Locating Dashi 大食 in Song Dynasty Sources

The idea of an Arab-controlled maritime sea trade from the tenth to the twelfth centuries developed in in the late nineteenth century. Many scholars have regarded the family name Pu 蒲, part of the names of envoys and traders from the tenth to the twelfth centuries appearing in Chinese texts, as a marker of the Muslim identity of its bearer.[1] Other scholars disputed (and dispute) this proposition and instead understood Pu as an honorific title (mPu, pu, po) used in indigenous societies of Southeast Asia.[2] The dispute deserves continuing attention at a time when many Southeast Asian countries have enjoyed freedom from their former colonial masters for several decades. During the age of colonialism in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century it made sense to justify western colonialism by researching such periods in which large parts of Southeast Asia were allegedly under foreign influence. Hence, the idea that many regions were “Indianized” (or “Hinduized”) during much of the first millennium AD and, secondly, that the same regions were under the sway of Arab Muslim merchants for close to three hundred years. It was then the turn of the western “colonizers” to bring a third wave of “civilization” to the region.

It is against this background that the present paper will explore the term Dashi 大食 used during the Song dynasty.[3] Dashi in texts compiled in the Song dynasty may refer to places not only to the west of China, but also to its southwest, Southeast Asia, and further on, to South Asia.


[1] The first scholar to suggest this was Friedrich Hirth in his “Die Insel Hainan nach Chao Ju-kua”, in Festschrift für Adolf Bastian zu seinem 70. Geburtstage (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1896), 487. Contemporary advocates of the assumption that has acquired the status of a fact by refutation of alternative interpretations are, for instance, Pierre-Yves Manguin, “IX. Ētudes cam II. L’Introduction de l’Islam au Campa”, Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 66 (1979): 258-259; Geoff Wade, “The Li (李) and Pu (蒲) “Surnames” in East Asia-Middle East Maritime Silkroad Interactions during the 10th-12th Centuries”, in Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea, ed. Ralph Kauz (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), 181-93; John W. Chaffee, The Muslim Merchants of Premodern China: The History of a Maritime Asian Trade Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 60-61.

[2] See, for instance, Gerald R. Tibbetts, “Early Muslim Traders in South-East Asia”, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 30.1 (1957): 30; for a more rigorous treatment of Pu see Stephen G. Haw, “Islam in Champa and the Making of Factitious History”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 28.3 (2018): 724-27.

[3] This question is related to the further question of the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia which cannot be treated in this essay. For a discussion of the transfer of Islam to Southeast Asia – either from Arabia or India – see, for instance, Gerardus Drewes, “New Light on the Coming of Islam to Indonesia?”, Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde 124.4 (1968): 433-59.


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