Monday, 4 April 2011

            The Silk Road was the ultimate trade route that dominated Eurasia. Many peoples engaged in trade along the Silk Road including the Syrians, and Indians however the Sogdians dominated the trade route. The Sogdians played a major part in the transfer of goods along the Silk Road. They were the principal merchants. Not only did the Sogdians transfer goods they also assisted in cross-cultural exchanges, especially with the Chinese and the Turks. Therefore the Sogdians held two roles along the Silk Road, typical merchants and facilitators of cultural exchanges.
            The Sogdians inhabited Sogdiana. They are known as Iranian people who spoke Sogdiana (Lerner 221). The Sogdians were divided into four classes, nobility, merchants, workers, and slaves. Sogdians relied on agriculture and commercial activities (Skaff 477). The location of Sogdiana in Asia made it possible for the Sogdians to become significant merchants on the Silk Road. Sogdiana was surrounded by China to its east, India to its south, and the Steppes to its north. They were surrounded by all the main areas where trading flourished. The Sogdians had access to all the main regions. Samarkand was its capital and main city; however most of Sogdiana’s cities developed independently and were ruled by local princes until the fifth and sixth centuries when the Hephthalites and the Turks conquered Sogdiana (Marshak 231). Thus Sogdiana was the perfect place for merchants to thrive because of its land connections. 
 This map outlines (in blue) where Sogdiana would be

            The ancient Sogdian letters tell us a lot about the Sogdians and their trade network. The letters were found by Aurel Stein in 1907 fifty-five miles west of Dunhuang. It has been estimated that the letters were written in 313-314. The letters were written by Sogdian merchants in the Hexi Corridor (Vaissiere 19). The first and third letters are assumed to be destined for Loulan and the second letter was destined for Samarkand and was written in Gansu. The second letter illustrates that the Sogdian trading network was international. Gansu is located in China and the letter was destined for Samarkand which was in Sogdiana. Therefore Letter II stresses the large amount of territory covered by the Sogdians merchants. The letters also illustrate that the Sogdians traded on a much smaller scale. Vaissiere describes letters IV and V as “relations on a daily basis” and “an example…which must have been the everyday share of smaller-scale Sogdian merchants.”(Vaissiere 50) The Sogdian trade network was thus a complicated one, Sogdian merchants worked on a small and large scale. The ancient letters also show what types of products were traded along the Silk Road, and what the Sogidan merchants had possession of. Letter II mentions linen clothing, woollen cloth, and musk. Letter IV mentions gold, and wine. Letter V mentions pepper, and silver metal. (Vaissiere 52) The products mentioned in the letters illustrate the east-west exchange in Gansu (Vaissiere 52). The west distributed the gold and silver and the east distributed pepper, silver, wine and rice (Vaissiere 52). Even though silk was not mentioned in the letters it was a major item traded by the Sogdian merchants. The ancient Sogdian letters are one of the only documents that prove the Sogidian trading network from Gansu to Samarkand. They also illustrate what the merchants traded.
This is the outer envelope of Ancient Sogdian Letter II
            The Sogdian merchants dominated the Silk Road so much so that their language, Sogdiana, became the language of the Silk Road. Since the Sogdians were in constant contact with different cultures some characteristics of their culture and the culture of the other people intertwined and influenced each other. The Sogdians were prominent in China and some of their cultural practices got adopted by the Chinese. The main religion of the Sogdians was Zoroastrianism (Lerner 226). However even though the majority of the Sogdians practiced Zoroastrianism they also helped spread Buddhism in places like China. The Sogdians are said to have translated Buddhist sutras into Chinese. While travelling as merchants along northwest India, Bactria, or Xinjiang on their way to China the Sogdian merchants were attracted to Buddhism so much so that they converted. Some even became monks and helped further the spread of Buddhism (Lerner 227). Thus the Sogdians helped spread Buddhism into places like China. They had a key role in the spread of religion.
            The Sogdian influence in China was still present in the seventh and eighth centuries especially in the capital cities such as Luoyang, and Chang’an. Aristocratic women in China wore clothes that reflected a western style of dress (Vaissiere 138). A western influence was also found in funerary art. In the tombs of aristocrats there were statues of western singers, dancers, or musicians. Even at Chinese official ceremonies music from Samarkand was played along with Chinese music (Vaissiere 139). Therefore not only did the Sogdians deliver goods to various regions in Asia they also transferred cultural elements with them as well.
            The Sogdians were not the only ones who were influencing other cultures. The Sogdians also picked up cultural practices on their trade routes. Many Sogdians decided to settle in regions across Asia such as China. We can not fully examine the degree in which the Sogidians were assimilated into Chinese society; however there are examples of Sogdians adopting Chinese cultural practices. For example the Sogidans living in China adopted some Chinese funerary practices. The Sogdians being Zoroastrians did not bury their dead, however the Sogdian immigrants living in China did practice underground burials (Feng 240). The Chinese Sogdians also incorporated the custom of burying objects such as mingqi and ceramic vessels (Feng 243). Therefore the Sogidans incorporated and adopted some Chinese cultural practices.
            Also Vaissiere states that by the eighth century in different townships in china, particularly Conghua and Chonghua, the Sogidans living there were completely under the direct control of the state instead of the sabo, “The inhabitants of these townships were full subjects of the empire, submitting to the same obligations and endowed with the same rights as the Chinese inhabitants of the region.” (Vaissiere 153) This illustrates that the Sogdians living in China were being assimilated into the Chinese way of life. The state recognized them and treated them as Chinese. They gave them the same rights as native Chinese people according to the statement by Vaissiere. Also in the same township, Conghua, the majority of sons born from Sogdian parents had a Chinese name. The Sogdians were therefore adopting Chinese names for their children which was another way in which the Sogdians were influenced by the Chinese (Vaissiere 154). Therefore the Sogdians were impacted by the Chinese because of their presence in China due to their roles as merchants of the Silk Road.
            Similarily the Turkish people were also influenced by the Sogdians. The Turks invaded Sogdiana in 560, which enabled both cultures to mix. The Sogdians had control of commerce in the Turk Empire; they dominated the Silk Road trade in East Turkestan in the seventh and eighth centuries (Skaff 475). Documents from Turfan support this view. A record of “scale fees”, which are taxes based on the weight of an item, from Gaochang Kingdom in Turfan illustrates that the Sogdians were the dominant merchants. The record illustrates that eighty-two percent of all merchants involved were Sogdian (Skaff 501-502). Another document from Turfan illustrating the dominance of the Sogdians in mercantile activity in East Turkestan had to do with travelling permits. The travel permits state the names of the merchants. From the eight surviving permits fifty-percent of the leaders of a particular travelling group were Sogdian (Skaff 503-504). This constant contact had an impact on the East Turkestan culture. One of the most important contributions the Sogdians gave to the Turk Empire was writing. At one point the Sogdian alphabet was used in Turk and Uighur Empires to write Turkic texts. The earliest texts from the Turk Empire were written in Sogdian (Vaissiere 202). The Sogdians also brought Buddhism to the Turk Empire. Buddhism in the Turk Empire was influenced by the Sogdians and the Chinese (Vaissiere 203). Their presence and domination of the trade in the Turk Empire allowed the Sogdians to influence the Turks. The Sogdians had an effect on their language and religion.

Table 6 illustrates the dominance of the Sogdians merchants in terms of numbers from the scale fee document Gaochang Kingdom

            The Sogdians were significant in the development and success of the Silk Road. The Sogdians were considered to be one of the most dominant merchants along the Silk Road and helped transfer goods across Asia. Their roles as merchants enabled them to also spread aspects of culture. The Sogdians influenced the Chinese in numerous ways, such as spreading Buddhism and influencing their style of dress. The Chinese also affected the Sogdians. Many Sogdians adopted Chinese cultural practices such as funerary practices, and were to some degree assimilated into Chinese society. The Sogdians were also significant in affecting the Turk Empire because of their role as merchants. Similarily like with the Chinese the Sogdians also helped spread Buddhism in the Turk Empire. The Sogdians also contributed to the language of the Turk and Uighur Empires. Therefore the Sogdians facilitated the spread of religion, languages and other cultural aspects along the Silk Road.


Skaff, Johnathan. “Trade Diaspora in East Turkestan during the Seventh and Eighth Centuries.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 46 (2003): 475-524.

De La Vaissi√®re, √Čtienne. Sogdian Traders: A History. Trans. James Ward. Boston: Brill, 2005. Print.

Lerner, Judith A. “The Merchant Empire of the Sogdians.” Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China Gansu and Ningxia, 4th -7th Cent. Ed. by A.L. Juliano and J. Lerner. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., with the Asia Society, 2002. 221-227. Print.

Luo, Feng. “Sogdians in Northwest China.” Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures  from Northwest China Gansu and Ningxia, 4th -7th Cent. Ed. By A.L. Juliano and   J. Lerner. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., with the Asia Society, 2002. 239-245. Print.

Marshak, Boris I. “The Sogdians in their Homeland.” In Monks and Merchants: Silk   Road Treasures from Northwest China Gansu and Ningxia, 4th -7th Cent. Ed. By A.L. Juliano and J. Lerner. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., with the Asia Society, 2002. 231-237. Print.