Stone bed, Anjia Tomb
The two ancient cultures of Sogdia and China began to collide more than 3,000 years ago along the Silk Road, a trade route that extended from the coast of China to the Mediterranean sea. The Sogdians are the ancestors of modern-day Persian ethnic groups living in Iran and central Asia. The Sogdians were famous merchants and tradesmen. When Chinese explorer and diplomat Zhang Qian first began his forays into the huge swaths of Central Asia and points west, he came into contact with Sogdian merchants. From the 8th to the 5th century BCE, the Sogdians communicated more and more of their culture and religious beliefs along the extensive trade network between Sogdia (modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and China.
The Sogdians, as they consolidated their presence on the Silk Road, the Sogdians moved further into northern China. They eventually settled Chinese communities, soon becoming “the largest non-Chinese ethnic group in ancient China.” Of course, during the centuries of economic and cultural exchange, as well as physically moving into and settling northern China, the Sogdians had a tremendous impact on the local Chinese way of life. One of the ways in which they impacted the local populace was through religion.
The Sogdians practiced Zoroastrianism (or Mazdiasm), one of the oldest of all the world’s religions. Zoroastrianism is the forerunner to many of the concepts central to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths, such as belief in heaven and the messiah. The ancient religion was transmitted along the Silk Road by Sogdian merchants, tradesmen, and missionaries. Along with Budhissm and Hinduism, Zoroastrianism was a one of the major faiths sent along the Silk Road and into China. During this period of cultural exchange and religious transmission, the Sogdians left behind a legacy of monuments, rites, and rituals that blended indigenous Chinese beliefs and rituals with a distinctly Sogdian flavor.
One example of the magnificent blend between Sogdian and Chinese cultural elements is found in the An Jia Tomb, which was discovered in 1999 at modern-day Xi’an. The tomb, like three other Sogdian burial sites also discovered in 1999, features a famous ‘stone bed’ that is emblematic of the cultural, spiritual and social exchange that changed not only northern China, but the Sogdian people whose very presence altered the history of the ancient nation.
As Etsuko Kageyama points out in his extensive analysis of Sogdian religious imagery, the Sogdian people were already heavily influenced by “the successive invasions of nomadic tribes, the Huns, Kidarites and Hephthalites” into their territory prior to the Sogdian migration into China. The Stone Bed at the Anjia tomb features traditional Sogdian carvings and religious imagery, but what is so intriguing about the bed is, according to archeologist Judith Lerner, “although these tomb owners were buried in Chinese-style tombs on a Chinese-style stone bed or within a Chinesestyle stone sarcophagus, each individual owner’s choice of decoration for his bed or sarcophagus reveals his affiliation with at least some aspect of Central Asian culture and the religion that was prevalent there...” In this sense, the famous stone bed (also known as a ‘stone couch’, according to Kageyama ), the spiritual tombs and resting places of the Zoroastrian-practicing Sogdians melds with the religious and spiritual sensibilities of the Chinese, producing monuments and burial mounds that reflect the long history of exchange between these two very different cultures.
In 2001, An Qie’s tomb was discovered in modern day Xi’an. It is the only Sogdian tomb that was not previously disturbed at the time of discovery. The walkway sloped 8.1 meters (9 feet) to the chamber door with an epitaph in Chinese carved on a low square base. In contrast to Chinese burial practices of placing remains in a coffin, An Qie’s bones were scattered outside the tomb door on the ground, not on the stone bed inside. This practice has puzzled archaeologists because neither Zoroastrianism nor Confucianism practiced this type of burial (Hansen 2015, 143-144). The archaeological report also notes that some of the metacarpal and metatarsal bones were missing (Lerner 2005, 10). Along with the five-month interval between An Qie’s death and burial, some scholars claim this is evidence of the Zoroastrian practice to expose the corpse to allow for birds to consume the flesh before burial (Lerner 2005, 10; Juliano and Lerner 2002, 226). Smoke marks were found near the epitaph and walls, indicating there may have been a fire at some point (Hansen 2015, 144). However, the fire may have been intentional before the burial and installation of the funerary couch (Juliano and Lerner 2002, 243). Above the door to the chamber, there are “priest-bird” men and an altar (Lerner 2005, 53). These “priest-bird” men are a symbol for the fire cult, possibly relating to Srosh, the god of cultic activity who is associated with the cock, who is also one of judges as the soul crosses the bridge to heaven (Grenet 2007, 468-469).
Within the 3.66 meters (12 feet) square and 3.3 meters (10.83 feet) high chamber was a stone platform with stone panels along the sides and back. These stone panels were decorated with shallow painted, carved reliefs. The panels had twelve scenes, three on each side panel and six along the back.An Qie’s tomb incorporates both Chinese and Sogdian motifs. In the center of the back panel, An Qie is shown with a woman wearing Chinese clothes, believed to be his wife. The Sogdian swirl dance is frequently pictured on funeral beds and houses, and An Qie’s funeral bed shows the dance three times. Although there is little mercantile activity shown, An Qie is shown conversing with a Turkish leader in his tent, demonstrating his role as a sabao, or community leader. Other panels show a banquet and a hunt (Hansen 2015, 144-146).
An Qie was born in 537 to a Sogdian father and probably a Chinese mother from a local Liangzhou family. His epitaph states his Sogdian ancestors migrated Bukhara in Sogdiana to Liangzhou, now known as Wuwei. An Qie served as a sabao in Tongzhou, and was eventually granted the highest rank a sabao could achieve. An Qie’s epitaph also claims his father held two government positions, which are believed to have been granted posthumously based on An Qie’s success. An Qie died at the age of sixty-two in 579 (Hansen 2015, 144).
Grenet, Frantz. "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, no. 2 (2007): 463-478. (CL)
Kageyama, Etsuko. "The Winged Crown and the Triple-Crescent Crown in the Sogdian Funerary Monuments from China: Their Relation to the Hephthalite Occupation of Central Asia." Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 2 (2007): 11-22. (CL)
Lerner, Judith. "Zoroastrian Funerary Beliefs and Practices Known from the Sino-Sogdian Tombs in China." The Silk Road 9 (2011): 18-25. (CL)
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.
Lerner, Judith A. 2005. “Aspects of Assimilation: The Funerary Practices and Furnishings of Central Asians in China.” Sino-Platonic Papers 168 (December): 1-65. http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp168_sogdian_funerary_practices.pdf.
Northern Zhou period (557-581)
Shaanxi History Museum
Additional Research Metadata
X'ian, Northern Zhou dynasty
Granite mortuary bed of An Qie (579 AD)