China and Iran

From the antiquity to the modern era Iran and China have influenced and traded with each other. The Chinese and Iranian empires were at one point the world’s only hyper powers along with Rome. Most trade conducted with the Chinese was through the famed “Silk road” it gets its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade a major reason for the connection of trade routes into an extensive trans-continental network. The Silk Roads overland route stretched from the city of Hangzhou in eastern China through the great foothills of the Himalayas then the hills of Afghanistan and eventually arriving in the eastern reaches of Iran. Relations between Iran and China seem to begin shortly after the rise of the Parthian Empire.


Relations during Parthian Empire (250BC-224AD)
Anxi [Parthia] is situated several thousand Li [Chinese measurement] west of the region of Yuezhi .The people are settled on the land, cultivating the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. They have walled cities like the people of Dayuan. The coins of the country are made of silver and bear the face of the king. When the king dies, the currency is immediately changed and new coins issued with the face of his successor. The people keep records by writing on horizontal strips of leather. To the west lies Tiaozi (Mesopotamia) and to the north, Yancai and Lixuan (Gilān and Māzandarān).”

The above is the quote from the imperial Chinese envoy Zhang Qian when he visited Iran in 126BC, after his expedition commercial relations between China, Central Asia, and Parthia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent. The Han Empire (206BC-220AD) is referred to have been provided with Parthian horse’s .Namely the tough and famous Nisean breed. The Chinese, delighted by this began to provide the Parthians with silk and jade which was from then one worn in the royal courts of the Parthian Emperors. In 97AD Chinese military administrator Gan Ying made his way to Rome he however only reached the Persian Gulf, it was here that after hearing that the “Ocean [Persian Gulf] was huge” and “the vast ocean urges men to think of their country, and get homesick” that the dismayed Gan ying withdraw back to China.

Parthians also played a role in the transmission of Buddhism from Central Asia to China An Shigao nicknamed the “Parthian Marquis “a Parthian prince that went to the Chinese capital Luoyang in 148AD where he established temples and became the first man to translate the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

The Han Chinese received help from the Parthians after the Huns (a group of nomadic pastoral people) who raided their western (Xinjiang) and northern (Gansu) provinces. The Parthians probably provided the Chinese with heavy cataphract (knight) cavalry, however no solid sources are provided on this matter.

Relations during Sassanian Empire (224-651AD)
In 224AD the Sassanians overthrow the Parthians, and like their predecessors the Sassanid Empire maintained active foreign relations with China, and ambassadors from Persia frequently travelled to China. Chinese documents record thirteen Sassanid embassies in China. Commercially, land and sea trade with China was important to both the Sassanid and Chinese Empires. Large numbers of Sassanid coins have been found in southern China, confirming maritime trade.

During the rule of the first Sassanian king Ardashir I was provided with “pearls and purple silk” after his official coronation in Ctesiphon. The Chinese and Iranians traded items such as Silk, fruits, tea, glass, jade, spices and timber with each other. One such example is the peach fruit with its Latin name of Prunus Persica the peach is however, native to China it was only once traded with the Iranians it spread westwards towards Greece and Rome, and thus the early people of the west mistake the fact that the peach is from China, rather than Iran.

Interestingly Sassanian musicians are referred to have used Chinese instruments such as Huqins and Pipa by the 5th century AD and on various occasions, Sassanid kings sent their most talented Persian musicians and dancers to the Chinese imperial court.

Both empires benefited from trade along the great Silk Road and shared a common interest in preserving and protecting that trade. They cooperated in guarding the trade routes through central Asia, and both built outposts in border areas to keep caravans safe from nomadic tribes and bandits. The Sassanian Empire expanded eastwards towards the rich and fertile lands of north India and also to the western reaches of China which was then ruled by the fierce Hun king. There are records of several joint Sassanid and Chinese efforts against their common enemy the White Huns, following encroachments by the nomadic Turks on states in Central Asia, we also see what looks like a collaboration between Chinese and Sassanid forces to repel the Turkic advances.

