Messages from China

Nowadays as all and sundry can order a personalized alternative history for himself, we also decided with Wang Wei to bring to light the Chinese roots of Mallorcan civilization. The taijitu symbol of 1713 in the church of San Nicolas in Palma has just been explored by Wang Wei, while on the medieval Chinese inscription on the church of Sineu we have already written in Mesa revuelta.

Taijitu, 1713

This morning, while going to the market square, we moved down the calle Orfila, and our eyes, oddly, instead of being kidnapped as always by the amazing sweets almost glowing with their own light in the window of the bakery Can Frasquet, turned to the side door of the church of San Nicolás, perhaps because it was open and a ray of light illuminated the interior.

The light falling on the holy water font has revealed something at least interesting that we had not noticed that far. This piece of marble installed there in 1713, in a very closed and very Catholic Palma – where in 1691, during a brutal auto da fé still they burnt some Judaizers alive – has the well known taijitu (太極圖), the Taoist symbol of the fundamental principle of the universe and of the interplay of yin and yang. Specifically, it is the xiantian taijitu (先天太極圖).

Whoever was the commissioner of this font, is it possible that he reached to read the Yitu mingbian (易圖明辨), published in China just some years earlier, in 1706, whose author Hu Wei (胡渭) died in 1714, just a year after the date on the side door of the church of San Nicolás?

The door, however, has two fonts. While the left, as we have seen, has well conserved the date, the carving as well as some traces of painting, the one to the right appears to have been subjected to some scraping or erasure that must not be accidental. As it is evident from the remains, it also had the taijitu on both sides of a cartridge with an inscription. However, it seems that this inscription did not display the same year but rather a number beginning with 7, or a world written in non-Latin script.

It is certainly a mystery to be investigated. The first inquiry addressed to people reputable and knowledgeable in such matter resulted in the same surprised look that we had on our face at the time of the discovery… The research is in progress. Expect more results in later chapters.

Designs of 5th-century Roman Notitia Dignitatum on the shields of the Roman legions,
from the manuscripts of the Bodleian Library (above) and the Bayerische
Staatsbibliothek (below), eight hundred years before the first known
Chinese representation of the symbol. The two shields with the
taijitu design were born by the legions Armigeri
defensores seniores
and Mauri


This story starts with a photographic surprise similar to the “Blowup” of Julio Cortázar. Last Saturday we took a walk in Sineu, right at the center of Majorca. The small town boasts with the memory of its noble past as a royal residence as well as with the still imposing remains of the royal palace erected by James II around 1300. It was raining. We took some photos of the wet streets, the old walls, the color of the stones, the facade of the church. Back home, we discovered on the margin of a photo of the church the Chinese character meaning tree, carved in the wall next to the tree of the Cross.

A careful analysis of the late medieval style of chiseling led to the conclusion that the sign was undoubtedly a Chinese comment on the tree of the Cross, inscribed here around 1421 by a secret detachment of Admiral Zheng He’s adventurous fleet.

Before leaving from China, Zheng He did not yet know about the existence of Mallorca.

The discovery of such an obvious connection between Sineu and China made us investigate further back. And the immediate question was the etymology of the name of Sineu. This place name must refer to a forgotten Chinese foundation (sinium) whose memory was lost in time, but some of those early settlers were careful enough to leave a sign for their compatriots eventually coming after them, a sign which, being unexpected and incomprehensible for the outsiders, would easily escape the notice and raise no suspicions.

Then we discovered that the etymology of Sineu has never been clear. It seems that a bad reading of Pliny confused the scholars of the 18th and 19th century who wanted to see in Sineu the ancient “Cinium” mentioned as a Roman city somewhere in Mallorca. We have consulted the Gabinet d’Onomàstica at the Universitat de les Illes Balears which has also confirmed the uncertain origin of the name. The name was documented in the 13th century in four different versions: Sixneu (1231), Xisneu (1231), Sisneu (1247) and Xineu (1287). The somewhat convoluted explanation was that, once we reject the old Plinian hypothesis, the name may derive from Jijnau, coming in its turn from the Arabic J.jnu which is akin to the words Janâwa, Ganâwa and Qinâwa. The double jim represents one of those vacillating ‘g’ sounds in the Saharan Africa. Janâwa/Ganâwa is the Arabized form of the Berber Ignawen – plural: agnau – originally meaning ‘mule’ and by chromatic relationship also ‘black’. The variant Jinnawi/Qinnawi was also known in Moorish al-Andalus in the meaning of “Ethiopian”. The derivation of the vacillant Catalan version Xisneu/Sixneu and later Sineu from the above form Jijnau is perfectly defensible.

All right. After this complicate explanation we are completely convinced that Sineu / Sinium was founded by the Chinese who kept visiting it in the course of its history. And maybe a secret system of signs is placed on the walls of the town to prepare the way of the reconquista.

Read more about Zheng He’s discoveries and his alleged world map of 1418

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