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Histoire des marchands sogdiens.

Histoire des marchands sogdiens. By ETIENNE DE LA VAISSIERE. Bibliotheque de l'Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises, vol. 32. Paris: COLLEGE DE FRANCE, BIBLIOTHEQUE DE L'INSTITUT DES HAUTES ETUDES CHINOISES, 2002. Pp. 413, plates, maps.

From their homeland in what is today Uzbekistan, Sogdian merchants established colonies that dotted the Silk Road from Gansu to the Crimea. Constituting one of the most extraordinary trading diasporas in world history, they were bearers of goods (silks and precious stones in particular), cultures, and religions across Eurasia. In addition to their local Mazdaism, Sogdian devotees of Manichaeanism, Nestorian Christianity, and Buddhism spread these faiths to the Turkic peoples and China. In return, their own culture was enriched by influences stemming from other Iranian peoples, the Indic world, China, and the Turks.

The Sogdian script based on Syriac and associated with one or another of these religions also made its way to the Turks, thence to the Mongols, and ultimately to the Manchus. Sogdian (surviving today only in Yaghnobi) was the lingua franca of the northern Silk Road, leaving behind graffiti as far away as the Indus valley. Middle Turkic terms pertaining to religious concepts (e.g., ucmaq 'Heaven' < Sogd. 'wstmg), urban life (e.g., kend 'town' < Sogd. kndh), viniculture (e.g., bekini 'wine from millet' < Sogd. bg'ny), weights and measures (e.g., batman 'unit of measurement' < Sogd. ptm'n), etc., attest to its influence on the Turks. Eastern Turkistan, one of their areas of settlement, has preserved remnants of the rich Sogdian religious literature. (1) This was a culture which Richard Frye has characterized as "mercantile secularism," syncretistic, interested in and tolerant of a variety of confessions. (2) Their openness to the cultures with which they came into contact also played a role, de la Vaissiere maintains (p. 9), in the shaping of the Central Asian Islamic intellectual world (cf. al-Biruni, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and al-Khwarazmi--a number of these figures were actually Khwarazmians, but Khwarazm was part of the larger economic and culture network of Sogdia). Cultural fusion also found expression in the extraordinary artwork depicting gods, heroes, Aesops' fables, folk tales, etc., in the lavish palaces of the nobles and leading merchants. (3)

The Sogdians were loosely organized into a series of city-states ruled by kings (often little more than a primus inter pares). Samarkand was probably the most powerful of these statelets. Paykand, the famed "city of merchants," was ruled collectively by the merchants (pp. 163-65). The role of the cakars, the personal guard corps of the great merchants and nobles, in the shaping of the ghulam/mamluk institution of the Islamic Middle East (4) is only one of a number of issues concerning the complex social structure of the Sogdian world that requires further elucidation. (5) Much of the work done thus far has focused on philology and art. The Mount Mugh documents (the archives of the early eighth-century Sogdian lord of Panjikant, Dewashtich) and the fragments of personal and commercial correspondence along the Silk Road give us a glimpse into the world that the Sogdians themselves saw. The scattered and fragmentary nature of the historical material in a daunting array of languages has delayed, thus far, a full-length study of the Sogdians, long one of the major desiderata of Inner Asian studies. In de la Vaissiere's volume under review here, we have a work that does much to achieve that goal.

Sogdian commerce itself has not been studied in any systematic fashion. Hence, the author's primary focus is the Sogdian merchant the origins, chronology, and scope of his commerce. Included also are discussions of his social standing in Sogdian and host societies, the process of integration, and eventual assimilation into their host societies in the pre-Chinggisid era. The book is divided into four parts: the old network up to 350 A.D., the commercial empire (350-550), commerce and diplomacy (550-750), and the dividing up of the networks (700-1000). Sogdia was successively part of the Achaemenid, Macedonian, and Graeco-Bactrian empires until the latter fell to nomadic invaders ca. 140-130 B.C. The author concludes (p. 28) that the Sogdian network did not yet exist in Alexander's time. Long-distance merchants, noted in Chinese sources (e.g., Sima Qian) as active in Central Asia and coming from areas that may be identified as Sogdia, appear to be on the scene by the late second century B.C. However, they had not yet established direct links with China.

