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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 January 2021
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.
1 Junkai, Yang and Shaanxi sheng kaogu yanjiusuo, Beizhou Shi Jun mu [Shi Jun tomb of the Northern Zhou dynasty] (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2014)Google Scholar.
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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4 Scholars also describe the two groups as “religious” and “secular” (or “biographical”). See Grenet, Frantz and Riboud, Pénélope, “A Reflection of the Hephtalite Empire: The Biographical Narrative in the Reliefs of the Tomb of the Sabao Wirkak (494–579),” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, no. 17 (2003 ): 133–43Google Scholar; Dien, “Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi.”
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11 Yang, Shi Jun mu, 190; Grenet and Riboud, “A Reflection of the Hephtalite Empire,” 141.
12 Dien, “Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi,” 105–6; Yoshida, “The Sogdian Version,” 57–59.
13 The Sogdian term ’xwštm'xw, according to Yoshida (“The Sogdian Version,” 57–59), refers to paradise in Zoroastrian scriptures.
14 Zsuzsanna Gulácsi and Jason Beduhn, “The Religion of Wirkak and Wiyusi: The Zoroastrian Iconographic Program on a Sogdian Sarcophagus from Sixth-Century Xi'an,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, no. 26 (2012 ): 1–32.
15 Albert Dien, “The Tomb of the Sogdian Master Shi,” The Silk Road, no. 7 (2009): 42–50; Gulácsi and Beduhn, “The Religion of Wirkak and Wiyusi.”
16 Li Yongning, Dunhuang shiku quan ji no. 3: Bensheng yinyuan gushi huajuan [A comprehensive catalog of Dunhuang caves no. 3: Illustrations of stories of jataka and cause and effect] (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2000); Fan Jinshi and Wu Jian, Dunhuang shiku quan ji no. 4: Fozhuan gushi huajuan [A comprehensive catalog of Dunhuang caves no. 4: Illustrations of the life of the Buddha] (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2004).
17 Vidya Dehejia, “On Modes of Visual Narration in Early Buddhist Art,” The Art Bulletin, no. 3 (1990): 382–83; Chen Pao-Chen, “Time and Space in Chinese Narrative Painting of Han and the Six Dynasties,” in Time and Space in Chinese Culture, ed. Huang Chun-chieh and Erik Zürcher (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 247–62.
18 Fan Jinshi and Ma Shichang, “Mogaoku di 290 ku de fozhuan gushi hua [Narrative imagery of the life of the Buddha in Cave 290 at the Mogao Caves],” Dunhuang yanjiu [Dunhuang studies], no. 1 (1983): 56–82.
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.
20 Xiuxing benqi jing [The sutra on the origin of (religious) practice], in Taisho shinshu Daizokyo [Revised version of the canon compiled during the Taisho era], vol. 3, no. 184, ed. Takakusu Junjiro and Watanabe Kaikyoku (Tokyo: Taisho Issaikyo Kankokai, 1924–34).
21 Li Jingjie, “Dingguangfo shouji gushi zaoxing bianxi [Analysis of the illustration of the Dipankara Buddha's prediction],” Zijincheng [Forbidden city], no. 2 (1996): 29–32; Anasua Das, “Dipankara Jataka in Gandhara Art,” in Buddhism and Gandhara Art, ed. R. C. Sharma and P. Ghosal (New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2004), 108–16.
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.
25 Liudu jijing [A scripture on the collection of the six perfections], in Taisho shinshu Daizokyo, vol. 3, no. 152.
26 Mariko N. Walter, “Sogdians and Buddhism,” Sino-Platonic Papers, no. 174 (2006).
27 Li Song, Chang'an yishu yu zongjiao wenming [Art and religious civilization in Chang'an] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2002).
28 Frantz Grenet, “Religious Diversity among Sogdian Merchants in Sixth-Century China,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, no. 2 (2007): 463–78.
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.
35 Canepa, Matthew, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship Between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 161Google Scholar.
36 Dien, “Observations Concerning the Tomb of Master Shi,” 46.
37 Rong, “Yiwei Sute,” 256–57.
38 Fang and Ma, “Mogaoku,” 66–67.
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).
40 Xinjiang, Rong, “The Sogdian Caravan as Depicted in the Relieves of the Stone Sarcophagus from Shi's Tomb of the Northern Zhou,” Chinese Archaeology, no. 1 (2006): 181–85Google Scholar.
41 Xiuxing benqi jing.
42 Grenet and Riboud, “A Reflection of the Hephtalite Empire,” 136.
43 Vaissière, “Mani en Chine,” 357–78.
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 ): 1–12Google Scholar.
45 Xianyu jing [Sutra on the wise and foolish], Taisho shinshu Daizokyo 12, no. 202.
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.
50 Tian, Xiaofei, “Tao Yuanming's Poetics of Awkwardness,” in A Companion to World Literature, ed. Seigneurie, Ken (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), 1:4Google Scholar.
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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