Slaves and clients; Arabic Mamluks and mawlas: a fishy Turkic tail

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From my 10th grade high school world history class in 1959, I was intrigued by the evocative, mysterious Mamluks.  I was impressed by their achievements in statecraft, art, architecture, and many other fields.  Thus Mamluk is a word that is very well known in English, even to a rural highschooler in Osnaburg Township of Stark County in northeastern Ohio, but I never imagined that their name meant "slave".  Rather, I thought of the mighty Mamluks as military forces who were like knights, and in some cases were  even rulers who founded states of their own.  That they were, but I didn't realize they were of slave origin.

Mamluk (Arabic: مملوك mamlūk (singular), مماليك mamālīk (plural), translated literally as "thing possessed", meaning "slave", also transliterated as Mameluke, mamluq, mamluke, mameluk, mameluke, mamaluke, or marmeluke) is a term most commonly referring to non-Arab, ethnically diverse (mostly Turkic, Caucasian, Eastern and Southeastern European) slave-soldiers and freed slaves to which were assigned military and administrative duties, serving the ruling Arab dynasties in the Muslim world.

The most enduring Mamluk realm was the knightly military class in Egypt in the Middle Ages, which developed from the ranks of slave soldiers. Originally the Mamluks were slaves of Turkic origin from the Eurasian Steppe, but the institution of military slavery spread to include Circassians, Abkhazians, Georgians, other peoples of the Caucasus, and Russians, as well as peoples from the Balkans such as Albanians, Greeks, and South Slavs (see Saqaliba). They also recruited from the Egyptians. The "Mamluk / Ghulam Phenomenon", as David Ayalon dubbed the creation of the specific warrior class, was of great political importance; for one thing, it endured for nearly 1,000 years, from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries.

Over time, Mamluks became a powerful military knightly class in various Muslim societies that were controlled by Arab rulers. Particularly in Egypt, but also in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and India, mamluks held political and military power. In some cases, they attained the rank of sultan, while in others they held regional power as emirs or beys. Most notably, Mamluk factions seized the sultanate centered on Egypt and Syria, and controlled it as the Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517). The Mamluk Sultanate famously defeated the Ilkhanate at the Battle of Ain Jalut. They had earlier fought the western European Christian Crusaders in 1154–1169 and 1213–1221, effectively driving them out of Egypt and the Levant. In 1302 the Mamluk Sultanate formally expelled the last Crusaders from the Levant, ending the era of the Crusades.


What set me to thinking about the Mamluks on this bright, brisk spring day in west Philadelphia near our beloved Clark Park?  Something even more far off and far-fetched than the Mamluks, namely, a Tang period (618-907) literary language short story called "Kūnlún nú 崑崙奴" ("The Kunlun Slave") written by Pei Xing (裴铏, 825–880).  We have touched upon the mythic Kunlun in several posts (see "Selected readings" below) and have even mentioned "The Kunlun Slave", but have not gone into detail about its contents.  You can read a plot summary and additional background here.  A complete translation is available online here and in print:

Pedro Acosta, "The K'un-lun Slave", in Karl Kao, ed., Classical Chinese Tales of the Supernatural and the Fantastic (Indiana University Press:  1985), pp. 351-356.

Suffice it for the moment to say that the hero of the tale is a Negrito slave who uses his extraordinary physical abilities — including leaping / "flying" over ten foot walls with two people on his back — to save his master's lover from a court official's harem.  All of this is very much in the tradition of Chinese knight-errantry and martial heroes (cf. wuxia), with touches of Taoist / Daoist transcendence and immortality, plus more recent kung fu escapades and exploits.

What primarily interests me in the remainder of this post are the implications of the fact that the hero's name is "Mólè 磨勒" (keep in mind throughout the rest of this post and whenever you encounter it in the context of the Tang classical tale that "Mole" is pronounced with two syllables).  You take one look at a name like that (lit., "mill-strangle / rein in / force / coerce"), and right away you suspect that it is the transcription of a foreign word.  As to what that foreign word might be, Professor James J. Y. Liu, wrote a fascinating book titled The Chinese Knight Errant (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), in which (p. 88)  he suggests that it derives from Arabic.

Before trying to figure out what Arabic word that might be, we need to reconstruct the Middle Sinitic sound of the name:  /muɑH//lək̚/.

Marcel Erdal wrote to me:  "The normal Arabic term for 'slave' is cabd, but Liu appears to have thought of an alternative term, mamlûk; that is, I think, perfectly possible."

