A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Chinese Description of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate

 Mondays generally being Mondays, I think it's worth starting the week with something a little different, and so today I start with a Chinese Tang Dynasty description of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate. This appeals to the medievalist trapped inside me (my doctoral dissertation was on early ‘Abbasid Egypt), and also is a useful reminder that even while early Arab geographers were writing early accounts of China, the Chinese were returning the favor.

I discovered the story through the wonderful Algerian linguistics blogger (and fairly recent SOAS Ph.D.) Lameen Souag, via this post on "Ya-chü-lo" (Kufa) and other confusing transcriptions," at his Jabal al-Lughat blog. Lameen's posts at that blog are usually about Arabic, Berber, and Songhay and other Saharan languages (his research field); his only real fault is he posts too rarely, though he also has a blog on الأصول التاريخية للدارجة الجزائرية ("Historical Sources of Algerian Colloquial Arabic"; posts are in Arabic and French), and is also a contributor to the Oriental Berber blog specializing in the Berber/Tamazight dialects of Libya and the Siwi of Egypt. So I guess I shouldn't complain.

Lameen's post is mostly commenting on some of the curiosities of the Chinese transcriptions of Arabic place names, but it served as well as my introduction to the description in question. Before I move on to that description, Lameen poses a question on a Chinese term that is supposedly a title of the Caliph; I have no ideas, but if any of my readers do, please go to Lameen's blog and post them. (Quote contains Chinese and International Phonetic Alphabet characters which may not display in all browsers)
mo-shou: 摩首 mwâśǝ́w – no idea what this alleged title of the caliphs might be; probably not Arabic, so maybe Persian? Any ideas?
Back to the Chinese source.  The source is a Tang dynasty encyclopedia called Tongdian, dated to AD 801, and the text describing the ‘Abbasid Empire is based on an account by a Chinese soldier, named Tu Huan, captured at the Battle of Talas in 751 AD. That marked the point where the Muslim Caliphate, just taken over by the ‘Abbasids, was expanding eastward into Transoxiana and encountered the armies of the Tang, engaged in the westernmost expansion of the Chinese Empire. The battle was in the Talas Valley in what is today Kyrgyzstan or perhaps just over the border with Kazakhstan. The Chinese soldier spent time as a prisoner in the Caliphate at a time Kufa was still the ‘Abbasid capital. (Al-Mansur founded Baghdad in 762 AD, the year Tu Huan returned to China.)

The original Chinese text is here. My knowledge of Chinese is virtually nil, confined to a few phrases  learned when adopting my daughter in Hunan, and no reading capability, but Lameen links to an English translation. I'm unclear about the copyright status of the translation, so I'll urge you to read it there, with this excerpt as bait:
During the Yung-hui reign period (650-56) of the Great T'ang, the Arabs (Ta-shih) sent an embassy to the court to present tribute. It is said that their country is west of Persia (Po-ssu). Some [also] say that in the beginning there was a Persian who supposedly had the help of a spirit in obtaining edged weapons [with which] he killed people, subsequently calling for all the Persians who came and, according to their rank as mo-shou, were transformed into kings. After this the masses gradually gave their allegiance, and subsequently Persia was extinguished and Byzantium (Fulin) was crushed, as were also Indian cities; [the Arabs] were everywhere invincible. Their soldiers numbered 420,000 and by this time their state was 34 years old. When the original king had died, his office passed to the first mo-shou, and now the king was the third mo-shou; the royal surname is Tu-shih.
The men of this country have noses that are large and long, and they are slender and dark with abundant facial hair like the Indians; the women are graceful. [The Arabs] also have literature that is different from that of Persia. They raise camels, horses, donkeys, mules, and sheep. The soil is all sandy and stony, unfit for cultivation and without the five grains. All they have to eat is the flesh of camels and elephants. After having crushed Persia and Byzantium, for the first time they had rice and flour. They solemnly worship a celestial spirit.
For Ta-shih,  which is the Chinese word given here for Arabs; itis derived from Tajik, though that word usually meant "Persian" in Central Asia, it originally derived from the name for the Arabic tribe of Tayy. (Early Syriac chroniclers usually called the Arab invaders Tayaye. For more, see here.


Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Guess your readers didn't recognise it either, but thanks for posting the question! It's a fun excerpt. I like those horses "born of union between dragons and mares on the coast of the Persian Gulf"...

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Lameen: it's a great description, but mo-shou is a puzzler. I've worked in Abbasid sources and csn't think of any title that could give rise to it.