Dialogue  January-March, 2007, Volume 8  No. 3

India – China Relations: the Medieval Scenario as a Background

Haraprasad Ray

To comprehend the logic of Chinese diplomacy, it may be worthwhile to understand China’s past, Chinese way of looking at their neighbours, the make-up of their mind and the cultural synergy developed in course of centuries of contacts with India. To appreciate these traits let us look at China’s past.

Traditionally, China’s concept of its neighbouring countries was based on the notion of the internal and external, neifu (inner zone) and waifu (external zone). The terms nei and wai were relative in sense. Some of the outer areas might be absorbed into the inner as a result of military or cultural expansion. This is how the different areas and nationalities were absorbed into the Central Kingdom (Zhongguo or Tianxia)1. Such absorption continued till the 1750’s when the last of the independent Uighur areas under the Khojas (Huojihan) were pacified and the hereditary chiefs were replaced by prefecture and county heads appointed by the Central Government2. This has been termed as “Overall unification of China”3. Potentially, all foreigners (Zhufan) could become “outer feudatories” (waifan); in other words all “uncivilized” foreigners (shengfan) could become “civilized” foreigners (shufan), if they accepted the superior culture of China, which was identical with Chinese suzerainty.

This perhaps explains the practice of including historio-geographical notices on foreign countries in the dynastic histories. Ban Gu (AD 32-92), the author of the History of the Former Han Dynasty was the first to attempt at a theory on imperial relation with the foreign countries. He recorded the Xiongnu (wrongly called the Hun) missions as bearing tribute; both administrative convention and historical customs sanctified this practice thereafter.

The importance of the notices on foreign countries lies in the fact that they provided the court vital information about the geographical location, topography, political situation, people and their customs, production of all kinds, and the diplomatic relation or absence of it with China. They indeed served the purpose of what we call intelligence data today about the neighbouring countries, on the basis of which the Emperors formulated their policies in material or spiritual spheres vis-a-vis the neighbouring countries.

The knowledge of foreign countries helped China to develop its trade and diplomatic offensive towards foreign states. To give one instance, the Chinese silk had an international market. It was so popular among the Romans that a pound of silk bought in Rome was literally worth its weight in gold. It was well known to the Indian royalty since before the 4th century B.C as testified by the Arthasastra of Kautilya. The Chinese bureaucracy took good note of the continuously rising demand, and used silk with skill in its foreign policies. Silk was listed among the most important goods that were to “further” the foreign relations doctrine of China. Since the time of the centralized Qin (Chhin) and Han dynasties commerce became a leading component of Chinese polities. Porcelain and even gold were included. What is known as state trade did not exist in its pure from: all goods, both those supplied and those received by the court, came under the head of “gift”. Alien powers and their trade missions could get silk exclusively in the form of Chinese gift in return for what they had brought as tribute. This system known as ‘tributary trade’ continued till the 19th country. Such tribute could in no way mean that all the trading partners of China were really its vassals. Far away countries like Hormuz, Aden, Mogadishu, Malindi, Saudi Arabia (Tianfang), and even the states of India were not expected to be vassals of China, although the Chinese court recorders would make us believe them to be so in their records. The foreigners were compelled to accept the terms of trade imposed upon them. They were even allowed to carry on trade in the local bazaars in Nanjing and Beijing for a few days. For monetary transactions they were given Chinese paper money4.

Since imperial influence extended to a vast area, the court naturally desired to extend the sphere of inter-state relation. During the early Ming period normal international intercourse extended far into the Indian Ocean region. The Emperors were keen to demonstrate their enthusiasm to be regarded as the potential lord paramount of the universe. The highhanded manner in which Chen Zuyi of Palmbang (Jiu Gang)(1405), Suganla of Semudera in 1415 and Alagakkonara of Sri Lanka in 1411 were treated, shows that the massive Zheng He voyages were not so innocuous as they may seem to be. The first two were taken to Nanjing and beheaded, and the third, the Sri Lankan ruler,was taken captive to Nanjing, but released later. China’s geographical concept kept pace with the imperial thinking of the period. Seven naval expeditions, six of which were between 1405-1424 (during Yongle’s life), went up to Mecca, Aden, Mogadishu and Malindi. Each fleet comprised 100 to 200 ships, of which 40 to 60 were huge treasure ships or warships, carrying guns of smaller calibre, crude bombs and rockets, and carried thousands of men, and therefore, could not be treated as harmless trading junks. There were bombardments or threats of bombardment on the ports of Al Hasa (at Muscat) and Mogadishu, which terrorized the local rulers into allowing the Chinese fleet to carry on trade with the locals5. It may be interesting to note that in addition to the inscriptions sent to Kozhikotte (1405) and Cochin (1416),6 Yongle had sent three other inscriptions. The first to Malacca, written on 11 November 1405, was in response to the Malacca ruler’s request for protection and support. Zheng He was about to sail on his first voyage and Yongle understood the strategic importance of Malacca. He praised the late king’s glorious reign. The second inscription and poem written to Minamoto Dogi, the king of Japan, on 5 February 1406, was to thank him for his attack on the Wako (Japanese wokou) pirates. The third written in 1408 was meant for the Brunei king in response to the expression of his desire to visit China to pay respect to Yongle. The whole tone is condescending and perhaps reflects the suzerain-vassal relationship. The Cochin inscription of 1416, written long after the other three, was more modest and formal. Although the conventionality is unmistakable, the piece was significant as it shows the importance attached to Cochin for its pepper trade. Compared with this inscription, the Kozhikotte stone tablet of 1405 was short and pithy, couched in ambiguous terms more in the nature of praise to Yongle. The rivalry between Kozhikotte and Cochin at that time is wellknown. Was the king of Cochin trying to draw the special attention of the Chinese or getting psychological satisfaction from the edict of China. We are informed by later European visitors that after a victorious attack on Cochin the Kozhikotte king had taken away the Chinese inscription to his kingdom. Unfortunately none of them is traceable today.

