African diaspora in China: reality, research and reflection.

Author:Anshan, Li

Were Africans in China in Early Times?

There is a long history of China-Africa contact, illustrated by Chinese classics such as dynastic histories (2) and classics by Du Huan, Duan Chengshi, Zhou Qufei, Zhao Rukuo, Wang Dayuan, Fei Xin, Ma Huan, etc., and contemporary studies (Dart, 1925; Zhang, 1930, 1977 [1930]; Cen, 1935; Duyvendak, 1947; Filesi, 1972; Ma & Meng, 1987; Shen, 1989; Brunson, 1995; Li, 2006, 2012a; Wyatt, 2010).

Yet whether Africans existed in early China is another question. Scholars have done studies on Black people in China since the 19th century (Lacouperie, 1887; Li, 1928; Weidenreich, 1939; Ling, 1956; Coon, 1963), yet the Black people mentioned in their works seem to be Pygmy, Negrito, or Oceanic Negroids of Melanesoin type (Yang, 1995). And it is also suggested that people of African heritage in early China were related to the Rouzhi (pronounced as Yuezhi, Yueshi) or the Persian (Chen, 1993; Schafer, 1991:46). Chinese historians generally agree that African people came to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) (Zhang, 1928, 1930; Xu, 1984; Ai 1987; Jing, 1998). Yet, archaeological discoveries seem to challenge the view. Archeological evidence indicates the possibility of contact between China and Africa in an earlier time. An excavation report on the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century B.C.) sites at Anyang, the capital of Shang, shows that there are similarities between the skull that was discovered and that of the Oceanic Negroids and people in Africa (Chang 1968; Yang 1969). Many Negroid images in stone, metal and jade were also found in Anyang. Sati burial existing in Nubia, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and thousands of cowrie shells used for money and more than five hundred of jade objects were also discovered in the tomb of Lady Fu Hao (14th century B.C.), who served as the principal consort and general to Shang King, Wu Ding, described as the "evidence of African participation in royalty" by Brunson, who concluded that "[I]t can be safely estimated that an African presence existed in China from a most remote period and an evolution of this physical type is an indigenous phenomenon." (Brunson, 1985). The estimation is rather bold. In Guangzhou, a city of south China, more than 1000 tombs of the Han Dynasty have been excavated since the 1950s, where 152 pottery figures were found, some looking like Black people (Qin 2010). Three explanations were offered for the Black origin, first, they were from islands near Indochina, and therefore the indigenous people of Indonesia, and people of West Asia or East Africa (Guangzhou Shi, 1981). Second, Qilin, an imagined fortunate animal in ancient China, appeared in a stone sculpture in the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.), resembling a giraffe (Xuzhou Museum, 1980), as indicated in Picture 1. (3)

Third, during the Han Dynasty, Ethiopia and Alexandria were mentioned in Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian, 104-91 B.C.), Han Shu (History of the Han, 80 A.D.) and Wei Lue (Brief Accounts on the Wei Kingdom), and next, the astronomer-geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus of Alexandria described China and the silk-road in his Geography in the 2nd century.

The earliest indication of Black people (hei-se-ren) in China seems to be in Juyan Han Jian (4) Hence, sixty pieces of Juyan Han Jian recorded individuals with their identity, such as jun (as prefecture, unit above county), xian (county), li (grassroots unit), rank, age, height and skin color. With height and skin color as identity elements, it is possible to understand the physical features of individuals at the time. Two studies are particularly interesting. According to Zhang's study, 55 cases with skin color are identified among 60 individual cases, and 53 recorded as "black". (5) In addition, one was labeled "brown black" and another "yellow black". This is very impressive even considering that Han China was a multi-ethnic empire. Were the black-skinned people from a specific area? Or did they belong to a zhongzu (ethnic group or race) different from the Han Chinese? The significance of the study lies in the analysis of height and color, two of the physical characteristics of the Chinese in the Han period. The author argued that since the 53 black-skinned individuals were from different parts of the empire, they were ordinary Han Chinese and did not belong to one or more specific zhongzu that was different from the Han Chinese (Zhang, 1977).

