In the southern Chinese port city of Guangzhou (or Canton), on the cemetery grounds of the 1300-year-old Huaisheng Mosque, is a bilingual Chinese and Arabic epitaph of one Ramadan ibn Alauddin who died in 1349. The Arabic inscription, typical of Islamic funerary writing, quotes Quranic verses and mentions a few details about Ramadan’s life. The Chinese inscription tells us more, that he was a man from Korea appointed governor of a nearby prefecture.
And here we have a Korean Muslim governor serving the Mongol empire at its farthest, southernmost ends. On the one hand, this Ramadan, of whom we know nothing beyond what is written on his epitaph, was exceptional. As the earliest documented Korean Muslim, we do not know whether he was a rare example of a medieval Korean conversion to Islam or a member of an obscure Muslim community that had settled in Korea.
On the other hand, Ramadan was more than a faded memory of a distant moment in time. Buried in a cosmopolitan city that has long linked China to the seas beyond, Ramadan and his career were a product of Mongol imperial expansion and growing merchant and religious networks—the same world-shaping forces that made possible the fabled travels of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and made the medieval world global.
In 2021, UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies was renamed the CMRS Center for Early Global Studies (CMRS-CEGS). One purpose of doing so was to recognize how our world was linked in the past, all the while pushing beyond a Eurocentric view of the Middle Ages and Renaissance toward a global perspective. As the recently appointed Associate Director of CMRS-CEGS, I look forward to supporting this new direction through programming that examines the role of interconnections in earlier periods of world history and the potential of comparative and interregional perspectives in understanding them.
In the coming year, CMRS-CEGS will host a series of seminars, workshops, and conferences on topics ranging from multilingualism and the Silk Road to the Iberian Peninsula in the global Middle Ages. Through these events, we hope to encourage transdisciplinary dialogue and expand our collective understanding of the early global past.
In early modern Korea, the focus of my own research, these interconnections in the fourteenth century led to widened intellectual and geographical horizons in the fifteenth century. They inspired King Sejong’s ambitious astronomical projects that drew on Chinese and Arabic mathematical techniques. They are also reflected in the Kangnido, a Korean world map from 1402 that, at its farthest edges, outlined the coast of Africa and marked, in Sinitic transliteration, the Arabic names of Paris, Lisbon, and Venice.
Like cartographers who created Kangnido, whose full name translates to Integrated Map of the Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Their Capitals, I hope we, as the early global studies community, will continue to take perspectives that are respectful of regional particularities and open to global possibilities. And just as King Sejong’s astronomical projects benefitted from a synthesis of Chinese and Arabic mathematical techniques, so too can our scholarly endeavors be enriched by taking a global perspective. I hope we can count on each other’s support in this mission to reshape how we understand the past and, by extension, how we navigate our future. I also look forward to hearing how CMRS-CEGS can support your initiatives in the near future. In the meantime, I hope to see you at the many events planned for the 2023–2024 academic year.
Associate Director, CMRS Center for Early Global Studies
Assistant Professor, Asian Languages & Cultures