While reviewing a Chinese-English glossary of tributes and returned gifts found in SEACS’ Transactions No. 7 (1979) in an article written by Grace Wong on “The tributary trade between China and Southeast Asia and the place of Porcelain in this trade during the period of the Song Dynasty in China” I found a strange entry: 崑仑 奴 [kūnlúnnú] with the translation next to it of “Kun-lun slave”. Seeing as it was in a list of trade articles that began with agate and ‘alloy of lead and tin’ and ended with ‘wine vessels, yak, and Xi-ge (unidentified but a type of aromatics)’, I was curious. It took a search engine only five seconds to turn up both a picture and a short article on the black slaves known as Kunlun slaves from The Palace Museum’s website. To paraphrase, in addition to referring to a western range of mountains, the term was also used in ancient times to mean ‘black’ and during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) was used to refer to all dark-skinned foreigners. According to the Palace Museum article, “Most of these people came from a vast area including Africa and islands in and around Southeast Asia.

Pottery figurine of a Kunlun Slave, The Palace Museum, 24 cm high

“Song dynasty writer Zhou Qufei describes these people in Notes from the Land beyond the Passes (Lingwai Daida, Vol. 3). ‘On the Southwestern Sea is found the kunlun State of Cengqi. The islands were inhabited by many savages. They have skin as black as lacquer and curly hair. Tempted by food, they would come in the thousands. The Cengqi natives thus captured were sold as fannu (foreign slaves).’ After being shipped to the Tang dynasty, some were taught music and dance in order to provide entertainment. Others served as slaves. Thus the term kunlun slavery appears.” The little ceramic figurine in the Palace Museum collection clearly shows a non-Chinese individual wearing a Tang-era long-sleeved and belted robe.

Another website informs us that “African slavery in China peaked during the Tang and Song dynasties (960 A.D. to 1279 A.D.), but the number of African slaves taken to China during this 608-year period is unclear. By this point Chinese perceptions of African Kunlun servants ranged from strong and mysterious to frightening. The Kunlun in the Tang Dynasty era were portrayed in stories of the period as heroic, resourceful, and ironically culturally Chinese. Most Chinese during this period, however, unless they were very wealthy, had little contact with African slaves, perhaps explaining the differing views of the Kunlun….” But unlike their role as entertainers in the Tang court, this source states that “Most Kunlun slaves in China lived in Canton Province. They were generally viewed as a displaced people who lacked the ability to adapt to the Chinese environment. They were also described as savages with unintelligible speech.”

If this piece was part of a set of mingqi or tomb wares, it is the first I have seen and I hope never to see more.

Contributed by Patricia Bjaaland Welch (May 2022)