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The Yuan in the Straits of Malacca 1299

The Yuan rulers of China had a sophisticated knowledge of the world. Their empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the gates of Europe. Though their culture emphasised militaristic values, the Yuan were aware of the advantages which peaceful commerce could bring. At the time, Chinese trade was not diminished by the transfer of power; instead, the traditional moral and legal restrictions on trade were relaxed.

The trade expansion, which began during the Song Dynasty, accelerated during the Yuan Dynasty as the Chinese became more familiar with the maritime world. Terms such as East and West Seas (Dong xi yang), Bigger East Sea (Da dong yang), Little East Sea (Xiao dong yang) and Little West Sea (Xiao xi yang) soon emerged. The Yuan espoused an “open seas” (kai hai) policy, and it was much easier for foreigners to reside in China then. Local officials often held ceremonies to pray for favourable wind conditions.

In 1278, “officials memorialised the throne calling attention to the importance of encouraging trade relations with the people of the southeastern (or southern and eastern) islands, all of whom, the writers declared, were filled with the most loyal devotion to China”.[1]

The Yuan established their first maritime trade office in 1277 at Quanzhou, Fujian Province. Anecdotes about Quanzhou’s wealth are plentiful. The son-in-law of the superintendent of trade at Quanzhou, who died in 1293, owned 80 seagoing ships and about 60 kilograms of pearls.[2] Jambi, Sumatra, was the main collecting centre from which pearls were imported into China.

In 1284, the Yuan government introduced measures aimed at increasing the lion’s share of the profits from maritime trade. The prefects of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province and Quanzhou appointed representatives, who were provided with ships and capital, to venture abroad to conduct trade. Those who went to sea, including their families, were exempted from corvée. The Yuan attitude toward Southeast Asia was not uniformly pacific. They fought battles in Java, Vietnam, Champa, Cambodia and Burma, often in an attempt to force the people of Southeast Asia to submit to China, more than the Chinese emperors had ever required in the context of "tributary trade".

In 1292, Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty, sent a large expedition to Java to avenge an insult caused by the mutilation of his envoy. The expedition was organised by the governor of Fujian Province, who used ships that were requisitioned from private traders. This arrangement underscores the fact that China still had no navy at the time. The expedition became embroiled in the political confusion in Java, was ultimately betrayed by an erstwhile Javanese ally, and sailed back the same year. Kublai Khan died in 1293, and there are no records of subsequent Chinese missions. Relations with Java were subsequently normalised when Javanese missions arrived at the Yuan court in 1298 and 1300.

The number of foreign polities trading with China, and the variety of produce available in China, increased during the Yuan Dynasty. As a result, there were more Muslim tombstones erected in Quanzhou, official veneration of Mazu (Goddess of the Sea) increased, and the range of maritime goods available for trade also increased from 160 to over 220 varieties.[3]

During the mid-Yuan period, the pendulum of official attitudes toward commerce swung violently back and forth. After 1322, matters stabilised and the government permitted the freedom to trade by sea. Chinese records never state the reasons for these frequent reversals of policy. Scholars have suggested political struggles between rich merchants and bureaucrats as one of the reasons, but it is also possible that these actions were meant to penalise private traders who had violated laws. The prohibitions on trade did not seem significant, for there is evidence to suggest that foreign traders still visited Shanghai during the period when the office of maritime trade there was closed.

Many instances of rebellion broke out in the last years of the Yuan Dynasty, including one in Quanzhou.[4] Towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty, the south Chinese trade networks were in a state of depression or worse.  It took centuries for south Chinese ports to regain the prosperity they had attained during the Song and Yuan dynasties.

 Another piece of evidence suggesting that the Yuan Dynasty was a period of continued commercial expansion was uncovered in 1996. A sunken Indonesian ship dating from the late 13th century was found off the southeastern coast of Sumatra. It carried about 100,000 Chinese porcelain pieces as well as 10,000 pieces of earthenware thought to have been made in southern Thailand.[5] The ship contained at least 30 varieties of pottery as well as other commercial commodities, including iron woks and knives from China, tree resin (damar) and ivory (possibly from Sumatra). The wide variety of artefacts recovered is consistent with the theory that Southeast Asian commerce during that period was often of the "peddling” variety.

The ship also carried bundles of iron bars and stacks of cauldrons weighing approximately 340 tons.[6] These items may have been made in various iron-smelting centres located in Fujian Province during the Song Dynasty, including in the counties of Anxi and Dehua, where ceramics were also made.[7]

A cargo of this scale and magnitude is suggestive of regular trade conducted during the middle years of the Yuan Dynasty. While the cargo of the Java Sea Wreck is composed mainly of Chinese ceramics and iron, there are enough non-Chinese items to conclude that the vessel’s trading pattern had much in common with 16th-century tramp sailing ships.

