century Sogdian paintings of the so-called “Hall of the Ambassadors” at
Afrasyab have been interesting student of Central Asian art and archaeology since
their discovery happened in 1965. In the last 40 years, the publication of
several specific studies
allowed to find a solution commonly accepted by most of the scholars
to the general meaning of the scenes represented in the Afrasyab mural
paintings. Such solution is mostly based on the observation of the same
paintings and on literary texts external to proper Sogdiana since the
inscriptions found at Afrasyab
were not enough to give a detailed meaning to the whole paintings in the “Hall
of the Ambassadors”.
The Western and the Southern Walls
are in fact interpreted now as correlated to the local celebration of the
Iranian New Year Festival (the Nawruz). Although the paintings on the
Eastern Wall were preserved in a very fragmentary state, most of the scholars
identify them as a representation of Indian scenes.
It is not clear if also on this wall there is a celebration of an Indian
festival connected to the New Year.
The scene on the Northern Wall is a very elaborated one and a probable
interpretation to it was recently proposed by S. Cristoforetti and the present
The left part of the scene on the Northern Wall is linked to the celebration of
the Duanwu jie (端午节) performed
personally by the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian (690-705) and her attendants. In
Gregorian calendrical terms, the Duanwu Festival falls between May and
June, that is to say around the Summer Solstice. In 7th century
Sogdiana also the Nawruz was celebrated around the Summer Solstice. The
Sogdians probably represented the Duanwu jie on the Northern Wall at
Afrasyab because during the 7th century this festival fell around
the same period of their Nawruz and because the Chinese themselves
considered the Duanwu jie (and, in some way, they still consider it) as
much important as their own New Year festivity. In few words, in the Middle
Kingdom the New Year Festival and the Duanwu jie were interchangeable as
importance. This point is clearly expressed by the auspicious folk pictures (Nianhua)
exchanged in China
during the New Year in modern times: among the scenes reproduced on the folk
pictures, the usual auspicious children attired in Chinese garments are
performing also the Duanwu jie.
The right part of the scene on the
Northern Wall at Afrasyab most likely represents the celebration of an ancient
aspect of the Chinese New Year Festival performed by the Tang Emperor Gaozong
(649-683). His figure can be discerned very easily since he is represented bigger
in size than his attendants. But, even if one should consider the Iranian or,
better still, the Turco-Iranian environment for such a scene, actually, the
representation of this hunt mirrors a habit fitting almost perfectly with
Chinese rituals as well. In a poetic composition written by Zhang Heng
(78-139), commonly known as the “Western Metropolis Rhapsody” (Xixuan fu),
it is clearly reported that during the celebration of a winter festivity the
emperor had to perform an elaborated ritual which included also a hunt.
The imperial hunt took place in a specific part of the park enclosed within a
barricade prepared as to not allow the animals to escape. The “Plume Hunt
Rhapsody” (Yulie fu) – also known as the “Barricade Hunt
Rhapsody” (Jiaolie fu) – is another source compiled by Yang Xiong
(53 BC-18 AD), a Chinese poet whose talent was so highly esteemed at court to
the point that the same emperor Chengdi (32-7 BC) commissioned him to celebrate
an imperial hunt which actually was performed by the Han emperor together with
some barbarian (hu) guests at the Shanglin Park in the winter of 10 BC
(most likely in January)
in poem. The accomplishment of a winter imperial hunt very similar to the one
celebrated in Zhang Heng’s rhapsody had been already described by the famous
author Ban Gu (32-92) in the “Western Capital Rhapsody” (Xijing Fu),
but even before Sima Zhangqing (179-117 BC) did the same in his poem “Rhapsody
on the Imperial Park” (Shanglin fu).
All these sources are dated to the
Han epoch and it cannot be excluded that such observance was still performed
during the early Tang period even if it is not possible to demonstrate such
idea in a definitive way. However, it is exactly this moment of the celebration
the one which is represented at Afrasyab.
The key for the correct identification of the painting on the Northern Wall at
Afrasyab, in fact, is represented by the hunt itself. In modern China no
hunting is performed during the celebrations of the New Year and for this
reason the painting of the Northern Wall at Afrasyab could not have been
interpreted correctly in the past. As already observed above, according to
Chinese sources several sacrifices were very commonly performed by the Emperor
himself during important festivals in ancient times in order to have prosperity
or just a lucky year and their memory is still preserved today. Some of these
sacrifices were performed as an Imperial hunt.
The Sogdians were definitely attracted by the hunt which was a martial attitude
particularly indicated for an aristocrat like the Chinese Emperor and one of
the most usual habits of the Iranian nobles as well.