Michael Bates, on the other hand, offers a different possibility:

Mole brings immediately to an Arabist's mind mawlā. A mawla was not, strictly speaking, a slave, but was expected to be obedient in a general way to his master, also called mawlā. [VHM:  Interesting — a word that signifies both "slave" and "master"!] The word means "linked;" in early Islam a convert to Islam was linked to the person at whose hands he converted. That person was also linked to his converts, but, though the term is reciprocal, the linkage is always between an inferior and a superior. In later centuries, mawlā came to have much more the dominant meaning:  mawlānā, "Our Lord," was used as a term of address to a king or potentate and also to a spiritual master. 

But in early centuries, the inferior meaning was much more prevalent. "His mawlas" is a common expression in the histories, referring to the "native" troops of a potentate. In most contexts, it would be equivalent to "servant," but not quite to "slave." It is also apposite to Arab: the troops of a governor were referred to in toto as "Arabs and mawlas." In historical translation, mawla in the two senses is often translated as "client" and "patron" in the old Roman sense.

Slave labels in all cultures tend to shy away from calling a slave a slave. In the US, the Constitution of 1789 avoided using the word "slave" while three times referring to slaves. So long as slavery existed, euphemisms like "servitude" were preferred to calling the institution by its real name.

So, I imagine the word mawla could be used as a personal name for a slave, especially among neighbors of the Arabs who did not understand the nuances of subordination.

I cannot see how mamluk could be reduced to mo – le, but mawla to mole seems an easy transition.

In the remainder of this post, we will be juggling a large number of variables that bear on the question of the origin, identification, and meaning of the negrito slave's name, Mole:  ethnicity, physical characteristics, geogenetics, history, philology, literature, and — naturally — linguistics (phonology, semantics, morphology, etymology, borrowing, etc.).

Keeping in mind the multiethnic origins of the Mamluks, let us examine more closely the bare linguistic facts about the term (variant forms mameluke, Mamaluke, mamaluke, mameluk, Mameluke, Mamluk, mamluk, mamluke, mammaluke, memlook [source]) itself.

Derived from the passive participle of the verb مَلَكَ‎ (malaka, “to take possession of”), from the root م ل ك‎ (m-l-k).


مَمْلُوك (mamlūk) m (plural مَمَالِيك‎ (mamālīk))

    1. owned, in possession, belonging
      • غير مملوكextra commercium; res extra commercium (Islamic law: that cannot be owned by individuals)
    2. white slave, mameluke


See also AH Appendix II, Semitic Roots, p. 2075a.

Online Etymology Dictionary

Egyptian dynasty 1254-1517, originally a military unit comprised of Caucasian slaves, from French mameluk and directly from Arabic mamluk "purchased slave," literally "possessed," from past participle of malaka "he possessed" (compare Arabic malik, Hebrew melekh "king"). It is also the source of Portuguese Mameluco (n.) "mestizo, cross-breed between a white and a native Brazilian."

Michael Bates notes that mamlūk means literally "property," that is, "slave," but it was much less commonly used in the early centuries of Islam than later in the "Mamluk" era.

Moving on to focus on "mawla", Joe Lowry observes:

Mawlā ( مولى ) was the first thing I thought when I saw your word.  It is an important term in early Islam that we often translate as "client" and that is used for persons who attach themselves to an Arab tribe and acquire the tribe's genealogy (as a legal fiction) and protection. Patricia Crone described it as the way you gained entry into early Islamic society if not part of an Arab tribe.  It is a word that can also mean "master" or "patron" in addition to indicating a socially subordinate status.

It denotes a freed slave, who also acquires client status from the tribe of the former master.

From the root و ل ي‎ (w-l-y).


See also AH Appendix II, Semitic Roots, p. 2078a.



مَوْلًى (mawlan) m (dual مَوْلَيَانِ‎ (mawlayāni), plural مَوَالٍ‎ (mawālin))

    1. chief; lord; master
    2. patron; client
    3. slave
    4. ally; friend; follower


Beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable whether the elusive Arabic word was Mamluk or mawla, or both, or neither, I asked John Huehnergard if it's possible that Mamluk and mawla are somehow related.  His reply:  "Both words have a preformative element ma- that appears on many nouns in Arabic and other Semitic languages."  End of that line of inquiry.

Now, if "Mole" ("slave") has an Arabic source, pace Professor James J. Y. Liu, we must ask how it could have come to be current in Sinitic by the 9th century, as is attested by the Tang story (but actually even earlier, for which see the "Historical sources" cited below).

