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Thailand - A Chinese Tributary State

In various Chinese chronicles and records, some of them of great antiquity, mention is made of Siam, of envoys and letters sent to and received from that country and of the exchange of presents between the Emperors of China and the Kings of Siam. The presents sent by Siam are represented in the records of later times, as tribute payable by a vassal state, but Siam was never invaded or conquered by China and the earliest chronicles speak of envoys passing between the two countries bearing messages in which the rulers addressed each other in terms denoting equality. There is abundant evidence that to Siam as well as the other nations of Further India, to stand well with China appeared an advantage and that any little complimentary attention received therefrom was invariably made a matter for boasting and self-congratulation.

The formalities observed in the offering of presents to China were identical with those exacted by the Kings who made them, from their own vassals on occasions on payment of tribute by the latter. Hence it seems probable that whatever may have been the nature of the earlier presents, those made in the middle ages and later, were propitiatory offerings made with the object of securing the good will of an acknowledged great Power and therefore to be regarded perhaps as in some sort tribute. It is probable that Siam came in time to look upon China with the respect that is sometimes felt by a younger for an elder brother and there can be no doubt that some of the numerous Siamese Kings who found themselves on the throne with small right to be there, sought, in the ratification of their succession by China, an argument to strengthen their position in the eyes of their own people. It is on record (in China) for instance, that King Phra Karet when he had retaken Siam from the Burmese, asked for official recognition by China of his right to the throne.

Ma Tuan-lin, relates that "The kingdom of P'an-p'an entered into relations with China at the time of the Liang" [AD 502-507]. Ma Tuan-lin repored that the people lived chiefly about the sea-shore. These barbarians know not how to build defensive walls; they remain content with erecting stockades. The King was wont to lounge upon a gilt couch shaped like a dragon. The dignitaries of his entourage attended in a kneeling posture in front of him, the body erect, and the arms crossed in such a manner that the hands rest upon the shoulders. At his Court may be seen many Brahmans, who had come from India in order to profit by his munificence; they were all in great favor with him.

The embassies sent to China range from AD 454 to 617, after which date every mention of Pan-p'an ceases from the Chinese annals. It is not referred to even a score of years later by Hwen-ts'ang, neither is it by I-tsing another fifty years afterwards. The State located at P'an-p'an did continue to exist, only its capital was shortly afterwards removed from the neighborhood of the P'hrah Banthom spire to Sup'han, and the western portion of the State seceded, forming a separate principality, with its capital at Ratburi. At the same time, it is possible that P'an-p'an, being simply its seaport, silted up or became otherwise difficult of access to sea-going craft, and that therefore the latter ceased to call thither, and preferred to put in at Dvarapuri, which had in the meantime grown up into an important emporium.

"Relations between China and Siam were first established around the time of the Sui Dynasty (ca.600 AD) through successive dynasties up until the late Manchu Dynasty and the Taiping Rebellion (mid-19th century), Siam was always subordinate to China either as a vassal or a tributary state. In the Sui period a Chinese princess married a Siamese royal prince and was accompanied by 500 ceramists and other craftsmen. Later when a rebellion broke out the Sui monarch dispatched large numbers of weapon makers and soldiers to Siam to aid the King, who was his grandson. In 1371 under the Ming Emperor Hungwu, the king of Siam voluntarily entered into tributary relations andin 1378 the Emperor bestowed on the country the name Hsienlo (still used for Siam in Chinese and Japanese). At that time not a few Ming envoys visited Siam and took part in its government. Again in 1767, when the capital Ayuthia fell to a Burmese invasion and the land of Siam seemed doomed to extinction, it was rescued and unified by the hero of Siamese indepndence, Chao Tak Sin, known in Chinese as Chong Chao, who was born to a Teochiu father and a Siamese mother. The founder of the present dynasty, Phya Chakri or Rama the First, was his son-in-law. After Siam became tributary, private traffic gradually developed and many Chinese reached Siam." The mention of Lo-hu by Ma Tuan-lin occurs under the date 4th year of the period Hsien-fing, corresponding to 1001 AD, where it is introduced in connection with an embassy which the State of Choumei-lin despatched to China. No instance of direct intercourse between Lo-hu and China appears to have been recorded in Chinese literature. As far as is known, all that is said is that some time after the establishment of Chinese relations with Ch'ih-fu in AD 607-608, the country became split into two parts, bearing respectively the names of Hsien and Lo-hu; that the soil of Hsien was sterile and unsuitable for cultivation, while that of Lo-hu was flat and marshy, and yielded all sorts of agricultural produce; and that, finally, the inhabitants of Lo-hu used to contract marriages with those of Hsien.

