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Du Huan – the first Chinese traveller to the Arab world

By Dr Mamnun Khan | Ramadhan 1438, May 2017


Du Huan is thought to be the first Chinese traveller to have visited and recorded his observations about Arab society in the 8th century. While his exact date of birth and death remain unknown, we know from his own writings that he was a Chinese soldier captured at the Battle of Talas in the year 751. The Battle of Talas (by the Talas River in the Syr Darya region in Transoxiana in Central Asia) was fought between an Abbasid army sent by the first Abbasid ruler, Abu al-‘Abbas al-Saffah (721/2-754, who ruled from 750 to 754) alongside their Tibetan allies against the army of the Chinese Tang Dynasty.

Controlling the Syr Darya region was important because it was at the centre of the ancient trade route known as the “Silk Route,” through which merchants travelled for centuries connecting Europe, Middle East, Persia, India and China, carrying spices (pepper, cinnamon, ginger etc.), herbs, textiles, ceramics etc. It was also a primary route of cultural contact where ideas were exchanged.

One of the technological exchanges was the paper-making technology which the Chinese developed, which transformed the dissemination of knowledge from an oral tradition to a more written one throughout Muslim societies. In particular, being at the cross roads of the Silk Route and with the availability of paper meant that Central Asia  became by its own merit a region of great learning and civilisation.

Following defeat of the Tang Dynasty, Du Huan had a long journey through Arab countries and returned by ship to the city of Guangzhou in Southern China in 762. Thereafter, he wrote his Jingxingji (“The Travel Record”), a work that has been almost completely lost except for two extracts found in the “Encyclopaedic History of  Institutions” (known as “Tongdian”) written by Du You (735-821)  – a relative of Du Huan, which was compiled in 801. This extract has 1,513 Chinese characters and has recently been translated into English. It forms just two out of 200 chapters (or scrolls) of the “Tongdian,” and reveals some very insightful observations of various places that Du Huan visited, one of which was Kufah in Iraq. Below is the full extract.

“Du Huan in his The Travel Record states: Dashi, another name A-ju-luo [Aqur – the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates River, in other words Kufah in Iraq which was the first capital of the Abbasid dynasty], whose King is called mu-men, [moved its] capital here. The women [of the country] are tall and beautiful, with their clothes bright and clean. When a woman goes outdoors, she must veil her face. Regardless of whether he is noble or common, a man prays five times daily. When they fast, they [on the contrary] eat meat, regarding butchering animals as a merit and virtue. Men wear silver girdles with silver knives suspended. They abstain from drinking and do not use music. When they vie against one another, they never go to the degree of fighting [against one another].

They also have an assembly hall that accommodates several tens of thousands of people. [Once] every seven days, the King [Caliph] comes [to the hall] for prayer. He would sit high and give his speech to the public, saying, “Life is difficult and the Way of Heaven [Islam] is not easy [to grasp]. Whether adultery or robbery or theft, or neglect of minor points of behaviour, or lying for some small trifles, or [anything just for] keeping safety for yourself but causing harm to others, or bullying the poor and mocking the humble––even if you engage in one of such misconducts, it is a great crime indeed. When you go to a war and you are slain by the enemy, you can go to the Heaven [Allah]; when you kill one [soldier] of your enemy, you would receive abundant reward [by the Heaven].” Such preaching teaches the people of the country to accept and follow readily. The law [here] is lenient, and the funeral is simple.

Whatever the earth can grow, one can find its products in all the shops in this city. The city is [a hub that is] like the hub of a wheel with its spokes. Abundant products from all directions are gathered here and then are cheaply sold [to different places]; the markets are full of [even] silk and pearls are full of the markets. Every street and lane is full of camels, horses, donkeys, and mules for sale. [The people here] carve rock sugar in the form of a hut, which is similar to the [edible] bao-nian [horse coach of the emperor] in China. When a festival comes, [the gifts such as] verulia [opaque glass] utensils, brass bottles and bowls that will be presented to noble men are numerous. [Here] rice and wheat-flour are not any different from those in China. The fruits are badam [almond] and palm dates; the turnip here is as big as dou [a measuring tool for grains] and its flavour is very good. Other vegetables are the same as those in other countries. Some of big grapes are as large as eggs. There are two kinds of rare oils – one is called yasaman [Arabic “yasmin”], another is mo-za-shi [not clear what it is – translator], and two kinds of rare herbs– cha-sai-peng and li-lu-ba [types of herbs].

[There are technicians of] silk-weaving looms, [and there are also] goldsmiths and silversmiths, and painters. The Han Chinese artisans who can paint are the Jingzhao [present day Xi’an, Shaanxi province in China] men, Fan Shu and Liu Ci; the silk-weaving loom technicians are the Hedong [Shamxi province during Tand Dynasty]) men, Le Huan and Lu Li.

The steeds here, as sayings goes, are the [offspring of the] interbreed between the dragon in the West Sea and a [common] horse, whose bellies are smaller and whose ankles are longer [than those of common horses]; a good steed of such kind can run one thousand li within one day. The camels here are small and strong, they have only one hump; a good camel of this kind can gallop one thousand li within one day. There are also ostriches, with the height of more than four chi [one meter equals 3 Chinese chi], whose paws are like camel feet, and whose necks [are strong enough that] can carry a man to go for five to six li; an egg of an ostrich is as big as three sheng [a measurement of weight]. There are also zaytun [olive] trees here, whose nuts are like the dates matured in summer days [in China]. The nuts can be used for [producing] oil, and the oil can cure diseases from miasma. The climate is warm; it never snows nor is there frost. People here suffer from  malaria, and five of ten people die [of such disease]. Today, the country has conquered forty to fifty    countries and they have all become its subordinates; [Arabia] dispatches its troops to garrison in the [conquered] countries. The territory [of Arabs] covers all the West [Mediterranean] Sea regions.





Wan Lei, translation of Du Huan’s 8th century “The Travel Records” under the title The First Chinese Travel Record on the Arab World – Commercial and Diplomatic Communications during the Islamic Golden Age, King Faisal Centre For Research and Islamic Studies, 2016, p18.



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