Brokers and “Guild” (huiguan 會館) Organizations in China’s Maritime Trade with her Eastern Neighbours during the Ming and Qing Dynasties*

The Rise of Chinese Mercantile Power in Maritime Southeast Asia, c. 1400–1700

Chang Pin-tsun 張彬村

In a distinguished lecture in government Mancur Olson points out a pitfall of economic rationality: it tends to overlook what is the most obvious to everyone, just like a rational stroller tends to overlook the big bills lying on the sidewalk.1 The same pitfall sometimes may be found in historical rationality, which, by focusing all on the positive elements, often ignores the side effects of some seemingly negative elements. Looking from the vintage point of Chinese economic power in Southeast Asia today, this paper tries to search for the “big bills” in relation to its origin, which have been long ignored in the study of Chinese maritime history. A big bill crops up instantly to my attention: the unintended consequence brought about by Ming maritime policy and the Dutch United East India Company (VOC). Benefited by historical hindsight, we are now able to credit them with their positive effects and regard them as the most critical elements that have contributed to the foundation of Chinese mercantile dominance in maritime Southeast Asia. These effects have been largely ignored or inadequately dealt with in terms of this specific contribution. Suffice it to say they were chiefly responsible for the displacement of South and West Asians by the Chinese in the competition for commercial interests in this region. The displacement process took place in a period of about three centuries, roughly from 1400 to 1700.

The following discussion is arranged in four sections. Section one introduces the superiority of South and West Asians’ commercial power in Southeast Asia up to the end of Yuan dynasty (1276–1367). Section two discusses the functions of Ming maritime policy in bringing about the power shift in Chinese favor. The third section shows South and West Asians’ commercial interests almost completely disappeared in maritime Southeast Asia primarily thanks to the trade monopoly of VOC. The final section is a brief conclusion.

1 South and West Asians’ Mercantile Dominance

By South and West Asians we refer them to the groups of traders including the Indians from South Asia, Persians, Arabs, and other minor ones like Armenians and Jews from West Asia. Their mercantile dominance in Southeast Asia began earlier than the Christian era and had lasted until the time of our concern. In view of its millennial continuity, its fading away in the three centuries of 1400–1700 was a very dramatic historical break indeed.

Before the nineteenth century China was the biggest economy in East Asia, and likewise India was the biggest economy in South and West Asia. Each of these two economies was closely tied to Southeast Asia not merely because of geographical proximity, but primarily because of the unique natural endowments Southeast Asia had in the production of spices. India itself produced the ordinary spice of pepper in the Malabar coasts, and Ceylon supplied cinnamon, but for such finer spices as clover, nutmeg and mace, India had to rely upon the import from Southeast Asia. In fact the whole world had to rely upon it, as they could be planted only in the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia.2 The production of pepper in India was more expensive and by the seventeenth century India even had to import Southeast Asian pepper for home consumption.3 As to China all spices including pepper had to be imported from Southeast Asia. It was primarily the palatal pleasure deriving from these tropical spices that Southeast Asia lured both India and China into significant economic exchanges. From these exchanges all parties benefitted with absolute advantages that were absent in a closed economy. Sino-Southeast Asian or Indo-Southeast Asian trade, in whatever forms it might have been, was an economic “must” dictated by different natural endowments in these three economies.

Trade relationship between South Asia and Southeast Asia began in prehistoric times. There is no reason to suppose that those who carried out the trade came from just one side; instead scanty records hint at the fact that both sides have supplied maritime traders for a long time. Entering the Christian era, however, this trade increasingly came under the control of Indian merchants. The spread of Indian culture is generally believed to have followed the footsteps of the Indian traders. The so-called “Hinduization” in Southeast Asia, whether in the form of Hinduism or Buddhism, took place in such a sweeping way that it completely dwarfed “Sinicization” visible only in today’s Vietnam. It is no exaggeration to say that before the introduction of Islam in northwestern Sumatra in the thirteenth century and the rapid spread of it afterwards, in terms of foreign cultural import, the whole Southeast Asia was almost totally shrouded by Indian culture.4