It is commonly held that Muslim traders settled in China as early as 616 AD and that by the 9th century there were more than a hundred thousand of them in the Guangzhou / Canton area alone, and it is also said that by 1000 AD most import / export between what we now call "China" and the Middle East was in the hands of Muslims, be they Arabs or Persians. The rebel Huang Chao (835-884) is alleged to have slaughtered upwards of a hundred thousand foreigners during his attack on Guangzhou / Canton in 879.  These claims are putatively based both on Chinese texts and Arabic authors such as Abu Zayd Hasan Ibn Yazid Sirafi.  Although Hugh Clark, who knows the Chinese sources for Sino-Muslim relations during the "Middle Period" (let us say roughly Tang-Song [618-907; 960-1279] as well as anyone, questions the precise veracity of these dates and figures (see the "Appendix" below), there can be no doubt that significant numbers of Muslim traders were present in the southeast portion of East Asia by the 7th century and that their numbers continued to grow during the following centuries.  Consequently, Perso-Arabic customs and objects, and the words for them, would have entered the Sinosphere during that period.

Details aside, there is plenty of evidence for the presence of Muslims (Arabs and Persians) in Southeast Asia and East Asia during the Middle Period.

Selected references

Angela Schottenhammer, "China's Gate to the South:  Iranian and Arab Merchant Networks in Guangzhou during the Tang-Song Transition (c.750–1050)", Part II:  900–c. 1050  Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften / Austrian Academy of Sciences   AAS Working Papers in Social Anthropology  Volume 29  vienna   2015

_____, "Yang Liangyao’s Mission of 785 to the Caliph of Baghdād: Evidence of an Early Sino-Arabic Power Alliance?”, Bulletin d’École Française d’Extrême Orient, 101 (2015), 177-241."

Geoff Wade, "Early Muslim expansion in South-East Asia, eighth to fifteenth centuries", in David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid, eds., The New Cambridge History of Islam (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2010), 366-408.

Schottenhammer (2015 "Gate"), p. 3, n. 9:

"Huang Chao sacked the city of Guangzhou and wreaked a massacre among its foreign residents. The Arab geographer and writer Abū Zaid of Sīraf (writing in 916) speaks of 120,000 Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Magians being killed by Huang Chao, apart from Chinese. See Levy 1961: 113–4."

Levy, Howard S. 1961. Biography of Huang Ch’ao.  Berkeley, Los Angeles:  University of California Press).

Historical sources on ancient connections between East Asia and West Asia:

Berthold Laufer, Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran (Chicago 1919)

New edition of Berthold Laufer's classic Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran, Publication 201, Anthropological Series, Vol. XV, No. 3 (Chicago:  Field Museum of Natural History, 1919); republished as Sino-Iranica: China and Ancient Iran, Commodities and Cultural Exchange from 1000 BC to Medieval Times, intro. Brian Spooner (London:  I. B. Tauris, 2017).

Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient: Researches into Their Ancient and Medieval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records (Leipzig and Munich:  Georg Hirth; Shanghai and Hong Kong:  Kelly & Walsh, 1885).

Similar to my colleague Brian Spooner for Laufer's classic, I have written an introduction for a new edition of Hirth's tome that will be published later this year by I. B. Tauris in London.

With the level of contact and communication documented by Hirth and Laufer, the coming of Africans to Central and East Asia from West Asia is not unexpected.

Specialists debate over whether the blacks of East Asia came from Africa or Southeast Asia, e.g., 葛承雍 in 唐長安黑人來源尋蹤  (中華文史論叢 第65期 2001), who takes the latter position.

Since Negrito populations were already present in Southeast Asia from Neolithic times, while genetic and physical anthropological studies have shown that they are not closely to African blacks, the main origin of blacks in Middle Period China would have been either from Southeast Asia or from West Asia / Africa, but not in equal measure from both.  Rather, historical sources, culture predispositions, and physical appearance link the Kunlun nu more to Southeast Asia and thence to Oceania.  (see here and here)

Yuanfei Wang's fascinating article, "Java in Discord: Unofficial History, Vernacular Fiction, and the Discourse of Imperial Identity in Late Ming China (1574–1620)," positions: asia critique, 27.4 (November 2019), 623-652, has a great deal of information about the transnational trade in Kunlun slaves during the Ming period (1368-1644), including tribute of 300 of them from Java to the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368-1398).  The seemingly supernatural attributes (carrying capacity, swimming ability, and so forth) ascribed to the Kunlun slave of the eponymous Tang story and other early sources are continued in the Ming descriptions of these archetypal figures.

At the other end of the scale, we hear of the Kunlun nu already in the Book of Song 宋書, an official history written in 488 AD, in the "Biography of Wang Xuanmo" 王玄謨傳.

