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Early Chinese Overseas Voyages

Great events seem often to come to pass among widely separated groups of men at about the same time. When Caesar's legions were spreading Roman civilization westward over Europe, a similar and scarcely less penetrating movement was carrying the culture of India eastward into Malaysia. Again, the conquest of Rome by the barbarians of the north was paralleled in both time and direction by another important movement in the East—though of somewhat different character. This was the southward flow of the cultured Chinese into Malay lands, and the beginning of a new period in Indonesian history.

There is still some doubt as to the actual date of first Chinese intercourse with the East Indies, but majority opinion inclines to the third or fourth century, AD. That Malay lands must have been known before the beginning of direct sea-trade between China, India and Arabia seems evident; and we are able roughly to fix the date when such trade began. The Chinese records themselves indicate that as early as AD 300 enterprising merchants from southern Arabia had already established a colony at Canton.

Some writers believe that Chinese ships reached the Euphrates early in the fifth century, and the Red Sea in the seventh century. Others regard the evident knowledge of those parts that the Chinese admittedly possessed as having been derived from Arab and Indian traders whom they met at Indian ports. With regard to the number of Arab ships to reach the China Sea, there is also a difference of opinion. Hornell, in his early work on Indian shipping, came to the conclusion that after AD 700 few Arab ships came beyond India, but that Arab traders traveled and shipped their goods in Chinese vessels from China to southern India, and then transshipped to smaller Arab boats that carried them on to Basra. He believed, however, that in the formative period of the trade, from AD 400 to 700, the major portion of the Chinese-Indian-Arabian commerce was carried throughout in Arab, Indian, and Sinhalese ships, as the larger type of Chinese junk was then only in process of development.

In any case, it appears certain that, from the fourth century onward, regular trade was established between China and India, and Arab and Indian merchants were traveling as far as China. The extent and regularity of the trade may be inferred from the fact that, as early as the ninth century, Arab writers deplored the costliness of Chinese goods in the bazars of Bagdad and Basra, owing to the dangers of the sea and the attacks of pirates.

The largest and finest vessels in use on the Indian and China seas in pre-European times were those of the Chinese. From the end of the seventh century onward, the great junks built at Canton and Ch'uan-chou, near Amoy, began gradually to displace the older and smaller Indian and Arab craft. A short description of the Chinese vessels is furnished us by Marco Polo, who on at least two occasions in the latter part of the thirteenth century himself commanded small fleets of these junks. He says (Yule's translation): ". . . . and first let me speak of the ships in which merchants go to and fro amongst the Isles of India. These ships, you must know, are of fir timber. They have but one deck though each of them contains some 50 or 60 cabins, wherein the merchants abide greatly at their ease, every man having one to himself. The ship hath but one rudder, but it hath four masts; and sometimes they have two additional masts, which they ship and unship at pleasure. Moreover the larger of their vessels have some 13 compartments or severances in the interior, made with planking strongly framed in case mayhap the ship should spring a leak." He also states that these larger vessels carried a crew of from 150 to 300 men, and had cargo space for from 5,000 to 6,000 bags of pepper. Both the Indian and the Arab ships were evidently of considerable size, but smaller, and because of their open structure far less safe from storms than those of the Chinese.

The sailing routes followed by the Chinese vessels in their voyages to India are fairly well known, but those used in trading-trips through the Malaysian islands have not been studied so carefully as they deserve. They always sailed with the trade-winds, going south before the northeast monsoon and returning home with the southwest monsoon. While it was undoubtedly the usual rule to follow the Asiatic coast—especially on the outward voyage—it would seem that many homeward-bound ships of the Amoy district might more logically travel up the west coasts of Borneo, Palawan, Luzon and Formosa. This route has been neglected or purposely disregarded by some writers, but there seems to be considerable evidence that it was actually followed. The sailing directions given in the Chinese Tung Hsi Yang K'au and other similar works indicate that ships bound for the Sulu Archipelago, eastern Borneo and, in the later centuries, even for Bandjarmasin and Java, first crossed over to the island of Luzon and then sailed southward through the Philippines.

While Chinese sailors usually kept near land when possible, it should not be forgotten that they possessed the mariner's compass, or "south-pointing needle", as they called it, from a very early date. The Arab and Indian sailors, on the other hand, steered their ships chiefly by the direction of the trade-winds, and in emergencies by the aid of certain land-finding birds that they carried with them, and which, when released, would fly directly toward the nearest land.

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Page last modified: 20-05-2012 19:04:38 ZULU