The spread of Indian culture far and wide in early modern Southeast Asia indicates that Indian traders had traveled far and wide in this region from ancient times. Indeed they were the first alien group of people to assume mercantile power here. Islam began to appear in Southeast Asia in the late thirteenth century, with the arrival of Muslim maritime traders crossing the Indian Ocean. These Muslim traders primarily consisted of Indian converts, though Persians and Arabs were also active among them. The Islamization of maritime Southeast Asia therefore saw the continuation of Indians’ commercial power, despite the fact that West Asians began to share part of it side by side with Indian Muslims. To be more general, from the perspective of the Indian Ocean the mercantile interests in Southeast Asia were firmly in the grip of the South and West Asians, among them the Indians being the most persistent.5

Looking at East Asian waters we find a similar dominance by these traders. This is not only demonstrated by the limited scope of Sinicization. The control of shipping and marketing in Sino-Southeast Asian maritime trade provides more direct and telling evidence.

Though maritime Southeast Asians seem to have come to trade in China earlier than the South and West Asians, they were soon overwhelmed by the latter at least by the seventh century. Between 700 and 1000 the Indians, Persians, and Arabs nearly completely displaced the Southeast Asians in the mercantile services of Sino-Southeast Asian trade. They crisscrossed in the South China Sea, carrying out the profitable country trade. Starting from the late seventh century some of them were even found to have taken permanent residence in various Chinese ports, apparently in coordination with their traveling countrymen to handle the business of import and export in China. As for the Chinese they had remained passive receivers on the coast. They did not venture to trade to the South Seas by themselves until the later half of the eleventh century.6

It seems that Chinese traders began to sail to Korea and Japan for commercial purposes earlier than to the South Seas. At least the Fujianese were recorded to have traded there since the early eleventh century.7 This can be best explained by the marketing condition then. South and West Asian traders were firmly in grip of the marketing business in Southeast Asia, but they had no control over it in Northeast Asia.8 Therefore when the Chinese were able to build and sail their junks overseas, they first went to Korea and Japan where external trade was open and easy to enter. These Chinese traders, according to Ts’ao Yung-ho 曹永和, seem to have resold spices and other tropical products brought forth to China by the South and West Asians, in addition to such popular Chinese goods as silks and porcelains.9

Just how much Chinese had learned from the West and South Asians in the field of shipping and marketing, is hard to determine.10 It is apparent, however, that after centuries of observation on the shore and business dealing with foreigners at ports of call, Chinese had slowly accumulated practical knowledge in relation to maritime exploration in Southeast Asia. It is quite plausible that some Chinese should have gotten on board of the West and South Asians’ trading ships to go overseas, acquiring practical experience by serving as apprentices on the ships. This is especially natural if we take into account the fact that quite a few West and South Asians had resided in China for a long time and had married Chinese women, thereby producing “hybrid” offsprings to succeed them in running the Sino-Southeast Asian trade. They would send out their children as trade agents on board of their countrymen’s ships if necessary. It is probable that these half-Chinese traders were the harbingers of Chinese participation in the Sino-Southeast Asian maritime trade.11

It is generally held that Chinese maritime foreign trade was in its full bloom from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. During this period the Chinese government was found most enthusiastic in promoting this trade, and Chinese private traders called with the greatest number at ports in the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean. While there is no quibble to be raised over the truth of Chinese spectacular achievement in overseas trade in these three centuries, it is to be noted that exactly in the same period the South and West Asians were found the most active at various Chinese ports, indicating an impressive surge of their mercantile interests in maritime Asia as a whole and in Sino-Southeast Asia in particular.12 In fact their firmly entrenched interests in maritime Asia were not shaken a bit by Chinese participation in shipping and marketing services. The range and scale of maritime trade in the South Seas and the Indian Ocean were then greatly enlarged, to the extent that Chinese entry was a net plus for it, rather than a substitution factor. With the special privileges patronized by the Mongols the South and West Asians actually had expanded their commercial interests in China to the greatest extent during Yuan dynasty.13 In retrospect we may conclude that in these three centuries for the first time Chinese were able to share the profits deriving from mercantile services in maritime foreign trade, which were previously monopolized by the South and West Asians. Even so, Chinese traders were but a minor sharer among them.

This situation changed completely after the end of the fourteenth century. Private traders from South and West Asia stopped coming to China thereafter, and residential aliens very soon disappeared entirely at Chinese ports. The South and West Asians continued to carry out maritime trade in Southeast Asia, but their business was now limited to the side of the Indian Ocean. Their communities were still found in Southeast Asia, holding on to their traditional service of marketing for their seafaring countrymen when they arrived at the ports in Southeast Asia. By the late seventeenth century, however, except in the further India of today’s Burma and Thailand, South and West Asians had almost totally disappeared in the maritime scene of Southeast Asia, and their communities in this region faded away too. They were not to come back to maritime Southeast Asia in significant numbers until after the British seized Penang in 1786, and they never showed up as an impressive group on China’s shores until after Hong Kong was colonized by the British in 1842. Despite their return, they no longer had the dominant commercial interests once enjoyed by their ancestors for about a millennium in Southeast Asia.

The account above outlines South and West Asians’ remarkable success in the maritime trade of Southeast Asia and beyond, and its abrupt interruption. Their mercantile power in Southeast Asia was partially eclipsed from the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century; it was completely routed out at the close of that century. The phenomenal evaporation of this mercantile power in Southeast Asia was closely related to the implementation of Ming maritime policy and the intrusion of European maritime powers in Asian waters.

2 Ming Maritime Policy

Ming maritime policy, to be simple, was characterized by two components: maritime prohibition and tribute trade. With maritime prohibition the Ming regime suppressed all private maritime foreign trade; by tribute trade it monopolized all Sino-foreign economic exchanges via sea routes. This maritime policy was implemented at the inception of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It was later relaxed a little bit in 1567, when the seaport of Yuegang 月港, renamed Haicheng 海澄, of the Zhangzhou 漳州 prefecture in Fujian province, was opened for Chinese private maritime traders to sail to overseas countries except Japan. Perhaps the permission by Chinese local authorities for the Portuguese to lease Macao in Guangdong province in 1557 can be viewed as another relaxation, thought it was not formally sanctioned by the court. Save for these modifications, Ming maritime policy as designed by the dynastic founding emperor, remained valid in principle, though the effectiveness of its enforcement varied greatly through time.14 With regards to Sino-foreign economic exchanges, enforcement was what all mattered, not the policy embodied in the Ming Codes.

Generally speaking, Ming maritime prohibition was very effective in the half century between 1380 and 1430. Though it was announced even one year before the dynastic foundation, the ambitious founding emperor was not able to carry it out effectively until his control in Southeast China was consolidated and a system of coastal garrisons was set up in the mid-1380s.15 This system, which he was so earnest to create as a “Maritime Great Wall”, provided effective policing along the coast to seal off China from overseas countries.16 Cracks in this “Maritime Great Wall” began to appear in the 1430s, and they widened as time drew on. Cracks were not made by diehard pirates; they were made primarily by armed smugglers who would turn into pirates if suppressed by the police. They began to emerge when the Ming government took actions to reduce the scale of tribute trade in the 1430s.

In terms of state security, the component of tribute trade was no less important than maritime prohibition. Absolute advantage existed in external trade, and this advantage was to be tapped on one way or another, i.e., officially or privately. Historically Chinese government had allowed both ways to operate, but the Ming regime decided to close the private channel and leave open only the official one. This was the channel of tribute trade.

Under the arrangement of Ming tribute trade foreigners from overseas countries were allowed to enter China in the name of paying tribute to the Chinese emperor, thus recognizing his overlordship.17 Commodity exchanges took place in two ways. The overseas tributary missions presented part of their cargoes as tribute gifts to the emperor, who in return would grant them a reward consisting of the coveted Chinese goods. For the rest of the cargoes the foreigners were permitted to sell them to Chinese civilians at the port of call and the imperial capital. Meanwhile Chinese goods could be purchased at these two places too. All transactions had to be done within a designated period under the government’s close supervision. These two parts of goods exchanges comprised the whole content of the tribute trade in China.

