The Kunlun Servants & African Merchants in Ancient China

In my previous post I mentioned that I had read somewhere that two slaves given as gifts to the a Chinese Emperor by an Arab delegation were the first Africans to enter ancient China. This may have been wrong really because dark-skinned people were talked in China as early as the 4th century. They were referred to as kunlun, a term which had many previous meanings but by the 4th century was at attached to the people with dark skin.

That Arab delegation with the African servants reached the court of the Song dynasty (960-1279) in 977 with attendants that had ‘black bodies’ and these servants were called kunlun slaves. The first of these kunlun slaves to have been presented to the rulers of China must have been presented sometime in the Tang dynasty (618-907) between the 8th and 10th centuries but they may not have been gifts from Arab delegations.

Apparently these slaves were supplied from Sri Vijaya and Java, both Indonesian kingdoms. I had always thought that the Arabs were the first people to buy/take slaves out of Africa but traders from these kingdoms are thought to have started slaving out of Africa before the Arabs did. Through them a few Africans were supposedly brought into China and were employed in Tang households.

The Kunlun people were small and black (dark) and were imported from the South Seas as servants (slaves) for the southern Chinese, but by the Tang period there were many in the capital Chang’an. The earliest martial arts short story in China, which was written in Tang times, was called Kunlun Nu. During the Yuan dynasty the servants (slaves) were Kunlun people and Korean people. The costume of the Kunlun people was that of the South Seas, i.e., India and Southeast Asia. (Morohashi, 1968, 3673). Source

The presence of kunlun slaves is plentiful in several short stories that appeared during the Tang dynasty. In these stories, they are portrayed as culturally Chinese (speaking Chinese, acting Chinese etc), heroic and resourceful. One example of these stories is Kunlun Nu also known as The Kunlun Slave or The Negrito Slave. The main character of this story, Mo Le is a time-honoured knight-errant in almost every way except that he is black. In Kunlun Nu, Mo Le uses his supernatural physical abilities to save his master’s lover from the harem of a court official.

The kunlun are portrayed as magical even though this magic is not always apparent. Some kunlun are excellent divers who can go deep into the rivers, lakes and wells bringing up treasure for their Chinese masters. Yet at other times the magic seems to lie, well, in their actual appearance as their black skin was regarded as unrealistic to the ancient Chinese.

In the Tang period though the African slaves were very few in number, they were regarded as strong, mysterious, and a little frightening and the stories show that they were regarded with a mixture of admiration and awe in Chinese minds.

However during the Song dynasty the number of African slaves in China had increased leading them to becoming familiar to those Chinese who saw them on a day-to-day basis. The stories in which the kunlun servants are knights-errant, ghosts and other mysterious and amazing beings disappeared and the kunlun were instead found in factual records.

The factual records placed the origin of the kunlun was placed in the land of Kunlun Zengji (most likely Madagascar or the Comoros islands). This ‘kunlun zengi’ also appears to be a combination of both the Chinese and Arabic terms for ‘blacks’. The kunlun slaves were supposedly kept by most of the rich people in the Canton region. However, it is arguable that the owners of these slaves were ethnically Chinese as many of the rich people in Canton may have been Arabs; members of the Islamic trading colony that prospered in Canton.

Kunlun child servant figurine.

The kunlun lost their heroic and magical touch and became realistically regarded as a displaced people who could not adapt to the Chinese environment. They ceased being knights-errant and instead were described as being simplistic of nature and their speech referred to as ‘unintelligible’. The kunlun themselves are ‘savages’ and ‘devil slaves’ and are referred to using terms that are reserved for animals.

Thus, the same old story of how slavery dehumanizes people in the eyes of others. Which reminds me, in my previous post, I mentioned that the women of Bobali are described as ‘pure and upright’, the same sentence goes on to describe how these women are captured and sold into slavery…

Still, the mass presence of kunlun slaves was restricted to Canton as there are no signs of mass slavery anywhere else in China.

On the positive side, I guess, the tangible presence of slaves in Canton did not affect Chinese attitudes to Africans who were not slaves. For example while on one had, the kunlun slaves were talked about as wretched while being captured by Arabs, on the other stately African kingdoms were written about with relative respect and subtle fascination.

Now that I have glossed over the unsavoury parts, it time to talk about something even cooler than Du Huan wandering across Nubia.

A clearer map of Africa showing possible locations of African countries referred to by the ancient Chinese (click to enlarge)

In 1071, and from 1081 to 1083, some visitors landed in the Chinese court claiming to come from a country called Zengdan (Land of the Blacks) beyond Oman and 160 days west of China. The leader of this group was Zhengjiani and its envoys (merchants) were treated with the utmost honour. You see during his first trip, Zhengjiani was accorded a Chinese title; Lord Guardian of Prosperity. Zhengjiani and his party were honoured as the first Africans to be received in China as foreign merchants. They were regarded as ambassadors of their country in the eyes of the Song court, even though they most likely were just simply merchants.

During Zhengjiani’s second visit to China, boats were arranged to facilitate his travel through the waterways from South China to the capital where the Song emperor lavished attention and gifts on him and his group in recognition of his journey. These gifts included 2,000 ounces of white gold.

