Detail of a painted relief from a 6th-century Chinese funerary platform depicting musicians and fantastic human-animal hybrid creatures.

Detail of a funerary platform, Northern China, 593 CE, White marble and pigments, Shanxi Museum (Shanxi province, China); Photo: Pénélope Riboud

Defining ‘Xian’

Methodological Approaches and Questions to the Study of Zoroastrianism in Medieval China

Pénélope Riboud

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

It is common knowledge that much more circulated than silk on the so-called “Silk Road” that connected China to the powerful and wealthy states that ruled over Inner Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East from the 6th to the 10th century CE. Textual sources, as well as archaeological and iconographical ones, show clear evidence for instance that from the 6th to the 10th century CE, Central Asians that resided in China continuously maintained a local form of Zoroastrianism, that Chinese literati designated by the character “xian 祆”. These sources, however, also shed a light on many contradictions. Tombs of the elite demonstrate adaptations of funerary practices; cross-examination of visual and textual material indicates inconsistencies regarding the identity of the gods that dominated the pantheon; and textual descriptions of xian rituals betray many idiosyncrasies. By questioning these discrepancies and trying to understand whether they resulted from mutations of Zoroastrianism as a consequence of its evolution in a multi-cultural context, or if they were mere misunderstandings by unfamiliar Chinese observers, this talk will aim at offering a better understanding of the multi-faceted narrative of the diffusion of Central Asian religions in China.

Pénélope Riboud is a historian and an art historian who focuses on the society and visual culture of Medieval China. She was trained in France as a historian and an archaeologist at Université Paris 1- Panthéon Sorbonne, then as a sinologist at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (Inalco-Langues'O) in Paris where she received her PhD in 2008. She is currently Assistant Professor of Chinese History and Art History at Inalco in Paris, and teaches China's Ancient History (pre-Song), Art History and History of Religions.

Registration is required at

Admission to lecture closes 10 minutes after scheduled start time.  

Please check for event updates.