History and Legend of Sino-Bangla Contacts
2011-05-19 14:57

In Celebration of the 35th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between China and Bangladesh

 Zhang Xianyi, Former Ambassador of China to Bangladesh


Both China and Bangladesh are countries with time-honored history and splendid culture. These two magical lands have witnessed contacts between the two vigorous nations for thousands of years. As an old Chinese saying goes, we can always get a better understanding of the present by reviewing the past. As we celebrate the festive occasion of the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Bangladesh, I write this article to look back into history and look forward into the future with expectation and hope.


I. Centuries-old Southern Silk Road


In history, there were three Silk Roads connecting China and Indian Subcontinent. One is Northern Silk Road, which started from the central region of ancient China and extended into Europe through Northwest China and Indian Subcontinent. Among the explorers who once took this path of dangers and wonders there was Zhang Qian, an imperial envoy of China's Western Han Dynasty, Fa Xian, a monk of Eastern Jin Dynasty, Xuan Zang, a monk of Tang Dynasty and Marco Polo, an Italian who traveled to China in Yuan Dynasty. Our ancestors also had contacts on the oceans to the south of China and Indian Subcontinent. The ancients began traveling on Maritime Silk Road some time after Northern Silk Road was opened. Fa Xian, Jacob D Ancona, an Italian merchant, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveler, all tried this maritime route. Zheng He, a great explorer of China's Ming Dynasty, commanded seven voyages to the Indian Ocean and arrived in Bangla at least twice.


I would like to give special introduction to the third Silk Road ---- Southern Silk Road, which was closely related to Bangladesh. Many scholars believe that this road has existed since the 4th century BC before China's Qin Dynasty. It has a history of over 2400 years, longer than the above-mentioned two Silk Roads. Southern Silk Road was first mentioned in the narration of Zhang Qian's visit to Bactria in Shiji, a masterpiece of Chinese history by Sima Qian, a historian of Western Han Dynasty. Bactria located in the north of today's Afghanistan, south of the Amu River and north of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range. In 122 BC, Zhang Qian returned from Bactria to Chang'an (today's Xi'an), capital of Western Han Dynasty and reported to the emperor, "When I was in Bactria, I saw bamboo sticks from the Qionglai Mountain (in today's Sichuan Province) and cloth made in the province of Shu (in today's Sichuan Province). When I asked the locals where they got such articles, they replied, 'Our merchants go buy them in the markets of Yuandu (India). Yuandu lies several thousand kilometers southeast of Bactria. The people there live much like us. The region is hot and damp. The inhabitants ride elephants when they go in battle. The kingdom is situated by a great river.' On my opinion, if Bactria, a kingdom 6000 kilometers away from China, can get Shu articles from Yuandu, Yuandu must not be far from Shu." From Zhang Qian's perspective, nomadic tribes in the north "might cut the northern transportation" between China and Bactria while it was "risky" to go to Bactria through Qinghai-Tibet Plateau because of its high altitude, so the Shu--Yuandu--Bactria route would be "the best choice". With Zhang Qian's advice, the emperor decided to rebuild the connection with the southwestern region, and thus Southern Silk Road, a road that had been there long ago, was restored. Many Chinese and foreign scholars believe that Southern Silk Road was the earliest link between China and Indian Subcontinent and also the shortest distance covered by ancient Chinese inhabitants of border areas when they entered India Subcontinent through Myanmar. Southern and Northern Silk Roads were the two important communication channels on ancient Asian-European Continent.


II. Bangla ---- the only access on Southern Silk Road to Indian Subcontinent


   According to historical records, during Qin Dynasty and Han Dynasty (211 BC--220), Southern Silk Road started from the province of Shu (today's Chengdu Plain), ran southwards through Kunming, Dali, Baoshan and Ruili of Yunnan Province and entered Myanmar and India. In Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty (618--1279), trade and people-to-people exchanges on this road became more active and there were several routes available. One of them entered Myanmar, went along the Irrawaddy River, crossed the Chindwin River and the Naga Mountain Range and arrived in Assam State of today's India. Another one traveled out of China from Yunnan, followed the Ruili River and the Irrawaddy River southwards to Mandalay, turned northwest after it passed Prome and climbed over the Arakan Yoma into Manipur State of today's India. It should be noted that all these different routes, before they found their way into Indian Plain, reached the same place called "Pundravardhana", a kingdom on the bank of the Brahmaputra River. "Pundravardhana" was recorded in the geography chapters of the New Book of Tang edited from 1044 to 1060 and the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions finished by Xuan Zang in 646. It probably located near Rangpur or Pabna of today's Bangladesh.


