Cultural Exchange between China and Arabia


China and Arabia each have a long history; friendly relations between the people of these two lands can be traced back at least two thousand years. China and the nations of what is referred to as “the Arab world” (regions where Arab culture is dominant) are generally classified as third world developing countries. These countries suffered colonialist and imperialist incursions and are now undertaking independent development. Their similar histories have led to sympathy, collaboration, and influence between the people of China and those of this area in their political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and other relations.


China’s four great inventions—papermaking, printing, the compass, and gunpowder—made a significant contribution to human civilization. They all appear to have been transmitted to the West via Arabia.


In 105 CE, according to tradition, Cai Lun (48–121) invented papermaking. Centuries later in 751 at the Battle of Talas (near the border of present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) between the forces of Tang dynasty China and the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, Chinese soldiers who excelled in making paper were among those taken prisoner by the Arab forces. It is through them that knowledge of papermaking is believed to have moved westward. The use of paper accelerated the formation and development of Arab-Islamic culture as it provided a better writing surface for the holy Qur’an and secular texts than the parchment and other media previously used; subsequently knowledge of papermaking reached Europe and again played a significant role in the dissemination of knowledge then taking place in what is known as the Renaissance (fourteenth–seventeenth centuries). In China printing techniques were closely related to papermaking, eventually evolving from block printing into movable typography (utilizing movable type). This technology was first introduced from Xinjiang (in China’s far west) into Persia (today’s Iran) and Egypt, two regions that were under control of the then Arab Empire, and eventually reached Europe via Andalusia in Spain and Western Italy.


The compass was invented in China as early as the Han (206 BCE–220 CE), and greatly advanced in use during the Song dynasty (960–1279). It was introduced into Arabia in the late twelfth-early thirteenth centuries where it was called a “needle chamber” or “needle box.” From there knowledge of the compass seems to have quickly reached Europe as it is mentioned in a text by Alexander Neckam (1157–1217) dated to ca.1180–90.


Invented in the Tang dynasty (618–907), gunpowder was made according to a recipe in which saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal were combined in prescribed percentages. It subsequently was developed as a weapon in the Song dynasty. Outside of China, by the eighth and ninth centuries, saltpeter, the main raw material of gunpowder, had been  introduced into Persia (including Iran and various Central Asian nations today), then under the jurisdiction of the Arab Empire. By about 1230 the technology of making gunpowder with saltpeter spread westward from Persia to Arabia and eventually beyond to Arab-ruled lands. The Spanish were apparently the first among the Europeans to learn from the Arabs—whom they were in conflict with over the Iberian Peninsula—the manufacture and use of gunpowder and gunpowder weapons.


Aside from the just discussed world-renowned four great inventions unique Chinese products such as silk and high-fired ceramics were appreciated by those living within Central and Western Asia as well as the Middle East even before the rise of Islam and the dominance of Arab culture and they retained and even expanded their impact in later centuries. Chinese painting also eventually came to be an inspiration in this region. Thus China’s arts as well as its sciences influenced those of Arabia.


Arab influence on China was considerable, most notably in religion, astronomy, and medicine.


The introduction of Islam to China during the Tang dynasty is by far the most important aspect of Arab influence. Today Islam is the dominant religion among ten of China’s fifty-six nationalities, and not unknown among some of the remaining forty-six. The spread of Islam accompanied knowledge of and eventual, relatively late translation of the complete holy Qur’an into Chinese.


The system of Arab-Islamic astronomy is unique as it expanded upon earlier observations and study with better calculations and descriptions. It was more advanced than traditional Chinese astronomy in some respects; therefore Arab astronomy was introduced to China as early as the Song dynasty and soon attained an official status, remaining important through the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).


In addition, Arab medicine had considerable influence on China. Aromatic drugs (spices and herbs), such as frankincense and myrrh were one main category of commodity imported from Arab regions to China in ancient times. Following the fast development of trade between China and Arabia which began to occur in the Tang dynasty, there was a rapid increase in Arabian aromatic drugs imported and used in China.


Arab literature is an important manifestation of Arab-Islamic culture and thus an integral part of not just “Non-Western” or “Eastern” Literature but indeed of World Literature. In addition to the holy Qur’an which is a sacred work, traditional Arab literature is noted for its poetry and the world-famous story compilation One Thousand and One Nights. Acclaimed contemporary Arab writers include Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006). The spread of Arab literature in China has had an important influence on the Chinese literary world both in the past and present.

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