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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 34

The Ferengi is a Frank: Linguistic Lore Across the Centuries

Portuguese in India, c. 1548

Frank, Farang, Ferenghi, Folangji, Ferengi.

Europe, Persia, Burma, China, Star Trek?

“Are these related,” I was asked after a recent talk about Portuguese travels in Asia and China five centuries ago. I had referred to both Ferenghi and Folangji as early Asian names for Europeans.

The answer is actually yes. The twentieth-century writers of the twenty-fourth century Star Trek reached back in time to name (and characterize) an extraterrestrial species, the Ferengi.

Franks A.D. 400-600s (Albert Kretschmer, Costumes of All Nations 1882),

Frank. The Franks were a Germanic tribe from around the 3rd century CE. They grew into a powerful Middle Ages force across Europe. Charlemagne (late 8th and early 9th centuries) was a great King of the Franks. He expanded his rule to unite most of western and central Europe. Charlemagne was subsequently named a Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in 800 CE. The Franks were Christians who later took part in the Crusades seeking to defeat Muslim powers near and far.

Two of twelve Portuguese ships on the second India sailing from Lisbon in 1533,

Memoria das Armadas

As Venetians and other Europeans first ventured east by land during the fifteenth century and earlier and later Portuguese followed by the Dutch, English and French expanded to maritime Asia in significant numbers during the sixteenth century, they encountered longtime power players in these new regions. Mongols, Muslims, and Persians each began using the term, Frank, in various iterations, to refer to some or all Europeans.

Stone Farang at Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok, c. 1824–1851,

Farang. The term, Farang, originated as the Persian version of a European Frank. A related name is Frangistan (“Land of the Franks”), referring to Christian Europe. Farang is also a word in the Thai language. It means “person of the white race” or “foreigner” more generally. The historical connotation of these terms was often not positive.

An Arab chronicle from the beginning of the sixteenth century writes that “‘the vessels of the Frank appeared at sea [in 1502] en route to India, Hormuz and those parts. They took about seven vessels, killing those on board and taking some prisoner. This was their first action, may God curse them.’”1

Burmese Temple mural, late 18th century (Portuguese captain in ship cabin)

Ferenghi. In Burmese, the early Portuguese were the kala-barin-gyi, or “Ferenghi Indians.” In Bangladesh and West Begal, firingi refers to locals who have European ancestry. In Malay, the term is sometimes spelled as “Feringgi.”

Around 1509, the Malay Kings chronicled that

“‘…there came a Feringgi ship from Goa, and it came to trade in Melaka….The people crowded round to see what the Feringgi looked like, and they were all surprised at their appearance. The Melaka people said, ‘These are white Begalis!’ Dozens of Melaka people surrounded each Feringgi; some twisted his beard, some knocked his head, some took off his hat, and some grasped his hand.’”2

“Woman from Atlantic Countries” from late 18th century

“Portraits of Foreigners” scroll by Chinese artist

Folangji. The Chinese term for the early Portuguese was Folangji (also spelled Fo-lang-chi). It is a transliteration of Feringgi/Ferenghi. In discussing the Portuguese smuggler-traders operating off the Chinese coast between 1521-1551, a contemporary Chinese Ming Dynasty historical record notes that

the Fo-lang-chi who came, brought their local pepper, sappan-wood, ivory, thyme-oil, aloes, sandal-wood, and all kinds of incense in order to trade with our borderers.3

Ferengi. The Ferengi from the planet Ferenginar were introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. The fictional year is 2364. The Ferengi play an even more prominent role in a spin-off, Deep Space Nine. The Ferengi are a cunning, hyper-capitalistic species focused on the acquisition of profit as the highest end. They will employ any method to achieve their goal.

Star Trek writers have acknowledged that the name, Ferengi, was derived directly from the Persian and Asian term, “Ferenghi,” representing foreigners (and Europeans). Since the Portuguese and more broadly the Europeans in Asia during the 16th-19th centuries were also hyper focused on cut-throat trade and profit (albeit with a large dash of religion also thrown into the mix), the choice of name seems most appropriate.

Frank, Farang, Ferenghi, Folangji, Ferengi. A naming lingua franca across the centuries.


1 Anthony Reid, Charting the Shape of Early Modern Southeast Asia, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, Chapter 8, Page 166

2 Reid, Chapter 8, Page 162

3 C.R. Boxer, ed., South China in the Sixteenth Century, Orchid Press, 2044, Introduction, Page xxiii


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