The intercourse which took place from the end of the tenth century AD between the State of Sukhothai and the Celestial Empire may have been merely a continuation, in an unbroken succession, of the relationship originally established between the two countries in AD 607, or else a renewal of traditional connections which had long remained interrupted. The Chinese literature does not appear to contain any record of intercourse between the two countries at this stage, whereas the old Siamese chronicles consider the communication that now took place to be the first of its kind ever established with China. This view is incorrect, while as regards the Siamese account of the manner in which this alleged original intercourse came to pass, it is plainly seen that it is made up of a good deal of fable, although, no doubt, containing some latent particle of truth in its legendary texture sufficient to warrant the assumption that an interchange of embassies must have really taken place between the two countries at the period in question.

Yet, from lack of reliable data from Chinese sources wherewith to check the story given on the Siamese side and sift in it the truth from fiction, it is not possible to do better than give the Siamese account. The first Siamese mission that proceeded to China, and of which the account in question purports to be a narrative, is ascribed to King Arunavati Ruang of Swankhalok and placed in the seventh century AD, or even earlier according to different versions. But the celebrated potentate so named could not have reigned before the eleventh century, and his mission to China given that it was undertaken under his personal leadership is accordingly to be put down in either 1059 or 1079 AD, the former date being perhaps the more probable, although either may yet require a slight correction.

It appears from the sequel of King Ruang's history in the Northern annals, that the Emperor of China had conferred upon him, as a kwei, or gem-token, a thirst-allaying jewel called Udaka-prasada, by the virtue of which King Ruang could go about the country for seven days in succession without needing aught to drink. This may have been a peculiar kind of stone, if not a metallic pellet of silver amalgam, such as is termed "solidified" or "killed" mercury in the local colloquial, and sometimes kept in the mouth by natives for a similar purpose.

The current concept of Thai kingship has evolved through 800 years of absolute rule. The first King of a unified Thailand was the founder of the Kingdom of Sukhothai: King Sri Indraditya in 1238. During his reign the kingdom was extended by amalgamation with other towns. The next most significant was the second son of King Si Inthrathit, King Ram-khamhaeng, the third king, who was also the most renowned of the Sukhothai monarchs. Ram-khamhaeng (Rama the Great, 1277-1317) was the first ruler of Sukhothai for whom historical records survive. He was a famous warrior who claimed to be "sovereign lord of all the Tai" and financed his court with war booty and tribute from vassal states in Burma, Laos, and the Malay Peninsula. During his reign, the Thai established diplomatic relations with China and acknowledged the Chinese emperor as nominal overlord of the Thai kingdom. Ramkhamhaeng brought Chinese artisans to Sukhothai to develop the ceramics industry that was a mainstay of the Thai economy for 500 years.

Despite wars with the southern states and with the Lao and notwithstanding occasional trouble with Kambodia, the Sukhothai-Sawankalok kingdom grew and prospered greatly and in time attained to a considerable degree of civilisation. Not war alone occupied the attention of its succeeding kings. The Arts were encouraged, the people were well and systematically governed, trade was extensive and friendly relations were maintained with China and other distant lands by means of frequent interchange of embassies. Early in the 7th century AD, envoys from the Emperor of China visited Sukhothai and found the country wealthy and powerful. The envoys have left records of their visit from which it appears that the people were chiefly engaged in the cultivation of rice and other cereals.

According to the Chinese records, Siam first appeared at Court under the name of Hsien-Lo-hu or Siem-Lo-huk in the fourth year of the period Hung Wu, corresponding to AD 1371. The country was not called Hsien-lo until the first year of the period Yung-le, i.e., AD 1403. Previous to the Chih Ching period (AD 1341) it was divided into the two States of Hsien and Lo-hu. Of these Hsien alone appears to have entertained relations with China since the middle at least of the thirteenth century, its last two missions recorded being those of 1297 and 1299. Although Sukhothai had at this period under its domination the whole of Siam and the upper two-thirds at least of the Malay Peninsula just rescued from Kambojan subjection, Sarnao or Sarnd i.e., Southern Siam continued as a kingdom, whose rulers were, no doubt, nominal vassals of Sukhothai, to the emancipation of which from the Khmer yoke they had very likely contributed.

