The Sogdian Way of Life: Grapes, Wine, and Feasting in Sogdian and Chinese Art

Grapes, a common motif in Sogdian art, are representative of the “Sogdian way of life” (Grenet 2007). Grapes or an inference of grapes make their way onto the faces of cups, wall paintings of feasts, and into Chinese tombs. Known for their Dionysian lifestyle, Sogdians not only indulged in the products of grapes, but also grew them and traded them, most notably eastward. The oasis of Turfan provided fertile ground Sogdian viticultrists to grow grapes. These grapes, although not as famous as silk, became culturally important for Sogdians as traders, merchants, and peoples of the Silk Road. This relationship can be seen in artifacts made by Sogdians as well as artifacts depicting Sogdians outside Sogdiana.

Cups made of silver and other silverworks, such as coins and other drinking vessels, were commodities along the trade routes that made up the Silk Road. Turkic and Sogdian people partook in such metalwork. Cups like one decorated with birds and vegetation or a cup decorated with goats were popular with many peoples, such as steppe people and the Sogdians, along the trade routes. Many of these cups were beautifully decorated through relief techniques or engraving and often included a handle with a thumb rest (Lurje “Catalogue” 2014). The circulation of decorative silver cups calls to mind a drinking or feasting culture, possibly with wine. The cup with birds and vegetation has curling branches with fruit at the end. These vines and fruits look like grapes. One cup, found in China, also has grape vines and animals decorating the outside. The use of grapevine motifs on the faces of these cups suggests that they were used for drinking wine. The pervasiveness of the motif creates an even stronger link between grapes, wine, drinking, and culture in the context of the Sogdians. Considering the popularity of the cups themselves, it seems that the act of drinking, and possibly feasting, was widespread as a result of Sogdian influence.

Wall paintings like those at Penjikent often depicted scenes of decadence like hunting and feasting. The feast goers and hunters in such paintings are often depicted wearing fine clothing. Subjects of the feasting paintings are surrounded by food, sometimes servants, and often cups, bowls, and rhytons. These scenes of merriment, including accessories, food, finery and all, were portraits of real life and objects which symbolize time, place, and culture (Kulakova 2014). A painting of merchants feasting decorates a sanctuary or chapel wall in a rich man’s home in Penjikent. The merchants wear beautiful clothing while sitting cross-legged and holding ewers and cups (Lurje “Catalogue” 2014). Could these cups be full of wine? It is certainly possible. Further, a painting of an artist feasting in Penjikent also shows a man imbibing. He holds a rhyton with a ram’s head high in the air, presumably so gravity can help pour the liquid. A plate of food is just beneath his outstretched arm. He is surrounded by an abundance of food and drink, not unlike the aforementioned feasters. Although there are no grapevines in either of these paintings, the location of the painting as well as painters’ tendency to paint scenes indicative of real life attests to the pervasiveness, or at least perceived pervasiveness, of feasting and imbibing in Sogdian culture.

Merchants Feasting

Wall painting of merchants feasting

The association of wine, grapes, and feasting with the Sogdians reached outside Sogdian communities, as evidenced by many depictions of Sogdians in Chinese tombs. Wine reached China from the West via the Sogdians (Sims-Williams 1996). During the early Tang dynasty, wine fermented from grapes was grown in the fertile lands around Turfan by Sogdian viticulrists. This wine was used not only as an article of commerce, but also as a symbol of goodwill or tribute to the Chinese, one of the empires that had power over the Sogdians throughout history (Valenstein 2014). Further, the practice of feasting with wine in China derives from Sogdian influence and tradition (Torgoev 2014). The Chinese actually began to ferment their own wine, however, the result did not compare with Central Asian wine, like that of the Sogdians (Valenstein 2014). This failure only strengthened the tie between Sogdians and wine, inextricably linking wine to the West in the eyes of Tang China.

Figurine of a wine seller

Figurine of a wine seller

That Western wine was so good, in fact, that it was brought along into the afterlife. Minqi were pieces of funerary art placed in Chinese tombs that would aid the dead in the afterlife. Figurines of musicians and guards guaranteed entertainment and protection in the afterlife (Valenstein 2014; Fitzgerald 2012).  Figurines of Western wine sellers have been discovered in many Tang dynasty tombs, ensuring an abundance of wine for the dead. The inclusion of such objects points towards how the Chinese saw Westerners, including Sogdians. These wine seller figurines hold wineskins, ewers, or rhytons to indicate their trade. Their physiognomy was often exaggerated. Large eyes, thick brows, beards, and exaggerated noses were stereotypical motifs in Chinese depictions of Sogdians (Valenstein 2014). A bronze statue of a Sogdian dancer from China displays the same stylistic, physical attributes. Further, the dancer’s hat is decidedly Sogdian with its high peak and brim. This statue calls to mind through dance Sogdian celebration and Dionysian lifestyle, possibly within the context of a feast where wine was served. These figurines indicate how the Chinese saw Sogdians—as somewhat cartoonish, possibly lower than, merry providers of a commodity, namely wine.

Grapes are synonymous with the Sogdian way of life in their associations with commerce, wine, and feasting. Sogdian art associated with wine can be seen in wall paintings of feasting and merriment in Penjikent as well as in Sogdian metalwork, such as cups. Depictions of Sogdians and wine reached outside Sogdiana. Known for bringing wine to Tang dynasty China, depictions of Westerners are often stereotyped in their physiognomy and trade or profession. The statue of a Sogdian dancer and wine-seller minqi indicate the far-reaching reputation Sogdians had for practicing a Dionysian lifestyle. Whether created inside or outside Sogdiana, artifacts inextricably link Sogdians with wine and feasting, giving a glimpse into the Sogdian way of life.

The Sogdian Way of Life: Grapes, Wine, and Feasting in Sogdian and Chinese Art