Sino-Iranica: Investigating Relations Between Medieval China and Sasanian Iran

Dr. Jeffrey KOTYK

This project is a study of Sino-Iranian connections from the third to tenth centuries, with a particular focus on political and material relations between China and Sasanian Iran. The aim is to further build our understanding of the history of Sino-Iranian relations in coordination with Iranologists in Italy, Europe, and the wider world. The project will aim to demonstrate that Sino-Iranian relations were significantly more important than is normally recognized, and to provide new knowledge that will be useful to both Sinology and Iranology. The following objectives will be pursued during the two years of the project:

I. Excavate Chinese compendia from the Tang (618–907) and Song periods (960–1279) which reproduce court records (from the sixth to tenth centuries) that describe envoys from Iran (and many other countries). Date, catalog and translate each account of Iran in table format. Align these with known reign dates of Sasanian kings. Also, document the tributary items and evaluate them in light of Silk Road commodities and known trade routes. Finally, examine all descriptions of Iranian culture (warfare, calendar, dress, etc.) in these compendia.

II. Read and analyze primary sources (texts and archaeological materials) in Chinese related to Iranian religions (Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity) in coordination with the expertise of Prof. Antonio Panaino and others at University of Bologna to identify anomalies and peculiar features that might help us to reframe and discuss the evolution and roles of Iranian religions in medieval China.

III. Read and digest secondary literature on Sino-Iranian relations, particularly in modern Japanese and Chinese, to introduce the findings of these works to Western scholars. In this way, a sort of East Asian historiography of late antiquity Iran would be finally at the disposal of the academic community in the West.

IV. Study of basic Iranian linguistics. Sogdian documents are well attested in medieval China, particularly those from Dunhuang. These are necessary to study to document Sino-Iranian relations.

V. Produce a monograph that offers an updated history of Sino-Iranian relations (diplomatic, material and religious) with due reference to modern East Asian scholarship on the basis of the aforementioned actions. This work will include an exhaustive bibliography.


There have been many relevant studies that focus on individual components of the proposed study. Overviews of pre-Islamic Sino-Iranian relations and the last Sasanians in China are given respectively by Pulleyblank (1991) and Compareti (2009) in Encyclopedia Iranica.[1] These do not take into detailed consideration the abovementioned compendia, such as the encyclopedic Tōngdiǎn 通典 (Comprehensive Chronicle), compiled between 766–801 by Dù Yòu 杜佑 (735–812), and the Tōng zhì 通志 (Comprehensive Accounts) compiled in 1161 by Zhèng Qiáo 鄭樵 (1104–1162).

The role of Manichaeism as a conduit between Iranian and Chinese realms has been long recognized, especially starting with Chavannes and Pelliot in 1913.[2] In addition, the Iranian introduction of horoscopy into China is something to which myself and Mak have separately directed much attention.[3] Panaino has dealt with the issues surrounding the eastward spread of Iranian astrological iconography, and he also studied the earlier theories advanced by de Saussure concerning the relations between Chinese and Iranian astronomy.[4] Persian (East Syriac) Christianity has also been documented at length by scholars such as Zeng recently, and earlier by Saeki and Pelliot.[5] Zoroastrianism in East Asia has been recently summarized extensively by Aoki.[6] Lieu discussed Manichaeism in China.[7] Modern East Asian scholarship on different topics is also essential to the proposed study. In particular, one issue is the Chinese nomenclature that shifted in usage from the Parthian to Sasanian periods (e.g., from Arśak to Fars), which has been discussed by Saitō.[8]

The eastward spread of some Iranian cultural elements all the way to Japan was discussed in a Japanese monograph by Itō, which has generally remained unread outside Japanese academia.[9] This is one scholar whose work in Japanese ought to be introduced to the Western world. The Japanese academic database CiNii credits Itō with at least fifty articles, including his famous article in Japanese discussing his theory on the etymological origin of the word “Avesta.”[10] His studies discussing Middle Persian topics will be digested and introduced, thereby offering to a Western audience the thoughts and discoveries of an eminent Japanese Iranologist.

The project will primarily examine Chinese sources, but reference will also be made to Iranian sources (this task will require collaboration with Iranologists familiar with the relevant languages and sources). Agostini, for example, has documented Pahlavi accounts of China.[11] Agostini and Stark have further discussed the question of a Sasanian court in exile that may have sent envoys to the Chinese court following the conquest of Iran.[12]

The foremost study of material relations between medieval China and Iran was carried out by Laufer (1874–1934) and published in 1919.[13] Although Laufer’s work remains indispensable, Sinology today now has access to countless digitized searchable texts via platforms such as CTEXT, Wikisource, Kanripo, and CBETA (Buddhist canons). The project will need to evaluate some of Laufer’s identifications and conclusions based upon new materials available to digital philology.

The findings and issues of these studies must be digested and expanded upon in a single monograph. The absence of such a work that combines political, religious, material and iconographical connections between Sasanian Iran and China—augmented by the guidance of expert Iranologists—is problematic, especially considering the increasing relations between modern China and Iran through the Belt and Road Initiative, which builds on historical relationships stretching back to antiquity. We must therefore expect increasing attention to Sino-Iranian relations in historical contexts. Moreover, although attention is generally paid to Sino-Indian relations along the historical Silk Road, the Iranian contribution to Chinese civilization is far less known and appreciated.

One novel approach of the proposed study will be carefully combing through enormous compendia in Classical Chinese that have recently become digitized and therefore searchable. These include the Cèfǔ yuánguī 冊府元龜 (Grand Tortoise in the Imperial Treasures of Books), a compendium of one-thousand volumes, compiled in 1013 by Wáng Qīnruò 王欽若 (962–1025) and Yáng Yì 楊億 (974–1020). I will also examine material Sino-Iranian exchanges through references to works such as the Hǎiyào běncǎo 海藥本草 (Pharmacopoeia of Medicines from Overseas), which was produced by a Sino-Persian man named Lǐ Xún 李珣 during the early tenth century. The text has been reconstructed from citations in later works such as the Běncǎo gāngmù 本草綱目 (Compendium of Materia Medica) of 1596 by Lǐ Shízhēn 李時珍 (1518–1593).[14] Reference to this and other relevant works of materia medica will be necessary. In addition, I will build upon the research of past scholars, namely Laufer, and the Japanese scholar Yamada Kentarō 山田憲太郎 (1907–1983), who studied the Hǎiyào běncǎo in great detail.[15]


Italy has a long-standing tradition of Asian Studies, such as Gherardo Gnoli who followed the steps of the Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci. Italian scholars have deeply focused on the idea of the “Eurasian continent,” emphasizing the unitarian dimension of history as Weltgeschichte, against the traditional approaches insisting on “separation” and mutual antagonisms. In today’s world, when conflicts appear to grow between the “East” and “West,” a group of scholars might emphasize a common legacy and seminal exchanges, in particular putting a focus on Iran, Central Asia, and China. This would be a remarkable action from the point of view of the highest values of the human civilization, against new dangerous voices which move in the direction of frontal clashes. In this respect, we believe that peace is based on mutual respect and on the direct knowledge of the common links and roots that have united countries, and not on the exclusive focus on rivalries and competitions.

Team Members

Dr. Jeffrey Kotyk (born 1985) graduated with his doctorate from Leiden University, Netherlands, in 2017. He completed a MA degree in Buddhist Studies at Komazawa University 駒沢大学 in Tokyo, Japan, in 2011. His primary background is East Asian history and religions, with an earlier focus on Buddhist Studies. He has published extensively on the history of astrology, astronomy and calendrical science in China and Japan (see Google Scholar), as well as Sino-Japanese relations in antiquity. He has held previous research positions at the University of British Columbia (2020-2022), McMaster University (2018-2020), and the IKGF - Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (2018). In addition, he has taught several undergraduate courses on Buddhism and East Asian religions at three separate universities. He has also published an English translation of the Classical Chinese translation of the Madhyāntavibhāga-bhāṣya, a major treatise of Indian Buddhist philosophy.

