China has a long and complex history that is full of cultural exchange and migration. While most people are aware of China’s rich history of interaction with other Asian cultures, few know about its history with African cultures. In fact, in recent years, historians have found more evidence about the rich history of the first Black people in China.
The first recorded presence of Black people in China dates back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), according to Black Past. During this time, the Silk Road was a major trade route that connected China to the rest of the world. It was through this route that the first Black people, known as the “foreign blacks,” arrived in China. These foreigners came from various regions of East Africa, like Ethiopia and Somalia, and were mainly merchants and slaves.
The foreign blacks were considered a curiosity by the Chinese, who had never seen people with dark skin before. Locals would call enslaved Africans Kunlun or “dark-skinned.” They were often depicted in Chinese art and literature as exotic and foreign. However, they were also discriminated against and faced many challenges, including language barriers and social exclusion.
Despite the challenges, some Black people were able to establish themselves in Chinese society. East African merchant Zhengjiani was praised throughout the country for his lucrative trade deals and business skills. The bustling businessman and his crew were honored as the first African foreign merchants to conduct trade with Chinese emperor Shenzong between 1067 and 1085. The famous emperor dubbed Zhengjiani the “Lord Guardian of Prosperity.”
The Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) also saw the arrival of another group of Black people in China. This group was made up of former slaves and soldiers who had been brought to Macau by the Portuguese to trade with the Chinese, according to Cornell Press. These Black people, known as the “Portuguese slaves,” were assigned as “galleys in the trading ships that sailed from Macao to Portugal’s posts in India and Japan; they were also employed in private households or at Jesuit missions in southern China,” the site notes. Some served under private Chinese forces and few managed to escape, later becoming pirates.
After slavery was abolished in 1878, a large majority of the African migrants from Mozambique, Guinea and Angola continued to arrive in Macau, where they served in the Portuguese colonial army as soldiers. They were eventually freed and allowed to settle in China, where they established a community in Guangzhou.
Despite the presence of Black people in China for centuries, their history and contributions have been largely overlooked. It is only in recent years that scholars and researchers have begun to study and document the experiences of Black people in China. But Black people have played an important role in China’s cultural and economic history. While their contributions have often been overlooked, it is important to recognize and celebrate their place in China’s rich history.
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