Byzantium, Persia and China: Interstate relations on the eve of the Islamic conquest (Part 1)

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’.

(End of Part 1)

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



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