Tomb of Shi Jun (Wirkak) (b.484) and his wife
This tomb, excavated in 2003 in Xi’an, contains a sarcophagus depicting the life and death of Shi Jun (Wirkak in Sogdian), who rose to the rank of sabao in Liangzhou before dying in 579 CE (Grenet 2007, 465). The six panels of the structure depict the ascent of Shi Jun as a merchant and a political figure, and is the most personalized narrative depicted among the tombs that have been excavated so far. Through the examination of the panels and the epitaph, we learn many of the details of Sogdian merchant life in China, and the way in which Sogdian traditions were integrated and renegotiated outside of Sogdiana.
The carvings on Wirkak’s tomb are believed to be autobiographical, and as such can provide information about not just Shi Jun, but his family heritage, which is important as his Sogdian family lived and thrived in China for multiple generations. For example, the second panel shows a crowned couple, the man holding an infant in his lap. This is thought to represent Wirkak as an infant, in the arms of his grandfather, who also in his time served as a sabao (Dien 2003, 107). The panels go on to show important moments in Wirkak’s life, depicting his travels with a caravan and finally, his happy retirement years with his wife (Dien 2003, 108). We learn from Shi Jun’s epitaph that the men of his family all married Sogdian women, and thus retained their physical differences from the Chinese (Lerner 2002, 244).
The sheer size and elaborate decorations of the tomb give us an idea of the importance of the sabao in China. This title refers specifically to a leader of a Sogdian community, and derives from the Chinese form of the Sogdian title s’trp’w, meaning caravan leader (Dien 2003, 109). Shi Jun’s tomb is the largest Chinese tomb that has been uncovered, aside from that of the emperor and one of the founders of the state (Dien 2003, 109). This is especially notable considering that he is a foreigner, and would have been perceived on some level as a ‘barbarian’ in the eyes of the Chinese. The tomb itself works as a text that can teach us about Shi Jun’s life story, but also about the wealth and status associated with the title of sabao.
The Tomb of Shi Jun and his wife provides us with a useful glimpse into the lives of Sogdians living abroad in China. The tomb portrays some Zoroastrian rituals, but the format is distinctly Chinese. Traditional Zoroastrian practice dictated that the body of a deceased person be picked clean by carrion before the final remains were placed in an ossuary - to bury a dead body in the ground would be polluting to the earth. The fact that Shi Jun and his wife are buried in an underground tomb at all shows us that Sogdians in China had at least partially accepted the Chinese traditions of underground burial (Lerner 2002, 240).
Cultures express themselves and their normative values most markedly when conducting funeral proceedings. Due to the finality of death, along with commonly held beliefs of respecting ancestry, great care was taken in both the Chinese and Sogdian cultures to construct elaborate tombs celebrating the lives of their lost loved ones. It is in this area that archeologists have been able to witness a strong degree of cultural exchange between the Chinese empire and the Sogdian people through an analysis of the ancient tombs uncovered in Xi’an. Particularly within the structure, decorations, and inscriptions found in the tomb of Shi Jun, one can pinpoint clear cultural immersion of two cultures.
Adherence to traditional Chinese values is reflected in the fact that the structure of the burial tomb is traditionally Chinese.2 It is structured as a house, with a sloped roof and inscriptions on the inner and outer walls. Particularly interesting in the case of Shi Jun and his wife’s tomb is the appearance of religious funerary rituals not traditionally practiced by the Chinese. These rituals belong to a religion practiced in Sogdiana, termed Zorastrianism, or Mazdaism, and can only be found in texts or in surviving practices with Zoroastrians today.3 This homage to religious beliefs indicates Wirwak’s adherence to traditional religious values. The depictions engraved in his tomb are of such things as a priest blessing a fire, mourners standing by with knives to their heads, and a dog gazing at the body; all of which gives archeologists insight into how the family prepared Wirwak’s body for burial.
Shi Jun’s tomb is one of the few uncovered which features bilingual epitaphs, one in Songdian and one in Chinese. It is interesting to note that these epitaphs are not direct translations of one another, though overlap on several factual details regarding his date of death, his family, and that he served as a sabao in Wuwei, Gansu.5 Insights as to what Sogdians perceived the afterlife to be can also be obtained through these depictions, particularly of Wirwak and his wife at the end of a bridge which stands over a fearsome monster.6 This depicts the turmoil that Shi Jun and his wife have had to cross in order to reach paradise, and their position at the end of the bridge suggests that in death, they have reached paradise. Across this bridge walks a caravan of camels, sheep, and other animals beneficial to humans. The presence of camels and pack animals calls to mind merchants along the Silk Road toting their wares, and this depiction seems to suggest that material possessions and wealth can follow one to paradise.
Other depictions follow Chinese tradition in showing the viewer various aspects of the deceased’s life. In the case of Shi Jun, who was a very successful public figure, banquets, hunts, and depictions of Wirwak inside a tent talking with an individual of foreign descent are all displayed.
