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The Blacks of Premodern China (review)

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 432-435 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0023

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This slim, carefully crafted book sets out to provide answers to a circumscribed series of questions which some China historians will find intriguing, others may deem undeserving of such forensic study, but to which few will have given the sustained thought and reflection offered here. When, how, and under what circumstances did people of African ancestry enter the consciousness of the Chinese? Who were the kunlun 崑崙 and where did they come from? Were all kunlun slaves in medieval China? Some may think we already have the answers, after all Zhang Xinglan, Philip Snow, Julie Wilensky and several others have all addressed aspects of this story, but how should we make sense of the fragments of frequently contradictory information that are regularly reiterated? Wyatt is refreshingly honest in suggesting that the sources are too scant to constitute a coherent narrative; his task is to scrutinize relevant texts, collate the findings of earlier scholars, interpret them, and weigh up conflicting evidence with the intention of producing “an integrative essay” (p. 195).To this end, he offers us three chapters each focusing on an episode in what he describes as “the saga of premodern interaction” (p. 8) between the Chinese and the various peoples whom they came to designate as black. The first chapter addresses the question of when a Chinese ‘consciousness of black’ arose, the second focuses on the black slaves of Guangzhou and how they were perceived, and the third looks at China’s first encounter with Africa and the forging of the conceptual link with the kunlun slaves in China. The term kunlun is today associated primarily with a geographical location, the mountain range east of the Pamirs that stretches along the southern border of present-day Xinjiang and Tibet, and is best known as the fictional abode of the ancient deity the Queen Mother of the West. It is also known, however, as the term used from the sixth to the sixteenth century to denote a group of dark-skinned slaves in China. In his first chapter, Wyatt examines the shifting terminology that links kunlun, black-skin, and slaves. The use of kunlun to designate a specific geographical location in the distant Western regions dates from at least the Han Dynasty, but later texts suggest that its usage expanded to encompass a wide variety of locales from present-day Bengal, Sri Lanka, and eastern Vietnam down into Malaysia. Equally important, it also came to designate the inhabitants of these regions; all peoples of a darker skin colour than the Chinese themselves. This Wyatt suggests, however, is less important than their remoteness from the Chinese, both physically and culturally, and the fact that by the fourth century, the term kunlun had come to refer to those distinguished on the basis of their “culturally undesirable and stigmatizing dark complexion” (p.19). By the seventh century it is well established, not least from the evidence of Tang fiction, that dark-skinned slaves thought to have originated in Malaya had penetrated both the consciousness and the reality of China. Brushing aside the recurring positive images of these peoples in Tang fiction as courageous and resourceful, often with magical or superhuman powers, Wyatt focuses on the link between blacks (or blackness?) and savagery. Here he takes as a defining moment the death of Lu Yuanrui 路元睿, a seventh-century governor of Guangzhou who was killed by a kunlun merchant. With an elaborate re-telling of this event, highlighted early in the book (pp. 2–4), Wyatt hints at an all too familiar sequence of corollaries: black-skin, savagery, threat, slavery.

In the second chapter, discussion turns to the slaves of eleventh-century Guangzhou. Like Julie Wilensky in her work on Chinese perceptions of black-skinned peoples, here Wyatt relies heavily on Zhu Yu’s 朱彧 work, Pingzhou ketan 萍洲可談 (ca.1119). Slight though the references to black-skinned people are in this text, it has long been a principal source for the claim that the traders who inhabited the foreigners compound at Guangzhou were of Arab (Middle Eastern) extraction and that their slaves were black-negroes, probably, as Zhang Xinglan and others have argued, from the east coast of Africa and notably, Zanzibar. It is not inconceivable...

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