Vol. XXIX – p. 7

Ingrid Furniss & Stefan Hagel

Xiwangmu’s double pipe: a musical link to the far Hellenistic West?

Abstract: At the end of the second century BCE, Western Han ambassador Zhang Qian (張騫) famously explored the region beyond the Tarim Basin, bringing back reports about urban civilisations commonly believed to represent the Greco-Bactrian (Daxia 大夏 and Dayuan大宛) and Indo-Greek (Shendu 身毒) states as well as the Arsacid Parthian Empire beyond (Anxi 安息). In the aftermath of his expedition, official exchange through the Silk Road was established, purportedly culminating in direct contact between the Hellenistic world and China during the Eastern Han period (25220 CE). Among the exotic wonders that reached the Han court, skilled entertainers (shanxuan 善眩) were especially valued. Drawing on iconographical and textual evidence, this paper explores the possibility that musicians and/or representations of musicians from the Hellenistic world already came to China at a comparatively early date, not long after Zhang Qian’s expedition. Along with other ‘Western’ features, their most conspicuous musical instrument, the aulos, may have been incorporated into the representation of the mythical paradise of Xiwangmu 西王母 (the Queen Mother of the West), whose image and imagery appear to have been shaped during that period. We consider textual evidence for the novel instrument having become associated with the term guan 管 and assess the probability that the artistic works reflect a basic appreciation for the instrument’s most important cultic affinity in its original context, and therefore may provide evidence that performers of the instrument actually came to China.