De la Vaissiere identifies China as the catalyst in the development of the Silk Road and of the Sogdian commercial network. He associates this initial development with the mission of Zhang Qian (ca. 130-125 B.C.), dispatched by the Han to reconnoiter the "Western Regions" and forge alliances against the Xiongnu. Subsequent Chinese missions to Central Asia supplemented their diplomatic activities with trading, creating a "veritable commercial circuit on the fringes of the official diplomatic circuit" (p. 36). Thus, silk moved from the world of diplomacy to that of commerce, assisted, perhaps, by the nomads who acquired and traded Chinese silk for the goods produced by the oasis cities of Central Asia. Sogdia, on the borders of the steppe world, was in the best position to profit from this "innovation." Nonetheless, contact with China was indirect, probably through intermediaries such as the Bactrians (and Indians) of the Kushan empire who dominated Inner Asian long-distance commerce at that time (p. 97) and were a key link in the movement of Chinese silk to the Roman world. Direct Sogdian involvement became clear only by the first century B.C. The Sogdian "ancient letters" (fourth-century A.D.) show an already established post and trade network between Sogdian commercial colonies in Gansu and their homeland. The letters hint at the important role of family companies in these enterprises.

The turbulent fourth century does not appear to have adversely affected the Sogdians. Indeed, they profited from the fall of the Kushans and expanded into the Tarim Basin. By the end of the century, the "Sogdians appear to have become the principal merchants" dealing with China (p. 76). Their commercial activities were not limited to China, but encompassed northern India and beyond. Among the numerous graffiti in a variety of languages that have been found on the land routes between China and northern India, those in Sogdian hold primacy and show "the importance of the Sogdian presence in India since the third century" (p. 87). Indic loanwords appear in the Sogdian ancient letters (e.g., s'rt < Sanskrit sartha 'merchant') and from Sogdian into Turkic, where sart initially denoted an urban-dwelling merchant (6)). Some of these terms may have come via Kushan intermediaries. Monks of probable Sogdian merchant origin and fluent in Indic and Chinese played an important role in bringing Buddhism to China.

The author (p. 101) places the apogee of Sogdian commerce in the sixth to eighth centuries, following a series of nomadic incursions (Huns, Kidarites, Hephthalites). The Sogdians, in succession, were under Hunnic (ca. 350-ca. 437), Kidarite (mid-fifth century), Hephthalite (early--mid-sixth century), and Turk rule. During the brief Kidarite era, Sogdia surpassed Bactria as the commercial center (p. 114). The same period was marked by an expansion of the agricultural base of Sogdia proper and concomitant growth of population. The brief Tang takeover of parts of Central Asia (mid-seventh century) and nominal control of Sogdia (latter half of the seventh century) strengthened Sogdian commercial predominance. Sogdian culture spread to outlying regions (Chach/Tashkent) and established colonies in Semirech'e, which came to be viewed as Sogdia. Meanwhile, the Sogdians became the principal suppliers of "western exotica" that had become fashionable at the Tang court. Central Asian music, dance, and sports became popular in the Chinese capital. Sogdians seemed to be constantly on the move between Semirech'e and Gansu. The Tang, de la Vaissiere argues, were promoters of the Sogdian merchants. They appreciated the goods that they brought to China and used the wealth generated by the foreign merchants to "reduce the exorbitant costs of the Tang military presence in these distant regions" (p. 151). Sogdian commerce ranged from Merv to the borders of Korea.

The Sogdian settlements were not limited to merchants but contained populations of artisans, agriculturalists, bureaucrats, and those servicing the caravans. These communities also came to include Sogdianized groupings, such as North Indian merchants who had taken up residence among them. Although the written sources are fragmentary, archaeology has something to tell us about the structure of Sogdian society. Merchants constituted a distinct class, enjoying a high status in society, just below that of the nobles--although their exact status in Sogdia proper is not completely clear. Judging from the ruins of Panjikant, their homes were on a par with those of the aristocracy. Some nobles (in Semirech'e) appear to have been of merchant origin. Elsewhere it is unclear if wealthy landholding nobles invested in commercial ventures. There was social differentiation among the merchants. Most were small-scale traders who traveled distances of hundreds of kilometers between three or four towns. Caravans were relatively small, consisting often of only forty men at most, many traveling on donkeys and mules.

