Retracing the Sounds of Sogdiana
by Ingrid Furniss
Although the ancient melodies of Sogdiana are lost to time, archaeological evidence reveals much about Sogdian musical instruments and practice, both in their native homeland and in China. Likely bringing their musical instruments, styles, and musicians with them, Sogdian merchants and their caravans crisscrossed Central and East Asia during much of the first millennium CE. Sogdian music quickly flourished both in Sogdian settlements in China and in the Chinese court itself.
Early finds in Sogdiana
Music clearly played an important role in Sogdian life from a very early date, as evident in a number of terracotta musician figures discovered at native sites dating as early as the 4th to 3rd centuries BCE. Among the earliest are lute players, most of which have come to light at the city of Afrasiab (modern Samarkand) . Lutes depicted in these works took a variety of shapes, and many were likely played with plectrums. One type was shaped loosely like the modern guitar with a narrow waist, possibly related to the Central Asian tar تار ; Fig. 1. Some were round-bodied, perhaps related to the ancient Chinese ruanxian 阮咸; Fig. 2. The most common lute type, however, was likely pear-shaped and related to the pipa 琵琶, a Chinese lute with a wooden front, four strings, and a bent neck; Figs. 3-6 and 7.
Additional figures depicting musicians playing angular harps Figs. 8; both transverse (horizontal) and end-blown (vertical) flutes, the former possibly related to the modern ney نی Fig. 9; and drums (including some waist drums) have been excavated at Afrasiab and other Sogdian sites. Non-Sogdian instruments, such as the Hellenistic lyre/cithara, are depicted as being played by gods, possibly even by Ahura Mazda. These and Indian bowed harps appear in some later works Fig. 10, displaying the impact of the Silk Road on Sogdian music itself. Lutes, angular harps, drums, and flutes were core instruments in Sogdian ensembles.
Feasting and entertainment in the afterlife
By the early 4th century CE, Sogdians had established mercantile communities throughout China, first in Gansu and then quickly spreading eastward. Wealthy Sogdian sabao 萨保 / 薩保 (leading merchants appointed as community leaders) who lived in these communities were buried in tombs equipped with stone funerary beds and sarcophagi depicting the pleasures of this life and the next. Possibly from a Sogdian tomb in the Northern Qi capital at Zhangdefu 彰德府 (near Anyang 安阳 / 安陽), the Anyang funerary bed served as the base of such a couch, which various museums acquired in parts.
As on other Sogdian funerary furniture discovered in China, musical scenes—both secular and religious—are abundant. These can be divided broadly into three key types: (1) religious (Buddhist and/or Zoroastrian); (2) wine drinking and feasting; and (3) hunting or processions. The Anyang funerary bed belongs to the first type, carved with various Buddhist deities, guardians, and motifs such as the double lotus petal and a lotus incense burner. Decorating the upper edge of the bed are nine pearl roundels, each containing a musician or dancer wearing traditional Central Asian attire. The entertainers (from left to right) include a flutist, two lute players, two dancers, two drummers (playing hourglass drums), and a cymbal player; Fig. 11. Two lateral stretchers that were once attached to the bed show additional entertainers performing the huxuan wu 胡旋舞, or Sogdian Whirl dance, and playing lutes, wind instruments (one possibly a Chinese double-reed guanzi 管子, similar to the shahnai; Fig. 12), angular harps, hourglass drums, and cymbals.
The Anyang funerary bed was once fitted with stone panels around its periphery, and these picture musical scenes as well. The back of one of the panels at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows a group of five seated men enjoying bowls of wine together in a vineyard and listening to music; Fig. 13. Such drinking scenes in Chinese–Sogdian art could have been linked to Nowruz نوروز (Persian New Year’s Day). Four musicians entertain them, playing two lutes, a conical wind instrument with a flared end (perhaps a double reed related to the Central Asian surnay), and an angular harp. The third type of musical scene, a procession, appears in the center of the panel owned by the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, in Paris. A horseman, likely the deceased, whose high status is signaled by his large size and the umbrella over his head, is accompanied by a procession of standing musicians playing a lute, an angular harp, a transverse flute, and cymbals; Fig. 14.
These works suggest that Sogdian immigrants in China retained aspects of their native musical traditions, including the use of these instruments. On occasion, Chinese instruments, such as the mouth organ, or sheng 笙, also figure in these ensembles, as we can see in a wine-drinking and feasting scene on the sarcophagus of the sabao Shi Jun; Fig. 15. Musicians in these works are divided by gender, as are the guests. Male musicians, playing a harp, two lutes, an hourglass drum, and a transverse flute, encircle a group of seated men enjoying wine and food beneath a grape arbor. A group of female musicians, performing a sheng (far left), a lute, and a harp, entertain a small group of women.
