Saturday Magazine
Lanka’s age-old links with China

by Dr. Rohan H. Wickramasinghe

Present day observers of relations between China and Sri Lanka may often only be aware of matters of relatively recent occurrence. Among these may be cited the opening of formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1957, the Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 (under which Sri Lankan natural rubber was bartered for rice from China for over twenty five years in a deal favourable to both countries), the generous gifts from China to Sri Lanka of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall or BMICH and the Superior Courts Complex and the helping hand so readily extended to us in recent days when we have been reeling from the devastation caused by the tsunami in December 2004. In addition to many commercial and development initiatives in recent years, among non-governmental organisations the Sri Lanka-China Society came into being on the 5th October 1981. Another link in recent times are the warm welcomes generously extended at regular intervals to Sri Lankans to get to know China as guests of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC).

However, links between China and Sri Lanka are of much longer standing than the span of one or two generations and are often complex. The present essay attempts to set out some facets of this long and outstandingly harmonious relationship between the peoples of these two countries. Rohan Gunaratne’s " Sino-Lankan Connection; 2000 Years of Cultural Relations" (1987), C.G.Uragoda’s "A History of Medicine in Sri Lanka" (1987), S. Bandaranayake et al. (eds.) "Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea" (1990), R.A.L.H.Gunawardena and Yumio Sakurai "Sri Lankan Ships in China" (1990) and S.G.M.Weerasinghe’s "A History of Cultural Relations Between Sri Lanka and China: An Aspect of the Silk Route" (1995) have been among the works consulted in the preparation of this note for the general reader. Scholars wishing to access source material will find relevant references in these works. Weerasinghe (1995) provides detailed discussions relating to ancient texts.

Gunaratne has noted that the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, states that around 2000 B.C. individuals from China and Sri Lanka attended a Rajasuya sacrifice of Yudisthira at Hastinapura in India.

An ancient Sinhala text, the Sihalavattu, states that several Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka visited the capital of China around the 2nd or 1st century B.C.

Diplomatic relations between ancient Sri Lanka and China started, according to the Chinese records, around the first century A.D.

Subsequent encounters of the peoples of the two countries have been numerous and documented. For instance, Chinese chronicles state that there were constant voyages between China and Sri Lanka in the period between the two monks Fa-hsien (5th century) and I-tsing (7th century). However, many written records have undoubtedly been destroyed or lost over the years. These losses have occurred more frequently as regards the Sri Lankan than the Chinese accounts. The loss of records of such events, which occurred in the pre-colonial age of Sri Lanka, contributed to the delay of awareness until recently of substantial and important chapters of Sri Lankan history.

Roland Silva (former Commissioner of Archaeology of Sri Lanka) has observed that, in his view, the geographical reasons for the exceptionally strong associations between China and ancient Lanka were 1) Sri Lanka’s position on the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, 2) her place just north of the equator, where monsoonal effects and navigational winds change direction and 3) her location midway between the empires of Beijing and Rome. The common interest of the rulers of China and Sri Lanka in Buddhism and commercial and political considerations also helped to develop friendly relations between the two nations.

Chinese and Roman ships were dealing directly with the Sinhalese from about the year 125 A.D. to the 4th century A.D. By the time of King Dhatusena (459-477 A.D.) of Sri Lanka the ancient port of Mahatitta (otherwise known as Mantota or Mantai) was becoming an entrepot (mart or emporium) for transhipment and barter of goods from Beijing, Rome and other cities. Exports from Lanka since early times included gems (such as rubies, sapphires, moonstones, amethysts, spinels, catseyes and other coloured stones), pearls, spices, aromatic gum, ivory, metallic mercury, muslin and elephants. Imports included gold, silver, silk, perfumes, medicinal drugs, glass, porcelain, wine, diamonds, red sea coral and horses.

The Roman chronicler Pliny the Senior (23-79 A.D.) and the Greek Cosmos Indicopleustes (6th century A.D.) described Sri Lanka as a ‘great emporium’, which the Chinese used to frequent from early times. (Ancient Sri Lanka used to export to China items of value such as honey, amber and pepper. In the 14th and 15th centuries items imported from China included cotton, rose water and musk.)

Another item of information provided us by Pliny was that Sinhala ambassadors from the court of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka sat on right side of the Roman Emperor Claudius Caesar in 47 A.D. when captives from England, including two early kings Caradoc and Caractacus, were paraded before him. Sri Lankans (including the father of their leader, Rachias) had by then also visited China and these ambassadors were able to give a description of China to the Roman Court. Pliny noted that the Sinhala travellers had reached China overland, passing through India along the foot of the Himalayan range of mountains. (A mission from Sri Lanka, which reached the Chinese Court in 405 A.D., had travelled overland via India and Central Asia in a journey, which had taken ten years. Another mission, which reached China during the time of Emperor Couti of the Sung Dynasty, travelled overland and by sea and took three years on the journey.)

In 97 A.D., the Sinhala king, Dravidra, sent the Chinese emperor an embassy bearing gifts of ivory (which the Chinese craftsmen preferred working with than ivory from other lands), water buffaloes and humped oxen.

An embassy, which reached China in 120 A.D., included several conjurers who entertained the Emperor. In 121 A.D., the Emperor conferred on the Sinhala king the honorary distinction of the ‘Mantses and the Golden Chersonese’.

Those records which exist testify that since this period there have been numerous visits of Sri Lankans to China and vice versa. Between 19 B.C. and 1459 A.D. over 27 Sri Lankan diplomatic missions were sent to China. For reasons of space, these visits will not be recounted here except some items of exceptional interest. However, it may be noted that over the years Sri Lanka has been known by at least eighty names in the East and West. In 166 A.D. the country was known by the name of Sihaladvipa. Today, it is widely known that ancient chronicles of the West and the Middle East described the country by names such as Tambapani, Taprobane, Palaisimundu and Serendib. A large number of Chinese names have been recorded but will not be listed here for reasons of space.

An important record is that of the Chinese monk, Fa-hsien, who set off for India in 399 A.D. in search of Buddhist texts and sojourned two years in Sri Lanka studying Buddhism. He resided principally at the Abhayagiri Viharaya in Anuradhapura, which had several monasteries at that time; the major establishments (pirivenas) being the Mahavihara and the Jethavana and Abhayagiri monasteries. (Fa-hsien noted that there were 3000 bhikkhus in the Mahavihara. The refectory rice boat in the Mahavihara was large enough to hold cooked rice for 3800 monks, while those in the Jethavana and Abhayagiri monasteries could hold sufficient to feed 3000 and 5800 respectively.) Fa-hsien was aligned to Mahayanism but also studied the Theravadism practised by Hinayanists before he left the country in 414 A.C. There were other Chinese bhikkhus and, at least one Chinese merchant, in Anuradhapura in those days. A rock named Pahiyan-gala or Fa-hsien Rock (and cave) is found to this day in the Kalutara district in the southwest of the country.

The fifth century A.D. was one of considerable activity in several respects. These activities included those concerned with the propagation of the Buddhist faith.

An Order of Bhikkhunis (Buddhist nuns) was active in Sri Lanka during the 4th century A.D. The nuns of the Order belonged to the Mahavihara as well as to the Abhayagiri Vihara. Eleven bhikkhunis went from Sri Lanka to China and conferred Higher Ordination upon over 300 Chinese nuns in 434 A.D. This Order of Bhikkhunis was that introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C. by the Arahant Bhikkhuni Sangamitta, daughter of the North Indian Buddhist Emperor, Asoka (c.270 to 233 B.C.).

During the prosperous reign of King Dhatusena, a religious mission was sent from Sihaladvipa to Cinadesa (China).

Sri Lanka was well known in China for its Buddhist statues. The Chinese history of the Wei Tarter (or Wei Toba) dynasty records that the Emperor requested from the Sinhala king a sculptor familiar with the proportions of Buddha images and the sculpting techniques used. Accordingly, a Sinhala sculptor by the name of Nanda (Nan-te in Chinese) arrived in China in 456 A.D. and provided much appreciated evidence of the fine workmanship he was capable of.

Two centuries later, a Chinese traveller, Hsuen-tsang, recorded meeting many Sinhala bhikkhus in Karachi in 630 A.D.

Other Chinese pilgrims, including Ming-yuen, I-lang, Ta-Cheng-Teng, Hiung-yuo and Au-hing, visited Sri Lanka around the seventh century, as did a well-known Chinese merchant, Chao-Ju-Kua, in the tenth century.

It has been noted that the Indian missionaries, Prince Vajirabodhi and his disciple Amoghavajra, who were pioneers of Tantrayanism or Mystic Buddhism and were engaged in Buddhist work in China in the eighth century, had close connections to Sri Lanka. The missionaries had a large number of translations to their credit.

There had been well developed shipping between the two countries. A mandarin by the name of Li Chao has recorded in T’ang Kuo Shih Pu the situation (around 713 and 825 A.D.) relating to Sri Lankan shipping during the T’ang Dynasty and noted that by his time the arrival of vessels from Sri Lanka had become an annual event. The ships from the Lion Kingdom (Sri Lanka) were the largest foreign ships arriving at Guangzhou.

