You may think of Carmen, a fickle girl in Georges Bizet's "Carmen," or Esmeralda, an incredible dancer in Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris," when talking about gypsies.
However, very few would imagine that this legendary people came to China once, believing that they stuck only to the roads of Europe. In fact, "Gypsies set foot on Chinese soil some 200 years earlier than on European soil. To be exact, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when they toured to Northwest China's Shaanxi and Gansu provinces," says Cai Hongsheng, a history professor from Sun Yat-sen University in South China's Guangdong Province.
Back then, gypsies were called Luoli in Chinese. Cai noted that the name originally came from Persia, where gypsies arrived in the fifth century. He made reference to a paper by Yang Zhijiu, a historian at Nankai University, who died in 2002 at the age of 87. Yang was an expert on the Yuan Dynasty and Hui history.
In his paper entitled "Gypsies in China's Yuan Dynasty Luri Huihui" published in 1991, Yang wrote: "These nomadic people, called 'Luoli' in Chinese with the similar pronunciation as 'Luri,' came to northern China's Shaanxi and Gansu in the 13th century, before they arrived in Europe around the 15th century, where they remain as gypsies today."
Yet, "The name Luoli in Chinese or Luri in Persian is different from either Gypsy in English or Bohemian in French. Either Gypsy or Bohemian is a derogatory name for it contains a connotation of scorning their wandering lifestyle," Yang wrote in the paper.
However, Cai pointed out that Yang didn't provide answers to pending questions such as where the gypsies came from? Where else had they been? And do Luoli remain in China today?
Regrettably, no more records have been found as yet in order to help answer these questions. Yang's studies unfortunately came to an end when he died in 2002.
Another essay by Li Hao, an official from Yunnan Province who is also interested in the subject, described the Luoli's lifestyle patterns around Dali, a scenic spot in Yunnan, during the end of the Yuan to the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
In Li's essay, Dali was then an important gateway of cultural exchange and trading with southeastern Asian countries, and those from India, Persia, and the Luoli, named as "Moluo" in southwest China.
Similar to how gypsies are depicted in films and on stage, Li described how the Luoli would sing and dance in the streets, or sell herbs and practise fortune telling to make a living.
It was believed that the Gypsies also made money by singing and dancing. They created more than 100 songs during their stay in Dali. "Those songs were sung in Chinese, indicating that Luoli gradually adopted Han culture, and successfully found a way to make a living," says Cai.
Furthermore, it also suggested that the Luoli's performances were well accepted by local people. "Without large audiences how could they possibly create so many songs?" says Cai rhetorically.
"These accounts are really making a breakthrough," says Cai. "They are corroborated by historical records, despite the essay's personal tone and strong flavour of local culture."
An interesting detail in the essay describes how Luoli girls became concubines for a local general.
As the essay puts it, in 1252, a local Mongolian general, named Uriyanghatai, had eight concubines. Of them, the most beautiful were three Luoli girls. Lady Lotus, daughter of the Luoli tribe's headman, was the general's most favourite for she was good at dancing and singing Chinese songs.
It was said that Lady Lotus loved the general so much that after his death she would pay her respects at his tomb every year on Tomb-Sweeping Day, a traditional Chinese festival of worshipping their beloved dead.
"Her loyal behaviour lasted over 30 years, " says Cai. "Meanwhile, this story shows the harmonious relationship that existed between the Luoli and the local residents."
Searching for clues
Cai said that the Luoli in China enjoyed a relatively good material life and freedom. They could develop their talents and live their way of life, while the local authorities provided them with housing and other social services.
Mysteriously, however, it appears that the Luoli suddenly disappeared after the Ming Dynasty, leaving a gap in the historical records. "Not a single word can be found about the Luoli, or Gypsy, or any other name related to them in the historical records, chorography or ethnography since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)," says Cai, "We don't know why they disappeared, where they went or whether any of their offspring remain in China today."
In order to track them down, Dai Yuanguang, a professor who once worked at Lanzhou University, joined a research project conducted by the university's Research Centre for Humanities. Between 1990 and 1992, he travelled frequently to areas where the Luoli once stayed, including Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.
As a result, Dai discovered some murals featuring images of gypsies dancing in grottoes in the area of Aksu in Xinjiang. He also found that inhabitants of Turpan in Xinjiang and of Yongdeng County in Gansu had different physical features and personalities different from Han people.
They had much longer straighter noses than people of Chinese origin. The physical characteristics resembled those of the Luoli people.
As for their way of living is concerned, they moved around at certain times of the year, demonstrating their unconstrained lifestyles, quite different to those of the local Han residents.
Based on his findings, Dai proposed, "It might be that they are the descendants of the gypsy race." He also dated the Luoli's entry into China as early as the time of the Crusades which took place during the 11th century.
Now engaged in journalism and communication studies at Shanghai University's School of Film Arts & Technology, Dai says he plans to return to these places later this year.
"The study of gypsies could aid international communication, by learning more about how different cultures and sects blended in China, and revealing the kinds of influences Luoli brought about on local customs," says he.
However, Cai believes that it's not wise to jump to conclusions based solely on these people's different lifestyles or physical features, despite all the research regarding Luoli existing in China between the Yuan and the Ming periods.
"The big challenge at this point is to find their traces in order to unveil whether those that look different from the Han Chinese are gypsies or their descendents. Solid fieldwork is desperately needed. Facts speak louder than words," he says.
(China Daily September 28, 2005)