Bengal through Chinese eyes | The Daily Star

Bengal through Chinese eyes

A 15th century account of Bengal by the famous Chinese traveller Ma Huan

September 16, 2019

The following account of Ma Huan was written at the commencement of the fifteenth century. It is a chapter taken from a work, bearing the title Ying-yai-sheng-lan (a general account of the shores of the ocean) compiled by Ma Huan who was an interpreter attached to the suite of Cheng Ho who was sent to the various kingdoms of the Indian Ocean by the Chinese Emperor Yung-lo. This account was translated by Geo. Phillips. The translation was originally published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in its July 1895 issue. The object of the expedition was that the Emperor feared that Hui-ti, his predecessor, whom he had driven out of the throne, was concealing himself in some country over the sea; he wanted to trace him, and at the same time display his military force in foreign countries, in order to show that China was rich and strong. In 1413 Ma Huan accompanied Admiral Chengo Ho, along with the other interpreter Guo Chongli, on the fourth voyage which took the fleet for the first time to Hormuz. After that, he went on the voyage during 1421-23 and on the last voyage in 1431-33 when he journeyed to Mecca with the mission. During these three voyages the Chinese missions came to Bengal and Ma Huan acquired first-hand knowledge about the country. Back in 1416, he had prepared the first draft of his work along with a foreword. It was given its final form in 1433. His colleague Guo Chongli could print the book only in 1451, as the foreword of that year by the imperial clerk Gu Po testifies.

 

The kingdom of Pang-ko-la [Bengal], is reached by ship from the kingdom of Su-men-ta-la [Sumatra], as follows: A course is shaped for the Maoshan [ an island near Sumatra], and Tsui-Ian Islands [The Nicobars] ; these being reached, the vessel then has to steer north-west, and being favoured with a fair wind for twenty-one days, arrives first at Cheh-ti-gan [Chattogram], where she anchors. Small boats are then used to ascend the river, up which, at a distance of 500 li [166 miles] or more, one arrives at a place called Sona-urh-kong [Sonargaon], where one lands; travelling from which place in a south-westerly direction for thirty five stages [105 miles] the kingdom of Bengala is reached. It is a kingdom with walled cities, and [in the capital] the king and officials of all ranks have their residences. It is an extensive country; its products are abundant, and its people numerous; they are Muhammadans, and in their dealings are open and straightforward. The rich build ships, in which they carry on commerce with foreign nations; many are engaged in trade, and a goodly number occupy themselves with agricultural pursuits; while others exercise their crafts as mechanics. They are a dark-skinned race, although you occasionally see among them a light-complexioned person; the men shave their heads, and wear white cloth turbans and a long loose robe with a round collar, which is fastened in at the waist by a broad coloured handkerchief; they wear pointed leather shoes. The king and his officers all dress like Muhammadans; their head-dress and clothes are becomingly arranged. The language of the people is Bengali; Persian is also spoken there.

The currency of the country is a silver coin called Tang-ka (1) which is two Chinese mace in weight, is one inch and two-tenths in diameter, and is engraved on either side; all large business transactions are carried on with this coin, but for small purchases they use a sea-shell called by foreigners kao-li (2).

The ceremonies observed by them on their coming of age, their funerals, sacrifices, and marriages are like those of the Muhammadans.

The whole year through is hot like our summer. They have two crops of rice a year. There is also a peculiar kind of rice, whose grain is long, wiry, and red. Wheat, sesamum, all kinds of pulse, millet, ginger, mustard, onions, hemp, quash, brinjals, and vegetables of many descriptions grow there in abundance. Their fruits are also many, among which they number the plantain; they have three or four kinds of wines, the coconut, rice, tarry, and kadjang. Ardent spirits are sold in the market-places.

Not having any tea, they offer their guests the betel-nut in its place. Their streets are well provided with shops of various kinds, also drinking and eating-houses and bathing establishments.

