Because of the great distance between East Asia and Africa, contact between China and African lands was limited in early times. It seems to date only to the centuries just prior to and after the onset of the Common Era (1 CE) and was indirect, experienced primarily through maritime or overland trade conducted primarily by Central Asians and Arabs. Eventually direct links were also established. Sino-African cultural exchange has existed for thousands of years benefiting both the people of China and Africa.
China’s benefits from its interactions with Africa include innovations in various endeavors among them glass making, sugar refining, astronomy, machinery manufacturing, medicine, and even acrobatics. Also noteworthy is the introduction to China of interesting and/or useful African flora and fauna. Of course the extent of the influence of these on China, to be discussed in more detail below, varied.
Roman glass technology which flourished in Alexandria, Egypt in North Africa while it was part of the Romano-Byzantine empire seems to have had a significant influence on China’s glass technology. The Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties saw an obvious increase in utensils of sodium-calcium glass coexisting with lead-barium glass utensils. Lead-barium glass had been the primary type of indigenous Chinese glass and sodium-calcium glass the predominant type in the West so this testifies to the influence of imported Western Regions glass-making manufacturing methods on Chinese glass technology especially as over time sodium-calcium glass became dominant in China, too. Subsequently in the Song dynasty (960–1279), a large amount of Islamic glass, some of which was made in Fustat or Old Cairo in Egypt was imported into China. This featured more abstract décor and more fluid forms than that of earlier periods, and further stimulated pre-modern Chinese artisans.
During the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), when much of Asia, including China was under Mongol domination, Egyptian sugar refining technology was imported into China. This had developed out of earlier sugar cane processing techniques pioneered in Central Asia and India (among other places) and eventually transmitted to North Africa where it was perfected by the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Thereafter, the Chinese acquired the method of refining edible sugar, and ultimately also came to export it.
Making use of the measured results of astronomical instruments the armillary sphere and azimuth circle, Egyptian astronomers, in particular Ibn Yūnus (ca. 950–1009) developed what are known as Hakemite tables. These were utilized to correct and modify the calendar. Thereafter introduced into China during the Yuan dynasty, these tables likely aided the Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing (1231–1316) in his compilation of a calendar in 1280. After the Yuan dynasty, Chinese astronomical instruments expanded greatly in size. This too is credited to the influence of Egyptian (and Arab) astronomy where larger-sized instruments had long been used.
Other Egyptian inventions such as the shadoof, an irrigation tool consisting of a pole with a bucket and counterweight for raising water, cranks of assorted types, as well as locks and locksmithing contributed in varying degree to ancient Chinese mechanical technology. Also worth mentioning is the high level of Egyptian knife-making. During the reign of Emperor Shun (1320–1370, r. 1333–1370) of the Yuan dynasty it is known that knife bows and hauberks (chain mail) made in Egypt and other places were presented to the imperial court as tribute.
Arabian medicine was highly developed. Important works in this field originated in Africa. In 1260, in Cairo Abu al-Mina al-Kuhin al-Attar or Attar (fl. thirteenth century), a Jewish-Egyptian pharmacologist completed a pharmacopeia known in China as A Handbook of Official Medicine and A Precious Reference for the Nobilities. This book became quite popular in eastern regions under Muslim rule. Somewhat earlier Ibn al-Baytar (1197–1248), a physician and herbs gatherer based in North Africa, had compiled A Collection of Medical Prescriptions, which became the most complete work of its kind of the time. The Chinese Yuan dynasty compilation of Prescriptions of the Hui People (Huihui yaofang in Chinese) was mainly based on these two pharmacopoeias.
As early as the second century BCE China had knowledge of acrobatic performers from a far-away land variously known as Likan, Lixuan, and Lijian. This is possibly to be identified with Alexandria, Egypt a region long known for its skilled practitioners of this art. According to records the acrobatic magic of the Likan people was performed at the court of Emperor Wu (156–87 BCE, r. 141–87 BCE) of the Han dynasty, adding a touch of life to the Chinese people who were fond of happiness and joy—it quite likely also inspired China’s own acrobats.
Africa is primarily located in the tropics so its climate and geography differ from much of China. Still some indigenous African flora and fauna found their way to China for various purposes among them two giraffes presented as tribute to the imperial court in the fifteenth century.
As for Africa’s benefits from its interactions with China the most noteworthy are the importation and use of silk and high-fired ceramics, in particular porcelain as well what are often called China’s “four great inventions”: paper, the compass, gunpowder, and woodblock printing.
As early as the third century BCE there is evidence for Chinese silk in the Mediterranean world including Egypt and other parts of North Africa; it arrived from thousands of miles away to subtly change the clothing culture of the region. Even in later centuries as silk came to be cultivated in areas outside of China, including in Africa, importation of silk continued. This was likely due to the wide variety and large scale of silk’s production in China.
In addition to silk, another Chinese invention, porcelain arrived in Africa from the sea. This white bodied high-fired ceramic, best known in its underglaze blue decorated variety was not alone among Chinese wares in gaining admiration and being imitated in Africa—gray-green or “celadon” glazed Chinese stoneware also fell into this category. Chinese ceramics have been unearthed in many sites in Africa ranging from Kenya to Egypt. The collection of Chinese porcelain and stoneware along with its local imitation ultimately became an inseparable component of Egyptian food culture and ceramic culture in the medieval period, roughly from 641 to 1517. In the latter part of this period Sino-Egyptian ceramic cultural exchange reached a peak of harmonious achievement.
In addition, Egypt played a prominent role in the westward transmission of China’s invention of paper-making technology as its culture and libraries were influential on the Mediterranean world, including Christian Europe. Paper appeared in China as early as the Han dynasty, with knowledge of it spreading into the Islamic world by the eighth century if not earlier. Its superiority to parchment and papyrus was quickly recognized. The expanding use of Chinese paper stimulated the development of local paper-making in various regions among them Egypt which was in turn used in local manuscripts. With its possession of a large amount of paper-based materials the Cairo National Library of the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171) increased its collection through confiscation and even robbery to 200,000 volumes. The eventual westward transmission of Chinese papermaking technology promoted the popularization of world culture as it made books and their contents more available and thus had a far-reaching influence.
In addition to the inventions of the compass, gunpowder, and woodblock printing, etc. having been imported in Europe via Egypt, Morocco, and other places in the Yuan dynasty, other lesser known activities and amusements were also introduced to Egypt and other African countries from China, including aspects of alchemy and shadow play.