Soghdian Kai Yuans

T.D. Yih and J. de Kreek
lectured at the Dutch 1994-ONS meeting

The development of the urban Central Asian civilizations was strongly dependent on the ancient Silk-roads that connected China with the West. At Merv the road divided into a northern branch that led via Bukhara and Samarkand to Kashgar; a southern branch followed the Oxus river and rejoined at Kashgar. Here it split again in trails running north and south along the borders of the Taklamakan desert.

The area known as western Turkestan comprising the present republics of Turkmenistan, Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan was in ancient times from west to east split into three small states Choresmia, Soghdia and Ferghana. Soghdia occupying the Zaravshan and Kashka Darya riverbeds was politically the most important one. In the 7th century Transoxania was divided into a loose confederation of principalities under Turkish suzerainty. The ruling houses of the majority of the cities were linked by family and marriage bonds. Some of them were even related to the Turkish khaqan. Under them was a powerful and semi-independent aristocracy of land-owners (dihqans) and rich merchants.

The kinship of the ruling houses, however, did not prevent local wars and hostilities. The call for help by the prince of Saghaniyan in 705 gave the encroaching Arabs the excuse to invade the country. By the beginning of the 8th century Qutaiba had firmly established Arab power in Transoxania taking advantage of the dissentions between the various princes. Thereafter, however, there were regularly revolts, around 723 supported by Sulu, the khan of the revived western Turkish empire under the domination of the Turgesh tribe. At one time the Arabs only held Bukhara, Chaghanian and Kish. Even the claimant to the Sassanian throne, Khusru, son of Peroz, a grandchild of the last Sassanian king Yadzigird entered Transoxania. After assassination of Sulu and the subsequent fall of the Turkish realm, the Chinese tried to assert their authority in Transoxania. The Chinese influence in the western part of Central Asia ended with the defeat of the Chinese army against the Arabs in july 751 and ended all hope on independence for the Soghdians. With the definitive destruction of the city of Pendzhikent (70 km east of Samarkand) in 760 the Soghdians disappear from history.

For a more detailed survey of the history see Barthold (1958) and Gibb (1970). Due to the central position in the trade between East and West the cities prospered and reached splendid cultural heights. Soghdian became the lingua franca of that period. Well-known are the soghdian manuscripts discovered by Peliot in Tunhuang far to the east. The wall paintings found in the ruins of Pendjikent, some 70 km east of Samarkand show both Sassanian and Chinese influences (Albaum and Brentjes, 1972). Its last king Divashtich was slain by the Arabs at the fall of his last stronghold Mount Mug which apparently contained his archives. Amongst the 80 discovered manuscripts there were 25 on Chinese paper and 8 even in Chinese (Frye, 1954). Whereas much have been published on the Soghdians with respect to their language, architecture and paintings, much less is know about their coin system.


The primary source is the russian numismatist Smirnova. Her catalogue illustrates about 1573 Soghdian copper pieces (Smirnova 1981). A large number of Soghdian coins have been discovered during excavations in the ruins of Afrasiab (old Samarkand) and Pendjikent. The rulers of the various cities issued their own coinage. A characteristic feature of Soghdian coins is the presence of tribal marks called tamgha's, possibly based on Turkish influences.

As can be seen in Table 1, the Soghdian numismatic system clearly reflects both influences from the West and from the East. On the one side their coinage was clearly influenced by the Sassanian type of coinage, whereas on the other side they adopted the cash coin type of the Chinese empire that extended its influence far to the West, since the foundation of the Tang dynasty early in the 7th century.

Table 1

There are even coin-types that are a mixture of both coinage types. These hybrid types had on the one side the portrait of a king and on the other side the picture of the central square hole typical for the cash coins. The strong influence of the Chinese can be extrapolated from the numbers of various coin-types. The majority of coins described in Smirnova's catalogue belongs to the cash-type (86.7%), whereas the Sasanian and hybryd types account for only 13.2 and 0.7%, respectively. A number of Sogdian cash coins imitates even on one side famous Kaiyuan cash of the Tang dynasty. On the reverse ,some types of have a Soghdian tamgha right to the hole, whereas others have a tamgha left to the hole and a Soghdian word meaning Lord, right to the hole. Soghdian Kai Yuan coins have been found at the cities of Varaksha and Afrasiab.

Soghdian cash have been attributed to several kings of Samarkand like Shyspyr (640-60), Tukaspada (680-700), Turghun (700-20) and Gyrek (720-40). The Turgesh themselves isssued also coins based on the cash coin. Several of them have been discoved during the Finnish Eastern Turkestan expedition by Marechal Mannerheim (1904). They have on the obverse a tamgha around the square hole and on the reverse a soghdian legend reading counter-clockwise "Celestial Turgesh khaqan cash".

Falsification of Soghdian Kaiyuan coins ?

The Soghdian cash from the Russian excavations are generally much worned and corroded. It was, therefore, a surprise to see several years ago Soghdian cash offered in saling lists from Hongkong. The quality of these pieces surpassed that of the Russian excavations so much, that one may wonder about the genuineness of the pieces. Some pieces have been studied for their metallic composition and script. Amongst them is a piece (no.171) similar to the one described by Smirnova under No.43.
Another (no.167), not described by Smirnova has a tamgha-like symbol right to the square hole. It has some ressemblance to that on the two lower pieces in table 1. It was reported to be excavated at Lo-yang together with 3 other Kaiyuans.

Surprisingly, a fellow Dutch ONS-member received also such piece from the same dealer. The piece has been illustrated in the 1940 Taiwan reprint of the catalogue of Ding Fubao listed amongst coins from the Tang emperor Wu Zhong. Furthermore, the piece has been published as a forgery by Guo Ruoyu (1994). Table 2 shows the metrical data and metallic composition of the two supposed Soghdian Kaiyuans as measured by X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF). Three Kaiyuans from China proper (nos. 168-170) were used as reference. Also included are the data measured for a Soghdian Tang piece as presented by Smirnova. With respect to the Chinese legends, the two supposed Soghdian have the writing style Ic, classified after Thierry (1991), which is in line with issues before 751. The Soghdian word on the reverse of no. 171 does not fit with that on the Smirnova pieces.

Table 2

     Code          W.    	Dia.     Th.    Typea           Percentage
                   (g)          (mm)     (mm)                 CU  PB  SN  FE  ZN  SB	

     167b          3.12   	24.2     1.2    I c 	      53  36  9   1   +   -
     167c          4.00    	24.0     1.0    I c    	
     171           2.81     	24.1     1.3    I c	      67  12  19 1.5  +   -
     Smirnovad            			              84  10  5  0.1  +   0.3
     168           3.12     	24.4     1.3    I	      57  24  17  1   +   -
     169           3.89     	24.5     1.5    III	      70  26  3   2   -   +
     170           2.81     	24.6     1.2    III	      67  22  10  1   +   +

a   classified according to Thierry(1991)
b   according to the supplier  (Mr. Vong  Dragon Coins, Hongkong) excavated 
           at Lo-yang also with 3 other Kai-yuan's
c   Specimen  of a fellow Dutch ONS member from the same supplier
d   from (Smirnova(1981)
The two coins have a lower copper content than the piece of Smirnova. Copper content of other Soghdian pieces as presented by Smirnova ranges from 78-92%. Remarkable is the presence of antimony (Sb) in the Russian Soghdian pieces ranging from 0.02-.4 %. There was no Sb in the suspected coins and also no Sb or only traces in the control Tang coins. This might be used as a weak prove that in case of falsification authentic Kaiyuans have been used as basis; the special marks on the reverse might be applied by a special technique later on. Unfortunately, no evidence could be found for this even after microscopical examination. In conclusion , no clearcut prove for falsification can be given at present. However, the excellent condition of the pieces which does not fit with an origin from excavations, the aberrant word and the small difference with respect to Sb content might be an indication for falsification. The authors welcome any information on other Soghdian cash present in private or Museum collections.

  1. Albaum, L.I. and Brentjes, B. (1971) Wachter des Goldes, Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.
  2. Barthold, W. (1968, reprint) Turkestan down to the Mongol invasion, Southern Materials Center Inc., Taipei.
  3. Ding Fubao (1940, reprint) pg. 72, Taipei.
  4. Frye, R.N. (1954) History of Bukhara, AMS press, New York
  5. Guo Ruoyu (1994) Zhonguo qianbi 1994-III, page 69, fig. 10
  6. Smirnova, O.I. (1981) Svodnii Katalog Sogdiiskich Monet, Moskwa.
  7. Thierry, F. (1991) Typologie et Chronologie das Kai Yuan tong bao des Tang Revue Numismatique 33, 209-49.

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