Silk and subsequently slaves and musk were their principal specialties, but they were more than prepared to meet whatever needs the local markets might require. In China, in addition to the "exotic" animals and products from the "Western Regions," they also "made a specialty of importing young servants/waitresses, musicians, singers, dancers etc." (p. 171). Among their competitors were the Khotanese (who had their own niche: jade), the Persians (who controlled the maritime routes), and the Jewish trading diasporas such as the Radhanites.

In part three, the author takes up the issue of the Sogdian-Turkic symbiosis and its cultural reflection in the Turk and Uighur ruling circles. The earliest known inscription of the Turk empire (the Bugut inscription--last quarter of the sixth century) is in Sogdian. Sogdians and most probably their language were employed in the earliest diplomatic contacts with China and Byzantium. Sogdian was, de la Vaissiere surmises, the language of the Turk chancery (p. 199). The Chinese viewed the many Sogdians who lived among the Turks as the "brains" behind the nomads' imperial and commercial endeavors. These close connections, as a number of scholars have suggested, are already reflected in the ethnogonic tales of the Ashina (p. 202, cf. the Sui shu: "mixed Hu from the region of Pingliang"), the ruling clan of the Turks. The name itself is most probably East Iranian, perhaps Khotanese Saka asseina ~ assena 'blue' (cf. Turkic Kok Turk, Turk. kok "blue"), (7) and they came from a frontier zone where ethnically diverse groups had been mixing for centuries.

Silk brought the Turks into direct contact with China. Turk military might gained them large amounts of silk from the rival Zhou and Qi dynasties, which were competing for their support. The Turks then employed the Sogdians as intermediaries in their attempts to sell it to Iran and Byzantium. The Sogdians, in turn, converted this into a trading network extending from eastern Europe to East Asia. Sogdian colonies in the Ordos (the alti cub Sogdaq of the Kul Tegin and Bilge Qaghan inscriptions (8) or "six prefectures of the Hu"/"Hu Park" of the Chinese sources) were also deeply involved in horse-breeding and the substantial horse trade between the Turks and China (pp. 211-12).

The Sogdians weathered the collapse of the Turk empires and quickly established the same relationship with the Uighurs, the successors of the Turks in the east. The revolt of An Lushan (a Tang general of Sogdian and Turk origin) and its aftermath (755-763), which brought the Uighurs into the Chinese capital to save and then prop up the Tang, produced a change in the relationship. Tang xenophilia was replaced by xenophobia. The Sogdians, de la Vaissiere suggests (p. 218), converted the Uighur qaghan, in Luoyang, to Manichaeanism in 762 in a desperate attempt to gain a protector against Chinese wrath. When the Uighur empire fell (840), the anti-Sogdian/anti-Manichaean persecutions resumed. China's shift to Chinese merchants hurt Sogdian trade. It was another factor binding the Sogdians to the Uighurs (p. 308). Anti-Sogdian factions at the Uighur court also made for periods of uncertainty and loss of influence.

Sogdian attempts in the west to use the Turks to open Sasanid Iran to them were less successful. The author concludes (p. 230) that the Turks oscillated between Byzantium and Iran and suggests that the fragments of Menander's history dealing with these events (e.g., frag. 19, the events of 576 (9)) have been "overinterpreted" in favor of an alleged permanent Byzantine-Turk alliance. I do not find the evidence convincing for a resumption of the Turk-Sasanid alliance. While the passage in question certainly indicates Turk anger, accusing the Byzantines of using ten tongues and lying with all of them, its real focus was dissatisfaction with the treaty that the Byzantines had concluded with the Avars (Uarkhonitae), whom the Turks considered their fugitive slaves.

