The Plot Summary for a Movie about a Zoroastrian Tragedy


If sex, violence and political intrigue are the stuff of blockbusters, the An Lushan Rebellion is worthy of consideration by the world’s best film producers, whether in Hollywood or Bollywood. A century after Zoroastrians succumbed to Islamic power and influence in Persia, the dubious exploits of An Lushan led to the disappearance of huge Zoroastrian communities in China. The story is largely unknown, even by the Zoroastrian community of the twenty-first-century, in which the role of China may again become paramount. We present here background information for the movie version of those events.

An Lushan was born in 703 CE in Yingzhou (now Chaoyang) China, to the well-placed Kang family within the burgeoning Sogdian immigrant community. Religion would play little or no role in the rise, rule and demise of China’s first Zoroastrian Emperor whose actions finally dragged the faith and its adherents into sudden oblivion. An exception to this would be the exemplary spiritual life of Shi Siming, Lushan’s childhood friend and alter ego through his remarkable but checkered career. They all spoke Chinese, but Shi Siming knew the “Good, Thoughts, Good Words, Good Actions” mantra by the Avestan words “Humata, Hukhta, Huvareshta,” and taught them to his Chinese associates at every stage of the story.

Twists and turns in the dramatic rise of An Lushan began an upward spiral in 741 when as a young general he became military governor in the area north of the Yellow River. He made the future Beijing his headquarters, but traveled frequently to meet with the Emperor Xuanzong, the Tang monarch reigning in the ancient capital, Luoyong. By this time Lushan had married twice, concurrently and advantageously, within the Sogdian minority, then a cultural and commercial elite. During one of his visits to the capital he was adopted as a son by the Empress Consort Yang, with whom he was having a secret affair. How better to achieve access to the palace and to her?

On this basis, on his next visit Lushan bowed to Consort Yang first before bowing to Emperor Xuanzong, stating, "Barbarians bow to mothers first before fathers."[1] Xuanzong, now believing Lushan was submissive to him like a son to a father, showed him every imaginable favor. At the beginning of 751 Lushan presented Emperor Xuanzong with 8,000 captives as slaves and the emperor made him Prince of Dongping, the only such appointment of a general outside the imperial Li family. The Empress threw him a sumptuous birthday party on February 20 of that year to kick off a building project by the aging emperor, a magnificent mansion built for Lushan in the alternate capital of Chang'an (now known as Xi’an), sparing no expenses, using jade, gold, and silver in special appointments.[2]

At this time, Lushan began to be worry what would happen once Emperor Xuanzong died. He had earlier refused to bow to Li Heng, the heir apparent, and there was bad blood between them, so he began to make preparations in case of retribution after the succession. He was already in a position to analyze the weak spots in the imperial defense system and the first step he took was to organize a troop of 8,000 elite soldiers, ostensibly to defend the palace under his command. He sent them on ill-fated training expeditions until they were in supreme fighting condition, then placed them at the headquarters of his own armies, stationed just north of the Yellow River, until needed.

This elite guard was used for successful skirmishes in which he claimed to be defending the throne from rivals, presumptive heirs, pretenders and future claimants. In the spring of 755 Lushan made a proposal to replace the 32 generals of traditional Han Chinese ethnicity with 32 “non-Han” generals (almost certainly Sogdian) under himself. We can surmise that the former generals were not as loyal to the emperor as the new generals would be to Lushan, “in defense of the throne.” This plan was accepted by Emperor Xuanzong, himself also nervous about those who might wish to hasten the succession. Tensions with rivals continued until autumn when the emperor finally became suspicious of Lushan as well, and arranged for an alliance of adversaries as a check on, or balance to Lushan’s now obviously excessive power.

On December 16, 755 Lushan launched his own rebellion, claiming he had received a secret order from Emperor Xuanzong to advance on Chang'an to remove the most powerful of the emperor’s potential challengers. His troops and generals believed him, marched through Chang’an, occupied Luoyang, and the rebellion was over before it started. Emperor Xuanzong deserted his capital and fled to Sichuan. Li Heng fled in the opposite direction, to Lingwu, where he was declared emperor by the army. Li Heng’s whole reign was then spent in attempting to reverse what became known in history as the An Lushan Rebellion, though there were actually three Zoroastrian Emperors during the rule of the Sogdian dynasty.

