Byzantium, Persia and China: Interstate relations on the eve of the Islamic conquest

By Samuel Lieu

The destruction of the Hephthalite Empire in Transoxiana by the combined forces of the Shahanshah Khusrau Anushirvan and the Western Turks in the sixth century (c. A.D. 557) was an event of great significance to the history of China’s trade and diplomatic contacts with the western empires of Iran and Byzantium. Since Chang Ch’ien’s legendary expedition to Bactria and Ferghana in the last quarter of the second century B.C., the Chinese had maintained intermittent diplomatic and regular commercial contacts with the Parthian Empire and through it also with the Romans.

The main item of trade for the Chinese as we all know was silk and possibly ironore – the exact nature of the origins of the ‘seric iron’ mentioned by Pliny the Elder is still a matter of considerable debate. The Persian shortage of weapons-grade iron is well known and the trade of it was banned by the Romans. We have at least three classical sources which testify to this prohibition. Precious metals and horses from Central Asia were the main forms of return payment. Parthian envoys also brought exotic animals, plants and minerals to the Chinese court, and a Roman emperor called An-tun in Chinese sources (either Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius) sent an embassy to China which was received in 166 A.D.4 There is no Roman account of the sending of such a mission so it could have been a case of enterprising merchants giving diplomatic cover to their business. To this early period of trans-continental contacts belong sixteen Roman copper coins (ranging in dates from Tiberius to Aurelian) found at Ling-shih hsien in the province of Shansi in the early part of the last century, and the copying of a Kushano-Parthian coin-legend in debased Greek letters onto the base of an ingot of the Later Han period. The civil wars which hastened the fall of the Han Dynasty and the invasion of northern China first by the Hsiung-nu (Huns?) and the occupation of it by the Tobas brought about a prolonged period of chaos to the lands at the eastern end of the Silk Road. The effect of these political upheavals on mercantile activities, especially those of the Sogdians, is well illustrated by the letter of Nanai-vandak, so brilliantly studied by Henning, which tells of the sack of the major Chinese commercial centres of Yeh and Hsienyang by the Hsiung-nu (who were called Huns in Sogdian) and the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about conditions in China from his contacts. In the three centuries which followed, the sea-route via India, especially Ceylon, prospered and became the main avenue of China’s trade with the West. This trade was dominated at the western end by Persians. Procopius remarks that it was impossible for the others to buy silk from the Indians, for the Persian merchants always located themselves at the very harbours where the Indian ships first put in and were accustomed to buy whole cargoes.


The spread of Buddhism in Central Asia and E. Iran introduced a new cultural link between Persia and China. The patronage given to the religion by the rulers of the Liang and Wei dynasties in N. China led to the development of commercial links, albeit of a localized nature, between China and the cities of the Tarim Basin. The recent discovery in a tomb of the Wei period near Xian of a Sassanian silver plate depicting a boar-hunting scene demonstrates the continuing eastward flow of luxury goods from Persia. It has been suggested that the item did not come to China directly through trade but was taken back to N. China as booty in the expedition of the Wei against Kutcha in 429. One of the earliest Buddhist missionaries and translators to have worked in Lo-yang was An Shih-kao who, according to his biography by Hui-chiao, was an Arsacid prince. Among his co-workers was a fellow Parthian called An HsUan who first came to Lo-yang as a merchant. Sogdians also featured prominently among the pioneering Buddhist missionaries. K’ang ChU, a contemporary of the famous Lokaksema, was a Sogdian monk and K’ang Seng-hui (d. 280) came from a Sogdian family which was engaged in the sea trade to the Gulf of Tonkin. The connection between Buddhism and foreign trade is exemplified by a passage in the Lo-yang ch’ieh-lan chi of Yang HsUan-chih (published c. 547) which is a description of the Buddhist temples in the eastern capital under the Wei:

To the south of the Yung Bridge and north of the Hu’an ch’iu (Circular Mound), between the I and Lo Rivers, was the Imperial Drive with buildings on both sides. On the eastern side were the Four Barbarians’ Lodging Houses: ( 1) Chin ling, south, (2) Yen-jan, north, (3) Fu-sang, east, and (4) Yen-tzu, west. On the western side were the Four Barbarians’ Wards: (1) Kuei-cheng, (2) Kuei-te, (Return to the Virtuous), (3) Mu-hua, (Admire the Refined), and (4) Mu-i, (Admire the Righteous). Deserters from the Wu region were housed in the Chinese Lodge at first, but given residences in Kuei-cheng Ward three years later. 

