The first Chinese trader to write about Southeast Asia was Wang Dayuan, cognomen Huan-chang. He was born around 1311 in Nanchang, known in earlier times as Hongzhou, which was a prosperous port in Jiangxi Province during the Song Dynasty. The town is not far from Jingdezhen, the great centre of porcelain production. Nanchang may have been a centre of porcelain trade in the Yuan period. In 1349, Wang’s composition Dao yi zhi lue (“Description of the Barbarians of the Isles”) was incorporated into a local gazetteer, Qingyuan xuzhi, "A Continuation of the History and Topography of Quanzhou", by Wu Jian. In a postscript to his book, Wang wrote: “I ‘attached’ to a boat when I was young to go for sea-travel”. This sentiment seems to describe a trader who booked space on a ship for himself and his goods. Wang made two voyages, one from 1330 to 1334, and the other from 1337 to 1339. It is also believed that he lived in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, for some time.
The Siamese had begun to occupy the northern Malayan peninsula by 1280. The first Siamese inscription, erected at Sukhothai in the late 13th or early 14th century (putatively dated 1292) claimed Nakhon Sitamarat, a Malay kingdom in southern Thailand, as a vassal; another Malay kingdom, Patani, became a Siamese vassal soon after. Wang mentioned an attack by Xian (“Shan”, which later meant Siam) on Temasik around the year 1330. The Javanese Majapahit empire may have exercised hegemony over Singapore between 1330 and 1390, but the kingdom of Ayutthaya probably also extracted tribute from Singapore. Malacca in the early 15th century sought Chinese protection against Ayutthaya, but had to pay tribute to the Siamese.
Wang’s account of Singapore has been translated several times; the most commonly available translation is by Wheatley. Wang mentions three place names in conjunction with Singapore. The first is Temasek, which refers to the general area of Singapore and the nearby islands. The second is Longyamen, which means “Dragon’s Tooth Strait” in Chinese. The third is Banzu, which is named after the Malay word pancur (“spring of water”).
The location of Longyamen has been much discussed. It is, however, probable that Longyamen refers to the waterway between what is now Sentosa island and Labrador Point. The strait was probably named after a pinnacle of stone called Batu Berlayar, which means “Sail Rock” in Malay. It is referred to as “Lot’s Wife” on an English chart of 1709. Wang’s account of Longyamen’s inhabitants is contradictory. On one hand he records that “The prime minister [xiangfu] instructs both men and women to live in harmony with the Chinese people”. On the other hand, he describes the population’s “favourite pastime” as “pillage and plunder”, and cautions the people on board Chinese ships passing through the strait to be on the lookout for pirates, who would attack with poisoned darts from blowguns and slaughter all their victims.
Those who survived the pirate attacks could find a safe haven at Banzu, a hill where people lived on terraces. In contrast to the natives of Longyamen, he described the survivors of the pirate attacks as honest people, with a chief, and who had specialised occupations such as salt-making and rice wine distilling. Pancur is a common place name in the region around Singapore. Arab sources of the 10th century record that Pancur was the name of a major port on the northwestern coast of Sumatra. A 16th-century capital of Johor located up the Johor River bore the same name. A modern town called Pancur on the northeastern coast of the island of Lingga is inhabited by approximately 10,000 people.
When the British arrived in Singapore in 1819, a spring of water gushed from the slope of the Forbidden Hill (now known as Fort Canning Hill) overlooking the Singapore River. According to Munshi Abdullah, the Temenggong, who was then the chief of Singapore, had told William Farquhar that the spring was the bathing place of princesses of ancient Singapore.
Several aspects of Wang’s account of Singapore can be corroborated by archaeological data. For instance, he records that when Xian attacked Singapore, the inhabitants closed their gates, barricaded themselves and held off the attackers for a month. This implies that the people had a permanent defensive strategy in place to protect the settlement. When the British arrived in 1819, they discovered an earthen rampart, which stretched for over a kilometre from the shore to the inland slope of what is now Fort Canning Hill. The wall appears on a map of Singapore drawn in 1825 as “The Old Lines of Singapore”. The wall was demolished in the late 1820s to construct Stamford Road.
1. Rockhill, W. W. (1914). Notes on the relations and trade of China with the eastern archipelago and the coast of the Indian Ocean during the fourteenth century. T'oung Pao, 15, Part I, 419–47.
2. Kwee, H. K. (1997). Dao Yi Zhi Lue as a maritime traders’ guidebook (p. 64). Unpublished honour’s thesis, National University of Singapore.
3. Ptak, R. (1995). Images of maritime Asia in two Yuan texts: Daoyi zhilue and Yiyu zhi. Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, 25, 52.
4. Wheatley, P. (1961). The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula before A.D. 1500 (p. 301). Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press. Call no.: RSING 959.5 WHE.
5. Rockhill, W. W. (1915). Notes on the relations and trade of China with the eastern archipelago and the coast of the Indian Ocean during the fourteenth century. T'oung Pao, 16, Part II, 100.
6. Wheatley, 1961, p. 82.
7. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (1970). The Hikayat Abdullah (H. A. Hill, Trans) (p. 142). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Call no.: R 959.5 ABD.
The information in this article is valid as at 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.