In The Blacks of Premodern China, Don J. Wyatt (2010) has written a magnificent piece of scholarship on early Chinese-black interactions. Wyatt prudently deals with the shifting and contested concept of “blackness” and notes that the premodern Chinese ascribed this category to a diverse group of peoples. Citing Frank Dikotter, who has written on race in modern China, Wyatt asserts “numerous peoples became black for the Chinese, even if, owing to a dearth of contact with them, they had not previously been regarded as being so prior to those times” (15). Using documents from the Tang Dynasty, Wyatt discovers that Nam-Viet peoples of Champa were considered black. Later on, Khmers, Malaysians and Malaccans were also thought to be black. Wyatt states, “differentiation in skin color persisted as only a second determinant of foreignness well into modern times.”
The term kunlun appearing in literature during the Zhou Dynasty (1050-256 BC) was in some cases used to describe people with dark skin, but not necessarily blacks or those of African descent. However, as Wyatt argues, “well before the beginning of the 17th century the presumed fusion between blackness of skin and the grave condition of being incapable of achieving any level of cultural attainment had already become firmly fixed in Chinese consciousness.” The dark-skinned kunluns, who Wyatt speculates to be of Malay ethnicity, were perceived to be alien, a menace to society, and barbaric. Even though kunlun merchants regularly traded valuable goods with the Chinese in Guangzhou since 684 CE, they aroused fear among the Chinese. Wyatt asserts that although it was foreignness and the associated inability to attain “culture,” which remained lodged in the Chinese consciousness and elicited disdain from the Chinese, their prejudices towards darker skin were undeniable. Wyatt argues,”the fact remains that by the time the Chinese had genuinely established contact with and developed a true cognizance of the peoples of Africa, [the ways in which ] they had come to equate blackenss fully and categorically with slavery, had already been well in place and robustly intact for a period of considerable duration. Sadly, it would endure for centuries and its legacy lingers with us even now” (42).
During the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220CE), Guangzhou was a bustling cosmopolitan place with a variety of groups residing there, including the “tribal White (Western) Man and Red (Eastern) Man barbarians….many Persians, Malays, and Singhalese” (50). Using accounts written by Zhu Yu, a civil service servant who wrote Pingzhou Chats on Things Worthwhile, Wyatt observes his allusions to “foreign slaves.” Who were the foreign slaves? Some have conjectured that they could be part of a Southeast Asian contingent group, perhaps Chams, Sumatrans, and javanese. Wyatt argues that a second possibility, the more likely one, is that Zhu Yu was referring to Africans who were brought to China as slaves by the Arabs. Zhu Yu had recorded that the slaves maintained by the wealthy in Guangzhou were “black as ink. Their lips are red and their teeth are white. Their hair is curly as well as ochre-colored….They eat raw food. but once they are acquired as slaves, they are fed cooked food….There also exists a kind of wildman that lives near the sea. These slaves are able to immerse themselves in water without battling or blinking their eyes….” (56).
Wyatt also points to another possibility mentioned by Philip Snow. The black slaves might have been owned by Arabs living in Guangzhou at the time since there was a sizeable Muslim population. Ultimately arguing against this idea, Wyatt adamantly puts forth his perspective that the slaves were most likely owned by the Chinese rather than the Arabs. Eventually the Guangzhou slaves disappear or die, it seems. Wyatt does not offer a clear answer to the fate of the slaves. Again, he surmises, extrapolating from written accounts by a Spanish Augustinian friar traveling to China that by the 16th century, neither Africans nor kunluns or any “historical categories of blacks” were being enslaved by the Chinese. Due to a paucity of evidence on this matter, to which Wyatt inexorably concedes, the history of black slaves of China remains shrouded in mystery, one which I believe, needs to be explored and uncovered again and again by Sino-African scholars.
Wyatt seems to concur with this conclusion: “Once revealed to have existed at all, despite their estranged alterity within the very context in which we encounter them, China’s verifiable but heretofore obscure blacks become irremovable from our fullest understanding of the entity that traditional China was. Therefore, in the end, in the face of almost all conceivable odds, their position in our mental consciousness becomes inviolable, for no matter how marginalized they may have been in their own time, we become utterly incapable of trivializing, diminishing, or consigning them to ephemerality in ours” (135).