Just something quick and interesting I came across while doing assigned readings for class in
Hayashi Ryoichi. “The Silk Road and the Shoso-in.” (1975).:
The cultural/ethnic diversity of the T’ang/Nara periods never ceases to amaze me. We tend to believe that exchanges were solely with China and Korea, and with other cultures only secondhand, via contact with China and Korea.
However, according to my readings here, a major embassy returned to Japan in 736 accompanied not just by a number of Chinese, but also by at least one Indian (the Buddhist priest Bodhisena), the priest Fo-che from Champa*, and a Persian.
Yes, a Persian. In Japan. In 736 CE.
*For those of you unfamiliar with Champa, it was an independent state located in the south of what is today Vietnam and Cambodia; the Chams were a distinct and separate ethnic/cultural/political entity for many many centuries.
Not only that, but major Chinese historical figures with Chinese names were not necessarily Chinese either, reflecting the multi-ethnic character of the times.
An Lushan, for example, a famous rebel of the Tang Dynasty period, was apparently some kind of Turk or Persian.
Some of you already know all of this, but it’s news to me, and I’m finding it quite fascinating.
Another thing which came up in the reading was the character 胡、 used to refer to Persians, or more generally to any foreigners from the north or west, from the point-of-view of China. Thus it was that certain cups or vases came to be known as 胡瓶 (lit. something like “Persian bottles”)。
But is this character used in modern Japanese today, and if so, in what words? The answers are surprising and amusing (or at least, they were to me).
# 胡瓜 – kyuuri – cucumber
# 胡弓 – kokyuu – a certain kind of traditional East Asian / Japanese fiddle which has faded out of use since the Edo period. Once considered something of a “sister” instrument to koto and shamisen, alongside which it was played, the latter two have remained widely known and played and seen, while the kokyuu has faded away.
# 胡座 – agura – sitting Indian-style
# 胡椒 – koshou – black pepper
Certainly, the Indian or Persian or just “foreign, from the west” sense for most of these words can be understood… I just always find it interesting to see where certain words come from, or what certain associations inspire. Consider: where do satsumas come from?
Images from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston official collections database public website. No claims of copyright over these images are alleged.