Ancient Trading Customs of Brunei and China

[I wrote the following article for my Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times two Sundays ago:-]


The history of friendly exchanges of envoys and trade between China and Brunei went back a long way. According to Chinese records, the earliest recorded contact date back to more than 2,000 years. Relationship was established as early as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 23 AD). By 669 AD during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), official exchanges between Brunei and China had begun.

Shen Yu (441 – 513), holding the post equivalent to Prime Minister wrote in a book ‘Song Shu’ (the book of Song Dynasty) that on the third month of the first year of Yuanhui Reign (May 2, 473), an envoy from Poli (Brunei) came to contribute their native products.

Liu Xu writing in Jiu Tang Shu (Old Tang History) described that in the fourth year of the Zhenguan Reign (630), the Brunei King sent an envoy following the envoy sent by the country Linyi to China to contribute their native products. The king was described having the surname of Shaliyejia and Hulunapo as his first name. He wore a crown decorated with pearls and jades and seated on the throne of gold.

By the time of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), official and non-governmental commercial and cultural exchanges have become more frequent and were officially recorded in Chinese history.

In 977, it was recorded that the King of Brunei had dispatched his envoy Abu Ali and a delegation to China. The delegation brought with them, camphor, hawksbill turtle shell, ivory and sandalwood as tributes to the Emperor of China.
From the remains of archaeological digs such as at Limau Manis, Kota Batu and Tanjong Nangka, we know that the Chinese traders came very frequently to Brunei. The finds at Limau Manis included shards of vases and coins from various eras of the Chinese dynasties ranging from Emperor Kao Tzu of the Tang Dynasty (618-627) to Emperor Hui Tsung (1101-1125) of the Northern Song Dynasty.

As a result of these frequent trades between the two countries, elaborate customs and traditions developed whenever Chinese traders arrived in Brunei to trade. The best description was recorded by Zhao Rukuo who was the head of the custom house of Fujian Prefecture during the Song Dynasty, in his book ‘Zhu Fan Zhi’ (Records of Foreign Countries) Part II.

According to Zhao Rukuo that three days after the Chinese ships arrived in Brunei, the King of Brunei will lead his family and high officials to visit the ships to greet the seafarers and traders.

The ship’s crew will greet the King by lowering brocade-decorated gangplank. Wine, gold, silverware, official mattress and umbrellas will be presented to the king’s entourage according to their ranks. After the entourage had disembarked, the merchants will still not trade.

Every day, they would then treat the king with Chinese meals. As a result, all ships heading for Brunei would always carry one or two skillful cooks. The seafarers will visit the king with gifts on every first and fifteenth day of the lunar month.

It will be about a month later before they will invite the king and his high officials to discuss the prices of the goods. After both parties had agreed to the prices, then only will the Chinese traders invite customers to trade with them. The traders would then beat drums to announce that trading had begun.

If anyone is caught trying to trade privately before the two sides had officially agreed on the prices, he would be severely punished. However, according to the ancient seafarers, Brunei hold businessmen in high esteem and even if they are convicted of murder, they would only be punished and not sentenced to death.

Once the ship had completed trading, the King will prepare a banquet for the crew. The King will also give them camphor and local cloth. He would have also given a speech praising the seafarers and thanking them for coming to Brunei.

But the ships are not allowed to leave till the fifteenth day of June and the crew needed to purchase sacrifices to celebrate the Buddha Festival. If they did not do this, it was said that they will suffer stormy waves on their return to China.

During the pre-Islamic sultanate of Brunei, Buddhism was practiced. The King would offer flowers and fruits himself for three days running.

The Chinese history indicated that foreign traders bring many imported goods to Brunei. The imports included gold, silver, Jia brocade, Jianyang brocade, silk of five colours, antler of five colours, glazed balls, glazed bottles, white tin, black lead, armlets, kermes, lacquered bowls and plates, celadon and on.

On the other hand Brunei would be trading plum borneol (camphor), Su borneol, Golden Foot borneol, Rice borneol, beeswax, acronychi pedunculata and hawksbill.

Pehin Jamil in his book ‘History of Brunei in Brief’ described that Marco Polo, the Italian traveler who had visited China and countries in this region, noted that trade between Brunei and China was going on well in 1291.

The trading – buying and selling were said to be very efficient and systematic and was supervised by a Chief Scribe, a Deputy Chief with a number of officials to ensure that the weights and measurements were accurate.

Graham Saunders in his book ‘A History of Brunei’ also described that in 1330, a Chinese merchant by the name of Wang Ta-yuan came to Brunei and recorded that the Brunei people were lavish in their habits and that they were good accountants, a tribute to the commercial class of the Brunei port.

The Islamic Sultanate of Brunei was said to have started around 1376 by Sultan Muhammad Shah as the first Islamic ruler of Brunei.

During the reign of Sultan Sharif Ali (1425 – 1432), the third Islamic ruler, Brunei was a well administered government and even though official relationship between Brunei and China was distant during this period, trade was still conducted between the two countries. The Chinese residents of Brunei carried out trade with China, Patani and the surrounding countries.

Sweeney in ‘Salasilah Raja-Raja Brunei’ also described that all the goods being traded would be taxed. One item of every ten sold and ten items for every hundred. If the traders wished to be free of this tax, they could do so on the conditions that they offer gifts to the Sultan, Wazirs, Cheterias and the other high ranking officials.

According to ‘Salasilah Raja-Raja Brunei’, Dato Imam Yaakub’s version, since the reign of Sultan Muhammad Hassan (the ninth Sultan) and up to the reigns of Sultan Nasruddin (1690 – 1710) and Sultan Hussain Kamaluddin (1710 – 1730 and 1737 – 1740), Brunei’s harbour had a good reputation among foreign traders because the Sultan made trading very safe and cooperated with the traders in the distribution of their products to the market, for the benefit of the Brunei people.

Last year, trade between the two countries reached a record US$355 million (B$490 million). Brunei exported US$255 million worth of crude oil to China. Over the same period, Brunei imported garments, agriculture products and machinery worth US$100 million. Chinese Ambassador HE Tong Xiaoling noted that the booming bilateral trade and the exchange of high-level delegation reflected the warmth of relationship between Brunei and China.



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