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Reviewed by:
  • The Blacks of Premodern China
  • Maghan Keita
The Blacks of Premodern China. By Don J. Wyatt. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 208 pp. $65.00 (cloth).

Don Wyatt's title is provocative enough—it holds great promise; yet, in many ways it fails to deliver. Having acknowledged this, the work still demands a certain intellectual fortitude in mastering its density for the reader intent on making sense of the African presence in Asia, and particularly in China.

The Blacks of Premodern China compels serious attention, not only because of its style but because of its substance as well. But before considering the importance of this work, its shortcomings should be addressed. Its style poses problems—at least for this reader. There is a certain opacity to the writing that clouds elements that are central to the fundamental theoretical premises of the work. Take the issues of race and slavery as examples.

The treatment of the two is rather tortured. The lack of comparative analysis, both theoretically and substantively, is crucial. Here, Wyatt's persistence in using the notion of "Arab" as a racial rather than cultural category seriously muddles any argument that he wishes to make about race. There are primary sources in Arabic and in translation—some ubiquitous, like Ibn Battuta—that should cause any reader of race in the context of what might be considered "Arab" to take pause. Wyatt's [End Page 828] argument would have been better served if some of these had been consulted in relation to the question.

By the same token, European sources from the period pose the same sorts of issues when it comes to rendering the Arab as a racial type. An acknowledgment of these two bodies of knowledge in the construction of one of the book's main theses would have resulted in a somewhat different study. It would have forced the author to speculate on whether some of those delivering "blacks" into Chinese servitude were not, in some respects, somatically quite similar to their captives. Ibn Battuta's observations work along these lines, as do those of Abulfeda, who writes of Egyptian merchants in China.

Their observations lead to questions concerning Wyatt's discussion of slavery in China—particularly as it relates to Africans—and the possibility that not every black that any given Chinese might encounter was necessarily a slave. In other words, what has to be accounted for is the notion that those Chinese who did come upon blacks may have accounted for a much broader variety of interactions than simply "the black as slave." It might have been helpful here to consider the ways in which the main source of African slaves—Arabs—were regarded by the Chinese. Here, two lines of analysis might have served this purpose. The first would have been an exploration of Arab concepts of slavery and the ways in which race is played out within them. And second, stemming from that, is what the Chinese might have learned from observing Arab interactions with their "black" charges.

Though Wyatt treats him only in passing, it would seem that Cosmas Indicopluestes deserves more analysis in terms of his sixth-century observations on Indian Ocean trade and the crews that he saw frequenting the ports of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Cosmas's experience suggests that blacks might be not only slaves but also able-bodied seamen and merchants as well. More than half a millennium later, Ibn Battuta would support that notion. This would have further complicated Wyatt's analysis, nicely so.

This turns the reader to one of the strengths of Wyatt's work. This is his ability to illustrate the complexity of the Chinese notions of blackness. Wyatt reveals that not all blacks are Africans within the Chinese context. The term is also reserved for the somewhat darker non-Han neighbors of the Chinese people. In this complication, however, Wyatt misses another point of analysis. A considerable element of the historical Kunlun ("blacks" in Chinese parlance) he discusses are South Asians—some from the Indonesian archipelago. The centuries of traffic between Indonesia and Madagascar, and the resulting demography that is clearly evident in Madagascar, should pose some questions [End Page...