And this southern kingdom of Sand also known by the alternative traditional name Lavo it had inherited from the State, of which it was practically the historical continuation despatched, according to local records, several missions to China, but whether in the name and on behalf of its suzerain of Sukothai or with the latter's sanction and concurrence, or whether of its own initiative, it is not clear. Given that the Chinese records of the period were full which it does not appear, especially for the portion devoted to foreign relations it would be easy, from no word being therein said about intercourse with Lo-hu, to conclude that the missions stated in the local chronicles as having been sent by this State (Lavo) were instead despatched on behalf and at the bidding of Sukhothai, and were consequently recognised by the Chinese Court as coming from lisien, which is the designation whereby the Sukhothai kingdom became known to the Chinese at this time. But in the absence of more definite information, it seems natural to assume that both the States referred to sent envoys to Court, and that whereas the homages of Hsien were duly recorded, those presented by Lo-hu somehow escaped mention.

At any event, it is pretty well certain that the Hsien and Lo-hu of this period correspond respectively to the Sukhothai kingdom or Siam's paramount power for the time being and to the subordinate State of Lavo, alias Sand or Sornau. The latter, however, has no more to do with the Lawek, wherewith it has been recklessly identified, than the former has with the Ch'ih-mei or "Red Eyebrows" Rebels, with whom it and its people have in a no less slipshod manner been connected by the Chinese cyclopedists and others of that ilk.* Thus far, then, local records can be made to agree with those on the Celestial side, and a like concordance may again be established during the period Chih Cheng (AD 1341-1368), in the course of which Lo-hu is represented to have conquered Hsien. We shall demonstrate in the sequel that it was the Lavd, alias Sand or Sarnau, State, of which King Ramadhipati I had made himself the master on or shortly before AD 1350, and wherein he had founded at the last-named date his new capital Ayuthia, that subdued Sukhothai and all the territory dependent on it, thus blossoming forth into a renovated and greater Sand kingdom, which, notwithstanding its being styled the kingdom of Davarati. In the last year of his reign, Ramathibodi had seized Angkor during what was to be the first of many successful Thai assaults on the Khmer capital. Thai policy was aimed at securing Ayutthaya's eastern frontier by preempting Vietnamese designs on Khmer territory. The weakened Khmer periodically submitted to Thai suzerainty, but efforts by Ayutthaya to maintain control over Angkor were repeatedly frustrated. Thai troops were frequently diverted to suppress rebellions in Sukhothai or to campaign against Chiang Mai, where Ayutthaya's expansion was tenaciously resisted. Eventually Ayutthaya subdued the territory that had belonged to Sukhothai, and the year after Ramathibodi died, his kingdom was recognized by the emperor of China's newly established Ming Dynasty as Sukhothai's rightful successor. By the end of the fourteenth century, Ayutthaya was regarded as the strongest power in Southeast Asia, but it lacked the manpower to dominate the region.

In the earliest official communications from the Kings of Ayuthia reported in the Chinese histories, the ruler is styled King of "Ma-hu-luk-k'un Yu-f'i-ya" (Mahana gara Ayuddhya), and no such name as Siem-Lo-hu or Siem-lo occurs. This circumstance makes it evident that these terms must have been contrived by the Chinese themselves, in order to represent the forms Shahr-i-nao, Sornau, then widely employed throughout the East to designate Siam, or if not, in order to denote for their own purpose the power which arose from the union of the two States formerly severally known to them as Siem and Lo-hu.

A letter has been preserved, however, in which the Emperor of China, writing to the King of Siam about the year 1555 AD, expatiates upon the charms of peace and exhorts his friend and younger brother to eschew barbarous war, the delight of savages, to cultivate the gentle arts, and to live in harmony with his neighbours, but this, coming in reply to a prayer for assistance and arriving at a moment when Siam, hemmed in by enemies, was fighting desperately for mere existence, can hardly have served any purpose other than the gratification of the writer's opinion of his own epistolary composition.

The last mention in any Chinese records of the submission of the so-called tribute by Siam to China occurs in the earliest years of the nineteenth century AD in the reign of King Somdet Phra Budayot Fa [Rama I r. 1782-1809 ], since when the ancient custom has been allowed to fall into disuse. China certainly never made any pretence of assisting Siam in her wars nor, though she claimed both Burma and Kambodia as her vassals equally with Siam, did she take any step to check the continual onslaughts of the nations of Further India upon each other.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:43:18 ZULU