CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 1, March 2005


Fire Altars and Avian Deities as Sacrificial Officiants | China Heritage Quarterly

Review: Shi Anchang, Huotan yu Jisi Niaoshen (Fire Altars and Avian Deities as Sacrificial Officiants), Beijing: Zijincheng Chubanshe (Forbidden City Publishing House), December 2004, 228 pages, 120 plates and illustrations, 2 maps.

Cover of Huotan yu Jisi Niaoshen

This timely work documents the current state of studies of Sogdian and Zoroastrian influences on Chinese society and art by a researcher from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Shi Anchang (b. 1945) was at the forefront of these studies as they developed dramatically during the last decade of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century. Although some of the papers that appear in this collection have been previously published, they have been skilfully re-edited and presented together with seamlessly interpolated new explanatory material that coalesces to form a smooth and coherent narrative. The sequence of material in this volume enables the reader to accompany the author from his first tentative steps in the early 1990s as a cataloguer handling "foreign" material of unknown origin in the collection of the Palace Museum that had been first discovered in Luoyang and Anyang in the 1920s.

The process, by which the Palace Museum originally came to acquire materials later identified to be Zoroastrian and Sogdian in inspiration, is a microcosm of the museum's development as a safe haven for endangered antiquarian material during the early years of its development – from 1925 - under its first prominent director, Ma Heng (1881-1955). Ma Heng was a pioneer both in the formulation of the principles of modern Chinese archaeology, initiating the introduction of archaeology as a subject at Peking University in the 1920s, and in the establishment of intellectually rigorous guidelines for both libraries and museums. In the early 1930s, Ma Heng participated in excavations at the Han-Wei period site of the Taixue (Imperial College) in Luoyang. The Beimangshan area of Luoyang, where there is a high concentration of ancient graves, was at that time plagued by tomb robbers. The rapidity with which material was being stripped from the area left Ma Heng with little choice but to document the various textual and sculptural items being discovered by making rubbings of these inscriptions and carvings. By the time of his death, Ma Heng had assembled an invaluable collection of some 9,000 rubbings, which are one of the most valuable sources for the history of the Wei-Jin period, and these he bequeathed to the Palace Museum.

Fig. 1 View of restored coffin bed with screen from Northern Zhou tomb of An Jia in Xi'an
Fig. 1 View of restored coffin bed with screen from Northern Zhou tomb of An Jia in Xi'an

The Wei-Jin period was one of the most remarkable phases in acculturation in ancient Chinese history, dramatically highlighted by the migration in 494 of more than one million people led by Emperor Xiaowen of the Tungusic ethnic group called Tuoba-Xianbei (Tabghach-Hsienpei) from Pingcheng (present day Datong) in north-eastern China to assume power in Luoyang, the traditional centre of Chinese power. In Luoyang, Emperor Xiaowen oversaw the final steps in the total adoption by his people of Chinese ritual culture and all its trappings. Although historians knew that the Tabghach people, like other groups of northern pastoral nomads, were past masters of acculturation, the specifics of cultural elements these people brought to the Central Plain were little documented, understood and appreciated. Shi Anchang observed that the stelae and carved stones that appeared in the tombs of these new foreign rulers and aristocrats in the Luoyang area were decorated with images of deities, fire altars and various winged beasts ultimately of Central Asian and Iranian origin, including the senmurv, a fantastic beast known to Western art historians from Byzantine pictorial art. The various iconographic elements indicated that many members of the Tabghach aristocracy ascribed to a form of Xianjiao (Chinese Zoroastrianism) clearly acquired from the Central Asian communities of merchants, mostly from Sogdia, who had settled through the urban centres of northern China during the late Eastern Han, Wei-Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties period.

Shi Anchang was one of the first scholars working on the study of stone carvings to recognise these Zoroastrian-Sogdian elements in six Northern Wei dynasty tomb epitaphs, the stele of Xiao Hong of the Liang dynasty, and in carved stones from aristocratic Northern Qi dynasty tombs in Anyang, not far from Luoyang. He prepared a systematic register of iconography documenting the motifs in these works for the purposes of analysis and cross-referencing. He presented the results of this work in five papers, among the 13 included in this volume. His research led him to later discover other "Zoroastrian" pieces in the collection of the Palace Museum, including a Sogdian ossuary purchased by the museum in 1957 from an antiquities store, and stone bed rubbings from Xinyang purchased in 1996.

Fig. 2 Panel from screen surrounding coffin bed from Northern Zhou tomb of An Jia in Xi'an
Fig. 2 Panel from screen surrounding coffin bed from Northern Zhou tomb of An Jia in Xi'an

Shi Anchang's first papers on this subject appeared around the mid 1990s when the Russian scholar Boris Marshak also noted the iconographic similarities between the murals in the "Hall of the Ambassadors" at the Sogdian site of Pendjikent in Central Asia and the images on the carved stones from aristocratic tombs in Anyang. Shi Anchang's papers appeared prior to the spectacular Sogdian finds of the last few years in China: the discovery in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, in July 1999 of the stone outer coffin with fire altar and other images of the Central Asian Yu Hong; the discovery in May 2000 of the tomb of the Sogdian religious leader (sabao) called An Jia in Xi'an (see Figs. 1 and 2); and, the most spectacular of all, the discovery in June 2003 of the Northern Zhou tomb of the Sogdian, Squire Shi, also in Xi'an. There has now been an explosion of studies of this Chinese cultural phenomenon – and over the last three years there have been half a dozen major conferences on the subject, the most recent two held in late 2004 in Beijing and St. Petersburg, respectively.

It is salutary at this point to take stock of the accelerating rush of Sogdian and Zoroastrian studies and publications. It is quite clear that "Chinese Zoroastrianism" (variously called in Chinese Xianjiao, Huoxianjiao or Hutianjiao) observes different burial practices from "mainstream" Central Asian Zoroastrianism, and more attention needs to be paid to the question of whether elements of commoners' burials, as well as elite burials, also contained more muted "Zoroastrian" elements. Levels of acculturation, social stratification and regional differences all need to be distinguished within the generality of Chinese Zoroastrianism. Moreover, there is a lack of clarity on the boundaries between Sogdian and Iranian Zoroastrianism, Mazdaism and Avestan religions, Turkic-Mongol fire worship, Indo-Iranian Brahmanism, and their various permutations, often millenarian and linked with Maitreya cults. Chinese scholars have often too readily and uncritically drawn on Zoroastrian studies, perhaps only applicable to Iran, from Mary Boyce and other scholars in the field, and have stressed the similarities rather than the differences in the Iranian-Sogdian materials and Chinese imagery. Mary Boyce's hesitation to make definitive conclusions is often overlooked by her Chinese admirers. Even Shi Anchang, in his paper in this collection on the divine drug of the Zoroastrians, haoma (Sanskrit, soma), tends to disregard Mary Boyce's suggestion that the most likely candidate for the drug is ephedra, which in fact happens to have been found in graves in the Lop Nur area of Xinjiang. In Sogdian-Zoroastrian studies, as they are emerging in China, Shi Anchang may not be one of the most prominent historians, but he is one of the most measured voices, and his writing enables us to participate in the discovery of "Zoroastrianism" from within the discipline of Chinese sculptural epigraphy and the language of Chinese iconography. This imbues his writing with a sense of surprise, perhaps less evident in this collection than in the original papers as they appeared sequentially in the 1990s. His work also highlights some of the very original research being done today at the Palace Museum, where scholars have regained much of the initiative that characterised the first generation of archaeological and art history researchers working in the Forbidden City in the period from 1925 onwards. As part of this endeavour, this worthwhile volume is a well integrated contribution to an ambitious set of new studies being released by Forbidden City Publishing House. [BGD]