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Manichaeanism - the Iranian Religion of Light Emerges From the Shadows



 01 September 2005


A team of Australian researchers, led by Macquarie University ancient historian Professor Sam Lieu, is unearthing the last traces of a once thriving Persian religion, known as Manichaeism, the most famous and most severely persecuted heresy in the Christian world.

A village shrine featuring Mani, Buddha of Light.
A village shrine featuring Mani, Buddha of Light.
Perched upon a hill in a remote area of southern China is a temple unlike any other in the world. Within, local villagers worship a 600-year-old statue of Mani, a prophet born in what we now know as Iraq, almost two thousand years ago - though they call him another name. For Mani is the forgotten Persian prophet of a once-great but now forgotten religion, and the temple on Huabiao Hill in the municipality of Jinjiang is the last remaining temple devoted to him.

Only scholars now remember Mani. Professor Sam Lieu of Macquarie's Department of Ancient History has led the world's first major research team to Jianjing and the nearby ancient city of Quanzhou to study the remnants of the Manichaean religion. The team includes Manichaean experts Associate Professor Iain Gardner of the University of Sydney and Professor Majella Franzmann of the University of New England, Macquarie's Dr Lance Eccles and Dr Ken Parry, and experts in Central Asian languages from Cambridge, London, Leuven and Berlin.

To find out why Lieu and his team have been coming here for the past five years, why the Australian Research Council have awarded them two consecutive grants totalling over half a million dollars and why UNESCO declared the temple a World Heritage Site in 1991, we must travel back to 3rd Century former Iranian province of Khvarvaran (nowadays Iraq), where early Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism converged.

"A prophet called Mani, who was a bit of a precursor of Mohammed, decided that he would establish a world religion after the fashion of Baha'i, and so he combined elements of the three religions," says Lieu.

"Mani sent his disciples into the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire and into Central Asia, long before anyone thought of evangelising such large tracts of the world. He was very successful, in fact so successful that the Persian kings had him put in jail, where he later died. However his religion was very well established.

"It was a very distinctive religion because it believed in a powerful conflict between Light and Dark, and it had a very peculiar pantheon of gods with Jesus and a few other Zoroastrian gods thrown in," explains Lieu. "Jesus was considered very important, one of the chief deities just below Mani."

The religion flourished in ancient Persia and spread throughout much of the known world, before eventually dying out in the Roman Empire in the 7th Century, and then disappearing from Central Asia four hundred years later due to the Islamic conquests. Southern China, particularly around the cosmopolitan sea-port of Quanzhou - which was called Zayton by Marco Polo when he visited in 1292 - remained its only stronghold.

But in China too, Manichaeism had its opponents.

"The religion came to China in the 7th Century. It was an allowed heresy, practised amongst foreigners for almost two centuries, especially among the Iranian and Turkic-speaking foreigners in China, but Manichaeism was an extremely evangelical religion, and so as a result it established bases all over China," says Lieu.

"When the religion was persecuted in the 9th Century and the foreign believers all chucked out, it was able to survive in South China. It had become so integrated into the local community that after another major bout of persecution in the 15th Century it basically went underground."

Here the history of Manichaeism seemed to come to a dead end. Lieu says the 15th Century purge was so successful that the distinctive script and artwork of the religion disappeared entirely for 500 years.
Professor Sam Lieu
Professor Sam Lieu
But in the 1920s, Western scholars began hearing reports that a solitary Manichaean temple remained, preserved due to its remoteness. Frustratingly, political events in China - including war with Japan, a civil war and the Cultural Revolution - curtailed any investigation.

However, in 1980, a guide book to the historical remains and scenic sites of Quanzhou was published and thanks to the alertness of one of Lieu's then doctoral supervisors at Oxford, he was able to obtain a copy of this rare publication in a bookshop in London's Chinatown specialising in Chinese language publications.

Within the guidebook was a photo of the temple. Lieu and his colleagues breathed an enormous sigh of relief that this important site had survived the ravages of the previous 60 years. Ten years later Lieu stood before the temple itself.

Since 2000 Lieu's team have travelled to the area many times, but while he is amazed the temple remains standing 500 years after the religion was outlawed, he doubts any of the local inhabitants still practice Manichaeanism.

"A major transformation to the religion took place in that area in the 1920s and '30s which does mess up our evidence considerably," he explains. "A Buddhist monk moved into the area, took over the Manichaean temple, said 'this is a Buddhist temple', looked at the statue of Mani and said 'this is a statue of Buddha' and preached a completely new religion, which was a great success.

"The word 'Mani' and the Chinese word for Buddha - Muni - are written exactly the same in Chinese, so the Buddhist preacher was able to turn his followers to worshipping 'Mani, the Buddha of Light'. He was so successful that he totally Buddhicised the religion."

Lieu's team will now study this peculiar Buddhist cult for any echoes of Manichaeism.

"The date of Buddha's birth, for example, is different in that temple than everywhere else in China, so it may reflect a local memory of Mani's birthdate," says Lieu. "They also occasionally meet to chant, and they use chants that are not entirely Buddhist."

During the team's most recent trip to Jianjing, they met with the director of a local research centre which has been established with funding from UNESCO.

"He pointed out to us that there are various forms of the statue of Mani still kept in the village, and we managed to get the locals to take us to see these modern-day versions," says Lieu. "We saw one very Buddhicised statue of Mani and one very Sinecised version, in the sense that Mani became a kind of Chinese household god, with a red painted face."

But while a few statues remain, Lieu believes the doctrines of the religion of Mani probably died out in the area a century or so ago, though he jokes that a new 'UNESCO cargo cult' may be developing.

"Because so many distinguished scholars have been visiting the site, a lot of the local people began to think 'Mani, the Buddha of Light, is a very powerful god, otherwise why are so many foreigners heading this way?'"