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The Blacks of Premodern China

By Don J. Wyatt

Publication Year: 2011

Premodern Chinese described a great variety of the peoples they encountered as "black." The earliest and most frequent of these encounters were with their Southeast Asian neighbors, specifically the Malayans. But by the midimperial times of the seventh through seventeenth centuries C.E., exposure to peoples from Africa, chiefly slaves arriving from the area of modern Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania, gradually displaced the original Asian "blacks" in Chinese consciousness. In The Blacks of Premodern China, Don J. Wyatt presents the previously unexamined story of the earliest Chinese encounters with this succession of peoples they have historically regarded as black.

A series of maritime expeditions along the East African coastline during the early fifteenth century is by far the best known and most documented episode in the story of China's premodern interaction with African blacks. Just as their Western contemporaries had, the Chinese aboard the ships that made landfall in Africa encountered peoples whom they frequently classified as savages. Yet their perceptions of the blacks they met there differed markedly from those of earlier observers at home in that there was little choice but to regard the peoples encountered as free.

The premodern saga of dealings between Chinese and blacks concludes with the arrival in China of Portuguese and Spanish traders and Italian clerics with their black slaves in tow. In Chinese writings of the time, the presence of the slaves of the Europeans becomes known only through sketchy mentions of black bondservants. Nevertheless, Wyatt argues that the story of these late premodern blacks, laboring anonymously in China under their European masters, is but a more familiar extension of the previously untold story of their ancestors who toiled in Chinese servitude perhaps in excess of a millennium earlier.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Encounters with Asia

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pp. 1-12

Within the span of the nearly three centuries of China’s illustrious Tang Dynasty (618–907), the year 684 is conspicuous mainly for two infamously related events. In the second month of that year the notorious Wu Zhao, or Empress Wu (Wu Hou) (ca. 625–705), initiated her successful bid to become the Middle Kingdom’s only female aspirant to emperorship in its four-millennia-plus ...

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ONE: From History’s Mists

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pp. 13-42

Even the mere suggestion of the existence of blacks in the China of premodern times no doubt strikes many readers as a novel, if not wholly outlandish, concept. It is an idea that the mind seems to resist reflexively, and even as so much of today’s revisionist scholarship continues its contestation of the myth of ancient-world isolation, many factors also conspire to elicit this unyieldingly ...

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TWO: The Slaves of Guangzhou

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pp. 43-79

From what has preceded, the southeastern coastal city of Guangzhou has already emerged as a pivotal locale, for it serves as a conspicuous nexus for helping to further not only our knowledge of the circumstances of China’s premodern “blacks” but also our understanding of their situation in relation to the Chinese institution of slavery. What follows is an exposition and analysis ...

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THREE: To the End of the Western Sea

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pp. 80-126

We need not doubt that the customary notion of the major ancient cultures of the globe as hermetically isolated—as having been entirely landlocked and having languished for centuries in shadowy separation and occlusion from one another—is fast eroding. Moreover, the complementary assumption that peoples innately foreign to one another were able only in relatively recent ...

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pp. 127-136

T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) once asserted, “Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree: you cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say ‘this we know.’” 1 Yet, whereas this observation would seem to be irrefutably true, whenever we seek to elucidate a subject as recondite as the nature of earliest contact and interaction between the people of China and the plethora of peoples ...


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pp. 137-168


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pp. 169-176


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pp. 177-186


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pp. 187-194

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pp. 195-198

The present book has truly modest and unanticipated beginnings, so much so that I am compelled to tender the unusual confession straight-away that it is a work I originally had no intention of ever writing. This initial dearth of intentionality on my part should in no way be attributed to any absence of interest. On the contrary, since first becoming privy to ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203585
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812241938

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Encounters with Asia