III. Cultural interactions brought by Southern Silk Road

Southern Silk Road served as an indispensable bridge for cultural, scientific and business exchanges between China, especially its southwestern region, and Indian Subcontinent.


As is known to all, techniques of sericulture and silk-weaving originated from Sichuan and Yunnan of China and spread through Southern Silk Road into Indian Subcontinent and Persia. Some ancient documents said that Chinese silk was commonly used by dignitaries in Indian Subcontinent as early as 2400 years ago. Some Sanskrit classics written at that time or later, like Mahabharata, kept records of silk and China. Tea and sesame have their origins on Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. It is quite possible that these two plants were introduced to the west by Southern Silk Road as well. In view of this, traditional textile and tea industries in Bangladesh today may find their roots in the above-mentioned ancient exchanges. Study shows that ironware and iron-smelting techniques also followed Southern Silk Road into Indian Subcontinent, and even further to Central Asia and Ancient Rome. Rice cultivation in Asia might start in Yunnan of China and Assam State of India at the same time. Gourd, balsam pear, eggplant, sugarcane and haricot were the plants introduced from Indian Subcontinent to China.

Buddhism from Indian Subcontinent had the most tremendous and profound influence on Chinese culture. Knowledge of astronomy, calendar, mathematics, architecture, painting, sculpture and geography was also introduced with Buddhism, providing nutrition to Chinese Civilization. Buddhism was transmitted to China in the year 2 BC during Western Han Dynasty. Gradually assimilated and integrated in its collisions with Chinese traditional ideology and culture, Buddhism finally became part of Chinese culture, ideology and philosophy. It also greatly affected the shaping process of custom and characters of ethnic minorities in China like the Dai and the Bai.

Southern Silk Road is also an ethnic immigration passage. It is possible that some of the ancestors of minorities in Northeast and Southeast Bangladesh came from Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet and Mongolia. From the local Bangladeshi people I can always hear the legend of their forefathers who might come from the east.


IV. Fa Xian, Xuan Zang & Yi Jing


Bangladeshi friends often mention to me the names of Chinese and Bangladeshi eminent monks including Fa Xian, Xuan Zang, Yi Jing and Atisha Dipankar. There is no doubt that Buddhism is one of the most important carriers in the early cultural interactions between China and Indian Subcontinent. In those remote years, religious faith built Buddhist monks into persevering envoys of civilizations. It was reasonable for learned men and scholars like Fa Xian, Xuan Zang, Yi Jing and Atisha Dipankar to take down history and pass it on to future generations. Thanks to their precious works, we are able to get closer to our ancestors and communicate with them today.

Fa Xian was a monk of China's Eastern Jin Dynasty. In 399 AD, he started his journey to Indian Subcontinent from Chang'an at the age of 63. Fourteen years later when he returned to China by sea, he had traveled more than 20,000 kilometers and was already 76 years old. Fa Xian was the first person in Chinese history who visited the places in today's India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Indonesia by land and sea and also the first monk in record who arrived in Indian Subcontinent to worship Buddha and seek copies of Buddhist scriptures and returned. He stayed in Bangla for two years and witnessed the prosperity of Buddhism ---- 30 monasteries with more than 2000 devotees. Fa Xian studied Buddhism at the famous Tamralipta Monastery and devoted himself to translating Buddhist scriptures after his return. His work filled the blank of commandments in the scriptures circulated in China at that time. He also wrote a book named A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, telling his experiences in more than 30 countries. At Fa Xian's time, there was not a second person in the world who had similar experiences or writing, which makes the value and role of Fa Xian's book so unique.

