Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Examining the Connection Between Ancient China and Borneo

Examining the Connection Between Ancient China and Borneo Through Santubong Archaeological Sites

by Wan Kong Ann,  Tsinghua University

Historical relations between China and Borneo can be traced back two thousand years or more. This is explained by the fact that, although Borneo was not a destination of the highest importance for China, it was, nevertheless, the largest island in the Malay archipelago, and one whose strategic geographic position ensured that it had an economic role to play in regional trade. Borneo has in fact been a significant part of China’s orbit ever since the Chinese conquered the South China Sea.
Though there are few specific records, we can trace a little of what transpired in that history by looking at Maritime Silk Road records and reading about the travels of Admiral Zheng He. We can also gather historical information from the ancient Chinese history books to augment our understanding of the reasons that Borneo was never really a backwater region. And now, through archaeological studies carried out in the Niah Caves and at Santubong, Sarawak, we are slowly getting a clearer picture.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest in the Malay Archipelago. On its western flank is the South China Sea, and far in the distance is the Middle Kingdom, China. Today Borneo consists of three different political entities, East Malaysia, which is made up of Sabah and Sarawak, Brunei Darussalam, and Kalimantan, Indonesia. 

In ancient times, it was referred to as “Poli” (婆利) in the history annals of China. It is difficult to trace records of Borneo in China, but not impossible if one digs deep enough. There are a number of small footnotes in China’s recorded history that, if collectively considered, suggest a picture of Borneo as it was in the past.
In the ancient records of China, Borneo crops up under various guises because it was at various times named “Poli (婆利),” “Boni (渤尼/渤泥/浡泥)” or “Polo (婆罗).” China and Borneo both possess a long history of recorded interactions. Thus if one were to travel through Borneo, one would still be able to see the Chinese influence clearly. For example, the Dayaks in Kalimantan and Sarawak treasure their family heirlooms: big gongs (tawak-tawak) and earthenware jars (tajau lama). On these can be found images of the dragon (“loong” totem 龙图 腾) that originates in China. Much like copper artillery and ancient chinaware, these big gongs, used mainly for dancing and ceremonial occasions, are a status symbol for the Dayak community.

Borneo in the annals of China
In the Song Shu (宋书 Liu Song History Annals), which was edited by Shen Yue (沈约, 441–513) during the Nan/Southern dynasty, are records concerning the Poli nation (婆利国). Liang Shu (梁 Liang Dynasty History Annals), Nan Shi (南史 History Annals of the Nan/Southern Dynasty), Bei Shi (北史 Bei/Northern Dynasty History Annals), Sui Shu (隋书 History Annals of the Sui Dynasty), Jiu Tang Shu (History Annals of the Old Tang Dynasty) and Xin Tang Shu (新唐书 History Annals of the New Tang Dynasty) all show records of the arrival of an emissary from the Poli nation to pay tribute to China (进贡). In the Song Shi (宋史 Song Dynasty History Annals), Borneo was called “Boni” (渤尼/渤泥), and in the Ming Shi (明史 History Annals of the Ming Dynasty), Borneo was also most often known as “Boni (浡泥).”

Most records authenticate the tale of the arrival of the emissary of the Poli nation with the object of paying tribute to the emperor of China...................


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