In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-Century China:Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism
  • Frantz Grenet (bio)

hanks to the pioneering studies of Paul Pelliot, Edwin Pulleyblank, Albert Dien, and Edward Schafer, it has been known for some time that Central Asian people and particularly the Sogdians played a prominent economic, social, and political role in China during the periods of the Northern Dynasties, the Sui and the early Tang.1 The work of these Sinologists based on Chinese literary records was gradually supplemented by Iranologists who deciphered Sogdian texts discovered in the Chinese territory, mostly in the Dunhuang cave and in various cult places in and near Turfan. These texts that form the bulk of the known Sogdian literature are mostly religious in their contents.2 Only a handful can be ascribed to the so-called Sogdian native religion, a form of Zoroastrianism, and in most cases this attribution is disputed. The majority of the Sogdian texts are Buddhist, translated not from the Indian original but from Chinese versions. Then come the Nestorian Christian texts. There are also a substantial number of Manichaean texts that were elucidated mainly by Walter Bruno Henning and Werner Sundermann and contributed greatly to the knowledge of this religion as a whole.3

Since the 1960s progress in Sogdian studies has come mostly from Sogdiana itself, today in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with the publication of the political and administrative archives of the king of Panjikent found on Mount Mugh and dating from the period of the Arab conquest, and, more spectacularly, a very large number of mural paintings from four sites: Panjkent; Samarkand; Varakhsha, near Bukhara; and Shahristan.4 This resulted in a rather unbalanced [End Page 463] picture, which lasted until a few years ago: the religious literature of the Sogdians came only from China, their archaeological records almost only from Sogdiana.5 Seen from China, the Sogdians appeared mostly as adherents and transmitters of the three great "salvation religions" of the time—Buddhism, Christianity, and Manichaeism—while in their homeland their art and religious buildings appeared fairly Iranian and conservatively Zoroastrian.

In the 1990s a new turn was taken when funerary reliefs of Sogdian merchants buried in China appeared both on the antique market and in regular excavations. Six tombs safely attributable to Sogdians are now known, plus two others from Gansu, which are thematically related to the Sogdian tombs but might have belonged to representatives of other Central Asian peoples.6 All date from the last third of the sixth century. Three of the tomb owners are identified by funerary inscriptions that give them the title sabao, a Chinese administrative function designating the leader of a community of Western migrants and derived from the Sogdian word sârtpâw (caravan leader). In most tombs a majority of the panels illustrate the social activities of the deceased, in a rather conventional way. Trade is very discretely alluded to, with one exception, the tomb of Wirkak, which will be examined in detail in this article. The focus is always toward the aristocratic way of life, expressed by hunting and banqueting, in any possible contact situation: with fellow Sogdians, with other Central Asian peoples, with Northern Indians (Gandharis or Kashmiris), and with Turks. At the same time the wife is always shown dressed as a Chinese lady, sharing a Chinese pavilion with her husband.

Anecdote and Biography: The Guimet Couch and the Wirkak Sarcophagus

This kind of double Sogdian/Chinese social identity found its most extreme expression on the reliefs in a private collection, temporarily displayed in 2004–5 at the Guimet Museum in Paris (fig. 1).7 On one panel the deceased is shown in a Chinese park; his dignified stance derives from that of the bodhisattvas in the art of the Wei period. He is accompanied by Chinese symbols such as the crane, symbol of longevity, and the couple of ducks, symbol of marital happiness, and in fact the next panel shows his wife dressed in Chinese attire in a similarly Chinese setting. But on the following panel the deceased, recognizable from his beard and topknot, is drinking from a rhyton, an Iranian and Central Asian utensil, and he drinks heavily as...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 463-478
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.