These lodging places were needed because the Middle Kingdom was a universally popular destination for western merchants:

Of the hundred kingdoms and thousand cities in the area extending from west of Ts’ung-ling Range (the Green Onion Range) to Ta-Ch’in (i.e. the Byzantine Empire), none did not accept China’s suzerainty with gratitude. Tradesmen doing business with barbarians and peddlers rushed to China’s border every day – indeed, China was the axis mundi of the whole universe. Those who took delight in China’s customs and who had consequently taken residence in China were too numerous to count. At any rate, more than ten thousand households were surrendered, and adapted to Chinese culture. Wards and lanes were orderly and well-kept, subdivided into rows after rows of houses and countless gates. Green locust trees cast shadows over the streets; green willows drooped in the courtyards. Rare commodities from every corner of the world were all available here.

In 517 two Chinese monks set out from Lo-yang for a journey across the Tarim Basin and the Pamirs in search of Buddhist scriptures. They followed a route which would be followed in parts a century later by the famous T’ang pilgrim Hsiian-tsang. Like Hsiian-tsang, they turned south after crossing the Pamirs and did not enter Persia proper. On the other hand they gave us a rare account of the Hephthalites who a quarter of a century earlier had lured the illfated Shahanshah Peroz and his army into a gigantic animal-trap somewhere beyond the northern Iranian frontier, killing him and a large number of his followers (484). The Chinese monks remarked on their nomadic way of life, their lack of cities and of literary culture but noted that they received tributes from many nations including Persia, and as a result they possessed many valuables and rarities which had come to them by way of tribute. Some of these would have certainly made their way eastwards. The discovery of a hoard of Sassanian coins issued under Yazdgard II ( 438-57) and Peroz (459-84) in a Buddhist relic box along with other jewellery in the province of Ho-pei c. 1965 shows that foreign coins in precious metal were certainly traded across Central Asia and valued by the Chinese who had a base-metal coinage. The presence of Hephthalite counter-marks on some of the coins gives a clear indication of their route to China. Of the one thousand or so Sassanian coins recovered in China, over a hundred were struck in the reign of Peroz and they were probably paid as tribute to the Hephthalites.

The Hephthalite ascendancy over the Sassanians in Transoxiana undoubtedly prolonged the cessation of regular trade between China and her principal customers in the West. Tinkers and itinerant peddlers plied the routes once used by caravans. The body of one such solitary travelling salesman was exhumed in 1959 in the course of repairs to water-pipes near Hohehot in Inner Mongolia. His merchandise which was found with his body consisted of two silver and one bronze goblets, a small gold decoration (probably once part of a tiara or diadem) and a gold solidus of Leo I ( 457-7 4) which gives the terminus post quem of this, his last journey. That his collection of goods in precious metal was found with the corpse unplundered shows that the tradesman had perished unnoticed and unaccompanied. At the time of the publication of the find, the solidus of Leo I is the oldest Byzantine coin found in China, the next in line being a solidus of Justin II (565-787) from near Hsienyang. I myself have used the apparent gap between the dates of these two coins as evidence of a cessation or diminution in trade between China and the West caused by the stranglehold of the Hephthalites on an important section of the Silk Road. I was therefore slightly taken aback when I read of the discovery of a coin of Theodosius II ( 401-50) in Ho-pei. My fears subsided somewhat when I read further in the same report that it was found together with two coins struck in the joint-reign of Justin I and Justinian (i.e. 527).21 These later coins however do not preclude the possibility that the coins made their way across Central Asia before the fall of the Hephthalite Empire c. 557.

