The remarkably eclectic work Miscellany of Tidbits from Youyang Mountain Cave, which is believed to have been completed in approximately 855, is the signature production of the Chinese dilettante and imperial editor (jiaoshu lang) Duan Chengshi (ca. 803-863). From the standpoint of medieval slavery and captivity, the great value of this work lies in the fact that it is the first in Chinese literature to make conclusive reference to a specifically African site—namely, the “country” (guo) of Bobali, which is now assumed to have been Berbera, or what is today the greater part of the northern coastline of modern Somalia’s peninsular horn. We know not precisely how the author acquired any knowledge whatsoever of Bobali. However, given his documented travel in accompanying his grand councilor father Duan Wenchang (fl. 773-835) to the westernmost fringes of the empire, Duan Chengshi’s knowledge of Berbera has been attributed by subsequent scholars to exchanges between the Chinese author and certain priests from what was the “Far West” or the “Roman Orient” (Daqin), a location that for Chinese after Duan denoted Baghdad, and also to possible contact between Duan and clerics from Magadha in India.

Translated from the Chinese by Don J. Wyatt. Duan Chengshi, Youyang zazu (Taipei: Taiwan xuesheng shuju, 1975), 4.3b. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Fierce Inhabitants of Berbera

The country of Bobali lies in the southwestern seas. Its inhabitants eat nothing of the five grains but consume only meat. They often pierce the veins of cattle with needles, and draw forth the blood, which they drink raw, intermixed with milk. They wear no clothes—except for covering themselves below the loins with sheepskins. Their women are without disease and chaste. The men kidnap the women from one another, and whenever they chance to sell them to foreign merchants, they procure several times their value.[1]

The land produces only ivory and ambergris. Should Persian (Bosi) merchants desire to enter this country, they amass several thousand men around them by presenting them with strips of cloth. All, whether young or old, draw blood in the swearing of an oath, and only then will they trade in their ivory and ambergris.[2] Since ancient times, they have not been subjugated by any foreign country. In war, they use elephant tusks and ribs and the horns of wild buffalo to make spears and, donning [such] armored clothing [as breastplates], they sport bows and arrows. Yet, even though they possess 200,000 foot-soldiers, the Arabs still make frequent raids upon them.[3]

[1] A slightly redacted version of this same passage appears in Ouyang Xiu, Song Qi, et al., Xin Tangshu (Taipei: Dingwen shuju, 1976), 221B.6262. The latter version, which Ouyang Xiu incorporated in 1060, differs mainly only in its beginning: “Amidst the ocean, there is a kind of place called Bobali. There is no other territory to which it is attached.”

[2] The name Bosi is a Chinese transliteration of the term Parsa, an ancient name for Persia. See Wang Gungwu, “The Nanhai Trade: A Study of the Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 31/2.182 (June 1958): 59 and Wang Gungwu, The Nanhai Trade: The Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998), 52. Bosi further denoted non-Muslim Persians, as distinguished from the Dashi, who were collectively Muslim Arabs and Persians. See Wang Gungwu, “Nanhai Trade,” 79 and Wang Gungwu, Nanhai Trade, 75.

[3] Clearly, in terms of their numbers, the “200,000 foot-soldiers” are fictively exaggerated.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much should it matter to us that Duan Chengshi’s knowledge of Bobali (Berbera) is not firsthand? Should we give it qualified credence or should we dismiss it outright? What do we know about China culturally during his lifetime that made his reception of this knowledge possible?
  2. How well does the account of Bobali (Berbera) with which Duan Chengshi furnishes us conform to what we might expect to be and accept as being an accurate description for the period based on other sources, whether these are primary or secondary?
  3. Chinese of medieval times were conspicuously conscious of the appearances of foreign peoples with whom they interacted. Yet, although it details their habits, activities, and products, Duan Chengshi’s account makes no mention whatsoever of the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of Bobali (Berbera). What are we to make of this lacuna?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Reed, Carrie E. A Tang Miscellany: An Introduction to Youyang zazu. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2003. 
  • Schafer, Edward H. “Notes on Tuan Ch’eng-shih and his Writing.” Asiatische Studien 16 (1963): 14-34. 


Kidnapping, Men, Race, Raiding, Trade, Women