It may be relevant to mention that the Chinese rulers had in the past maintained intimate trade and diplomatic relation with India invariably during a period when India fragmented into small, independent but economically flourishing states till the fifteenth century. When the Chinese missions came the independent states of Bengal. Chola, Cochin, Quilon and Kozhikotte (Caticut) were flourshing littoral states or emporia. The Chinese benefited from the trade and enjoyed the “big brother” status which these smaller countries invested it with. It is curious how history often seems to repeat itself. But the situation is vastly different now. Take for an instance the Chinese relations with India and her neighbours.

If we note how the spiritual spectrum yielded place to the emerging material condition during the medieval period, how the zeal of the pious monks gave place to the initiative of the profit-seeking traders who, backed by the imperial mandates, peddled their goods from shore to shore, never caring for what went on in the cultural spheres or what Buddha meant to. China, India may be able to appreciate the incipient metabolism occurring in this relationship. It is only through such deep insight that India shall be able to comprehend and appreciate its relationship with China.

For more then five hundred years after the long-standing and wide-ranging Chinese voyages into the Indian Ocean under the leadership of the famous eunuch-official Zheng He during the early fifteenth century (AD 1405-1433), there was complete absence of intellectual, and even commercial and cultural interaction between India and China. And when independent India and liberated China approached each other again under a changed world scenario, both had undergone psychological euphoria followed by shock leading to suspicion about each other’s intentions.

That chapter of suspicion and misunderstanding is disappearing by and by, and these two trans-Himalayan neighbours are now trying to usher in a new chapter of trust and cooperation; and this is a welcome sign.


     1.   Yang Lienshing, “Historical Notes on the Chinese World Order” in J.K.Fairbanked, The Chinese World Order, Cambridge (Mass), 1968, r.23.

     2.   Bai Shouyi, Outline History of China, Beijing, 1982, p.389

     3.   Tan Qixiang, chief ed., The Historical Atlas of China, Vol I, Shanghai: Cartographic Publication House, 1982, “General Compiling Principles for the historical Atlas of China”, para 13.

     4.   For market operation in China see the present author’s, Trade and diplomacy in India-China Relations : A Study of Bengal During the Fifteenth century, New Delhi./London : Radiant / Sangam Books, 1993, pp 122-25.

     5.   See the present author’s “Chinese Involvement in the Geopolitics of the Pacific and the India Ocean Region prior to the Advent of the Portuguese” in his Trade and Trade Routes between India and China, Kolkata: Progressive Publishers, 2003, pp 224-30; hereafter shortened as Trade and Trade Routers.

     6.   For these inscriptions and their contents, see the present author’s “Sino-Indian Commercial and Diplomatic Relations (9th–15 Century A.D”, The Quarterly Review of Historical Studies, Vol.XXXVII, Nos. 1 & 2, 1997, pp 114-5 see also, ibid, pp111-3.

     7.   Idem, “An Analysis of the Chinese Maritime voyages into the Indian Ocean during Early Ming Dynasty and their Raison D’etre” in Trade and Trade Routes pp 177-92; the reference to these instances occur at p. 186.

Bibliographical Note

We have given here an introduction to medieval spectrum only in a nutshell. For a clear and detailed idea the following works in addition to the above may be consulted: 1) The essays contained in Trade and Trade Routes (as above) deal with a wide range of subjects pertaining to India-China relations and China’s demarche into the Indian Ocean. They include Northern and Southern India, as well as the neighboring areas of South.–East Asia. Dr J.V.G. Mills’, Ma Huan : Yingyai Shengla, The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shoes (1433) (Hakluyt Society, extra Series, No. XLII, Cambridge, 1970 is a classic work which gives a graphic description of Zheng He’s(also written as Cheng Ho) voyages with identification of the places and countries of South-East Asia.

Dr. J.V.G. Mills Ma Huan: Yingyai Shenglan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores (1433), (Hakluyt Society, extra Series, No. XLII, Cambridge, 1970) is a classic work which gives a graphic description of Zheng He’s(also written as Cheng Ho) voyages with identification of the places and countries of South-east Asia. Continued with this is the work of the present author titled.(3) Trade and Diplomacy in India- China Relations, A study of Bengal during the fifteenth Century which gives an up to date data on hitherto unknown aspects of maritime trade and diplomacy between India and china. The previously undecipherd trade items like textiles and other commodities have been identified which will enhance the scholars’ knowledge about pre-European state of Asian trade and market operations. Besides, The following articles by the present author give unknown facts about China’s contacts with the then South Indian states. (4) ‘Calicut as known to China during the fifteenth Century’, Journal of Indian Ocean Studies (shortened as JIOS), Vol.2, No.3, July 1995,pp.243-58; (5) ‘Maritime Relations between Tamil Nadu and China: The beginning and the Climax’, JIOS, Vol.6, No.1, November 1998, pp.59 – 71;.(6) ‘Maritine Relation between Tamilnadu and China – The period of political flux and decline’ JIOS, Vol.7, No.1, November 1999, pp.48 – 54,(7) ‘Sino-Indian Historical Relations – Quilon (Kollam) and China, JIOS, Vol.8.Nos 1&2, August 2000, pp.116-28 and (8) ‘Cochin (Kochchi) and China before the European “discovery” of the East’, JIOS, Vol.5, November. 1997, pp35-45.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati