Blossoming out of the religious diversity which so strongly characterizes both late antiquity and the Silk Roads of Eurasia, the teaching of Mani spread as far west as North Africa and as far east as the China Sea, intentionally utilizing and incorporating imagery, language and symbolism of whatever religions it encountered so as to better express itself to its respective audience.

The prophet Mani was born in 216 CE in Persian Babylonia (modern day Iraq), into an ascetic community of Judaized Christians (Christians who continued strict observance of traditional Jewish praxis). At the age of twelve he had a vision, followed by a second one at age twenty-four which called him to be the culminating prophet in a chain of teachers including Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus. Mani left home after his second vision and began to proselytize in other regions of Persia before traveling to northern India in the early 240s. In India he became more acquainted with Buddhism and converted a Buddhist king near the Indus River Valley. Returning home shortly after the coronation of the Sassanian king Shapur I (r. 241-272), Mani was granted the right to teach his faith and managed to convert at least two princes in the royal house. Missionaries were sent as far east as the Kushan kingdom of Central Asia, and west to Alexandria, a cultural hub of the Mediterranean. Mani's fate changed when the new ruler Bahram I (r. 273-276) ascended the throne. Due to Bahram's close ties with the traditional Zoroastrian priestly class, Mani was persecuted and eventually executed in 276. His death, however, did not stop the spread of his teachings.

Manichaeism in the West had quite a vibrant life until the fourth and fifth centuries when it came under fierce persecution as heresy by a growing orthodox Christian church. As a young man St. Augustine of Hippo practiced Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity. For the most part, Manicheans in Western Asia practiced their faith freely into the Islamic period under the Muslim Umayyads, until they were suppressed after the rise of the Abbassid Caliphate in the mid-eighth century. By the end of the sixth century the Manichean church of Central Asia was large enough to declare independence from the head church in Baghdad. As with many other cultural exchanges, the Sogdian merchants played a central role in translating texts and transmitting the faith to both the Chinese and the Türkic nomads of the steppe.

Missionary success in the seventh century gave rise to Manichaeism in China, but also led to conflict with royal Buddhist officials. The success of Mani's teaching must have posed a serious enough threat to its religious competitors, for in 732 the Tang emperor issued an edict (undoubtedly under the influence of Buddhists) prohibiting Manichaeism from being taught to native Chinese; foreigners, however, were allowed to practice the faith.

Although limited in China for some time under the Tang, it was through China that Manichaeism came to enjoy the status of official state religion of the Central Asian Uighur kingdom during part of the eighth and ninth centuries. As the Tang government became burdened with internal uprisings in China, they began to rely more heavily on military assistance from neighboring Turkish peoples. In 762 the Uighur king Mou-yu helped imperial Tang forces put down a rebellion centered on the city of Loyang, during which time he came in contact with resident Sogdian Manicheans. When Mou-yu returned home at the end of the military operation, four Manicheans joined his entourage and accompanied him back to his kingdom. Within a year Mou-yu converted to the faith, and subsequently declared Manichaeism the official state religion. With the Uighur political backing, the Manicheans in China received greater freedom resulting in the construction of at least six new temples. They enjoyed this freedom for the better part of a century, until the Uighur state was overran by another Turkish group in 840, after which the religion returned to its former disadvantaged state. In Central Asia, Manichaens persisted after Uighur sponsorship, but eventually gave way to Islam and Christianity. During the Yuan (Mongol) period Manichaeism experienced something of a revival in China, only to be outlawed as a heretical Buddhist sect under the Ming legal code of the fourteenth century.

-- Lance Jenott

(1) Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999).