Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History Unearthed from Tombs, II

Gold Funerary Mask from the Tomb of Shi Daode (613-678) in Guyuan, Ningxia, China; Courtesy of Guyuan Museum.

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History Unearthed from Tombs, II

Sogdians or Borderlanders?, Part I: Lives Revealed in Epitaphs

Jonathan K. Skaff

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar


Dr. Jonathan Skaff is a Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW who will deliver the annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lectures in Spring 2016. Skaff is a Professor of History at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where he also has served as Director of International Studies. He developed a lasting fascination with Eurasian cultural connections after teaching English in Shanghai in the mid-1980s and traveling through northwest China, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet. Since receiving his doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1998, his research has investigated medieval China’s frontier interactions with Inner Asia. Most prominently, his book, Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power and Connections, 580-800 (Oxford University Press, 2012) revealed previously unrecognized cultural connections between China and peoples of the Eurasian steppe involving diplomacy, warfare, ideology, and political networking. A Chinese translation is forthcoming from the Social Sciences Academic Press.

Skaff’s Rostovtzeff lectures, entitled Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval ChinaHistory Unearthed from Tombs, comprise four case studies that use paper documents, stone epitaphs and artifacts excavated from tombs to illuminate China’s interactions with Eurasia. “Silk Roads” is the popular name for east-west land routes—linking East, South, and West Asia and serving as conduits transmitting luxury goods, technology, religion, and artistic motifs. “Steppe Roads” is a term coined by David Christian, who defines them as north-south routes linking the Eurasian steppe’s vast pastoral grasslands with the agricultural regions to the south that facilitated exchanges of goods such as Chinese silks and Mongolian horses. The lecture series argues that the Silk and Steppe Roads were networks through which Eurasian peoples, who perceived their societies to be unique, spun overlapping and entangled webs of culture. The transit hubs of Silk and Steppe Roads were particularly active sites of cultural contestation, experimentation, and mutual influence that had an impact on the historical development of China and Inner Asia.

The second lecture “Sogdians or Borderlanders?, Part I: Lives Revealed in Epitaphs” will return to the topic of immigrants, but in this case two lineages with the same surname of Shi who settled at Guyuan in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region where the Silk Roads and Steppe Roads intersect. These people were locally powerful elites serving a succession of China-based dynasties as military officers, imperial bodyguards, horse breeders and translators in the sixth and seventh centuries. Their existence literally came to light when archaeologists excavated six tombs at Guyuan in the 1980s and 1990s containing burial goods and seven engraved stone epitaphs written in Chinese. A scholarly consensus has developed that both lineages had Sogdian origins, but this lecture along with the third lecture in the Rostovtzeff series will challenge and complicate this conclusion.

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