Since the Iranian route was blocked, the Sogdians brought their goods to Byzantium through the Caucasus and the Crimea. Sugdaia (Surozh') appears to have been founded at the latest by the end of the seventh century and became the entryway into the Sogdo-Turk world. Sogdo-Turk enterprise restored direct ties between the Greek world and Central Asia (pp. 243-44), severed since the fall of the Hellenistic states.

The Sogdians were also active in Khazaria (ca. 650-965), the successor state of the Western Turk empire in the Ponto-Caspian steppes. The merchants in the Khazar cities were largely of foreign origin, mainly Khwarazmians (who also constituted the royal guard of the Khazar qaghans). The exact nature of their cooperation is unclear, but the Khwarazmians were part of the Sogdian transcontinental network. The author suggests (p. 253) that between ca. 700-800, the Sogdians controlled Khwarazm's international commerce of which the slave trade was a major component.

The An Lushan revolt ended the Chinese presence in Transoxiana (much more so than the Arab victory on the Talas in 751) (p. 262). There were pro- and anti-Arab factions among the Sogdians themselves. China's withdrawal from Central Asia, the fuller integration of Transoxiana into the Caliphate, and the collapse of the Uighur empire were the turning points that marked the beginning of the Sogdian decline, ca. 850-900. Sogdians appeared in new guises. Transoxanian (Sogdian) professional soldiers (e.g., the Afshin of Ustrushana) became important in the caliphal armies of the early ninth century. Subsequently the Samanids began to carve out a de facto independent polity in much of the Sogdian core lands. The brilliant court culture that the Samanids sponsored, however, was Persian. Sogdian culture entered a crisis from which it never recovered. De la Vaissiere contends (p. 287) that the last generation of urban Sogdian speakers was probably born in the first third of the tenth century. Sogdian survived in rural regions and in cities that were under Turkic control (e.g., Balasaghun). Sogdia became "Ma wara'n-nahr" and adapted eastern Persian norms, its merchants slipping into a secondary role to eastern Persian and Khwarazmian merchants. Another factor contributing to the end of an already weakened Sogdian commercial economy was the shift of the silk trade to the sea routes by the mid-tenth century. After 930, the Sogdians in their colonies abroad began to assimilate fully into the local populations (Chinese, Turkic). This had actually been an ongoing process from the very beginning, but unlike the previous eras, there were no new waves of Sogdian immigrants to keep the old culture flourishing (pp. 324-25).

De la Vaissiere has synthesized a great deal of information coming from a broad array of written sources (especially Sogdian, Chinese, Arabic, Byzantine) and archaeological publications. This is a first-rate study. It is rich in detail and essential reading for anyone interested in questions of world history, the history of commerce, and the history of Inner Asia and China.

1. See most recently Xavier Tremblay, Pour une histoire de la Serinde (Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2001) and B. A. Litvinskii, Vostochnyi Turkestan v drevnosti i rannem sredenevekov'e. Etnos, iazyki, religii (Moscow: Nauka, 1992).

2. The History of Ancient Iran (Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1984): 351-52.

3. See Boris Marshak, Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002).

4. See R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Central Asia (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1996), 195-96, and C. I. Beckwith, "Aspects of the Early History of the Central Asian Guard Corps in Islam," Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 4 (1984): 29-43, who argue for Central Asian models. A differing view is found in M. S. Gordon, The Breaking of a Thousand Swords. A History of the Turkish Military of Samarra (A.H. 200-275/815-889) (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 2001), 7-8, 40, 156.

5. See O. I. Smirnova, Ocherki iz istorii Sogda (Moscow: Nauka, 1970).

6. See Sir Gerard Clauson, An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972): 846.

7. See most recent discussion in S. G. Klyashtorny, "The Royal Clan of the Turks and the Problem of Early Turkic-Iranian Contacts," Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 47 (1994): 445-47.

8. See S. G. Kliashtornyi, Drevnetiurkskie runicheskie pamiatniki kak istochnik po istorii Srednei Azii (Moscow: Nauka, 1954): 78-101.

9. R. C. Blockley, The History of Menander the Guardsman (Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 1985): 170ff.


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Author:Golden, Peter B.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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