Meanwhile, in Luoyang on Lunar New Year’s Day (February 5) 756, An Lushan had proclaimed himself Emperor of China, launching the new Yen Dynasty, or “Peace,” as he chose to call it. Tang officials of his new realm surrendered to him with few exceptions and he made the leaders among them his chancellors, a move reminiscent of Cyrus the Great, still famous among Zoroastrians. He made his sons An Qingxu the Prince of Jin and An Qinghe the Prince of Zheng, two important provinces, though they all lived in the palace at Luoyang.

Despite this admirable beginning, Lushan was as ineffective a ruler as he had been an effective manipulator of events that brought him to power. His great girth, which made him look incredibly powerful upon his giant horse, made him look ridiculously obese on the throne. Years of hard living had caught up with him and he suffered from ulcers and syphilis, the latter causing blindness. He became ill-tempered, beating or even executing servants if they annoyed him. Once he achieved his goal of becoming emperor, he spent most of his time inside the Luoyang palace where his officials and generals rarely saw him, except to receive gruff and excessive orders. The Sogdian Zoroastrian culture itself, outside the palace, was at its peak at this time.

Lushan had a bias for his son An Qing'en, a “weakling” born to his second and favorite wife, “Empress Duan.” He considered Qing'en the safe choice as the crown prince, instead of the stronger An Qingxu, who was slightly older and thought himself next in line. But even Qingxu feared that paranoia would cause Lushan to put him to death. He plotted an assassination with the help of his father’s servant Yan Zhuang and Li Zhu’er, a favorite eunuch of the emperor, both of whom Lushan had beaten. On the night of 29 January, 757, with Yan and Qingxu standing guard, Li Zhu'er smuggled a sword into the private quarters of the palace and attacked Lushan. The blind emperor tried to fight back, but could not find the sword he kept under his bed and Li Zhu'er ran Lushan through with his rapier.

In the morning Yan Zhuang announced to the court that An Lushan was dying and was formally appointing An Qingxu crown prince. On that basis in a noon hour ceremony An Qingxu took the throne, even before announcing An Lushan's death, with nobody protesting or asking questions. His brief rule as the second Zoroastrian monarch was as chaotic as his father’s. In 759 Shi Siming, still quiet and unassuming, killed the erratic An Qingxu for the sake of the people and took the imperial title himself, the third Zoroastrian emperor. He recovered the body of An Lushan and performed Zoroastrian funeral rites for his friend. He then simply administered the affairs of state until overseeing an eventual surrender in 763 CE to Tang forces under a new emperor, Li Heng’s son[3] with new Uyghur allies, negotiating a just peace and amnesty for the Sogdian Zoroastrian population. Within a very short period of time there was an integration of millions of Sogdian Zoroastrians into the mainstream of Chinese society in which Confucian principles were enhanced by Zoroastrian spirituality. This was the “moment” in which Confucianism became a religion, as described earlier in Chapter 12 of this book.

<Figure 35> A Mysterious Stranger in China

Image Courtesy of the Museo di Arte Orientale (MAO), Turin, Italy

Described as "A Mysterious Stranger in China" in a Wall Street Journal article by Lee Lawrence,[4] this burial figure from the eighth century Yan Dynasty indicates a Zoroastrian vitality during the ill-fated An Lushan Rebellion of the Sogdian minority. It was seen as a mystery when first discovered in the ancient capital of Luoyang because art critics assumed it to be a person on a camel or on horseback riding side-saddle. The population of the city was over a million at the time, and at that moment about one quarter were Sogdian. The Phrygian cap worn by Zoroastrians is an easy marker, but who wears the equally distinct padam, a facial veil of ritual sacrifice, while riding? The mystery was solved by identification of the yoga camel pose by Jenny Sutacriti in research for this text, showing the devotee here in a half-camel yoga position called “the Ustra-Sana.” The persona thus memorialized is shown as probably leading a congregation in devotional exercises before the sacrificial flame; the hat may assist us in picturing this activity as being outdoors, as was customary. This fits with the thinking of Marcello Pacini, who headed the Agnelli Foundation for 25 years and who acquired the statue at auction some 20 years ago for the MAO collection. "I have never seen a rider with such intensity in his eyes," he says. "His is the expression of a priest honoring a god, not that of a camel rider facing some banal complication."[5] The figure is solid and obviously sculpted by a master craftsperson, showing the sophistication of the vibrant Sogdian culture at its peak, and with obvious reference to the international context of Zoroastrian life in China, with yogic roots into India at that time.

With up to thirty-six million killed in its decade of rule, the final world-stage saga of the Zoroastrian tradition ended, until the current era in which the small surviving Zoroastrian community scattered around the world may play a role again in a New Axial Age. The An Lushan episode was even more ignominious than the collapse of Zoroastrianism under Alexander, and again following Muhammad, when they were merely the victims of calamity, rather than being directed to their demise by their leaders.

