unlikely legends — that they are descended from Roman legionaries lost in antiquity.
Scientists have taken blood samples from 93 people living in and around Liqian, a settlement in north-western China on the fringes of the Gobi desert, more than 200 miles from the nearest city.
They are seeking an explanation for the unusual number of local people with western characteristics — green eyes, big noses, and even blonde hair — mixed with traditional Chinese features.
"I really think we are descended from the Romans," said Song Guorong, 48, who with his wavy hair, six-foot frame and strikingly long, hooked nose stands out from his short, round-faced office colleagues.
"There are the residents with these special features, and then there are also historical records about the existence of these people long ago," he said.
Studies claiming that Liqian has Roman ancestry have greatly excited the impoverished county in which it is situated. The village is now overlooked by a pillared portico, in the hope of attracting tourists. A statue at the entrance of the nearby county town, Yongchang, shows a Roman legionary standing next to a Confucian scholar and a Muslim woman, as a symbol of racial harmony.
Even entrepreneurs have caught on: in "Imperial City Entertainment Street" there is a Caesar Karaoke bar.
The town's link with Rome was first suggested by a professor of Chinese history at Oxford in the 1950s. Homer Dubs pulled together stories from the official histories, which said that Liqian was founded by soldiers captured in a war between the Chinese and the Huns in 36BC, and the legend of the missing army of Marcus Crassus, a Roman general.
In 53BC Crassus was defeated disastrously and beheaded by the Parthians, a tribe occupying what is now Iran, putting an end to Rome's eastward expansion.
But stories persisted that 145 Romans were taken captive and wandered the region for years. Prof Dubs theorised that they made their way as a mercenary troop eastwards, which was how a troop "with a fish-scale formation" came to be captured by the Chinese 17 years later.
He said the "fish-scale formation" was a reference to the Roman "tortoise", a phalanx protected by shields on all sides and from above. Gu Jianming, who lives near Liqian, said it had come as a surprise to be told he might be descended from a European imperial army. But then the birth of his daughter was also a surprise. Gu Meina, now six, was born with a shock of blonde hair. "We shaved it off a month after she was born but it just grew back the same colour," he said. "At school they call her 'yellow hair'. Before we were told about the Romans, we had no idea about this. We are poor and have no family temple, so we don't know about our ancestors."
Another resident, Cai Junnian, 38, said his ruddy skin and green eyes meant he was now nicknamed Cai Luoma, or Cai the Roman, by friends. He has become a local celebrity, and was recently flown to the Italian consulate in Shanghai to meet his supposed relatives. The professor's hypothesis took almost 40 years to reach China. During Chairman Mao's rule, ideas of foreign ancestry were not ideologically welcome and the story was suppressed.
Mr Cai said his great-grandfather told him that there were Roman tombs in the Qilian mountains a day and a half's walk away, but he had never connected them to the unusual appearance he inherited from his father. "People thought I had a skin problem," he said.
The blood tests are part of a project undertaken by scientists and historians after local authorities loosened control over genetic research. The results will be published in a scientific journal. But Prof Xie Xiaodong, a geneticist from Lanzhou University, cautioned against over enthusiasm.
"Even if they are descendants of the Roman empire, it doesn't mean they are necessarily from the Roman army," he said. "The empire covered a large area. Many soldiers were recruited locally, so anything is possible."
The issue has split the university's history department, with some scholars supporting the claim, some rejecting it. Prof Wang Shaokuan poured scorn on Prof Dubs's thesis, saying the Huns themselves included Caucasians, Asians and Mongols.