WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


 China's ceramic trade with ancient Rajarata


By Prof. W. I. Siriweera,
Vice Chancellor, Rajarata University

SRI LANKA has had close contacts with China during the period of the ancient Rajarata Civilization. The contacts between the two countries were mainly motivated to enhance direct and indirect commercial relations. This essay focuses primarily on the Chinese Ceramics trade.

The recorded evidence of Chinese trade relations with Sri Lanka dates back to the first century A. D.. From this period onwards, sporadic textual references 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 Chinese 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, around 131 A.D., 414 A.D., 428 A.D., 435 A.D., 455 A.D., 527 A.D., 670 A.D., 712 A.D., 742 A.D., 746 A.D., 750 A.D., 762 A.D., 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 presumably aimed at securing greater trade contacts. 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. Later on, the Chinese also initiated missions to Sri Lanka. The Mongols who assumed the dynastic name Yu'an, despatched four missions to Sri Lanka, all of them during the reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1294 A.D.), in the years 1273 A.D., 1284 A.D., 1291A.D., 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 the 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.

One of Cheng-Ho's Sri Lankan visits in 1411-12 A.D. was unpleasant as he encountered hostilities with the nobility at Kotte, but another visit resulted in the enthronement of a king who had a friendly disposition towards the Chinese Emperor. Later on, there was an exchange of missions between the kings of Kotte and the Chinese emperors in 1416 A.D., 1421A.D., 1430 A.D., 1432 A.D., 1433 A.D., 1436 A.D. and 1459 A.D..

At least some of these missions exchanged between China and Sri Lanka would have 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 archaeological data can a holistic picture of trading patterns between Sri Lanka and China be achieved.

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 and Chinese as well as other foreign sources. In the fifth century. A.D., the Chinese monk Fa-Hien who studied at Anuradhapura, on his return journey to China from Sri Lanka went in a large merchant vessel which could carry up to 200 men. The Persian writer, Cosmas Indicopleustes, wrote in the sixth country that Sri Lanka was visited by many ships from various parts of the world including China. According to R.A.L.H. Gunawardena and Sakurai Li Chao, the mandarin who wrote Tang Kou Shih pu reported two centuries later, that many foreign ships arrived at An-nang and Kuang-Chou each year and among 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 the facilities available made it easier to land from China and South-East Asia to Sri Lanka than to sail direct to India.

The patterns of shipping and navigation appear to have generally worked in favour of Sri 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, 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-Sri Lankan trade relations come to a standstill.

Several sea routes, some of which were interlinked 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 the Burma Coast and sailed direct to the northern end of the Malacca Straits and passed through South Asian Kingdoms such as Ho-ling, Dvaravati, Fu-nan and sailed to Canton. The two wind systems 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-Sri 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.

Of the items exported from Sri Lanka to China special reference may be made to precious stones, pearls, chanks, turtle shells, muslin and spices. Of the trade commodities sent from China to Sri Lanka both for the Sri Lankan market and for transhipment, Chinese silks and ceramics took pride of place.

There is no archaeological material 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 archaeologically by several kinds of Chinese ceramics as well as Chinese coins belonging to almost every emperor from 976 A.D. to 1265 A.D..

The earliest of the ceramics are storage jars or jar fragments of the period of the Tang Dynasty. Thick, grey-brown coloured stoneware with pale olive-green glaze exterior and interior are the usual types of earliest Chinese ceramics found at the largest port in ancient Rajarata, Mahatittha-the great port. The most common form of these is a large, flat-based storage jar with a short vertical neck and six horizontal strap handles around the shoulder. These jars, found only in port sites indicate that they were used as storage vessels that would have served as shipping containers for valuable products than as objects traded for their intrinsic value.

Besides grey-brown coloured stoneware with glazed interior and exterior, black striated stoneware and dark brown glazed stoneware jars or jar fragments have been unearthed at Mahatittha. Black striated stoneware are restricted to flat-based storage jars while dark brown stoneware jars have dark brown glazed interior surfaces and contain vertical handles.

The fact that these large storage jars have been found in the busiest Sri Lankan port at the time, clearly indicates that they were not meant as religious gifts or gifts to the rulers but were brought into the island as shipping containes for valuables and fragile or easily damaged products. A high proportion of these storage jars found at the port of Mahatittha also indicates active Sino-Sri Lankan trade relations during the T'ang period.

Fragments of different varieties of Chinese bowls datable to the T'ang and Five Dynasties-approximately from the seventh to the tenth century A.D. have been found at the port of Mahatittha, the Abhayagiri monastic complex at Anuradhapura and at Mihintale. If they were found only at the monastic complexes they could not have been considered as definite evidence of trade contacts as the possibility of these items being given as religious gifts from China cannot be overlooked. But the fact that they have been found both at the port of Mahatittha and monastic complexes indicates that there was a brisk ceramic trade between Sri Lanka and China.

It should be noted that 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. High quality Sung Celadons and white porcelains became the import ceramics of choice. Pieces of these have been unearthed in the excavations of the later capitals such as Polonnaruwa and Yapahuwa along with hoards of Chinese coins. In addition, chance finds of ceramic cargoes at Allaipiddi in the northern part of Sri Lanka, Nilaveli in the north-eastern coast and of individual pieces at Galle harbour show that new ports were also used in Sino-Sri Lankan trade during the period eleventh to thirteenth centuries.

Despite the continuation in the Chinese ceramic trade with Sri Lanka, there seems to have been some change in its contents. The largescale usage of big storage jars either as shipping containers or as trade objects that was evident prior to the tenth century, has declined. The sites with luxury Sung ceramics no longer have so many pieces of the contemporary large stoneware jars.

A substantial number of Sung ceramics have been unearthed at Allaipiddi on the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Most of these are either bowls, bowl fragments, jars and jar fragments, but one is a large tub or a basin. The large tub which can be dated to the eleventh to early twelfth century A.D. is of grey-brown colour and is made of hard-fired clay. It is decorated with a medium brown glaze covering the interior and exterior surfaces but not the slightly incurring base. It has flaring sides and a rolled rim above its almost flat base.

So far there has been no archaeological evidence of the fourteenth and fifteenth century Chinese ceramic, 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 Chinese 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.

Most of the Chinese ceramics found in Sri Lankan sites have come from the kilns is Zhejiang, Fujian, Huanan, Jianx and Guandong provinces which were the major areas of the manufacture of Chinese porcelain. The Alahana Parivena site at Polonnaruawa has led to the discovery of several samples of ceramics from the famous kiln at Jingezhen in the Jianxi Province.

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 and 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 archaeological and textual evidence prove beyond any doubt that there were very considerable Chinese ceramic imports to Sri Lanka particularly between the beginning of the sixth century A.D. and the end of the thirteenth century A.D. However, a great deal of further research has to be conducted to understand the mechanics of this trade e.g. collection and export from China, storage in ships, entrepot trade, unloading in Sri Lankan ports, the nature of exchange and payments, transport to cities such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the interior, distribution within cities and donations to the monastic establishments.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka