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Haraprasad Ray’s Sino-Asian Trade – A Review

[Haraprasad Ray, a Sinologist of considerable expertise, wrote several monographs on Sino-Indian relations, history, trade routes and so on. His 1993 book, Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations: Study of Bengal During the 15th Century, was reviewed by Denys Lombard1. I translate that review loosely here.]

Although the title does not explicitly state so, this is essentially a rereading by one of the few Indian Sinologists (a lecturer at the Jawaharlal Nehru University) of the Chinese sources of the four missions to Bengal during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (between 1412-1414, 1415-1416, 1420-1421, and 1422-1423). As Pelliot has already assumed, it seems clear that Zheng He did not participate in any of these visits but left the responsibility to three of his associates: Yang Min, Hou Xian and Zhou Ding.

Mr Haraprasad Ray’s work is based mainly on the text Xiyang Chaogong Dianlu, “A Report on the Tributes sent to the Court from the Countries of the Western Seas” by Huang Shengceng, a native of Suzhou (1490-1540), and recently published by Xie Fang, based on seven different versions (Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1982). He tells us of having also ‘discovered’ by himself an unpublished manuscript in the City Library of Shanghai, which, unfortunately, he hasn’t used in this work. Huang’s text, certainly inspired by the Xingcha shenglan and the Yingyai shenglan, includes as well other unpublished sources, whence its interest.

The observations of Mr Haraprasad Ray, who is himself of Bengali origin, are invaluable. He establishes that the Chinese went well past Pandua (itself about 30 miles north of Gaur, a site not mentioned in the Yingyai edited by J.V.G. Mills) to Gaya, Delhi and up to Jaunpur. It is not without interest to see that the Chinese emissaries stopped at Jaunpur, that ‘enigmatic’ kingdom, where, under Ibrahim Shah Sharqi (1402-1440) an amazing cultural development inspired by Persia was flourishing at precisely that same time, Jaunpur being known then as the ‘Shiraz of India.’ Further, Mr Ray identifies certain Bengali fabrics that previous translations from the Chinese had hitherto omitted: manzheti, which appears to correspond to panchadi, a sort of calico; xinbailedali, corresponding to jhamartali, a sort of muslin; chaotaer corresponding to chautar, a thin cotton material; moheimoluo corresponding to mahmal, a velveteen fabric, and so on.

The glossary of Chinese terms (listing unnecessary characters like those of Zheng He and Yongle, but omitting those of Pand-du-wa and Zhao-na-pu-er) remains incomplete, and it is regrettable that the author was not better acquainted with the fine work of G. Bouchon (although a 1973 article by her on the Muslims of Kerala is cited) and L.F. Thomaz2, or R. Ptak3. Nevertheless, we eagerly await his forthcoming observations concerning Calicut, Quilon, Cochin and the Maldives (probably deriving from the same Xiyang chaogong dianlu).

We must in particular highlight the appendix (pp 147-160) in which Mr Haraprasad Ray returns to the question of the reasons for the termination of the famous voyages after 1433: “Cessation of the Voyages : A New Look into its Causes.”

Far from inferring a “Chinese decline” from the reduction in naval expeditions, the author suggests rather that state enterprises began to be taken over by private firms. This view (admittedly not entirely new, found as it is in the works of Wu Han and Lo Jungpang) is certainly a fine one, and we risk little more if we make a quick comparison between the Chinese trade, now almost free of any interference from the state, and future European commerce, which would have to endure more than two centuries of the yoke of the Estado da India. If we agree with Mr Ray, and there are, in our view, compelling reasons to do so, we must conclude that the Chinese interlopers had won the game long before the Europeans began to play it.

1. Denys Lombard. Haraprasad Ray : Trade and Diplomacy in India-China Relations. A Study of Bengal during the Fifteenth Century, Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 1994, vol. 81, n° 1, pp. 388-389.

2. Regarding Bengal, we would have expected at least a mention of the fine edition of the first Portuguese evidence on the region: G. Bouchon, L.F. Thomaz, Voyage dans les deltas du Gange et de l’Irraouaddy, 1521, Paris, Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, 1988.

3. When, for instance, Mr Ray addresses the issue of the trade in horses (p. 120), it is unfortunate he does not mention the little monograph by R. Ptak, Pferde auf see, Chinas Pferdeimporte von den Riukiu-Inseln und den Ländern Südostasiens und des Indischen Ozeans (1368-1435), Bamberg, 1991.

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