Cultural and Cosmological Impact of Iranian Civilization in the Far East

By: Prof. S. Setudeh-Nejad

Sasanid Iran (226-651 CE) played a leading role in the enrichment of the culture and metamorphoses of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states in particular along the peninsular coasts of the Indo-Chinese zone of maritime trade.

History of contacts between the Iranian world and the Far East dates from the reign of Mithradates II the Great (123 – 87 BCE), when in 115 BCE, this monarch of the Parthian Dynasty (258 BCE – 226 CE) received an envoy from the emperor of China [Ghirshman 1971:69]. The arrival of caravans of goods from Western Central Asia to the oases of the Tarim Basin and other overland trade routes of the ‘Silk Road’ as far as Chinese Turkestan resulted in much intercourse between China and its tributary states with Western Asia [Arberry 1953:25].

By the third century CE, Parthian Empire’s trade routes were extended in the maritime ports of Southeast Asia as far as the Malay Peninsula’s international port of Tun-sun, where the Iranian merchants had established settlements with no less than 500 residents [Wheatley 1964:47]. Their activities extended to the Indo-Chinese port of Tonking as such accounts on sea trade activities of the Parthians were recorded by K’ang T’ai, Wu dynasty’s envoy to the kingdom of Funan in the delta of the Mekong in the first period of the third century of the Christian era.

China had been prevented by Parthia to receive envoys from Byzantium through Iranian territory and was also denied direct access to the Mediterranean trade on geopolitical considerations. As such the Chinese in pursuit of an alternative trade route away from Central-Asian overland routes under Parthian control were keeping an eye on Parthia’s trade expansion on the maritime routes of Southeast Asia [Wolters 1970:20,22,25].

Around this time, a technical innovation in the shipbuilding industry of the Persian Gulf resulted in the construction of vessels with a rig that accommodated the ships to sail nearer the wind. The knowledge of this innovative development spread along the shores of the Indian Ocean and further East [Wheatley 1964:34] at a time when the Sasanian dynasty replaced the Parthians in Iran, and a more intensified period of Iranian cultural presence became felt in Southeast Asia as the Sasanids monopolized the maritime trade of the Far Eastern routes after the fourth century CE, having made profitable treaties with the Chinese who referred in their historical records to the ships of the ‘Posse’, or the Iranian trade. The Iranians were the “carriers” of this trade [Moorhead 1965:59] and many vessels traveled from southern China to Vietnam, and the Malay Pennisula in the direction of India, Roman Orient and Western Asia. China’s Southern Dynasties (420-589 CE) was involved in these transactions with the Sasanids [Wolters 1970:1].

Under these circumstances, Iranian ships with up to seven sails carrying as many as 700 seamen and “a thousand metric tons of cargo” were plying in the Indian Ocean in the direction of sea routes further East [Quaritch Wales 1965:41]. Vietnam was a major trade destination for the Iranian ships and many of their merchants were established in the ports of Nam-Viet [Schafer 1967:180], as there was extensive intercourse between Sasanid Iran and Vietnam [Buttinger 1958:244] as late as the Chinese T’ang era when Iranian merchants established settlements in Canton and other Chinese ports as well [Schafer 1976:28].

Indeed, there is evidence to show that Sasanid Iran exerted strong influences in Vietnam, China and elsewhere in Southeast Asian world. These influences were partly inspired by the golden age of Sasanian civilization which coincided with the reign of Kuusru Anushirwan (531-579 CE) in Iran. Under this Sasanin king, better known as “Anushirwan The Just”, Iranian culture and metamorphosis spread to the Far East. Anushirwan attracted numerous scholars and artisans to his court whose splendor and luxury “were unsurpassed by that of any dynasty in the world’s history” [Sykes 1963:465]. Anushirwan promoted the establishment of universities, where scholars from India, Greece and Asia Minor indulged in various studies on medicine, agriculture and sciences.

His court was a center of East-West conferences of philosophers from various parts of the world. Champa kingdom 150-1471 CE located east of Cambodia in southern area of Vietnam neighboring Annam benefited from the reign of Khusru Anushirwan and the presence of Iranian settlers. As Schafer has pointed out Sasanian cosmology was known to the Chams who had compiled the ‘Book of Anushirwan’, a cosmological work which is said to be “sacred to the Chams” [Schafer 1967:270, 325]. Schafer has further clarified that in contemporary Vietnam, an Islamized people who reside in the villages of the south, called “Orang Bani” claim descendency from “Noursavan”, who was their first king; a name which is interpreted to be a term of reference to Sasanid Anushirwan the Just of Iran [Schafer 1967:11]. There is also a recorded tradition for the exchange of correspondence between the Khagan of Tibet and Anushirwan who received a letter from the Khagan, and direct contact of Tibetan court nobles with the Sasanian dynasty. In this respect, imperial Sasanian impact on Tibetan court culture has been recognized in the adoption of Sasanian style robes by the Tibetan nobles [Flood 1991:31].

Iranian cosmology in the Sassanian period was a doctrine which centered on Mazdean interpretations of the Zoroastrian faith. It was a philosophical metamorphosis which “supported the power of the ruler, regarded as just king who preserved harmony between the different classes of society” [Hourani 1991:9]. In this context, Anushirwan’s character appealed to the Oriental rulers who recognized his reign to symbolize strength and justice. It is noteworthy that long before the transmission of Sasanian cultural impact, Vietnam had been receptive to Indo-Iranian and kin-Iranian influences entering her shores as early as the first century CE, when Indo-Scythian Buddhist monks reached here to propagate the Mahayana doctrine.

By the end of the second century CE, K’ang Seng-hui, the famed Sogdian monk reached Vietnam from China and introduced his teachings and translations of Central Asian-impulsed Buddhist scriptures [Nguyen 1993:98]. Mahayana Buddhism as a syncretic religious system was associated with higher learnings in philosophy and arts, and it is conceivable that the Indo-Scythians, and Soghdians and other Central-Asiatic peoples of Zoroastrian cultural orbit had exerted influences on Buddhism some of which had also been adopted by the Vietnamese aristocrats who welcomed Mahayanist traditions at a time when the Parthian Empire was increasing its commercial presence along Southeast Asian coasts. Moreover, Soghdiana from where K’ang Seng-hui hailed was a Western Central-Asian state whose merchants had established settlements in the Far East since the pre-Christian Era in places as far as Mongolia and China [Frye 1963:235]. The discovery of Sogdian inscriptions in Inner Tibet and in Western Himalayas [Flood 1991:32] and the spread of its kin-Iranian cultural sphere in Southeast Asia are among the cultural factors in support of the argument for the impact of the diffusion of Partho-Sasanid culture and cosmology in Southeast Asia.

I-tsing (I-Ching), a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim monk who was aboard a Iranian ship in 671 CE, just a few years after the end of Sassanid Era, has provided an interesting account of the routes taken by the vessel on its way to Sre Vijaya where he intended to stay. According to I-tsing, the Iranian ship left a Chinese port toward Annam in northern Vietnam and then proceeded to Sri Vijaya. As I-tsing has clarified, the voyage could involve sailing directly or around the coasts of Cambodia, Siam, and the Malay Peninsula [Majumdar 1986:27-8]. Thus, from I-tsing’s report we have a vivid picture of the maritime trade of “the ships of Posse” in Indochina as well as the directions through which cultural and cosmological sphere of Sasanid Iran reached Southeast Asian ports of southern Vietnam under Champa rule.

Nowadays archaeological finds around the peninsular areas of Southeast Asia have also shed light on the extent of Sasanian presence which also confirms the accuracy of I-tsing’s accounts. Discovery of Sasanian coins in the southern coast of Siam (Thailand) at Yarang in the Pattani area, which date from the fifth century CE [Srisuchat 1990:28], and two silver coins of the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258 CE) at the Merbok estuary near the city state of Tan-Tan in the Malay Peninsula [Wheatley 1964:75], and another find of a Sasanian cabochon at Oc Eo port of Funan, situated in the lower valley of the Mekong [Myers; Trewin 1988:138] are further testimony to a significant role of the Iranian world in the trade and cultural enhancements of the states along the peninsular regions of Southeast Asia.

Iranian sea-borne trade in Southeast Asia was maintained until after the eighth century in the very same routes as before. In 771 CE, a famous passenger whose ship was escorted by 35 Iranian vessels to Sri Vijaya on its way to China was no other than Vajrabodi the Buddhist master of the Tantric sect [Majumdar 1986:28]. Between 670 to 673 CE, Sasanid princes and court nobles of Iranian who had survived the Muslim conquest of their country took refuge in Central Asian states loyal to Sasanian dynasty and from its overland routes arrived in China, having, thus “initiated a new wave of Iranian influences” in China [Ghirshman 1971:92], and laid the foundations of “Sino-Persian” arts some of which “caught the fancy of the Nara court” further East in the Islands of Japan [Hayashi 1975:85,88,96-8, 129]. Indeed the extent of this rich cultural impact from the direction of Sasanian civilization to the Far East was symbolized in the ninth century CE by the Chinese Wang Chien who wrote: “The families of Lo-yang learn Iranian music”. Inside Iran after the rise of the Abbasids, indigenous traditions in arts, crafts and other cultural achievements of the Sasanides were retained to such an extent that the Abbasid rule became known as the “neo-Sasanian Empire” [Hayashi 1975:85,97].

Altogether since the age of sea trade expansion of Parthian empire in South East Asia until the reign of Sasanid Khusru Anushirwan, Indochinese peoples were already familiar with cultural symbols of the Iranian world, which at the time of Anushirwan’s era reached its zenith in Cham-Viet areas of Southeast Asia thanks to this monarch’s cosmopolitan visions and his ‘justice’, which took firm roots in Cham cosmology in ‘The Book of Anushirwan’, and later on also in the Malay Peninsula where references to the Justice of Anushirwan can be found in the literary heritage of Malaysia in ‘Sejara Melayu’ [Brown 1970:5], where the mention of ‘Raja Nushirwan Adil’ probably denotes the Malay term for ‘Anushirwan The Just’.