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
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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