In an essay for the New York Times 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that the United States was “founded as a Slavocracy” and that racist ideology was the country’s “original sin.” The 1619 Project’s educational curriculum develops this premise further by drawing a direct link between slavery and the policies, laws and culture of present day America. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests strengthened this narrative and led to a flurry of actions. Statues were removed and enquiry commissions set up to expose institutions’ historic links to slavery. Some activists have even argued that policing originates in the enslavement of black people and the police must therefore be abolished. Human rights organisations, academics and politicians have come out in support of reparations. This is all part of a painful ongoing struggle to come to terms with the legacy of slavery and racism.
Slavery was a brutal system that killed and tortured millions of Africans and left devastating psychological scars on future generations. Yet, the 1619 Project seems to be underpinned by an assumption of American exceptionalism: the allusion to “original sin” suggests that the US is uniquely culpable. This is because all discussions of the slave trade start with European involvement in Africa. Hence, the UN’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade “pays tribute to the millions of Africans forcibly removed from their homelands over a 400-year period, starting in 1501.”
But this approach neglects the historical evidence that Africans were transported off the continent as slaves long before the formation of the early modern western states. More than a thousand years ago, over the course of several centuries, the Chinese empire was part of a slave network whose ships traversed the Indian and Pacific oceans to deliver human cargo from Africa to its shores. This interaction with African slaves solidified the link between dark skin and inferiority in the Chinese mind. Such thinking eventually permeated into present-day China and led to racist attitudes and mistreatment of black people.
African Slavery in China
The first Africans arrived in China as gifts from the King of Kalinga in Java to the Tang emperor in 813 A.D. These young boys and girls were treated as exotic ornaments, no different from the rhinoceros and other animals they were presented alongside. The Chinese called them Zangzi ,a reference to Zanzibar, which at that time described the whole length of the Eastern African coastal region, including Madagascar. Nothing is known about the fate of these child slaves, who disappear from the historical record after a single brief mention.
In later accounts, African slaves turn up as the personal property of Arab merchants residing in Chinese port cities such as Guangzhou, which housed a significant Arab community. The average Guangzhou resident is likely to have encountered Africans as she went about her daily tasks. Eventually, wealthy Chinese also started demanding such slaves in large numbers. This required a supply line beginning from East Africa, traversing the Indian Ocean, stopping in India and finally crossing the Malaccan Straits to reach the port cities of China. The journey took approximately six months and shipwrecks were a common hazard. Many captives must have died along the way. Even those who made it to China alive could still perish suddenly while trying to acclimatize to the new environment. As one Song Dynasty (960–1279 A.D.) government official observed: “If in captivity, they are fed cooked food, after several days they get diarrhoea … For this reason they sometimes fall ill and die.” Although the chronicler attributed these deaths to a change in diet, the cumulative effects of disease and ill treatment on the sea voyage would have taken a toll as well. “If they do not die, one can keep them,” the chronicler writes. The implication is clear: they were solely regarded as chattel.
The Role of Slaves
The Chinese thought that Africans had immense physical strength and so slaves were mainly forced to engage in hard labour, such as transporting heavy goods on their backs and carrying out ship repairs and dock work. Some also served as gate attendants to their rich owners, perhaps functioning as an unusual living decoration to impress visitors. Aside from a few descriptions, we know nothing about their daily lives, but it is highly likely that they led a harsh existence. As the scholar Don J. Wyatt points out in The Blacks of Premodern China, there are no records of Chinese owners questioning the morality of enslavement, freeing their slaves or inquiring into their physical well-being. This is especially striking when one considers that recordkeeping was deeply embedded in the culture, especially if an event was out of the ordinary. Wyatt concludes that the Chinese system of enslavement of Africans was just as oppressive and cruel as slavery in the nineteenth-century United States.
Attitudes Towards Dark Skin
Callousness towards Africans can be traced back to traditional Chinese thinking about complexion. Early Chinese texts refer to darker skinned neighbours to the south, such as the Malays and Khmers, as Kunlun, to mark their physical difference from the Chinese. Not only did the Kunlun look different, but they were also thought to be savage subhuman barbarians, in contrast to the civilised, virtuous and superior Chinese. As the number of Africans in China increased, they too came to be described as Kunlun.
