Although Chinese texts show awareness of the Southern Seas at an early date, these records have only vague descriptions that tell little of trade relations.
The first substantial notice of the southern maritime network comes with the travel diary of I-Ching who boarded a Po-sse ship for India in the 7th century. The Po-sse were Southeast Asian mariners, not Persians as sometimes suggested, as the name Nan-hai-Po-sse "South Sea Po-sse" indicates. Studies have also shown that the products associated with Po-sse are Southeast Asian in provenance.
However, the Po-sse may have been confused with Persians because of the Nestorian connection. As noted earlier in this blog, there existed as early as the 5th century, a Nestorian Metropolitan of Mainland Southeast Asia, South China and Zabag (Dabag) in coastal Persia.
Little is known of these early Nestorians. By the Yuan Dynasty at least we known of Nestorian communities around Quanzhou from different sources. However, it appears that the Chinese associated Nestorianism with the earlier Po-sse of Zabag whose ships may have brought elements of the religion to South China.
When Nestorian Christians set up monasteries in Sian during the T'ang Dynasty, the Chinese called them Po-sse-ssu "Po-sse monasteries" and the teachings were known as Po-sse-ching-chiao "Po-sse teachings."
In the late 8th century, the poet Bao He wrote of the South Seas trade in the poem "Sending the Esteemed Master Li to Quanzhou":
The land by the sea lies beyond the realm of civilization,
But the matched tally earns the Han official respect.
The cloud-shrouded mountains lie in the lands of the myriad Yue,
And in the markets are the people of the sacred isles;
Grasping jade, they have come to our land from afar,
Offering pearls, they come to offer tribute.
(Clark, pp. 32-3)
The testimony of I-Ching and Bao He indicates that maritime trade was something introduced to the Chinese by Po-sse and Yue merchants.
Possibly in earlier times trade with South China was conducted overland to Champa from whence it went to sea on the spice routes. During the T'ang dynasty, we see the rise of Canton and Quanzhou as important Chinese ports.
An edict by Emperor Wenzong in 829 states:
The foreign merchants of the South Seas [who come to the land] are seeking virtous enlightenment; they should be accorded generous treatment while here...In order to promote proper respect toward the imperial commissioners (jiedu guancha shi) among the foreigners in Lingnan, Fujian and Yangzhou, except for the collection of anchorage fees, the court purchase and regular presents, we must allow them to come and go freely and to trade, and we must not impose heavy taxes. (Clark, p. 44)
Circumstances which led to the flourishing of the Sanfotsi-Zabag trade include the rise of the powerful and outward-looking Sung Dynasty to the North and the expanding Muslim empire to the West. Both showed strong interest toward trade and the ships and merchants of Sambali were positioned as middlemen. The expansion of the ports at Canton and Quanzhou greatly expanded the volume of trade that was possible.
Sanfotsi and Champa
According to the Sung hui-yao and other Sung sources, the kingdoms of Sanfotsi, Champa, Mai (Mindoro) and Butuan were all linked closely by sea.
Interestingly, close to half of the envoys sent by both Champa and Sanfotsi to the Sung court had the "surnames" of 蒲 "Pu" or 李 "Li". One explanation offered for this is that these "surnames" were respectively the Muslim names "Abu" and "Ali," but this seems highly unlikely.
First, its unlikely that so many envoys would have the kunya name Abu "father of," which is hardly attested in early Islamic tombstones and inscriptions in Southeast Asia. Also, there is no reason for "Ali" to appear so commonly as a "surname."
Indeed, it appears the Chinese, who place their own surnames at the beginning, mistook titles of Sanfotsi, Champa and other envoys as surnames. In the case of Champa, "Pu" seems to be a rendering of the Cham title "Po" meaning "lord, master." The Cham word for "king" is "Po Tao."
In Sanfotsi, the equivalent title of respect is "Apu" or "Apung" having a meaning similar to "Seigneur."
The "surname" of "Li," appears to be a rendering of the Sanfotsi title "Ari" or "Aring" meaning "king" or "prince."
That Champa and Sanfotsi would often send nobles as envoys is only natural and one of the envoys 'surnamed' Li in 971/2 is specifically described as "deputy king" of Champa.
Sanfotsi Envoys during Sung Dynasty with "surname" of Pu or Li
|Li Shu-di (李庶帝)||960||Sung-shi|
|Li Li-lin (李麗林)||962||Sung-shi|
|Pu Mie (蒲蔑)||972||Sung-shi|
|Pu Tan-han (蒲陁漢)||976||Sung-shi|
|Li Pu-hui (李甫誨)||980||Sung-shi|
|Pu Ya-tuo-luo (蒲押陁羅)||983||Sung hui-yao|
|Li Jia-pai (李庶帝)||1003||Sung hui-yao|
|Li Mei-di (李加排)||1008||Sung hui-yao|
|Pu Po-la (蒲婆藍)||1008||Sung hui-yao|
|Pu Mou-xi (蒲謀西)||1017||Sung hui-yao|
|Pu Ya-tuo-luo-xie (蒲押陀羅歇)||1033||Sung hui-yao|
In addition to envoys some merchants of Sanfotsi took up permanent residence in South China especially at Quanzhou. The Sung writer Lin Zhiqi records some notes on these foreign residents at Quanzhou:
Among the three prefectures of the Southern Sea and responsible for taxing merchant ships is Quanzhou prefecture. Among the many countries with trade relations with Quanzhou is Sanfotsi. There are scores of wealthy merchants from Sanfotsi who live or were born in Quanzhou. Among them is a man called Shinowei. Shi is famed for his generosity towards fellow foreigners in Quanzhou. The building of a foreign resident cemetary was one of his generous deeds...All foreign merchants of Quanzhou are buried there. The construction started in 1162 and completed the following year...Such kindness will certainly promote overseas trade and encourage foreigners to come. It is much appreciated that Shi has done this deed.
