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Twenty Centuries of Friendly Cooperation: The Sino-Iranian Relationship

How has the Sino-Iranian friendship been shaped by both countries’ troubled relations with the West?

December 11, 2006

How has the Sino-Iranian friendship been shaped by both countries' troubled relations with the West?

The narrative of Sino-Iranian relations extolled by Beijing and Tehran stresses the long, friendly, mutually beneficial, cooperative interactions between the two countries.

Contact between Han China and the Parthian empire of Persia began in 139 BCE (before the common era) when a Chinese envoy named Zhang Qian traveled west to the northern bank of the Oxus River — today known as the Amu Darya River and roughly on the border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — to contact the Yuezhi tribes who were then posed to destroy the Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria.

The Han court had sent Zhang Qian to contact the Yuezhi in search of allies against the powerful horse-riding people, the Xiongnu, then bedeviling China. Zhang Qian did not reach Parthia, but acquired detailed knowledge of that powerful kingdom, which he conveyed back to the Han capital at Changan.

A period of intense diplomatic activity and development of trade relations between the Han and Parthian empires began via what came to be called the Silk Road — actually a dozen or so caravan routes.

During the pre-Islamic period Persians played a major role in organizing trade between China and the regions to its west. Large numbers of Persians, and later Arabs, settled in Guangzhou and Hanoi — then a part of the Chinese empire.

The highly Persianized kingdom of Kushan — a post-Bactrian, post-Yuezhi state established in the Oxus region — became the main center for transmission of Buddhism to China in the 2nd through the 4th centuries CE.

The first translator of the Buddhist sutras into Chinese was a Parthian (Persian) prince from Kushan. Other Persian and Indian Buddhist missionaries arrived in China via Kushan.

Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism were additional Persian influences on China during the 6th and 7th centuries. Persian influences on Tang China were extensive. Magic routines from Persia were highly appreciated in China. Persian poetry influenced China's great Tang dynasty poetry.

The game of polo came from Persia and found great favor in Chinese imperial courts. The ritual dances performed in Zoroastrian "fire temples" roused Chinese interest. Persian cuisine found favor in China and greatly influenced Chinese cooking.

In the words of one authority, "There was — in Tang China — a great vogue especially in the first half of the 8th century for Iranian objects and customs of all kinds — food stuffs, clothing, furniture, music and dancing."

Trade between China and the pre-Islamic Sassanian Persian empire was substantial. Large quantities of Sassanian coins have been discovered in China. By the early 9th century Chinese porcelain was being exported to the Near East, mostly by sea, creating a flow that would become, for several centuries, a major element of the emerging global economic system.

Chinese celedons, san cai — which means “three-color” — ware, and white ware were highly sought after. So great was the demand that Chinese supply was inadequate, leading to the development of a large Persian porcelain industry to supply unmet demand.

Contact between Persia and China grew even closer after the Mongol conquest of both countries in the 13th century. Persian officers and officials served the Yuan Mongol imperium in China, and Chinese personnel served the Il-Khanate Mongol imperium in Persia.

Chinese and Persian knowledge of one another became much deeper. There were nearly annual diplomatic missions between Yuan China and Il-Khanate Persia.

Chinese astronomical instruments and knowledge, printing, and paper money were transmitted to Persia and the Arab Near East during this period, while Arabic and Persian alchemy, mathematics, Euclidean geometry, medicine and pharmacology were transmitted to China.

Artistic exchanges were also vital. The cobalt blue pigment that became the basis for the blue color in China's famous blue-white porcelain was introduced to China as "Mohammedan blue" from the Near East.

By the time of China's Ming dynasty in the 14th century, large quantities of Chinese blue and white ware were being exported to Persia and the Arab Near East. Once again, Chinese products appealed to Persian tastes.

So popular did blue and white ware become that, as with the first wave of Chinese porcelains in the 9th century, the Persian ceramics industry expanded to copy Chinese products and supply unmet demand.

For several centuries Persian blue and white ware was a mainstay of world trade — until overwhelmed by revived Chinese, Japanese and Dutch competition in the 17th century.

Recounting the rich record of mutually beneficial, peaceful, premodern interaction does several things within the framework of state-sponsored nationalist ideologies of the two countries. First, such references underline the civilizational accomplishments of China and Persia and the fact that neither was inferior to the West.

If the West has served during the post-1979 period as the "other" for both the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran — that is, what each was not, at least at the level of state-supported ideologies — China and Iran served for each other as part of the in-group, the group of which one was a part, and that stood in contradistinction to the Western "other."

Ancient China and Iran each provides the other a mirror in which each sees a reflection of its own ancient glory and affirmation of self-worth against the putatively arrogant and condescending attitudes of the Western nations.

Second, narrating the facts of ancient Chinese-Iranian cooperation suggests that that relationship is natural, nonobjectionable and positive.

Destruction of this natural, positive relationship was part of the Western humiliation of both countries, just as contemporary Western objection to Sino-Iranian relations reflects lingering Western attitudes of superiority toward both countries.

Third, stress on the peaceful nonmilitary nature of Sino-Iranian intercourse conveys implicit moral superiority over the violent, imperialist Western powers. This also demonstrates that there is no fundamental conflict of interest between China and Iran — and therefore no barrier to cooperation.

Editor’s note: Adapted from CHINA AND IRAN © 2006 by John W. Garver. Reprinted with permission by University of Washington Press.