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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A New Look at Calicut's China Ties

Dr.Liu Yinghua examining the manuscripts at the Calicut University

 Historians of Calicut deal with the Chinese period in its history as a brief interlude of about a quarter of a century between 1400and 1425 AD highlighted by the seven voyages by Zheng He (Chengo Ho), the Three Jeweled Eunuch Admiral of the Ming fleet.
  Chinese had been arriving in India since time immemorial, but mostly through the land routes of Central Asia and North West India, and through Burma to lesser extent.  The rise of the Mongols and the strife among the Central Asian principalities led to the virtual closure of the Silk Route in the 14th Century. Thus it was that as the ambassador of Mohammed bin Tuglaq,the Delhi Sultan,  Ibn Batutta had to travel all the way to Calicut to catch a ship to take him to China. This was, incidentally, 60 years before the first of the seven voyages of Cheng Ho reaching Calicut.
Although the Tang Treasure Ship evidence (Belitung Shipwreck) shows that Chinese had trade contacts with Arabia and possibly Africa even in the 9th century, no concrete evidence has been discovered of their having touched Quilon (which existed then as a prosperous port) or what was the predecessor-port of Calicut. Our knowledge of Chinese contacts with Calicut begins with references in the 14th Century.
Ibn Batutta had in February, 1342, arranged a berth in a Chinese junk starting from Calicut and had loaded his baggage in a smaller vessel (kokum); but, according to Ross Dunn in the book The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, he had to cancel his trip at the last moment when he found out that all the good cabins had been booked by rich Chinese merchants and he was being offered a cabin without a lavatory – an insult to the Plenipotentiary of the great Delhi Sultan!  Thus, not only were Chinese vessels frequenting Calicut port almost a century before Cheng Ho had come, the Chinese merchants were flaunting their wealth on Calicut shores and Chinese trade was predominantly controlled by the private sector.  Who were these Chinese traders and what was their route? We do not know for certain, although we know that Yuan Empire had been pursuing foreign trade vigorously, and had an ambitious maritime policy.
Again, while we know much about Cheng Ho’s adventure (mostly from Chinese records, like Ma Huan’s accounts), we do not know why the Ming trade stopped so suddenly in 1423 after the death in Calicut of Cheng Ho, or if the trade at all ended abruptly, as historians claim. The traditional explanation is that the Ming bureaucracy wedded to Confucian ideals of insularity succeeded in convincing the successor of Emperor Yongle to terminate all voyages and even destroy much of the records. Economic historians advance an argument that after 1450 China, like all major economies, had suffered from a prolonged period of economic depression and this might have led to the reduced volume of international trade.
Detail of a manuscript with the Chinese coin used to tie it
These and many other emerging issues on China-Calicut relations came up for discussions in a seminar held in Beijing in September, 2011.    The seminar saw participation from leading historians of Ming History like Prof. (Mrs.) Wan Ming, Professor of History of Social Sciences and Vice President and Secretary General, Chinese Society for Historians of China’s Foreign Relations, Prof. (Mrs.) Zhao Tong, Professor of Linguistics at Beijing Normal University and Mrs. May Yang, a candidate for Oh.D in Sanskrit from Gottingen University. C.K.Ramachandran, Convenor of Calicut Heritage Forum also participated. The seminar was organized by Dr.Liu Yinghua, a friend of Calicut, who has been visiting Calicut for many years now as a researcher in  Sanskrit and Ayurveda at the University of Calicut.
16 manuscripts with Chinese coins
The seminar emphasised that trade and cultural relations between Calicut and China existed even before the Zheng He visit, as documented in Chinese chronicles. It did not stop with the death of Zheng He in 1433. In 2007, Liu Yinghua had, while working with the manuscript section of Calicut University under the guidance of Dr. C. Rajendran, Professor of Sanskrit, discovered 15 Chinese coins being used to tie together the palm leaves manuscripts. These coins belonged to much later period.  Liu identified these as belonging to the periods of Emperors Qianlong (1736-1795), Jiaqing (1796-1820) and Daoguang (1821-1850). This probably showed that trade relations between Calicut and China continued well into the second half of the 19th Century when the Opium Wars soured the Sino-British relations.
Pro. Wan Ming emphasized the need to discover local evidence of Chinese presence in Calicut during the Ming expeditions.
The seminar concluded on the note that much more research requires to be done in Calicut on the new findings to trace back the manuscripts to their sources to explore if further evidence of transactions with China existed. In the light of the Pattanam experience, it was also felt that archaeological excavations could be a useful source for more detailed information. In view of the importance of Panthalayini –Kollam (Fandaraina) as a haven during the inter-monsoon interval during the medieval times, it was suggested that further investigation could also be conducted there to seek information on the existence of Chinese communities there.


  1. thanks CHF..the story of calicut perhaps lies under the city center of calicut... whether it relates to the zamorins, the portuguese, the chinese or whoever. the sources overland has been discussed over and over again, now we have to find new sources I suppose. nevertheless, the chinese did leave behind some families contrary to what earlier history sources said and i will get to it some day.

    trade continued after Zheng He due to the connections these families had, only it was a bit roundabout through coromandel ports (overland through the palghat gap)or through the malacca links.


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