ARCHAEOLOGICAL & CULTURAL NEWS
- the Iranian Religion of Light
Emerges From the Shadows
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.
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.
|A village shrine
featuring Mani, Buddha of Light.
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
"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
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.
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.
|Professor Sam Lieu
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
"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
"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
"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
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