From the Southeast Asia vector:

During the Tang, Kunlun as people were known for having curly hair and black skins:

舊唐書 (official Old History of the Tang 945 AD) 197.5270 自林邑*以南, 皆卷髮黑身, 通號為"崑崙".

*Lâm Ấp (Vietnamese pronunciation of Middle Chinese 林邑, Linyi) was a Cham kingdom located in central Vietnam that existed from around 192 CE to 629 CE in what is today central Vietnam. and was one of the earliest recorded Champa kingdoms. The ruins of its capital, the ancient city of Kandapurpura is now located in Long Tho Hill, 3 kilometers to the west of the city of Huế.


On the Kunlun nu's extraordinary swimming abilities:

太平廣記 (978 AD) 龍三: 及海船崑崙奴名摩訶*, 善游水而勇捷, 遂悉以錢而貫之, 曰: "吾家至寶也."


*Another name for the Kunlun nu is móhē 摩訶, Middle Sinitic /muɑ  hɑ/, transcription of Sanskrit mahā ("great").

萍洲可談 (1119 AD) 卷二﹕海中不畏風濤,唯懼靠閣,謂之「湊淺」,則不复可脫。船忽發漏,既不可入治,令鬼奴持刀絮自外補之,鬼奴善游,入水不瞑。

This passage describes how being stranded on shoals or shallows is more feared by mariners than wind or waves (remember the Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez on March 23, 2021?).  If, in such cases, the ship suddenly springs a leak, then Kunlun nu (Kunlun slaves; here called "guǐ nú 鬼奴" ["ghost / demon slaves"]) are commanded to repair it from the outside with knife and wadding.  It says that they are good swimmers and don't close their eyes underwater.

So renowned were the Kunlun nu for their legendary swimming abilities that this 10th century geographical treatise even says that the name of the Kunlun slave in the Tang story is the same as the Turkic word for "fish" (bäliq).

太平寰宇記 38: 突厥名魚為磨勒.

See Sanping Chen, "Some Remarks on the Chinese 'Bulgar'", Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 51.1/2 (1998), 76 of 69-83.

Turkic Database:

Language                              Citation Form      Standardized Form

Altay балык balïk
Altay Tuvan balǝɣ balǝɣ
Azerbaijani balıq balïg
Baraba Tatar palıq palïq
Bashkir балыҡ balïq
Chanto Uyghur bala:ɣ, belik balāɣ, belik
Chuvash пулӑ pulă
Crimean Karaim balɨq balïq
Crimean Tatar balıq balïq
Crimean Tatar-Coastal Dialect balɨq balïq
Crimean Tatar-Orta Dialect balɨq balïq
Crimean Tatar-Steppe Dialect balɨx balïx
Cuman baluc baluk
Dolgan балык balïk
Dukhan palək palək
Fu-yü Gïrgïs balĭh balïx
Gagauz balık balïk
Georgian Urum balɯx, balux balïx, balux
Halych Karaim балык balïk
Ili Salar ba:luχ bālux
Ili Turki balık balïk
Iranian Azeri balıx balïx
Jungar Tuvan   balïk
Karachay-Balkar чабакъ, балыкъ čabaq, balïq
Karakalpak балық balïq
Karakhanid balıḳ balïq
Kazakh балық balïq
Khakas палых palïx
Khalaj må̄yi må̄yi
Krymchak balɨq balïq
Kumandy-Kizhi балык balïk
Kumyk балыкъ balïk
Kuu-Kizhi балык,палык balïk, palïk
Kyrgyz балык balïk
Lopnor Uyghur baliq baliq
Mishär Tatar balïk balïk
Mrass Shor палық palïq
Nogay балык balïk
Nogay-Karagash балық balïq
Ös palïq palïq
Sakha балык balïk
Salar baluhu* baluxu
Siberian Tatar палыҡ palïq
Soyot балық balïq
Tashkent Uzbek balu: bälu̇̄
Tatar балык balïk
Teleut палық palïq
Tobol-Irtysh Tatar палык palïk
Tòfa балыӄ balïq
Tomsk Tatar палық palïq
Trakai Karaim балых balïx
Tuba-Kizhi балык balïk
Tuha balɨq balïq
Turkish balık balïk
Turkmen balyk balïk
Tuvan балык balïk
Urum (Azovian) балых, балык balïx, balïx
Uyghur بېلىق beliq
Uzbek baliq bäliq
Western Yugur yür yür
Xyzyl палых pālïx

Since I only found the Turkic connection after I had done all the previous research, I now feel as though the good Professor James J. Y. Liu may have led me a merry Arabic chase, though I don't regret it, since I learned so much in following up all the leads for Mamluk and mawla.


