- Economics / Silk / Silver: Trade in craft materials
When studying the history of arts and objects, it is often easy to overlook the materials that were necessary to their production. Many of these, such as dyes and pigments, were not readily accessible to artisans, and therefore had to be sourced and traded over long distances. This essay will show that Sogdian merchants were well positioned to do this, exchanging materials between groups or using them for their own artistic purposes, and will highlight the value of rare pigments and materials at the time.
I will investigate further the few pigments and materials that were reported in the readings. Sören Stark mentions that orpiment, a mineral known for its bright yellow-gold color, was part of the yearly tributes of Kashgar to the Western Türk (472). It is possible that it transited through Sogdian hands. In her lecture, Judith Lerner noted that Sogdians also traded lapis lazuli, a blue mineral found in Afghanistan, to the Chinese. It was used as a stone, possibly for inlay work, but could also be ground down to a fine powder for painting purposes. It would be interesting to see whether the murals at Afrasiab were painted using this pigment.
One of the most versatile materials traded by the Sogdians is ammonium chloride. Valerie Hansen notes that around 600 CE, a scale-fee register was recorded to weigh and tax the goods carried by 48 merchants in the Gaochang Kingdom (99-102). Among other products, ammonium chloride is listed six times, in amounts weighing up to 251 Chinese pounds. This chemical was used as a mordant for dyeing textiles and for working metals, either as a flux to lower their melting point, or as a darkening agent for damascened work.
I believe that this topic will cut across craft categories and will allow for a variety of objects to be linked to it.
- Economics / Politics: Tribute goods and gift exchange
This topic stems from Sören Stark’s paper on the role of trade goods in the diplomatic relations between Central Asian polities. One of the striking points in his article and lecture was that Sogdian cities did not constitute a unified political entity, and in fact constantly had to maintain harmonious relations with their neighbors, either Hephtalite, Türk, Chinese, Sassanian or Arab. This paper will demonstrate that the goods that were gifted in these diplomatic exercises and taxation systems embodied the hierarchies of power between Sogdian city-states and their overlords and allies. Aside from Stark’s “Luxurious Necessities,” Étienne de la Vaissière’s “Sogdian Traders” will be useful in detailing the Sogdians’ complex relationship with both western Asia and China in the Han and Tang dynasties.
- Sogdians in China: Representations of Sogdians as “auspicious westerners” in Chinese tombs
Sogdians traded and settled in Chinese territories over hundreds of years, but the evidence pertaining to how they were perceived by local populations is scant and contradictory. Texts and official histories tend to emphasize their mercantile skills and greed, traits that were held in low regard by Confucian moral standards. However, objects found in Chinese tombs contradict these textual records. Figures of Sogdian merchants and entertainers were often included as burial goods, or mingqi. Objects deposited into a person’s tomb had to be auspicious in some way, and would not have been included if they were seen to embody reprehensible moral traits.
This paper will therefore turn toward objects as evidence for Chinese perceptions of Sogdians. One avenue of investigation will be the idea of xiangrui, auspicious phenomena that occur when the ruler’s actions accord with the will of Heaven. These phenomena can include the appearance of rare animals, some of which, like peacocks or elephants, were thought to be mythical because they were not indigenous to China. Notably, several of these auspicious signs come from the so-called ‘western regions’, and are linked to Han emperor Wu’s westward territorial expansion. Could Sogdians also have been associated with the auspiciousness of the west? Did the fact that they brought goods and tribute consolidate a Chinese sense of control and power over these regions? This essay will try to open up alternative readings of Sino-Sogdian relations in China itself.
Relevant readings include the Monks and Merchants catalogue, especially p.254, and an article by Wu Hung,“A Sanpan Shan Chariot Ornament and the Xiangrui Design in Western Han Art,” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 37 (1984): 38-59.