Early Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) glassware imports in China

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “The Importation of Byzantine and Sasanian Glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries“, by Mei-Ling Chen.

“Long-distance contacts involving China, Persia and the Roman world started in Antiquity, but the most wellknown set of contacts, involving the so-called Silk Road, thrived for much of the medieval period. The Silk Road, as is well-known, started at Xian, the capital city of China’s T’ang dynasty (618-907), went through Baghdad and Antioch, before reaching Egypt, Constantinople and Rome. In recent years, work by Chinese archaeologists has established that a demand and curiosity for exotic goods in China had actually been developing at least since the fourth century. This is clear from the discoveries of foreign commodities in recent Chinese archaeological excavations.

Finds of Eastern Roman and Sasanian glass not only provide good evidence for the inflow of foreign cultures and commodities into China during this period, but also
well reflect the political situation of contemporary Chinese society.

Fourth- to sixth-century China was in a fragmentary state: it was unstable politically and one of the major problems it confronted was the constant threat and invasions of the barbarians from the north. Coincidently, this was an analogous situation to that faced by its western neighbour, the Roman Empire, confronting the invasions of Germanic tribes into southern and western Europe. In the second half of the third century, the Han Chinese had established an empire known as the Western Jin (Map 1).


This polity was ended by the Xiongnu in 316 and their successors established a new authority in the south of China, known as the Eastern Jin (centred around modernday Nanjing). This heralded the beginning of a period of antagonism between North and South which lasted from the fourth to the sixth century (Map 2).


In the throes of such territorial change, Han Chinese control of the overland trade route between northern China and the Western Region (Chinese Turkistan) was lost to the non-Han Chinese people who had close contact with the Central Asian traders. The Eastern Jin polity, which had established itself in the South in order to survive, had to maintain its foreign contacts through a maritime trade route instead. Therefore, the competition between North and South further stimulated the development of both overland and maritime trade routes in the early medieval history of China.


Interestingly, the distribution of finds of Byzantine and Sasanian glass in China also reflects such this dual phenomenon.

Guyuan, Ningxia Autonomous Region

A transparent dish with cut-facet decoration was excavated from the tomb of Wang Shiliang and his wife, in Xianyang, near Xian, Shaanxi Province (Fig. 3). The tomb was dated to 583. Wang Shiliang was Duke of Guang-chang and Grand General of the Northern Zhou Dynasty.


The height of this dish is 3cm, and the diameter of the rim is 1O.8cm. This dish has a thick wall and was decorated with 2 rows of circular facets. Although tbe dish has a yellowish tinge, and is partially covered with a layer of efflorescence, it still retains a high quality of transparency. An Jiayao regards this as a Roman or Early Byzantine glass because a dish with similar shape and decoration was uncovered in Iraq and was believed to have been inherited by the Sasanians from the Byzantine Empire. However, Roman and Byzantine glass tends to have thinner walls, whereas this dish has thicker walls, and so some doubt has been cast on this interpretation.

Jingxian, Hebei Province

A light green transparent glass bowl decorated with wave pattern but covered with a layer of efflorescence on the surface of both inside and outside was excavated from the tomb of Madame Zu, at the Feng family cemetery in Jingxian, Hebei Province (Fig. 6). The Feng family served in tbe Northern Wei court and the tomb was dated to the fifth to sixth centuries.


Quite different from tbe previous thick Sasanian glass vessels, the wall of this bowl is only 0.2cm and the diameter of the rim is 1O.3cm. The body of the bowl was decorated witb applied thick trails forming a wave or net pattern, and at the bottom, the bowl was attached with a short ring foot and left with a pontil mark. According to An Jiayao and Yoshimizu, some glass vessels with applied wave pattern were also found in Southern Russia and northern coast of Black Sea region. Therefore, this is likely to be a Byzantine glass bowl.

Beipiao, Liaoning Province

Then in the northeast of China, a special zoomorphic glass sprinkler was uncovered from tbe tomb of Feng Sufu in Beipiao, Liaoning Province, dating to 415 (Fig. 7). Feng Sufu was the younger brother of the ruler of the Northern Yan of the Sixteen Kingdoms period (309- 439).


This sprinkler was apparently a Roman glass produced by free-blowing technique. It has been generally described as a duck-shape water dropper with trailed threads of glass around the neck and upper body, which were taken as wings of the duck. However, it does not seem to be convincing to describe it as a duck form since there are no clear indications of a duck head, beakers and wings.

Instead, it is more likely to be a slug because on one hand, in Greek and Roman art tradition, the representation of images and objects were usually concrete and explicit. In other words, it is unlikely to represent a duck. On the other hand, as aquatic themes play an important role in Roman art, it is not unusual to see Roman glass objects made in the forms of fish, molluscs and crustaceans, and the like. A beautiful Roman glass sprinkler blown in the shape of a snail, dating to the fourth century, provides a good reference (Fig. 8). This sprinkler is now in the collections of Bristol City Museum and Art Gailery.


Xiangshan, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

Finally let us look at the find-spots in Southern China. A few imported glass vessels dating to the Eastern Jin period have been uncovered in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. One is a Roman beaker excavated from Tomb 7 at Xiangshan, Nanjing, dating to 322 (Fig. 9). The tomb belongs to the cemetery of an influential noble family, Langyewang, of the Eastern Jin.


Unlike the previous glass vessels, this beaker was not that well preserved. Not only it is covered with a layer of efflorescence but also has cracks and damage all over the
vessel. This beaker, originally transparent, was decorated with horizontal lines, seven vertical oval facets, and a round circular facet at the bottom. Its height is 10.4 cm and the diameter of the rim is 10.8cm.

Concluding remarks

Good quality, transparent, and decorated glassware was imported into China during the fourth to sixth centuries from both the Persian and Eastern Roman empires. However, whereas in the West, glass was mass produced and trade in glass widespread, especially after the invention and spread of the blowing technique around the Mediterranean region during the first centuries BC and AD, glassware was, in contrast, very rare in China. Thus, the owners of this high-quality imported glassware were mainly aristocrats.
The distribution of the find-spots clearly demonstrates direct contacts between Chinese Turkistan and the Central Plain area, which are likely to have been mediated along the middle and lower Yellow River which stood against the power in Nanjing in the Lower Yenzi River.

In addition, analysis of this assemblage reveals that Chinese aristocrats had a taste and a preference for crystal-like, colourless glass, particularly that where the cut facets were arranged in a geometric pattern and 52 further enhanced the light effect. As these vessels were executed so finely, it seems that the Chinese believed them to be made of real crystal and called them ‘shuijing wan’, which means ‘crystal bowl’. Ge Hong (283-343), a
well-known contemporary Daoist philosopber with an expertise in alchemy left an important information in his work ‘Baopuzi’ that ‘the crystal bowls made in foreign
countries, are in fact prepared by compounding five sorts of (mineral) ashes. Today this method is being commonly practiced in Jiao and Guang (that is, Annarn and Guangdong).

The impact of luxurious Early Byzantine and Sasanian glassware imports in China encouraged the Chinese craftsmen in today’s Vietnam and Guangdong region to imitate it. This suggests close contact between Nanjing and the seaports in Indo-China, which served as gates of inflow of foreign cultures, commodities and even possibly technology. The East-West trade routes, both overland and maritime, were apparently in rapid development during this period.”

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus




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