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Ancient Tombs of Laowai Found

Laowai (foreigners) are not unfamiliar to the rank and file in China nowadays.

But it is difficult even for historians to pin down when the first laowai or 'outsider' started coming to, and residing deep inside China.

Last year, archaeologists in Shaanxi Province in the northwest stumbled upon a tomb in the northern suburbs of Xi'an, the provincial capital.

The tomb had been robbed, but researchers were still able to piece together, from a few items lying around and stone engravings on the tomb walls, the life of a laowai who had lived, married, died and was buried in China.

The tomb's surprises became apparent during excavations between June and October last year. From what remained, archaeologists identified a gold ring, a Byzantine coin and a gold earring, evidently dropped by the looters as they decamped with other unknown historical treasures.

Its stone entrance and a stone sarcophagus (containing two intact skeletons), in the shape of a traditional chamber featuring a hip-and-gable roof, had survived the passage of centuries.

What delighted the researchers were the colorful or gilded bas-relief sculptures or engravings on the walls of the chamber. The murals feature exotic figures, fabulous animals and bustling scenes in vivid detail.

The surface of the door lintel and frame was incised with exotic deities and mythical animals a four-armed sentinel was in the centre flanked by a celestial orchestra, griffin, flying apsaras, cherubs and winged lions. All these were separated by Persian designs of thick-leaf honeysuckle, interwoven grapevine, lotus and other auspicious motifs or decorative patterns.

Inside the chamber was a stone epitaph inscribed with ancient Chinese characters and a foreign script.

Further investigations revealed the foreign script was in Sogdian, a linguistic branch of an ancient Iranian language. A copy of the Sogdian text was sent to Japan and translated into English by Yukata Yoshida, an expert in ancient Turkic scripts at the Kobe University of Foreign Languages.

The bilingual text told of the life of an 87-year-old man named Shi Jun in Chinese, but Wirkak in Sogdian and his wife Wiyusi, during the short-lived Northern Zhou Dynasty (AD 557-581).

The dynasty was established by a warlord of Xianbei, a minority group who made an upstart and transient rise in north China in the second half of sixth century AD.

The tomb was built in 579 AD for them.

The couple came from the State of Shi and the State of Kang respectively according to the Chinese inscription. In his lifetime, Wirkak served in the capacity of an official called a "sabao" in the prefecture of Liangzhou, or today's city of Wuwei, a once-booming hub of international trade on the Silk Road.

"Sabao" is a Sogdian term that at first meant a caravan chief, but later became the title of an administrator in charge of the internal affairs of an autonomous community, enclave or ghetto of Central Asian immigrants who settled in China at that time.

According to historians from Europe, the State of Shi in Chinese is known as Sogdiana, a province of the ancient Persian Empire. It was located in a fertile valley of the Zeravshan River in today's Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

In the heyday of the Persian Empire, it was ruled by Darius I and then the conqueror Alexander the Great. It achieved its independence as part of the Bactrian kingdom in subsequent centuries. Alexander's invasion left the legacy of Greek culture in the country and it was long considered an outpost of transcultural exchange in the ancient world.

More interestingly, according to ancient annals and travelogues kept in museums and libraries around the world, Sogdiana was noted as a country of merchants when the Silk Road trade was at its zenith.

Other findings

The discovery of Shi Jun's tomb proved to be no exception. In the same Xi'an suburbs, about 2.5 kilometres to the southwest of the Shi's tomb, two graves of Sogdian noble men were excavated in 2000 and 2004.

Buried in AD 579 and AD 571 respectively, the two tombs' occupants were found to be "sabao" or prefecture magistrates. Their funerary objects share the same artistic Persian style as those few found in Shi's tomb, giving rise to speculation by some researchers that the area was once a public cemetery for foreign settlers from Central Asia.

The stone carvings on Shi Jun's coffin in the shape of a traditional chamber in Chinese architecture gave many clues to the lives they and their fellows led.

There were scenes of hunting, fire worship, feasting, goods-laden camels trekking across deserts, an excursion on horseback and sacrificial rituals.

The engravings also revealed something of their beliefs in an afterlife as the deceased were depicted ascending to heaven.

Interestingly, the faces of the figures, their clothing, ornaments, surrounding landscapes, and residential structures were all painted in colored pigment or gilded with gold.

Experts say the depicted subjects and the style are typical of Central Asia in ancient times.

Moreover, the tomb's engravings reflect the opulence and prosperity enjoyed by the Sogdian merchants and other migrants in mid-6th century China.

The discoveries have provided a vivid picture of the Sogdian people's lives in China. They showed how they had maintained their own ethnic culture before the rise of Islam, but blended it with the indigenous craftsmanship and skill of ancient Chinese sculpture art.

Researchers believe the discovery of Shi Jun's tomb and similar others go a long way to helping enrich the understanding of transcultural flow between China and its western neighbors in the first millennia.

(China Daily June 7, 2005)

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