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 ido...
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...It touches on the thing that are most intrinsic and most fundamental to any society or culture. However, we can also say that this perspective is also multi-faceted, because it changes with the mores and issues of concern of every age. Therefore, a society’s view of foreigners may at times be one of disinterest, or curiosity, or rapturous approval, or unjust condescension or hatred. But the reasons for this infatuation or repulsion are in themselves always enlightening” (Gernet, 1994). A more ambitious task not attempted here would be to assimilate early Arab literary imagery of China with nonliterary input. The findings of this introductory research should pave the way for the other researchers to investigate the Arabs imagery further in more systematic manner in order to constitute a cross genres discourse that can be a base for in-depth Arab imagology studies.
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