Furthermore, it is well known that Taizong (630-649) loved to hunt, and for
this reason he was also criticized by his Chinese ministers who were
scandalized by the barbaric attitude of their sovereign.
It is also more probable that the
Sogdian artist (or artists) who depicted the scenes at Afrasyab just reproduced
the Chinese celebrations on the bases of oral or written descriptions or, most
likely, on the bases of one or more painted scrolls imported from the Middle
Kingdom. The Chinese sources mention Yan Liben (end of the 6th
century-673) among the most famous painters active at the Tang court. Most of
his masterpieces have been lost, but a scroll depicting thirteen Chinese
emperors from the Han to the Tang periods is today kept in the Museum of Fine Arts
Every Chinese Emperor is represented larger in size than his attendants or
other people around him. It is not possible to say if the scroll was originally
comprised of more portraits, nor if the artist copied the actual figure of
every single emperor or if he invented them.
In the former hypothesis it is obvious to consider that Yan Liben had at his
disposal some ancient portraits, probably dated to the same Han period and it
is not possible to exclude that one or more Sogdian artists could have seen
them even if such observation is not completely convincing. In fact, in Han
sources the emperor is considered to have hunted from his chariot, while at
Afrasyab he is riding a horse as Taizong probably did. Then, as already
observed, Gaozong tried to avoid imperial hunts. So, if the Sogdian artist (or
the team of artists) at Afrasyab copied a Chinese scroll, it is more probable
that such scroll was a portrait of Taizong who was fond of imperial hunts and
whose “barbaric” behavior scandalized his ministers. This point does not prove,
however, that the Sogdians wanted to represent exactly a specific Chinese
Emperor since in Tang sources it was Gaozong to recognize Varkhuman as governor
of Sogdiana. So, the supposed Chinese original could be considered preceding
Gaozong’s reign, but only by a few years.
The hypothesis of a Chinese original
work of art at the base of the Afrasyab paintings is furthermore supported by
the existence of Han funerary reliefs (mostly dated to 2nd century)
showing processions of chariots and battles of the Chinese army against
barbarians (recognizable by their garments and pointed caps) on a bridge while
in the water below other people are peacefully fishing, and in some cases, the
ladies are enjoying boat races. Such funerary reliefs were found at Yi’nan,
Dongwan, Feicheng, and Cangshan (Shandong
province), and at Suining (Jiangsu
The commentators of the scenes represented in the reliefs could not explain the
apparent incongruence between the violence of the representation on the bridge
and the relaxed atmosphere of the aquatic scenes.
It is highly probable that the scenes of fighting against the barbarians were
actually just an act which took place during the imperial hunts. As already
observed, the rhapsodies mentioned above record that the barbarians
participated at the hunts. Then, during the periods of peace, the Chinese army
was expected to exercise and to take part in the great winter hunt.
The scene represented in one relief
from the west wall of the main chamber of the tomb recovered at Cangshan
appears particularly interesting because it is accompanied by an inscription
which describes what is actually happening.
In this panel a noble procession of chariots and riders are crossing a bridge
while below two ladies are on a boat in the middle of a fishing crew exactly as
reported in the rhapsodies. The scene appears peaceful but a rider dressed as a
barbarian in the higher left corner turns himself in the act of the so-called
“Parthian shot” in the direction of the main parade. It is not possible to
exclude that the barbarian is probably shooting at an almost indiscernible spot
in the relief which could be a bird. In any case the inscription does not leave
to intend that he has an unfriendly attitude towards the group. In fact, most
likely, this is once more just the reproduction of an act. Moreover, the
inscription mentions also the name of the river crossed by the military parade:
Wei. It is worth remembering that the Wei
River is also the one which flows in
the northern fringes of the Shanglin
Park where the imperial
hunt took place in Han times.
The scholars who made comments on these works considered them generic funerary
processions and this is in part correct because in Han China at the imperial
hunts’ conclusions there was the presentation of the sacrificial meat at the
ancestors’ temples or tombs.
Such an identification could constitute another clear parallel with the
Afrasyab paintings: in this way the actions of the Chinese people on the
Northern Wall would balance not only the celebration of the Nawrūz on
the Western Wall but also the funerary procession on the Southern Wall.
It is quite probable that the
Sogdians had several Chinese scrolls at their disposal and for this reason
there is some confusion in the paintings at Afrasyab. In fact the Sogdian
artists most likely confused the two Chinese festivals which comprised an
imperial hunt (in the case of the autumn one the preys are explicitly defined
as felines). Moreover, the painters probably confused the final part of the
festivals just mentioned with the Duanwu jie because they very much
resembled each other if one considers the aquatic games, and also because the Duanwu
jie fell in the same period of the year when the Sogdian Nawrūz was
celebrated during the 7th century. It is then worth noting that,
judging from the literary texts considered in this study (all dated to a period
preceding the Tang epoch), the same Chinese in some case were not completely
able to recognize their own ancient festivities.
