Representations of Sogdians as “Auspicious Westerners” in Chinese tombs

Foreign entertainers are a major category of ceramic figurines in the tombs of both the Northern Wei (386–535) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. The presence of foreign acrobats, dancers, and musicians in Chinese culture dates as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), when the emperor was said to have been “fond of foreign dress, foreign hangings, foreign beds, foreign chairs, foreign food, foreign harps, foreign flutes, foreign dance” (Fan 1927, 11:3272). Although the Chinese term for ‘foreign’ (hu 胡) is a general designation for Central Asians and does not specifically refer to Sogdians, the statement nonetheless denotes a favorable inclination toward westerners.

Line drawing of xiangrui design on a chariot ornament

Drawing of a chariot ornament showing xiangrui designs, Western Han dynasty

This is reflected in the Han-dynasty belief in xiangrui 祥瑞, or good omens. These natural phenomena were interpreted as signs that the ruler was in accord with the will of Heaven, and that the empire was orderly and well-governed (Hung 1984, 39). For instance, catching sight of a unicorn (qilin 麒麟) during a hunt was a favorable sign, while earthquakes and other natural disasters were indications of Heaven’s dissatisfaction. During the reign of Han Emperor Wu, sightings of xiangrui were recorded in official histories, and included a white unicorn, flying horses, rainbows, mysterious rays of light, and exotic beasts, several of which originated from the western regions (Hung 1984, 43). According to these records, giant elephants, dragons, horses that sweat blood, lions and gigantic birds came from the west after the emperor’s successful conquest of Tashkent in Central Asia. These stories certainly captured people’s imagination, and possibly remained associated with the western regions for several generations. The Han-dynasty belief in the favorable nature of the west is also reflected in a reverence for the Kunlun mountains, a chain of peaks bordering the Tibetan plateau and the Taklamakan desert. The mountains were thought to be the realm of the immortals, and were a common motif in tombs of the period.

Objects found in Tang-dynasty burials show continuity with these beliefs in the auspiciousness of the western regions and their inhabitants. By then the most prominent group of Central Asians in China, figures of Sogdian merchants and entertainers were often included in tombs as burial goods, or mingqi 明器. A sizeable quantity of these burial figurines of Central Asian peoples were found in tombs of ethnic Han Chinese, which suggests that Sogdian merchants and entertainers were perceived favorably by the local population. Perhaps Sogdians were also associated with the auspiciousness of the west, or the fact that they brought goods and tribute could have inspired a Chinese sense of control and power over these regions.

However, it is difficult to reconcile the widespread presence of these burial ceramics with surviving textual records from the period. Official histories tend to emphasize the Sogdians’ mercantile skills and greed, traits that were held in low regard by Confucian moral standards. An oft-quoted except from the Old History of the Tang dynasty reports on the Sogdians’ skills as traders: “When they give birth to a son, they put honey in his mouth and glue on the palm of his hand in the hope that when he grows up, he will speak sweet words and grasp coins in his hands as if they were glued there… [These people] excel at commerce and love profit. When a man turns twenty, he will travel to the neighboring kingdoms. They will go everywhere profit is to be made” (qtd. in Wertman 2015, 24). This formulation is particularly derogatory in a Confucian framework. Confucius reportedly declared that “The superior man understands what is right; the mean man understands profit,” (Confucius 4:16) which puts good morals and mercantile skills at odds in traditional Chinese thought. Since the Han dynasty, if not before, Chinese society was divided into four occupational classes, with the scholar-gentry at the top, followed by peasants and artisans. Merchants were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, since they were seen to produce nothing of their own, therefore relying on selling other people’s work to earn a living. In reality, however, despite their low status, merchants were indispensable then as they are now, and played a crucial role in developing economies and creating networks of exchange.

Yidu tomb relief

Line drawing of tomb relief from Yidu, featuring a Sogdian attendant

Official texts, therefore, offer only a partial view of the truth. The goods deposited into a person’s tomb had to be auspicious in some way, and would not have been included if they were seen to embody reprehensible moral traits. It is still unclear if the occupants of tombs containing sculptures of westerners were always people of non-Han Chinese origin. A tomb near Yidu in Shandong province, in northeast China, contained stone reliefs depicting a number of Sogdian and Zoroastrian elements. While it is possible that its occupant was of Central Asian descent, Judith Lerner argues that members of the northern Chinese ruling classes also adopted many of the accouterments of Sogdian and Iranian culture as prestige items, and that these undoubtedly carried over to funerary decorations (Lerner 2013, 140). To further complicate the picture, a group of figurines representing Sogdian entertainerswas found in the tomb of a general originally from northeast China. Since the tomb was located in Chang’an, the Tang capital and central point of Central Asian trade networks, it is possible that although this general was not Sogdian himself, he could have simply been buried according to the customs that befit a man of his rank in this cosmopolitan city.

Images of westerners were thus not necessarily reserved for the tombs of Sogdians living in Chinese lands, but were instead symbols of prestige for the Chinese ruling classes. Earlier Han-dynasty ideas about the western regions underlaid and informed the image of westerners coming into China during the Tang dynasty. In a funerary context in which the tomb occupant was trying to improve the quality of his or her afterlife, this auspiciousness was combined with an appropriation of entertainers and attendants from these distant lands, trappings that signaled rank and prestige but also ensured a confortable and pleasant afterlife.


Confucius, and Arthur Waley (trans). 1938. The Analects of Confucius; London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Fan, Ye 范曄, and Zhuang Shi 莊適. 1927 [reprint]. Hou Han shu 後漢書. Shanghai: Shang wu yin shu guan.

Hung, Wu. 1984. “A Sanpan Shan Chariot Ornament and the Xiangrui Design in Western Han Art”. Archives of Asian Art 37. University of Hawai'i Press: 38–59. 

Lerner, Judith. 2013. “Yidu: A Sino-Sogdian Tomb?” In Sogdians, Their Precursors, Contemporaries and Heirs, 129–46. Transactions of the State Hermitage Museum 62. St. Petersburg: The State Hermitage Publishers.

Wertmann, Patrick. 2015. Sogdians in China: Archaeological and Art Historical Analyses of Tombs and Texts from the 3rd to the 10th Century AD.

Representations of Sogdians as “Auspicious Westerners” in Chinese tombs