The mention of Longyamen, which means “Dragon’s Tooth Strait” in Chinese, first appeared in the Yüan shih in 1320. In 1325, Longyamen sent a mission to China with a memorial and tribute.[8] The nearby island of Bintan had sent an earlier mission in 1323. Thus Longyamen was already known to the Yuan court before 1320.

Another place named Longyamen appears in 1225 in Zhao Rugua’s text. It has been argued that this place was Lingga, south of Riau, and that the 14th-century Longyamen was in that vicinity. It is more probable, however, that the Song text referred to a different place from the Yuan texts. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Longyamen was Singapore in the 14th and 15th centuries.[9]

Fortunately, a more detailed account was written soon after the above brief references. This record is the only surviving eyewitness account of ancient Singapore. Entitled Dao yi zhi lue (“Description of the Barbarians of the Isles”), it was written by a Chinese trader named Wang Dayuan in 1349. We do not know when or where Wang died, or his motive for becoming the first sea trader to write about his experiences. The work is divided into 100 chapters and describes 99 countries, ports, and other localities spanning the huge region from China to Maluku to east Africa. It remains our only source of knowledge about many places during this period in history.

Like other Chinese of his time, Wang thought of the world as containing two oceans. Previous writers considered the Sunda Strait to be the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Oceans. Wang placed the junction at Longyamen, thus placing Singapore at the symbolic point where East and West met.[10]

In his work, Wang mentioned two overseas Chinese communities. One of these communities consisted of the descendants of some Chinese who belonged to a fleet sent to attack Java in 1292. Those who fell ill during the outward voyage were left behind on Goulan Shan (possibly Gelam Island, off southwest Borneo). In Wang’s time, 40 years later, “over 100” of these men were still alive, “mixed up with the native families”.[11]

Wang’s second mention of overseas Chinese referred to a settled community of merchants. The reference appears in the context of his description of the Longyamen, the western entrance to Keppel Harbour, Singapore, which he described as a particularly dangerous pirate lair. His account states that the Chinese lived there. This is difficult to comprehend since a law-abiding settlement of traders resided beside the Singapore River only 8 km away. Could Wang have made a mistake? Could he have mixed up the two places in his account? How could the Chinese live in the pirates’s lair, when Chinese ships were the pirates’s prey?

Archaeological finds in Singapore have yielded much information on maritime trade in Southeast Asia during the 14th century. Other important archaeological sites of this period have been found in the Batanghari and Musi river basins in Sumatra, and at Trowulan, East Java.

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, 429.
2. Wheatley, P. (1959). Geographical notes on some commodities involved in Sung maritime trade. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 32, No. 2 (186), 29. Call no.: RCLOS 737.09595 NUM. Retrieved January 29, 2014, from JSTOR.
3. Kwee, H. K. (1997). Dao Yi Zhi Lue as a maritime traders’ guidebook (p. 4). Unpublished honour’s thesis, National University of Singapore.  
4. So, B. K. L. (2000). Prosperity, region and institutions in maritime China: The South Fukien pattern, 946–1368 (pp. 122–124). Cambridge, Mass: Published by the Harvard University Asia Center. Call no.: RBUS 330.951024 SO.
5. Mathers W. M., & Flecker, M. (Eds.). (1997). The Java sea wreck archaeological report. Annapolis: Pacific Sea Resources.
6. Mathers & Flecker, 1997, p. 70.
7. Schottenhammer, A. (Ed.) (2001). The emporium of the world: Maritime Quanzhou, 1000–1400 (p. 103). Leiden: Brill, Boston.  Call no.: RBUS 382.0951245 EMP.
8. Hsü, Y.-T. (1972, January). Singapore in the remote past. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 45, No. 1 (221), pp. 1–9. Call no.: RSING 959.5 JMBRAS. Retrieved January 29, 2014, from JSTOR.
9. Chung, C. K. (2005). Longyamen is Singapore: The final proof? In L. Suryadinata (Ed.), Admiral Zheng He & Southeast Asia (pp. 142–168). Singapore: International Zheng He Society; Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Call no.: RSING 951.026 ADM.
10. Ptak, R. (1995). Images of maritime Asia in two Yuan texts:  Daoyi zhilue and Yiyu zhiJournal of Song-Yuan Studies, 25, 54–56.
11. Rockhill, 1914, p. 261.


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.

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