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Volume 26, Number 4July/August 1975

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The China Trade

"... My soul longed for change and the delights of travel, and I was tempted anew by the love of skillful trading... I bought a quantity of rich merchandise and took it from Baghdad to Basrah, where I found a great ship already filled with honest, goodhearted merchants of the kind who can live contentedly together and render aid when aid is needed. I embarked with them in this vessel, and we at once set sail, with the blessing of Allah upon our voyage ..."

Written by Nancy Jenkins
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

Thus Sindbad, that peripatetic Baghdad merchant, began his third voyage, cruising down the Arabian Gulf past Bahrain, through the now famous Strait of Hormuz, putting into Muscat for a supply of fresh water before setting forth into the perils, mysteries and terrors that confronted the intrepid sailors of the Arabian Sea.

Sindbad, of course, is a legendary figure and the lands to which he sailed are as mythical as the Roc, the great bird that carried him off in its talons. But the stories are not without a basis in fact. As early as the 10th century A.D. the tales of his voyages, mishaps and miraculous rescues were circulating widely among the traders and seamen of the Arabian Gulf ports, men who had witnessed things nearly as strange and wondrous in their own journeys to the East.

European tradition credits Marco, Maffeo and Niccolo Polo, the Venetian adventurers, with opening the trade route to China. In fact, more than 500 years before the Polos' expeditions to the court of Kublai Khan, Arab tradesmen were engaged in regular traffic with the East, exchanging the aromatics and perfumes of Arabia for Chinese silks, porcelains and, later on, tea.

Even earlier—from at least the first century A.D.—merchants from Saba and the towns of Aden and Muscat on the Arabian coast had been trading with India, riding the monsoons straight across the Arabian Sea to the Malabar Coast and then cruising down to Ceylon to meet the China trade. To feed Rome's insatiable appetite for Chinese silk, Arab merchants often carried cargoes of it from Ceylon up the Red Sea to Egypt where it was carried overland to Alexandria and then transshipped to Rome.

En route to Egypt, according to Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a handbook for merchants and pilots written about this time, the Arabs apparently stopped off at the port of Mocha in Yemen. There, according to the author, a Greek living in Egypt, the whole place was "crowded with Arab ship-owners and seafaring men, and is busy with the affairs of commerce; for they carry on a trade with the far-side coast [Africa] and with Baryzaga [on the west coast of India], sending their own ships there."

By the sixth century, entrepreneurs from all over Asia, Africa and India were meeting, haggling and trading in Ceylon, but it was the Arabs, according to the geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes, who controlled the sea trade between Ceylon and the Far East, as they did between Persia and Egypt at the same time—a monopoly that would only increase with the Arab conquests and the spread of Islam.

The first news of Islam was not brought to China by Arab traders, however, but by an embassy from Yesdegerd, the last Sassanian king of Persia, who in A.D. 638 appealed to the emperor of China for help against the conquering Arabs. The emperor permitted Persian refugees to settle within China's borders, but refused military help. Later, four different embassies arrived in China from Byzantium, obviously with the same idea, but again the Chinese refused.

At the time of the great Islamic expansion, China was ruled by the brilliant T'ang emperor T'ai Tsung, whose capital was in Ch'ang An (modern Sian ), and whose 250-year dynasty provided the greatest years in China's endless history. But although the largest and most civilized country in the world at the time, China avoided conflict with the Arabs even when, a century after the death of the Prophet, Arab troops invaded Turkestan, converted many of the tribesmen there and brought Islam to China's back door. Ignoring the Turks who, like the Persians and Byzantines, appealed for help, the emperor was more disposed to accept Arab peace proposals which came in an embassy from the Caliph Walid in A.D. 713. The Arab ambassador was courteously received at the court in Ch'ang An, despite his proud refusal to perform the traditional Chinese k'o t'ou —kowtow—to the emperor. He prostrated himself, he explained, not to earthly kings but only to God.

In fact, with one disastrous exception, the T'ang emperors did nothing to hinder the Arab advance. The exception was the Battle of Talas in the Ili Valley near Tashkent, when Chinese troops confronted what they called the "Black Cloth Arabs" of the new Abbasid Caliphate and were routed. It was the only time in history that Chinese and Arabs did formal battle with each other and even then peaceful relations were quickly re-established. When the grotesquely fat court favorite An Lu-Shan rebelled against the T'ang emperor, the Caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur rushed some 4,000 mercenary troops to China to help put down the rebellion. As a result, the grateful emperor gave the victorious mercenaries permission to settle in China as permanent residents. Many did and although they took Chinese wives, held firmly to Islam, thus founding, most historians agree, today's huge Islamic community in China.

