From the Silk Road to the One Belt, One Road Initiative: an interview with Samuel Lieu

From the Silk Road to the One Belt, One Road Initiative: an interview with Samuel Lieu

In this interview, Professor Samuel Lieu discusses his co-director role in the UNESCO-sponsored ‘Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum’ project, and how his diverse range of scholarly interests led him from the Silk Road to the Byzantine.

About Samuel Lieu

Professor Samuel N.C. Lieu FBA FAHA MAE is a distinguished scholar in the field of ancient history, and a Bye-Fellow at Robinson College, Cambridge. Professor Lieu currently serves as Honorary President of the International Union of Academies (Union Académique Internationale). Born in Hong Kong, he earned his DPhil in Ancient History at Oxford. Professor Lieu has held prominent roles, including Professor of Ancient History and Classical Studies at Warwick University (UK) and the Edwin Judge Chair of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney.

He has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (1981), Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (1983), Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (1989) and Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1999) and Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales (2016). He is also an honorary Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities (2018). Notably, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2021 and received a Centenary Medal in 2003 for his significant impact on Classical and Asian Studies. He was elected to the Academia Europaea in 2022.

Read the interview

Your scholarship covers a diverse range of topics, from the history of Christianity in Central Asia to the Byzantine Thracian Chersonese. What drew you to these particular areas of study?

“When I was a teenager I was fascinated by the West. I grew up in Hong Kong, which contained a mixture of cultures and gave me opportunities to study both Western and Asian history at school. I was exceptionally strong in the former, so I decided to come to the UK to finish my schooling. I obtained an Exhibition (a form of scholarship) to Cambridge and specialised in the history of the Roman world and the early Middle Ages.

At the time, the Silk Road was a seriously understudied subject, but it was opening up rapidly. I knew that with my knowledge of both Western and Eastern ancient languages, I would have a huge head start in the field. I began a junior research fellowship at Oxford very early in my career and started lecturing at Warwick University at the age of 26.

In those days, my area was seen as highly specialised, because it was necessary to learn so many languages in order to study it. There are only a very small number of scholars who have been able to study properly the textual and documentary history of the Silk Road.

As a professor of history, I’ve always wanted students to be much broader in their interests, and moving to Australia certainly gave me that opportunity. I was very fortunate to have a research-focused chair. For the last 20 years of my professorial career, I have actively pursued an additional research area, via Byzantium studies. This has always been one of my favoured research areas and an area in which I have published previously.”

You co-directed the UNESCO-sponsored Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum project. Can you tell us more about the significance of this project?

The one religion that really needed serious study on the Silk Road was Manichaeism. We have around 20,000 texts, recovered by archaeologists from the Silk Road, in fragments, small codices and even very long scrolls. These texts had been edited mainly by German scholars from around 1904 onwards, right up to the beginning of the Second World War. Their method of editing has changed many times, and the fact that they only translated the newly discovered texts into German didn’t help Anglophone scholars, who are not proficient in reading difficult German. I put a team together to work with German scholars to produce a completely new corpus of Manichaean writings which also include the many fine artistic remains of the Manichaeans. We published 30 volumes iof Manichaean texts in many different languages, many containing beautiful illuminations which showcase the very fine artistic achievements of the Manichean sect.

Many people regard Manicheans as a kind of Persian religion within the Roman Empire, or as a kind of Christian heresy. But new research has shown that it is a form of early Jewish Christianity, which had branched off from mainstream Judaism and Christianity in the 3rd century. The kind of material we’re collecting is also very relevant to the study of the early development of Christianity. The Christian world’s reaction against Manichaeism is also very interesting because it helped Christianity define what was orthodoxy and what was heresy.

I chose the history of Manichaeism for my doctoral dissertation topic because I often worry about being perceived as not innovative enough. There’s no such concern with my chosen topic because I’m dealing with plenty of newly discovered material and my thesis contains a good deal of unpublished or little known material.

I was aware that UNESCO was looking for projects that could span Eastern and Western scholarship and also geographically link up the Middle East, China, North Africa and Greece and Italy. The team I put together included classical scholars who worked on not just Greek and Latin, but also Syriac, Middle Iranian and the Coptic language from Egypt because a great deal of early Christian material survived not in Greek or Latin, but in Coptic. We have more than 3000 leaves of Manicheans texts in Coptic discovered in Egypt between the First and Second World Wars. Some of this material is in Berlin and some is in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese scholars resumed excavating Manichean sites and they continued to discover a steady stream of new material. Not only do we have over 20,000 manuscript fragments and small codices sitting in the Berlin libraries, we also have a steady stream of new material being added to the extant corpus. The need for an international effort to produce a corpus of this varied material became essential, before research on the subject diffused even further into very small groups of scholars who don’t communicate with each other. For the study of Manichaeism in Central Asia you need to learn unusual languages like Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian and Old Turkish. There was a small group of scholars in the Berlin Academy who had specialists in this field, and they were absolute world-beaters. I was able to cross over the Berlin Wall seven weeks after it had come down in 1989 to visit these East German scholars. With their support, a UNESCO project suddenly became viable. It’s very difficult for a young scholar to become a director of a major UNESCO project, and I’m very proud that I achieved it.”

A finely executed Manichaean cosmogonic text on parchment, now exhibited in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin ([MIK] III 4990 courtesy of Dr Lilla Russell-Smith, to be published in the Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum project. See preliminary online edition here

Could you share insights into the China and the Ancient Mediterranean World Project of the International Union of Academies and its objectives?

