Resident Expert: Arab Crossroads in China

Professor Zvi Ben-Dor Benite with an NYUAD student in Shanghai.

More than 1,000 years ago there were already tens of thousands of Arabs, merchants from Yemen and the Gulf and elsewhere, living in China. This January Term, 11 students from NYU Abu Dhabi followed those early migrants to discover the impressive depth and breadth of the history connecting China to the Arab world. They are in Shanghai taking a course called Arab Crossroads in China. Salaam caught up with their teacher, Professor Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, to learn more. 

Really? "Tens of thousands" of Arabs lived in cities in China in the 9th and 10th centuries of the common era?
It's all very well documented, in both Arabic and Chinese records. There were huge colonies.

The great Arab expansion of the 7th and 8th centuries made the Indian Ocean into an "Arabian sea." That ocean's predictable currents made voyages easier. The trade routes, already old, became dominated by Arab and some Persian traders.

At that time the longest single frontier of the Arab empire was with Central Asia. Arab traders went to China by land over the "silk road" to the old inland capital of Chang'an (now Xi'an) but many more went by sea to Canton and to Quanzhou, in modern Fujian province.

That city was also known as Zaytoon — the Arab word for olive. By the 10th century, in the Song dynasty period, Zaytoon was fully Arab. The mayor and the governor were Arabs. There are numerous tombstones with Arabic names.

The merchants based there were not allowed into the hinterland; they had to stay on the coast. But they were allowed to run the trade, in perfumes, spices, gold, jewelry, different types of wood, and other products. There was even a Persian garrison there for a time. And we've found documents identifying somebody as a "fifth-generation temporary sojourner." Marco Polo himself visited Zaytoon; he writes a lot about the Arabs in China — with certain degree of hostility.

So the Arab and Muslim connection with China is older than some people realize?
Of course there are lots of Muslims in China today, but it goes back 13 centuries, or more. The great admiral Zheng He, who sailed all around the Indian Ocean and visited Mecca in the 14th century, was a Muslim. There's even an old rumor — I don't believe it, but it's been around since the 16th century, at least — that some Ming dynasty rulers at that time were secret Muslims.

And in Canton there's a cemetery — unfortunately we won't be able to visit it — where some Muslims say an important companion of the Prophet Mohammed is buried. This is historically not true, but this beautiful spot has become a shrine, a site of pilgrimage for Muslims from the region; basically if you can't afford to go on the Hajj, you go there.

And you're teaching NYU Abu Dhabi students about all this, at NYU Shanghai this term?
I've got 11 students from NYUAD, including one Emirati national.

Almost 20 years ago, at UCLA, I started studying travelogues and reports of this connection between the Arab world and the Chinese world. There are wonderful accounts, especially one compiled in the 10th century from sailors' and traders' reports from the 8th century onward. So when NYUAD asked me to teach a course for them, teaching this material in Shanghai was the were obvious choice.

That work I mentioned, called Reports on China and India, compiled by Abu Hassan al-Sirafi, was translated into French and then English in the early 18th century. Until 2014, when I first taught this course, I was using that old translation. But NYUAD and NYU Press run a project called the Library of Arabic Literature to translate Arabic texts into English, and this semester I'm teaching with the new translation from that project. I participated, but it's really the work of the scholar and travel writer Tim Macintosh-Smith, who's done an enviable job.

I'm also teaching a great deal about the history of the Indian Ocean, which in historiography has been pushed aside, so to speak, by the Atlantic and then the Pacific. But now the world's focus is coming to be on the Indian Ocean, because of the growth and strategic concerns of India, China, Pakistan, Iran … even the U.S. Navy is shifting more resources to the Indian Ocean.

It sounds as if your students have a lot to learn.
There's a three-and-a-half-hour class each day, and then the reading. We started with a crash course in Chinese history and in Indian Ocean trade, then we're studying that travelogue. There's a lot about trade and commerce, so the course also makes sense for business majors. And we're traveling. There are many sites of old Muslim communities in China, and we will visit one, a four-hour drive north of Shanghai at Yangzhou, one of the earliest Muslim sites in China.

Also I'll be explaining the place of China in the Arab and Muslim geographical imagination. The Arab expansion eastward actually stopped in 751, with the battle of Talas on the border of modern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Abbasid army won, actually, but their supply lines were too extended to go any farther. So after that China became the ultimate frontier in the Arab imagination. A lot of the Sinbad stories, and the Arabian Nights tales, for example, are set in China. So we'll look at that.

Do you expect to keep giving this course in the future?
As long as there's interest in it. Next year I hope we can give it in Abu Dhabi, as well as Shanghai.

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is Professor of History, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at NYU.

Learn more about The Library of Arabic Literature.