In the great Hsin T'ang Shu, the official history of the T'ang emperors, we find the earliest recorded description of the Arabs in Chinese literature. The Chinese called them Ta Shih, from the Persian Tarzi, meaning an Arab. "The men have large noses and black beards," wrote the historian. "They carry silver mounted swords on a silver girdle. They drink no wine and have no music. The women are white and veil the face when they leave the house. Five times daily they worship the God of Heaven. Every seventh day their king seated on high addresses his subjects, saying: 'Those who die in battle will be. reborn in Paradise. Those who fight bravely will obtain happiness.' Therefore their men are very valiant soldiers." He goes on to describe the land of the Ta Shih, and, in a curiously distorted story, how Muhammad received the Word: "A man of the western peoples, a Persian subject, was guarding flocks in the mountains near Medina. A lion-man said to him: 'To the west of this mountain in a cave there is a sword and black stone with white lettering. Whoever obtains these two objects will reign over mankind.' The man went to the place and found everything as he had been told. The letters upon the stone meant 'Arise.'

"... Afterwards the Ta Shih became very powerful," the historian concludes. "They destroyed Persia, defeated the king of Byzantium, invaded northern India, attacked Samarkand and Tashkent. From the southwestern sea their empire reached to the western borders of our territory."

During those years Arab trade with the Far East was mostly in the hands of the southern Arabs. But when, in the eighth century, the Caliph Mansur established his Abbasid capital at Baghdad, trading activity shifted to the Arabian Gulf. From the union of Arab vigor and the Persian taste for splendor came flourishing trading centers like Basra at the head of the Gulf and Siraf on the Iranian coast. Above all there was Baghdad, where the flow of such precious goods as gold, ivory, wood and gems from India, Chinese silks and fine porcelains soon made it the most important commercial center in the world.

From Basra the Arabs, in lateen-rigged double-ended vessels, now known in English as "dhows," headed out to Quilon on the Malabar Coast and then to Ceylon in time to catch the summer monsoon and speed across the often treacherous Bay of Bengal, past the Nicobar Islands, through the Malacca Straits and into the South China Sea. From there it was a quick, if risky, 30 days' run up to the main trading station on the Pearl River at Canton (Arabic Khanfu).

The dhows were extremely flimsy craft, yet their very flimsiness gave them a flexibility and ease of handling that was denied to larger, more sturdy vessels. Their most distinctive feature was the fact that the hull planks were not nailed but stitched together with hemp or twine. Travelers in the Gulf today can still see some examples of these "sewn" boats, though they are fast dying out. Oddly enough, one of the few places in the world where a similar construction exists is in Vietnam's Tonkin Gulf. There too the craft are disappearing, but the river sampans of Hué in the 1950's still had stitched hulls with no ribbing—an echo perhaps of the fact that Haiphong, north of Hué, was one of the regular ports of call on the Arab route to China.

At the best times, the trip from Basra to Canton took 120 days of straight sailing or six months altogether, counting stopovers to trade and reprovision along the way. Not everyone aimed for Canton. Once through the Straits of Malacca, some sailed down the Sumatra coast to Java and Bali. Other traders put into the ports of the Champa Kingdom of Vietnam.

The Chams, as well as being traders, were shameless pirates who derived much of their income from constant attacks on Arab shipping in the Tonkin Gulf. It was but one of the many hazards that beset the China trade. Pirates out of Socotra, an island off the Hadhramaut, prowled the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea to Ceylon, and in later years Arab vessels carried special troops of marines to hurl Greek fire at their attackers. Those that survived, or bought off, the pirate threat might still disappear without a trace, sunk to the bottom of the sea, wrecked on some lonely, hostile coast, or blown completely off course into the Pacific where, the Chinese believed, the drain spout of the world's ocean sucked the unwary sailor into oblivion. The ninth-century merchant Sulaiman, writing his Akhbar as-Sin wal-Hind, on which many of Sindbad's yarns are based, reports that "the goods of China are rare; and among the causes of their rarity is the frequent outbreak of fires at Khanfu .... Another cause is that the ships are sometimes wrecked on the way out or on the way back, or plundered, or forced to make long stops and sell their goods in non-Arab countries."

