Photo: The landmark Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre is one of symbols of China-Sri Lanka Friendship. CC BY-SA 3.0 - Photo: 2018

China and Sri Lanka: A History that Stretches Back into the Mists of Time – Trade, Religion and Diplomacy – 1

Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona

The writer of this 2-part series is former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, former Foreign Secretary and former Head of the UN Treaty Section. The articles are based on a talk on China and Sri Lanka: A History that Stretches Back into the Mists of Time – Trade, Religion and Diplomacy’ given in Sydney on August 26, 2018. – The Editor

COLOMBO (IDN) – Sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean at the southern tip of India and the meeting point of the monsoon winds, and swirling ocean currents, Sri Lanka occupies an enviable strategic geographical position.

A blessing that, with judicious handling and long term vision, can be leveraged to contribute to its aspirations to achieve prosperity but, mismanaged, a curse that has and will attract the unwelcome attentions of global and regional powers seeking to use the island’s incomparable location to their benefit, especially to dominate the Indian Ocean.

Dr Palitha KohonaThroughout history, Sri Lanka has captivated the interest of a multitude of sailors, traders, holy men, adventurers, empire builders and invaders. The Chinese were well represented among them through the centuries and from the time of the Han Dynasty used Sri Lanka as a lucrative central link and emporium in their trading ventures along the southern Silk Route. At times, we elegantly parried and benefited hugely from the attention that our location gave us, especially in trade. At other times we faltered.

Responding to and prudently managing these advances and ensuring that the national interest is safeguarded, including territorial integrity and sovereignty, should remain a priority. While we protect our interests, our geographical location confers on us a solemn responsibility to ensure that the interests of the other users of the sea route to the south of Sri Lanka are also safeguarded.

Having overcome a terrible terrorist threat, nine years ago, Lanka is again confronting one of those seminal challenges in its history.

Today an additional factor must impact on Sri Lanka’s deliberations. Sri Lanka possesses a 200 mile exclusive economic zone and, possibly, a vast area of sea bed to which it has lodged a claim with the United Nations since 2009.  The wealth of this area, both in the water column and trapped in the sea bed, with careful management, could make Sri Lanka a highly prosperous nation.  The biodiversity in the water column which is now the subject of a UN sponsored initiative could also become another attraction to Sri Lanka’s suitors.

Challenges confronting Sri Lanka and the region

The Indian Ocean region is experiencing a much anticipated luxury. Almost every one of the economies of the region is expanding at a rate that generates hope in the future of the countries of Indian Ocean rim, and especially for its poor and marginalised.

The promise of prosperity so enthusiastically proclaimed at independence from colonial rule, many decades ago, may at last becoming a reality. India is powering ahead with a rapidly expanding economy and now leads China.

But the region continues to be confronted by an inexcusably massive burden of poverty, literacy and technology deficits, malnutrition, disease and deprivation. South Asia has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest concentration of the poor in the world. Inadequate policy frameworks, corruption, military rivalries and internal conflicts, among others, drain resources which could be devoted to economic advancement. Some internal conflicts are encouraged from the outside.

The countries of South Asia have been taking faltering steps to collaborate with each other on economic matters, but ever so tentatively and in fits and starts, having slowly recognised that there is much to be gained through cooperation than through rivalry. The initial warmth generated by the election of Imran Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan augurs well for the future. There is still considerable progress that could be achieved through cooperative efforts. However, in the past, good intentions and idealistic talk have not been matched by adequate constructive action.

The South Asia region, is still to secure international acceptability, as a unity. Its leaders need to be more imaginative and ambitious in their desire to develop together.  A common desire to advance with each other is still sadly lacking, despite a long history of shared cultures, religions and people movements.

Belt and Road Initiative

Against this background, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), unveiled in 2013, has provided the countries of the wider region with a new challenge as well as a unique opportunity to fast track their economies along the path to development. An investment bonanza is being made available under the BRI, especially for the countries along the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

Coupled with the investment-driven BRI, China has also subtly begun to underline its cultural and religious links in the wider region. A soft power caress of the region!