The increase in contact between China and Persia under the Northern Wei is also evident from literary sources. The account of Parthia in the History of the Later Han Dynasty (Hou Han shu) is extremely brief and uninformative. By contrast, Sassanian Persia is accorded one of the longest entries in the treatise on Western Nations in the Dynastic history of the Wei (Wei shu). In it we are told that the capital of Persia was Su-li (i.e. Seleucia) and was situated west of Merv. The king of Persia possessed ten imperial residences, similar to the detached palaces in China, which he visited in turn. When the king ascended the throne, he would customarily select the most able of his sons and inscribe his name secretly in the archives as his successor. Neither his son nor the chief ministers would know who it was until after his death when the document was unsealed. The prince thus named in it would succeed to the throne while the other princes would take up provincial governorships. I need hardly remind you of the similarity of this to Procopius’ account of how Kawad was succeeded by Khusrau Anushirwan in 531. The latter was named in a document which was opened after the death of Kawad by Mebodes before the assembled Persian nobles. Khusrau was duly proclaimed King of Kings instead of the unpopular Caoses who, as the eldest son, justifiably thought that he had the stronger claim to the throne.

The bureaucrat-historian who compiled the article also included an attempt to transliterate the titles of Persian officialdom. Some of them are accurate and easily identifiable like fang-pu-shuai for ‘queen’ (i.e. either banbisin in Middle Persian or *bambust in Sogdian) or sha-yeh for ‘prince’ ( = Middle Persian: * sahryaran, late Sassanian pronunciation of satrdaran) or ni-ho-gan for ‘chief treasurer’ (= Middle Persian: Nixorakan and Greek: Naxoragan). More problematic are i-tso for ‘king’ ( = A vestan: xsathrya?) and mohu- t’an for ‘officials in charge of the judicial department’ ( = Middle Persian *magudan or mobeden).23 Given the problems one faces in transliterating foreign words into a tonal language like Chinese with a limited range of syllabic sounds, the fact that we can recognize a number of these titles with relative ease gives credit to the Sogdian or Chinese translator who made this attempt.

The article also contains a quotation (in Chinese translation) from a letter of Kawad which was received by the Chinese court (between 517 and 519) accompanied by presents. It says:

The Son of Heaven of the great nation, born of heaven. I wish on the place where the sun rises that the Son of Heaven of the Han (i.e. China) will (reign) forever. K’u-wo-to (i.e. Kawad) pays obeisance a thousand and ten thousand times.

Kawad’s friendship with the Hephthalites who helped him to regain his throne might have facilitated the passage of his envoys across Transoxiana to China. The greeting formula could well have been a reworded version of a standard Sassanian epistolary greeting as attested in Shapur II’s letter to Constantius II which, in the Latin translation of Ammianus Marcellinus, reads: 25 ‘Rex regum Sapor, particeps siderum, frater Solis et Lunae, Constantia Caesari fratri meo salutem plurimam dico’.


The Sogdians were among the first to seize the opportunities offered to trans-continental trade by the fall of the Hephthalites, the new dominance of the Turks and the return to more stable conditions in China. The story of how the Silk Road was re-opened, as told by Menander the Protector, is well known and need not be repeated here in detail.

At the institgation of the Sogdians the Turkish khagahn sent a trade delegation to Persia headed by a Sogdian, but their request to sell silk direct to the Persians met with a negative response. The Persian king was persuaded by a Hephthalite turncoat that Persian commercial interests would be at stake if Sogdians, now subjects of the Turks, were to be allowed to trade freely in the Persian Empire. The silk brought by the embassy was duly bought from the envoys and burnt in public. Relations between the two powers were severely strained when, at the ancient equivalent of a diplomatic reception, the Persians laced the ‘cocktails’ of the members of a second Turkish delegation with poison and only a few of the guests escaped alive. After this rebuff, the Sogdians sent an embassy via the Caucasus to Constantinople and this met with considerably better results. A commercial treaty with Byzantium was signed which was meant to last for eight years.