We're not talking about the whole Kunlun population and onomastic.  We're talking about a known quantity that is much, much smaller, and about which we have a considerable amount of precise information.  The central figure of our search was a person with the name "Mólè 磨勒" (Middle Sinitic /muɑH//lək̚/) in the celebrated Tang tale, "Kūnlún nú 崑崙奴" ("The Kunlun Slave") — the focus is on nú 奴 ("slave") and "Mólè 磨勒" (Middle Sinitic /muɑH//lək̚/), not Kunlun (Middle Sinitic /kuən  luən/, Old Sinitic  [Zhengzhang]: /*kuːn  ruːn/).  Plus we have all of the contents of the tale itself which tells us a lot about what Mole was like, his character, his abilities, his attributes, his actions, his personality…, together with ancillary historical sources from the same and following periods.

Fiction is a part of history.  Fiction is not utterly divorced from history.  Fiction has a basis in history.  The language of fiction has a linguistic and philological foundation.  Nú 奴" ("slave") is a real word in Sinitic; "Mólè 磨勒" is evidently a foreign name borrowed into Sinitic.  These words didn't just fall down from the sky.  They weren't invented / coined by the author of the Tang story.  We are obliged to take them seriously, even though they are not palpable, physical objects that can be measured and analyzed by instruments.

When all is said and done, it seems to me that the Kunlun nu / slave was a well-known type starting already from before the early Tang period (618-907), that Kunlun nu came from Southeast Asia, that they were astonishingly well adapted to watery environments (i.e., they were not of a continental nature, as would blacks coming from West Asia and the African continent have been), and lastly, but most importantly for this Language Log post, because of their uncanny affinity with aquatic surroundings, it would not be surprising for someone who knew Turkic to give his cherished Kunlun slave the nickname "fish" (bäliq) > "Mólè 磨勒" (Middle Sinitic /muɑH//lək̚/).


[What follows are questions (underlined) posed by me (VHM) with replies by the Song historian, Hugh Clark.  I've encouraged Hugh to write up his contrarian views on the history of Arabs and Persians in East Asia during the Middle Period and publish them in a reputable journal of our field.]

During the Tang period, how many Arabs and Persians were in Guangzhou?

This and the next are linked—obviously Huang Chao could not slaughter more than were there. I’m not sure if there is a way to answer either definitively, but I have long used what might be called the “factor of 10” as a rule of thumb. Presume that an historical number is inflated 10-fold, i.e., did armies numbering multiple 100,000s march across the Central Plain during the Zhanguo [Warring States] era? The 1944 Normandy landings, with all the mid-20th century communications and logistical advantages, numbered ca. 150,000—that still leaves about 10,000 dead in Guangzhou, which is still an astonishing number.

What we cannot know (short of a find akin to the Geniza documents) is how many of those dead were west Asians, how many were SE Asians, how many may even have been natives of Guangzhou (Sinitic and otherwise) who worked for west/SE Asian merchant houses.

What was the main Arabic source for these matters?

As you’re no doubt aware, sources attribute this to Abu Zayd Hasan Ibn Yazid Sirafi. As far as I am aware there is no evidence he was anywhere near south China, nor did he mention a source, so that question is unresolved.

Do the Arabic and Chinese sources corroborate each other?

Again, as far as I know there is no reference in Chinese sources… none.

Muslim traders settled in China as early as 616 AD, correct?  Is it also true that by 1000 AD most import/export was in the hands of Muslims?

The 616 date is linked to a tradition that four Moslems arrived in Guangzhou to proselytize. Two stayed there, one went to Yangzhou, and the 4th to Quanzhou. Problems galore!!

  • The date is implausible—not for the possibility that traders might have arrived, and even perhaps brought news of a new religion (unlikely, but not impossible), but 616 is far too early for proselytizers to reach China.
  • Supposing they did, the links to Guangzhou and Yangzhou are plausible, but Quanzhou 泉州…? First, in 616 the name referred to the city that later becomes Fuzhou, not to the city known today as Quanzhou. Second, neither modern Quanzhou nor Fuzhou were ports of call for the 南海 trade, so there was no reason for proselytizers to stop at either.

I have never read a suggestion that as of the early 北宋 [Northern Song] the trade was overwhelmingly in Moslem hands. However, there is pretty solid evidence that the first mosque in Quanzhou was built sometime soon after the close of, or possibly even during, the Interregnum, so traders who identified as Moslem apparently were already a part of the Fujian trade scene.

