SRI LANKA – THE CHINESE CONNECTION – By Bernard VanCuylenburg
Sri Lanka’s cultural ties with China go back about 2000 years, and it is a matter of regret that the compilers of the Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa – except for some passing references – mention very little about ancient Ceylon’s relations with China. Historians have had to rely on Chinese records to obtain information regarding trade delegations, and cultural and diplomatic visits between both countries. Some of these Chinese visitors lived in the island , and kept records of their sojourn and the political conditions prevailing at the time. Perhaps the most famous Chinese visitor to Ceylon was Fa-Hsien who came to Ceylon in the year 411 AD. during the reign of King Mahanama. He spent two years in the island and in his writings gives us a marvellous account of the city of Anuradhapura in which he refers to the mansions of the merchants, and also of the colonies of Greek and Persian traders in the city. The flourishing Buddhist civilisation merits special mention. It is not possible to elaborate on details of these visits in a short article. But a few examples would suffice to highlight the excellent relations between the Chinese empire and ancient Ceylon.
In the year 428 AD. King Mahanama despatched an embassy with gifts to the emperor in China. Recording this visit at the time, the Chinese chroniclers refer to King Mahanama as “Mohonan”. Another Chinese record states that King Kitsiri Mevan, (also known as Sirimegavanna) son of the famous King Mahasena sent an embassy to the Indian emperor Samudragupta, requesting permission to build a monastery at Bodhi Gaya for pilgrims. For this fact to be recorded by the Chinese, is evidence of the interest which they had in the islands affairs of state. Another Chinese source refers to the ambassador sent by King Kumaradhatusena to the Chinese emperor in the year 515 AD. Incidentally, King Kumaradhatusena was the son of King Moggalana better known for the part he played in the Sigiriya story. He is therefore the grandson of the famous King Dhatusena. In the year 718 AD King Mahanavamma received Chinese pilgrims in his court with great honour. The great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan who ruled China from 1259 to 1294 AD despatched a mission to Ceylon to obtain the sacred Tooth Relic. This mission failed in its task, and returned to China. Fortunately for Ceylon, the emperor did not take this failure personally. We were lucky a second time when in the year 1405 the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He again visited the island determined to take the tooth relic back to China. He too failed in his mission and was rather peeved at the treatment he received at the court of King Vira Alakesvara the monarch at the time.
Returning to China, Zheng He bided his time and returned to the island again with a vengeance in 1409 when our luck ran out. In a supreme display of might and imperial power he seized the King, his queen and some nobles of the court and took them prisoner to China. King Alakesvara was eventually released and returned to the island humiliated and broken in spirit. Worse, he never recovered his throne. King Parakramabahu V1 ruled the island during his captivity. The rest of the prisoners were released in the year 1414 and returned to the island with a demand from the Chinese emperor , which I call the height of arrogance in the extreme. They returned with a nominee of the Chinese emperor to the throne of Ceylon ! Fortunately King ParakramabahuV1 speedily eliminated the emperor’s protege and began his long reign of 55 years in a stable political environment.
Historians have divided opinions on the Chinese account of an ambassador sent to China by King Kasyappa of Sigiriya. King Kasyappa following his father’s foreign policy intended to strengthen ties and trade with China, and sent this diplomatic mission to China while he ruled at Sigiriya. But the ambassador and his entourage reached China only after the untimely death of King Kasyappa. The Culavamsa does not mention any record of such a mission, but the scribes in the imperial court in China recorded this visit, and King Kassyapa is referred to as “Kia – Che” It is interesting to note that King Devanampiya Tissa who ruled the island from 247 – 207 BC is a contemporary of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi who initiated work on the Great Wall of China .
Sri Lanka’s relations with ancient China are as fascinating as her links with the classical world – ancient Greece and Rome.