Many friends told me one saying in the Qur'an, "If you want more knowledge, go to China", while in China we often say, "Go to the Western Heaven for Buddhist scriptures", which means if you desire for the true meaning of the scriptures, you must learn it at the birthplace of Buddha. "The Western Heaven" is a sacred place. This Chinese saying comes from the story of Xuan Zang, a monk of China's Tang Dynasty who traveled to India for scripture study. In 629 AD, Xuan Zang started from Chang'an to India. After fighting against extreme weather and adverse environment and crossing the desolate desert on foot, he finally arrived in a kingdom called Magadha, a Buddhist center in the south of Bihar State of today's India, and learned the scriptures at Nalanda Monastery, the center and highest institution for Buddhist study with around 10,000 believers. Indian Buddhism was at its peak during that period named by some scholars as "Age of Nalanda". At Nalanda Monastery, Xuan Zang learned from Sila-Bhadra for five years. Experts have found that Sila-Bhadra came from Dhaka area of today's Bangladesh. Xuan Zang described Sila-Bhadra in his Great Tang Records on the Western Regions as "a Brahmin and royal member of the Kingdom of Samatata". "When Sila-Bhadra was young, he was morally-principled and eager to learn. So he traveled around India for truth of the universe." At Nalanda Monastery, he met Dharmapala Bodhisattva and "asked for the way of self-detachment not only in theory but also in detail". On his thirtieth birthday, Sila-Bhadra had already become "a promising talent among newcomers". As time went by, Xuan Zang's in-depth study and broad knowledge made him increasingly famous. The King of Magadha held a grand gathering for him to lecture on Buddhist scriptures for 18 kings and over 3000 monks in India.

In Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, Xuan Zang recorded tens of kingdoms in Indian Subcontinent. Experts consider three of them, Pundravardhana, Samatata and Kajangala, are located within the territory of today's Bangladesh. Reading Xuan Zang's book, we feel as if we were entering the life of Bangla people over 1300 years ago. At that time this land was gifted with beautiful sceneries and bountiful resources. "Flourishing plants and fruits", developed economy and self-sufficient agriculture made it one of the advanced farming areas of Indian Subcontinent. It was also "a land with a large population" due to pleasant environment. People lived in houses "built near water and surrounded by flowers, trees and pools". "The society was in harmony and nice order." Mahayana and Hinayana monks could peacefully coexist in Buddhist monasteries. "Believers of various religions lived together in peace." Bangla had a history and tradition of putting education first. The locals "loved learning" and "respected learned people". They were "diligent and willing to accept different ideas". It was an enlightened society with open minds and encouragement for communication. Therefore, "most prominent and knowledgeable monks of East India gathered here" and made Bangla an important academic center and one of the shrines of Buddhism. Sakyamuni once lectured on Buddhist scriptures in Bangla, where Buddhism enjoyed prosperity with magnificent monasteries, tens of thousands of monks and many Buddhist relics, including sacred sites where Tathagata had visited, Tower of Ashoka, a jade statue of Buddha which was 2.7 meters tall and stone-built Buddhist platforms with fine carvings.

In 645 AD, Xuan Zang returned to Chang'an, a city that he left 17 years ago. Having brought back 657 Buddhist classics from "the Western Heaven", he began to translate them into Chinese. Xuan Zang not only made a great contribution to the enrichment of Chinese culture but also helped preserve valuable Buddhist classics of ancient India. His book Great Tang Records on the Western Regions has become a priceless historical and geographic masterpiece and also one of the most important bases for study of the history of Indian Subcontinent. His legend provided the inspiration for a widely-known novel in China ---- Journey to the West written by Wu Cheng'en, a novelist of Ming Dynasty.

Among Chinese monks who went to "the Western Heaven" for Buddhist scriptures, Yi Jing was as famous as Fa Xian and Xuan Zang. Admiring the heroic undertaking of Fa Xian and Xuan Zang since childhood, he started his journey in 671 AD, traveled in Indian Subcontinent for 30 years, studied in Nalanda Monastery and once arrived in today's Bangladesh. Yi Jing finished two travel books, translated a lot of Buddhist classics and even edited an elementary Sanskrit dictionary for Chinese monks going to Indian Subcontinent for study.