According to Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China, President Xi Jinping has embraced religious faith as part of his “Chinese Dream” and the “Belt and Road Initiative”. The nominally atheist Chinese Communist Party has now recognised that religion in Chinese history was a powerful tool in domestic governance and international diplomacy. For Xi’s “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation and national culture after the “Century of Humiliation”, this mix of faith and politics constitutes a “re-imagining of the political-religious state that once ruled China”.

When Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was head of the party’s religious work beginning in 1980, China’s Central Committee issued the famous Document 19 warning party members against banning religious pursuits because it would isolate the Chinese people. Ever since, China has been restoring places of worship destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Thus, the BRI and the softened global outreach of China provides an opportunity that can be exploited by those seeking mutual benefit. Judiciously managed and sensitively implemented, the BRI could revive the glory days of the ancient Silk Route. President Xi Jinping was quoted in the state news agency Xinhua saying, “The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic cooperation initiative, not a geopolitical or a military alliance. It is an open and inclusive process, and not about creating exclusive circles or a China club.”

Sri Lanka, sitting at the hub of the ancient Silk Route, has embraced this concept at the highest levels. From the President and the Prime Minister downwards, and numerous ministers, the BRI has been enthusiastically welcomed by the Sri Lankan leadership. Hardly a week passes without a Sri Lankan delegation visiting China.

It has been said that China’s BRI investment ambitions, focused on cooperative infrastructure and connectivity enhancement, has the potential to make a greater impact than the post-Second World War U.S. Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan provided financial assistance to the war-devastated economic giants of Europe and was a major factor in their quick recovery. But the funds available under the BRI make the Marshall Plan pale into insignificance. The Marshall Plan provided over 140 billion dollars at 2017 dollar values to help Western European economies recover. The BRI intends to make available a stunning 4-8 trillion dollars.

While the Marshall Plan achieved much, BRI funds are expected to achieve substantially much more by creating a vast region of shared prosperity stretching from Africa to East Asia, and the clear beneficiaries would be a large number of developing countries.

Adding strength to the BRI, the Chinese Yuan has now been recognised as a reserve currency by the IMF and China appears to be increasingly moving towards international payments in Yuan. The IMF elevated the Yuan, also known as the renminbi, or “people’s money”, on the same day that the Communist Party celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Yuan joins the U.S. Dollar, the Euro, the Yen and British Pound in the IMF’s special drawing rights (SDR) basket, which determines currencies that countries can receive as part of IMF loans.

It is not only the vast accumulation of foreign reserves in China that makes the Chinese outreach tempting. China is also gradually becoming a force to reckon with in Information Technology which, coupled with its massive financial clout, makes it a formidable proposition as the world moves further into the 21st  century. IT is expected to form the foundation of the next industrial revolution. Live streaming which has caught on rapidly in China, now has an audience which is about the entire U.S. population.  China has 700 million internet users and web development has become a cottage industry. It has become the biggest e-commerce market in the world. Over half of the most valuable companies in the world are now Chinese.

China started the electronic bike exchange and has rapidly progressed with electronic payments. Other countries are simply playing catch-up. (An entrepreneur has initiated an electronic car exchange in Sydney!). Baidu is the largest search engine and China’s Alibaba is bigger than Amazon and Ebay combined. Tempted by the huge Chinese market, Google, which once left in a huff, is  now hankering to return to China.

Much has been written about the massive progress made by China in the transport industry with over 18,000 miles of high speed trains already in use delivering over 1,7 billion passengers in 2017. China is the biggest global market for motor cars and its production reached 23.7 million units in 2017 which exceeds that of the United States and Japan combined. Tesla, with its cutting edge electric car technology, is expected to set up a plant in China. China’s construction industry has also climbed dizzying peaks with some city skylines looking as if they were plucked out of science fiction films.

The outward looking Belt and Road initiative, with China’s advances in IT, could have a massively transformative impact on the economies of the vast Asian and African regions encompassing 68 countries, home to over 65 percent of the world’s population. The BRI, is backed by China’s substantial economic clout and massive reserves, including through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which claims 61 state members at present, and possesses the potential to create significant opportunities for the entire region. Australia is a member of the AIIB.

