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2000 years of China-Sri Lanka relations : 

Literary and numismatic evidence

SUNDAY OBSERVER Aug 10 2003

Literary records in China have established that the earliest contact with Sri Lanka was a mission from China to Sri Lanka during the Han dynasty 206 BC - 220 AD. It took place in the reign of Emperor P'ing 1-6 AD.


Coin used by Admiral Cheng-Ho - 1411 AD

The collection of Chinese records about Ceylon documented by M. Sylvain Levy in the Journal Asiatique (1900 AD) provides verifiable data with our records in the Mahawamsa. Prof. W. I. Siriweera and Mahinda Werake documented 13 missions that had been sent to China by the Kings of Anuradhapura between 131 AD and 989 AD. In 428 AD King Mahanama is recorded as having sent a model of the Sacred Tooth Relic Shrine to the Chinese Emperor.

In 527 AD King Silakala sent an ambassador to the Chinese Emperor's Court. Whilst recognising that these two-way missions were of a purely religious nature, the establishment of political relations and securing closer trade contacts would no doubt have been other motives. History records within this time period that the celebrated Chinese pilgrim monk Fa-Hsien visited Sri Lanka in 411 - 12 AD.

With the installation of the Tang dynasty in China 618 - 907 AD closer ties were established with Sri Lanka. Several Chinese monks visited the island in search of the Dhamma, in addition to the many Sri Lankan Buddhist monks who travelled to China. It is observed that after the 8th century two-way missions between China and Sri Lanka decreased. The cause being, the greatest persecution of Buddhism in China that occurred from 841 - 45 AD.

However during the Liao dynasty 907 - 1125 AD, religious ties were re-established by a mission from Sri Lanka sent by King Mahinda V in 989 AD Two hundred years later in 1293 AD, King Parakramabahu III is recorded as having sent a mission to China.


Ming Dynasty - Emperor His Tsung - 1621/1627 voc

Nagapatanam

During the Ming dynasty 1368 - 1644 history records a most eventful visit of a Chinese to Sri Lanka, that of Admiral Cheng-Ho. It is recorded that in 1411 AD this Admiral took Veera Alakeshvara the king ruling around Kotte captive to China. Cheng-Ho continued naval expeditions to South-East Asia upto 1432. Literary records indicate that there were exchanges of missions between Sri Lanka and China from 1416 - 1459 AD.

A trilingual inscription in Chinese, Persian and Tamil recorded as having been erected in Galle on his second visit presently lies in the National Museum in Colombo.

Trading evidence through finds of ceramics and coins confirm the literary evidence of contact with China from as early as the Tang dynasty 618 AD to the Sung dynasty 1264 AD. Fragments of different varieties of Chinese bowls have been unearthed in the ancient Anuradhapura monastic sites, at Polonnaruwa and Mahatitha, as well as in surrounding areas.

The largest hoard of Chinese coins ever found in Sri Lanka almost a hundred years ago in Yapahuwa, had consisted of 1352 coins. 381 of these coins were made available for analysis by Francois Thierry of the Paris Museum in 1991. There had been 256 coins of the Northern Sung (976-1125 AD) and 114 of the Southern Sung(1127-1264 AD) dynasties. H. W. Codrington in 1925 had analysed Chinese coins found in the island hitherto and listed the finds as from Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Matale, Kalmunai, Talaimannar and Kurukkalmadam. Three of the coins analysed by him had been from the Tang dynasty and all the others from the Northern and Southern Sung dynasties. Individual collectors have over the past 30 years reported random finds of a few Chinese coins, from other locations too.

The most recent 'large find' of Chinese coins has been reported from a village on the Buttala-Passara road. The find reported, as found in a rock-crevice had comprised approximately 200 Chinese coins belonging to 13 Emperors from 998 AD - 1722 AD belonging to the Northern Sung, Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, and over 2000 Nagapatanam coins struck by the Dutch for use in Sri Lanka in 1675 AD.

It is of interest that among these coins were a large number from the Ming dynasty not found in such numbers previously.

The Ming coins belonged to three Emperors 1403 - 1644 AD and four Rebel/Supplementary rulers of the Ming from 1644 - 1678 AD. Of the coins of the 3 Mjing Emperors of interest to Numismatists in Sri Lanka is the coin of Emperor Ch'eng Tsu 1403 - 24 AD, which was the coin currently used during Admiral Cheng-Ho's voyages. The 'reign title' on this coin is Yung - Lo, weighing 3.67 grams and 2.1 cm in diameter. (See illustration).

The Nagapatanam copper coins were one 'cash' coins and had comprised 95 per cent of the hoard. Nagapatanam was a fort, situated on the South Eastern Coast of India, and was captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese in 1658. Codrington and Scholten certify that 50, 25, 15, 10, 5, 4, 3, 1 cash coins had been struck by the Dutch for use only in Sri Lanka. (See illustration). Among the Chinese coins in this 'find' had been about a dozen Dutch counter-marked coins.

The finder had observed that the 'V.O.C.' monogram counter-mark with a 'C' above was, as used by the Dutch to validate non-Dutch coins between 1655 - 1660. A coin of Emperor Hsi Tsung 1621 - 27 AD with the mint mark occurring on the reverse of the coin, weighing 3.76 grams and 2.1 cm in diameter is illustrated. That this coin has been found along with Nagapatanam coins struck in 1675 AD by the Dutch is significant, in analyzing the time period when the 'hoard' could have been deposited.

Chinese round coins are derived from Jade discs and had first appeared in China in the 4th century BC. These early Chinese coins had a round hole in the centre. Coins with a square hole are however dated to Qin Shihuangdhi who established the Qin dynasty in 221 BC.

Square holed coins continued from this time period for 2000 years as the standard Chinese coin. The coins were generally carried in a 'string' and normally comprised a 1000 coins referred to as a 'guan' which became the unit of currency.

Most genuine Chinese coins can be dated precisely by their 'nianhao' (reign title). Due to the popularity and heavy demand on Chinese coins, foreign imitations had been in existence particularly from the 13th to the 19th centuries where the coins were generally smaller in size and lighter.

These immitations were of South East Asian origin including Vietnam and from Japan. Reading the characters of a Chinese coin can be attempted, commencing with the top character, the bottom character next, the right there-after and finally the left character, to complete the 'reign title'.