Other names were also applied to them by their owners, such as devil slaves (guinu) and wild men (yeren). To the Chinese, these labels reflected the inferior character that justified their enslavement. As evidence of this inferiority, their simple natures, alien passions and inability to speak the human tongue (i.e. the Chinese language) are often cited in descriptions. In the Confucian worldview, with its stress on hierarchy and the natural order, African slaves were always outside the realm of civilization and so could never attain fully human status.
Descriptions of African slaves vanish after the eleventh century, which makes it difficult for historians to piece together what eventually happened to this population. A combination of factors such as the disruption of the supply chains, disease, death from overwork and a non-existent birth rate could have led to the collapse of the community after a few decades. While the slaves became a forgotten footnote to Chinese history, antipathy towards foreigners—especially those of a darker skin tone—remained, as did the association of blackness with inferiority.
Africans in Modern China
With the opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, Chinese cities begin to see more international visitors. This period was marked by several outbreaks of physical violence directed towards African students in urban centres such as Beijing, Wuhan and Nanjing. Fuelled by xenophobia and racism, hundreds of Chinese university students gathered in mobs to attack the Africans and drive them off campuses. In an echo of the language that was used to describe the slaves of Guangzhou, there were calls to “kill the black devils.” The authorities initially refused to offer adequate protection to the African students and even arrested some of them on the grounds that they had caused the violence. Efforts were also made to cover up the incidents before they could reach the international media and students were threatened to ensure their silence.
This racism also manifested itself during the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, in a widespread suspicion that Africans were responsible for spreading the disease in China. Businesses barred black people from entry, while landlords evicted African tenants, forcing them to sleep on the street. Police and government officials targeted Africans for Covid testing and forced them to quarantine even if their test results were negative. The Chinese government has issued outright denials of this kind of racial discrimination and instead blames the US for spreading fake news. According to the official narrative, racism does not exist in China.
This official narrative influences much of the public conversation about race and the portrayals of black people. For example, a 2018 Lunar New Year TV show, watched by millions of viewers, featured Chinese actors in blackface, African actors in tribal outfits and a black actor dressed as a monkey. In spite of international and some domestic online criticism, the use of blackface was repeated in the 2021 edition of the programme. Some Chinese people defended the show on the basis that the intent was humorous, not discriminatory. A few blame American movies and television shows for exporting negative depictions of black people to China. One Chinese academic who condemned the skit as racist nevertheless argued that “China does not have a history of slavery” and that racism in the west can be “traced to slavery and colonialism due to the dominance of Europeans over Africans.”
The historical amnesia about Chinese slavery thus produces a sense of moral superiority, even among some liberal Chinese thinkers. This self-image of a historically virtuous China might be emotionally comforting, but it prevents honest public self-examination of the causes of anti-African racism in contemporary China. The disturbing truth is that the traditional antipathy to darker skin points to deep-rooted ideas of racial superiority embedded in Chinese culture.
The current political climate in China provides a further disincentive to talking about Chinese slavery and racism. Under President Xi Jinping, China’s story is that of a moral 5,000-year-old civilization, which has always behaved peacefully and cooperated with the rest of the world. Modern Chinese foreign policy, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, is a continuation of this policy of non-exploitation and win-win cooperation with other nations. This is the picture China wants to present to the world and to its own citizens. Inconvenient historical facts, such as the presence of African slaves in China, undermine this narrative and so the Communist Party has intensified its efforts to be the only legitimate source of Chinese history. It is very risky for historians to produce or disseminate scholarship that challenges the approved line.
China’s historical experiences with slavery and racism demonstrate that non-western cultures have their own legacies of cruel treatment and subjugation of people based on skin colour. The “original sin” of slavery is not unique to a specific culture or historical epoch but is an unfortunate constant in every human civilization.
What is different is how modern nations have come to terms with the legacy of slavery. In the west, this history is part of the school curriculum. It is portrayed in books, films and TV series. It permeates culture and forms the backdrop to debates about race. Although the discourse about slavery and race can be acrimonious at times, the important thing is that it forms part of the public conversation.
By contrast, the history of African slavery in China is largely unknown. It is not taught in schools or portrayed in popular culture and the link to anti-black racism is not acknowledged. In effect, the evidence of African slaves has been scrubbed from the Chinese collective memory and replaced with the regime’s sanitized version of history. Outside China, we can still challenge this account. This makes it especially important to broaden discussions of historical slavery beyond the transatlantic slave trade to include the far older Indo-Pacific route as well.