China Daily European Weekly : 2018-11-30

Spotlight : 16 : 16


16 CHINA DAILY EUROPEAN W SPOTLIGHT province in Northwest China, dated to 39 BC. The document records the disputes between officials at a Silk Road relay station in Gansu and a trade envoy coming from Samarkand. “The argument seems to have centered on the color and number of the camels being brought by these men. But the back story to this is that before the Sogdians’ departure, Samarkand, called the Kingdom of Kang by their Chinese counterparts, was in a friendly relationship with the Han Empire. Yet the situation took a U-turn while these men were heading toward their destination: Having provided assistance to Xiongnu troops, Samarkand, by the time of their arrival, had in effect become an enemy country. “These men should have been grateful that instead of being thrown into prison, they only faced a minor dispute.” It is worth noting that in most cases, the submissive relationship formed between a Sogdian kingdom and a mightier power usually had nothing to do with military occupation. Rather, the Sogdians were required to pay taxes to their masters, the result of wealth accumulated through trading on the Silk Road. To amass wealth, it was necessary to deal in commodities that could fetch the highest profit — profit huge enough to cover the immense time and human cost demanded by such longdistance trade. A renowned Chinese historian, Ge Chenyong, says the Sogdians “had an eye for gems”. “Bearing in mind that it could take a year to travel from what is today Iran to China, goods that were light in weight, high in value and easy to carry were the most popular, and gems topped that list,” Ge says. “The Sogdian merchants were believed to have sewn those precious stones into a little pouch they tied to the upper end of the thigh or carried under an armpit.” One frequently traded gem was fluorite, whose fluorescent light was expected to light up an aristocratic lady’s boudoir by night. Another was ruby, a perfect match for gold, which replaced jade as the material of choice for the rich and powerful during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). By dint of rampant tombraiding over the centuries, most gold ware and accessories that have come From page 1 the fact that they were constantly on the road. But this is inaccurate. In fact, the Sogdians, who spoke Eastern Iranian, hailed from basins of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers in what is today Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, regions known in ancient Western literature as Sogdiana. “It’s true that they never had among themselves a strong army and therefore were vulnerable militarily, but this did not stop them from setting up a number of small countries, countries located in desert oases and largely dispersed in Central Asia. Among them, Samarkand, today the second-largest city in Uzbekistan, was the most well known.” In many cases, military vulnerability meant political fickleness: Historically, the Sogdians were always ready to form an alliance with, or to pledge allegiance to, foreign powers pounding on their door. One example is the ancient kingdom of Loulan, later known as Shanshan, at the northeastern end of the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of Northwest China. “The rulers of Loulan submitted their tiny kingdom first to the authority of the Han Empire (206 BC-AD 220), and then to Xiongnu, a confederation of Eurasian steppe nomads with whom the Chinese empire had been engaged in long-term conflict,” Rong says. “For a certain period, these two relationships overlapped. “People have been tempted to attribute this apparent lack of loyalty to an unreliability and untrustworthiness associated with merchants. This is unfair; very often the Sogdians had little choice.” Sometimes they were even stalked by political uncertainty while on the road, Rong says, pointing to a wooden-slip document unearthed in Gansu The traders who danced d to light are bereft of their inset gems. Spice, whose scent permeated the Tang Dynasty, also featured prominently on that list of desirables. Animals and humans were also traded by Sogdians, who did their best to fuel Chinese society’s imagination toward an outside world. They were importers of exotic species including camels and elephants, and were also grooms who helped to foster related cultures, for example polo. The humans, many of whom were young Sogdians, were sold into rich Tang households as domestic servants and entertainers and were often given common Chinese names that obscured their true identities as they appeared in the writings of history. “These young men and women were sometimes taken as far as to Fujian province on China’s southeastern coast,” Ge says. “There they could bring in much more money than they would have done if sold in the country’s western regions.” managed to maintain all these links, including the tenuous ones, through wit and grit. Today most of what was once built by the Sogdians along the ancient Silk Road has long vanished, buried in the sand or reduced by the perennial whipping of the desert wind to solitary existences. Hustle and bustle has become a whisper as the wind passes through the skeletal remains of ancient constructions. Yet the people themselves, or at least their images, have survived the tor- The Sogdians set up a whole chain composed of many midroute relay stations to ensure the smoothness of the transit trade upon which their commercial success hinged, Rong says. “Transit trade was the key to their dominance of the ancient Silk Road. Rather than trekking the entire length of the road from Samarkand to Chang’an, the capital city during China’s Western Han (206 BC-AD 24) and Tang dynasties, the Sogdians divided the journey into numerous sections and built settlements in each, often close to water sources. These settlements became relay stations that witnessed the shuttling of people and the passing of goods between two neighboring ones.” Given their enviable role as intermediaries, the Sogdian settlements were never immune from harassment, marauding and even pillaging, especially by nomadic horsemen. But throughout those centuries, the Sogdians Tang Dynasty tricolor glazed pottery camel and groom. PRINTED AND DISTRIBUTED BY PRESSREADER +1 604 278 4604 ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY COPYRIGHT AND PROTECTED BY APPLICABLE LAW

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