Yang came to a different conclusion after the study of Juyan Hanjian and related literature such as Yilin which was published almost at the same time. First, there were hundreds of thousands of foreigners living in the Hexi area and the surrounding area of Chang-an, the capital at the time and an international metropolis. Second, most of the black-skinned people lived in the Hexi area, a fact that Zhang failed to explain. Among 25 cases of the black-skinned people in the records of Ji-guan (birth place or origin), 17 were from the Hexi area. Thirdly, the height of the Black people was generally 165.6-177.1cm, taller than ordinary Chinese (161.2-167.6cm), but similar to the Nilotic people in Northeast Africa or the Pamiri. Fourth, married black-skinned men positioned as border officials who lived with their families should have settled in the region much earlier, possibly at the beginning of Emperor Zhaodi's rule (94-74 B.C.). Fifth, two Black women in Yilin with sunken eyes lived a different life, not married to Han Chinese, theirs should be regarded as different pattern of culture. Thus, Yang believes that the Black people there may have been foreigners who came from overseas, most probably from the Western Region, a specific term for the Chinese to describe the vast area west of China (Yang, 1995). The conclusion is that there were Black people in early China, possibly of foreign origin, or even of African origin.

After a long period of war and instability, China entered an era of prosperity in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Foreigners came to China as diplomats, officials, visitors, traders, workers, etc., and some settled down in China. Two terms "Sengzhi" and "Kunlun" appearing in the literature referred to Black people.

The record shows that in the year 724 two Sengzhi (Zandj) girls from the Kingdom of Palembang were offered to the Chinese Emperor, and four Sengzhi enslaved people, five Sengzhi boys and two Sengzhi girls were sent to Emperor Xian Zhong (805-820 A.D.) in 813, 815 and 818 respectively, all from islands of the present Indonesia as tribute. Kunlun, used as a name for mountain, water or place (Goodrich, 1931), official position and state, in ancient time, turned out to be a name for an ethnic group with a specific meaning, e.g., Black people (Zhang, 1930; Ge 2001).

Kunlun or Black people: Different Views and Ethnocentrism

There was an increasing number of Black people during the Tang and Song dynasties (9601279, A.D.) and "Kunlun" became a fashionable topic (more than Sengzhi (6)) in the literature. Who were the "Kunlun" people? Where did they come from? What did they do in ancient China? There are three kinds of evidence supporting the presence of Kunlun during that Period--paintings, pottery figures, and literature.

Dunhuang is located in Northwest China, where there are hundreds of Buddhist caves in which the paintings of the Tang Dynasty are preserved. Among the famous Dunhuang wall-paintings, quite a few of them contain black-skinned figures, such as Dunhuang Yulin Cave No. 23, Dunhuang Caves No. 103, 194, 220, 332, 335, 431, etc., and Black people also appeared in paintings as well. Secondly, from the 1940s on, many black pottery figures were discovered in Xi-an (formerly Chang-an) area, the former capital of the ancient dynasties, such as 1948, 1949 , 1954 , 1955 , 1956 , 1960 , 1972 , 1984 , 1986, 1994 , 1996, etc. The pottery figures aroused excitement among archeologists. One in Madam Pei's tomb (850 A.D.) in Xi-an is obviously a Negroid--15 cm tall, with curly hair, red lips, white eyes, high and wide nose, impressive muscles and short in body, a typical African figure (Du, 1979), as shown in Picture 2.

Thirdly, Kunlun or Black people became a rather popular subject in various writings during the Tang Dynasty and beyond, either in official works or in literature, such as Jiu Tang Shu, Xin Tang Shu, Zizhi Tongjian, Tang Hui Yao, Cefu Yuangui, Youyang Zazu, Taiping Guangji, Zhu Fan Zhi, Pingzhou Ketan, etc. Therefore, there are quite a few studies on the topic by contemporary scholars, either during the Tang period, or the dynasties afterwards (Zhang, 1930, 1977; Duyvendak ,1947; Filesi, 1972; Du, 1979; Xu, 1980, 1983, 1984; Brunson, 1985; Ai, 1987; Jing, 1998; Ge, 2001; Wilensky, 2002; Smidt, 2009; Wyatt, 2010).

Regarding the identity of Kunlun, there are generally two views: they are either seen as Negroid from Africa or as Negrito from Southeast Asia. Zhang Xinglang (originally spelt as Chang Hsing-lang), who made a great contribution to the study of China-foreign relations, published in 1930 an article in English and a collection of rich materials of Kunlun in the Tang literature.

The article dealt with eight issues, trying to identify Kunlun, their origin and the linkage with the Arabs, and instances of the use of the term of Kunlun and Kunlun nu (Kunlun slave) in Chinese literature. Zhang's conclusions are very affirmative. The land of Kunlun is present Siam, which had nothing to do with Kunlun as people. Kunlun or Kunlun nu was used frequently to describe black servants or slaves in China, they were from Kunlun Cengqi which was identical to Zanzibar (Zhao 1225) and usually brought to China by Arabs who were involved in traffic in slaves for a long time, some imported through the South Sea. His conclusion is that the Kunlun nu were not from Zhenla (present Cambodia) or Southeast Asia, a view put forward by scholars in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), they were black slaves from Africa (Zhang 1930, 1977 [1930]). His...

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