CHINESE-IRANIAN RELATIONS vii. Persian Settlements in Southeastern China during the T’ang, Sung, and Yuan Dynasties

Chinese authorities granted the foreign merchant communities in the major port cities a certain amount of autonomy in internal affairs and that they regulated themselves according to patterns familiar in their homelands. 



vii. Persian Settlements in Southeastern China during the T’ang, Sung, and Yuan Dynasties 

The ports along the southeastern coast of China had a long history of trade with Persia before the coming of Islam (see i, above). In addition, there is considerable evidence for the settlement of early Muslims, including Persians, in China. In 130-31/748 the Chinese monk Jian Zhen, attempting to sail northeast from Yang-zhou (for­merly Kiang-tu) to Japan, was blown by a typhoon to Zhen-zhou (modern Ai-cheng, Ya-cheng), on the south­ern coast of Hainan island in the Gulf of Tonkin, where he learned that “Feng Ruo-fang, the chief of Wan-an-zhou [the modern district of Ling-shui], seized two or three Persian merchant ships every year, taking the cargo for himself and making the crew his servants. They were kept in an area three days’ journey going from north to south and five days’ journey going from east to west, where villages eventually developed” (Takakusu, pp. 461-62). It was through the Persians that the Chinese had first come to know of Arabia and the Arabs (Da-shi < Pers. Tāzī, referring to Arabs of the tribe of Ṭaī; Pelliot, I, pp. 44-45 no. 26; cf. EI1, IV, pp. 598-99, s.v. Tādjīk), and, as Persia itself subsequently became part of the Muslim empire, Persians and Arabs are usually not differentiated in Chi­nese historical documents; sometimes they are designated simply as “foreign merchants” (shang-hu) or “guests” (fan-­ke).

On the mainland Yang-zhou in the north and Canton (Guang-zhou) in the south were important trading cities under the T’ang dynasty (618-907). Both must have had large Arabic- and Persian-speaking populations, for it is reported in Chinese sources that in 141/758 Arabs and Persians rioted in Guang-zhou, looting warehouses and burning homes (Liu, chap. 10, p. 253); two years later, when Yang-zhou was looted by the army of the rebel Tian Sheng-gong, thousands of Arab and Persian traders were killed (Liu, chap. 110, p. 3313). The port city of Quan-zhou (Ch’üan-chou, see below) was founded in 711 c.e. (Pelliot, II, p. 585) on Quan-zhou bay, 10 km east of the present city site in southeastern Fu-jian (Fukien) province on the Formosa strait. In the 10th century it was renamed Zi-tong, which was transcribed in later Arabic and Persian sources as Zaytūn, a word that coincidentally means “olive” (Pelliot, II, pp. 585-97). Recent discovery there of an inscribed stone containing the word Zaytūn, dated 1322, has confirmed the identification of Zaytūn with Quan-zhou (Chen et al., p. 38, fig. 46).

It seems that the Chinese authorities granted the foreign merchant communities in the major port cities a certain amount of autonomy in internal affairs and that they regulated themselves according to patterns familiar in their homelands. In 219/834 the T’ang emperor Wen Zong (r. 827-40) issued an edict providing for protection of foreign “guests” in the provinces of Guang-dong (Kwangtung), Fu-jian, and Yang-zhou (Dong, chap. 75, p. 785). A few years later, in 237/851, the merchant Solaymān, from Sīrāf on the Persian Gulf coast, noted that “in Guang-zhou, which is the center for merchants, the emperor of China has appointed a Muslim to decide conflicts among the Muslims who have been permitted to enter the country” (ed. Sauvaget, p. 7; cf. tr. Ferrand, p. 38). Abū Zayd, also from Sīrāf, recorded that 120,000 Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Mazdean (bai huo jiao, lit. “fire worshipers”) traders established in Guang-zhou were massacred when the forces of the rebel Huang Chao ravaged the city in 264/878 (Reinaud, p. 63; Solaymān, tr. Ferrand, p. 76). In 1171 the Chinese Zhu Yu mentioned (chap. 2, p. 19) a foreign residential quarter (fan-fang) in the densely populated area of Guang-zhou frequented by foreign merchants.

Under the Sung (960-1280) and Yuan (1280-1368) dynasties Quan-zhou eclipsed the other Chinese port cities (Chen, 1982b, pp. 116-22), becoming one of the world’s great commercial ports. From documents in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, and Western languages it is clear that between the 6th/12th and 8th/14th centuries Quan-zhou was in contact with more than seventy foreign countries and regions. A large community of foreigners, of many religious beliefs, was also settled there, Muslims being the most numerous and active among them. The earliest mosque appears to have been Masjed al-Aṣḥāb (mosque of the companions), which, according to a restoration notice of 710/1310, was originally constructed in 400/1009 (Chen et al., pp. 4-5, fig. 7). According to another restoration inscription, in Chinese (“Chong-li qing-jing-si bei-ji” Re-erection of the stele in Qing-jing­-si mosque), Najīb Moẓher-al-Dīn, a man of indeterminate origin who had come on a trading ship from Sīrāf, built the Qing-jing-si mosque in southern Quan-zhou in 1131; the mosque was renovated in 1350, though later it was de­stroyed (Chen et al., pp. 13-18, fig. 21). A 6th/12th-­century Chinese document entitled “Quan-zhou dong-­ban zang fan-shang ji” (Note on the cemetery of the foreigners in Dong-ban of Quan-zhou), by Lin Zhi-qi (1111-76), is the earliest in which a Muslim cemetery at Quan-zhou is mentioned: In 1162-63 a native of the city who was descended from a man from Sīrāf sponsored the construction of a large cemetery at Dong-ban, to provide for Muslim merchants and travelers who died in Quan­-zhou (Lin, vol. 15).

In 747/1346 the Arab traveler Ebn Baṭṭūṭa visited Quan-zhou, Guang-zhou, Hang-zhou (Hangchow), and other cities. Although Chinese documents do not contain information on the ethnic origins of officials of foreign quarters, he mentioned several prominent Persians living in Quan-zhou: Kamāl-al-Dīn ʿAbd-Allāh Eṣfahānī, šayḵ-al-Eslām (dean of Muslim religious leaders); Tāj-al-Dīn Ardawīlī (Ardabīlī), qāżi’l-Moslemīn (Muslim judge); the prosperous merchant Šaraf-al-Dīn Tabrīzī; and Borhān-al-Dīn Kāzerūnī (Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, pp. 252-53), a shaikh of the Kāzarūnīya order of Sufis. Muslim merchants and navigators customarily made pious offerings to this order in hopes that the blessing associated with the tomb of the founder, Abū Eṣhāq Ebrāhīm Kāzarūnī (352-426/963-1033), would protect them while crossing the sea. According to one later Chinese source, Borhān-­al-Dīn was a Persian who had settled in Quan-zhou in 1312-13, where he was appointed imam of the Qing-jing-­si mosque (Huang, vol. 75). When Ebn Baṭṭūṭa met him he was shaikh of a zāwīa (retreat) outside the city and responsible for collecting the pious offerings from trav­elers on behalf of his order (Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, p. 253). In 1349, when he was said to be 120 years old, Borhān-al-Dīn was chosen šayḵ-al-Eslām in Quan-zhou and took the lead in obtaining funds for renovation of the Qing-jing-si mosque (Chen et al., pp. 13-18, fig. 21). He died in 1370 (Min-shu chao, p. 29).

Knowledge about the Muslim communities in south-eastern China has been confirmed by successive discov­eries of tombstones with carved Arabic and Persian inscriptions, many of which include nesbas (attributive names) referring to places of origin in Persia and Central Asia (see Table 38). In 1982-83 several Muslim cemeteries were discovered at Ai-cheng and along the coast of southern Ling-shui; among the tombstones were a num­ber with Arabic and Persian inscriptions from the 8th/14th century or slightly earlier. Most of the inscriptions are in cursive script of various kinds, but one Koranic fragment ([taḥte]ha’l-anhār ḵāledīna fīhā abadan raża’llāho ʿanho[m], a passage that recurs several times (e.g., 5:119, 58:22), is written in a pastiche of angular interlaced and cursive scripts, each reflecting models characteristic of the Islamic heartlands in the 5-6th/11-12th centuries (Wu, no. 11). The largest number of tombstones of the 5-8th/11-14th centuries, more than 200 pieces, has been found in Quan-zhou. Most of the inscriptions include dates from the Islamic calendar in Arabic; one date, 729/1329, was also written in Persian according to the Chinese calendar (Chen et al., p. 22, fig. 50). In addition to place names, the inscriptions attest the following titles belonging to Per­sians or Central Asians in China: Arabic shaikh (Chen et al., p. 48, no. 64), amir (Chen et al., pp. 32-33, fig. 37; Ma, no. 2), sayyed (descendant of the Prophet; Chen et al., nos. 37, 160, 62); Persian esfahsālār (general; Chen et al., nos. 35, 37, 160, 161); and Turkish ḵātūn (lady; Chen et al., no 45).

