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July 17, 2017

Tortoises and Fish–Scales: A Chinese Legend of Rome

A section of the Chien Hanshu by the Chinese historian Ban Gu has provoked much discussion. It describes the defence of the city of Li-jien, before it fell:

… more than a hundred foot-soldiers, lined up on either side of the gate in a formation as close as scales of a fish, were practising military drill (Gu: 259).

When translating this section for The History of the Han, Professor Homer Dubs translated the words yü-lin-jen as “fish-scale formation”. According to Dubs, a yü-lin-jen would be an unfamiliar battle formation to the Chinese, and he claimed it was the Roman formation testudo. He claimed the city defenders learned this as former Roman legionaries, who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Carrhae (Dubs 1957: 140-146). Today, most agree when Visetti calls the theory “a legend” (Visetti 2010). However, it still captures the imagination of people today, leading to a rejection of other theories that these Romans were there for other reasons, such as trade (Spencer 2007). This “legend” is most influential on those who claim their ancestry from these soldiers in the modern village of Zhelaizhai.

Ancestors are important in modern China, because it is believed they directly affect the living. (Wood 2016; Hessler 2006: 85; Hessler 2010). Zhelaizhai villagers intently started to consider their Roman ancestors after China opened to the West (Spencer 2007). A shared ancestry establishes individual and collective identity in Zhelaizhai. By accepting Dubs’ theory, the community romanticised their ancestors as heroes who protected the traditional social organization of Li-jien (Hsu 1971; 19). They did not seek their own fortunes like a merchant would (Min 2014; 94). This positive perception ties the community together. On an individual level those who look the most like the Romans have an easier time finding work in the tourist trade (Yong 2011), demonstrating the belief that worshipping the ancestors brings good fortune.

Their supposed Roman heritage distinguishes the people of Zhelaizhai from the Han majority and other minority groups in modern China by explaining why they look a certain way (Hessler 2006: 34, 208). One tells how possible European ancestry explains his daughter’s patch of blonde 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” (Spencer 2007). Some people adopted a name reflecting their believed Roman heritage; one villager who did this is named Luo Ying, which means “Roman hero” (Yong 2011).

Their possible heritage opens doors for Western contact that many towns in the interior of China do not have. A villager by the name of Cai Junnian who has green eyes and a hooked nose, got fame because of his Eastern and Western looks. He appeared in numerous newspaper articles and documentaries, and visited the Italian consul in Shanghai on invitation (China Daily 2010). The legend fascinates Westerners and caused interest in travel to the village. Locals who look European use their looks to build this interest by dressing as Romans and acting like soldiers near a reconstructed Roman pavilion (Yong 2011; Yuanyuan 2015).

It does not matter if Roman soldiers actually came to China, the possibility is captivating enough to continue interest in Dubs’ theory. In other places in China, they are used as tools for fostering Western ties and advertising products by romanticising the West. In Zhelaizhai the link is more than social status, it composes their identity and influences their lives by providing explanations as to their uniqueness from the general image of the Chinese. Dubs’ theory may be incorrect but it has a major impact on the residents of parts of modern China.


Primary Sources

Gu, Ban Ch’ien Han-shu, trans. J.J.L. Duyvendak (Leiden: Brill: 1939) from ‘An Illustrated Battle-Account in the History of the Former Han Dynasty’ in T’oung Pao 34:249-264.

Secondary Sources

Dubs, H. H. (1957) ‘A Roman City in Ancient China’, Greece & Rome 4:139-148.

Hessler, P. (2006) Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China (New York: Harper Perennial).

Hsu, F.L.K. (1971) Under the Ancestors’ Shadow: Kinship, Personality, and Social Mobility in China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press)

Min, T. (2014) ‘The Chinese origin of Physiocratic economics’, in The History of Ancient Chinese Economic Thought ed C. Lin, T. Peach, and W. Fang (New York: Routledge) 82 -97.

Internet Sources

China Daily, News Article: ‘Hunt for Roman legion reaches China’ -- (20 Nov 2010). Accessed 5th June 2015.

G. Visetti (2010) ‘Quei legionary romani che abitavano in Cina’. Available at: (Accessed: 28 June 2017)

N. Squires (2010) ‘Chinese Villagers’ descended from Roman soldiers’. Available at: (Accessed: 21 May 2017)

P. Hessler, (2010) ‘Restless Spirits’, Available at: (Accessed: 29 June 2017)

R. Spencer (2007) ‘DNA tests for China’s legionary lore’. Available at: (Accessed: 5 June 2015)

W. Yuanyuan (2015) ‘Top 5 Distinctive Ancient Villages in China (II)’, Available at: (Accessed: 26 June 2017)

Y. Yong (2011) ‘Lost Roman Legion in China’, Available at: (Accessed: 21 May 2017)

Media Wood, Michael Wood: The Story of China: Ancestors: Documentary (2016; London: BBC).

Katrina Anderson is a former student who studied for the Master's in Ancient Visual and Material Culture of Ancient Rome at Warwick University. She is now living in China teaching English. Her interests are in Classical Art History and its reception.

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