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Reviewed by:
  • Sino–Malay Trade and Diplomacy from the Tenth through the Fourteenth Century
  • Loh Wei Leng
Sino–Malay Trade and Diplomacy from the Tenth through the Fourteenth Century Derek Heng Thiam Soon Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. 286 pp., bibio., index. ISBN 978-0-89680-271-1, US$28.

In recent years, China's rise on the international stage, and particularly in Asia, has loomed large in the lives of many, not least on the countries of Southeast Asia. However, as Derek Heng's work reminds us, China has been of great significance from way back, historically as the major power as well as a key market in Asia, such that polities of geographical proximity ignore China to their own detriment, in terms of their 'relevance and sustainability' (p. xiii), dependent as they were on 'international trade for survival and prosperity' (p. 1). Although China–Southeast Asia interaction can be traced back to the first millennium, Heng's focus is on the early centuries of the second millennium as he contends that this is the period when changes to the prior pattern of trade have continued into the modern era, namely in terms of the high volume of trade items handled by Chinese merchants and shipping and the largely low-value products from Southeast Asia. Additionally, studies have not considered the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) periods together to attain a picture of the developments which arose from the Song era, continuing into the Yuan.

As Heng acknowledges, there is a large body of literature on China–Southeast Asia relations, and on the Chinese economy, during his selected period—the tenth to fourteenth centuries. However, he takes his cue from the fact that 'most studies deal with the histories of the two regions' relations separately' (p. 4), and that there is not much work on the 'links between the development of China's overall economy and its maritime economy' (p. 5). Hence, he explores Sino–Malay interaction in Chapter 2, which addresses the perspective from China towards the Malay region, and the reverse, the perspective from the Malay region in Chapter 3, essentially through the lens of Srivijaya, the leading port polity, responding to changes in China's political and economic landscape. These policy modifications include the liberalization of maritime regulations affecting foreign trading partners, encouraged to set up commercial establishments in Chinese ports near the end of the tenth century; subsequently facilitating the monetization of trade in 1070 with the lifting of the embargo on the export of copper cash. By 1079 Srivijayan presence in Guangzhou port had reached a sizeable proportion to warrant the appointment of a foreign headman. That their commercial activities grew substantially is evident from the appointment of Srivijayan foreign headman to foreign official, the highest official position at a port attainable by a foreigner in 1156. This was the peak of Srivijaya as the dominant player from Southeast Asia after a policy reversal in 1090 permitting private Chinese traders going overseas to depart from any prefecture, [End Page 114] not confined to four designated ports (Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Mingzhou and Quanzhou), resulted in a growing reduced dependence on foreign merchants supplying products from the Malay region. In the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, other Malay ports (p. 105, Map 3.1) emerged to cater to Chinese traders arriving annually on their shores, with the location of interaction shifting from Chinese ports to Southeast Asian ports.

Most works examining China's foreign relations in general, or with specific polities—as well as those which focus on China's maritime economy—have drawn heavily on Chinese dynastic histories and related contemporaneous primary sources such as encyclopaedias and gazetteers.1 Heng's strength is his reference to primary material from Southeast Asia, more extensively consulted compared to available efforts on Sino–Malay exchanges, in addition to his use of Chinese sources, epigraphic and archaeological data (Chinese and Southeast Asian) to flesh out the historical records.

Going beyond well-received English language publications (to name a few, So Kee Long, Hugh Clark, Angela Scottenhammer, some recent journal literature, Wheatley, Ptak),2 Heng undertakes a longer-term examination of China's exports to the Malay...


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