WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


Ancient Sri-Lankan trade and

cultural links with China

by S.S.M. Nanayakkara

z_p33-ancient.jpg (18824 bytes)
Chinese ceramicware

The earliest authenticated reference to Sri Lankan links with China is made by the Roman historian and naturalist Pliny the elder who fell victim to the catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Pliny chronicles an account of a Sri Lankan embassy to Rome in the reign of emperor Claudius Caesar (10 B.C. - 54 B.C.).

He records that the leader of the embassy, who is identified by the Roman appellation 'Rachia' spoke of stalwart men of light complexion, blue slit eyes, coarse voices and lacking a common language who called for trade at the port of Mantota in the Mannar coast, then a flourishing trade entry point in the island.

In all likelihood there is no doubt that the strangers referred to by the leader of the embassy are Chinese who regularly called over at this port on their trade missions. The Chinese began exporting ceramics and silk to Sri Lanka as early as the Roman period or even earlier. By the beginning of the ninth century there was a brisk trade in these commodities - shards of Chinese ceramicware found scattered in many places along the coastline of the Jaffna peninsula possibly from ancient shipwrecks.

Some years back a hoard of 6000 fragments of Chinese ceramic ware of undetermined age was discovered at the historic port of Allaipiddy in Jaffna. These findings are symbolic of the regular trade links between early China and Sri Lanka.

Michel Boyn, a Polish Jesuit who sojourned in China as a missionary in 1652 says, "There were formerly to be seen in the Persian gulf four hundred Chinese vessels laden with Zeilan (Sri Lankan) cinnamon, spices and other goods together with porcelain ware from China." This statement of Michel Boyn is corroborated by Texeira and Garcia contemporary Chroniclers who were with the Portuguese army of conquest in Sri Lanka.

James Emerson Tennent, the noted nineteenth century British administrator and chronicler who has had access to ancient Chinese scrolls, mentions that Chinese trade with the island was remarkably early and extensive, they coincided with the Anuradhapura epoch or even earlier. The early Chinese appear to have been more familiar with the Sinhalese on account of their being Buddhists. The Chinese were probably the first outsiders to penetrate the interior of the island.

Among the ancient Sinhalese customs noted by the early Chinese were those of funeral rites, the peculiar head adornment of the men-folk and the dresses of the upper classes.

They speak of women beating their breasts while lamenting over their dead, the long hair of the men-folk who roll it up on the back of their heads - a practice strange to a people who wore their's in pig-tails. The first embassy from Sri Lanka to China was in the year 428 A.D. when a statue of the Buddha in jade, painted in five colours, five feet in height was sent as a present to the Chinese emperor through an envoy by king Mahanamo in that year.

The famed fourteenth century Chinese celadon bowl discovered at Yapahuwa was for a time misinterpreted by researchers as a bowl relic of Gautama Buddha. The ancient port of Mantota is reputed to have been an important port of call between China and Rome, while the major land route linking China with the west was the time-honoured Silk Road, the golden road to Samarkand and beyond. The route was christened 'Die Siedenstrasse' - the Silk Road by the nineteenth century German explorer and scholar, baron Ferdinand von Richthofen.

Silk road

It was, for more than 4000 years, the main avenue of communication between the Mediterranean and the then little known mysterious East.

The Phoenicians and other Semites, later the Arabs virtually monopolised it jealously guarding the lucrative traffic in silk and the secrets of its production which the Chinese were loth to divulge to the outside world. What scanty trade the Chinese had direct with the West was by the hazardous sea route through the port of Mantota.

Fa-Hien the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim traveller sojourned in Sri Lanka poring over the assidously studying Buddhist texts. He visited Anuradhapura in 413 A.D. in the reign of Mahanama. Fa-Hien's journey to Sri Lanka was by way of Tibet crossing the Himalayas near the river Indus, subsequently sailing on the Hooghly on a vessel bound for Sri Lanka. In his chronicles he records that he was greatly moved to find silks here from his native China and to witness a Chinese merchant offer a silk fan to a Buddha image in Anuradhapura. By this time the island was known to the Chinese as 'Sihaladvip'. Contemporary Chinese records maintain that Persia bound vessels from China traded in gems, spices and ivory at the flourishing port of Mantota. Ivory was highly valued in China where expert Chinese craftsmen turned out exquisite carvings from it. Fa-Hien gives a fascinating description of the king's palace and the monastery near it. Five hundred monks resided in the monastery at the time of his visit.

"The king's palace" he says "took eight years to build, it is about 250 cubits high, richly embellished in elegant inlaid work." On the eve of his departure he made an offering of a valuable white silk fan with its ivory handle exquisitely carved and inlaid in gold to the Abeyagiri monastery.

Ibn Batuta, the romantic Arab pilgrim traveller from Tangiers, in his account of the sacred foot-print on Sri Pada visited by him over 900 years after Fa-Hien's visit to Anuradhapura records "The Chinese came here at some former time and cut out a piece from the imprinted stone and reposited it in a temple in the city of Zeitung in China. Referring to Sri Pada, Fa-Hien notes "the hollow of the sacred foot print on the mountain where He (the Buddha) left, contains water which does not dry up all the year round. Invalids recuperate on drinking of this water." Although Fa-Hien alludes to Sri Pada in his chronicles, there is no evidence that he ever visited the sacred mount.

Naval Expedition

Friendly relations between China and Sri Lanka turned sour for some period in the early part of the fifteenth century when a Chinese expedition led by general Cheng-Ho on a directive of the emperor sought to obtain the Tooth and Bowl relics of the Buddha from Sri Lanka. Cheng-Ho baulked in his attempt, seized the king and his family and took them captives to the emperor on his return to China on July 6th, 1411. The emperor graciously released the royal captives and gave them permission to return to Sri Lanka. Before he left for China, Heng-Ho left a record in a tri-lingual stone inscription. This stone slab was discovered by a British road engineer, H.F. Tomlin in 1911 embedded in a culvert in the Galle town. The slab carried messages in Chinese, Persian and Tamil.

It measured four feet nine inches in length, two feet six inches in breadth and five inches in thickness. This is now in the Colombo National Museum. The inscriptions in the slab depict oblations to sanctums of the three dominant faiths in the island - Buddhist, Hindu and Islam.

It's unique in that all the three faiths are revered in a single inscription. Where it was originally set up before it was found in its location at the time of discovery remains a mystery. Since this episode of Heng-Ho, friendly relations were resumed between the two countries and intermittent tribute was sent to China from 1346 - 1445.

Descendants of Chinese tradesmen of varying skills who settled in the island set up business in several coastal towns, particularly in Galle where place names such as China section (Cheena Koratuwa) are reminiscent of the early presence of their progenitors. Even within living memory, as late as just prior to the second world war (1939), chinese peddlers plying their trade in silks, other textiles and fancy goods were a common sight in towns and suburbs.

The visit of an official delegation from the People's Republic of China to pay the last respects to the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Dias Bandaranaike is significant of the long continuing traditional friendly relations between the two countries. This is the first occasion when an official delegation from the People's Republic of China has visited any country for such a purpose.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka