The Blacks of Premodern China

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University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010 - History - 198 pages
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Premodern Chinese described a great variety of the peoples they encountered as "black." The earliest and most frequent of these encounters were with their Southeast Asian neighbors, specifically the Malayans. But by the midimperial times of the seventh through seventeenth centuries C.E., exposure to peoples from Africa, chiefly slaves arriving from the area of modern Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania, gradually displaced the original Asian "blacks" in Chinese consciousness. In The Blacks of Premodern China, Don J. Wyatt presents the previously unexamined story of the earliest Chinese encounters with this succession of peoples they have historically regarded as black.

A series of maritime expeditions along the East African coastline during the early fifteenth century is by far the best known and most documented episode in the story of China's premodern interaction with African blacks. Just as their Western contemporaries had, the Chinese aboard the ships that made landfall in Africa encountered peoples whom they frequently classified as savages. Yet their perceptions of the blacks they met there differed markedly from those of earlier observers at home in that there was little choice but to regard the peoples encountered as free.

The premodern saga of dealings between Chinese and blacks concludes with the arrival in China of Portuguese and Spanish traders and Italian clerics with their black slaves in tow. In Chinese writings of the time, the presence of the slaves of the Europeans becomes known only through sketchy mentions of black bondservants. Nevertheless, Wyatt argues that the story of these late premodern blacks, laboring anonymously in China under their European masters, is but a more familiar extension of the previously untold story of their ancestors who toiled in Chinese servitude perhaps in excess of a millennium earlier.


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I gave this book a one star because the "blacks" that the Chinese encountered are most likely the "Negritos" and probably not the Malays. I searched the book for Negritos and it only had 3 hits; one was the index for the two. Even the Malays or the Austronesian speaking people of Southeast Asia (back then and until today) separated themselves from the Negritos. The Negritos (Australoid) came to Southeast Asia by at least 10,000 years earlier than the Mongoloid group. The Negritos even reached Japan. Why are the Negritos non-existent in Mainland South Asia as it would seem this Chinese coastal route to Japan was the only way they could get there? My opinion is they were "replaced" by the Mongoloids (in Mainland Asia, at least). I think this book needs further review by real scholars. A simple reading regarding the Negritos of Southeast Asia and their difficult plight against the Austronesian speaking people would shed some light to the author. 


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Within the span of the nearly three centuries of China''s illustrious Tang Dynasty (618-907), the year 684 is conspicuous mainly for two infamously related events. In the second month of that year the notorious Wu Zhao, or Empress Wu (Wu Hou) (ca. 625-705), initiated her successful bid to become the Middle Kingdom''s only female aspirant to emperorship in its four-millennia-plus traditional history. Almost from the first, her usurpation of power was resisted not only by the legitimate members of the dynasty''s imperial family but also by a disgraced aristocratic bravo named Li or, sometimes in the histories, Xu Jingye (d. 685). In the ninth month, proclaiming either his real or his fictitious intent of restoring the rightful emperor to power, Li Jingye initiated the first internal rebellion actually directed against the state in more than sixty decades.

These distinct but related events of 684 precipitated bloodshed on an unimaginably massive scale. Owing to the harsh gender biases militating against her ascendancy in the political arena, Empress Wu could claim and consolidate her supreme position only by means of the trail of poisonings and dismemberments that she initiated in 684 and carried out well beyond her imperial accession of 690. Once installed through this chain of usurpation as China''s first and only woman emperor, Wu Zhao would spend the next two decades as she had for at least a decade before that achievement--meting out death to all real or perceived threats to her power, including numerous members of the legitimate imperial family. By contrast, the tyranny of Li Jingye was far less long-lived. He rebelled largely because he had felt his personal honor besmirched and seen the privileges of his noble standing curtailed. Therefore, he directed his suddenly amassed forces of one hundred thousand in bringing death to countless thousands through his revolt. Wu Zhao met Li Jingye''s rebels with a three-hundred-thousand-man army of suppression of her own. Li, however, did not live long enough to witness the complete destruction of what he had ignited, for he met his own end in short order--when a treacherous subordinate, seeking to collect a reward on his defeat and, through dissociation, save his own life, elected to behead him. Thereafter, as was customary repayment at that time for sedition against the throne, all of Jingye''s known surviving family members were exterminated to the last person, and their tombs were desecrated by obliteration.

With few exceptions, most subsequent scholars have regarded the usurpation of the empress and the insurrection of the renegade as assuredly the two most noteworthy events of the year 684. This is an entirely understandable assessment, given that each produced ramifications that emanated like seismic shock waves, profoundly affecting nearly every aspect of the future fortunes of the Chinese Tang empire''s remaining two-plus centuries of life. However, there was yet an additional act of violence--smaller but hardly unnoticed--that transpired in that same critical year of 684. Occurring in the interim months between the previously mentioned cataclysms, this incident constituted a much lower order of violence than either of the aforementioned disruptive events of 684 that framed it, and it therefore understandably has generally not garnered attention on a level that is commensurate with its significance. Yet, we can scarcely overemphasize the portentous nature of this event, and it would prove no less consequential in its implications for the subject of this study than either of the other two has customarily proven to be to any study of Tang politics or institutions. The event in question is the sordid and unseemly murder of the civilian official Lu Yuanrui, who, during the seventh month of 684, died savagely while serving as governor of the remote and still somewhat marginally incorporated southern Chinese port of Guangzhou, the future Canton.

Kunlun Exposed and Evolving

By the standards of our culture and times, by most accounts Lu Yuanrui was not wholly undeserving of the fate that befell him. He was a petty man and a rapacious bureaucrat, so much so as not to merit independent treatment anywhere in the authoritative sources, despite his relatively high position. Consequently, we first learn about Lu only because of the survival of a terse description of his death--and nothing more--that is included in the officially commissioned biography of the successor to his post. Nevertheless, in the eyes of certainly what was a preponderance of his countrymen, Lu''s deficiencies as a functionary and as a person hardly made him deserving of what happened to him, for from the single, unadorned entry on his fate in the Jiu Tangshu (Old Tang History) we learn the following: "The territories of Guangzhou border the Southern Sea. Every year, the kunlun merchants arrive in [their] ships, laden with valuable goods to trade with the Chinese. The previous governor tried to cheat them out of their goods, so a kunlun had come forth with a concealed knife and killed him." The assailant was not content simply to cut Lu Yuanrui down on the spot. Wielding his knife or perhaps knives (the original Chinese is actually unclear), he also, in what must have been a horrifically savage bloodletting, dispatched a dozen or possibly more members of the governor''s immediate entourage. Moreover, adding insult to the considerable injury, by effectively evading all pursuers and avoiding capture, the culprit managed to put out to sea and thus escape justice. Now as well as then the deed itself was grave enough. However, the matter was made all the more deplorable by the single individualized reference to the perpetrator as a kunlun, a term essential to our present purposes because it was the first certifiable signifier to emerge in China for identifying a kind of person considered by Chinese standards to be utterly unlike themselves--that is, someone construed by premodern Chinese to evince the characteristics of being ethnically black.

In Chapter 1 we will revisit the violent death of Lu Yuanrui and deliberate in still greater detail than we have thus far on all that is implied by his manner of death. A reason as sound as any for focusing on this episode at this early juncture is its prime functionality as an initial signpost for all our further deliberations on premodern China''s relationship to its blacks. Whereas Lu the man is easy enough for us to relegate to obscurity, we will find that the circumstances of his death are not, and they will collectively come to serve as well as any compass to point us in the direction of the crucial questions that will most preoccupy us. Indeed, it is the reality of his death at the hands of some variety of kunlun that catapults us forward into engagement with the intermeshing themes that dominate the discourse entailed over the remainder of this book. In sum, the importance of the recording of Lu Yuanrui''s murder lies principally in the fact that it comprises the earliest and least equivocal historical documentation we now have of the undercurrent tensions and occasional outright enmity that had, by the ninth century if not well before then, evolved to become a fixture of Chinese-kunlun relations.

The specific matter of Lu Yuanrui is also of supreme value to us at this stage for the seminal kinds of questions it evokes. Not the least weighty but certainly among the more expected questions for us to ask are, who were the kunlun and, since they were no more imaginary than the merchants who seasonally ported at Guangzhou and on one infamously unfortunate occasion claimed the lives of Lu Yuanrui and a good number of his subordinates, from where did they come? We shall discover that, much like these queries, the answer to each question is locked in interdependency because we will learn that over several centuries the Chinese of premodern times affixed the appellation kunlun to an expanding array of peoples, most of whom by our contemporary standards should have represented quite distinct nationalities and ethnicities to them. Moreover, and somewhat counterintuitively, we will witness how this succession of peoples to which the designation kunlun was applied actually underwent expansion even as Chinese knowledge of the greater world commensurately increased. Increased geographical exploration, initially to the south but later in the westward direction, and greater exposure to peoples not previously encountered had the effect of contributing to a swelling rather than a diminution of those included under the kunlun rubric. We will come to regard the still larger questions elicited by such discoveries as this one as contributing immeasurably to the arrestingly engrossing quality of our inquiry.

By the time of Lu Yuanrui''s murder, the Chinese had already experienced perhaps a half-millennium of contact with an expanding succession of peoples whom they designated as kunlun. However, even if it was sustained, as the case of the use of Guangzhou as a port of call certainly implies, we should not assume that contact over the centuries had necessarily become generally more cooperative or felicitous. Familiarity need not assure contempt, but neither is there sufficient reason for our believing that Tang Chinese perspectives on the peoples they sometimes indiscriminately called kunlun had advanced greatly beyond their initial exposure to them in the early centuries of the Common Era. Despite their vaunted reputation for cosmopolitanism, the Chinese of Tang times were also heirs in large degrees to the far less pluralistic ages that had preceded them. Just as we today are inclined to wonder whether life "as we know it" abounds on some other planet, Chinese of the first centuries C.E., li

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