Separate foreign quarters continued to function in Chinese trading cities until the end of the Yuan dynasty. In the third quarter of the 8th/14th century the Muslims in Quan-­zhou organized an army of several thousand men, which joined other local troops in rebellion against Yuan forces in Fu-zhou (Foochow) between 753/1357 and 767/1366. In Chinese documents this army is called yi-si-ba-xi, a transliteration of Persian espāh (army; Nu-er,1983b). The rebels were defeated by the Yuan general Chen You-ding, and most of the troops were killed. This event had a negative impact on Quan-zhou and on exchanges between the Middle East and China (Chen, 1982b). Those Muslims who escaped the bloody aftermath of the espāh rebellion fled to remote places and often kept their iden­tities hidden.

It was not until the Ming emperor Zhu Di (r. 1402-24) chose the Muslim admiral Zheng He to lead his great western fleet in 1403 that relations between Persia and Quan-zhou in particular were resumed; Zheng He recruited Muslim navigators and interpreters in the city. The fleet sailed to Southeast Asia and the Indian ocean seven times in the period 1403-35. On the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh voyages (1414-31) it reached Hormoz; at the same time some missions from Hormoz visited China (Zheng, pp. 280-341). A stone inscription found in the sacred tombs of Ling-shan (Miracle hill) in the eastern suburbs of Quan-zhou attests that Zheng He made a pilgrimage there in 1417, before his fifth voyage west (Chen et al., pp. 96-97, fig. 206).

The first Muslim family to return to the city after the political situation had improved was the Xia family, descended from Borhān-al-Dīn Kāzerūnī; since then the position of imam at the Masjed al-Aṣḥāb has been passed down through this line. According to a genealogical manuscript dated 1594, the Ding family, now consisting of more than 10,000 members living in the township of Chen-dai, 10 km south of the city, claims descent from Sayyed-e Ajall Šams-al-Dīn Boḵārī (Ding). In the village of Bai-qi, 10 km east of the city, the Guo family, also numbering more than 10,000 people, is believed to be descended from Ebn Tūr, known as Daqqāq (Chen et al., pp. 102-03, fig. 211), a Persian Muslim who had settled in Quan-zhou during the Yuan period, according to Guo genealogical records, in which his son is mentioned as an ancestor of the family. There is no clear genealogical record of the Li family in the city, though Li Nu, elder son of Li Lü, visited Hormoz as a missionary in 1376, married a Persian girl there, and brought her back to Quan-zhou (Li). Since the 15th century the Muslims of Quan-zhou, as a minority group within Han society, have been largely assimilated, with the exception of several families closely connected to the Masjed al-Aṣḥāb, who have remained faithful to Islam (Chen, 1989).



Chen Da-sheng, “Quan-zhou ai-ha-ma-de mu-bei jian-zai-tong ming-chen xiao-kao” (A tentative inquiry into the inscriptions on Aḥmad’s tombstone in Quan-zhou and into the origin of Zaytūn), Fu-jian shi-da xue-bao (Bulletin of Fu-jian teachers’ college) 4, 1982a, pp. 116-20.

Idem, “Quan-zhou yi-si­-lan jiao-pai yu yuan-mo yi-si-ba-xi zhang-luan xin-zhi shi-tan” (A tentative inquiry into the Islamic sects in Quan-zhou and the espāh disturbance toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty), Hai-jiao-shi yan-jiu (Research into the history of China’s overseas communications) 4, 1982b, pp. 113-19.

Idem, “The Proselytism and Reconversion of the Muslim Descendants and the Function Displayed by the Mosques in Quan-zhou during the Ming Dynasty to the Republic of China (1368-1949),” in proceedings from the symposium on The Legacy of Islam in China, Cambridge, Mass., 1989, pp. 78-99.

Idem, Chen En-ming, and Zheng De-chao, Quan-zhou yi-si-lan jiao shi-ke (Islamic inscriptions in Quan-zhou), Fu-zhou, 1984.

Ding Yan-xia, “Gan-ji jiu-wen” (Recollection of the past), in Din He-nian, ed., Chen-jiang Yan-gou-li Ding-shi Zu-pu (Genealogy of the Ding lineage of Yan-gou-li in Chen-jiang), Quan-zhou, 1885.

Dong Gao (1740-1818), ed., Quan Tang-wen (Corpus of T’ang literature, in 1,000 chapters), 1814; photo­graphic repr., Peking, 1983.

Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, Mohaḏḏab reḥlat Ebn Baṭṭūṭa, ed. A. ʿAwāmerī and M. A. Jād al-Mawālī, Cairo, 1933.

