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Persia in the Tang History

The history of the Tang dynasty (618-907) was initially compiled in 945, though this work was revised in 1060. These are respectively the Old Book of Tang (Chn. Jiu Tang Shu 舊唐書) and New Book of Tang (Chn. Xin Tang Shu 新唐書). As in the earlier dynastic histories there is a large section at the end detailing China's relations with foreign countries with brief details about their customs, exports and features. One country included therein is Persia. In this period it refers to the Sasanian empire or specifically the last years of it as it collapsed from social upheavals and invasions by the Western Turks and Arabs.

Late Sasanian history is an extremely complex era involving multiple realms, players and events that are not always clearly detailed in our extant records. The Chinese record is actually a useful source that historians have access to in reconstructing the last years of the Sasanian period, though of course it must be used cautiously. For example, the accounts provided in the two aforementioned editions of the Tang history differ considerably in some places. It is also presumably entirely based on Chinese sources which may or may not have accurately recorded events that had occurred in a foreign country, to say nothing of the fact that the compilation of this history was done two and a half centuries after the main events detailed had taken place.

Nevertheless, the history provides a contemporary Chinese perspective on the late Sasanian dynasty and how Chinese historians perceived their neighbors to the west. The Persian and Chinese cultural spheres were well connected to one another throughout the Tang period, which is illustrated by the Persian community and Zoroastrian temples in Chang'an.

For further detailed information about the relations between Persia and China in ancient times see the following two articles at Iranica Online:



This translation is my own work and I must note it is still tentative and subject to revision. I was unable to identify two of the personal names as well as some of the types of domestic animals listed. I was able to discern most of the personal names by comparing the details provided in the Chinese against the modern Encyclopedia Iranica. The translation is based on the section related to Persia in scroll 198 in the Old Book of Tang (舊唐書卷198 西戎).


The country of Persia is west of the [Chinese] capital 15,300 li. To their east they meet the countries of Tochara and Kang. To their northern border is Kesabu of the Turks. At their northwest are the Byzantines. They face great seas both directly west and south.


Their households number 100,000. Their king resides in two cities. There are also more than ten great cities. They are like the imperial villas in China.


When their king first succeeds the throne, he secretly selects a son who may succeed him, writing his name before sealing and storing it away. After the king dies, the great ministers and sons of the king together open the seal and inspect [the document]. They elevate the name written therein as chief.


The king wears a crown of golden flowers. He sits on a lion throne. His clothing is a brocade gown additionally with neck ornaments.


People commonly worship the various gods of the sky, earth, sun, moon, water and fire. The barbarian peoples of the western regions who tend the sacred fire all visit Persia to receive teachings.


When worshiping their gods they use musk fragrance mixed with sappanwood, and paint their beards with it. They mark their forehead as well as the ears and nose. They use it as a form of respect. When prostrating they must keep their thighs together.


Their script is the same as the barbarian peoples [of Central Asia]. Men and women both go barefoot. Men cut their hair and wear white leather caps. Their garments do not open down the front. They all have turbans. They often use sappanwood, blues and white to color them. Both sides of the hem are weaved into a brocade. Ladies also have turbans and gowns. They braid their hair and hang it behind. They ornament themselves with gold and silver.


The country rides elephants in war. For every elephant there are 100 warriors. Those defeated in battle are all put to death.1


When subjects give birth to a girl who possesses fine beauty at the age of ten and above the king takes her in and raises her. He rewards capable ministers with them.


It is their custom for the superior to be to the right and the inferior to the be to the left.


The first day of the sixth month is considered the start of the year.


Legal judgments are not bound by letter. They are verbally decided at court. It is only during the king's enthronement when he can release those prisoners with unlimited sentences.


For the crime of rebellion they heat an iron in the sacred fire and cauterize the tongue. If the sore becomes white, they are considered just. If the sore becomes black, they are considered guilty.


Their punishments include the severing of hands, feet and nose. They will also shave the head of the guilty and attach an iron collar around the neck. For minor crimes they cut off the beard. Some are tied to a board and the back of their neck marked. After a month they are released.


For armed robbery the guilty go into a dungeon and do not come out even when very old. Minor theft is punished with a fine of silver coins.


When someone dies they are left on a mountain. It is auspicious if the mourning clothes are still on them after a month.


The climate is hot. Their lands are expansive and flat. They understand tilling and seeding. They have much livestock. They have a bird shaped like a camel. It cannot fly high. It eats vegetation and meat. It is even brave against dogs and can seize goats. The locals consider it an extreme menace.


