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A Journey across Many Realms: The Shi Jun Sarcophagus and the Visual Representation of Migration on the Silk Road

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 January 2021

Jin Xu
Affiliation:
Jin Xu (jxu@vassar.edu) is Assistant Professor of Art History and Asian Studies at Vassar College.
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Extract

The Shi Jun sarcophagus (580 CE), a house-shaped stone coffin of a Sogdian immigrant couple, is one of the most important Silk Road discoveries ever made (figure 1). Excavated in Xi'an (Shaanxi Province, China) in 2003, it belongs to a group of sarcophagi created for Sogdian community leaders in sixth-century China that have been uncovered over the course of the past century, primarily in the last two decades. The Shi Jun sarcophagus sets itself apart from the others with an epitaph inscribed in both Chinese and Sogdian. The epitaph recounts the migration of a Sogdian couple from Central Asia to the Chinese heartland. Even more unusual than this inscription is the exterior of the sarcophagus, which is carved with a continuous sequence of narrative reliefs. These represent the deceased's multifaceted journey on the Silk Road.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 2021

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References

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2 All images and drawings of the sarcophagus are provided by the Xi'an Cultural Relics Conservation and Archaeological Research Institute.

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13 The Sogdian term ’xwštm'xw, according to Yoshida (“The Sogdian Version,” 57–59), refers to paradise in Zoroastrian scriptures.

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19 The episodic mode represents a tradition of arranging narratives in a sequential order, which, as Chen and Murray observe, did not exist before the arrival of Buddhism in China. See Julia K. Murray, “Buddhism and Early Narrative Illustration in China,” Archives of Asian Art, no. 48 (1995): 20; Chen, “Time and Space in Chinese Narrative Painting,” 244–47.

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22 Scholars, including the writers of the archaeological report, fail to recognize the flower and thus describe the figure as folding his hands in prayer.

23 Gulácsi and Beduhn, “The Religion of Wirkak and Wiyusi,” 15; Étienne Vaissière, “Wirkak: Manichaean, Zoroastrian, Khurramî? On Bilingualism and Syncretism in Sogdian Funerary Art,” Studies on the Inner Asian Languages, no. 30 (2015): 97.

24 Despite obvious iconographic discrepancies and severe lack of visual evidence, scholars have nevertheless identified the figure as Laozi, Mani, Ahura Mazda, or the Zoroastrian prophet Sosans. See, respectively, Rong Xinjiang, “Yiwei Sute shouling de silu shengya [A Sogdian leader's career on the Silk Road],” in Sichou zhilu yu dongxi wenhua jiaoliu [The Silk Road and cultural interaction between the East and West] (Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2015), 252–53; Étienne Vaissière, “Mani en Chine au VIe siècle,” Journal Asiatique, no. 1 (2005): 357–78; Shen, “Zhonggu Zhongguo,” 93–114; Gulácsi and Beduhn, “The Religion of Wirkak and Wiyusi,” 16.

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29 Dien, “Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi”; Rong, “Yiwei Sute.”

30 Frantz Grenet, “The Self-Image of the Sogdians,” in Trombert and Vaissière, Les Sogdiens en Chine, 123–40.

31 Fan and Ma, “Mogaoku.”

32 Xiuxing benqi jing.

33 Focusing on the royal attributes of the father's headdress, Grenet and Riboud hold the couple to be a king and a queen of the Hephthalite empire (“A Reflection of the Hephtalite Empire,” 133–43). But, as Dien convincingly points out, the royal headdress is more likely a generic symbol of noble status than that of specific rulers (“Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi,” 46–50).

34 Dien, “Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi,” 45; Yang, Shi Jun mu, 169; Rong, “Yiwei Sute,” 254.

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39 For Dien, the scene is a representation of the couple's journey to Chang'an, as well as an allusion to the retirement of Shi Jun from his official position (“Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi,” 46). Grenet and Riboud, on the other hand, suggest that N3 is about the appointment of Shi Jun as a sabao official, which, they argue, represents the culminating moment of Shi Jun's career (“A Reflection of the Hephtalite Empire,” 136). Rong reads the scene as the couple's journey from Xiping to Liangzhou; yet he does not explain why this specific journey is given such a special treatment on the sarcophagus (“Yiwei Sute,” 255).

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44 Yang, Shi Jun mu, 169–70; Rong, “Yiwei Sute,” 249–62. Vaissière identifies the figure as Mani (“Mani en Chine,” 362; “Wirkak,” 101–3), and Grenet considers it to be Zoroaster. See Grenet, Frantz, “More Zoroastrian Scenes on the Wirkak (Shi Jun) Sarcophagus,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, no. 27 (2013 [2017]): 1–12Google Scholar.

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46 Yang, Shi Jun mu, 169–70; Rong, “Yiwei Sute,” 249–62; Gulácsi and Beduhn, “The Religion of Wirkak and Wiyusi,” 17.

47 Grenet, “More Zoroastrian Scenes,” 3.

48 Rong, “Yiwei Sute,” 258.

49 Dien, “Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi,” 46.

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51 Shen, “Zhonggu Zhongguo,” 11–33.

52 Gulácsi and Beduhn, “The Religion of Wirkak and Wiyusi,” 1–32; Grenet, “More Zoroastrian Scenes,” 1–12.

53 Grenet, “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants,” 471–74.

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