The animals and birds are numerous, among which are camels, horses, mules, asses, buffaloes, bullocks, goats, sheep, geese, ducks, fowls, pigs, dogs, and cats. They have also many other fruits besides the plantain, viz., the jack fruit, mangoes, pomegranates, also sugar-cane, granulated sugar, white sugar, and various candied and preserved fruits.

Among their manufactures are five or six kinds of fine cotton fabrics [muslins]; one like our Pi-pu has the foreign name of Pi-chih. This fabric is of a soft texture, three feet broad, and made up in lengths of fifty-six or fifty-seven feet. There is also a ginger-yellow fabric called Man-che-ti, four feet or wider and fifty feet long; it is very closely woven and strong.

There is another fabric, five feet wide and twenty feet long, called Sha-na-kieh, like our Lo-pu.

There is also another kind with the foreign name of Hin-pei-tung-ta-li, three feet wide and sixty feet long; the meshes of this texture are open and regular; it is somewhat like gauze, and is much used for turbans.

There is the Sha-ta-urh, made up in lengths of forty or more feet and two feet five or six inches wide; it resembles very much the Chinese San-so.

There is the Mo-hei-mo-leh, made up in lengths of twenty feet or more and four feet wide; on both sides it has a facing four to five-tenths in thickness, and resembles the Chinese Tow-lo-kien.

The mulberry tree and silkworms are found there. Silk handkerchiefs and caps, embroidered with gold, painted ware, basins, cups, steel, guns, knives, and scissors are found there. They manufacture a white paper from the bark of a tree, which is smooth and glossy like a deer’s skin.

Their punishments for breaking the law are beating and the bastinado [foot whipping], and transportation to near and far countries. You find there, as with us, officers of various grades, with their public residences, their seals and system of official correspondence; also, doctors, astrologers, professors of geomancy [the art of placing or arranging buildings or other sites auspiciously], artisans, and artificers. They have a standing Army, which is paid in kind, the commander-in-chief of which is called a Pa-szu-la-urh [ Sipahsalar].

Their mountebanks wear a long white cotton garment, embroidered with black thread, fastened round their waist with a coloured silk handkerchief; hanging over their shoulders they have a string of coloured stones and coral beads, and on their wrists bracelets of dark red stones. At feasts and parties these people are engaged to play certain pieces of music, and to sing their native songs, and to go through various dances together.

There is another class of men called Kan-siao-su-lu-nai, that is to say, musicians. These men every morning, at about four o’clock, go to the houses of the high officials and the rich; one man plays a kind of trumpet, another beats a small drum, another a large one: when they commence, their time is slow, and it gradually increases to the end, when the music suddenly stops. In this way they pass on from house to house; at meal-times they again go to all the houses, when they receive presents of food or money.

There are many conjurors, but their performances are nothing very extraordinary.

The following feat, however, is worthy of mention. A man and his wife parade the streets with a tiger, secured by an iron chain; on arriving opposite a house they give the following performance: The tiger is unloosed and sits on the ground; the man, quite naked and with a switch in his hand, dances in front of the tiger, pulls him about, knocks him with his fist and kicks him; the tiger becomes enraged, growls and springs upon the man, and they both roll over together. The man then thrusts his arm into the tiger’s mouth and down its throat; the tiger dares not bite him; when this is over the chain is again put round the tiger’s neck, and he lies down. The performers then beg food for the tiger from the houses round, and they generally get pieces of meat for the beast, with a present of money for themselves.

They have a fixed calendar; twelve months go to the year; they have no intercalary month. The king fits out ships and sends them to foreign countries to trade. Pearls and precious stones are sent as tribute to China.

 

Notes:

1. Tang-ka. Barbosa, as quoted by Yule in his “Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words,” p. 682, says it is a round coin like ours, with Arabic letters on both sides, and it is of very fine silver. Tankas were of the silver currency of the day, in which was amalgamated a great deal of alloy, so that each Tanka only exchanged for sixteen copper pice, making the Tanka only worth about fourpence instead of two shillings.

2. Kao-li (cowry). The small white shell. These shells were brought from the Maldives; the islanders there bartered them to the people of Bengal for rice.

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