“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)