Sogdian Dancer [Lerner]
This figure of a dancing central Asian man found in the vicinity of Shandan, Gansu Province, china is from the Tang dynasty (618-906 C.E.), most likely from the seventh century C.E. It is made of bronze and the lotus-petal shaped base of the figure is gilt bronze and may or may not be original to the piece.
He can be identified as a dancer from the West (the West in this case being Central Asia) because he has facial features typically used in Tang dynasty art to depict westerners: a large nose and facial hair. The dancer’s tunic style and his hat mark him as a Sogdian. His hat style, a peaked hat with a turned up brim called a Phrygian cap, is understood by scholars to be a hat style that was an identity marker for Sogdian men both in Sogdiana and as they traveled across the territories connected by the silk roads (Lerner 2001, 254).
The tight sleeves on the dancer’s tunic and his cap style are mentioned in Tang Dynasty Poet’s description of an Iranian Dancing Boy:
The Iranian from Tashkent appears young
He dances to the music before the wine goblet, as rapid as a bird
He wears a cloth cap of foreign make, empty and pointed at the top
His Iranian robe of fine felt his tight sleeves
(Shafer 1963, 55 in Lerner 2001, 254)
The gourd on the dancer’s back mark him as an iterant performer. Central and Iranian dervishes, also often itinerant performers attached to a number of different Islamic religious orders, used the calabash as part of their traditional equipment. Traveling troops of female and male dancers doing the Sogdian swirl traveled throughout the lands connected by the “silk roads” and were very popular in China. The best dancers came from Tashkent, Kesh and Samarkand (Lerner 2001, 252, 254 ).
Unfortunately the figure was not recovered from an archeological context and so it’s original purpose is impossible to pinpoint for sure. The figure was found by a farmer in the vicinity of Shandan, Gansu Province and acquired by collector Rewi Alley between 1945 and 1980. It does fit with the concept of xiangrui, good omen, that the Chinese associated with the foreign, strange, and unusual with good fortune. (Lerner 2001, 254). This concept made other portrayals of Sogdians popular in Tang Dynasty minqui, funerary objects placed with the deceased that would ensure their material comforts in the afterlife for example the terracotta figures of three musicians playing the lute and flutes (consequently these are the instruments used to provided the music for the huxuan wu). (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "mingqi").
The huxuan wu, or Sogidan Whirl, is depicted by the dancing male figure of this bronze statue. Hu was used by the Chinese to indicate foreigners from the north or west, including Sogdians. The use of hu means a “dance composed of gyrations, the specialty of Sogdiana” (Mahler 1959, 147 in Lerner 2001, 252).
The movement typical of a Sogdian dancer is portrayed by this figure in the elevated hem of the tunic, as well as the positioning of the arms and raised leg. In addition to the figure’s position, the clothing he is wearing is typical of a Sogdian dancer. Long sleeves help illustrate the movement of the dance; the pointed cap and double gourd on his back are part of the dancing costume (Lerner 2001, 254). By depicting the dancer with a large nose, the artist was specifically identifying this dancer as Sogdian.
Unique to this figure is the base of the lotus flower. The Sogdian Whirl was usually performed on a small carpet. This base of the lotus flower platform is considered to be an addition to the figure, not original. The lotus flower represents xiangrui, or good omen, and is thought to give good fortune to unique items (Lerner 2001, 254).
While both males and females performed this dance, female depictions are only found in the early and middle Tang period in Buddhist paintings. Most depictions of the Sogdian Whirl are of male dancers and found in funerary items, including stone funerary furniture (Lerner 2001, 254). The male dancers typically wore thrown-open clothing consisting of two lapels on the kaftan, while the female dancers usually wore trousers under short dresses (Yatsenko 2016).
Both royalty and the average citizen valued Sogdian dancers. Local rulers often gave Sogdian dancers as gifts or as slaves to the Chinese, sending them by caravan with acrobats and musicians. Dancers from Shash, Kesh, and Samarkand were considered the best and those from Shash were in highest demand (Lerner 2001, 227). Those who did not have access to view the dancing performed in the Chinese court would watch the dancing that took place in Zoroastrian temples, or by independent dancers accompanied by musicians (Lerner 2001, 253-254).
Dancers performed to music by instruments including lutes and flutes; the dance consisted of leaping and whirling. It is said that An Lushan, a general and favorite of the emperor Xuangzong, was known for his execution of the Sogdian Whirl, even though he weighed four hundred pounds (Lerner 2001, 253). (AC)
Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "mingqi", accessed May 13, 2016,http://www.britannica.com/topic/mingqi.(SO) (AC)
Juliano, Annette L., Judith A. Lerner, and Michael Alram. Monks and merchants: Silk Road treasures from Northwest China Gansu and Ningxia 4th-7th century. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams with the Asia Society, 2001. (SO) (AC)
Yatsenko, Sergey A. “The Late Sogdian Costume (the 5th-8th cc. AD).” Accessed April 1, 2016. http://www.transoxiana.org/Eran/Articles/yatsenko.html. (AC)
Shandan Municipal Museum
Additional Research Metadata
Tang Dynasty; Gansu Province, China
Lerner ("Monks/Merchants"); Silk Road cat. Dayton 2003