Seventh Annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 14, Winter 2016.

Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History Unearthed from Tombs

Jonathan Skaff, Visiting Research Scholar
Professor of History at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
March 29th - April 19th, 2016

A man wearing glasses smiles for the camera while standing in front of a book shelf. Visiting Research Scholar Jonathan Skaff Dr. Jonathan Skaff is a Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW who will deliver the Seventh 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, Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History 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.

A black-and-white image of a document bearing vertical lines of Chinese characters. Its top corners are rounded and there is an oblong section missing from the middle of the document. Both of the trailing sides are torn off at the bottom. Census declaration of a Sogdian, An Kuzhiyan. Later, the document was cut and folded to create paper burial shoes for a woman (Lecture 1). Photo from Xinjiang chutu wenshu. The first lecture Settlers and Merchants on the Silk Roads: Sogdians at Turfan introduces the Silk Roads through a case study of Sogdians living as a minority at the Chinese oasis city of Turfan in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Sogdians were early inhabitants of modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who spoke an Iranian dialect, and began to migrate eastward by the fourth century CE to settle in cities and towns on the Silk Roads. This lecture will update Skaff’s previous publications on Sogdian farmers and merchants at Turfan by considering recently-discovered paper documents and epitaphs.

The second and third lectures Sogdians or Borderlanders?, Part I: Lives Revealed in Epitaphs and Part II: Death Rituals Revealed in Tombs 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 the lectures will challenge and complicate this conclusion.

The final lecture A Tang Dynasty Ally in Mongolia: Pugu Yitu (635-678) takes the audience along the Steppe Roads from China to Mongolia to investigate another recently discovered tomb and epitaph. The history of Mongolia is little known between the First Türk (552–630) and Second Türk (682–742) Empires. Chinese historical records claim that the Tang Dynasty exerted suzerainty over Mongolia during the interregnum through vassal rulers, but offer few details after 660. Likewise, Uighur Empire (744-840) inscriptions assert an earlier period of rule over Mongolia in alliance with the Tang. The recent excavation of Pugu Yitu’s tomb and Chinese-language epitaph shows that an alliance endured through the 670s and throws new light on cultural connections between China and Mongolia.