View Full Version : East Africans appearing in a Classical Era Chinese Miscellany

02-16-2019, 11:25 AM
The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was the most expansive and cosmopolitan Chinese empire, stretching from the borders of Korea to Samarkand in central Uzbekistan, from the shores of the Baikal to Champa in South Vietnam. In this period works were produced within its borders in languages from Syriac and Turkic, to Tibetan and Tangut; and religions from Manicheanism and Nestorian Christianity, to various sects of Buddhism--becoming more and more East Asian in this period--were practiced by its inhabitants. It was the most diverse and outward-looking period in Chinese history. This perhaps makes it less surprising that a record of some African peoples appeared buried in a work by a man on the slopes of a hill in Central China.

Duan Chengshi 段成式, a native of Hunan province in central China, wrote the Miscellaneous Pieces of Youyang 酉阳杂俎, representative of the genre known as miscellany--a collection of facts, anecdotes, legends and hearsay, interesting topics, fantastic tales, etc. Youyang was a hill in Hunan. Here we find the following:

“拨拔力国,在西南海中,不食五谷,食肉而已。常针牛畜脉,取血和乳生食。无衣服,唯腰下用羊皮掩之。其妇 人洁白端正,国人自掠卖与外国商人,其价数倍。土地唯有象牙及阿末香”

The state of Berbera (拨拔力国), is in the far South-West oceans (在西南海中). The inhabitants do not eat the five grains (不食五谷), and eat only meat (食肉而已). They often take a needle/spike and pierce a blood vessel of cattle (常针牛畜脉), and drink the blood, mixed with milk, thus obtained (取血和乳生食). They do not wear traditional clothing (无衣服), but keep a sheep/goatskin fastened below the waist (唯腰下用羊皮掩之). The women have attractive features and are pale(!) (其妇人洁白端正), but are often captured in raids by their own countrymen and sold to foreigners (国人自掠卖与外国商人), for a very high price (其价数倍). This country produces elephant tusks and ambergris (土地唯有象牙及阿末香).

This is very intriguing, the records of drinking blood mixed with milk especially, but sounds more like Maasais and other East African pastoralists than like the city Berbera ("拨拔力" Boboli), which would have been an ethnically Somali region at that time. Chances are there was some mixup in an account passed along by Arab traders. (But then this is also in the pre-Islamic period, so maybe things like drinking blood were not banned and the practices were not as different? Please correct me.) Note also the mention of "paleness", which is probably caused by the imposition of Chinese tastes onto a foreign account.

Just came across this in a bit of reading, and thought it would interest you guys.

02-16-2019, 01:28 PM
Awale wrote a detailed post on why he believes po-pa-li was not modern day Berbera but probably somewhere south of the Horn on his blog (https://anthromadness.blogspot.com/2018/09/800-ce-po-pa-li-is-not-somalia-but-1100.html?m=1)