There was a third element in the arrangement of Ming tribute trade, that is, the transactions done overseas by Chinese envoy missions dispatched by the Chinese emperor. Prior to the end of the Xuande 宣德 reign (1426–1435) these missions were frequently sent out by the Ming court to invite tributary payments from the overlords of overseas states or to carry out the ceremony of their investiture. The peak of Chinese envoy dispatches came with the seven expeditions of Zheng He 鄭和 between 1405 and 1433. Leading a tremendous fleet, he had invited the greatest number of overseas states to send tributary missions to China, and had done the largest scale of official trading overseas. His purchase of pepper alone, according to T’ien Ju-k’ang 田汝康, was so enormous that from then on this spice had turned from a luxury item into a common consumption in China.18

The goods exchanges carried out by overseas tributary missions in China and by Chinese envoy missions overseas represented the whole range of the Ming tribute trade, which was envisioned by the Ming rulers to be the entire Sino-overseas economic exchanges. Admittedly this tribute trade system functioned most smoothly from the Yongle 永樂 reign (1403–1424) to the end of the Xuande reign in 1435. It so functioned because it was then wide open enough to allow for much of the private trade in disguise of the official tribute trade, in China as well as in overseas countries.19 In order to sustain tribute trade in such a large scale the Ming court had to shoulder very heavy financial burdens from its generous treatment on foreign missions and cargoes and from its expenses on the expedition fleets. No wonder this trade was dramatically scaled down entering the 1430s when the imperial purse shrank and the non-economic purposes were no longer deemed important.20

Tribute trade existed throughout the era of imperial China. In comparison with the tribute trade of other dynasties one extraordinary feature stood out in the Ming system: total monopoly of the Sino-foreign trade by the government. While tribute trade in other times was generally a supplement to private trade in the whole Sino-foreign resource exchange, it was the total of this exchange in Ming times. The Ming tribute trade thus marked a total suppression of the private trade, for which a policy of maritime prohibition was in order.

As indicated above, West and South Asians’ commercial interests in China peaked during the Mongol Yuan. It is inconceivable that their interests should have evaporated abruptly had there not been a dynastic change that brought about not only the end of their privileges, but also the death knell of their business. The death knell was tolled by the Ming maritime policy, which in Chinese maritime history was an utter aberration. On the one hand, maritime prohibition implemented by the Ming government cut off completely their connection with fellow countrymen overseas. The total suppression of private trade meant that not only they could not sail out of China. Their countrymen could not come forth either. On the other hand, the arrangement of tribute trade made it an imperative for the Southeast Asians to get into direct contact with the Chinese. If any foreigners were needed by the tributary missions, they could not be other people than the Chinese. And indeed Chinese were found to assume the active role of intermediaries from then on, a role that previously had been played primarily by the South and West Asians in the Sino-foreign maritime trade.21

The South and West Asians in China, in addition to the loss of maritime trade in the Ming, were rapidly disappearing in their identity due to another Ming policy of forced naturalization. In 1372, the founding emperor ordered that henceforth these foreigners, like the Mongols staying in China, were to get married with Chinese people only. They should not marry among themselves.22 To avoid discrimination they deliberately chose to take Chinese family names and follow Chinese customs as closely as possible. They virtually disappeared in China in a few decades, despite a vague identity still lingering on in some communities.23

The Ming maritime policy, with its two components, thus made it possible for the Chinese to monopolize for the first time the service of shipping and marketing in Sino-foreign resource exchange, the scale of which being the greatest in East Asian maritime trades. Concomitant with this monopoly, Chinese communities in overseas countries began to spring up, heralding their “diaspora” in Southeast Asia.24 They took over the functions long performed by the West and South Asian communities in servicing the Chinese junk trade in Southeast Asia. The following table is indicative of their growth:

Table 1: Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia

Source (Year of Print)


Zhenla fengtuji25 (1225)


Daoyi zhilue26 (1351)

Cambodia, Gelam islet

Xiyang fanguozhi27 (1434)

Tuban, Geresik, Surabaya, Majapahit, Palembang, Siam

Xingcha shenglan28 (1436)

Gelam, Palembang, Malacca, Cambodia

Yingyai shenglan29 (1451)

