Love and loathing from the foot­notes of his­tory

China Daily European Weekly - - Life - By ZHAO XU [email protected]­

f all the more than 60 stone tablets un­earthed in Luoyang and bear­ing the epi­taph for their Sog­dian own­ers, only one was dis­cov­ered dur­ing of­fi­cial ex­ca­va­tion,” says Mao Yang­guang, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Luoyang Nor­mal Univer­sity.

For the past decade, Mao has been read­ing between those in­scribed lines, hop­ing to gar­ner more clues about a peo­ple who once con­trolled a cru­cial part of in­ter­na­tional trade but have be­come mere foot­notes of his­tory.

“The tomb-raid­ing once rampant in this part of the coun­try has left lit­tle for us, but this par­tic­u­lar one, which was in­tact upon its ex­ca­va­tion by ar­chae­ol­o­gists, is of spe­cial im­por­tance,” Mao says.

“This is be­cause the tomb owner, a man named An Pu, was no or­di­nary trader like most of his con­tem­po­rary Sog­di­ans, but a gen­eral who once fought to de­fend the bor­ders of the Tang Em­pire (619-907).”

An Pu’s grand­fa­ther, who went by the name An Xili, was the tribal leader of a small Sog­dian king­dom north­west of the Chi­nese em­pire, Mao says.

“Around 630 An Pu and his fa­ther, whose name we have no way of know­ing, re­neged on their no­madic over­lord and sub­mit­ted to Tang. Ap­pear­ing in the pages of his­tory as some­thing of a war god, An Pu proved in­vin­ci­ble on the bat­tle­ground and was made a gen­eral by the Tang court.”

The Sog­dian gen­eral died in 664, age 64, and was later in­humed with his wife, who out­lived him by 40 years. The burial ground was con­structed by An Jin­zang, An Pu’s son, who, in­stead of lead­ing a horse­back life of his own, be­came a court mu­si­cian.

“Between them the three gen­er­a­tions of Sog­di­ans wit­nessed the height of Tang, to which their own lives pro­vided the most tit­il­lat­ing an­no­ta­tions,” Mao says.

“The love-hate re­la­tion­ship they had with the Chi­nese em­pire was char­ac­ter­ized by mu­tual courtship and the oc­ca­sional pang.”

In an ar­ti­cle writ­ten for the cat­a­log of a Silk Road ex­hi­bi­tion at the He­nan Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum, Sun Ji, a Chi­nese his­to­rian, cited a Tang Dy­nasty trav­el­ogue in which the Sog­di­ans were de­scribed as “shrewd, cun­ning and reck­less”.

Given that the Sog­di­ans were first and fore­most busi­ness­men, this as­sess­ment may not be en­tirely ground­less. How­ever, lo­cal Chi­nese also found the Sog­dian prac­tice of con­san­guineous mar­riage deeply dis­turb­ing, Sun says. (It is true that un­til the early 20th cen­tury, it was per­fectly nor­mal for a Chi­nese to marry his or her cousin. But if the writ­ings between the sixth and the eighth cen­turies are to be be­lieved, it was ac­cept­able for a Sog­dian to marry his blood sis­ter or even mother.)

Adding to this were the Sog­di­ans’ un­con­ven­tional fu­ner­ary tra­di­tions, which in­volved hav­ing the re­mains of the dead eaten by dogs. (Sim­i­lar prac­tices can be found in what is known as the “sky burial” of the Ti­betans, whereby a hu­man corpse is placed on a moun­tain­top to de­com­pose or to be eaten by scav­eng­ing an­i­mals, mostly car­rion birds. But if there is any con­crete con­nec­tion between the two, it has yet to be es­tab­lished.)

Con­se­quently, although dur­ing the Tang era, es­pe­cially its first half, the Sog­di­ans had a prom­i­nent place in the life of the lo­cal Chi­nese, mar­riages between the two peo­ple were rare.

Per­sonal sphere aside, this tinted view did lit­tle to pre­vent the Sog­di­ans from mak­ing in­roads into al­most all other as­pects of Chi­nese so­ci­ety, thanks in equal part to their great adapt­abil­ity and the many skills they had ac­quired by tra­di­tion or by learn­ing.

One of these was what seemed to be their nat­u­ral prow­ess in dance and mu­sic, which largely ex­plains the pop­u­lar­ity of Sog­dian ser­vants among the wealthy elite of Tang. (Some of them were men of magic, as a pot­tery fig­urine un­earthed in Gansu prov­ince, in north­west­ern China, clearly in­di­cates. With both hands hid­den be­hind his back, the man, whose high-bridged nose and thick beard re­vealed him as a Sog­dian, was in the mid­dle of play­ing fin­ger tricks.)

Im­ages of Sog­dian mu­si­cians and dancers, ren­dered mostly as pot­tery fig­urines or on mu­rals, abound in Tang Dy­nasty tombs, tes­ti­fy­ing to a will­ing­ness of the lo­cal Chi­nese to be en­ter­tained by the same peo­ple in their af­ter­life.

Some were also chis­eled onto the gilt sur­face of var­i­ous metal wares that bore the un­mis­tak­able in­flu­ences of West Asia, in­flu­ences brought by the Sog­di­ans them­selves and rep­re­sent­ing a more pro­found as­pect of Silk Road ex­changes.

In other cases the like­ness of a Sog­dian served un­likely func­tions in a rather amus­ing way, for ex­am­ple as a pot­tery gra­nary stop­per or a box lid.

Rong Xin­jiang, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Pek­ing Univer­sity, says many Sog­dian men served as met­al­smiths in the im­pe­rial work­shops of Tang. But rather sadly, very lit­tle of their crafts­man­ship was later passed down to their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts, a fact that some his­to­ri­ans be­lieve was partly due to Chi­nese so­ci­ety’s deeply en­trenched bias against ar­ti­sans. They were viewed as lesser mor­tals com­pared with the literati. So there was lit­tle ef­fort in Chi­nese his­tory to record and pre­serve what they were do­ing.

Between the fourth and 10th cen­turies, the Sog­dian dom­i­nance of the Silk Road in ef­fect turned their Eastern Ira­nian lan­guage into a lin­gua franca of Asian trade. On the other hand, their role as mid­dle­men had given them a unique lin­guis­tic edge from a rel­a­tively young age; most Sog­dian mer­chants were pro­fi­cient in more than one tongue.

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