Arab seafarers mastered the sea route to China, sailing from ports in the Persian Gulf and passing through the Strait of Malacca before reaching Canton (Goldstein, Israel & Conroy, 1991). Studies on historical relations between China and the Islamic world are innumerable. Adrian Hsia protests “There is not yet a single book examining the image or vision of China in English literature, although monographs on the reception of China in French and German literatures have been in existence ever since the beginning of this century” (Hsia, 1998). This is equally true for the Arabic literature. This essay is a preliminary attempt on an investigation of one dimension of international relations between the Arabs as an ethnic group and China as an imaginary realm. This paper focuses on the nature of the Arab imagery in the context of the initial image of China found in Arabic literature, the historical background as a contextual base for historicity determinations, and the function of such depiction in historical-literary discourse, in view of the close and intricate connection between such images in literary and expository prose.
Contextualizing the Arab’s image of China
Al-Qazwini (1203-1283 AD) wrote, “a vast country in the orient, its breadth larger than its length. They say: [it has] about three hundred cities in the distance of a month, and abundant [amount] of water, many trees and plentiful of goods and fruits. It is one of God’s finest and most magnificent lands, and its inhabitants have the most beautiful appearance, and the most skilled in complex industries. But their heights are short, and their heads are giant. Their dresses are made of silk, and their jewels are made of rhino and elephant bones. Their religion is based on idols worshiping, and among them Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism exist. They believe in reincarnation, and they have temples for worshiping” (pp. 53).
This analysis takes its departure from an awareness of the Arabs historiography and its association with the formation of their imageries. There are competing holds on the origin of China’s image in the Arab’s imagery. Is it rooted in the pre-Islamic era, or it is a result of the advent of Islam to the eastern borders of China during the Abbasid period, is an important question, not merely a one related to historicism, but on the factors that molded such an image.
This virtual imagology, the study of an enduring public attitude deceptive in the widespread images of a society and the ways of representing nations, has proved a productive and enlightening field of research. The literary dynamics at work in the genesis and propagating of China’s images in the Arab’s historical discourses, and their explicit function, and how they are received is a crucial source in forming a base for the modern Sino-Arab relations. Such images are independent of facts as this paper shall revel, and they neither mirror a Chinese reality nor provide a truthful reflection of China, but purely part...