The discovered remains of ships that worked the trade routes provide spectacular evidence of this golden age of Southeast Asian trade from the Sung and proximate periods in and around the Philippines:
It is quite interesting to note that only one shipwreck in Southeast Asia has been suggested as Arab/Indian in origin or at least design -- the Belitung Wreck. However, the instruments and tools used by the crew of the Belitung boat appear to have an Indonesian origin. This evidence further assures us that the "Po-sse ships" and crews were of Southeast Asian provenance.
The only place in Southeast Asia to have a collection of sea-going ships is Butuan on the island of Mindano in the Philippines. Eleven boats have been found at four sites with three of them dated (320 CE, 900 CE, 1250 CE). The boats show classic all-wood, lashed-lug construction typical of Southeast Asian tradition.
Tanjung Simpang Wreck
Discovered off Sabah in Borneo and dated to the 11th century, the boat was loaded with Chinese ceramics and apparently made with Chinese woods.
Breaker Shoal Wreck
Found at Breaker Shoal southwest of Palawan in the Philippines, the ship contained qingbai Sung or Yuan ceramics, and lead and iron ingots.
This spectacular early 15th century find off Pandanan in the Philippines is a hybrid Southeast Asian-Chinese vessel with all-wooden joint construction but Chinese-style transverse bulkheads. Built of tropical hardwood, a practice later to be implemented by Zheng He's fleet, the ship carried a sensational cargo of 4,722 items including many very well-preserved pieces.
Lena Shoal Wreck
A late 15th century Chinese-style ship found off northeastern Palawan in the Philippines containing 5,000 objects including bronze cannons and well-preserved pottery.
Santa Cruz Wreck
This hybrid 15th century vessel found off the northern coast of Zambales (Sambali), Philippines yields a sensational 15,000 ceramic pieces with 80 percent of the hull intact.
Discovered in 1998, off Mindanao this Butuan-style ship contained Ming wares.
Found in 63 meters of water off the coast of Brunei, this ship yielded massive quantities of Thai and Chinese ceramics apparently from the late 15th century.
While the Muslim expansion helped bring about the prosperity of Sanfotsi-Zabag it also rather quickly caused trouble for the kingdom. The Buag eruption of Mount Pinatubo some 800-500 years ago, may have ultimately contributed to the slumping fortunes of Sanfotsi-Zabag that did not turn around till the rise of the Lusung kingdom during the Ming Dynasty.
This quote from the Canton Stories (Pingzhou Ketan) of Zhu Yu (1118-9 CE)however illustrates Sanfotsi-Zabag's great prosperity at its peak:
Every country in the southern ocean has its own chief. Sanfotsi was named the greatest country. It possesses its own writing system and its people are skilled at calculation. Some merchants say that they even predict future eclipses of the sun and moon. But their writing system is unknown to the Chinese. There is a great deal of sandalwood and frankincense there for trade with the Chinese. Sanfotsi ships send frankincense to China and the Chinese Trade Office treats the product as a monopoly and buys the whole cargo after taking customs duties. In recent times Sanfotsi established a sandalwood monopoly and the ruler orders merchants to sell to him. The product's market value increases several times. The subjects of that country do not dare sell privately. This is an effective system. The country is right in the center of the Southern Sea. Ta-Shih [Perso-Muslim] countries are far to the West. Chinese bound for Ta-Shih reach Sanfotsi and repair their ships and exchange goods. Distant merchants congregate here and therefore it is considered the most prosperous place.
Foreign merchants visiting Zabag are greeted by wading women. From a 16th century Persian copy of Qazwînî’s `Ajâ’ib al-makhlûqât. Leiden Or. 8097, f 55, Leiden University.
The king on a golden throne surrounded by naked women. Leiden Or. 08907, fol. 54a, Leiden University.
Paul Kekai Manansala
Clark, Hugh R. Community, Trade, and Networks: Southern Fujian Province from the Third to the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Samuel N. C. Lieu. "Nestorians and Manichaeans on the South China Coast," Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 71-88.
Flecker, Michael. "The South-China-Sea Tradition: the Hybrid Hulls of South-East Asia," International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 36 (1), 2007, 75–90. [http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1095-9270.2006.00109.x]