Brunei in Chinese History

[Note: My article below was published yesterday in the Brunei Times, 14th March 2011]



By Rozan Yunos

The Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports stated recently during the launching of new books published by the Brunei History Centre that history is crucial for the life of a nation and in determining the survival of its race, development of its civilisation and also nation-building of a country and community.

The Brunei History Centre, as the premier national institution responsible for researching, collecting, keeping and publishing Brunei history in that role has just published eight new books and two journals.

Two books focused on more recent history that of the late Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien III. One was a book entitled, “Royal Poet: Al Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien” produced by Yang Berhormat Pehin Jawatan Dalam Seri Maharaja Dato Seri Utama Doctor Haji Awang Mohamad Jamil Al-Sufri and another was entitled “Pemerintahan Sultan Ahmad Tajudin 1924-1950 - Kerajaan, Masyarakat dan Perubahan” an adaptation from the thesis of Awang Haji Muhaimin bin Haji Mohammed.

However, today’s article will focus on a book focusing on the very early history of Brunei. This book entitled “Brunei dalam Sejarah Cina” or “Brunei in the History of China” documenting Brunei and Borneo in the annals of Chinese historical documents.

This obviously is not the first attempt at the compilation of Chinese-Brunei related documents. A number of publications have been published about the existence of Brunei from the Chinese sources. One of the early ones were written by W.P. Groeneveldt entitled “Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca Compiled From Chinese Sources” published in Batavia in 1876 and “Early Notices of North Borneo and Sulu from Chinese Sources” published in The British North Borneo Herald in October 1886. One of the more recent ones was a book edited by Liu Xinsheng entitled “The Collection of Historical Documents Related to Bilateral Relations Between China and Brunei Darussalam” published by the World Affairs Press China in 2006.

The new Brunei History Centre book and this latter publication had a lot of similarities as they draw from almost the same sources. However “Brunei in the History of China” is said to focus on more sources and covered more ancient Chinese documents than the 2006 Chinese publication.

The documents referred to in the book are official Chinese documents written in ancient Chinese language. The documents were translated into modern Chinese Mandarin and it was translated again into Malay. Surprisingly the academic scholar who did this was Professor Wu Zong Yu, a Chinese historian. He was assisted by Ze Fang and a number of other translators who translated the ancient Chinese texts into Mandarin.

Professor Wu was born in Shanghai in 1939. He taught Indonesian language for 10 years. He was the first to teach Malay Language at the Beijing University of Foreign Studies. Now he is the Director of the Malay Studies Centre at the Beijing University of Foreign Studies.

His book referred to 114 different documents which stated or noted about Brunei from the ancient Chinese documents. In Liang Shu Vol. 54, the country “Po-Li” said to be the ancient name of Brunei, can be found south east of Guangzhou and that from Guangzhou to Po Li takes about 2 months. Po Li’s size was about 50 days of walk from east to west and 20 days of walk from north to south. It had 136 districts. That entry was written during the era of the Northern and Southern Dynasty from 420 AD to 589 AD, almost 1,600 years ago.

In another entry in Song Shi, Vol. 489, it was written that in 977 AD, the King of Bo Ni, another name for Brunei, by the name of Xiang Da has sent a mission to China headed by Shi Nu (Syeikh Noh), his deputy Pu Ya Li (Abu Ali), Pun Guan Ge Xin (Kadi Kasim) and others to bring a letter and gifts. The gifts included camphor which weighed 1 jiad di (kati).

The names of Syeikh Noh, Abu Ali and Kadi Kasim certainly pointed out that the King’s emissary was a Muslim one and this has shown that by the 10th AD, Islam has not just existed in Brunei but has also spread among the populace in Brunei. The use of the word ‘kati’ has also indicated that the Malay language was widely used in Brunei.

The book collected documents ranging from the 3rd century to the 17th century and in the book, the documents are divided into three time periods. The first was from the era of the Tang Dynasty and before the Tang Dynasty which are pre-907 AD. The second was from the Song and Yuan Dynasties which are from the years of 960 to 1,368 AD. The third was from the Ming and Qing Dynasties which are from the years of 1,368 AD to 1911 AD. From these 114 publications, 24 were from the first period, 15 from the second and 75 from the third era.

In the book, the ancient Chinese texts are also published with the bits that referred Brunei/Borneo highlighted, its Mandarin translations and finally the Malay translations.

It was also clear that it was quite hard to pinpoint the exact position of Po Li or Po Ni or Bo ni and Fu Ni. From Si Yu Bu, there was a reference from as early as the 3rd century, a book entitled Fu Nan Tu Su written by Kang Tai during the Years of 220 AD to 265 AD. Kang Tai wrote that to the north east of Zhu Bo (Jawa) sea, lies the area of Ju Ji Zhou (Borneo Island), whose people did not plant rice, but they planted yam and they sail on the seas, they processed giant snails turning them into ‘cangkir’ and exporting them to Fu Nan (today’s Cambodia).

One of the earliest entry about Po Li was that during the first year of the Yuan Hui administration (2nd May 473 AD), Po Li has sent a mission to the Emperor with gifts of local products.

The first major entry about Po Li can be found in Zhu Yi., Liang Shu Vol.54 written by Yao Silian during the Tang Dynasty (557 AD to 637 AD). Poli was situated on an island in the sea southeast of Guangzhou and takes about two month to get there. The climate was said to be really hot and helped to bring two crops of rice a year. The King wears beautifully dyed broacade with strings of pearls and jade all over. The gold crown on his head is more than one foot in length and decorated with seven treasures. The name of the king is Kaundiya.

This book now available at the Brunei History Centre is a very valuable book. One should consider getting it as it deserved to be in everyone’s library so that we all can learn about old Brunei.



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