A century ago Fujita Toyohachi & post-War Mori Katsumi both argued that the massacre broke the Tang era trade links between West Asia and south China, opening the way for domestic (“Chinese”??) merchants to replace them through the 南海. However, Ouyang Xiu tells us (XWDS 68:846) that Wang Shenzhi, the 閩王, undertook improvement to the Fuzhou port and appealed to the 蠻夷商賈 to come, while his nephew/rival in Quanzhou 王延彬 earned the name 招寳侍郎 (五國故事)

It obviously is a reach to suggest those ManYi merchants were Moslems—far more likely they were SE Asians, and who knows what religion they adhered to (although Islam is plausible). What that evidence tells us, however, is that the rulers in Fujian sought to appeal to non-native traders who must have been bypassing Fujian en route to more established ports further north.

  I somehow doubt that tells you anything you don’t already know, but I thought I would offer it. What I would conclude, however, is that Huang’s army did perpetrate some kind of atrocity on reaching Guangzhou—nowhere near Abu Zayd’s 120,000 dead, but nasty all the same, and that the resident Moslem community was deeply affected.

Selected readings

"Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters" (2/16/21)

"Kunlun: the origins and meanings of a mysterious place name " (2/24/21)

"An early fourth century AD historical puzzle involving a Caucasian people in North China" (1/25/19)

"European slaves in the year 1000 " (5/5/20)

"Slavs and slaves" (1/17/19)

"Cool slave / guy / tofu / whatever" (5/12/18)

"The bearded barbarian" (8/26/15) — especially this comment

"Misogyny as reflected in Chinese characters" (12/25/15)

Julie Wilensky, "The Magical Kunlun and 'Devil Slaves':  Chinese Perceptions of Dark-skinned People and Africa before 1500", Sino-Platonic Papers, 122 (July, 2002), 1-51.  free pdf

[Thanks to Geoff Wade, Sanping Chen, Hugh Clark, Carrie Wiebe, Michael Bates, William H. Nienhauser, Don Wyatt, Marcel Erdal, John Huehnergard, Valerie Hansen, Étienne de La Vaissière, and Yuanfei Wang]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 4:56 pm

    Until now, I knew of "Mameluke" only from Abdul Abulbul Amir (pertinent verse below), so I was fascinated to learn so much more about the word and its origins. Thank you !

    Then this bold Mameluke drew his trusty skibouk
    Singing, "Allah! Il Allah! Al-lah!"
    And with murderous intent he ferociously went
    For Ivan Skavinsky Skavar

  2. DMcCunney said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 5:21 pm

    I was familiar with the Mamluks from other reading, and the possible permutations in what they were called in other areas and the possible linguistic derivations was fascinating.

    But "slave" is itself a slippery term. The sense used here tends to focus on chattel slavery, where a slave is property who can be bought and sold.

    "Slave labels in all cultures tend to shy away from calling a slave a slave. In the US, the Constitution of 1789 avoided using the word "slave" while three times referring to slaves. So long as slavery existed, euphemisms like "servitude" were preferred to calling the institution by its real name." implicitly assumes slavery was chattel (and if memory serves, you had the Gag Rule in Congress at that point that explicitly forbade discussion of slavery, because it was considered a divisive enough issue to split the union.

    But there were other things now recognized forms of slavery. My recollection is that in some cultures, warriors defeated in fair combat by foes could be taken as slaves by the victors. They were expected to be loyal to and obey their masters and fight under their banner, but were *not* property to be bought and sold, could attain high rank, and could be manumitted by their masters as a reward for faithful service.

    Take any explicit reference to chattel slavery out of the discussion and I think things simplify.

  3. martin schwartz said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 5:39 pm

    I'll limit myself to Turkic 'fish'. I don't think it should be written
    as bäliq with regard to a general form. Rather, balïq or BALIQ (with undotted i), cf. Istanbul Turkish BALIK; both syllables with back vowels (a barred i will be fine for the second syllable). bäliq is fishy in that it implies a front vowel, tho some Turkic langs. exceptionally have such in this word, as per the list given. But real Turcologists should weigh in.
    Martin Schwartz

  4. Michael Nash said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 7:21 pm

    The part about the slaves repairing boats from the outside reminded me of these peoples of SE Asia, renowned for their swimming ability and possible evolutionary adaptations to swimming over the last millennium or so (better underwater eyesight for the Moken, and larger spleens affording more red blood cells for the Sama):

    The Moken
    The Sama

  5. Su-Chong Lim said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 7:50 pm

    Haha, Philip Taylor, incredibly, that is the very same single reference to "a bold Mameluke" that I was aware of! My father went to Edinburgh University on a scholarship from Singapore to study Medicine in 1940. One of the things that he brought back was a student’s drinking songbook from which he sang lustily, and one of his favourite songs was the hundred-stanza (or so it seemed) Abdul Abulbul Amir, that I, as a wide-eyed 10 year old in the 1950s, soon learned, and, together with my older brother, sang throughout my childhood.

  6. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 9:47 pm

    I first encountered the term Mameluke in historical novels, perhaps set during the Crusades, but with some or all of the action taking place in Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East, or Northern Africa (in addition to reading the word in “Abdul Abulbul Amir”). I went searching for something to jog my memory about specific book titles, and found this tidbit:

    “ In Arabic literature, the Lebanese writer Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914) was the most prolific novelist of this genre. He wrote 23 historical novels between 1889–1914. His novels played an important in shaping the collective consciousness of modern Arabs during the Nahda period and educated them about their history. The Fleeing Mamluk (1891), The Captive of the Mahdi Pretender (1992), and Virgin of Quraish (1899) are some of his nineteenth-century historical novels.”


    Another group that comes up in historical fiction set east or south of the Mediterranean are the Janissaries. Some more about Mamluks and also Janissaries:

    Hathaway, Jane. “The Military Household in Ottoman Egypt.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 1995, pp. 39–52. JSTOR, Accessed 12 May 2021.

  7. maidhc said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 12:56 am

    Janet Abu-Lughod in Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350 has some interesting discussion of the economics of the Mamluks. Basically there were two main routes to bring spices from the east into the Mediterranean area. Also Chinese porcelain and silk and Indian textiles. One was up the Red Sea, and the other was up the Persian Gulf and then across to the Syrian coast by caravan. In the times when the Mamluks controlled both Egypt and Syria, they had a monopoly on the trade.

    However, there was a limiting factor on their monopoly, because the nature of the Mamluk system required a continuous supply of young male slaves. Only non-Muslim slaves could be converted and then manumitted, creating a permanent relationship with the former owner. The Mongols disrupted the slave trade from Asia, so slaves had to be brought from the Balkans or the Black Sea area. Anyone who could provide a supply of slaves could negotiate a favorable price on spices and other goods which would allow them to dominate trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

    Genoa and Venice were the main rivals in this, but eventually Venice won out, perhaps because it survived the Black Death a bit better.

  8. Lameen said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 3:55 am

    If the original pronunciation was /muɑH//lək̚/, the obvious candidate is neither mawlā nor mamlūk, but rather the common Arabic personal name Mālik (in a Persian accent [mɑlek]). It means "owner" rather than "owned", perhaps ironically.

  9. Lameen said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 4:05 am

    (But of course if a near-contemporary source identifies the name with the Turkic word for "fish", that seems a strong argument for the similarity to Arabic being coincidental.)

  10. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 6:08 am

    In a book originally published in 1935 entitled 蒲寿庚の事蹟, Kuwabara Jitsuzō 桑原隲蔵 discussed 「崑崙国の位置」(location of the Kunlun country) and 崑崙奴 (Kunlun slave). In a new edition of 1989, they are found on pp. 119-122. Unfortunately this important source seems to have been overlooked in the post above (2/24/21).

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 7:16 am

    Hiroshi is referring to this post:

    "Kunlun: the origins and meanings of a mysterious place name" (2/24/21).

    This post, which is embedded therein, is also relevant:

    "Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters" (2/16/21)

    Here are some publications that utilize the outstanding scholarship of Kuwabara Jitsuzō:

    Victoria Almonte, "The Arab Influence on Zhou Qufei's Lingwai Daida: Bosiguo and Kunlun Cengqiguo", Journal of Asian History, 54.1 (2020), 63-106 (43 pages).

    John W. Chaffee, "1 – Merchants of an Imperial Trade", The Muslim Merchants of Premodern China: The History of a Maritime Asian Trade Diaspora, 750–1400 (Cambridge University Press: Online publication date: August 2018), pp. 12-50.

    n. 59 Kuwabara Jitsuzō 桑原騭藏, “On P’u Shou-keng, Part 2,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tōyō Bunko 7 (1935), pp. 48–55.

    n. 68 Kuwabara Jitsuzō, “On P’u Shou-keng, a Man of the Western Regions, Who was the Superintendent of the Trading Ships’ Office in Ch’üan-chou towards the End of the Sung Dynasty, Together with a General Sketch of Trade of the Arabs in China during the T’ang and Sung Eras, Part 1,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Tōyō Bunko 2 (1928), p. 13, citing the Quan Tang wen 全唐文 75. I have converted the romanization to Pinyin.

