Recently, with China’s new ambitions to reinvigorate the remnants of the ancient Silk Road, there has been a renewed interest in the early trade route and the legends involved therein. Although officially known as the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, Chinese president Xi Jinping has called it ‘the project of the century’ and it involves a multi-decade investment into trading infrastructure alongside the old trade route to connect the corresponding countries and yield a mutual benefit. The trade route is planned to be quite expansive, encompassing at least 76 countries.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest remaining religions that is still active today. They are of monotheistic belief, with a typical dualistic cosmology, and centering around teachings of their prophet, an Iranian known as Zoroaster or Zarathustra. (Avestan: Zaraϑuštra) Their supreme deity is known as Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism has several similarities with many current mainstream religions such as Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam.
Notably, their prophet Zoroaster inspired a popular 19th century philosophy book written by Friedrich Nietzsche and entitled ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’.
The Chinese referred to the Zoroastrian religion as ‘Ao Jiao’.
How the Zoroastrians Helped Create the Silk Road
Many people aren’t aware how Zoroastrian merchants, who carried goods from China to far away lands, including Central Asia and even Europe helped shape the Silk Road.
Last year, a Hong Kong newspaper known as the South China Morning Post, discussed how Zoroastrians were trading with China back in the 12th century, or perhaps even at an earlier point. They noted that records involving the existence of fire temples in Chinese cities alongside the Silk Road have been found in official records dating back to before the 12th century.
From these records, historians have been able to piece together that many of the early emperors of China had actually encouraged these groups to come and trade along their routes and even build fire temples to help attract them. It is believed that this is around the time the Chinese began referring to the Zoroastrian religion as ‘Ao Jiao’.
The importance of the Zoroastrian-Chinese relationship is not well known within most individual’s realms of history and the fact that they are being more recognized is surprising. However, the South China Morning Post doesn’t provide any additional information about the records of history involved therein.
Fortunately there are historical texts available which tell us that the first contact between China and Po-ssu (Persia) went back to 2nd century BCE when a Qin ruler sought contact with them to forge an alliance. Despite that being the case, diplomatic ties weren’t formed until the Six Dynasties period of China, and when this happened, trade began to flourish through the Silk Road.
Of course, the most sought after Chinese commodity was Silk, and the Zoroastrians comprised a large percentage of the travelers who transported China’s merchandise, including silk, paper, perfumes, wine, and even drugs back to Persia and surrounding countries. In return, they sent food, music, pearls, carpet, and other textiles.
The mutual relationship ultimately led to an exchange of culture and ideas, and helped form the world which we know today.
The Sassanid Empire
Around the time of the Sassanid Empire, the relationship between the Persians and China began to blossom further and they soon realized that it would be beneficial for both sides to have a cooperation during trade routes to protect their traveling caravans against thieves and bandits. This led Sassanid merchants to begin branding or stamping their products to indicate their superior quality.
Further proof of this account involves rather large quantities of Sassanid coins being discovered in China. These coins were found not just along the Silk Road, but also within central Chinese cities, indicating the extent of Zoroastrian influence among early Chinese societies. Many of these coins dated back between Shapur II’s rule in the 4th century and the rule of Yazdegerd III in the 7th century. Inevitably, the silk road soon after included sea routes from Ceylon, and Persian ships began to middleman cargo between China, Persia, and Ceylon. (now known as Sri Lanka)
During this time, it was reported that Persians began to settle alongside these trade routes as well.
However, in 651 BCE, Yazdegerd III was ultimately defeated by Arabians and his family went to China to seek refuge with Chinese leadership. Although Zoroastrians were allowed to live in peace there for about a hundred years, in the 9th century CE, the Chinese emperor began a damnation of Buddhism and other religions such as Zoroastrianism were affected by the relating bigotry and it’s influence began to decline, although Chinese records dictate that the Zoroastrians still traded with China until at least the 12th century.
By the 1750s, many Zoroastrians had settled in India. When trading between India and Britain began to flourish, the Zoroastrians, with their extensive trade history, played a key role in brokering trades between the British and Indian people. Soon After, India became the central trade hub between China and Britain, and the Parsis (Zoroastrians) began trading popular products, such as tea and opium, between the two countries.
In 1842, when the treaty of Nanking was signed and Hong Kong was relieved to the British, the agreement was signed upon a ship known as the Carnwallis. It’s of historical importance that this ship was actually built by Parsi shipbuilders in Bombay. At this time, some Parsi traveled to Hong Kong and began to show influence over there as well. For example, Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, a prominent Parsi businessman, helped setup the Hong Kong stock exchange and even the Hong Kong University. Another notable mention is Dorabjee Mithaiwala who began the famous ‘Star Ferry Company’ to connect Hong Kong and Kowloon. Many other Parsis extended a hand in shaping other aspects of Hong Kong as well.
A wonderful book written by Amitav Ghosh, in his Ibis Trilogy, tells the tale of a Parsi merchant and his widow, Bahram Modi, and Shireen respectively, and how they and a community of Parsi traders setup and traded between ports such as Canton, Singapore, Batavia, Amoy, and Macao in the 19th century.
Within modern Hong Kong, you can still see today a significant Parsi remembrance in monuments such as the Mody Road, the Parekh House, and the Ruttonjee Hospital.