How the Chinese helped to unite Sri Lanka in the 15th century?

by Dr. Janaka Goonetilleke

(November 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lankan Chinese relations date back to the Anuradhapura period. This has been proven without any doubt from the findings of the excavations in Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. In this long history the Chinese never got involved in the politics of the Island except in the early 15th century during Admiral Zheng He’s visit to Sri Lanka.

Admiral Zang He was sent on an expedition during the Ming China. At the time it was the largest , richest and the most powerful country of the world dominating world trade. He was a Eunuch sent to establish her dominance of the Silk Sea Route and establish a tributary system. The land route was blocked at the time. To help in this endeavour, the ship was laden with gifts to establish relationships with different countries. Soft power that was very successfully used. It is said that the expeditions had to be later abandoned as the returns were poor. Admiral Zheng, he visited 30 countries, (Travelled over 50,000 kilometres) and Sri Lanka was one of them. Being located at a strategic position with a reputation as a repository of Theravada Buddhism with a salubrious climate and friendly people and array of products was a prime target for a visit of this nature. Zheng He visited Sri Lanka five times and in one of those visits installed the world famous Tri Lingual Inscription of Galle found on Cripps Road in Galle in 1911 by a British engineer called Tomlinson. The following translation of the tablet by Edmund Blackhouse of Peking will give the readers a fair idea of the famous lithic record.

“ His Majesty the Emperor of the Great Ming Dynasty has despatched the Eunuchs Ching Ho, Wang Ch’ing-Lein’and others to set forth his utterances before Buddha , the world Honoured one as follows

“Deeply do we reverence you, merciful and the honoured one, whose bright perfectionism wide embracing and whose way of virtue passes all understanding, whose law enters into all human relations and the years of whose great kalpa (period) are like the sand of the river in number, you whose controlling influence ennobles and converts whose kindness quickens and whose strength discerns, whose mysterious efficacy is beyond compare!

“Where as Ceylon’s mountainous isle lies in the south of the ocean and its Buddhist temples are sanctuaries of your gospel where your miraculous responsive power imbues and enlightens. Of late we have despatched missions to announce our mandates to foreign nations and during their journey over the ocean they have been favoured with the blessing of your beneficent protection”

Perusal of the available Chinese references about Sri Lanka it is also said that Zhang He was also sent to visit a temple in the mountain of Sri Lanka . It is said that the following items were gifted to the temple.

“ Thousand pieces of Gold, 5000 pieces of silver, fifty rolls of embroidered silk in many colours,50 rolls of silk taffeta in many colours, four pairs of jewelled banners, four pairs of jewelled banners, gold embroidered and of variegated silk, two pairs of the same picked in red , one pair of the same in yellow, one pair in black, five antique brass incense burners, five pairs antique brass flower vases picked in gold on lacquer with gold stands, five yellow brass lamps picked in gold on lacquer with gold stands, five incense on vermilion red, gold picked lacquer on gold stands, six pairs of golden lotus flowers,2500 catties of scented oil, 10 pairs of wax candles,10 sticks of fragrant incense”

Chinese diplomacy at the time used a harmonious, non aggressive type of diplomacy to achieve their objectives, however they had no hesitancy to use violence to achieve their objectives as shown in their dealings with the then rulers of Sri Lanka. This is quite contrary to the western colonialists who believed in the dictum of “Might Is Right” and of suppression , domination , colonisation of nations ,exploitation and conversion. It is ironic however that these basic principles pervade diplomacy even today.

At the time the Kotte Kingdom was ruled by Vira Alakeswara who resisted the visit of Admiral Zhang He. He was the defector ruler after King Bhuvanekabahu V fled following an attack by the Arya Chakravarthi of Yapapattuna. According to Prof Senerath Paranavitharana in his book ‘SINHALAYO’ Admiral Zang He returned in 1411 captured Vira Alakeswara and deported him to China and handed the Sinhala Kingdom to Sepanana who later assumed the name of King Parakrama Bahu the VI . Having stabilised his Kingdom Parakrama Bahu the VI made Kotte the capital of his kingdom and brought the Highland kingdom under his authority thus unifying the Sinhala Kingdoms. He then sent an expedition to Yapapattuna and captured it thus unifying the country for the last time until the British united Sri Lanka. It is said that in this expedition a revolt by the Sinhalese in Jaffna helped him. In his endeavours he was supported by the famous Vidagama Mahathera and his glories are chanted by the Poet Totagamuwe Sri Rahula. He ruled Sri Lanka for fifty five years making his influence felt in South India ,the Malay Peninsula and in Sumatra. According to V L B Mendis in his book Foreign Relations of Sri Lanka King ParakramaBahu the VI visited China in 1416 and 1420 bearing tributes. He further mentions that China unlike the colonial powers who installing puppets, pretenders, nominees and using them ruthlessly believed in the context of the son of Heaven conception of the underlying and the implicit omnipotence and superiority of the Emperor in which a relationship was considered to be a privilege. It never asserted her authority over Sri Lanka.

To this date a family claiming to be the descendents of the King of Sri Lanka lives in quanzhou province . Most think they are the descendents of Vira Alakeswara although some disagree.

With the death of King Parakrama Bahu VI centrifugal forces caused great disruption due to Indian invasions, lack of Sinhala unity and the disintegration of the Buddhist temple. Finally on the pretext of helping the Sinhalese Europeans colonised Sri Lanka and ruled for about 450 years. We are now in a similar stage in history. The question is, will history repeat? The greatest lesson of history is that we never learn from it.
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