The seventh to tenth centuries saw trading ships from T’ang China of the East and the Arab-Islam Empire of the Near East call at the ancient Sri Lankan port of Mantota where a wealth of Chinese and Persian potsherds and Chinese coins have been excavated. Numerous other Chinese ceramics found include those from the ninth to the twentieth centuries such as a Chinese pot of the eleventh century A.D. belonging to the ‘Sung’ period and a Chinese jar of the twelfth century A.D. Some 6000 pieces of Chinese ceramics found at an ancient maritime site at Allaipiddy in Sri Lanka may have been the result of a shipwreck. Other artefacts showing Chinese influence include glazed tiles and Buddhist statues. The Chinese coins found in Sri Lanka have included those belonging to the periods of the Emperors Kao-Tsu and Li-Tsung.

It is recorded that from 1235 to 1270 A.D. Chinese soldiers formed part of the Sri Lankan army to meet the threat to the country’s sovereignty posed by South India.

Continued on page IV





Lanka’s age-old

The Chinese Emperors had a great regard for the Tooth Relic, Bowl Relic and Hair Relics of the Buddha. A Chinese envoy came on three occasions (1274, 1284 and 1291 A.D.) to secure the Begging Bowl of the Buddha. Gunaratne notes that sometime after 1292 A.D. Indian invaders took the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha to India and that this was recovered to Sri Lanka by 1310 A.D. with the help of a Chinese embassy.

The Mongol Emperors of China sent envoys to Sri Lanka. These missions had not only political but also commercial interest to obtain, among others, gems, local medicinal plants and medical drugs. The Venetian Marco Polo (c. 1254 to 1324 A.D.), who spent 17 years in the Court of Emperor Kublai Khan in Beijing, was delegated as a royal envoy to Sri Lanka where he spent two years from 1292 to 1294 A.D. Both he and Friar Odoric (c.1286 to 1331 A.D.) have recorded that Kublai Khan (1216 to 1294 A.D.) sent envoys to Sri Lanka as a friendly gesture on the part of China. The poet-merchant, Wang-Ta-Yuan, visited Sri Lanka, which he refers to as Seng-ka-la, around 1330 A.D.

Seven naval expeditions, which were despatched by the third Ming Emperor, Cheng-Tsu (also referred to as Yung Lo), to explore the southern regions, left Nanjing between 1405 and 1433. Six of these, which were under the command of Admiral Cheng-Ho, came to Sri Lanka, which was then called Hsi-lan Shan by the Chinese. The first fleet, whose voyage lasted from 11 July 1405 to 2 October 1407, consisted of 317 ships and 27,870 men and arrived in Sri Lanka possibly at the coast near Beruwala at a location given as Cini-gama (or Chinese village) in the records. Later expeditions appear to have had comparable numbers of men but fewer ships.

In the course of the Third Expedition, Cheng-Ho caused to be set up in the southwest of Sri Lanka a stone slab dated 15 February 1409 and bearing inscriptions in the Chinese, Persian and Tamil languages to the Buddha, Allah and a Hindu deity. This slab was found in the town of Galle in 1911 and currently lies in the National Museum in Colombo.

It would be incredible if it were claimed that a period of friendship extending over millennia passed without any stressful periods between even the best of friends. A problem, which could have strained that friendship, can be described here. The study of the whole sequence of events is extremely interesting.

In the course of his Third Expedition a dispute arose between Admiral Cheng-Ho and a Sri Lankan sub-king by the name of Vira Alakesvara. (Vira Alakesara has, incidentally, been described locally as an oppressor of his people and a cruel tyrant, who did not respect the Law of the Buddha.) During this dispute, Cheng-Ho seized Vira Alakesvara and abducted him and his family and principal officials; reaching China on 6 July 1411. However, the crisis was solved by the Chinese Emperor graciously permitting the captives’ release and safe return to their country.

The expeditions of Cheng-Ho have been much researched and the chronicler, Ma Huan, who sailed on some of them, has left an interesting record of Sri Lanka and her people at the time.

There are numerous other aspects to the links between China and Sri Lanka, which remain to be researched. For instance, several physicians using ‘indigenous’ medical practices today use traditional acupuncture-related techniques in treating patients. It has been suggested that the technique may have come from China through India with Mahayana Buddhist scholars.

Another area, which merits further investigation, is Chinese influence on the Sinhala language. For instance, sini, a word used in contemporary Sinhala for sugar, may indicate that at one time this food was imported from China. Again, cina-adi is the Sinhala term for the art of self-defence from China. Many other examples can be given of Chinese influence on place names, plants, fauna and medical and other terms.

Much more is on record about the friendly relations over thousands of years between the two nations, China and Sri Lanka. Space will not permit further discussion of these matters but those interested could pursue the subject through the books referred to above. a



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