Zoroastrianism in China

The Chinese referred to Zoroastrianism as the “heaven worshiping religion” pronounced xianjiào in Chinese. The Japanese term kenkyo is an exact translation of the Chinese description of the Zoroastrian religion. The Chinese even invented a new letter xianjiao meaning “heaven worship” to name Zoroastrianism. This invention of a new character for a foreign religion was quite unusual and showed that Mazda Worship or Zoroastrianism made quite an impression on the Chinese People. 

The designation of “heaven worship” most probably goes back to the Sacred Poetry or Songs/Gathas of Zarathustra, Yasna 30.5, second rhymed verse line where the Mindful Supreme God/Lord, Ahûrá Mazdá declares: that luminous heavens and galaxies are his solid bedrock, (See Varšt.mánsar commentary.)

Mazda Worship was viewed by Far Eastern People as Spiritual Alchemy, White Magic, a sort of shamanism with real effective spells, healing practices, and medicinal herbs. 

Zoroastrianism most probably arrived in Northeastern borders of China or modern western edges of Xinjiang, in the early 4th century with the arrival of Sogdian Zoroastrians from Central Asia during the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220–589 CE.) Apparently, the Sogdian Zoroastrians had NO intention to propagate Zoroastrianism in China. There were NO Chinese books on Zoroastrianism, in sharp contrast to Manicheans and Nestorians.

According to “History of the Monastic Community in the Great Song,” a Zoroastrian Magi Priest móg, (mùhù) visited the court of the Tang without bringing any translated books, whereas the Nestorians and Manichaeans did. Also, intermarriages between Zoroastrians and the local Chinese were the exception and most uncommon.

Zoroastrianism was viewed by locals as a fascinating, foreign religion and Zoroastrians were considered as definitely a unique, foreign ethnic group. But despite its foreignness, Chinese showed great interest in Zoroastrianism and introduced many of its external features into their folk beliefs. This was the prelude for the “Sinicized” Zoroastrian Inspired beliefs and rituals of future ages in the Far East. Many Yazatas or god beings of Sogdian variety of Zoroastrianism were assimilated into the pantheon of Chinese folk beliefs and some exotic Sogdian, Zoroastrian customs found their way as literary symbolism in Chinese folk literature later. 

There are only two currently known Zoroastrian Sogdian fragments. Both these fragments are in Sogdian, an Indo-European language and come from Dūnhuáng in Northeastern China. The first Zoroastrian fragment is a Sogdian translation of the famous Ašem Vohü formula (Praise of Excellence, Truth, Goodness) which is now at the British Museum, and the second fragment also in Sogdian, is about Zarathustra’s Questions to Ahura Mazda concerning the posthumous Soul, and if the righteous family/clan members are reunited in the afterlife! This fragment is now at the Kyoto National Museum in Japan.

Dunhuang where these Sogdian fragments were found, commands a strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road and the main road leading from Northern India via Lhasa in Tibet to Mongolia and Southern Siberia. Dunhuang controlled the entrance to Hexi Corridor which leads straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capital of Chang’an, known today as Xi’an. Chang’an was the capital of more than 10 Chinese dynasties in the past.

In addition to the Sogdian Zoroastrians, after the fall of the Sassanid Empire in 651 CE, Iranian Zoroastrians migrated to northern China. The Iranian exiles to China consisted of few Sasanian princes/nobles, many Zoroastrian priests, warriors and even farmers and artisans.

In 7th century, Peroz III, the second son of Yazdgird III (the last Sassanid Emperor who reigned between 632–651 CE) sought refuge in Chang’an, the ancient capital of China to seek military support from the 3rd emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Gao Zong, (649–683 CE.)

Around 678 CE Peroz III and his son Narseh successfully regained many Eastern Provinces of the Sassanid Empire. However, the Chinese were NOT genuinely interested in providing meaningful support to Sassanid Princes. Their real intention was to weaken the Central Asian Kingdoms that were allied with Tibet and Kashgar in Southern Xinjiang.

Peroz III lost many of his earlier conquests as a result and had No choice but to return to the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an where he passed away at 707 CE.

Narseh , his son successfully invaded Tokharistan (ancient Bactria, today’s Balkh in Afghanistan.) Narseh ruled as Monarch there for twenty years until his passing in 727 CE. The last member of the Sassanid royals mentioned in Classical Chinese is a Prince named Khosrow who passed away at Chang’an after 728 CE.

The history of the Sassanid and Sogdian Zoroastrians in China ends with the An Lushan rebellion (756–763 CE.)

An Lushan was a General in Tang Dynasty. Lushan is a Sinicized version of the Persian Roxšan “Luminous.” Lushan apparently had Sogdian Zoroastrian ancestry through his paternal line. In 755, An Lushan following 9 years of preparation, started the rebellion, proclaiming himself the ruler of a new dynasty, the Yan. The rebellion spanned from 16December 755 to 17 February 763 and was one of the deadliest wars in history.

Lushan declared himself to be a warrior of to the “god of the light.” This announcement appealed to the religious sentiments of the Zoroastrians, and the Sogdian forces constituted a significant part of Lushan armies.

The Chinese Tang Dynasty in contrast hired mercenaries from Abassid Caliph among others, to quash the rebellion which was finally suppressed after seven years of most deadly war. However, the damage to Tang dynasty was irreversible. China lost its status as a world empire.  

After the rebellion, the Chinese made sure that all Zoroastrians become Sinicized and lose their ethnic identity through forced intermarriages, (Chen 2001: 195–200.) And so ended the history of Zoroastrianism in China.

In 1980, Gikyō Itō in Japan claimed that some enigmatic words in Old Japanese are of Middle Iranian or Pahlavi origin.  This theory became so popular in Japan that the famous novelist Seicho Matsumoto (1909–1992) adopted it in his historical fiction, and some folk historians still argue that curious remains in ancient Japan must have Zoroastrian roots.


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