The Sogdians as Silk Road Intermediaries
Many of the Chinese sources we have about the Sogdians mention them in relation to Buddhism. Research suggests that the Sogdians were instrumental in bringing the practice of Buddhism to China. We know that they were responsible for translating some of the sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese, and that there were Sogdian monks in both China and India. Yet archeological evidence for the practice of Buddhism within Sogdiana is slim, though this could be due to a general lack of emphasis on idolatry and physical worship in Buddhist theology. As well, there are a few Chinese sources that suggest Buddhists we at times persecuted in Sogdiana. This suggests that, while the Sogdians were essential players in the spread of Buddhism, on the whole they weren’t too fond of the religion itself. Zoroastrianism, or at least some local form of the Persian religion, seemed to be much more influential and accepted. I’d like to explore this contradiction further.
Evidence suggests that the “Silk Road”, and by relation the Sogdians, were at their peak when China was specifically focusing its attention on central Asia and the west. The Sogdians also seemed to thrive when there were other strong neighbors surrounding them. We also know that the Sogdians served as political intermediaries for the Chinese and the Steppe societies. It seems that, not only did Sogdian society depend on strong neighbors to flourish, but they excelled in the role of intermediary between the Chinese and other regional powers. Sogdians played prominent roles on the fringes of Chinese society. We have records of them serving as community leaders, suggesting a role that placed them in a dialogue between their homeland and China. And we also know of a number of Sogdian military leaders working for foreign powers. These are a people that are, for the most part, defined by their interactions with others. While all signs point to them being an essential part of Silk Road diplomacy, I also think that Silk Road diplomacy was what helped keep them a thriving society.
Multiple sources cite the Sogdians as having linguistic prowess. We have Sogdian tombs in China that feature both Sogdian and Chinese. We also know that some of the Buddhist sutras made it to China by way of the Sogdians, who translated the texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. As well, an ability to translate would have complimented their role as intermediaries between China and “the west.” What can we learn about their culture from their linguistic flexibility? We know that Sogdian is an offshoot of old Persian, but are there aspects of the language that are related to Chinese or other languages in the region? Did the Sogdian language itself work as an intermediary or lingua franca? We have previously seen sources that have suggested Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road, but is there any hard evidence to support this?
Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History
Stark, “Luxurious Necessities: Some observations on foreign commodities and nomadic polities in 6th to 9th century Central Asia”
Grenet, “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism”
A.L. Juliano & J.A. Lerner, eds, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northern China