John W. Chaffee, The Muslim Merchants of Premodern China: The History of a Maritime Asian Trade Diaspora, 750-1400. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), xiv+210; $28.99USD Paperback 9781107684041.
By Mahmood Kooria, Leiden University, the Netherlands & Ashoka University, India
The premodern oceanic interactions of Muslims with and within China have rarely been explored. While the existing scholarship consensually agrees on potential links between Islamic heartlands and Chinese worlds since the rise of Islam, the breadth and depth of such connections have been awaiting closer analyses. John Chaffee takes up this challenge by examining the Muslim involvement in China’s maritime mercantile ventures.
In five chapters divided along the dynastic lines, Chaffee unravels trajectories of Muslim traders struggling and/or prospering with changing political and legal regulations, favors and resentments. The first chapter explores the Tang-Abbasid interactions between c. 700 to 879 when these two vigorous empires sent each other missions, commodities and gifts. The Arabs and Persians dominated the scenario. Chaffee analyzes these categories in detail on the basis of Chinese sources that differentiated between them. He goes on to talk about the Muslims who frequented to and settled in port towns of Guangzhou and Yangzhou, which were most important for oceanic traders. The individual Arab-Persian merchants there were “part of a diaspora creating the most effective and integrated long-distance trade network that maritime Asia had ever seen” (pp. 41-42).
During the rebellions of Wang Xianzhi and Huang Chao and sequential massacre of thousands of Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians at Guangzhou in 879, most oceanic merchants left Chinese ports and found safe havens in Southeast Asia. This reorientation in trade is the focus of the second chapter. The port towns like Kalah and Palembang and the tributary states in Java, Malaya, Champa and Sumatra benefited from this shift by intermediating between China and the western Indian Ocean. Shipwrecks of Cirebon and Intan demonstrate commercial, religious and political dimensions of this transformation. The Southern Kingdoms (Five Dynasties vis-à-vis Ten Kingdoms) revived the declined maritime trade of China partially, but it was the early Song dynasty that advanced it by establishing a maritime trade office (shibosi) and welcoming many tribute missions via Guangzhou from many states in the oceanic littoral.
The third chapter takes up the revived trade connections under new empires of Songs, Fatimids and Cholas in the early eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. These empires provided special importance to maritime trade leading to “a flourishing multi-polar trading system” in maritime Asia (p. 76). Improvements in navigation and ships and regular trade in essential commodities (instead of earlier trade in luxury goods) furthered this development, and the Songs stood up to their realization of its enormous economic benefit by initiating favorable policies, judicial proceedings and socio-economic integrations. Consequently, a Muslim trade diaspora and mercantile elite group emerged in China. They funded and promoted the changing religious, educational and social fabric of the country.
This progress was furthered by the Yuan dynasty of nomadic Mongols. In the fourth chapter, Chaffee explores its rendezvous with oceanic trade specifically undergirding the networks between China and Persia. At the center of this enterprise were the bureaucratized ortoy or the merchant “partners” that mainly consisted Turkestani Muslims and Uighurs but also Persians, Armenians, Jews and Syriac Christians. The Yuan statistical records, Ibn Battuta’s travel account and many inscriptions from mosques and cemeteries reveal ordinary and extraordinary lives of Muslims who made their fortunes through maritime commerce and managed to achieve considerable status in the hierarchized social structure. This upward social and economic mobility however was short-lived. When the Mongols were overthrown, most Muslim elites also had to face vicious repercussions. The fifth, and concluding, chapter briefly engages with the sequential rise of Ming Empire, which according to the author, witnessed a decline of Muslim involvement in the China trade and another reorientation towards Southeast Asia.
Chaffee identifies the historical course of Muslim trade over six centuries consisting of “two semi-colonial periods at the beginning and end, sandwiching a period of relative integration” (p. 175). Despite several ruptures, such as constant violence at both ends targeted at Muslims among others, the community managed to rebuild itself through ups and downs and to integrate to the Chinese society through social, cultural, economic and political interventions. Some of these Muslim families became undistinguishable from any other Chinese community, although they now strive to keep their memory and heritage alive. Precisely because of these dimensions, Chaffee’s recurrent use of such conceptual clichés as “diaspora” and “foreigners” is very bothersome, as they instinctively discredit the very possibility of Muslim inclusivity in China’s long history.
The book resonates with another recent work, Monsoon Islam by Sebastian Prange (Cambridge 2018), on the history of Muslim traders in southwestern India between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. Taken together, both works provide a nuanced and refreshing picture on the ways in which Muslims influenced the oceanic commercial cultures of the world’s two largest populated countries. Chronologically the works slightly differ from one another, but one can clearly see several similar historical continuities and changes in the trails of both “Indian” and “Chinese” Muslims in premodern period. Not only related to the centrality of ocean, trade and faith on both contexts, both Prange and Chaffee also resonate in their arguments about such predicaments as localization (Sinicization/Indianization vis-à-vis Islam and Islamization), status of Muslim traders as minority communities, constant commercial-legal encounters, and negotiations with the majority political and religious structures.