CHINA AND LANKA before the coloniser
Posted on November 27th, 2012

Prof. W.I. SIRIWEERA-Courtesy The Daily News

Sri Lanka had close contacts with China before the intervention of European colonial powers. The contacts between the two countries were mainly motivated to enhance direct and indirect commercial relations and direct cultural relations which helped exchange of Buddhist missions.

The recorded evidence of Chinese trade relations with Sri Lanka dates back to the first century A.D. From this period onwards, sporadic references mainly in Chinese texts are found to missions exchanged between the two countries. The earliest mission originated from China during the reign of Emperor P’ing (1-6 A.D.) of the Han Dynasty who sent a delegation of officials to several South Asian Countries including Ssu-Cheng-Pu which can be identified as Sinhadipa, one of the ancient names of Sri Lanka. The object of the mission was to ‘spread the power and virtue’ of the Han Emperor and ‘search for precious objects’.

Later on, in 131, 414, 428, 435, 455, 527, 670, 712, 742, 746, 750, 762, and 989 A.D. thirteen missions were sent to China by kings of Anuradhapura. Some of these missions were of a purely religious nature but undoubtedly their objective was to establish cordial political relations aimed at securing greater trade contacts. The Chinese sources refer to them as “ƒ”¹…”tribute’ missions. Ancient China’s relationships with foreign kingdoms were based on the Chinese perception of superiority over the non-Chinese people, a perception based on the moral superiority of their emperor and the pre-eminence of their culture and economy. The fact that Anuradhapura kings took the initiative in sending all these missions suggests that Sri Lanka was a major beneficiary of trade between China and South Asia as well as China and the kingdoms of West Asia. This trade was conducted at the time either through long-haul merchant voyages or zonal segmented merchant voyages with merchants of each region navigating and trading mainly within its sailing zone.

Exchange of missions

In the thirteenth century the Chinese also initiated missions to Sri Lanka. The Mongols, who assumed the dynastic name Yu’an, dispatched four missions to Sri Lanka, all of them during the reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1294 A.D.) in the years 1273, 1284 , 1291, and 1293 A.D. The outward looking foreign policy of Kublai Khan and the greater Chinese interest in foreign trade were perhaps the key factors in the change of attitudes in initiating these missions. The only Sri Lankan mission to Yu’an court was sent in 1293 A.D. i.e. during the reign of Sri Lankan King Parakramabahu III. Subsequently, under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) Sri Lanka became one of the focal points of attention during the well known maritime expeditions of Cheng-Ho. In one of Cheng-Ho’s Sri Lankan visits in 1411-12 A.D. he encountered hostilities from the nobility in the capital; Kotte, but he retaliated in a later visit which resulted in the enthronement of a king who had a friendly deposition towards the Chinese Emperor. Later on, there were exchanges of missions between the king of Kotte, Parakramabahu VI, and Chinese emperors in 1416, 1421, 1430, 1433, 1436, and 1459 A.D.

As mentioned earlier, most of these missions between China and Sri Lanka had trade as the primary objective. For the ruling elite in both countries trade, besides being a source of revenue, was an important means of acquiring prestige goods. However, only by blending together the textual references with the archeological data, can a holistic picture of trading patterns between Sri Lanka and China be painted.

Sri Lankan ships

All the missions mentioned above followed the sea route between the two countries. Several references to ships that plied between Sri Lanka and China are found in Sri Lankan, Chinese as well as other foreign sources.

Sailboat commerce

In the fifth century A.D., the Chinese monk Fa-Hien who studied Buddhist texts at Anuradhapura, on his return journey to China from Sri Lanka went in a large merchant vessel which could carry up to 200 men. A Persian writer, Cosmas Indicopleustes, wrote in the sixth century that Sri Lanka was visited by many ships from various parts of the world including China.

Fa-Hien Thera

The mandarin who wrote Tang Kuo Shih Pu reported two centuries later, that many foreign ships arrived at An-nang and Kuang-Chou each year and amongst them the ships from the ‘Lion Kingdom’ (Sri Lanka) were the largest. Further, Li Chao refers to Sri Lankan vessels which reached Vietnam and China every year. Several of the Chinese pilgrims whose voyages were recorded by I-tsing in the seventh century came to Sri Lanka before proceeding to the Western, South Western and Southern parts of India perhaps because it was easier to land in Sri Lankan ports from China and South-East Asia than to sail direct to India. The patterns of shipping and navigation appear to have generally worked in favour of Srihiuen tsang Lankan ports and helped to enhance their importance in trade between South and South- East Asia.

But after about the tenth century when the pattern of oceanic currents was known and with the improvements of nautical technology and direct sailing, the importance of Sri Lankan ports as transit centres diminished. Yet to some extent direct trade between Sri Lanka and South East Asia continued. Chinese vessels touched at the Sri Lankan ports as testified to by Chau-Ju-Kua while some Chinese vessels which did not reach Sri Lanka proceeded to Indian ports. In the latter case, Sri Lankan and Chinese products were exchanged by merchants in the Indian ports such as Jurfattan. Only when Chinese official intervention prohibited China trading beyond Malacca in 1433 did direct Sino-Lanka trade relations come to a standstill.