    Alain George, "Direct Sea Trade Between Early Islamic Iraq and Tang China: from the Exchange of Goods to the Transmission of Ideas", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (July 22, 2015).

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 9:49 am

    The google n-gram viewer indicates that the newer spelling (in English) "Mamluk" overtook the older "Mameluke" in frequency in 1946, which is earlier than I would have guessed. Although perhaps the newer spelling first dominated in more specialized/scholarly contexts which is why "Mameluke" would still in practice have been the spelling I typically encountered in the less cutting-edge and more popularizing books about history that I read as a boy in the 1970's. (So long ago now that, e.g., at least in the U.S. "Moslem" had not yet fully given way to "Muslim.")

  13. Luke said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

    My first exposure to this term was from the Italian-American (Campania) side of my family, where from what I gathered it meant some kind of idiot or someone who does stupid things. I'm not entirely sure where that sense would derive from.

  14. Chris Button said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 11:40 pm

    I think Prof. Liu was probably correct about Mamluk being the source. An m- onset with an -m coda wasn’t really possible for dissimilatory reasons, hence 磨 was a good approximation of the first syllable. I’m not convinced by the fish story, which sounds apocryphal and incidentally conveniently ignores its obstruent onset.

  15. Francesco Brighenti said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 2:32 am

    In Old Italian, “mammalucco” also acquired the figurative sense of ‘fool, stupid, idiot’ (first attested in Pietro Aretino, c.1545). There is no historical justification for such a derogatory use of the word; it was most likely due to the ending -ucco, proper to several derisory/derogatory Italian terms, and the phonetic symbolism of the group ma(m)-, interpreted by Italian ears as representing foolishness/idiocy.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 5:37 am

    @Francesco Brighenti


    Though I'm not a learned native speaker like your good self, I had exactly the same intuition as that which you spell out.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 6:24 am

    @Chris Button

    You're ignoring the solid textual evidence from the 10th century geographical treatise which equates the name of the Kunlun slave in the Tang story with the Turkic word for "fish" (bäliq).

    太平寰宇記 38: 突厥名魚為磨勒.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 6:34 am

    Fish restaurants at the mouth of the Golden Horn in Istanbul write "balık" on their shop signs.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 7:13 am

    The prevalence of fish motifs across Inner Asia is a really interesting subject. Think of some of the Liao / Khitan metalwork, for example. Many of the rivers of the region are renowned for their piscine cuisine, e.g., the extension of the upper Irtysh where it flows through northern Xinjiang.

  20. Chris Button said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 8:24 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    I'm not sure we can simply accept the etymological validity of the proposal in that 10th century treatise.

    The phonology also works better with Mamluk when one looks at what syllables were available.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 14, 2021 @ 6:14 am

    @Chris Button

    It's not a question of etymology. It's a question of historically validated transcription from one language to another, verified by semantic equivalence.

  22. Chris button said,

    May 14, 2021 @ 7:11 am

    But it’s not a transcription, it’s a distortion. Otherwise the author would not have used 磨 for the name. Perhaps the author intentionally distorted it to gently allude to the Turkic word? Alternatively, perhaps the geographical treatise just made the origin up. It certainly sounds pretty fishy to me.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    May 14, 2021 @ 7:51 am

    Well, Chris, I trust a contemporary text that takes into account sound and meaning over your suppositions. "Distortions" happen all the time when we're dealing with transcriptions from one language or topolect to another.

  24. Chris Button said,

    May 14, 2021 @ 11:46 pm

    If the Turkic form had a prenasalized b- then yes I accept it could have been treated as a nasal m-. Perhaps a Turkic specialist could chime in here? In fact, I do now see one form with m- (Khalaj) in the list of Turkic forms above

  25. Chris Button said,

    May 15, 2021 @ 8:30 pm

    Thinking some more on this, isn’t it rather coincidental that a geographical treatise would transcribe the Turkic word for fish using exactly the same characters that were used in the story by Pei Xing that preceded it? It’s almost as if 突厥名魚為磨勒 should be followed by a note saying “Isn’t that funny—just like in the story!” Hardly an objective transcription.

    Then again, maybe there is some validity to the b ~ m alternation from a Turkic perspective. the first person pronoun and number 1000 here would suggest so (but as a pronoun and a numeral, they are bound to show instability):

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