In 642AD the Arabs began to attack and force back the Sassanians deep into Iran. In 650AD king Yazdgerd III of Persia fled to China where he was provided with money and troops by the Chinese Emperor Taizong of Tang. However when Yazdgerd returned to Iran he was killed by a local miller. Pirooz, son of Yazdgerd escaped along with a few Persian nobles and took refuge in the Chinese imperial court. Both Pirooz and his son Narsieh (Chinese neh-shie) were given high titles at the Chinese court. Narsieh later attained the position of commander of the Chinese imperial guards and his descendants lived in China as respected princes and commanders.

Relations during medieval Islamic Iran (651AD-1501)

After the Islamic conquest Iran continued to flourish during the Islamic golden age and relations with China remained strong, and during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) communities of Persian-speaking merchants, known as Bosi , formed in northwestern China’s major trade centers. The Chinese nobles and rulers seemed to have been more interested in marrying Persian women rather than Chinese. One example is the young Chinese emperor Liu Chang who married a Persian girl nick named Mei Zhu (meaning “beautiful pearls”).When he met her he was entranced with her brown skin and wide green eyes. Li Nu a scholar from China visited Hormuz and married a Persian woman and brought her back to China. The famous Maragheh observatory in Maragheh, Iran is also known to have had some Chinese astronomers working along side Iranian ones and some Iranian astronomical instruments were also being used by astronomers in China.

Relations during Safavid Empire (1501-1722) to Qajar Dynasty
During the early rule of the Safavids, Iran lacked any direct contact with China with the Uzbeks controlling the eastern borders and the sea route which was controlled by the Portuguese. But the greatest of Safavid rulers, Shah Abbas was able to take control of the east and the sea routes and thus trade continued with China. Safavid art was heavily influenced by the Chinese art, Shah Abbas had hundreds of Chinese artists in his capital of Isfahan; 300 Chinese potters produced glazed tile buildings, and hundreds of others produced metalwork, miniature paintings, calligraphy, glasswork, tile work, and pottery. The Zandieh Empire (1749-1794) dynasty under the rule of their founder Karim Khan began to provide peace to Iran and with this, the country prospered. Trade flourished and networks were opened between China once again.

The Qajar Dynasty (1794-1925) seemed to have some from of trade between China from about 1905 until their decline 15 years later.

Relations during 20th century onwards

The Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979) had strong diplomatic relations with communist China. In modern times China finds a permanent partner with Iran for its exports and a source for its growing energy demand. In March 2004 Zhuhai Zhenrong Corporation a Chinese state-run company, signed a 25-year contract to import 110 million metric tons of LNG. The deal, worth $100 billion, adds an extra 250 million tons of LNG to China’s energy supply, to be extracted from Iran’s Yadavaran Field. Over a 25-year period. In January 2009, Iran and China signed a $1.76bn contract for the initial development of the North Azadegan oil field in western Iran. In March the two countries struck a three-year $3.39 billion deal to produce liquefied natural gas in Iran’s mammoth south Pars natural gas field.

Iran is currently China’s third largest supplier of crude, providing China with roughly 12 percent of its total annual oil consumption (nearly one million barrels daily). Iran-China trade value reached $30 billion in 2010 and is expected to increase to $50 billion by 2015. Iran represents a major market for China’s military exports, purchasing 14% by value. Between 2005 and 2009 this represented 1,000 anti-air and anti-ship missiles and approximately 50 infantry combat vehicles.

In conclusion

China and Iran have retained a strong sense of utmost respect for one another’s cultures. Throughout history it has been obvious that despite not having a border with each other and yet the two have never been to war and have been “natural allies” the Chinese have been allies with Iran for over 1,000 years. As well this China and Iran have heavily influenced each other; Chinese art seems to have intertwined with that of Iran while early Chinese military seems to have heavy influence from Iran such as Parthian shot. In my view Iran and China will remain close allies for at least another 1,000 years to come.

A History of Chinese civilization, Jacques Gernet.

Sassanian Empire a portrait of late antiquity CHINESE-IRANIAN RELATIONS vii. Persian Settlements in Southeastern China during the T’ang, Sung, and Yuan Dynasties

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The golden peaches of Samarkand a study of Tang exotics By Edward H. SchaferThe Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature

Historical records of the five dynastiesIranica Antique Romes enemies Parthians and Sassanians by David Nicole Eggenberger, David.

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