Tuban, Geresik, Surabaya, Majapahit, Palembang, Gelam, Siam

Dongxiyang kao30 (1618)

Siam ( Nakhon), Sunda Kelapa, Cambodia, Pattani, Kelantan, Palembang, Malacca, Djambi, Molucca islands, Luzon

The table stands for the information we can now skim from the Chinese sources concerning maritime Southeast Asia. It is obvious that, prior to the end of the twelfth century, no Chinese communities were found to exist in Southeast Asia. A thirteenth-century record hints at the presence of a Chinese gathering, probably just trading sojourners. In the fourteenth century Chinese communities appeared in two places, but records about them were very short and simple. In contrast, Chinese sources in the fifteenth century, which all came from the experience of Zheng He’s voyages, described nine Chinese communities in considerable detail. Counting out the vague records of Malacca and Siam, we still find seven Chinese communities in maritime Southeast Asia that had come into existence by the third decade of the fifteenth century, some of them being as large as consisting of several thousand people.31 The last item of the table records ten places with Chinese communities in the early seventeenth century. In fact, by then Chinese people were found by the Europeans almost wherever they sailed in maritime Southeast Asia.32

In the fifteenth and sixteenth century therefore many Chinese had taken residence in Southeast Asia, side by side with the South and West Asians. Meanwhile, Chinese sojourning traders, as well as their South and West Asian counterparts, thronged into the seaports in Southeast Asia where international trade thrived. After the 1430s two distinct spheres of commercial interests were discernible to have come into being, with Malacca marking a point of division.33 Just as the Chinese junks stopped sailing beyond the west of Malacca, South and West Asian ships seldom went to the east of it. When the Ming tribute trade declined after the mid-fifteenth century, with maritime prohibition still in force, private trade in the form of smuggling began to fill the vacuum. Though international elements like the Portuguese and the Japanese also contributed to this clandestine trading in China and elsewhere, it was Chinese people that formed the backbone of the smugglers. Chinese mercantile dominance in Southeast Asia thus continued without interruption. Chinese smugglers’ power immediately came to light once the Ming government legalized private trade at Haicheng port in 1567: 100 permits were ready to be issued to 100 Chinese junks trading overseas every year. In 1589, the Haicheng authorities tried to reduce the number of permits to 88 a year, but they soon gave in upon merchants’ request. In 1593, 110 permits were issued, and this number remained unchanged throughout the Ming. In addition to this number, many ships sailed overseas without legal permits. For example, in 1593 when an official pardon was given to unlicensed ships trading overseas, 24 of them returned for registration.34

Thus we see the Ming maritime policy helped bring about the rise of Chinese mercantile power in Southeast Asia. By denying foreigner’s access to the Chinese market, it changed the rules of games in Chinese favor and, accordingly, to the detriment of the businesses run by South and West Asians. Chinese mercantile power began to emerge in Southeast Asia, side by side with the South and West Asians who still dominated the trade in the maritime world of the Indian Ocean. A division of commercial interests between these two groups of traders appeared in Southeast Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the following century, the South and West Asians finally gave up their mercantile interests completely in Southeast Asia. They certainly did not give them up voluntarily; rather, they were forced out of the maritime trade between Southeast Asia and India and West Asia, by the European maritime powers.

3 The Trade Monopoly by the Dutch United East India Company (VOC)

When European ships began to sail to Asia following the sea route discovered by Vasco Da Gama in 1498, South and West Asian traders had already yielded to the Chinese their mercantile interests in East Asian waters. As they still commanded the trade on the side of the Indian Ocean, they continued to hold on to many commercial interests in Southeast Asia, vis-à-vis the Chinese there. With the arrival of European ships, their interests began to be increasingly threatened, and in the end they were completely lost to the Europeans. Among the European maritime powers responsible for the decline and demise of South and West Asians’ commercial interests in Southeast Asia, people from three countries deserve our special attention: Portuguese, Dutch, and English. It was the Dutch that proved to be most deadly.

