Sabao: Sogdian Community Leaders in China

As a result of trade, Sogdians eventually formed communities within China. Despite living in China, these Sogdian communities were relatively autonomous (Rose 2010, 416). Although it was a time of political instability in China, beginning during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), dynasties in central China would appoint leaders for these Sogdian communities, adopting the foreign word, sabao, for the position in the Chinese bureaucracy (Cheng 2008, 91; Hansen 2015, 144). The duties assigned to a sabao and the other three mandarin ranked functionaries in foreign communities are much broader than their religious titles suggest. Thus, the word sabao acquired the meaning as a Chinese-appointed official to administer to foreign communities. Additional terms believed to describe a sabao were safu and sartapao (de la Vaissère 2005, 149).

The word “sabao” entered China via two different routes- India and Central Asia.Sabao” has roots in the word for the head of caravan or head of a guild of merchants, sārthawāha. The other origins for the word come from sabo which came to designate the Bodhisattvas, or masters who showed the way. Once the position of sabo was integrated into the political system, the word was changed to sabao to align with the Sogdian pronunciation. The sartapao variation is used in Ancient Letter V, addressing the intended recipient as “the noble lord, the chief merchant Aspandhāt” (de la Vaissière 2005, 151). The term sabao appears in Chinese sources until the mid-Tang dynasty (Cheng 2008, 91).

Stone bed, Anjia Tomb

An Qie's Tomb

Sabao may have even served as priests for the Zoroastrian temples in the community, serving as at least an administrator there (Rose 2010, 417). Sabao performed ritual functions, including tending the temple’s fire altar, and presided over Zoroastrian festivals (Hansen 2015, 118). Another religious role of the sabao may have been to lead the animal sacrifices to major Zoroastrian deities at the temple (Hansen 2015, 98). The role of sabao was bureaucratic and diplomatic.As a community leader, the sabao served as a judge for disputes (Hansen 2015, 118). On one of the panels of An Qie’s tomb, An Qie appears to be conversing with a Turkish leader in his tent, in diplomatic negotiations (Hansen 2015, 145). Scenes from Wirkak’s tomb show him traveling, conversing with others, possibly Turkish, with a caravan resting near a river (Grenet 2007, 463). Some scholars believe the role of the sabao was more related to its roots in mercantile activity (Cheng 2008, 91).  In an allocation of grain in 619, a sabao is noted for securing the delivery of millet released by the administration for a particular merchant (de la Vaissère 2005, 149-150). Other duties may have included offering assistance in case of emergencies or handling money matters using differing currencies (Dien 2009, 48).

Tomb of Shi Jun (Wirkak) (b.484) and his wife

Wirkak's Tomb

Although evidence suggests the position of sabao may have been passed from one generation to the next within a Sogdian family, this may have just been Sogdian families using the ambiguity of sabao to retrospectively transform modest caravan leaders into ranked officials (de la Vaissère 2005, 149). The epitaph of An Qie’s tomb claims his father held two government positions, including one in Sichuan which was a great distance from Wuwei where the family lived (Hansen 2015, 144). This suggests these were honorary positions granted to the father after An Qie’s success (Hansen 2015, 144). Wirkak’s tomb also notes his grandfather held the position and scenes seems to show a young Wirkak learning the family tradition (Grenet 2007, 463-464). Kang Yuanjing’s stele from Luoyang in 673 claims his father was “Grand Sabao of All China” followed by “General with the Noble Bearing of a Dragon” (de la Vaissère 2005, 156).

By the seventh century, most of the larger towns in northern China with a population of more than two hundred Sogdians had a community leader called a sabao. These leaders were recognized by the Chinese and even had official rank within the Chinese government (Rose 2010, 417). The possibility foreign people could hold official positions in the Chinese government indicates the assimilation of Sogdians in China. Though assimilated, Sogdians maintained some of their Sogdian identity, as shown in Sogdian tombs found in China, such as An Qie and Wirkak’s tombs in Xi’an. Both tombs have sloping walkways leading to underground chambers, a Chinese style, and have epitaphs in Chinese. However, rather than coffins like most Chinese tombs, the chambers had a stone bed-like platform or miniature stone houses decorated with Chinese and Sogdian motifs (Hansen 2015, 143). Sogdian motifs include banqueting, dancing, hunting, rhyton, riderless horse, oxcart, crossed-leg posture on hourglass-shaped stool (“pensive pose”), and religious rituals or deities. An Qie's and Wirkak’s tombs include some of these motifs. An Qie’s tomb shows Sogdian dancing, banqueting, hunting, an oxcart, and rituals and deities. Wirkak’s tomb includes the same as An Qie’s tomb, as well as a rhyton (Lerner 2005, 53). Scholars have noted iconographic deviations from typical Central Asia because of “rough” or “wrong” details likely due to Chinese artisans being less familiar with the imagery (Cheng 2008, 95). Some Chinese Sogdians may have also adopted the practice of burying objects, such as mingqi and ceramic vessels (Juliano and Lerner 2002, 243). 

The Chinese ranked position of sabao for Sogdians living communities of their own in China and the blending of Chinese and Sogdian traditions and motifs in Sogdian tombs in China, such An Qie and Wirkak’s, are evidence of Sogdian assimilation in China.


Cheng, Bonnie. 2008. “The Space Between: Locating ‘Culture’ in Artistic Exchange.” Ars Orentalis 38 (January): 81-120.

Dien, Albert E. 2009. “The Tomb of the Sogdian Master Shi: Insights into the Life of a Sabao.” The Silk Road 7 (Autumn): 42-50.

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.

Juliano, Annette L. and Judith A. Lerner. 2002. Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 

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.

de la Vaissière, Étienne. 2005. Sogdian Traders: A History. Translated by James Ward. Leiden: Brill.

Sabao: Sogdian Community Leaders in China