China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The dominant religion of pre-Islamic Sogdiana was a local form of Zoroastrianism, and this has led most scholars to assume a correlation with the religious beliefs and practices within the Sogdian community settled in China. However, the wealth of archaeological and visual data unearthed in China in the last two decades, as well as recent analysis of the socio-ethnological structure of Central Asian communities in China have laid grounds for new questionings about the exact nature of these religious traditions, their cultural affiliation to pre-Islamic Central Asia and their acclimation to the social, ethnic and geopolitical context of Northern Dynasties, Sui and Tang China (ca. 550 to 900 CE). This paper will focus on various images of Central Asians engaged in celebrations, and will question the religious dimension of these gatherings. Mostly carved and painted on stone, but also sometimes painted on silk or tomb walls, these images share common visual elements and raise the question of identifying a specific ceremony or ritual. Whereas proof exists that some elements of Zoroastrian liturgy remained orthodox in China, textual and visual descriptions of Central Asian rituals betray many idiosyncrasies. My research aims at exploring these discrepancies in order to distinguish what seems to be the consequence of an evolution of Central Asian Zoroastrianism due to contact with other Chinese and Central Asian religious traditions, with what could be a misinterpretation or a deliberate attempt by Chinese literati and artists to create visual codes in order to convey a sense of exoticism.