The Magical Kunlun and "Devil Slaves": Chinese Perceptions of Dark-skinned People and Africa before 1500

by Julie Wilensky


Historians have not yet established the precise date of the first contacts between the Chinese and African peoples Moreover, the available sources make it impossible to calculate exactly how many Chinese people traveled to Africa or how many Africans went to China in premodern times. What Chinese sources do reveal, however, is how Chinese people viewed those with dark skin and how these perceptions changed over time, reflecting first what Chinese people imagined, and later, what they knew about African countries and their inhabitants. Perceptions changed as knowledge and exploration of the countries and peoples of Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and East Africa increased. This essay examines a combination of nonfiction accounts, fictional literature, geographical sources, and travel diaries from the Tang (618-907) to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to analyze the shifts in Chinese perceptions of people with dark skin and Chinese knowledge of Africa and Africans.

Beginning in the Tang dynasty, Arab traders brought a number of East African slaves to China. Although historians have studied the African slave trade extensively, particularly the export of West African slaves to the Americas after 1500, a much smaller body of research focuses on the premodern East African slave trade, and fewer sources still mention black slaves in China. From the eighth to the fourteenth centuries; the Arabs controlled this vast slave trade, which stretched not only along the entire coast of East Africa and throughout the Arab world but as far east as China. Black slaves were just one of many commodities in the Arabs' large-scale maritime trade with China, which peaked during the Tang and Song dynasty (960-1275). The Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (Former Tang history) mentions that the Arabs sent delegates to the Chinese court in 651, marking the first recorded official contact between the Chinese government and the Arab caliphate. By the ninth century, a sizable community of Arabs lived in Guangzhou, and the local residents could have seen African slaves on trading ships and in Arab homes. Some wealthy Chinese people even owned African slaves, whom they used as doorkeepers.

The first chapter of this paper seeks to explain how Chinese people perceived these black slaves by analyzing representations of people with dark skin in fictional and nonfiction sources from the fifth century through the Song dynasty, tracing the evolution of the meanings and connotations of the term kunlun 崑崙.This mysterious and poorly understood word first applied to dark-skinned Chinese and then expanded over time to encompass multiple meanings, all connoting dark skin. This chapter examines the meaning of the term kunlun in nonfiction before and during the Tang; fictional tales about magical, superhuman kunlun slaves from the Tang fiction compendium Taiping guangji 太平廣記 (Extensive Gleanings of the Reign of Great Tranquility); and finally, representations of the kunlun from a nonfiction writer from the Song, Zhu Yu.

Although fictional portrayals do not necessarily provide information about what actual African slaves experienced in China, fiction is a valuable source because its popularity reveals widespread cultural perceptions of people with dark skin. Histories and other nonfiction accounts, on the other hand, indicate how some Chinese viewed these people with dark skin, but it can be difficult to determine the readership and popularity of these sources because the information they contain does not seem to have reached a wider audience.

Were these Tang and Song images of the kunlun based on direct contact between Chinese and African peoples? When did the Chinese make a conceptual link between the kunlun slaves in China and the countries and peoples of East Africa? The second chapter addresses these questions by examining Chinese histories and geographies from the Tang and Song that describe African countries and their inhabitants. The answer to the first question is straightforward: a few Chinese may have visited Africa during this time, but most, if not all, Chinese knowledge about Africa and Africans came from the Arabs, who brought specific geographic knowledge of the countries along the maritime trade route between East Africa and China. Most of the Chinese descriptions of Africa were compiled by authors who never left China and gleaned their information about foreign countries and peoples from Arab traders living in China. Regardless of whether these accounts indicate direct contact between Chinese and African people in the Tang and Song, however, they reveal Chinese historians and geographers' increasing knowledge of Africa and Africans. This new knowledge allowed the Chinese to make a connection between the kunlun slaves in China and the East African slave trade.

Once the Chinese made this connection between the kunlun and the African slave trade, did the meaning of the word kunlun shift again? And how did China's maritime exploration of the East African coast in the early fifteenth century affect Chinese perceptions of African countries and their inhabitants? The third chapter; will examine two travel accounts from the Yuan and Ming dynasties that describe the authors' travels to Africa. We do not know how many Chinese read Song and Yuan accounts of Africa and Africans, but educated Chinese people most likely knew of China's maritime exploration in the early fifteenth century. The voyages of the Muslim admiral Zheng He and his fleet provide the first documented evidence of large groups of Chinese traveling to Africa. Firsthand accounts of these trips were reprinted several times in the fifteenth century, suggesting that they were widely read. Examining these accounts -- and one play written in the late sixteenth century -- will reveal whether Chinese perceptions of Africa and Africans changed significantly once the Chinese began large-scale maritime exploration of the East African coast.

Chinese knowledge of African countries and their inhabitants was not always consistent throughout a given time period, however. Information about foreign countries and their inhabitants did not always reach the same audiences at the same time, and Chinese knowledge of Africa did not just increase consistently over time. Contemporary sources sometimes report conflicting information, revealing a complex picture of Chinese perceptions of people with dark skin and Africa before 1500.