As China became more prosperous under the Sui and T’ang dynasties, she too began to suck in imports from the West in ever increasing quantity and variety. The continuing popularity of Buddhism in China stimulated fascination for occidentalia among the Chinese well-to-do, especially in exotic foodstuffs, wine-drinking, instrumental music, jewellery, objets d’art, curios, fur garments, board-games etc. All these greatly benefitted the Sogdian merchants who by now had a virtual monopoly on China’s overland trade with the West. There was a well-established chain of Sogdian colonies east of the Pamirs through which most of the trade was conducted. As I have suggested elsewhere, these colonies would have provided hospitality to visitors from the west like Buddhist, Manichaean and Nestorian missionaries and helped them to adjust to the new surroundings before they continued their travels into China proper. The subjugation of the Western Turks by the T’ang emperor T’ai-tsung was, according to Chinese sources, greeted by hu (i.e. Sogdian) merchants with great rejoicing as they could now travel unmolested. It was during the reign of the same emperor that Nestorian Christianity was first granted official recognition in China and a church was established with the title of ‘Monastery of the Persian Barbarians’. This was changed by imperial edict in 745 to ‘Ta-Ch’in (i.e. Roman) Monastery’ in honour of the land where the religion had its origins – probably an indication of the reluctance of the Nestorians to remain identified in China with a now defunct Sassanian dynasty. The article on Persia in the T’ang Dynastic Histories bears further witness to the very considerable increase in diplomatic and commercial contacts between the two states in the sixth and seventh centuries. The compiler of the article even attempted to give a summary of one of the more important chapters of later Sassanian history:

At the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), Yeh-hou (=Jaghbou?) Khaghan of the Western Turks destroyed the Kingdom (sc. of Persia) and killed its king K’u-sa-ho (= Khusrau?). His son She-li (= Siroes?) ascended the throne. Yeh-hou (Khaghan) sent a commander to supervise his rule. After the death of She-li, (the Persians) refused to be subservient and proclaimed the daughter of K’u-sa-ho as empress. She too was killed by the Turks. She-li’s son Tan-chieh-fang hastened to Fu-lin (i.e. MP hrwm, the Roman Empire) where he was received by its people and proclaimed king. He thus became I-ta-chih (= Ardashir?). After his death he was succeeded by I-ssu-ssu (= Yazdgard?) who was the son of his brother.

