Ancient Sino-Arabian Cultural Communication: Highlighting the Tang Dynasty

In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative. This initiative aims to revive the historic Silk Road and establish new global commercial, cultural, and humanitarian linkages. Globally, this is the most important and largest economic initiative in history. Arab countries were among the first to support this Chinese ambitious proposal. Major Arab cities have always been essential stations on the Ancient Silk Road.

For centuries, the Arabs conveyed China’s goods and intercultural communication was permanent. The ancient Arab-Chinese cultural belt and human contact made economic and commercial exchange easier and more convenient. Without such vast cultural belt, the ancient world, notably between the seventh and sixteenth centuries CE, would not have enjoyed such riches and coexistence.

Pre-Islamic contacts existed between Chinese and Arab nations. For a long time, the Arabs dominated the trade route between Asia and Europe. From pre-St. Louis through now, glassmaking has had extraordinary success; the Chinese launch before the “road of glass”. Chinese records claim initial cultural engagement with Arab region since 122 BC, when they constructed the Silk Road. Throughout the Han Dynasty, Arab artists performed magic and music at the Imperial Courts. In addition to other supernatural deeds like transforming a bull’s skull into an Arabian horse.

Pre-Islamic Mesopotamian musical instruments including konghou, bili pipa, and others were transmitted and played an essential part in the creation of Chinese music. Between 222 and 280 AD, the Chinese communicated with the Kingdom of Meroe in northern Sudan. Chinese commerce ships travelled from India to the Roman Empire after a month trip. The modern Sudan is regarded to be part of the original cultural and economic belt. Pre-Islamic people knew Chinese things like mirrored treasure chests, which they equated to gorgeous stuff. By 300 AD, Arabs had established a significant colony in Quanzhou. That was during the Northern Wei Kingdom’s (386–557) rule. The Arab language, culture, and traditions may have influenced Guangzhou and Luoyang. During the Tang period (618-907 AD), there was a major cultural contact between Arab and Chinese nations.

As Islam developed, Tang China’s stability and riches increased, resulting in more diplomatic and commercial contacts. Shiyan became a cultural centre for the empire. The ancient world’s first inter-civilizational dialogue and cultural cohabitation began during the Silk Road era. Through the Silk Road, a small population of Arabs in the Kingdom of Wei’s northern territory engaged in cultural, commercial, and small-scale industrial pursuits during the Tang dynasty. The Arabs and Muslims did not feel the need to participate in cultural battles, but instead blended into the wonderfully diverse Chinese community in which they dwell. During the Tang dynasty, Arab understanding of Chinese people increased.

The Arab geographers and historians had promoted the Silk Road’s cultural belt. Arab academics often remarked on the Chinese judicial system and their love of silk and potter. To study the topography and habits of the Arab people, Huan Du, has produced several books; Huan Du fled to the Arab countries for several years before returning in 762 AD. He also detailed his travels around the Arab world in Travel Records, where he described Kufa and the Abbasid Empire’s state of affairs. This niqab-wearing society boasts a 100,000-person mosque where the Caliph speaks every week. “Everything that exists on the back of earth is in Kufa,” he remarked.

“The market is large and cheap, and the roads are full of horses and lambs.” Ceramics, glass, and silk are also available at Kufa’s markets. He claims Kufa’s rice is identical to Chinese rice. He also mentioned about Chinese painters and weavers in Kufa. Chinese sources also chronicled major political upheavals in the Arabian Peninsula during the Tang dynasty, indicating extensive knowledge of the region’s economic and political conditions. It was astonishing to see that Chinese historical records kept up with happenings in the Arabian Peninsula while the Islamic da’wa was in its infancy. The Quraish tribe, which included Banu Hashim and Banu Marwan, ruled west of Xi An area.

Tang’s old book of legend has a complex storyline, it recount Arab armies’ departure from Arabia, crossing the Tigris, into India. “The Caliph Marwan assassinated his older brother and crowned himself Caliph, yet he was popular with the people for his severity and oppression,” the Tang history book adds. On his way from Khurasan to the west, Abu Muslim killed the Muslim Caliph Abu Abbas. During this time period, Arab and Chinese countries shared a lot of industrial expertise. The Islamic State transmitted paper-making technology from the Chinese after the Battle of Talas River in July 751 AD. Baghdad’s first paper mill began around 793 AD, a few years after the Samarkand mill closed. The third and largest paper mill, established in 900 AD, was at Damascus. Then it spread to other continents including Europe and America.

Although Arab media have constantly followed the issue of paper-making technology transfer, “Khorasan makers are the model of Chinese paper”. Samarkand’s coagulant (paper) constructed of papier-mâché, leather, and oak is said to be unique.  The Caliph Al-Mutasim created the city of Samarra in 838 AD, and a great quantity of pottery came in Baghdad, some remaining in the desert, were found. Only the clay used to make Samarra faience can distinguish it apart from the ancient pottery. Samarra produced jugs with straight cut mouths and handles with ears or handles, as well as other Tang Dynasty inscriptions. Arab counties like Damascus and Sohar also have silk industry. Trade and cultural exchange between Siberians and Arabs aided the development of Islamic art, notably pottery.

Medicinal herbs and plants demonstrate that Arab pharmacies and medicines were well-known in Tang China. During the Tianbao era (742-756 AD) the emperor stocked it with colognes, acorns, and jewels. Since then, Chinese pharmacy has included fennel seed oil, and other Arab remedies. They had to keep track of the many Arab drugs. Some Arabian and Persian medicinal plants, including hawthorn and frankincense, were named through Duan Cheng-shi, You-yang za-zu.

During the era of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, records were compiled and published in seven-volume book (712 AD). During the Yuan dynasty, Arab and Islamic mathematics, as well as other cultural influences, began to have an impact. The Islamic calendar in Ming was based on the 365-day calendar. Nowadays, Modern-day Arab-Chinese political and business connections laid the foundation for the  extensive cultural interactions.

Mohamad Zreik
Mohamad Zreik
Mohamad Zreik is an independent researcher, doctor of international relations. His areas of research interests are related to the Foreign Policy of China, Belt and Road Initiative, Middle Eastern Studies, China-Arab relations, East Asian Affairs, Geopolitics of Eurasia, and Political Economy. Mohamad has many studies and articles published in high ranked journals and well-known international newspapers. His writings have been translated into many languages, including French, Arabic, Spanish, German, Albanian, Russian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, etc.