Love and loathing from the footnotes of history
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.