Located between two continents, Asia and Australia, Indonesia’s archipelago is often portrayed as a bridge connecting the two continents. According to historical researches, the archipelago has been visited by various nations of all over the world, including Asian, since long, long time ago. They crossed the sea separating Indonesia from Asia mainland. They came from Indochina and spread to the western parts. Those who came via Philippine’s archipelago spread to islands in Pacific Oceans and Australia. Others started from Indonesia to the west, crossing Indonesian Ocean to Madagascar1).
Situated on equator line and influenced by Indo-Australia monsoon, Indonesian Archipelago has tropical climate with high level of temperature, humidity, and rainfall. The monsoons strongly influence the sailing directions. Therefore, in the past people of various nations used the wind to make long distant voyages. So, there were areas whose trade and diplomatic activities boomed during the west monsoon, while others increased during the East monsoon. Monsoon did not influence only inter-island crossings, but also international voyages from and to Indonesia’s archipelago. (see fig. 1: Trading Roads of Asia)
Given the location of Indonesia’s archipelago is between Asia and Australia, it had become not only the crossing bridge for the prehistoric people but also – not less important – maritime trade route between India and China. Indonesia’s location between the two trade centers had also influenced history. Therefore, it is hard to portend what time both countries – India and China – had trade relationships with the Archipelago’s people because since the first century India and China had already had a great relationship in commerce and Buddhism religion. With their strategic relation, their ships must have visited Indonesia for they must have passed through Malacca Strait.
In addition to its strategic location for maritime trading, Indonesian archipelago is well known as the producer of agricultural and mining products such as clove, black and white peppers, nutmeg, gold, and precious stones, among other things attracted Western, Chinese and Far East people’s interest. One important thing in trading and diplomatic relationship between Indonesia and China is that both countries carry out such relationship directly. Their relationship is part of relationship between West Asia and China. Besides, both have a very particular relationship. In fact, Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s western islands, is close to the mainland of South East Asia. Between Sumatra and Malay Peninsula – a part of Southeast Asia peninsula – there is only a narrow strait i.e. Malacca Strait. This geographical feature has significant influence to the history of Sumatra Island.
In ancient Chinese manuscript of Heou Han hou (Han dynasty), the archipelago was mentioned as Ye-tiao. It was said that in 132 AD Ye-tiao (葉調國) entrusted an envoy for diplomatic affairs to China of Han dynasty under Emperor Shun (125 – 144 AD). The scholars agree that Ye-tiao was then translated with Javadvipa island covering all Java and Sumatera islands.2) Javadvipa was a Sanskrit name mentioned on Ramayana epic of India. In later eras, between the early third century and the beginning of the fifth condition of Indonesia commerce had changed radically. According to Wolters, several pieces of evidence indicate that the merchant ships to pass through South China was between the 3rd to the 5th century A.D. In addition, the other most evidence says that the first merchant shipping between Indonesia and China took place in early fifth century. The conclusion is inferred from the voyage between two Buddhist monks, Fa Hsien from China and Gunavarman from Kashmir – Sri Lanka. Fa Hsien started his voyages to Sri Lanka in 413 AD, stopped in Yeh-p’o-t’i in 414 AD, and returned to China through the sea. On May, he left Yeh-p’o-t’i for China. According to researchers, Yeh-p’o-t’i is meant as Javadvipa. Javadvipa did not only cover Java Island but also Sumatra Island or Srivijaya.3) (see fig. 2: Borobudur Relic of Srivijaya and Java Voyages)
Based on the Chinese manuscripts, the Chinese mentioned three empires: Yeh-p’o-t’I (Red: Javadvipa), She-P’o (Red: Java), and Ho-lo-tan (Red: Western Java of Tarumanegara Kingdom) were located in Java island in the fifth century. It is true that Java and Sumatera islands were often thought to form one island, which in the later periods the Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324 CE) crossing Asia to reach Sumatra island called Sumatera as “Java Minor”.4) The wealthy and prosperity of Java were recorded on the Chinese book ‘Liu Sung Shu’ under Emperor Wu, the first emperor of Liu Sung dynasty 劉宋 (420 – 479 AD) in China. The Liung Sung Shu referred to the first half of fifth century comments, “precious things come from the mountain and seas by this way………. thousands of varieties all of which the rulers coveted. Therefore, ships came in a continuous stream, and merchants and envoys jostled with each other.” In the second place the coastal Malays of south-east Sumatera, were now making an increasingly important contribution to this commerce by providing shipping facilities between Indonesia and China, and probably from India and Ceylon.5)
The monk Gunavarman’s voyage, a prince of Kashmir living in Java, was another hint of sailing from archipelago to China in the fifth century. He reportedly departed from Shé-p’o (Java). Initially, his ship captain planned to dock briefly in a small kingdom but, since the weather was favorable for sailing, he decided to go straight to China. The report about the plan schedule is propped up by other examples of activities taking place in the early of the fifth century. In 449 A.D – during the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 M – 589 M) in China – the Emperor Wendi “Liu Yilong (劉義隆)” (424 – 453 A.D) sent his envoy to Shé-p’o (Java), marking the first official visit of a Chinese to Indonesia. The emperor intended to send a ship and envoys to pick up Gunavarman in Shé-p’o. These facts become convincing evidence that commerce relationship between Chinese and Indonesian was started in the early of the fifth century. In addition, their smooth relationship illustrated a trading and politic organization system that assured both parties’ interests. These conditions encouraged more Chinese traders and officials to come to the archipelago. They brought silk, ceramic and other valuables to be exchanged and traded with the archipelago’s highly valuable agricultural products.6) (See fig. 3: Ceramic Cargo from Belitung Wreck, Tang dynasty).
The dispatch of these envoys was very close to the important role and power of sea trade stripe on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. In fact, the power of Srivijaya empire was increasingly glorious. In 768 and 787 AD, commanded by King Sailendra, a Buddhist king and founder of Borobudur stupa in eighth and ninth century in Central Java, Champa (in present-day Vietnam) beach was attacked by Javanese and Kun-lun people (Kun-lun were the group of the dark-colored people captured in Southeast Asia). However, in 1017 AD, Rajendra Cola I (1012 – 1044 AD), a Chola emperor of South India, attacked Srivijaya, and Chola kingdom opened Malacca Strait as a port for its junks and trade affairs.
Therefore, researching the periods of Chinese artifacts, we should research the history of trade and diplomatic affairs between China and other Asia countries, especially Java and Srivijaya kingdoms. We also should research the history of ups and downs of Srivijaya and Javanese kingdoms. The struggle for hegemony in these trade routes was very close to the prosperity and important roles of Malacca Strait in maritime trade and diplomatic affairs at that time. The artifacts, Chinese ceramics that were found in Srivijaya and Java was considered as a close relevancy to the role of these trade stripes. By the excavation and finding of these artifacts, it was an important hint that Palembang and Jambi regions in Srivijaya kingdom were important stripes as trade points besides a Buddhism Ramayana center at that time.7)
When scholars and archaeologists ascertain the periods of Chinese artifacts found or collected in Southeast Asia countries, it is difficult to separate from what happened between China dynasties and Srivijaya along with Java empires in the past to what seemed to happen with these artifacts. They should involve a certain method that is so-called ‘Ethnography study’. This method will trace the artifacts’ roots back throughout the years with the help of the past people and culture. This method will be able to trace history roots of the artifacts bequeathed in the centuries or years ago by studying their history, where these artifacts are found.
Kern H., Verspreide Geschriften, deel Vi,’s Gravenhage, 1916. P. vi.
Cf. N. Sastri, South Indian Influence in the far East, Bombay, 1949, p. 101.
O.W. Wolters, Early Indonesian Commerce, New York, 1967, pp. 35, 38 and 269, note. 29.
George Codès, The Indianized States of South-East Asia, translated by Sue Brown Cowing, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, USA, 1968, p. 54.
Daniel George Edward Hall, History of South East Asia, Fourth Edition, The Macmillan Press Ltd, London and Basingstoke, 1981, pp. 39 – 40.
O.W. Wolters, 1967, op.cit, p. 36.
Amerta, National Archaeological Research Center, Department of Education and Culture, Edition 7, 1984, pp. 8 – 9. Asian Art and History Researcher.