Sea routes

Several sea routes, some of which were inter linked regional routes, were followed by navigators between Sri Lanka and China and vice versa. Of these, one of the popular routes from Sri Lanka was along the Coromandel Coast, Bay of Bengal, Burma Coast, Malacca Straits (Kalah Bar) and Hanoi in Indo-China to Canton (Khanfu). Depending on the monsoon winds, ships sailing to Canton from Sri Lanka avoided the Coromandel Coast, Bay of Bengal and Burma Coast and sailed direct to the Northern end of the Malacca Straits and passed through South Asian Kingdoms such as Ho-ling, Dvarvati, Fu-nan and sailed to Canton. The two wind system helped navigation and trade along these routes. These were the South-West monsoon from April to September at the onset of which easterly direction navigation from South Asia started and the North East monsoon from October to March at the onset of which navigation in a westerly direction from China commenced. Chinese private trading groups, the office of Huang-men which was part of the Shao-fu or the Chinese imperial treasury, Sri Lankan traders and traders from other countries who were engaged in intermediary trade were the four main groups involved in this Sino-Lanka trade. The role of each group varied from time to time and according to circumstances and political conditions both in South Asia and China.

Trade commodities

Of the items exported from Sri Lanka to China special reference may be made to ivory, precious stones, pearls, chanks, turtle shells, muslin and spices. It is specifically stated that in the mission of 742 A.D. the Chinese court received large pearls, ornaments embedded with precious stones and white muslin. In 750 A.D. and 762 A.D. the messengers took with them ivory and pearls as “ƒ”¹…”tribute’. Of the trade commodities sent from China to Sri Lanka both for Sri Lankan market and for transshipment, Chinese silks and ceramics took pride of place. Sri Lankan classical literature indicates that swords and musical instruments imported from China were also in use in the Island.

Chinese Buddhist monk and traveller Fa-Hien reported about the abundant availability of precious gemstones

There are no archeological materials confirming earlier mentioned textual references to Sri Lankan contacts in the first few centuries of the Christian era. But from the sixth century onwards contacts are represented archeologically by several kinds of Chinese ceramics as well as Chinese coins. Chinese coins belonging to almost all emperors from 976 A.D. to 1265 A.D. have been unearthed at Mahatittha, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dedigama, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Alutwewa, Nindavur, Kurukkalmadam, Kalmunai and Talaimannar.

A large mass of Chinese ceramics in the form of complete vessels as well as sherds have been found in the interior as well as the sea coast in Sri Lanka. They include plates, dishes, bowls with or without lids, tea cups and big and small jars. The most important sites of the finds in the interior are ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, and the monastic complex at Mihintale. The coastal sites are Mantai, Gokanna, Allaippiddi, Vankalai and Nilaveli which indicate trading vessels bringing them from China for local use as well as for transshipment. A hoard of six thousand sherds have been found in the sand dunes in the coastal areas at Allaippiddi. These deposits belonged to the debris of a wrecked ship. In this site thirty five types of Chinese ceramics have been identified.

Archeological evidence

It should be noted that until the eleventh century, besides Chinese ceramics, ceramics from West Asia particularly from Persia were also imported to Sri Lanka. However, during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, the Sri Lankan sites contain almost no contemporary West Asian ceramics. The former balance between Chinese and West Asian ceramic goods has now tilted sharply towards the Chinese.

So far there has been no archeological evidence of the fourteenth and fifteenth century Chinese ceramics in Sri Lankan sites. But literary accounts refer to six Chinese, exploratory trading expeditions as far as the Mediterranean under Cheng-Ho, who visited Sri Lanka twice in 1411/1412 on these expeditions. The Galle Trilingual Slab inscription written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil set up by Cheng-Ho during his second voyage points to close trade contacts between the island and China in the fifteenth century.

The fifteenth century author, Ma Huan states that musk, coloured taffetas, blue and white porcelain ware, copper coins and camphor were imported from China to Sri Lanka and exchanged for pearls and precious stones. It is likely that many of the Chinese ceramics found in Sri Lankan sites were imported as trade commodities for the use of royalty, the elite and the Buddhist priesthood.

Some may have reached Sri Lanka as gifts from the Chinese emperors, nobles, merchants as well as through Chinese pilgrims and travellers. Some of the items found in the ports and coastal sites may also have been items meant for transit trade. In any event, both archeological and textual evidence prove beyond any doubt that there were very considerable trade contacts between China and Sri Lanka in the pre-colonial era.

China’s ceramic trade with ancient Rajarata

One Response to “CHINA AND LANKA before the coloniser”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Thank you for this valuable information.

    SL and China had BETTER CONTINUING relations THAN India. Our good relationship with India was on and off and only in very few times.

    That too collapsed when India reverted back to Hinduism.

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