It should be noted that the tomb of Shi Jun is not necessarily exemplary of the degree of cultural exchange maintained by most of the populous under Chinese rule, as Shi Jun was given the title of sabao of Kachan by the emperor and was clearly an important individual to the Chinese aristocracy.7 This title could indicate the original meaning of “caravan leader” but was more likely meant to indicate here that Shi Jun was appointed a leader of his Sogdian community by the emperor.8 What the tomb of Shi Jun and his wife suggests then, is that it was possible for individuals within the conquered Chinese territory to assimilate while still retaining their language and their religion. This process of partial assimilation could have been helped along through the appointment of sabaos within the Sogdian community, as Shi Jun was, in order to normalize and demonstrate to the public how Chinese practices can exist alongside Sogdian values.
A couple of years after the discovery of An Qie’s tomb, in 2003, about 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) from An Qie’s, archaeologists uncovered another Sogdian tomb (Hansen 2015, 145). The tomb was the resting place of Wirkak, who was born in about 494 (Grenet 2007, 463). The Sogdian name Wirkak comes from the word for “wolf” (Hansen 2015, 144). Although Wirkak’s Chinese name is unknown, his family name was Shi, indicating his ancestors came from Kish (modern Shahr-i Sabz) in Sogdiana (Hansen 2015, 145; Grenet 2007, 463; Rose 2010, 416). His wife’s family name of Kang also indicates her family’s Central Asian origins. Despite her heritage, Wirkak’s wife is always shown dressed as a Chinese lady (Grenet 2007, 462-463).Wirkak died at the age of eighty-five in 579, the same year as his wife, who is buried with him (Grenet 2007, 463; Hansen 2015, 146).
From the epitaph inscription mounted above the door, we learn he served as a sabao in Wuwei, Gansu (formerly Liangzhou) (Cheng 2008, 89; Hansen 2015, 144-146). Wirkak’s tomb had two versions of this epitaph, one in Sogdian and one in Chinese. However, the two translations are not quite the same text. Both translations show a weak command of the languages. At the end of the epitaph, we learn the couple had three sons as it notes they built the tomb for them (Hansen 2015, 146).
Characteristic of Chinese tombs, Wirkak’s tomb had a sloping walkway leading to the tomb chamber. In the chamber was a 2.46 meter (8 feet) long, 1.55 meter (5.1 feet) wide, and 1.58 meter (5.18 feet) high stone house. The outside of the stone house was decorated with different scenes (Hansen 2015, 145-146). Wirkak’s tomb included scenes commonly found on other Sogdian tombs, such as a banquet, a hunt, and the Sogdian swirl (Hansen 2015, 146; Lerner 2005, 53). The scene of Wirkak’s tomb which is most discussed is the scene of his and his wife’s crossing of the Chinwad bridge into the Zoroastrian paradise, “House of the Song of Song” (Grenet 2007, 468). The bridge is guarded by two dogs and two “priest bird men” stand at the entrance. Leading the procession is a group of musicians and an escort of hybrid animals, while behind the couple is a procession of animals including horses, a donkey, a cow, sheep, two camels, and a bird (Grenet 2007, 490). This ascending into paradise scene on Wirkak’s tomb is one of the most detailed portrayals of Zoroastrian beliefs about the fate of the dead that is known (Hansen 2015, 146).
1. Dien, Albert, “Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi”, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, Vol. 17 (2003), 105-115.
2. Grenet, Franz, “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism,”Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27/2 (2007).\
3. Lerner, J.A., and Juliano, A.L., eds, Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northern China (New York: Abrams, 2002).
Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Lerner, Judith A. “‘Les Sogdiens En Chine—Nouvelles Découvertes Historiques, Archéologiques Et Linguistiques’ and Two Recently Discovered Sogdian Tombs in Xi'an.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 15 (2001): 151-62.
Lerner, Judith A. "Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian
Tombs in China." Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York.
Cheng, Bonnie. 2008. “The Space Between: Locating ‘Culture’ in Artistic Exchange.” Ars Orentalis 38 (January): 81-120. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29550021.
Grenet, Frantz. 2007. “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-century China: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Hinduism.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 27 (2): 463-478. doi:10.1215/1089201x-2007-017.
Hansen, Valerie. 2015. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lerner, Judith A. 2005. “Aspects of Assimilation: The Funerary Practices and Furnishings of Central Asians in China.” Sino-Platonic Papers 168 (December): 1-65. http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp168_sogdian_funerary_practices.pdf.
Rose, Jenny. 2010. “The Sogdians: Prime Movers between Boundaries.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, & the Middle East 30 (3): 410-419. doi: 10.1215/1089201X-2010-024.
Shi Jun died in 579 CE.
Carved Stone Panels
2.46 meters wide, 1.55 meters deep, 1.58 meters high
Xi'an Museum ?
Additional Research Metadata
Lerner, "Les Sogdiens en Chine - Nouvelles decouvertes historiques, archeologiques et linguistiques" colloquium in 2004 China