“It was something of a coincidence how I came to work on this project. Before I moved to Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, I had been very anxious that we should not just work on the history of Manichaeism and Christianity. I felt we should also look at the Greek, Latin and Chinese sources which could tell us something about the history of the Silk Road, because otherwise we’d be working in a vacuum. At Macquarie, I was able to put together a team of Australian scholars who had training in Greek and Latin, but who also knew Hebrew, Syriac, Sanskrit and Old and Middle Iranian. We started translating all the key Greek and Latin sources, but also looked at all the relevant Central Asian languages like Parthian, Sogdian and so on.

It was at this moment that I was invited by the Australian Academy to represent them at the International Union of Academies. At my first meeting, I was invited to join a new committee for a proposed project on China and the Mediterranean world. As the UAI is particularly strong on the study of classical languages and the medieval periods of both East and West, they felt that a project on Greek and Latin sources on the Silk Road would be an ideal starter. I was able to tell them that we had initiated this exact project two years previously in Sydney. When the Committee presented the list of sources we needed to translate, the Australian team was already halfway through it. A few years later I was invited to chair the project and become its chief co-ordinator.

We’ve encouraged Chinese collaborators to publish more in English, which means we’re able to access their research results more readily, as well as publishing the translation work done in Australia both online and in monographs. The online content is steadily being expanded but some material, especially analytical studies are diffused through traditional publishing. We continue to work on the history of religions in Central Asia, particularly in publications like The Church of the East in Central Asia and China (Turnhout, 2020) which focuses on Christianity on the Silk Road. It is very difficult to publish a book that contains citations in Arabic, Middle Persian, Syriac, Chinese, Greek, Old Turkish and so on. All the contributions to the 2020 volume are very carefully proof-read by specialists, and we received very good reviews, acknowledging specially the care taken to produce such a complex book.

The China and the Ancient Mediterranean World project is also in discussion with many other potential contributors and partners because the Silk Road has suddenly become a very popular subject for which large grants can still be won. I’m very active in talking to other research groups, highlighting what we’re doing, and also finding out what they’re doing so that we don’t reinvent the wheel. Or worse, duplicate costly work such as expensively data-entering and translating texts from languages like Arabic, Syriac and Sogdian. We intentionally put all our research online so that other scholars know what we have done so that they don’t have to repeat it.”

What initially drew you to study the Silk Road, and what parallels and contrasts do you see between the ancient Silk Road and the modern one?

“The spread of Manichaeism and Eastern Christianity is a very good start to Silk Road studies. They’re both religions that travelled along the Silk Road and if you don’t study the Silk Road, you won’t understand how these two major world religions managed to enter China. But they’re not the only two. We also have documentary evidence of Judaism travelling the same routes, as well as Zoroastrianism, although there is much less documentation on that, and of course at a later point, Islam but that was a history of military conquest rather than just commercial relations.

The study of the history of the Silk Road is always in the background of my research. I often get invited to lecture at Silk Road conferences, because people want to know what it was like to be a Manichaean along the Silk Road. People are very interested to know what historical materials are contained in the Manichaean texts because very often they are not just religious texts, but religious history texts. We know a lot about the various kingdoms dotted along the Silk Road because many of the Manichean missionaries in particular were merchants who were active in them. Their letters also provide a wealth of information on how business was conducted. They contain key information on which places were safe to trade in China, as the Silk Road had plenty of unsafe spots throughout history because of sudden invasions by the Huns, the Turks, and later the Mongols. This information is extremely useful for historians of the Silk Road because very often we don’t have similar historical evidence. The survival of this material on the Silk Road itself is very interesting and we wish we could do more work on it. With the current inaccessibility of parts of the Silk Road, it’s not going to be easy. The One Belt One Road scheme creates new challenges, but we also hope it also opens up new opportunities.”

Map (unpublished) of the eastern section of the Silk Road  (Tarim Basin) giving names found in Chinese historical sources and prepared for the China and the Mediterranean World project (link)

As the Honorary President of the International Union of Academies, what are your key responsibilities, and how does this role contribute to the academic community?

“The International Union of Academies (Union Académique Internationale) was started after the First World War, during the Versailles Treaty discussions. It was an attempt to bring scholars together to reduce the very high level of nationalism which led to the First World War and the terrible slaughter, especially on the Western Front. The Union was established originally in France, but the administrative headquarters has always been in the French-speaking Royal Academy of Belgium in Brussels.

As the Union acquired specialism in constitutions of academies, the UAI (IUA) has helped countries (such as Australia) to establish their own national academy/ academies. Each Academy sends one or two delegates to our biannual General Assembly. The UAI (IUA) has enormous prestige because of its history – we are still the oldest surviving and functioning academic union of its kind. And now that we have more than eighty Members, we are genuinely global. The only problem, as I pointed out when I was President, is that we can only talk to institutions. We cannot talk to individual academicians. We urgently need a fellowship system that will allow the delegates, many of whom are very fine scholars, to remain connected with the Union’s work after they stop being delegates.

We also support about 60 projects, mostly on the subject of classical tradition such as archaeology and the history of art. We have some very distinguished scholars involved in these projects and a fellowship scheme would help bring them together closer to the Union and working more closely with the administration.

The reason why the IUA is a good organisation for AE to talk to is that we are now international and therefore not just focused on Europe. The AE now has a foreign membership scheme and distinguished project members who are not based in Europe can seek election to membership of the AE, as well as putting forward nominations. Many delegates and project leaders of the UAI are already members of the AE, and I hope very much that a closer link will ensure that more of them attend AE’s Annual General Meeting.”

12th March 2024. For further information please contact

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