They also have many white horses, and swift hounds. Some on hot days will go for 700 li and become variegated. Their golden hounds are now what we call Persian hounds.


They produce great mules, lions, white elephants, coral trees as tall as 1 or 2 chi, amber, carnelians, agates, rubies, crystal, lapis lazuli, aleppo oak, sedge tubers, harītakī,3 black pepper, long pepper, sugar, dates and peaches.


Later in the Daye 大業 period [605-618] of the Sui [581-619], the Western Turk Yabgu Qaghan [reigned 617-630] constantly attacked the country. The Persian King Khosrau II [reigned 590-628]4 was killed by the Western Turks. His son Sheroya [Kavadh II, Sheroya Qobād Širōy, Šērōye] succeeded him. Yabgu then divided his commanders to administer the country. Persia ultimately became subordinate to Yabgu.


When Yabgu Qaghan died, those he had made to administer took control on their own initiative over Persia and did not return to serving subordinate to the Western Turks. Sheroya died after a year on the throne before Khosrau's daughter [Borandukht] was made queen. The Turks also killed her.


Sheroya's son *Dan Jie Fang5 then fled to the Byzantine Empire. Thereupon the [Persian] subjects welcomed and established him on the throne as *Yin Heng Zhi. He was on the throne for two years and died. His elder brother's son Yazdegerd III [632-651] succeeded him.


In year 216 Yazdegerd dispatched an envoy to give as tribute a beast called a huorushe, similar in shape to a rat and colored blue with a body eight or nine cun [inches] long. It can enter holes and grab rats.


Yazdegerd was weak and pursued by great chiefs, whereupon he fled to Tochara. He never arrived and was killed by Arab soldiers [in 651].


His son was named Peroz III who went on and stayed temporarily in Tochara. He was granted a pardon by Yabgu.


Peroz III in year 1 of reign era Longshuo 龍朔 [661] communicated to the Emperor that they were frequently being invaded and harassed by the Arabs. He requested troops to assist them.


By imperial order was dispatched Wang Mingyuan of Nanyou county in Long province to the western regions to establish a province and counties. He then arranged the land so that Zarang would be the governing seat of Persia. The governorship was given to Peroz.


After this there were numerous envoys dispatched to pay tribute. During the Xianheng 鹹亨 era [670-674] Peroz himself came to court. Gaozong was quite favorable towards him, granting him the office of General of Right Guard.7


In year 3 of reign era Yifeng 儀鳳 [678] Vice Minister Pei Xingjian 裴行儉 of the Ministry of Personnel was ordered to dispatch troops and enthrone Peroz as king of Persia. As the road was far, Xingjian got to Suiye in Anxi before returning. Peroz returned alone, but was unable to enter the country. It was increasingly being invaded by the Arabs. He was guest in Tochara for more than twenty years. There was a tribe of several thousand people who later gradually dispersed.


In year 2 of reign era Jinglong [702] he again came to court and was given the title Mighty General of the Left Guards. Not long after he died from illness. His country was destroyed, but a tribe still remained.


From Kaiyuan 開元 10 until Tianbao 天寶 6 [722-747] there were altogether ten dispatched envoys which came to court all offering as tribute local items. In the fourth month they offered a couch of agate. In the fourth month of the ninth year they offered a fiery-wool embroidered dance rug, a long wool embroidered dance rug and flawless pearls.


In year 1 of reign era Qianyuan 乾元 [758] Persia and the Arabs both attacked Guangzhou. They plundered the warehouses and razed the buildings before floating off to sea.


In year 6 of reign era Dali 大歷 [771] they dispatched an envoy to court and offered pearls.

1 Encyclopedia Iranica notes the following: “Ḵosrow was forced to raise an army of cooks and slave boys, and yet he ordered his commanders to execute the troops who had been defeated on battlefields.” See http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/sasanian-dynasty

2 Unclear what 婁 refers to.

3 A type of evergreen tree: Myrobalan tree (terminalia chebula), or the fruits of said plant. Used in medicine. The fruits are used for making yellow dyes or as a laxative.

4 See Iranica Online article: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/khosrow-ii

5 Unclear who this is.

6 The XTS states this was in Zhenguan 貞觀 12 [638].

7 The XTS states Peroz died at the Chinese court in the Xianheng era after receiving this title. His son Ninieshi was then the one who in Tiaolu 調露 1 [679] went on the subsequent journey with Pei Xingjian only to remain in Tochara for more than twenty years.