China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - Sogdian “Ancient Letters” Revisited: Paper as Writing Material and the Identity of the Sogdians in Diaspora

Saturday, July 7
2:40 PM - 4:10 PM
Location: Marigold, New Building

Since their discovery in a barracks of the Hexi Corridor, the Sogdian “Ancient Letters,” dated to c. 313 CE, has been regarded as a landmark in the study of Sogdiana, the lives of these Sogdians residing in China at the time. Their significance, however, goes beyond to this valuable information. The Letters were written on paper, which was not the major writing medium in China in this period; yet it was chosen exclusively by these Sogdian expatriates for their correspondence. This deliberate preference for this luxury material seems to be connected with these Sogdians’ social identity; in turn, their choice of paper reflects how they perceived themselves.


My study of the materiality of the “Ancient Letters” offers us a view of these Sogdians in China, who were usually known as the merchants, yet as immigrants trying to blend in. Their choice of paper to communicate with their homeland seems linked to their need to develop a new identity resulting from their intermediary geographical (and social) position. Residing in an alien cultural milieu, these Sogdian émigrés needed to define which elements of their culture they wished to preserve and which they allowed themselves to relinquish in order to integrate better into Chinese culture. More challenging, it seems, was maintaining a connection with their original culture, while differentiating themselves from Sogdians in their homeland by defining themselves as Sogdians in diaspora.

Fanghan Wang

New York University, United States

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