V. Atisha Dipankar ---- Symbol of Sino-Bangla cultural exchanges

Atisha Dipankar was a sacred monk in Buddhist history and respected as the incarnation of Buddha. At the invitation of the king of the Western Tibetan kingdom of Guge, Atisha Dipankar journeyed to Tibet to introduce the Buddha's teachings in 1038. Buddhism was transmitted to Tibet in the 6th Century. In the 7th Century, Princess Wencheng of Tang Dynasty married the then Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo and brought a Buddha statue and some Buddhist classics into Tibet. At that time, monks and Buddhist scholars of Tibet and Indian Subcontinent, including those in Bangla, were having more and more frequent exchanges. From the 7th Century to Atisha Dipankar's time, Bangla monks and scholars had significant influences on Tibetan Buddism. When Atisha Dipankar was the highest priest of the famous Vikramsila Monastery, he received many Tibetan monks and even built special dormitories for them. It is imaginable that Atisha Dipankar had established his connections with Tibetan Buddhism since then and earned a good reputation in Buddhist community of Tibet.

Atisha Dipankar was 56 years old when he set off for Tibet. Accompanied by his disciples, he traveled through Nepal and crossed the perilous Himalayas with incredible perseverance. In the original plan it was just a short visit, but Atisha Dipankar stayed in Tibet for 17 years until he passed away in 1054. He helped revolutionize Tibetan Buddhism, excluded heretic doctrines, became the pioneer of the Post-Propagation Period of Tibetan Buddhism and influenced the formation of Gelug, a school of Buddhism. It is said that during his stay, Atisha Dipankar wrote over 200 Buddhist books, spread medical science, built reservoirs and did some translation. After his decease at Nyethang Temple, his ashes were worshiped there and the stone plate on which he sat for meditation is still kept in the temple today.

In 1963 when a Buddhist delegation of East Pakistan visited China, delegates made a request for taking back some of Atisha Dipankar's ashes to his homeland and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai readily consented. In June of 1978, Atisha Dipankar's ashes were moved back to Dhaka and kept at Dharmarajika Monastery, which was, beyond any doubt, a big event embodying Sino-Bangladesh friendship.


VI. 13th Century's navigation development further narrowed the gap

The history of China's Yuan Dynasty started in 1206 when navigation technologies had reached a new height. Chinese had mastered the most advanced technologies to build the largest ships and skillfully use precise nautical charts and compass, which pushed China's oceangoing trade into one of its golden ages. In Bangla region, a relatively independent kingdom was rising with prosperous economy and developed ship-building and seafaring industries. Sonargaon, Bagerhat and Chittagong were its three important ship-building centers and ports. The development of maritime transportation enabled closer contacts between China and this kingdom. The two sides exchanged frequent visits of envoys. Bangla sent royal Bengal tigers, elephants, boats made of fern wood and other gifts to China. The name "Bangla" appeared many times in books published in China during that period. The finest description of Bangla was presented by Wang Dayuan, a great traveler who had been to South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with Chinese merchant ships in 1330 and 1337.

Wang Dayuan documented Bangla in his book Brief Annals of Foreign Islands as follows, "Lofty mountains are covered with luxuriant trees. The inhabitants live in houses built in a circle." This seems to be the scene of mountainous areas like Rangamati in the north of Chittagong. Wang spoke highly of Bangla's agriculture, "Local people plough the fields all the year round and harvest three times a year. They leave no vacant land and create a very beautiful farm view. Everything is sold at a low price….The weather is always hot." About local custom Wang wrote, "The locals are simple and kind. Men and women are dressed in long shirts and wrap their foreheads in thin cloth." Wang also told us that Bangla started using "Taka" as the name of its currency even before his visit. "Government takes a 20% tax and makes silver coins called 'Tanga'." His general impression of Bangla was "peaceful and affluent".


