The China Trade

The history of the China trade in Southeast Asia goes many centuries back, and the ancient term for it was Nanhai trade. The exchange of goods and ideas between China and Southeast Asia had already taken place before the Europeans' arrival in the 16th century. The China trade and its lucrative returns provided the setting for rulers, explorers and buccaneers to pit themselves against one another, or to collude among themselves, to gain dominance and wealth in the Malay Archipelago.

The Nanhai trade and the Malay entrepot

The Nanhai trade was the ancient maritime trade between China and kingdoms in the Southern Seas (or Nanyang). It involved ports and markets between Annam and the tip of the Malay Peninsula. (Wang 2003: 89). The Chinese maritime exploration of lands to its west opened its eyes to the possibilities of more direct trade with India, Arab and Rome. This discovery set the stage for the role that Southeast Asia would play as facilitator of this trade (Suarez 1999: 45). The earliest Chinese sailors found the Malay Archipelago a hindrance to their westbound voyage and sought short cuts across the Kra Ithmus, north of the Malay Peninsula. The discovery of the availability of valuable indigenous products from mainland Southeast Asia inspired them to take the arduous route around the Peninsula and through the Malacca Strait to call at the islands' ports. In the late tenth century, a Sung dynasty official recorded two great emporiums of the Southern Seas; the kingdoms situated directly to the south of China had Srivijaya (in Sumatra) while those to the southeast had She-po (Java) (Suarez 1999: 46). As a result of the Nanhai trade, Malay maritime kingdoms sprung up, each sustained by entrepot trade that connected merchants of the East-West trade between India, China and West Asia. Vessels plying the India-China route would call at their ports, to trade and stock up on supplies of firewood, water and food before continuing their journey to China or India. There were records alluding to Lo-yueh (possibly Johore) being an active port in the Nanhai trade and that merchants from Lo-yueh annually boarded ships destined for Canton. The Han Court had records of the types of tribute given to the Chinese emperor - forest and animal products of Southeast Asia, specifically attributed to the southern part of the Malay Peninsula and of Sumatra. These served as evidence to the active trading in the sea routes south of the Malay Peninsula (Trade and shipping in the Southern seas 1985: 5).

Malay Maritime empires
Srivijaya (or Shi li fo shi in Chinese) was the first Malay maritime empire, lying astride two strategic waters, the Malacca and Sunda straits. Between the seventh and the eleventh centuries, it flourished and almost eclipsed its neighbouring ports, wielding an influence as far the Kra Ithmus. Srivijaya sent trade missions to China (Canton) and its traders were leaders of the foreign merchants community in Canton. Srivijaya owed its success to its rich hinterland which had products that were sought by East-West traders. Furthermore, it had brought the Orang Laut, the notorious wanderers of the sea, under its control enabling safe shipping in the Straits, free of piracy.

After the 11th century, Srivijaya faded out from the Archipelago history, a decline which began from the Cola's (a South Indian kingdom) attack on the empire. It took another four centuries before another great Malay empire emerged to reprise and even surpass the dominance of Srivijaya. Malacca captured the imagination of not only the Chinese but the Europeans as well. Malacca's rise was meteoric, bringing the Malays once again to the forefront of international trade. Acting as a prime redistribution centre of the fabled spice trade - cloves, nutmeg and mace - its fame spread to China, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Malacca's status was enhanced by the visit of Chinese envoys in the early 15th century, and it was given monopoly rights on Chinese goods, a status that attracted international traders. The Portuguese quickly saw the potential of the Malacca entrepot and captured Malacca in 1511.

Nanhai trade routes, merchants and commodities
The monsoons pattern dictated trade movements in the Straits of Malacca. In January, ships from Southwest China would sail to Malay islands and then back to China from June to August. Ships heading for South India would leave the Malay ports in April to August with the southwest monsoon, or in December with the northeast monsoon. Thus it was impossible to make the trip from China to India in one season. Ships made the ports along the straits their halfway points where they would unload goods and passengers, stock up on supplies and refill with cargo from the other end of the route, temporarily stored at the ports awaiting their arrival. The reversal of the monsoon would carry them back the other way. (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia 1998: 116).

The players of the Nanhai trade were either direct traders who sailed from their homeland to the ports bringing merchandise to trade, or middlemen who collected and traded the merchandise on behalf of the states which exported the produce. A cosmopolitan mix of traders sustained the Nanhai trade. Apart from the local traders whose ships were a familiar sight on the East-West trade route, the Persians and Arab traders were active middlemen during Srivijayan times, supplementing Malay sailors as carriers of international cargoes between India and China. Their role declined between the 12th and 13th centuries, due partly to the entry of private Chinese traders. The Chinese had showed up earlier, between ninth and tenth centuries, but came in full force after the Chinese government granted increased freedom to private merchants to make voyages to Southeast Asia. This tide was arrested in the 15th century largely due to the changing policy of the Ming government who forbade Chinese merchants to go abroad, and kept China trade under state monopoly.

The merchandise traded showed on one hand the strength of material culture of the Chinese civilisation and on the other the natural richness of the Archipelago. Bronzeware, pottery, beads and textiles from China were exchanged for rainforest and sea products of Southeast Asia -- aromatic woods, resins, spices and pharmaceuticals.

Chinese trade in early Singapore
Temasek, the port-settlement in early Singapore, emerged and flourished between the late 13th and 14th centuries. Temasek was an export gateway for products available from the Archipelago. Temasek exported products such as hornbill casques and lakawood that were well known to the Chinese traders, who obtained them for the Chinese market. In return, the Chinese traders also exported a variety of goods to the region. Ceramics formed the largest group of Chinese goods imported by Singapore from the southern China ports of Guangzhou and Quanzhou. Archaeological discoveries from sites in Singapore recovered huge quantities of Chinese ceramics, suggesting that Temasek was an important part of the trade network, where there were large volumes of shipping. However, Temasek had declined as a trading port by the end of 14th century.

The Portuguese
The Portuguese paved the way for European manoeuvres in the China trade. Despite their more advanced organisation, the Portuguese traders did not reinvent the China trade, rather imitated their predecessors. They followed the same trade routes, used the same ports and exchanged the same genre of products. They first began using the China trade to procure products for Europe, but what proved more lasting and lucrative was the regional trade (or country trade) involving Asian markets and ports.

The Dutch
The Anglo-Dutch rivalry in the eastern seas was already brewing when the Portuguese was still in control of Malacca. The lure of the spices - clove, nutmeg and mace- fired Dutch ambition to create a monopoly of the spice trade, culminating in the capture of Batavia (in Java) in 1619. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch treasured the country trade with the Malay islands and China as this proved more lucrative than the European trade. The Dutch made no bones about enforcing the exclusive rights of its company ships to trade and of its entrepot, Batavia, to receive goods. Not only were the English merchants rattled, the Chinese junk captains were also rebuffed. The instability of local politics in the Malay Archipelago facilitated Dutch control of the region. Local princes would enter into treaties with the Dutch to offset their rivals often at the exclusion of alliances with other foreign powers. Such intrigue helped the Dutch to seize Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641. The capture of Malacca was important, to strengthen Batavia's position by removing its rival. By the 18th century, Dutch control of the country trade with China was almost complete -- they had controlling rights of the most important export crops, and they had secured the pepper and tin trade that were strongholds of islands outside Java. Dutch monopolistic tendencies were so severe that they were in effect choking the flow of trade and goods into the Archipelago.

The British
As for the British, the aggressive Dutch in part dampened their enthusiasm for trade in the Archipelago. The East India Company E.I.C. established a factory in Bantam, Java, in 1603 but their staffs were expelled by the Dutch in 1682. The British E.I.C did not command as much resources, primarily in the number of country ships as the Dutch V.O.C. to sustain a flourishing country trade in the Malay waters. It was not until the entry of British country captains in the 18th century, with blessings from the E.I.C. and the British government, was the British able to engage extensively in the country trade. The country captains were drawn from a varied pool; seamen who had left European ships with the consent of their employers; servants of East India companies, resigned or retired from service, who loved the life of the East; mercenary soldiers with maritime experience, adventurers of many diverse backgrounds. (Furber 1976: 273). Unlike the Dutch country trade, the British country trade was moved more by the country's individual traders rather than E.I.C. ships. The heightened activities of British country traders provided the stimulus for E.I.C. to explore new channels of commerce that lay outside the monopoly of other European powers. In 1761, an employee of the British E.I.C., Alexander Dalrymple, took a ship out in the eastern waters, the first British vessel to seriously reconnoitre the region, and set up a trading venture in Sulu and a settlement in Balambangan. Although not a commercial success, this effort pointed the way to the later settlements at Penang, Singapore and Borneo.

Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman

Chee, A., & Buerger, D. (2001). (Eds.). The encyclopedia of Malaysia (Vol. 6, pp. 10-11). Singapore: Archipelago Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5003 ENC)

Fell, R. T. (1991). Early maps of South-East Asia. Singapore : Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 912.59 FEL).

Fry, H. T. (1970). Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808) and the expansion of British trade. London : Cass for the Royal Commonwealth Society.
(Call no.: RCLOS 382.0942 DAL.F) 

Furber, H. (c1976). Rival empires of trade in the Orient, 1600-1800. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.
(Call no.: RSING 382.09405 FUR)

Heng, D. T. S. (2004). Economic networks between the Malay region and the hinterlands of Quanzhou and Guangzhou: Temasek and the Chinese ceramics and foodstuffs trade. In Miksic, J. N., Low, C. M. G. (Eds.), Early Singapore, 1300s-1819: Evidence in maps, text and artefacts. Singapore: Singapore History Museum,pp. 73–85.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 MIK)

Kwa, C. G., Heng, D. T. S., Tan, T. Y. (2009). Singapore, a 700-year history: From early emporium to world city. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, pp. 19–32
(Call no.: RSING 959.5703 KWA) 

Lyons, K., & Sarwal, A. (Eds.). ( c2001). The encyclopedia of Malaysia (Vol. 7, pp. 14-15). Singapore: Archipelago Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5003 ENC)

Moore, Wendy (Khatijah). (Ed.). (c1998). The encyclopedia of Malaysia (Vol. 4, pp. 115-123). Singapore: Archipelago Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5003 ENC)

Suárez, T. (c1999). Early mapping of Southeast Asia. Hong Kong: Periplus Editions.
(Call no.: SING q912.59 SUA).

Trade and shipping in the Southern seas : selected readings. (1985). In Archipel 18 for SPAFA Consultative Workshop on Research on Maritime Shipping and Trade Networks in Southeast Asia. Bangkok: SPAFA Co-ordinating Unit.
(Call no.: RSING q387.50959 TRA)

Wang, G. (2003). The Nanhai trade: early Chinese trade in the South China Sea. Singapore : Eastern Universities Press.
(Call no.: R 382.0951059 WAN) 

The American Spice Trade Association. (n.d.). Wars and new spice monopolies. Retreived August 7, 2003, from

Further Readings
Ishii, Y. (Ed.). (1998). The junk trade of Southeast Asia: translations from the Tôsen Fusetsu-gaki, 1674-1723. Singapore: [Canberra] : Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
(Call no.: RSING 382.0959 TOS)

Mills, L. A. [1971]. British Malaya, 1824-1867 (pp. 1-17). [New York: AMS Press].
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 MIL)


The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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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