In this way, the Sogdian artists who wanted to represent a Chinese New Year
celebration (as we can now consider likely) could have added some confusion to
a situation already not completely clear for its continuous hints to a more
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(Turcs) Occidentaux, Paris, 1903.
Compareti, “Introduction to the History of Sogdiana”, The Turks. Vol. 1. Early Ages, ed. H. C.
Güzel, C. C. Oğuz, O. Karatay, Ankara, 2002: 373-381.
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De La Vaissière, Roma, 2005, forthcoming.
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 Al’baum, 1975; Majtdinova, 1984; Silvi Antonini, 1989; Mode, 1993;
Marshak, 1994; Motov, 1999; Kageyama, 2002; Grenet, Samibaev, 2002; Grenet,
2003; Silvi Antonini, 2003: 172-185; Yatsenko, 2004; Compareti, Cristoforetti,
forthcoming; Compareti, 2004; Grenet, forthcoming.
 The main disaccording hypothesis in
respect to the one commonly accepted was advanced by: Mode, 1993.
 Compareti, Cristoforetti, forthcoming; Compareti, forthcoming.a.
 Rudova, 1969: 258-261.
 Knechtges, 1982: 181-241.
 Knechtges, 1976: 63; Knechtges,
1987: 119-245. On the barricade hunt see also: Schafer, 1968.
 Knechtges, 1982: 98-144.
 Knechtges, 1987: 73-113.
 For a detailed study on this topic
see: Compareti, forthcoming.a.
 Bodde, 1975: 57, 161, 327-339, 357.
On a probable connection between the Duanwu jie and a kind of
hunting: Compareti, Cristoforetti, forthcoming: 206, n. 3.
 It should not be forgotten that
during 7th century, the Tang extended their protectorate (more or
less nominally) over the whole of
and Sogdiana was annexed as well: Compareti, 2002: 376-377. Between 650 and 655
Gaozong recognized Varkhuman as ruler of Sogdiana: Chavannes, 1903: 135.
 Wechsler, 1979: 192; Marshak, 2004:
47. The Emperor Taizong (626-649) was criticized by his ministers because of
his love for hunts performed according to the habits of the Central Asians:
Marshak, 2004: 47. Gaozong is normally considered in Chinese historiography a
weak Emperor not adapt for hunting. As Mao Min kindly suggested to me, it could
be argued that for this reason the figure of the Chinese Emperor at Afrasyab
could be considered the portrait of another Emperor like Taizong, who, as just
already observed above, loved imperial hunts, see: Mao, forthcoming. See also:
Mode, forthcoming. So, if the royal figure at Afrasyab was copied from a
painted scroll, this one could have been dated to the period of Taizong and it
could be considered actually a portrait of Taizong himself. According to the
sources, in his first ten years of reign Gaozong does not appear like a
particularly weak Emperor even if he avoided systematically to perform the
Imperial hunts as his predecessor did: Twittchett, Wechsler, 1979: 242.
 Sirén, 1956: 99-100.
 Shih, 1959; Wu, 1995: 248; Wu, 1998:
22-24; Liu, 2005. The
scene of the chariot parade passing a bridge while ladies are depicted below in
the water can be observed also in mural paintings in a Han period tomb in
Helingol (Inner Mongolia): Blanchon, 1999: fig. 68. A Northern Wei painted
wooden coffin from a tomb excavated at Zhijiabao (Shanxi province) with the
reproduction of a procession, hunt scenes and acrobats dated to the 5th
century could be added to this group of representations: Liu, Gao, 2004. Traces
of an object which could be recognized as a boat can be observed in a part of
the paintings where the coffin is particularly ruined: Liu, Gao, 2004: pls. 5,
8. If the identification with an imperial hunt (so common in Chinese funerary
sphere) was proved to be correct, then the painting from Zhijiabao could be
considered the latest evidence for the celebration of such festivity in the
 Shih, 1959: 292-293; Wu, 1995: 248; Wu,
1998: 22-24; Xin, 2000. For
a recent proposal of a probable identification on these sources: Compareti,
 Wechsler, 1979: 208.
 Wu, 1995: 244-246; Wu, 1998: 22.
 See for example in the Western
Capital Rhapsody and in the Western Metropolis Rhapsody: Knechtges, 1982: 99,
183, 185. For Markus Mode in the Northern Wall at Afrasyab the Chinese ladies
are represented in the boat while racing on a river and not on a pond: Mode,
139 L. 390.
 Compareti, forthcoming.a.