VII. Zheng He visited Bangla at least twice

Sino-Bangla contacts greeted an upsurge during China's Ming Dynasty from the 14th Century to the 17th Century. Numerous ancient Chinese documents recorded this history of friendly communication, which lasted for nearly 300 years and became the final glory of Sino-Bangla ancient contacts. The bilateral relations were not only about protocol. Zhu Di, the Yongle (Perpetually Happy) Emperor of Ming Dynasty, even sent an envoy on request to ease the tension between Bangla and its neighboring kingdom.

In 1404, one year after Zhu Di ascended the throne, Giyasuddin, Sultan of Bangla, sent an envoy to China. From 1409, there were envoys from Bangla to China every year and sometimes the number of them even went beyond two hundred at a time. Zhu Di also sent envoys for return visits. In 1412 when Giyasuddin passed away, Zhu Di sent Hou Xian as his special representative to Bangla to offer the Emperor's condolences.

In 1414, a sensation was caused in China by a gift to Zhu Di from Saifuddin, son and successor of Giyasuddin. It was a rare animal called "Qilin", which was, in fact, a giraffe from East Africa. This was the first time in record that a giraffe was introduced to China. "Qilin" is a mythical Chinese creature and a good omen for prosperity. Its looks have certain similarities to those of a giraffe, including an ox's tail, horse's hooves, antlers and scale-like skin in five colors. It is said that "Qinlin" would only show itself with the arrival of a sage in a peaceful world, symbolizing a flourishing age. The royal court was very excited at the arrival of "Qilin". Ministers were busy writing articles and odes to express their congratulations to the emperor. It took as many as 16 volumes to record all their odes. One minister named Shen Du even drew a picture titled "Qilin presented by Bangla". Although the original picture was lost, there is a copy made in Qing Dynasty kept in China's National Museum today, which has become a historic evidence of Sino-Bangla friendly contacts.

Zheng He's exploration to the Indian Ocean was an unparalleled feat in nautical history of human race and a great event in the history of contacts between China and foreign countries. During the 28 years from 1405 to 1433, Zheng He led the hugest fleet in the world with 50 to 60 ships and 27,000 to 28,000 crewmen into the Indian Ocean seven times to promote trade and cultural exchanges between China and more than 30 littoral countries of the Indian Ocean and convey China's willingness to establish connections and share peace with them. He arrived in Bangla at least twice in 1421 and 1431 respectively. Besides, Hou Xian, the above-mentioned envoy of Chinese emperor, visited Bangla three times. He was the man who was sent on request with the emperor's letter to the Kingdom of Junapure located to the west of Bangla and successfully resolved the conflict between the two neighbors.

During the visits of Zheng He and Hou Xian to Bangla, there were three observant and conscientious men who wrote down what they saw and heard in the voyages from their own perspectives in three valuable books. They were Ma Huan, Zheng He's Arabic interpreter, Fei Xin, Zheng He's personal attendant, and Gong Zhen, Zheng He and Hou Xian's interpreter.

About the voyage to Bangla, they wrote, "we started from the Kingdom of Sumatra….sailed with the wind for twenty days and anchored in Chittagong. From there we took small boats for over 500 li (250 kilometers) to Sonargaon (today's Dhaka area)." Then they went on to the Sultan's palace. "There was a guard of honor of thousands of people accompanying us along the way." It is surprising that they had such an accurate calculation of the distance from Chittagong to Dhaka.

Their vivid descriptions of the palace and the Sultan's reception for them make us feel as if we were also there, "The Sultan's palace was tall and spacious with pillars in the color of brass and decorated with flower and animal carvings. There were long corridors on both sides with thousands of armed cavalry squads inside and extraordinarily strong and dignified soldiers equipped with swords, bows and arrows outside. On the left and right of vermilion steps leading up to the palace there were over a hundred parasols made of peacock feathers. Hundreds of elephant squads lined up in front of the palace. The Sultan wore a crown studded with eight gems and sat on the throne with a sword on his knees. Two men with silver staffs came and guided the emperor's envoy forward. They gave a shout every five steps till they finished half of the way to the throne. Then another two with gold staffs came and guided as the previous two did. " After the envoy submitted the letter from Ming Emperor, the Sultan "ordered his men to place a flannelette blanket in the palace on which he held a banquet for the envoy and welcomed him with rose dew and honey water rather than alcohol. He gave one set of articles made of gold, including a helmet, a belt, a bottle and a pot, to the envoy and another set made of silver to his assistant as gifts. Every member of the entourage also received a present." Such a grand welcoming ceremony clearly tells us how close China and Bangla were in the remote past.

