Africans in Ancient China and Vice Versa

Last year while I was researching for my dissertation, I came across a footnote that mentioned that the first Africans who reached ancient China (the particular period was not specified) were two slaves given as gifts to the Emperor by an envoy of Arab traders. I found myself wondering what happened to them, were the slaves male or female, were they killed immediately or did they go on to serve the Emperor, did they have children (it was possible!) etc.

It keeps on popping up, one or two sentences or a footnote that quickly says something about Africans in ancient China, whether in Peking or Canton but there is never enough information. To be honest I’d like to know more. If I could, I’d travel back in time just to see the daily lives of those Africans in ancient China. I’ve read that most of them were slaves of Arab traders and lived among the Arab settlements in Canton…things will become clearer from here on, I promise.

I was intrigued to read about Coxinga and his battalion of African bodyguards.

“Experience had taught Iquan that he could trust nobody; though he may never have known, his own mother had even conspired against him with [Dutch commander] Pieter Nuijts, so his paranoia was wholly justified. His Chinese associates were former pirates whose allegiance was unsure, his family were often out to get whatever they could, and he had long since learned never to trust the barbarians of Europe. Consequently, Iquan recruited the Black Guard from a place that had no relationship to any other country or associate: Africa.

The Black Guard, approximately 500-strong, had once been Negro slaves in the service of the Portuguese, but were now all freed men. Iquan had somehow acquired them in Macao, and had turned them into his own imposing private army. Perhaps some of them were among the slaves who fought so bravely to defend Macao from the Dutch in 1622, freed in the aftermath only to find themselves thousands of miles from home, with no hope of getting back. Others may have defected from the service of the Dutch, though Chinese sources imply that Iquan bought them in Macao and freed them himself. With many of its members unable to speak any language but Portuguese, the Black Guard was Iquan’s most trusted unit, and he ‘confided more in them than in the Chinese, and always kept them near his person’. ” (Source)

I took to the books only to discover that most written sources are along the theme of ‘China’s discovery of Africa’ which is to say that the they talked more about Chinese in ancient Africa than Africans in ancient China. I am sure I mentioned Zheng He somewhere else on this blog for those who don’t remember Zheng He was the Muslim eunuch who brought about the first direct official contact between China and East Africa during his imperial sanctioned voyages which took place between 1405 to 1433 A.D.

Zheng He

But get this the very first Chinese to step into Africa (at least according to the written records) was Du Huan, an officer of the Tang dynasty (618-907). So basically Du Huan had visited parts of Africa (I am horrible with numbers but give or take) seven centuries before Zheng He.

Apparently Du Huan was captured in battle, it was 751 A.D when China found itself in conflict with the Arabs at the Talas River. He ‘vanished into the dominions of the Abbasid caliphate‘ and 12 years later returned to China where he composed a ‘Record of my Travels’. It seems most of Du Huan’s memoirs have been lost but a few passages remain including that which tells of a country inhabited by black people called Molin (probably aroud modern day Eritrea or Ethiopia which at time would have been the coastal regions of the Kingdom of Axum). Molin was situated not far from the coast and was a multi-religious society with Christianity, Islam, the ‘Zimzim’ teachings (this could have been Zoroastrainism but some say it was Judaism) and animistic religions being practised. Du Huan was not impressed by the people of Molin because they were not loyal to their ruler or possessed filial piety, they did not restrict themselves sexually (and even supposedly practiced incest at least those who practised the ‘Zimzim’ teachings) and they liked their alcohol.

Du Huan’s story is so amazing! I had lots of fun imagining the Chinese offical turned prisoner of war to Arabs and being sent on odd jobs by the caliphate such as escorting a Nubian prince home to his kingdom, a place called Dongola in Sudan (the most likely reason Du Huan reached Molin in the first place). Imagine what more we could have know if the other parts of Du Huan’s memoirs were not lost!

It appears that contact between East Africa and China was encouraged and developed due to Muslim Arab traders/merchants who were travelling and settling everywhere between the Kenyan coast and China’s southern ports. Due to this international trading system, by the 10th and 11th centuries, large quanties of African products were entering China. Chinese officials used East African ivory for their palanquins and belt-buckles that held their robes, powdered rhinocerous horn was a prized aphrodisiac, tortoiseshell was used to treat consumption and frankincense and ambergris was used as a tonic to stimulate circulation.

Similarly from 800 to 1400 A.D. Chinese artefacts were making their impact along the East African coast. Did you know that antique cities stretching from Somalia, through Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique are strewn with debris from ancient China. In Zanzibar a pocket of coral containing 250 copper coins from the Tang and Song dynasties was found by a peasant. Did you also know that Chinese coins apparently account for 300 to 500 pieces of pre-modern foreign currency discovered in Kenya and Tanzania? Other Chinese items that made their way into ancient Africa include porcelian which was used to decorate the walls and roofs of houses and in tombs in which the Swahili people buried their dead.

