Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Blacks of Premodern China

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Blacks of Premodern China

Article excerpt

Don Wyatt. The Blacks of Premodem China. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Encounters With Asia series. 198 pp. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $65.00. Cloth.

This slender book is a provocative piece of writing, or at least it seeks to be, both in terms of the theses the author sets out to defend and the way he expresses his ideas. The author presents three main theses: (1) that there were black slaves in premodern China; (2) that some of these blacks were of African origin; and (3) that these black slaves were owned by Chinese. All three theses have the ultimate aim of implicating China as an entity that, like the United States and other Western countries, once took part in one of the most horrendous events in human history: the buying and selling of Africans as slaves.

With respect to highlighting the historical fact that there were black slaves in premodern China, the book is groundbreaking. Throughout the book's three chapters ("From History's Mints," "The Slaves of Guangzhou," and "To the End of the Western Sea") the author sifts various pieces of historical evidence and queries and problemadzes key words such as Kunlun and heiren. These terms, the author claims, point to the fact that the premodern Chinese had interactions with blacks and that there were asymmetrical relations between the two populations, suggesting that many of these black people served the Chinese as slaves.

But does the fact that one can ascertain the presence of blacks in premodern China indicate that these blacks were African? Whereas the book is very successful in signaling the presence of blacks, it does not appear, in my opinion, to have achieved the same amount of success in showing that any of them were of African origin, let alone that the Chinese of that era owned African slaves. For example, as the author himself acknowledges frequently, the Chinese of that era and even to this day often refer to ethnicities in South and Southeast Asia such as the Malays as "blacks."

The author's third thesis, that the Chinese of premodern China owned African slaves, is supported by the proposition that since the Arabs of the era traded in African slaves, and since the Chinese traded with the Arabs, the Chinese could have bought African slaves from the Arabs. But again this thesis, arguably, is not proved sufficiently by the available historical evidence. …

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