Zhengjiani and his crew filled the Chinese court on the greatness of their own country, Zengdan. The ruler of Zengdan was called ‘a prince of princes’ and their nation’s pedigree went back 500 years. The nobles of Zengdan rode horses and elephants and the land boasted a code of laws and a coinage. They claimed that their country was rich in all sorts of valuable spices and wild animals but also in pearls, glass, camphor and buffaloes (items which were atypical of East Africa at that time).

This information Zhengjiani and his people gave is thought of as bogus as they were largely private traders but still *sigh* how cool.

Yet whether or not Zhengjiani was in truth an ambassador of Zengdan or a wealthy merchant (he had to be wealthy to make that journey all the way from the ‘Land of the Blacks’ to China), it remains that his travels to China and his acceptance into the courts was a huge development as it shows Africans reaching out to China.

That period in history saw a rise in the organisation of the East African coastal city-states. These states became more well-off and their traders were beginning to seek business across the ocean. Coastal towns were reaching the height of their opulence and while their harbours were busy with foreign ships, their own ships were busy in the western Indian ocean.

The importance of these East African city states was also growing in all parts of Asia. By the end of the 13th century, Mogadishu had attracted the attention of Khubilai Khan, yes him, the Mongol ruler who put an end to the Song dynasty. This Khubilai Khan sent envoys all the way to Mogadishu to learn about the place and also to expedite the release of an earlier envoy that had apparently be held captive there.

On the flip side, the famed Moroccan Berber traveller and author ibn Battuta wrote that he met a man called Sa’id from Mogadishu in an Indian port who claimed to have been in China.

My next post will be on the amazing journey of Zheng He and what I now refer to as ‘historical globalization’. This post will also glimpse at the presence of African in other parts of Asia, not as slaves but as free traders and merchants. I will also expound on the possibilities of Chinese settlements in East Africa.

What I read
Snow Philip (1988), The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa

Shen John (1995), ‘New Thoughts on the use of Chinese document in the Reconstruction of Early Swahili History’, History in Africa, Vol. 22, pp. 349-358

Wilensky Julie (2002), ‘The Magical Kunlun and ‘Devil Slaves’ Chinese Perception of Dark People and Africa before 1500′, Sino-Platonic Papers, Number 122

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10 responses

  1. Wonderful information! I’m fascinated by stories of merchants and ambassadors from other nations visiting the Chinese empire. The world was not as isolated as we used to think.

    • thanks for your comment Jeannie! i don’t think the world was ever isolated, different peoples have been interacting, mostly due to trade, for a very long time.

      i’m going to be a total fan and say that i love your book, Butterfly Swords!

  2. Ah, I’ve missed this blog! Fascinating stuff, but I did want to mention something about the kunluns – while it would be awesome they were real Africans, I’ve heard a lot of Asian people talk about black people as simply darker-skinned Asians. So they could easily be Indonesians or even Indians, depending on what the demographics of South-East Asia were at the time. of course it’s hard to determine if they were Africans or Indonesians, but if you come across any information that proves either one, let us know!!!

    • thank you! it’d be easy to conclude that the kunlun were actually the Negrito who can be found in SE Asia. the paragraph in block quote suggests that kunlun servants dressed in the clothes of the ‘South Seas’ which is different from reference to Kunlun Zhengji, you see Chinese records also placed the origin of the kunlun to a place called Kunlun Zhengji which is supposed to be in and/or around Madagascar and the Comoros islands…i mentioned this in the post. and it’s also on the map, except i see now that the image cannot be enlarged so i’ll try to upload a larger one. you should also read Julie Wilensky’s article, just click on the title and it’ll lead you to a pdf.

      the word kunlun had many meanings and at first it did refer to dark-skinned south Asians but this term grew to include Africans with the presence of African slaves in Canton. i’ve even read that dark-skinned Chinese were sometimes called kunlun as well and though i can’t read ancient Chinese, i do believe that if they meant SE Asians rather than Africans, the distinction would have been made.

      either way i see where you’re coming from. i personally don’t mind if those slaves/servants turned out to be SE Asians as opposed to Africans but i really doubt that considering how long the Arabs had kept African slaves, they definitely would have taken them along when settling elsewhere. let’s just consider that kunlun meant both Africans and dark-skinned SE Asians that would mean the rich Chinese in the Tang dynasty kept servants from SE Asia while the rich Arabs brought theirs from Africa. it does make sense…

      but as for the traders, they were definitely African, a voyage 160 days from China is definitely farther than Asia, plus they had goods that have always been unique to Africa such as giraffes. i will talk more about trade in another post but i hope this is enough for now.

  3. This is incredibly interesting. Thanks for putting this up!

    Have you ever heard of the character Justice Bao? In the tv dramas, he is always portrayed with a dark, black face and a moon on his forehead. I always wondered if he was supposed to be African, but the stories never mentioned his origins. And he was from the Song Dynasty…

    • you’re welcome Rita. thanks for reading!

      yep i’ve heard of Justice Bao but i’ve never watched the TV dramas. really? Justice Bao is portrayed as dark-skinned? wow that is interesting.

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