Prof. Antonio Panaino is a specialist in the field of Ancient Iranian Linguistics, Philology, and Religions. He has taught these subjects since 1992 in Italy and other countries. He has supervised more than fifty MA theses and fifteen PhD projects. In addition to being a member of many academic committees, he was the founder of the Melammu Project (Vice-Chairman and Chairman), and has acted as Vice-President and President of the Societas Iranologica Europaea, President of the ASIAC (Italian Association for the Study of Caucasus and Central Asia), Director of the Italian Archaeological and Ethno-Linguistic Mission in Tajikistan (7 years), and Dean of the Faculty of Preservation of Cultural Heritage (6 years). Furthermore, he has also directed the Emilia-Romagna Branch of the Italian institute for Africa and the Orientalists (1999–2011).

[1] Encyclopedia Iranica Online: https://iranicaonline.org/articles/chinese-iranian-i and https://iranicaonline.org/articles/china-xv-the-last-sasanians-in-china.

[2] Édouard Chavannes and Paul Pelliot, “Un traité manichéen retrouvé en Chine,” Journal Asiatique 11, t. I (1913): 99–394.

[3] Jeffrey Kotyk, “The Sinicization of Indo-Iranian Astrology in Medieval China,” Sino-Platonic Papers 282 (2018): 1–95. Ibid., “Iranian Elements in Late-Tang Buddhist Astrology,” Asia Major 30, no. 1 (2017): 25–58. Bill M. Mak, “Yusi Jing – A treatise of ‘Western’ Astral Science in Chinese and its versified version Xitian yusi jing,” SCIAMVS 15 (2014): 105–169.

[4] Antonio Panaino, “The Conceptual Image of the Planets in Ancient Iran and the Process of Their Demonization: Visual Materials and Models of Inclusion and Exclusion in Iranian History of Knowledge,” N.T.M. (2020).

[5] Zeng Yangqing 曾陽晴, Tangchao hanyu Jingjiao wenxian yanjiu 唐朝漢語景教文獻研究 (Taipei: Huamulan Wenhua, 2005). Paul Pelliot, L’Inscription Nestorienne De Si-Ngan-Fou, ed. A. Forte (Italian School of East Asian Studies & Collège de France, 1996). P.Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1937).

[6] Aoki Takeshi, “Zoroastrianism in the Far East,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, ed. Michael Strausberg and Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina (John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 147–156.

[7] Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1992).

[8] Saitō Tatsuya 齊藤達也, “Gishin nanboku chōdai no Ansokukoku to Ansokukei no Bukkyō sō” 魏晋南北朝時代の安息國と安息系佛教僧, Kokusai Bukkyōgaku Daigakuin Daigaku kenkyū kiyō 國際佛教學大學院大學研究紀要 1 (1998): 152–176.

[9] Itō Gikyō 伊藤義教, Perushia bunka toraikō ペルシア文化渡来考 (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1980).

[10] Itō Gikyō 伊藤義教, “‘Avesta’ no gogi ni tsuite” 「Avesta」の語義について [On the meaning of ‘Avesta’], Bulletin of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan 17, no. 1 (1974): 39–58.

[11] Domenico Agostini, “Non-Iranian Historical Lands in Pahlavi Literature,” Bulletin of SOAS 82, no. 3 (2019): 453–472.

[12] Domenico Agostini and Sören Stark, “Zāwulistān, Kāwulistan and the Land Bosi 波斯 – On the Question of a Sasanian Court-in-Exile in the Southern Hindukush,” Studia Iranica 45, no. 1 (2016): 17–38.

[13] Berthold Laufer, Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1919).

[14] In Huízú diǎnzàng quánshū 回族典藏全書, vol. 212 (Lanzhou: Gansu Wenhua Chubanshe, 2008), 3–66.

[15] Yamada Kentarō 山田憲太郎, Tōa kōryo-shi kenkyū 東亜香料史研究 (Tokyo: Chūō Kōron Bijutsu Shuppan, 1976). Ibid. “Nanban kōroku: kako no kōryo no seijō to shuyō kōryō no shōhinshiteki gaikan” 南蠻香録: 過去の香料の性状と主要香料の商品史的概觀, Shigaku 史学 22, no. 4 (1944): 55–114.