Descendents of 'Lost Roman legion' boost tourism in remote village in NE China

Source:Xinhua Published: 2011-10-3 8:19:34

It is hard to believe that in a remote village in northwest China Western-looking Chinese people stage ancient Roman dances and military parades that they've inherited from their ancestors.

But in the square of Liqian Village of Yongchang County of Gansu Province, a dozen Western-looking villagers -- suited in armor and carrying shields -- demonstrated a rare fish scale-shaped formation.

The formation, local villagers said, has evolved from the military alignments of an ancient Roman army and is flexible enough to both attack and defend.

"It is amazing to see the merging of two great ancient cultures in this remote village," said Pamela Mccourt Francescone, a visitor from Italy.

With deep-set green eyes and a long, hooked nose, Luo Ying, the 35-year-old lead performer, has a European look. His fellow villagers nicknamed him "Roman Prince."

"I believe that I am somewhat related to the ancient Romans," said Luo.

Situated along the Silk Road, a 7,000-km-long trade route that linked Asia and Europe more than 2,000 years ago, the village stepped into the spotlight in the 1990s when archeologists found the remains of an ancient fort and a crowd of Western-looking people there.

DNA tests in 2005 confirmed that some of the villagers are indeed of foreign origin, leading many experts to conclude they are the descendants of the ancient Roman army headed by general Marcus Crassus.

In 53 B.C., Crassus was defeated and beheaded by the Parthians, a tribe that occupied what is now Iran, putting an end to Rome's eastward expansion.

But a 6,000-strong army led by Crassus's eldest son apparently escaped and were never found again.

Though some anthropologists are convinced the foreign-looking villagers in Yongchang County are the descendants of the ancient army, others are not so certain.

In November 2010, the Italian Studies Center was jointly established by China and Italy at Lanzhou University in Gansu. One of its research programs focuses on the early descendants of the ancient Roman army in China.

Professor Yuan Honggeng, head of the center, said they hope to prove the theory by digging to uncover more evidence of China's early contact with the Roman Empire along the Silk Road.

"We hope to unravel the mystery of the lost Roman legions," said Yuan.

Various research projects are being conducted, and local residents are not hesitant to show pride in their unusual bloodline, especially as they have tried for decades to shake off poverty caused by long-lingering drought and the village's remote geographical position.

In 1999, the village, previously named Zhelaizhai, renamed itself Liqian. According to China's historical records, Liqian was how the ancient Chinese addressed the Roman Empire.

The remains of the fort are currently surrounded by iron chains. A monument has been erected beside the remains to tell its history, and a recently constructed Roman-style pavilion stands near the monument.

In August 2010, a new complex built in the style of Roman architecture was established to cater to visitors.

A Beijing-based film producer has plans to spend millions turning the villagers' story into a film.

Meanwhile, villager Zhao Shouming is pleased to see tourists coming in almost every day.

"We are very happy that the village has now become vibrant," said Zhao, who earned 2,000 yuan (about 313 U.S. dollars) last year thanks to the boom in tourism.

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