A badly scanned map of Africa showing possible locations of African countries referred to by the ancient Chinese

Though it is possible that this exchange of objects was due exclusively to middlemen; Arab merchants, the possibility of Chinese adventurers venturing into East Africa exists. Apparently the Chinese of the Tang and Song dynasties (particularly during the Song dynasty overseas trade was encouraged) were outward-looking, daring and curious of the outside world. A lot of Chinese ships were supposedly sighted in Kulam-Malay which was situated in south-west India and in Oman during the 9th century A.D.

In the 9th century, Jia Dan Tang prime minister and geographer talks about a sailing route to a place in the ‘extreme south-west of Arabia’ which was 20 days’ voyage from the settlements to the north of the Gulf. This place could have been anywhere in East Africa afteralll 20 days’ voyage from the Gulf is a pretty long journey.

Another badly scanned image, this one shows the map of Africa by Zhu Siben

In a world map compiled between 1311 and 1320 (during the Yuan dynasty) by the Chinese cartographer Zhu Siben*, the southern-most tip of Africa is shown. And this was at a time when both the European and Islamic world thought the African coastline linked to Asia. And another map based which appeared in Korea in 1402 adds a stream emerging on the continent’s south-west coast in the approximate position of the Orange River. So the theory is that an East Asian voyager, possibly a Chinese (or even a Korean!) travelled far down the African coast.

Another factor that makes this possible is the way Chinese ships were constructed at that time, their ships were equipped with sails designed for steering strong winds so they could travel undettered by the trade winds which discouraged Arab seamen from venturing past the limits of the seasonal monsoon system to the south of Zanzibar.

Still while only a tiny number of Chinese are likely to have visited Africa, others talked about it. Chinese in the Tang and Song dynasty wanted not only foreign products such as spices and ivory but also information about the regions from which such products came. Due to this demand, a succession of writers such as Duan Chengsi (9th century A.D.), Zhou Qufei (12th century A.D.) and Zhao Rugua (a customs inspector and author of Gazetteer of Foreigners in the 13th century) came into the picture. Most of these men had never left China and wrote what they heard from others yet some of them must have got their hearsay from traders who had left China.

African countries mentioned include Bobali & Bibaluo, Zengba and Zengbalou. While Bobali and Bibalou seem to point to modern day Somalia, Zengba and Zengbaluo refer more broadly to East Africa. These names are possibly Chinese versions of Arab names for example Zengba may have roots in the Arabic Zangiba or Coast of the Blacks.

The customs of people who inhabited these countries were extensively written on. The people of Bobali supposedly eat only meat and drink a mixture of milk and cattle blood which apparently still happens today among the Oromo, Darod, Dir and Masai. The people of Bibaluo are Muslims and serve ‘Heaven but not the Buddha'; they eat baked flour cakes. Zhongli, another African country is not ‘wholly wild’. The women of Bobali are ‘pure and upright’ or ‘clean and of proper behaviour’ (more on this later). A Wang Dayuan thinks that the customs of the Zengbaluo people ‘have the uprightness of ancient times’…

I will stop here for now but will write more about Africans in ancient China in another post.

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

*Liu Gang (2007), <a href="“>The Chinese Inventor of Bi-Hemispherical World Map, e-Perimetron, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 185-193

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

Smidt Wolbert, ‘A Chinese in the Nubian and Abyssinian Kingdoms (8th Century): The visit of Du Huan to Molin-guo and Laobosa’

19 thoughts on “Africans in Ancient China and Vice Versa

  1. I absolutely LOVE this post! It’s clear you’ve done your research well and no doubt, I’m keen to see more posts on this topic. You’re brilliant!

  2. I really really enjoyed reading this. I haven’t read or learned much about Ancient Africa, so the get a view of the continent through the eyes of others makes me really giddy. I’m going to look out for the book you’re reading!

  3. This is awesome! I always learn something visiting here.

    How much do you know about Africans being seafarers in otherwise than slave ships? That’d be interesting to find out about…

  4. Pingback: More on Zheng He
  5. Wonderful, thank you for these posts on Sino-African history!
    I’ve a degree in Chinese studies, but in the Chinese history courses I attended the topic was never touched asides from Zheng He’s expeditions. I’m definitely going to read your bibliography ASAP, at the very least.

    I’d love your permission to link to all four African-Chinese posts.

    1. Thanks for reading them! I’m not surprised that your history courses didn’t touch on Zheng He, I’ve got a degree in East Asian politics! And it was basically me that brought in Zheng He and this part of Sino-African history into classes because I wrote my dissertation on Sino-African relations.

      Please feel free to link! There is joy in sharing knowledge :D

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