Monthly Archives: May 2015

Arabic Names

Arabic names are composed of four parts: laqab, kunya, ism, and nisba.

The laqab is an honorific title, often a compound with –dīn, ‘religion’; hence Shams al-Dīn, ‘Sun of Religion’, Husām al-Dīn, ‘Sword of Religion’, Badr al-Dīn, ‘Full Moon of Religion’. These titles begin to appear in Ayyubid and Mamluk times and are current everywhere in the late Middle Ages. They were awarded to men of standing by the ruler.

The kunya is a kind of nickname, a familiar name by which the bearer was addressed in lieu of his given name, or ism. The most common kunya was composed of Abū, ‘father’, followed by the name of the first-born son. Hence, in Ibn Battūta’s case, Abū ‘Abd Allāh. The female equivalent is umm. Sometimes the kunya was a real nickname, from some marked characteristic or peculiarity of the bearer: Abū Nuwās, ‘Father of the Spit-curls’, etc.

The ism is the given name proper, usually followed by the name of the father, grandfather and great-grandfather and ending with the eponymous ancestor, in IB’s case, ‘Battūta’. These names are separated by b., standing for ‘bin’, the form of the word ‘ibn,’ ‘son’ used in genealogies. In IB’s case, his full name gives his genealogy to the seventh generation.

The nisba, an adjectival form ending in ī gives the bearer’s tribal affiliation, place of birth or sometimes occupation. IB has two nisbas, the first indicating that he was descended from a member of the Berber tribe of Lawāta, the second indicating that he was born in Tangier.

The complete name of the traveller we call Ibn Battūta is thus:

Shams al-Dīn Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Muhammad b. Ibrāhīm b. Muhammad b. Ibrāhīm b. Yūsuf ibn Battūta al-Lawātī al-Tanjī

European and Arab scholars typically simplify Arabic names both in texts and indexes. The convention is to refer to the above traveller as Ibn Battūta, for this is how he was best known.  The capitalized Ibn stands for the entire preceding ism. ‘Battūta’ is the most unusual part of the name, and serves alone to identify the bearer. Arab scholars past and present similarly used truncated forms of well-known names in the interests of simplification, but today Arabic names in the Arabic-speaking world are often indexed under the ism, followed by the laqab, kunya and nisba. This can make consulting catalogues and indices a long and wearisome task.

There are many cases, however, where none of the elements of the name are sufficiently unusual for this procedure to be followed. In these cases (and they are frequent), it is normal to index under the ism.

Names of rulers are normally given by European scholars in truncated form. In the mid-9th century the ‘Abbasid caliphs adopted theophoric titles. These are generally simplified, even when they do risk to the canons of Arabic grammar. Hence al-Mutawwakil or even Mutawwakil, rather than al-Mutawakkil ‘alā Allāh, ‘He who relies upon God’.

Two-hour periods (watches) of the day

In Ancient China the 24 hours of the day were divided into the following 12 two-hour periods, sometimes called “watches”. They are: Zi 子 (11pm-1am), Chou 丑 (1am-3am) , Yin 寅 (3am-5am), Mou 卯 (5am-7am), Chen 辰 (7am-9am), Si 巳 (9am-11am), Wu 午 (11am-1pm), Wei 未 (1pm-3pm), Shen 申 (3pm-5pm), You 酉 (5pm-7pm), Xu 戌 (7pm-9pm), and Hai 亥 (9pm-11pm).

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove

The “seven sages of the bamboo grove” 竹林七贤 were Ji Kang 嵇康, Ruan Ji 阮籍, Shan Tao 山涛, Xiang Xiu 向秀, Liu Ling 刘伶, Wang Rong 王戎 and Ruan Xian 阮咸.


In the Weizheng period (240-249) they often met together in a bamboo grove in Shanyang county 山阳县, Henan province, in the region of present-day Hui county 辉县 and Xiuwu 修武. There they gathered to read poetry, play music, discuss philosophy and drink wine with abandon.

Preface to Daoyi zhilue

The following is translated from the preface to Wang Dayuan’s Daoyi zhilue (A Synoptical Account of the Islands and their Barbarians) by its editor Su Jiqing, published in Wang Dayuan, Daoyi zhilue jiaoshi, edited by Su Jiqing, Zhongwai jiaotong shiji congkan series (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981, rpt. 2000).

written by Su Jinqing, translated by Sally K Church

daoyizhilue_cover_smOf the accounts that survive of long-distance maritime voyages during the Yuan dynasty, one is Zhou Daguan’s Zhenla fengtu ji and the other is Wang Dayuan’s Daoyi zhilue. Daoyi zhilue fills an important gap between Lingwai daida and Zhufanzhi [Song dynasty works described earlier in the preface], and Ming accounts such as Yingya shenglan [by Ma Huan] and Xingcha shenglan [by Fei Xin].

Wang’s work has 99 sections in which he describes places he visited personally. The 100th section quotes accounts by other writers from a work called Yiwen leiju (A collection of strange things people have heard), and is not based on his own travels. He also mentions other places within his 99 sections, thus there are a total of 220 places mentioned in the work as a whole and listed in the index. [The modern edition contains three indices: one of place names in Chinese, one of place names in English and one of trade goods, identifying the section in which it is mentioned.]

In his History of Communications in the South Seas, Feng Chengjun said, “This book contains many errors introduced through copying or printing” (p. 84). What he says is still a superficial observation. The arrangement of the places treated in Wang’s book is not entirely according to their geographical location, and there are occasions where he gives different translations for the same place name. This will be apparent to the careful reader.

Paul Pelliot did not annotate this work, and may not have read the entire work, but he urges the reader not to rely on the identification of place names too heavily (1936, T’oung Pao, p. 372). He did not mean that the book was totally unreliable, but was just warning his readers to treat the identifications with caution.

Not much is known about Wang Dayuan’s life. There are two prefaces to the work by Zhang Zhu and Wu Jian, which say that his style name was Huanzhang, and that he was from Nanchang. Zhang’s preface says, “When he reached capping age [guannian] he sailed on two maritime voyages to the Eastern and Western oceans”. Because in ancient times men reached capping age at 20 years old, this must mean he took his long-distance maritime voyages when he was just 20 by ancient Chinese reckoning (by which a person is considered one year old at birth). This would mean he was 19 years of age in the modern sense. So he must have been born in the fourth year of the Zhida reign period of Emperor Wuzong of the Yuan dynasty, or in 1311.

In the book itself, he records two dates: one is 1330 (the gengwu year of the Zhishun reign period of Emperor Wenzong) in the entry on Dafoshan (Great Buddha Mountain), saying that in the winter of this year he moored at the foot of Dafoshan (on the coast of present-day Sri Lanka), and the other is in the entry on Siam (Xian), where he speaks of the summer of 1349 (the jichou year of the Zhizheng reign period of Emperor Shundi). The entry on Siam is appended to that on Luohu. These two dates are almost 20 years apart, and it is suspected that there is something wrong with the second one – see the note on the Siam entry [zi cong lue]. Zhang’s preface says that Wang took two trips, but Wu’s preface does not mention the number of times he sailed, but only says he sailed for several years. Nowadays it is thought most likely that he made two trips, altogether amounting to 8 years.

We do not know the exact date when he returned from his first voyage, but he seems to have sailed throughout the Indian Ocean. During the Yuan period, one navigators whose name appears in the sources is Yang Shu, who was Wang’s contemporary. A funerary inscription for Yang Shu by Huang Jin, entitled “Haiyun qianhu Yang Shu muzhiming”, says that he left the capital in 1304 (in the 8th year of Dade) and arrived at Hormuz in 1307 (the 11th year), and that “on this trip, he travelled amidst the great wind and giant waves for five star-frosts [xingshuang], or five years” (Collected works of Huang Jin, Jinhuang Huang xiansheng wenji, juan 35). Therefore Wang’s first return journey must have taken 5 years, and he must have come back in the summer or autumn of 1334 (the second year of Yuantong, under Emperor Shundi). After he returned to China, he lived in Quanzhou or Nanchang for about three years. On his second journey he departed from Quanzhou, probably in 1337 (in the 3rd year of Zhiyuan under Emperor Shundi). He probably covered a smaller area on his second voyage than on his first, travelling only in Southeast Asia, and probably for three years. Most likely he returned to China in the summer or autumn of 1339 (the 5th year of Zhiyuan). Therefore, his two voyages took approximately 8 years. On his return Wang was 27, which accords with what he says in his own preface to the work, “In my youth I once took ship and sailed on the seas”. Thus we can construct a timeline of his voyages as follows:

1311 (Zhida 4, Emperor Wuzong) – Wang Dayuan was born.
1330 (Zhishun 1, Emperor Shundi) – Departed from quanzhou on his first voyage.
1334 (Yuantong 2, Emperor Shundi) – Returned to China in the summer or autumn.
1334-1337 (Zhiyuan 3, Emperor Shundi) – Stayed in China.
1337 – Departed from Quanzhou on his second voyage
1339 (Zhiyuan 5, Emperor Shundi) – Returned to China in the summer or autumn.
1349 (Zhizheng 9, Emperor Shundi) – He wrote Daoyi zhilue.

These dates are just estimates of course, and can be correlated to Pelliot’s research. (pp. 9-11)