Despite the current frenetic media salvo unrelentingly declaring China’s “new inroads” into Africa, nothing could be further from the truth. China’s presence in Africa dates back centuries and spanned a number of ancient dynasties. Curtis Abraham traces China’s ancient and imperial past into Africa and sees how it still affects the relationship of today.
As tackled in other articles in this edition’s cover story. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. But actually, China has been in Africa for a long time.
In fact, in the past 10 years, scientists have been making spectacular field and archival discoveries about China’s early presence on the African continent. These latest findings were the inspiration for an international conference, “Exploring China’s Ancient Links to Africa World Conference”, which was held last October in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
The conference was co-sponsored by Aksum University, Ethiopia. African, Chinese, American and Australian experts gathered to examine and debate recent archaeological and historical evidence of China’s ancient cultural and economic relationship with Africa.
Western history books make a lot out of Vasco da Gama, the 15th and 16th century Portuguese explorer, being the first international trader to open up East Africa. He arrived in 1498 on an expedition to find a sea route to Asia, and as we all know, his trip opened up more than 450 years of colonial domination by European maritime powers. But what is not made so much noise about, despite increasing evidence, is that Zheng He, a eunuch administrator and diplomat during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Imperial China, arrived on the East African coast several decades earlier than Vasco da Gama.
Zheng He’s maritime travels took place from 1405 to 1433 and it is documented that in 1418 he led a vast fleet of no less than 62 ships ferrying 37,000 soldiers across the Indian Ocean (“Western Ocean”).
According to Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, the late eminent Dutch sinologist, and author of China’s Discovery of Africa, the Yongle Emperor commissioned these expeditions because he was motivated by “the real need of overseas products felt particularly at Court, and the desire to increase his own prestige, and to reestablish the overseas renown of the Chinese Empire.”
Sadly, most of the official records about Zheng He’s voyages were destroyed (the result of jealousy on the part of the Emperor’s court officials towards the eunuch clique that Zheng He belonged to). Consequently, most of today’s understanding of Zheng He’s expedition comes from Ma Huan, a Muslim interpreter, and Fei Hsin, a member of the scholar class who served as a junior officer on some of Zheng He’s voyages.
But according to surviving documents in China’s imperial archives, Zheng He is said to have paid a visit to the Sultan of Malindi – the most powerful coastal ruler of the time, in present-day eastern Kenya (this encounter probably took place at Mambrui, a small village just north of Malindi on Kenya’s north coast, since it mentioned that the town was by a river mouth). Aboard one of Zheng He’s ships is rumored to have been a giraffe, a gift to the Chinese Emperor, when it sank en route to China. No one knows for sure where the ship sank but some experts speculate that it happened somewhere off the Malindi coast or near the island of Lamu. No one knows for certain if the sunken ship was even part of Zheng He’s fleet.
Envoys of the emperor
In 2010, a joint team of Kenyan and Chinese maritime archaeologists set out to find conclusive evidence of the shipwreck and whether or not it belonged to Zheng He’s fleet. During the course of the excavation later that year, they discovered a 15th-century Chinese “Yongle Tongbao” coin, a small disk of copper or brass and silver with a square hole in the centre, at Mambrui village, north of Malindi on Kenya’s north coast. According to experts, such coins were carried only by envoys of the emperor; adding further evidence of Zheng He’s presence in East Africa.
But there is archival and archaeological evidence that the Chinese might have arrived on Africa’s shores hundreds of years earlier than Zheng He. These voyages of discovery by the Chinese to the African Red Sea coast, East Africa and its Indian Ocean islands, required sea-worthy vessels. There is some archaeological evidence that during the Qin and Han dynasties Chinese shipping technology was already quite advanced (the central rudder was invented around this time). In 1974, a large-scale shipping factory archaeological site was unearthed in Guangzhou, the capital and largest city of Guangdong province on the Pearl River, about 120 km north-northwest of Hong Kong and north-northeast of Macau. By the time of the Song Dynasty, the Quanzhou ship, containing segmented hulls, were equipped with a navigational compass and could hold over one hundred tons of cargo.
Chinese knowledge about East Africa during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) comes primarily from the Ching-hsing Chi (“Record of Travels”) and Yu-yung Tsa –tsu (“Assorted Dishes from Yu-yang”). During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), most of the information was recorded in the Chu-fan-chih (“Gazetteer of Foreigners”) and Ling-wai Taita (“Information from Beyond the Mountains”). The record of the Ming (1368-1644) naval expedition into the Western Indian Ocean is preserved in Wu-pei-chih (“Notes on Military Preparedness”), Hsing-ch’a Sheng-lan (“Triumphant Vision of the Starry Raft”), and Ming Shih (“History of the Ming Dynasty”).
Historians and archaeologists are unsure exactly when China established contact with Africa, but according to Li Anshan, author of a History of Overseas Chinese in Africa, experts believe that 138-126 BC (prior to the Qin Dynasty in 221-206 BC), is the historical starting point of Sino-African relations.
Li Anshan says that from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220AD) to the Sui Dynasty (581-618), there were practically no references to Africa in the Chinese historical documents. Nevertheless, some private contacts were taking place, as indicated in foreign historical documents. These texts provide evidence that Chinese merchant ships were very active in the Indian Ocean trade activities that centered on Sri Lanka.
Further evidence for the extraordinary early contact with Africa is found in the 1st century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which is one of the few ancient Greek sources on the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. It appears that even during these early times, private contacts between China and Africa already co-existed with a small number of official contacts. Imperial documents show that during the Han Dynasty there were also cultural and commodity exchanges between China and Egypt. “That was when the Chinese learned about Alexandria of Egypt (Li Xuan) and dispatched an envoy there,” wrote Taiwanese scholar Fang Hao in his 1953 book, History of East and West Traffic.
The envoy in question was Zhang Qian. Zhang was a sort of roving ambassador for imperial China in the 2nd century BC, during the Han Dynasty. His missions opened up to China the many kingdoms and products of a part of the world then unknown to the Chinese.
The Silk Road
During this period the Silk Road was established. This trade and cultural exchange route connected China with the rest of the world and earned its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk that took place along it.
The archaeological record appears to provide some evidence for these very early trade contacts between Han China and Africa. In 1993, while studying the hairs of a female corpse from the Egyptian twenty-first dynasty (1070-954 BC), Austrian scientists discovered remnants of silk fabric. At the time, China was the lone silk producer. This suggests that Chinese goods had already arrived in Egypt.
Zhang Xiang, an author who has written about several ancient Sino-African relations research issues, has also noted that the country called “Dou Le” mentioned in the classical Chinese text, Hou Han Shu Xi Yu Zhuan was the famous Adulis harbour in ancient Aksum, Ethiopia. Its envoy arrived at Luo Yang in 100 AD, which was an important milestone in the history of Sino-African relations.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), knowledge about Africa went from indirect to direct. There are three historical documents from the Tang Dynasty that explicitly involve Africa. Among them is Jing Xing Ji (“Record of my Travels”) by Du Huan. According to Li Anshan, Du accompanied the West Conquering Officer, Gao Xiangzhi, on a westward crusade. In 751, during the failed Battle of Dalas River, Du was captured by the “Dashi” (Arabs). More than ten years later, in 762, Du returned home by sea en route to Guangzhou, and published Jing Xing Ji. Unfortunately the book went missing. However, over 1,500 words of the text have been preserved in the Border Defense section of the Tong Dian, which also describes the “Molin Kingdom, where Du found black people”, whose land was harshly devoid of trees and grass, grew few grains and little rice. Du further stated that the people worshipped deities.
Years later, in a very detailed analysis, Wolbert Smidt deduced that Molin was located in the arid desert lowlands of modern-day Eritrea. And that Laobosa, which Du also mentions visiting, south of Molin, is the first mention of Ethiopia in an ancient Chinese source. Du would have left from the ancient port of Adulis, the outlet to the sea of the Aksumite Kingdom.
Another Tang Dynasty document, You Yang Za Zu by Duan Chengshi, also contains a paragraph describing supposedly another African kingdom, the Bobali Kingdom. Here the people ate meat but not grain. They extracted blood from the jugular of their cows and mixed it with milk for drinking – a practice quite common among pastoralists in the Horn of Africa even today. Duan says their land had never been subjugated and in battles they used ivory shields and the horns of the wildebeest. According to Li Anshan, most scholars believe the Bobali Kingdom was located in modern-day Berbera, in the Somali region of Somaliland.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), official and private contacts between Africa and China increased, as attested to not only by archival documents books from that period, but also from past and recent archaeological findings.
In the absence of any written or oral history, it is impossible to know what Africans in antiquity thought of these early Chinese travellers. What is known, however, is Chinese attitudes towards Africans. The dynastic Chinese viewed black Africans with racist stereotypes that echo, sadly, down the ages. They saw Africans as lacking the “moral virtue”, which they (the Chinese) saw themselves as possessing in bucketloads. But during this era, official and private contacts between Africa and China increased, according to archival documents and archaeological findings.
For example, in 2005 and 2011, Dr Felix Chami, Professor of Archaeology at Dar Es Salaam University, Tanzania (who was a keynote speaker at the Exploring China’s Ancient Links to Africa conference in Addis Ababa), and Professor Marco Vigano of Addis Ababa University, discovered and identified Chinese coins dating back to the Song Dynasty. Dr Chami’s Chinese coin, which was initially erroneously dated to the 15th century and not given any special attention, was found in the Kuumbi Cave in Zanzibar; while Professor Vigano’s discovery was made in the rugged Ethiopian interior in the ruins of the medieval village of Harla, near Dire Dawa. All three Song coins come from inner China, from the northern Song capital of Kaifeng, and are an indication that Chinese trade presence was perhaps more extensive than had previously been thought.
By the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) there had been several maritime routes from China to Africa. These included China to North Africa, which involved going from China to India, then Aden and finally, to Egypt. There was the China to East Africa route: travelling from China to the Maldives and then to East Africa. Then there was the China to Madagascar route, which had two branches. There was also the route going from China to the Malaba Coast and finally to Madagascar.
These much-frequented routes facilitated both official and private contacts between China and Africa. This had much to do with the emphasis on foreign trade during the Zhao Song Period, and also the Yuan rulers’ public policy to advance foreign trade. In addition, Zhu Siben of the Yuan Dynasty made a map of the African continent at the time. Southern Africa was already included on the map.
Coming full circle
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when Egypt and Ethiopia were frequently visited by Chinese merchants and diplomats, the Somali region was also a popular port of call.
According to Dr Sada Mire, Director of Antiquities in Somaliland, archaeological records of trade relations between Ancient China and the Somali region go back to the middle of the first millennium AD and continue to the present day. Dr Mire’s own excavation in the area has shed light on the nature of interaction between early Islamic kingdoms in the Horn of Africa and the Chinese trade taking place along the Silk Route.
Chinese historical records and chronicles also refer to trade with ancient Somali coastal towns (including modern-day Mogadishu and Berbera). Such trade included goods such as incense from the Somali Red Sea coast, used in the Chinese courts and temples. But trading activities facilitated not only the transmission of goods but also ideas and cultures.
By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China-Africa relations had come full circle. Official contacts had dwindled but private contacts endured. Direct trade gave way to indirect trade. The Chinese had to rely on the publication of several books on African travels and history for exposure to the continent. But it was not until the 19th century, following European nations’ intervention into Africa, that those direct official relations between African countries and China resumed.
Today, China’s relations with Africa may well have implications far beyond the two regions. Dr Ian MacIntosh of Indiana University, USA, who facilitated the Exploring China’s Ancient Links to Africa conference, discovered nearly century-old African coins in Arnhem Land, Australia. The five copper coins, known to be from the Sultanate of Kilwa in Tanzania, are dated well before any known European voyages of discovery in the Pacific region. This fact alone has raised even more questions about China’s early exploration of Africa.
The Chinese engagement with Africa has truly been going on for some time indeed.