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The Kahana In China Part 2

Updated on April 30, 2011

In Part 1 I introduced you to the stories that have been circulating behind the legend of the Great Genghis Khan for centuries.  From Mesopotamia we have the story of the love of Mar Zutra’s life, the Princess Ti-Ping, and from Mongolia we similarly have the love of the tribal queen Alan-Ko’s life, the glittering man.  And together we looked at the common denominator between these two stories, the young prince named Mar Yanqa.  A child that spanned two worlds but accepted by neither.  When the Emperor of Northern Wei had sent his daughter west in pursuit of a husband it was actually an alliance that he sought with a western king that could provide men to aid in his battle against the other two Chinese kingdoms with whom he was constantly at war. When the Emperor found that his oldest son, Crown Prince Yuan Xun was leading a revolt assisted by some of his most trusted advisors, his retaliation was severe and he forced his beloved son to commit suicide in 497.  But Mar Zutra was involved in his own war of liberation and any troops that the Chinese Emperor may have expected were minimal at best.  The only time any significant number of troops may have travelled eastward was when they escorted the princess and her son back to her homeland.  But once again, trying to find any written reference to the historical alliance would be like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.  The Xianbei rulers of Northern Wei were already considered a foreign occupation of the Emperor’s throne in China.  To further exacerbate that foreignness by introducing western influences into the line of succession would add even more insult to the Han people that they ruled over.  So it is not surprising that we can’t find confirmatory documents but what we do have is a linguistic record that definitely supports the legends.

A Princess Heads West

A tale told in Khotan in the sixth century to the Chinese Buddhist traveller Hsuan-tsang recounts how a Chinese princess, who had married a prince of Khotan, had smuggled silk worms, eggs and mulberry seeds out past the barriers to her new home.  A wall painting from Dan-Dan-Uiliq portrays a scene which may be from this story.  The princess is never named in the story but we do know that not only Khotan refers to the farthest most empire in the west of China, it was also a term used to refer to the White West, what we know as the Persian Empire.  The implication of the tale is that the Princess had travelled to a new home far beyond the reaches of the Chinese Emperor and obviously predated the travels of the Buddhist monk but not so long before that it wouldn’t be remembered by the people he encountered.  We also know that it must have occurred before 552 AD when the Byzantine Emperor smuggled silkworm eggs out of China and gave the Byzantine Church the authority and western monopoly to cultivate silk.  The Chinese were well aware of this event as it was the official end to their monopoly on silk production.  Sassanian historical records state that silk production became possible in Persia by the end of the 5th century and that sericulture was well established by the 6th century.  Therefore we have to accept that the unnamed princess from the Dan-Dan-Uiliq wall painting had a high probability of being none other than the Princess Ti-Ping.  Arriving in 496-7 in Mahoza would have made her the likely suspect of the theft of sericulture production, although in truth it was probably not a theft at all but a gift from a Chinese Emperor who being a foreigner himself did not appreciate fully the Han prohibitions on transporting silkworms outside the empire.   Whatever the case, the wall paintings tell us that not only did the Princess arrive with a bowl of cocooned worms, but in front of her maidservant is a full silk-loom.  The paintings are typical Chinese styling but there is an exception.  That is the picture of one of the Bodhisattvas, or the enlightened ones.  It is clear that he is a king from the west and his features show that he was fare skinned, dark bearded with a straight and narrow nose.  In comparison to the coin from the Sassanid Emperor Shapur II, it can be noted that the high frontal peaked crown, the hair style and the beard were all typical of the Persian Sassanid period.  Could this have been a picture of Mar Zutra?  We may never know, but we can only hope that someday the individual may be identified.

The Mongol Connection

Before he was called Genghis Khan, his name was Temujin.  Temujin was noted in Chinese descriptions for his tall stature and heavy beard. But we all have this very stereotypical concept of what the great Mongol leader looked like but that image is wrong.  Everyone seems to want to ignore the Chinese historian’s description because the West wants him to appear Chinese.  But the Chinese who had no love for Mongols were more than happy to portray him accurately since as far as they were concerned he was definitely not Chinese.  From their description we know he was tall, with high shoulders, his skin a whitish tan. His eyes, were set far apart under a sloping forehead but they did not slant. And his eyes were green, or blue-grey in the iris, with black pupils. Long reddish-brown hair fell in braids to his back.  We also have confirmation of his unusual appearance from the notes written by the Arab-Persian historian Ab ul Ghasi. He observed that the family of Yesugai, the father of Temujin, were known for the fact that their children often had fair complexions, and blue or grey eyes. Temujin's relatives and descendants also possessed fair features: Temujin's son and successor Ogadei (1229-41), had gray eyes and red hair; Temujin's grandson Mangu (1251-9), had reddish eyebrows and a red-brown beard; Subatei, who conquered China, had a long, reddish beard. Indeed, it was said that people were surprised Kubilai Khan had dark hair and eyes, because most of Genghis Khan's descendants had reddish hair and blue eyes. [Günther (1934)]

So we have to assume that the story of the Glittering man had at least some substance because only a foreigner would have possessed the genetic material to have created a line of descendants that would have observable traits persisting for the next twelve generations until they were absent in Kubilai Khan.  But although this lends credence to someone from the near East coming to the plains of Mongolia in the 6th century, it does not in any way specify that this stranger was Mar Yanqa.  That requires far more information than we can obtain from the observation of physical characteristics.

The Study of Names

We have names.  Names from a now deceased relative that lived in Israel recalling stories from his childhood.  A princess named Ti-Ping, her father’s name Hsiang.  The name of Mar Yanqa actually comes from Jewish historical records, so we have some confidence in its accuracy.  An unusual name from a family that named almost all of its members, Huna, Ukba, Zutra, and Nathan.  There were no Yanqas; its origins were definitely from outside the normal family traditions.  But it does exist in Chinese tradition.  In fact it is the name for the pearl that dragons carry with their hind feet and it represented the wonder and magic of their world.  A befitting name for a prince born from the merger of two different worlds. In fact a befitting name for any prince in the East because it happened to also be the name of the Princess’s brother who later became the Emperor Xuanwu.  His pre-throne name was Yuan-Ke.  One must remember the hard sound of our Q is reproduced by K in Chinese writing Pinyin and the letter ‘e’ is pronounced more like ‘eh’.  That being the case, then the name provided in my family legend is the same as that used in Royal Chinese history.  Were there other common names to both stories?  Yes and no.  The name of Hsiang was not identical.  His name was actually Xiaowen in Chinese records, the ‘X’ being pronounced similar to the ‘HS’ sound.   And Chinese records show that he did have amongst his many daughters, one Princess She-Ping.  Again close, but not identical.   But considering She-Ping was bearing a name that implied she was a peace gift, translating as “to make peace”  it would not be surprising that Mar Zutra would change her name to something more appropriate as Ti-Ping, that she, herself was the peace. 

Upon returning to the palace in 506 AD, Ti-Ping and her son probably would have counted themselves lucky that they received banishment.  Prince Yuan Xun had already been forced to commit suicide and the other brothers would begin disappearing shortly after through either poisoning or forced to commit suicide as well.   As for her sisters, Huayang, Huaiyang, Jinan, Yiyang, Lanling, Nanyang, Shunyang, Xihe, Changle and Gao-Ping, they like herself were all used for establishing alliances and trade agreements.  As Xianbei, she would have understood that the only place she would find sanctuary would be with the northern tribes, such as the Mongols with whom her people were related.

A Foreign General

But what of the entourage that would have accompanied her from Mahoza back to China? The Alanine forces that were under her husband’s command would have been part of that escort. And having lived under the authority of a Jewish King, many would have adopted the religion of the court. Is there any suggestion of this military force present in China. While in the northern provinces, that part where Northern Wei held domain, I came across a very interesting tomb of a Northern Wei general. The name was unknown but the tomb was unique and hence it’s reason for being showcased. Unlike most other tombs of the region it had no effigies of gods, no statues, no painted history of its occupant on the walls. It was unique also in that it was a two chambered affair, a small entrance room with a larger burial chamber behind. In fact it was identical to most Jewish burial tombs found in the Middle East. On either side of the burial chamber were two stone ledges but probably the most significant finding was that it was adorned only with a simple flower motif; a repeating geometric floral design. When I looked at this tomb I could hear its message loud and clear. There were no graven images accompanying this general into his afterlife. No pictures of anything that could be mistaken for a false god. This general, as you’ll see from the picture of the tomb, knew his Torah law. And the fact that there was no memorial stone either outside or within the tomb was also very unusual for the period. As you can see from the picture, tomb plaques were introduced in the Northern Wei period and they were quite elaborate. Most told of practically every event in the individual's life and the absence of such a plaque only highlighted the unusualness of this tomb even further.  Its unusual structure, its simple motif, the lack of any burial items as presents to strange gods, and the lack of what had become the customary plaque of the time all suggest that this general although great enough to have his own elaborate tomb was not someonet that the Empire wanted remembered.

In Conclusion

But what I’ve discussed in this article has been limited to archaeological, linguistic and historical findings.  And as we know, these studies are open to interpretation.  We call them facts, but the reality is that they can be challenged because they are not definitive. As I’ve always suggested, history is written by the victors so we will never know what really transpired, and archaeology is only proven if the site has an inscription that says exactly what we are looking at.  But there is another science that does lend itself to being an established fact.  That is the science of genetics.  And that is exactly what I’ll discuss in our next chapter of this series.

Until then, keep well and recognize that the world is far from simple. Peace be with you.

Avrom Aryeh Kahana


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