Tombs of Chinese elites
Works from the tombs of Chinese elites serve to highlight the popularity of Central Asian musicians, including Sogdians, at the Chinese court and among the wealthy. A Tang tricolor ceramic figure of a camel ridden by Central Asian dancers and musicians, another figure performing the Sogdian Whirl, and yet another playing a lute exhibit the kinds of foreign entertainment that Chinese elites apparently enjoyed; Fig. 16. It seems that Sogdian musicians also performed on animal-back in their homeland, as we can see in a fragment of a mural painting of a harp player seated on an elephant at Afrasiab. The huxuan dance was also enormously popular, decorating many native Chinese tombs. Tang-dynasty sources also attest to its popularity, describing performances at court, especially that of the cosmopolitan Tang emperor Xuanzong (r. 712 to 756 CE) and his favored concubine, Yang Guifei. Traces of Sogdian music and dance may still be present to this day in the music of the pipa, and in a number of Silk Road-themed dance and music ensembles—some featuring instruments discussed in this essay; Fig. 17-19.
F. M. Karomatov, V. A. Meskeris, and T. S. Vyzgo, Mittelasien: Musikgeschichte in Bildern. Vol. 2, no. 9: Musik des Altertums (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1987).
Frantz Grenet, “Samarkand: Trade, Travel and Faith,” in The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War, and Faith, ed. Susan Whitfield (London: The British Library, 2004), 107–13.
Harvey Turnbull, “A Sogdian Friction-Chordophone,” in D. R. Widdess and R. F. Wolpert, Music and Tradition: Essays on Asian and Other Music Presented to Laurence Picken (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 197–207.
On the Chinese ruanxian 阮咸, see Ingrid Furniss, “The Round-Bodied Lute (Ruan) and the Ideal of the ‘Cultivated Gentleman’ in Fourth- to Eighth-Century Chinese Funerary Arts: A Preliminary Study,” in Music and Ritual—Bridging Material and Living Cultures, ed. Raquel Jiménez Pasalodos (Berlin: Ekho Verlag, 2013), 25–42.
F. M. Karomatov, V. A. Meskeris, and T. S. Vyzgo, Mittelasien: Musikgeschichte in Bildern. Vol. 2, no. 9: Musik des Altertums (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1987), 94–95, fig. 104.
To hear an end-blown ney, see https://folkways.si.edu/hasan-kasai/shushtari/central-asia-islamica-world/music/track/smithsonian. For an illustration of the transverse flute, see F. M. Karomatov, V. A. Meskeris, and T. S. Vyzgo, Mittelasien: Musikgeschichte in Bildern. Vol. 2, no. 9: Musik des Altertums (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1987), fig. 113.
Boris I. Marshak [Marschak/Maršak] and Valentina I. Raspopova, “Worshipers from the Northern Shrine of Temple II, Panjikent,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, n.s. 8 (1994): 197–98.
For general discussions of music and musical instruments of the ancient Silk Road, see Kishibe Shigeo 岸辺
成雄, Kodai Shiruku Rōdo no ongaku 古代シルクロードの音楽 [Music of the ancient Silk Road] (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1982); Song Bonian 宋博年and Li Qiang 李强, Sichou zhi lu yinyue yanjiu 丝绸之路音乐研究 [Research on music of the Silk Road] (Urumqi: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, 2009); and Mitchell Clark, Sounds of the Silk Road: Musical Instruments of Asia (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2005).
Bo Lawergren, “Music History I. Pre-Islamic Iran,” Encyclopædia Iranica (EIr), online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/music-history-i-pre-islamic-iran (accessed on 12 July 2018). For the history of angular harps, see Bo Lawergren, “The Spread of Harps between the Near and Far East During the 1st Millennium A.D.: Evidence of Buddhist Musical Cultures on the Silk Road,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 4 (1995–96), 233–75; and Bo Lawergren, “Angular Harps through the Ages; a Causal History,” in Studien zur Musikarchäologie 6. Ed. Arnd Adje Both et al. Orient-Archäologie, vol. 22 (Rahden and Westfalen: M. Leidorf, 2008).
Étienne de la Vaissière, Sogdian Traders: A History, trans. James Ward (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), 119–57.
Gustina Scaglia, “Central Asians on a Northern Ch’i Gate Shrine,” Artibus Asiae 21, No. 1 (1958): 9–28.
Judith Lerner, “Aspects of Assimilation: The Funerary Practices and Furnishings of Central Asians in China,” Sino-Platonic Papers 168 (December 2005). See these four publications by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner: Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China (New York: Abrams and the Asia Society, 2001); “Eleven Panels and Two Gate Towers with Relief Carving from a Funerary Couch,” in Miho Museum: South Wing (Shigaraki: Miho Museum, 1997), 247–57; and “Cultural Crossroads: Central Asian and Chinese Entertainers on the Miho Funerary Couch,” Orientations 28 (October 1997): 72–78; and “The Miho Couch Revisited in Light of Recent Discoveries,” Orientations 32 (October 2001): 54–61.
Most of the surviving Sogdian funerary furniture depicts two pear-shaped lute types: one has four strings and a bent neck, and the other has five strings and a straight neck. The bent-neck lute is attested in native Sogdian and other Central Asian finds. The five-stringed lute was possibly of Indian origin; its history in Sogdiana is unclear. See John E. Myers, The Way of the Pipa: Structure and Imagery in Chinese Lute Music (Kent State University Press, 1992), 8.
To hear a shahnai, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhMf3OMrymg.
F. M. Karomatov, V. A. Meskeris, and T. S. Vyzgo, Mittelasien: Musikgeschichte in Bildern. Vol. 2, no. 9: Musik des Altertums (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1987), 126–27, fig. 157.