However, still well thought of by their neighbors for the most part, after the return to Tang rule following Shi Siming’s amnesty, many Sogdians took Chinese names and millions of Zoroastrians participated in Confucian religious ceremonies which accommodated their true spirituality across most of China. Was this one final example where furtive Zoroastrians might well have buried or accidently hidden one or more copies of their precious scripture? The quest for The Dead Zee Scrolls expands now with the prime search area now extending from Sogdian Samarkand, eastward through all the areas of substantial Sogdian Zoroastrian activity along the Silk Route and well into China proper.

The restoration of lasting peace and prosperity by the Tang gave stimulus to an enriched Confucianism. A revised edition five classic Chinese books known as the Wujing offered new commentaries on old traditions resulting in the rise of metaphysically significant Confucian texts, notably Zhongyong (“Doctrine of the Mean”) and Yizhuan (“The Great Commentary of the Classic of Changes”). These appealed to some Buddhist and Daoist thinkers, but were probably influenced by the influx of Zoroastrian thought, recognized only of late. The most influential promoter of a Confucian revival was Han Yu, who spent part of his childhood in Chang'an, travelled throughout China, holding a number of distinguished government posts such as the rector of the Imperial University in Luoyang. He was as social associate and cultural companion of the respected Zoroastrians now prominent in the Imperial Court. Outliving both An Lushan and Shi Siming, Han Yu died after retiring in back Chang'an in 824 after a spectacular writing career. He is remembered for his fending off of Buddhist and Taoist influence with new ideas just as Zoroastrian was being submerged into mainstream Chinese life, first in power and later in defeat.

Confucianists from that time attributed the following verse to Confucius, without any textual proof. It appears in Confucian temples all over China to this day, and in the West, where Taoists claim it to have originated with Lau Tzu, again without evidence. The last lines may have been added by either, and, after their encounters with a source our readers will easily recognize, the “Humata, Hukhta, Huvareshta” was massaged. These words demonstrate the give and take among religions which have roots in the Axial Age, and aspire to bless each other again in the New Axial Age, with again a certain inspiration rooted in the words of the Persian prophet of old.

Watch your thoughts, they become words.

Watch your words, they become actions.

Watch your actions, they become habits.

Watch your habits, they become character.

Watch your character, it becomes destiny.

In the far east of China, a small group of Zoroastrian Sogdians continued with “business as usual” and true to their identity for another century until they backed the wrong horse in a subsequent rebellion. In the far west around Dunhuang and on down the Silk Route it was Buddhism which became a default religion for many Zoroastrians. Several magnificent Zoroastrian temples became Buddhist in this area, where they are now being carefully re-evaluated and restored as Zoroastrian historical monuments in the twenty-first-century.

Twenty-first century Chinese scholars are thoroughly investigating the Zoroastrian influence in Confucianism. They are also analyzing the influence of Taoism and Buddhism in relation to modern Chinese culture. They are even conducting examinations of minor cross-over effects of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the secular state with its deep spiritual roots. This program is pursued with almost religious zeal in a communist idealism unlikely to reach proper conclusion without eventual acknowledgment of religious fundamentals. But we conclude by observing the irony that the religious quest in China today, with different goals and for different purposes, runs parallel to the project of the Dead Zee Scrolls Trilogy and employs many of the same methods and techniques.

Judging from sales of its two predecessors, SEVEN TESTAMENTS OF WORLD RELIGION may be as welcome in China as in the radically secularized states of North America and Western Europe in a rapidly changing world. Western intellectuals on either side of the North Atlantic may be missing the boat for which Chinese intellectuals have already purchased tickets. It is sometimes contended that the ideals and the programs of Christian missions triggered the Communist revolution, and now with religion again straining at the leash in China, at least some Chinese scholars will find themselves engaged by the spiritual dynamics they are investigating. China’s “Great leap Forward” under Mao Zedong was industrial. China’s forward movement under Xi Jinping is the Road and Belt initiative to recover control of the Silk Route. The future vitality of China, if present indications hold true, may well be in the spiritual realm.



[1] An Lushan” article in the Zizhi Tongjian by Bo Yang

[2] Summary of information from the Encyclopedia of China(Chinese History Edition), 1st ed.


[3] Summary of information in the Encyclopedia of China(Chinese History Edition), 1st ed.

[4]Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2011

[5] Ibid