The Sogdian Paper Trail

Paper has made a far greater impact on daily life and Sogdian development than more highly valued materials, such as silk and jade, that traveled from China to the Middle East. By just looking at the Sogdian records of paper, we can learn about their social life, religious practices, and economic interactions. I will be investigating the most important written records of the Sogdians: the Ancient Letters, Mount Mugh documents, and religious manuscripts.

The earliest Sogdian texts we know of are the Ancient Letters (pictured below) discovered by Aurel Stein at a ruined watch-tower near the western end of the frontier wall guarding the route between China and Central Asia. Ancient Letter number 2 is how we can date these letters, Ancient Letter number 6 is the only one which actually mentions silk, and numbers 1 and 3 are letters written to Nanaidhat by a woman in Dunhuang abandoned by her husband. These texts are both the earliest and the most important Sogdian sources illustrating their activities. The letters were written by members of the Sogdian merchant colonies in western China, at least one of them in Guzan and two in Dunhuang. The only one which bears an address was sent to Samarkand; some others may have been destined for Loulan or other places on the route between Dunhuang and Samarkand. There is no direct evidence as to why the post-bag containing the letters was abandoned; the most obvious assumption would be that it was confiscated for security reasons.

The second letter contains several references to contemporary events in China: to a severe famine in Luoyang as a result of which the emperor had fled from the capital, to fighting between the Huns and the Chinese, and to the destruction of the cities of Luoyang and Ye. From these details in Ancient Letter II, W.B. Henning deduced that the letters must have been written within a year or two of the sack of Ye in 307 and of Luoyang in 311 CE, an educated guess most scholars agree on.  These group of letters are a significant record of the social and political climate in early 4th century AD. Other fragmentary text from the Ancient Letters tell us of goods being traded and connections between Sogdians and India like silver, linen, cloth, musk, pepper, and white lead powder.

Mount Mugh documents provide us with unique insights into the everyday life of the Sogdians. Documents from Mount Mugh are dated by the reign of Devastich, lord of Panjikent in Sogdiania (712-722). Mount Mugh is located about 100 km east of Samarkand, in present day Tajikistan. Devastich’s archive contains writings in Sogdian, Arabic, and Chinese on leather, wood, and paper. Of the 97 documents, 92 are written in Sogdian, 3 in Chinese, and 1 in Arabic (Hansesn 2015, 130). One document mentions 706, so all the documents have been dated to the 8th century. Among the texts are three legal contracts written on leather, a common writing material in the Arabic-speaking world at this time. 

Pair of Marriage Contracts

Marriage Contracts

The most informative and longest Sogdian text is a pair of marriage contracts (seen to the left). The marriage contract and “bride’s script” are dated to the tenth year of King Tarkhum’s reign, or 710. The contract outlines the terms and expectations between the Sogdian woman Chat and her guardian Cher, and Chat’s new husband Ot-tegin. This somewhat unromantic contract gives us important insight into marital relationships between Sogdians and Turks: each party has equal legal rights and responsibilities. Both husband and wife can end the marriage but only after financially compensating one another. The husband must provide for his wife “food, garments, and ornaments,” and the wife “is a lady possessing authority in his own house, the way a noble man treats a noble woman, his wife.” She in return “must always conform to his well-being and obey his orders as befits a wide, the way a noble woman treats a noble man, her husband.” (Hansen 2015,133) The contract also outlines punishment for cheating in the form of paying a fine. Later in the contract, Ot-tegin mentions Minthra, the guardian of truth and contracts. Mithra was one of the three most important gods for Zoroastrians. Although this is a small detail in the overall content of the marriage contracts, it is evidence of the relationship between Sogdians and Zoroastrianism. For other legal contracts from the Sogdians see this Sale contract of a slave girl 

Xuanzang, Sun Wukong and a horse before Bodhisattva Guanyin

Xuanzang accompanied by a horse carrying a bag of Buddhist Sutras

Paper was a groundbreaking vehicle for both recording and distributing religious writings, prayers, and sutras. Papermaking allowed for ideas and artistic traditions to travel from East to West along pilgrim routes. By studying the travel stories of monks, like Xuanzang in 7th century CE, we know that a major part of his religious pilgrimage included finding, reading, and acquiring Buddhist sutras in his an accessible language. One specific Buddhist document (Or.8210/S.1084) held in the British Library is written in both Chinese and Sogdian. (Sims-Williams) This scroll is quite large, measuring 11.7 inches by 48.5 inches (29.8 cm x123.2 cm), but I am showing a small excerpt below to clearly illustrate the juxtaposition of languages. This scroll is so significant because it is one of the most comprehensive and well-preserved documents of its kind. The content includes language practice, names, poems, and divinatory instruction. It is also proof that Sogdians did indeed practice Buddhism and translating prayers in multiple languages was integral to the study and appreciation of worship. 

Chinese/Sogdian manuscript fragment

Chinese/Sogdian manuscript

For detailed descriptions and high resolution digital images of many more Sogdian documents, I suggest visiting the International Dunhuang Project online. This project is an international collaboration between The British Library, The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The National Library of China, The National Museum of India, Berlin State Library, and many more institutions. The IDP is a one-of-a-kind resource that connects collections of manuscripts, paintings, textiles, and artifacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road. This database is searchable by type of artifact, holding institution, keywords, language, script, and archaeological site. For instance, the IDP database contains 1,647 documents written in Sogdian language and 645 documents in Sogdian script (all of which have images). 

The Sogdian Paper Trail