Huang Ren, Quan-zhou fu zhi (Annals of Quan-zhou), Quan-zhou, 1763.

K. Jitsuzo, “On P’u Shou-k’eng, Superintendant of the Trading Ships Office at Ch’üan-chow” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko, 1928, pp. 1-79, 1935, pp. 1-104.

Li Guang-qi, “Li-shi shi-xi tu” (Genealogi­cal list of the Li lineage), in Rong-shah Li-shi zu-pu (Genealogy of the Li lineage of Rong-shan), ms., Quan-­zhou, 1426.

Lin Zhi-qi, Zhuo-zhai wen-ji (A collection of Zhuo-zhai; 1163), in Si-ku quan-shu (Complete li­brary in four sections), pt. 6, vol. 3. Liu Xu (887-946), ed., Jiu Tang shu (History of the Former T’ang dynasty, in 200 chaps.), Beijing, 1975.

Ma Zhi-xiang, “Hang-zhou chu-tu de yi-si-lan-jiao xian-xian mu bei ta-pian” (Rubbings of the tombstone inscriptions of Muslim sages excavated in Hang-zhou), Yu-gong (Journal of historical geography) 5/11, Beijing, 1936 (unpaginated insert preceding p. 359).

R. H. Mathews, Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary, rev. Amer. ed., Cam­bridge, Mass., 1943.

Min-shu chao (A manuscript of notes on Fu-jian province), Fu-zhou, 1629.

Nu-er, “Yang-zhou yi-si-lan-jiao bei-wen xin-zheng” (New data from Islamic inscriptions found in Yang-zhou), Hai-jiao shi yan-jiu (Journal of research into the history of China’s overseas communications) 5, 1983a, pp. 105-09.

Idem, “Yi-si-ba-xi,” (Espāh), Quan-zhou yi-si-­lan-jiao yan-jiu lun-wen xuan (Symposium on Quan-­zhou Islam), Fu-zhou, 1983b, pp. 48-52.

P. Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo, 3 vols., Paris, 1959-73.

M. Reinaud, tr., Relations des voyages faits par les arabes et les persans dans l’Inde et à la Chine dans le IXe siècle de l’ère chrétienne, Paris, 1845.

Abū Saʿd ʿAbd-al-­Karīm b. Moḥammad Samʿānī (506-62/1113-66), Ketāb al-ansāb, ed. D. S. Margoliouth, Leiden and London, 1912.

E. H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand. A Study of T’ang Exotics, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1963.

Solaymān al-Tājer Sīrāfī, Selselat al-tawārīk², ed. L. Langlès, Paris, 1811; repr. and tr. in M. Reinaud, Relations des voyages faits par les arabes et les persans dans l’Inde et à la Chine dens le IXe siècle de l’ère chrétienne, Paris, 1845; tr. G. Ferrand, Voyage du marchand arabe Sulaymân en Inde et en Chine rédigé en 85l suivie de remarques par Abû Zayd Ḥasan (vers 916), Paris, 1922; ed. and tr. J. Sauvaget, ʾAḫbār aṣ-Ṣīn wa’l-Hind. Relation de la Chine et de l’Inde redigée en 851, Paris, 1948.

J. Takakusu, tr., “Le voyage de Kanshin en Orient (742-754) par Aomi-no Mabito Genkai (779),” Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient 28, Paris, 1928, pp. 1-41, 441-72; 29, 1929, pp. 47-62.

Wu You-xiong, “Fu-jian Quan-zhou Qing-jing-si fa-xian yi bi yi-si-lan-­jiao bei”(An Islamic gravestone discovered at the Qing-­jing-si mosque in Quan-zhou, Fu-jian), Kao-gu (Archeology) 6, 1986, pp. 526-30.

Zheng Yi-jun, Lun Zheng-­he xia xi-yang (Study on Zheng He’s sailing to South-east Asia and the Indian ocean), Beijing, 1985.

Zhu Yu, Ping-zhou ke-tan (Stories from Ping-zhou, 1117, in 3 chaps.), Chang-sha, 1941; photographic repr., Beijing, 1975.

Zhuang Wei-ji and Chen Da-sheng, “Fu­zhou xin fa-xian de yuan ming shi-dai yi-si-lan-jiao shi-­si” (Islamic remains from the Yuan and Ming periods discovered recently on the outskirts of Fu-zhou City, Fu-jian), Kao-gu 3, Beijing, 1982, pp. 284-88.

Table 38. Persian and Central Asian Nesbas found in funerary inscriptions in China.

(Chen Da-Sheng)

Originally Published: December 15, 1991

Last Updated: October 14, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 4, pp.443-446