Tribute, Gifts, Diplomacy
On the Silk Road, not all goods were bought and sold – some were gifted by Sogdians as tribute to foreign powers to ensure peace and protection. Unlike its neighboring empires, what we now refer to as Sogdiana was never unified into a centrally run polity. Instead, it consisted more of a federation of principalities, with princes and aristocratic families running each town and oasis largely independently. Although walled and militarized, these cities often had to contend with their Turkic neighbors in the north, nomads who would sometimes raid their lands to acquire the goods they needed. As a form of solution, Sogdian princes would instead allow Turkic tribes to extract taxes or exert some degree of political influence in exchange for smooth diplomatic relations (Sims-Williams 2005, 12-13).
This type of payment most often took the form of finished objects that Sogdians had expertise in making or trading, such as silverware, weapons, and textiles. A silver gilded statuette of a deer excavated in central Mongolia, which was part of Eastern Turk territories in the eighth century, is thought to have been a Sogdian work (Stark 2015, 465). Similarly, a cup with designs of goats, made in a Sogdian workshop in the Turkic taste, was unexpectedly found in the opposite direction, near the Sea of Azov in modern-day Russia. One of the best forms of written evidence for this exchange is a receipt of delivery from a Sogdian armory found at Mount Mugh, some of the recipients of which have been identified as high-status Turks (Stark 2015, 468). Indeed, a pallash (straight-bladed sword used for hunting) found in a Uyghur period burial in the Russian Altai features a Sogdian inscription in gold damascene mentioning the owner of the sword, a Turk lord named Katghun (Stark 2015, 466). It is generally assumed that since the Turks were largely nomadic peoples, they did not produce these fine crafts themselves, and had to import either objects or artisans to supply their needs. For instance, by all accounts Turks wore richly decorated robes, but the absence of sericulture in the steppe points to the likelihood that they imported their textiles either from China through the Sogdians or directly from the Sogdian cities that they controlled.
The Sogdians had a different relationship with China. The Tang court never extended its rule to encompass Sogdiana, since its rulers knew that this would put them under the obligation to assist Sogdian cities militarily if need be. After due consideration, Tang emperor Taizong (r. 626–649) to rejected a request from a tributary mission from Samarkand (Kangguo 康國) to become a satellite Chinese state, for fear that the Tang government would not be able to fulfill its military obligations:
“In the past, some emperors were fond of attracting foreign tribute to gain a reputation for pacifying foreigners. But these tributes are of no use, and the reception of foreign missions will burden my people. Now Kangguo wishes to submit to China. Out of righteousness, we would have to assist them were they to be threatened in the future. Wouldn’t it exhaust my troops if they had to march five thousand kilometers [to Samarkand]? To burden my people for the sake of superficial reputation is not something I shall do.” (qtd. in Wang 2013, 249)
However, Chinese forces stopped just short of Sogdian territories. Starting around 640 CE with the conquest of the Gaochang Kingdom, the Tang empire conducted a series of expeditions into Central Asia, gradually subduing the Western Turk and Tibetan troops who had control over city-states and oases of the Gansu corridor and Tarim Basin, areas deemed of great economic importance, and where large numbers of diasporic Sogdians lived. Under the Chinese, these territories were named the Tang Protectorate of the Pacified West (anxi duhufu 安西都護府), and were divided into independently administered prefectures. Tang rulers appointed local administrators (sabao 薩寶), many of which were of Sogdian origin. One of the ways in which they demonstrated their loyalty was by offering tributes to the Tang court in return for military protection and peace. Because of their linguistic and diplomatic skills, Sogdian officials were often employed by the Chinese government to serve as intermediaries in dealings between Chinese prefectures and the Türks, who had become a force to reckon with (Watt 2004, 36). Tributary missions led by Sogdians were recorded not only in Tang-dynasty archives, but also in painted handscrolls made by artists working for the court. From these paintings, we can see that horses from the Ferghana valley were by far the most valuable types of Central Asian goods received by the Chinese court, but exotic and rare goods such as ivory, sandal wood and religious texts were also prized.
Because of their geographical location between great powers of the Eurasian continent, the Sogdians were uniquely positioned to act as mediators and foster harmonious diplomatic relations. Their economic power enabled them to maintain good relations with both Türk and Chinese rulers by offering tribute goods in exchange for peace. As political stability is crucial to economic prosperity, the Sogdians were indeed quite astute in knowing that their own preservation depended on the interests of their neighbors.
Stark, Sören. 2015. “Luxurious Necessities: Some Observations on Foreign Commodities and Nomadic Polities in 6th to 9th Century Central Asia.” In Complexity of Interaction along the Eurasian Steppe Zone in the First Millenium CE, edited by Jan Bemmann and Michael Schmauder, 463–502. Bonn: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.
Sims-Williams, Nicholas. 2005. “Bactrian Legal Documents from 7th- and 8th-Century Guzgan.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 15 (2001): 9–29.
Wang, Zhenping. 2013. Tang China in multi-polar Asia a history of diplomacy and war. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Watt, James C. Y, et al. 2004. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD. New York; New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Yale University Press.