The compiler would not have scored high marks by modern standards of historiography, but then he did not have at his elbow Christensen’s L’Iran sous les Sassanides or the Cambridge History of Iran iii(l). Despite the major confusions in dramatis personae, the main event it tries to describe – namely the invasion of Iran by the Turks leading to the revolt of Bahram Chobin against Honnizd IV and the subsequent flight of Khusrau II (Parwiz) to the Roman empire via Circesium where he was well received by Maurice who aided him to regain his throne – is readily recognizable. The Chinese compiler appears to have conflated the account of the revolt of Bahram with the events after the death of Khusrau Parwiz, with the victorious Arabs confused with the defeated Turks. This attempt at an account of the internal history of Persia by a Chinese historian bears comparison with Theophylact’s excursus on Taugast (Turkish for China) in which he describes a battle between two states in N. China, one styled the ‘black -robed’ and the other ‘redrobed’. In Theophylact’s account, there are neither dates nor names and the title he gives for the king of China, ‘Taisun’ meaning ‘son of God’, is a considerable distortion of ‘T’ien-tzu’ though slightly more Chinese sounding than ‘Bagour’ (i.e. Parthian: b g p w h r: ‘son of God’) given in the anonymous Syrian commentary, the Gannat Bussame for the King of China. The rest of the article on Persia in the T’ang Dynastic histories is a unique account of the history of the Sassanian royal house before and after the battle of Nehavand, and its value has long been realized by western scholars. It tells of the mission of Yazdgard III in 638 to cultivate the friendship of the Chinese emperor with the gift of a snake trained to ferret rats from their hiding-places. The article goes on to recount his subsequent defeat by the Arabs and his death, the accession of Peroz, and his establishment of a Persian state in Tocharistan. When pressed by the Arabs, he requested military assistance from the Chinese who turned him down on the grounds that effective help could not be rendered over such a long distance. Later he was granted an honorary Chinese military title and placed in charge of a Persian enclave under Chinese protection in Seistan with his capital at modem Zaranj. He died some time later in China but not before his wish for the establishment of a Zoroastrian temple in the Chinese capital of Ch’ang-an was granted in 677. The Sassanian royal family could have just as easily fled to India as China. That the latter was chosen was probably influenced by the diplomatic contacts which had been established on the eve of the Arab conquest. Perez’s son called Ni-ni-shi in (Narses?) was at first held hostage by the Chinese but was later escorted back to Tocharistan where he ruled for some twenty years, during which time the remnants of his followers were said to have drifted away. As the victorious Arabs pushed steadily into Central Asia, other states once allied to Persia also sought help from the Middle Kingdom. In 713, the King of Sogdiana wrote to the Chinese Emperor, saying that the Arabs under the Emir Kutaiba had surrounded his capital city with three hundred mantlets and siege engines and had also dug three ditches (mines?). Even a small detatchment of Han (i.e. Chinese) troops, he said, could have served the purpose of defeating the common foe. A similar request was received from the Jaghbou (the Khaghan ?) of Tocharistan in 727. In the most obsequious and self-deprecating manner, he, calling himself a servant (nu), informs his Chinese lord and master that he was forced to pay a heavy tribute to the Arabs who were harrassing and oppressing him in every possible way. Without Chinese help, he says, neither he nor his kingdom could survive. He also apologises for the poor quality of his gifts as the Arabs were pressing him with fiscal demands which he found hard to meet.

The Chinese belatedly took action in 751 when an expedition under the command of the Korean general Kao Hsien-chih was sent west of the Pamirs, but it was decisively defeated by the Arabs on the banks of the river Talas. To emphasise their victory, the Arabs carried out a surprise seaborne attack on Kuang-chou (i.e. Canton) in Persian ships in 758/9, setting fire to the port’s granaries and magazines. The numismatic evidence tells the same story of active contact between China and Persia in the last days of the Sassanians. Of the Sassanian coins found and reported in China in modern times up to 1977, 593 out of a total of 1, 177 were issued in the reign of Khusrau II. Admittedly most of them come from one hoard, but there are also two rare specimens of Borandukht (630-31) and three of Yazdgard III.