The BRI will be a closely related factor as Sri Lanka seeks to realise its own Vision 2025. Vision 2025 (or is it Vision 2030) provides the development blueprint for the country for the next seven years and infrastructure development and IT will play a central role in it.

It is against this background that the successful Sri Lanka Economic and Investment Conclave (SEIC) 2017 was organised in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in November with the objective of highlighting Sri Lanka as a trading centre and investment destination. A significant number of the participants at SEIC 2017 came from overseas, especially from China. Others came from Wall Street, London, Geneva, Dubai, India, Hong Kong, Singapore and Amsterdam. The follow-up conclave will be held in Beijing in September 2018.

Historical, religious and trading relations

A peek into history would be appropriate at this point. Historically, traders, holy men and casual visitors recognised Sri Lanka’s potential, both as a desirable destination to visit, a spiritual magnet and a trading hub.

The country attracted waves of traders, businesses and holy monks seeking the sublime teachings of the Buddha over the centuries, from as far afield as ancient Rome on the one side and Khan Balik on the other, not to mention rapacious invaders.

Ibn Battuta, the Moor from Tangiers, who visited the island in the 14th century, was not wrong by much when he observed that this was the most beautiful island on earth and was only 40 leagues from paradise. That paradise, must be preserved despite the race to modernise and achieve a higher level of sustainable prosperity for the people of the country as they seek to climb up the development ladder.

Sri Lanka, like other countries of South Asia, had developed important relations, religious, trading and social, with the Middle Kingdom from early days, and the writings of scholars, soldiers, monks, travellers and traders suggest a strong Chinese interest in Lanka from times immemorial.

The earliest records indicate that the interchanges along the Silk Road, especially along the sea route, had begun to flourish from the time of the Han Dynasty, from 207 BC, and continued for centuries afterwards.

It was not only trade that boomed along the Silk Road, but also cultural and religious exchanges bringing lasting changes to countries and societies. Technologies, food habits, agricultural practices and even diseases, like the plague, crossed borders along the Road.

Dozens of wrecks of Chinese sailing vessels lie off the coast of Sri Lanka suggesting a thriving sea-borne trade. If dozens sank in bad weather, hundreds of Chinese vessels, if not thousands, are likely to have called at our ports. It was then the natural point for sailing vessels wafting before the North Eastern Monsoon winds to stop for rest, food, water and trade.

While foreign ships came to our shores by the hundreds, Lankan sailors also appear to have sailed to foreign ports and left an imprint. A Chinese mandarin, Li Chao, reported that among the many foreign ships that arrived at An-nan and Kuang-chou, the ships from the Lion Kingdom were the largest with stairways for loading and unloading which were several tens of feet in height.

A plaque in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum asserts that the Creole of Macao, a Chinese port frequented by foreign sailors for centuries, has Sinhala influences. The regular presence of Chinese in the Indian Ocean for trade is borne out by historical accounts left by many, including the Chinese monk Fa Xian (5th century), Marco Polo, (13th century) Ibn Battuta (14th century), ending with the adventures of Admiral Zheng He in the early 15th century.

Those visitors who came, especially from China, not only left detailed observations which have been used to corroborate Sri Lanka’s own historical records in the Mahawansa and Chulawansa, but also bits and pieces of their own cultures, enriching that of Sri Lanka.

Chinese traders and Shaolin monks probably introduced Chinese martial arts. A term in Sinhala for the indigenous martial arts is Cheena-Adi. This is too much of a linguistic coincidence. 

The main focus of the Chinese also appears to be the shared religion – Buddhism. In addition to the traditional Confucianism and Taoism, the Chinese had begun to consider Buddhism to be part of their national religious tradition and emperors, commoners and monks sought closer relations with countries to the West to enrich their spirituality.

Sri Lanka had the reputation, even then, for safeguarding the pristine doctrine, especially after Buddhism fell into decline in India. Lanka was the first country to commit the Buddhist canon to writing. It happened in Alu Viharaya, in Matale, in 29 BC. Previously, the canon had been preserved as an oral tradition.

Chinese writings of the period suggest considerable knowledge of the island, including its politics and the religion, among Chinese scholars. Four embassies were sent from Lanka to the Chinese imperial court in the fifth century. Chinese records indicate that  these embassies were sent during the reigns of King Buddhadasa, the builder of public hospitals in the early 4th century, his son Upatissa 1 and Mahanama (412-434 AD).

The Lankan king, probably Mahanama, sent an embassy with a valuable Buddha statue and a replica of the Temple of the Tooth Relic to the court of Emperor Xiaowu.  The Chinese account “The Biography of Bhikkunis” written in the sixth century details a visit by eight Sinhala nuns to Nanjing in 426 to inaugurate the order of nuns in China.

The copious writings of fifth century scholar monk Fa Xian from China who spent a number of years at the Abhayagiriya Monastery, in the ancient capital, Anuradhapura, after a long sojourn in northern India, tell a tale of bygone prosperity and complex international diplomatic and trading relations. Fa Xian details the splendid pageant in honour of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which takes place to this day, but now in our last royal capital, Kandy.  Fa Xian carried a ship-load of religious texts from Lanka to China. This also suggests that Sri Lanka, at the time, possessed a significant literature. The ship was large enough to accommodate 200 passengers. Ships that big were not constructed in the West almost until the 20th century.

Chinese records indicate that in 456 AD, five eminent Sinhala monks called on the Emperor and one of them was an eminent sculptor. Undoubtedly, art and architectural exchanges followed interchanges involving the common religion. Two Buddhist texts, Karanamudra Sutta and Vimukthimagga were translated from Sinhala to Chinese in 489 AD and 505 AD.  n the 8th century, another monk, Amogha Vajra, a pupil of Vajrabodhi, travelled to Lanka and translated Karanda Mudra Sutta to Chinese. King Aggabodhi sent him as an envoy to the court of the Emperor in 746 AD.

The Arab geographer Edrisi details the extent of Lanka’s international trade during the time of Parakramabahu the Great who also sent a royal princess to the court of the Emperor. The trade between China and Lanka flourished during this period and Chinese vessels brought silk, porcelain, aloes, sandalwood, and so on to our ports. Traders from Western lands exchanged their products for the Chinese goods in Lankan ports which had become international emporia. Lankan exports included gems, spices, filigree gold, pearls, ivory, spices, textiles, etc. and are likely to have been carried in vessels built in the country.

The great Kublai Khan dispatched an envoy in 1282 AD to Lanka requesting the alms bowl of the Buddha venerated by the Sinhala people but the Lankan king refused this request. The lions at Yapauwa are very much Chinese influenced. There is no doubt that Chinese sculptors and architects plied their trade in Lanka. The troves of Chinese coins and porcelain being recovered from various parts of the country suggest a thriving trade.

Admiral Zheng He’s repeated visits and his involvement in the replacement of the Lankan king with Parakramabahu VI, who was later ousted by Parakramabahu VII in the early part of the 15th century, are well recorded. Descendants of the Sinhala prince taken to China have been traced in Quanzhou. One Mrs Xushi claims to be a 19th generation descendent of the prince. Parakramabahu VII sent six missions to the Ming court.  Cheng He left a pillar inscription in the port of Galle in 1409 AD, marking his second visit. Today it can be seen in the Galle museum.

Chinese writings do not agree on the purpose of Cheng He’s interventions in Sri Lanka. He was a Muslim eunuch. Some writings suggest that he sought to ensure the adherence by the King to the correct teachings of the Buddha while other writings suggest that he sought to take back the Tooth Relic to China. Cheng He on a subsequent visit made an offering at the shrine of God Upulvan in Dondra. This magnificent shrine was later destroyed by the Portuguese. [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 September 2018]

Photo: The landmark Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre is one of symbols of China-Sri Lanka Friendship. CC BY-SA 3.0

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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