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Africans and African Americans in China: A Long History, A Troubled Present, and a Promising Future?

Africa and China have hadcontact for more than a thousand years. Some scholars assert that the contactsbegan as early as 4th century A.D. but convincing evidence issporadic or lacking. Beginning with the Tang dynasty (618 A.D. to 907 A.D.)documented evidence of contact and trade exists showing a relationship betweenChina and the city-states of east Africa. This relationship has evolved over the centuries and led to a migrationof Africans to China to study, trade, and act as diplomats. At least oneaccount indicates that Du Huan was the first Chinese to visit Africa, probablyin Nubia, during the 8th century A.D.

Since the 7thcentury, Africans have maintained a consistent commercial relationship withChina. During the Tang Dynasty, Arabtraders brought African slaves from east Africa to China. They comprised one of the many commodities inthe Arabs’ large-scale maritime trade with China. During this era, the firstChinese cultural perception of African people developed. These “dark-skinned”people were known as Kunlun. They weredescribed as lower class, ignorant, scary, and dangerous. Although there were farmore enslaved Chinese, some wealthy Chinese preferred the exotic Kunlun slaves. 

African slavery in China peaked during the Tang andSong (960 A.D. to 1279 A.D.) dynasties but the number of African slaves takento China during this 608-year period is unclear. By this point Chineseperceptions of the Kunlun became more complex. These perceptions ranged from strongand mysterious to frightening. The Kunlun in the Tang Dynasty era wereportrayed in numerous stories of the period as heroic, resourceful, and—ironically—culturally Chinese. Most Chinese duringthis period, however, unless they were very wealthy, had little contact withAfrican slaves, perhaps explaining the differing views of the Kunlun.

During the Song Dynasty thenumbers of African slaves increased in China. Most came from Madagascar and the Comoros Islands and thus indirectlyfrom Africa, since the Arabs brought sub-Saharan Africans to both areas.

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