Under the T'ang emperors, Canton was the main Arab port in China, but with the Sung dynasty, which succeeded the T'ang in A. D. 960, trading stations were opened up at Ch'uan Chou in the southeastern province of Fukien, and at Hang Chou near present-day Shanghai. No figures exist for the Arab population of these port towns, but it must have been considerable. Sulaiman says that the Muslim community of Canton had its own mosques and bazaars and a qadi who administered Koranic, not Chinese, law to settle disputes among them. "When the seamen come in from the sea," Sulaiman wrote, "the Chinese seize their goods and put them in the customs sheds; there they guard them securely for six months until the last seaman has come in. After that, three-tenths of every consignment is taken as a duty, and the remainder is delivered to the merchants. Whatever the Government requires, it takes at the highest price and pays for promptly and fairly."

Some idea of the foreign population can be gained from the report that 120,000 Arabs, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were massacred in Canton in a rebellion against the T'ang dynasty. Abu Zaid of Siraf described the xenophobia of the rebels: "They raised their hands to oppress the foreign merchants who had come to their country; and to these events was joined the rise of oppression and transgression in the treatment of the Arab shipmasters and captains. They imposed illegal burdens on the merchants and appropriated their wealth, and made lawful for themselves what had not been practiced formerly in any of their dealings. Wherefore God Almighty removed every blessing from them and the sea became inaccessible to them, and by the power of the Blessed Creator who governs the world disaster reached the captains and pilots in Siraf and Oman."

The T'ang dynasty never recovered from the rebellion and the equitable system described by Sulaiman was destroyed. And meanwhile, the political center of the Arab world had shifted from Baghdad to Cairo. As a result the Gulf trade began to dwindle. The determined Arab seamen, however, were no more dissuaded by political revolution and massacre than they had been by shipwreck and piracy. They shifted their base of operations from the Gulf back to Aden and the Red Sea and their main market from Baghdad to Cairo where the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt were becoming the intermediaries for the European trade with the Far East. As no Europeans had yet penetrated Chinese territory, the merchants of Venice and Genoa flocked to Alexandria to buy, for the first time since the heyday of Rome, the treasures of the East: silks, spices, porcelains and, most important, gold.' Fragments of the elegant celadon of the Sung dynasty, with its characteristic pale greenish-blue and off-white glazes, are scattered all along the Arab trade route from Hong Kong to Zanzibar. And it was probably about this time that a sculptor in the town of Raqqa on the Euphrates saw a Chinese figurine that inspired him to create the seated horseman in the Damascus museum who, with his sword uplifted against a dragon, looks as though he had stepped right out of a Chinese tomb—not so refined, perhaps, as the Chinese original, but a figure of great vitality and character.

It was about this time too that the Inspector of Foreign Trade of Ch'uan Chou wrote a most useful geography called All the Foreigners (or perhaps All the Barbarians would be a more accurate translation) which was based almost entirely on information from Arab merchants and captains. He described Mecca, "the place where the Buddha Ma-hia-wu (Muhammad) was born," and the "Feast of the Prophet's Birthday," and he had been told about Egypt and the rising of the Nile: "With the beginning of cultivation, (the river) rises day by day. Then it is that an official is appointed to watch the river and to await the highest water level, when he summons the people, who then plough and sow their fields. When they have had enough water, the river returns to its former level." He lists the products that the Arabs brought to China, among them pearls, ivory, rhinoceros horns, frankincense, ambergris, cloves, soft gold brocades and "foreign satins." Not all of these were products of Arab countries, of course, but they were all transported in Arab ships and traded by Arab merchants, who had by now grown so numerous in China that they had their own "last resting-place for the abandoned bodies of foreign traders."

The Sung Dynasty brought centuries of peace and prosperity to China but in the 13th century the Mongols appeared, the Southern Sung Dynasty met its end and the great port towns of China were sacked and razed. With pirates from the Tonkin Gulf also terrorizing the South China coast the market for luxury goods waned. Trade continued sporadically, with Arab merchants meeting their Chinese counterparts in Ceylon and Malaya, but the heyday of the Arab trade with China was over.

Two hundred years later, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened a new trade route between Europe and the East, effectively ending more than 700 years of Arab domination of the Eastern trade. Ironically, though, it was an Arab seaman who guided him on the last leg of his voyage: Ahmad ibn Majid, a great navigator, compiler of an invaluable guide for seamen and, above all, a seaman in the tradition of Sindbad.

Nancy Jenkins studied archeology in Beirut and now free-lances from Hong Kong.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the July/August 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1975 images.