An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Sute 粟特, Soghdia or Soghdiana

Nov 25, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Soghdians, by the Chinese transliterated as Sute 粟特, Suyi 粟弋, Suli 窣利, Shuyao, 屬繇 Suxie 蘇薤, Suli 蘇哩 or Xinghu 興胡, lived in the fertile river plain between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya in modern Uzbekistan. The region was called Soghdiana, or, in the native language, Sugda or Soγd.

Most of the inhabitants lived of pastoral nomadism, but a few also engaged in trade, a business gained importance over time. The Soghdians thus became one of the most active peoples trading along the Silkroad. The region was first controlled by the empire of Daxia 大夏 (Bactria), later to the steppe federation of the Yuezhi 月氏 (Tokharians).

During the Northern Dynasties period 北朝 (386-581) the state of Sogdhia came into being. The main cities were Maraganda, Afrāsiāb (country of Kangju 康居, later Kangguo 康國), Varakhsha and Ramitan (country of Anguo 安國). A large communitiy of Soghdian merchants lived in Guzang 姑藏 (modern Wuwei 武威, Gansu), the capital of the Northern Liang empire 北涼 (398-439/460), but Soghdians also came to Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), Luoyang 洛陽, Huaiyang 淮陽 and even to Hongzhou 洪州 (modern Nanchang 南昌, Jiangxi) and Jiangling 江陵.

When the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) conquered the Northern Liang empire, Soghdian merchants and tradesmen were captured and brought to the capital of the Northern Wei in Pingcheng 平城 (modern Datong 大同, Shanxi). The nobility of the Northern Wei particularly liked the glass utensils produced by Soghdian craftsmen and adorned their palaces with pieces of glass. The knowledge of glass production was transmitted to Chinese craftsmen in the region of Datong, and this place was for a long time known for this métier.

The fertile lands of the Soghdiana brought high yields in grain, cotton, grapes, and peaches, while other parts of the population bred horses and other domestic animals. Soghdia was an important producer and exporter of wine. Local mines produced gold, salammoniac (naosha 硇沙), and various types of salt. Men of the trades were famous for their weapons and objects of crystal or other precious stones. Local textiles consisted of wool, cotton, and silk. Knowledge of paper making had been adapted from China, and was later transmitted to the Near East.

Soghdian literature included historiographical texts, poetry, religious texts, parables and fables XXX. Tang China loved Soghdian music and employed musicians from that region. Quite a few musical instruments from Western or Central Asia found entrance into the corpus of Chinese musical instruments, most notably the lute (pipa 琵琶). Painting was also a notable branch of the arts in Soghdia.

Soghdian communities were found in many regions of western China. In Dunhuang 敦煌 (modern Dunhuang, Gansu), for example, 1,300 Soghdian merchants lived with their families. Even the famous rebel An Lushan 安祿山, who nearly brought the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) to an end, was of Soghdian origin. Soghdian merchants brought with them not only merchandise, but also the Persian religions of Manicheism and Zoroastrianism as well as Central Asian music, dance and astronomical knowledge.

During the 6th century the state of the Soghdia (Kangju) disintegrated into nine statelets. The Chinese called these countries Kangguo 康國, Anguo 安國 (the two of them being the largest), as well as the city-states of Shiguo (1) 石國, Miguo 米國, Shiguo (2) 史國, Heguo 何國, Caoguo 曹國, Huoxun 火尋 (Khwarezmia) and Wudi 戊地. These nine states were ruled by the "Nine Tribes of Zhaowu" (Zhaowu jiuxing 昭武九姓).

Map 1. The Nine States of the Soghdiana
The Soghdia around 600 CE. Based on Tan Qixiang 譚其驤, ed. (1995), Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 中國歷史地圖集, Vol. 5, Sui, Tang, Wudai Shiguo shiqi 隋唐五代十國時期 (Beijing: Zhongguo ditu chubanshe, 1996).

The state of Wudi, also called Fadi 伐地 or Western An 西安國, was located west of modern Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Historiographical sources of China also mention some other communities in the region of the Sogdhiana, like Nasebo 那色波 or Lesser Shi 小史 (modern Karshi), Wunahe 烏那曷 (modern Andkhoy, Afghanistan), Muguo 穆國, or Peihan 㤄捍/Pohanna 鏺汗那/Bahanna 拔汗那 (near Andijon, Uzbekistan). Muguo, also transliterated as Mulu 木鹿, Malan 馬蘭, Malu 馬盧, Molu 末祿 or Mali 馬里, was located near modern Türkmenabat in modern Turkmenistan on the banks of River Amu Darya. It was the westernmost state of the Soghdiana and disappeared at the beginning of the 7th century.

There is still discussion going on about the origin of the name Zhaowu. It is traditionally said to be derived from the ancient city of Zhaowu 昭武 north of the Qilian Range 祁連 山 (modern Linze 臨澤, Gansu). During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) its inhabitants moved to the west, forced by the raids of the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴. Their king founded the state of Kang (i.e. Kangju) and enfeoffed his eight sons with statelets located in the neighborhood.

The region of the Soghdiana acted as cultural turntable between Persia, India, and China. During the Tang period, the Soghdian cities were incorporated into the Protectorate of the Pacified West (Anxi duhufu 安西都護府). The influence of the Tang empire can be seen, for instance, in the coins of the Soghdian states that imitated the Chinese coins with the square hole in the middle. Yet the coins are inscribed with Soghdian script, and present the names of rulers. This helps reconstructing the history of that region as well as to identify local names with the renderings presented in Chinese sources.

From the 8th century on the Soghdiana came into the orbit of the invading Muslims (by the Chinese called Dashi 大食), and the region was envolved into the wars between Tang China, the Persians, and the khanate of the Western Turks 西突厥. In 751 the Tang troops and their Qarluq (Chinese name Geluolu 葛邏祿) allies were defeated by the Arabian general Ziyād ben Ṣāliḥ. Some Soghdian paper craftsmen were captured by the Muslims and brought the art of papermaking to Western Asia.

The Soghdian language, related to Iranian, was common as a lingua franca among the merchants of the Silk Road until the 12th century, when it was replaced by Uyghurian and Mongolian. In Dunhuang and Turfan 吐魯番, as well as in Mongolia, several monolingual and bilingual documents (Soghdian and Uyghurian) were discovered which. The enable scholars to reconstruct the language of the Soghdians. The Soghdian script was the basis for the Uyghurian script and thus indirectly for the Mongolian and Manchurian scripts.

Li Zhiran 李植枏, ed. (1991). Waiguo lishi cidian 外國歷史辭典 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe), 77.
Ma Xiaohe 馬小鶴 (1990). "Zhaowu jiuxing 昭武九姓", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Waiguo lishi 外國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1135.
Ma Xiaohe 馬小鶴, Yu Taishan 余太山 (1990). "Sute 粟特", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Waiguo lishi 外國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 889.
Pu Kaifu 蒲開夫, Zhu Yifan 朱一凡, Li Xingli 李行力, ed. (2006). Xinjiang baike zhishi cidian 新疆百科知識辭典 (Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe), 769.
Qian Boquan 錢伯泉 (1994). "Sute 粟特", in Xue Li 雪犁, ed. Zhongguo sichou zhi lu cidian 中國絲綢之路辭典 (Ürümqi: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe), 280.
Sun Wenfan 孫文范, ed. (1990). Shijie lishi diming cidian 世界歷史地名辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), 456.
Tan Qixiang 譚其驤 (1996). Zhongguo lishi ditu ji 中國歷史地圖集, Vol. 5, Sui, Tang, Wudai, Shiguo shiqi 隋唐五代十國時期 (Beijing: Zhongguo ditu chubanshe).
Zhang Guangda 張廣達 (1992). "Sute 粟特", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1030.
Zhang Guangda 張廣達 (1992). "Zhaowu jiuxing 昭武九姓", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1514.