Tribute Bearers

One of the recipients of Sogdian tribute goods was China. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), Sogdian emissaries offered horses and other precious items to Chinese rulers in return for military protection. The reception of tribute-bearing emissaries from both local and remote lands was a regular activity of Tang-dynasty emperors, who secured political and economic alliances with many polities. Although this diplomatic custom was central during the Tang, unfortunately virtually no paintings of this period survive. This handscroll was painted in the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty (1280-1368), which also saw a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas across Central Asia. It shows formulaic representations of Central Asian dignitaries, attendants, guards, and grooms bringing horses, incense burners and sculptures, thus testifying to the endurance of tributary relationships in Asia.

Reading the painting from right to left, we first encounter a short attendant balancing a platter on his head, on which rests a statue of a seated lion surrounded by gems (Fig.1). Behind him, two richly attired foreigners bring incense and Buddhist texts. They are followed by an envoy with a longsword, a standard bearer, and finally two grooms with Sogdian features, each bringing a robust and energetic horse (Fig.2). The painter has lavished considerable attention on these horses, painstakingly recording the minute details of their heads, bodies and coats, down to the fine brocade silk blankets that cover them.

Court painters would sometimes portray the finest horses presented to the court for posterity. A colophon on this scroll by Ming artist Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) suggests that the model may have been a work by Yan Liben or Qian Xuan, but from surviving comparative evidence, the former seems more likely. Yan Liben (ca. 600-673) was a court artist famous for painting the favorite warhorses of Tang emperor Taizong (d. 649), and for designing six stone carvings of horses in the emperor’s tomb (Clunas 2009, 43). Aside from the stone reliefs, none of Yan’s work survives, but court records show that he was responsible for portraying important figures and recording political events, especially diplomatic activities (Barnhart 1997, 60).

The work of Ren Bowen, on the other hand, is only represented by this painting. He was the grandson and follower of celebrated painter Ren Renfa (1255–1328), who served under the Mongols and specialized in portrayals of horses. A similar version of this painting was made during the Ming period (1368-1644).  These types of works serve as idealized record of diplomatic relations between China and Central Asia, as the giving of lavish tribute goods implies the submission of foreign states to Chinese authority, reinforcing hierarchies of power and assuring viewers of the painting that the state is well run.


Barnhart, Richard M. et al. 1997. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven; Beijing: Yale University Press ; Foreign Languages Press.

Clunas, Craig. 2009. Art in China. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.



Attributed to Ren Bowen (1254-1327); late Yuan dynasty, approx. 1320-1370


H. 13 3/4 in. x W. 87 1/4 in., H. 34.9 cm x W. 221.6cm)


ink and colors on silk


Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; B60D100

Additional Research Metadata




“Tribute Bearers ,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed October 31, 2020,