By contrast, China’s knowledge of Byzantium did not significantly increase during these centuries of active contacts with the West. The Chinese had long wished to have direct trading contacts with the land they called Ta-Ch’in (‘Greater China’) and later Fu-lin which they knew to be the final destination of much of the silk they exported to the West. In 97 B.C., a Chinese envoy was sent by the great explorer Pan Chao to travel to the Roman Empire by sea from the Persian Gulf. However, when the envoy was about to embark at Mesene, he was told that if the winds were favourable, he might reach Ta-Ch’in in three months but, if unfavourable, the journey could take anything up to two years. Moreover, the sea often made the voyagers long for dry land and hanker for objects of their love, and many would thus perish. The envoy who had already made a long overland journey decided that he had reached the limits of his mission and heeded the advice of the Parthians. Chinese sources speak of later attempts to reach Rome also being thwarted by the Parthians who did not wish the Chinese to circumvent their role as middlemen. The articles on Rome/Byzantium in the Chinese dynastic histories are much more uniform throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages than those on Persia, interestingly resembling Roman accounts of China, with both depicting the other
in stylized and idyllic tenns, concentrating on exotica and the utopian nature of the other’s politeia. Nevertheless, common fear of the Arab foe did bring about some formal contacts between Byzantium and China. A delegation from Fu-lin arrived in China in 643 which is said to have been sent by a king called Po-to-li.47 Since the reigning Byzantine monarchs in this period were Heraclius (610-41), Constantius III (641), Heracleonas (641) and Constans II (641-68), the transliteration of the imperial name seems seriously adrift. Hirth has suggested that ‘Po-to-li’ is an approximation to the Arabic word ‘Batriq’, i.e. patriarches in Greek. But it is hard to imagine the Patriarch of Constantinople playing such an independent role in Byzantine foreign policy unless the delegation had missionary motives. ‘Po-to-li’ could have been simply a corrupt transliteration of the Greek basileus (emperor). It has also been suggested that the attempt at an alliance with China was made in the hope of the creation of a second front in Turkestan at the time when Constans II was preparing an expedition to recover Egypt from the Arabs. The Chinese source goes on to say that shortly after the mission, the Arabs waxed strong and the general Mu-i was sent to invade Fu-lin. The latter thereupon made a treaty of friendship with the Arabs and became tributary to them. Mu-i is probably Mu’awiyah, the Arab general who swept the Byzantines out of Syria and Palestine and whose victory led to a truce for two years between Constans and the Arabs in 648.

In the wake of the exiled Sassanian royal family came a steady stream of Persian refugees to China. Their subsequent careers in China are not unlike those of the Czarist exiles in China after the Russian Revolution. The T’ang government valued the military (especially equestrian) skills of the Iranian noblemen and many were enrolled into the elite Shen-ts’e chiin, the T’ang equivalent of the French Foreign Legion. A bilingual tombstone of the sister/wife of one of the Iranian officers of this corps, found at Xi an and published by Sundermann and Thilo and now restudied by Harmatta and Humbach with Wang Shih-ping, attests to the survival of at least one Iranian aristocratic family in exile as late as the third quarter of the ninth century. While the Middle Persian version of the inscription designates her as the ‘sister’ of the officer, the Chinese artfully gives ‘wife’ to disguise the Iranian practice of incestuous marriage which would have been repugnant to the Chinese. In a recent survey of the careers of foreigners in T’ang China, Tse Haip’ing has shown from both literary and epigraphical evidence that a considerable number of officers of Iranian or Central Asian origin rose to relatively high ranks in the T’ang forces, and some were heavily decorated and well rewarded for their bravery in frontier wars. A handful of Iranians took to the serious study of Chinese Classics and entered the civil service, but the great non-military majority of the exiles went into trades and professions in which foreigners had already established themselves, such as painting (especially religious painting) and decorating, entertainment (especially in instrumental music, dancing and conjuring), trading in horses, spices and jewellery, money lending, medicine and the proprietorship of wine-houses, bakeries and eating places. Some Iranian ladies became servants and/or concubines of T’ang officals and merchants and merged into Chinese society which showed little sign of racial prejudice against them. Chinese-speaking Sogdians were particularly appreciated for their language skills as translators of Buddhist texts or interpreters for the T’ang administration. One half-Sogdian and half-Turk who rose to fame and notoriety in late T’ang history was An Lu-shan (Lu-Shan = Sogdian rwxsn-, ‘shining, brilliant’). He began his administrative career as an interpreter with knowledge of half a dozen languages. Later, as provincial governor of Ho-pei, he led a revolt against the T’ang court in the years 755-66 and very nearly became ruler of the Middle Kingdom. The revolt is a major watershed in Chinese history as it inaugurated a period of internal turmoil which caused Chinese society to turn in upon itself and to close its doors to foreign influences until they were forcibly prised open by the Jurchens and Mongols four centuries later, and compelled China to rejoin the Eurasian oikumene.

(Source: “Silk Road Studies IV, Realms of the Silk Roads: Ancient and Modern”, Pages 47-60, Macquarie University, Australia, 1998)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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