About custom of Bangla, "The locals are followers of Islam. They are honest and pure and speak a language called Bengali. Some men wrap their foreheads in white cloth and wear long white shirts. Some others are wrapped in colorful cloth from the waist down. Women are dressed in short shirts and draped with brocades." These are definitely the descriptions of panjapi, lungi and sari. "Men and women have meals separately. Remarriage is not accepted. Those who can't support themselves, like orphans and widows, are taken care of by families of the same village in turn so that they don't have to beg for food in other villages, which shows a prevailing sense of righteousness."

About people from different walks of life, "The kingdom is densely populated and has abundant resources and fertile lands. Hard-working men plough the fields while diligent women weave cloth. Many of the rich build ships and go abroad for business. Many common people are workers employed in foreign countries. There are all the professions that one can imagine." In one of the three books there are even the narrations of the people playing music and dancing for a living and a couple who performed taming of a tiger along the street. The husband "jumped up and down before the tiger and then challenged it. The animal became wild and roared as if it would spring on that man. After several rounds of wrestling with the tiger, the man put his arm deep into its throat and the tiger dared not shut its mouth."

About urban view and business, "Stores are lined up one after another along the streets, selling a wide variety of goods. Some cloth is as thin as writing paper, some is tightly woven and durable, some is loosely woven and used to wrap foreheads, and some is made of tula cotton. There is a kind of white paper made of bark which is as fine and smooth as deer skin." The kingdom produces food and vegetables including brown rice, millet, wheat, sesame, beans, ginger, mustard, shallot, garlic, melon and eggplant and fruits including jackfruits, bananas, pomegranates, sugarcanes and "anmole" (fruits of Indian gooseberry). There are also cows, horses, sheep, ducks and sea fish…

About law and punishments, "There is a well-organized judicial and law-enforcing system with punishments including flogging, imprisonment and exile."

The works of Fa Xian, Xuan Zang, Ma Huan, Fei Xin and Gong Zhen unfold before us a magnificent picture scroll of Bangla people and their life. They tell us that our two nations have been keeping continuous friendly contacts for over two thousand years. They also tell us that Bangla, as one of the regions enjoying the most developed economy, thriving culture and simplest custom in Indian Subcontinent, left so many other ancient kingdoms far behind.

The contacts between the two sides continued in a less frequent way after the 17th century and almost stopped as colonists entered Bangla. The contemporary relations between China and Bangladesh dated back to the 1950s and 1960s when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai paid visits to East Pakistan. Mujib Rahman, one of the leaders of East Pakistan, also visited China twice and formed close friendship with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Liu Shaoqi and other Chinese leaders, which laid a solid foundation for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1975.


VIII. Conclusion

China and Bangladesh are neighbors and nations with resplendent and long-standing civilizations, which naturally led to our communication 2500 years ago. In the process of interaction, we shared more and more identical views, deepened mutual understanding and friendship, enlarged common ground and formed the theme of peaceful and harmonious exchanges. We learned to draw on each other's strengths with mutual respect, embrace different and new opinions and supply each other's needs. Like the Yarlung Zangbo River and the Brahmaputra River, Sino-Bangladesh friendship lasts from the past to the present and has been deeply rooted in the hearts of the two peoples. As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Bangladesh today, a review of history will fill us with confidence and new expectations to the future of our bilateral relations. Let's hope that the two great nations of China and Bangladesh will join hands and march forward in constructing the New Silk Road.


September, 2010

Suggest to a friend: