Blog #5- the Sogdians

Each of the three articles, The Merchant Empire of the Sogdians, Sogdians in Northwest China, and The Sogdians in their Homeland highlight uniquely different aspects of the people of Sogdiana. While the first article focuses on the mercantile aspirations of the Sogdians and the subsequent flourishing of their mercantile culture, the second and third articles center on the activities and behaviour of the Sogdian community abroad in Northwest China and at home in Sogdiana respectively. Most of what is known to present-day historians of the people of Sogdiana comes from Chinese sources from the Tang and Sui period in which time Sogdiana was under Chinese authority. In addition much has been discovered of the daily lives, beliefs and rituals of the Sogdians from wall murals discovered at major Sogdian archaeological sites. The depiction of the Sogdians based on these sources is one of a community of people so uniquely different and much unlike any in the ancient world.

 

The first striking characteristic of the people of Sogdiana in comparison to their contemporaries is the high rank and value they placed on the merchant class in their social hierarchy. While most other cultures of the time were regarding the religious scholars and warriors as the highest and most respected classes in society and marginalizing the merchants, the Sogdians were doing just the contrary. Commercial enterprise and trade were of paramount importance and a consequence of upholding this precept was the accumulation of unprecedented wealth and prosperity for the Sogdians. The Sogdian precept allowed them to prosper for a number of reasons. Firstly, the de-emphasis on military training meant that the Sogdians hardly ever engaged in war with other people. Their patrons and rulers, alternating between the Turks and the Chinese, ruled over the Sogdians by facilitating and encouraging their commercial activities and by providing them with a lot of personal freedom. This is because the Sogdians’ rulers hardly recognized them as a military threat due to their lack of interest in the art of war.

 

Another unique characteristic of the Sogdian people was their ability to integrate and thrive in foreign lands, namely the Northwest region of China. According to Chinese sources a number of high-ranking families of the region were of Sogdian descent with very distinct Sogdian physical features. This form of trans-migration and social integration of a people in foreign cultures was extremely rare as they were usually ethnically closed and hostile to unfamiliar faces. However, the Sogdians not only were able to integrate, they were also able to secure themselves wealth and prosperity in these foreign lands as they occupied high-ranking positions in the administration of the Chinese empire. In addition to this, another unique trait of the Sogdian people which set them apart from all other communities was the flexibility of their religion.

 

The Sogdians were officially Zoroastrian, like their neighbouring Sassanian Persian contemporaries. However, unlike the Sassanians, the Sogdians were much less rigid and strict in their religious practice and beliefs, thus allowing them the advantage of creating more prosperous relationships with people from more influential cultures. The Sogdians were known to integrate the deities of traditions from other cultures into their own, which include deities from the Hindu tradition as well ancient Mesopotamian deities, resulting in a highly syncretic form of Zoroastrian practice. This practice enabled the Sogdians to foster better relations with the people of these other traditions, thereby enabling them to prosper in their trade activities.

 

Conclusively, the Sogdians were a shrewd economically driven people who were able to secure prosperity for themselves through the flexibility and adaptability of both their cultural and religious values. They very much resemble our modern Capitalist society which centers on economic activity and in which successful businessmen are granted the highest regard and respect in society.

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Blog # 4 – Buddhist pilgrim on the Silk Road

The article, Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road, chapters 1 to 4 by Sally Hoover Wriggins documents the physical journey of the Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzhang from China to India in his spiritual quest to discover the true teachings of the Buddha in the land of his origin in mid seventh century CE.  Irrespective of the monk’s spiritual objective which motivated his travels, Xuanzhang’s account of the journey proves to be an indispensable tool to contemporary historians in studying the Silk Roads.

Xuanzhang’s main motivation in journeying to India was to seek the “Truth”, or in order words, the true, unadulterated teachings of Shakyamuni, as he was discontent with the Buddhist principles being preached and practiced in China. This is a testimony to the argument I made in the short paper on Michel Strickmann’s article, that the Buddhist tradition which had developed in China was so different from the tradition practiced in India that it can easily be considered its own separate entity. However, in Wriggins’ article, the differences are outlined in more specific terms than in Strickmann’s article, as Wriggins distinguishes the tradition practiced by Xuanzhang in China as Mahayana Buddhism from the Indian Buddhist tradition which is largely Hinayana Buddhism. These two Buddhist schools of thought were significantly different in their beliefs and practices, but Xuanzhang was seeking a truth which was bigger and more universal than these two traditions, he was seeking out Shakyamuni himself.

Xuanzhang’s account of the centers of trade on the Silk Road he stops at on his journey to India, ranging from Turfan to Kashmir proves to be a vital historical record of those Silk Road destinations. His detailed descriptions of the people, the environment and the overall culture prevalent at the places such as Samarkand allows historians to study these ancient historically important centers and more than simply being able to study them as independent entities, historians are able to use Xuanzhang’s personal account of his first-hand experience in these places to identify the exchange which took place which ultimately led to the flourishing of the Silk Roads.

There is a great emphasis by Wriggins on the extraordinariness of such a feat by a single man who spent most of his life up to the point of his departure from China in religious training. The author of the article even refers to the journey as one which should have been in all respects, an “impossible” one. By doing so, Wriggins applies holy qualities to the monk, implying perfection in his character. This however, is bias on the author’s part as it is evident that her reverence and admiration for Xuanzhang prevents her from providing a more objective account of the monk’s travels.