Caught in an unending twirl

2018-11-30 11:55| 发布者: 武子| 查看: 185| 评论: 0|原作者: Zhao Xu|来自: chinadaily

摘要: The Sogdians performed a special role on the stage of the ancient Silk RoadIf the ancient Silk Road is a theater, then the Sogdians were its most dynamic performers. Monopolizing the trans-Eurasian trade route for half a millennium between the fourth and
[Photo provided to China Daily]

The Sogdians performed a special role on the stage of the ancient Silk Road

If the ancient Silk Road is a theater, then the Sogdians were its most dynamic performers. Monopolizing the trans-Eurasian trade route for half a millennium between the fourth and the eighth centuries, they left behind nothing but legends. Natural-born dancers, they entered history's stage just as they exited it - with a twirl.

This twirl captured the vivacity of their existence, reflecting the freewheeling, optimistic spirit of Chinese society of the day. Yet those who performed this twirl were ultimately blamed for the downward spiral that society eventually took.

However, before that heady performance, the Sogdian people - a group as hard to define as the ancient Silk Road - had dazzled with their commercial acumen and their utter determination in pursuing commercial goals.

They traveled vast distances - as much as 8000 kilometers - trading in almost everything and turning a profit in almost everything in which they traded.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

Rong Xinjiang, a professor of history at Peking University who has spent decades looking into the lives of the Sogdians, says: "Very often they are described as homeless, largely due to 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."

[Photo provided to China Daily]

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 Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of northwestern 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.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

"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, northwestern China, dated to 39BC. The documents record the disputes between officials at a Silk Road relay station in Gansu and a trade envoy coming from Samarkand.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

"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.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

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 long-distance 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 armpit."


[Photo provided to China Daily]

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 tomb raiding over the centuries, most gold ware and accessories that have come 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.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

"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."

The Sogdians set up a whole chain composed of many mid-route 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."

[Photo provided to China Daily]

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 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.


[Photo provided to China Daily]

Yet the people themselves, or at least their images, have survived the torrents of history and surfaced in relatively large numbers from the resting places of their Chinese contemporaries, those to whom they had tried to sell everything.

"The images, often rendered as ceramic or clay figurines, speak for the depth with which the Sogdians once penetrated Chinese society, not merely as traders," Rong says. "The influence they exerted, through commerce as well as their mere presence, reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty."

In most of the Tang-era figurines, the Sogdian merchants were portrayed as having a high nose, deepset eyes and thick beard. Equally distinctive was what they wore: turban or pointed hat, lapelled coat or kaftan with narrow sleeves and tightfitting trousers, complete with felt boots.

A retinue of pottery soldiers unearthed from the 6th century tomb of a Han general in Ningxia. Among the soldiers were both Han ethnic majority people and the Sogdians. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Often they appear alongside or mounting their companion of the road, a camel or a horse. At other times they seem to be enduring the hardship alone: a Tang Dynasty porcelain figurine unearthed in Luoyang city in Henan province depicts a Sogdian merchant holding a water bottle in one hand and carrying a big sack of goods on his bending back. In Luoyang, one of the two major trading hubs of the Tang Empire, large market-based Sogdian communities formed. The other was Xi'an of Shaanxi province, the empire's capital.

The things they sold into the Chinese heartland, often in exchange for the famous silk, touched almost all aspects of local life. Apart from gems and spices, this included metal wares, medicines and even gold and silver coins from various countries along the road.

If all these things contribute to the magic bag of exoticism, for the local Chinese the Sogdians embodied this word. That might explain why as the people of Tang avidly took up everything brought to them through the Silk Road, they also opened their arms to the indigenous culture of the traders, whom they conveniently called the "Hu people". Hu refers loosely to a foreigner and more specifically to Western and Central Asian men who spoke eastern Iranian languages, Rong says.


A pair of Tang Dynasty jade bangles with gold mounting, unearthed in Xi'an. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Hu dress, Hu sound, Hu food and Hu religion - those were four main aspects that came to influence and encompass the life of a local Chinese living during the Tang era, especially its first half between the seventh and eighth centuries."

Of all, the Hu sound, and the dance that came with it, had the most fanfare and vivacity.

It is easy to imagine that the music and the dance served to soothe ruffled souls as people traveled the physically and mentally challenging journey on the Silk Road, sometimes at risk of their lives. Occasionally appearing on the back of a porcelain camel is a stringed musical instrument whose big belly and crooked neck set it apart from similar ones that Chinese used at the time.

Images of music performers and dancers found their way onto everything from the exterior of an octagonal gilt bronze cup unearthed in Xi'an to that of a flattened flask discovered in Luoyang. In the case of the cup, its side is divided into eight facets, each featuring a panel decorated with the chiseled image of a Sogdian musician.

Tang Dynasty octagonal gilt metal cup with images of Sogdian entertainers, unearthed in Xi'an. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A more vivid group portrait involves ceramic renditions of five musicians and a storyteller, unearthed in a Tang tomb on the outskirts of Xi'an. With their Sogdian identity clearly established through both facial features and dress style, these men were engaged in performance requiring a high degree of coordination. The tacit consensus among these men, as well as the depth with which they allow themselves to be absorbed into the narration, was captured in a fleeting moment of interactive gestures and intense expression. The story told must be one about their own home.

Moments of deep lamentation there certainly were, but the Sogdians, whose entrepreneurship was matched by admirable daring, were never short of vim.

And whatever lay ahead, they could always stage a twirl, with a signature leap that led the dance being dubbed Hu Teng Wu or Hu Xuan Wu, meaning literally the dance of leaping or twirling.

The dance provided an apt metaphor. During the heyday of the ancient Silk Road, the Tang Empire had a passion for all things foreign, a passion that can now be seen as full blooded infatuation.

In 755 the empire and its ruler, Emperor Xuanzong, were yanked out of their reverie by internal rebellions led by two of its military governors of border regions. Both men were of Sogdian origin.


A paper rubbing from the gilt metal cup with images of eight Sogdian entertainers. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"At the end of the twirl, the emperor was left in a daze," wrote the Tang Dynasty poet Yuan Zhen in the aftermath of the shock, offering mild criticism of Xuanzong, himself a music virtuoso and aficionado of the Hu dance.

The rebellion, taking more than seven years to quell, not only sapped the powerful empire of all its energy and zeal, but also represented a turning point of the fortunes of the Sogdians in China.

Overnight, infatuation was replaced by mistrust, if not hatred, and openness by rejection. Economically and emotionally, a weakened Tang Empire was no longer the market it once was for Sogdians, whose own status on the Silk Road was also challenged by Arabs from the west and by Uygurs from the east.

"It is fair to say that in terms of doing business, the Sogdians were the teachers of the Uygurs living in what is today Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in western and northwestern China," Rong says. "The two people also intermarried. By the 10th century the Sogdians had largely retreated from the center stage of international trade."

The dust they and their pack animals had aroused on the Silk Road also gradually settled: although a dramatic decline took place much later, around the 16th century, the kind of brisk trade the Sogdians witnessed was never repeated.

On a pair of stone gates leading to a Tang Dynasty tomb in Ningxia Hui autonomous region, northwestern China, are two dancing Sogdians. With one leg rooted on a round carpet and the other lifted up, each is engaged in a spin of their own. Everything else - the ribbons, the upturned skirt hems and even the surrounding clouds - spin with them.

For a moment it may seem they will never stop.


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