Europeans did two kinds of maritime trade in Asia: Europe-Asiatic trade, and intra-Asia country trade (i.e., port-to-port trade within Asia). The asymmetry of market demand between Europe and Asia resulting from Europe’s heavy reliance upon imports from Asia and its inability to offer desirable exports for Asia in return, compelled Europeans to resort to the following two solutions: export of precious metals, and country trade in Asia. Starting from the early sixteenth century the Portuguese had collected gold from Africa to buy spices and other Asian products for European consumption. The discovery of American silver in the 1540s and its massive production after the 1560s was a timing relief for international liquidity constraint, especially in Euro-Asiatic trade.35 European ships bound for the East Indies carried silver to pay for their return cargoes purchased in Asia. This seems to have become a matter of routine in the late sixteenth century. Nevertheless, due to the growing demand for precious metals within Europe itself and the increasing prevalence of mercantilism in European political circles, silver export from Europe was more and more difficult after the mid-seventeenth century. In fact European silver export was never sufficient to pay for their return cargoes from the very beginning. Profit deriving from the country trade within Asia was the alternative means for maritime Europeans to make even their trade imbalance with the Asians. This sort of profit was so important that, as early as 1623, the Governor General of the Dutch VOC in Batavia had suggested to Amsterdam the possibility of solely using it to buy their return cargoes without shipping out precious metals from the Netherlands.36 It was in this profit of Europeans’ country trade that we find the information concerning the displacement of South and West Asians by the Europeans in their mercantile interests in maritime Southeast Asia.

After retreating from the East Asian waters in the early fifteenth century, South and West Asian traders concentrated their trading activities in the Indian Ocean. The most profitable business now under their control was shipping and marketing between India and maritime Southeast Asia. The cotton textiles produced in many places of coastal India had been widely used for centuries in the world of Indian Ocean, particularly in Southeast Asia. Unlike Chinese silks and porcelains, which were essentially an elite consumption, Indian cotton piece goods commanded a very popular market and therefore were most welcome to barter for the spices and other tropical products in maritime Southeast Asia. Spices were then distributed, via many rounds of transaction, in India, Persia, the Arabic world, and even Europe via the Mediterranean maritime traders like the Venetians. Indian and later on Muslim traders from South and West Asia had long dominated the economic exchanges between India and Southeast Asia through the control of shipping and marketing. In view of their early and long-lasting predominance in the Indian Ocean including Southeast Asia, their control of shipping and marketing in Sino-Southeast Asian maritime trade from the late seventh to the late fourteenth century was merely a logical consequence.

South and West Asians’ dominance in the Indo-Southeast trade had never been challenged until the sixteenth century. They were challenged first by the Portuguese, then by northwest Europeans from various countries. The Dutch proved to be the most powerful rival that gave them a fatal blow in the end.37

Two events marked the first break of South and West Asian commercial dominance in the Indian Ocean by the Portuguese: the fall of Goa in 1510 and of Malacca in 1511. In Goa the Portuguese set up their Estado da India, i. e., state of India, which was to serve in the next three centuries as the nerve center for the whole Portuguese maritime empire from the east of the Cape of Good Hope to Japan’s Nagasaki. The traditional country trade from India to Persia and West Asia began to be impacted as the Portuguese government in Goa, by occupying Hormuz in 1515, tried to block the connection between maritime and caravan trade routes through which Asian products were supplied to Europe. As is well known this connection made possible an active international market in Levant and the mercantile dominance by Venice in the Mediterranean world. Although the Portuguese attempt did not succeed, the block of this trade was achieved in 1622 when Portuguese Hormuz was seized by the English.38 But the event of Malacca’s fall into Portuguese hand had a more direct and much greater impact on the Indo-Southeast Asian trade. For over a century Malacca had been the greatest entrepôt in maritime Asia where traders from all corners of maritime Asia thronged to exchange their commodities. Among the traders South and West Asians were the foremost group, next came the Chinese. In addition to Chinese goods, Indian cotton textiles and Southeast Asian spices were the most valuable commodities in Malacca.39 Portuguese occupation of it disrupted the regular trade there, forcing Asian traders to seek for other ports to conduct their business. Though the Portuguese made great efforts to restore its trading functions, Malacca was never to resume its former prosperity. Several ports in Sumatra, Java, and the Malay Peninsula emerged to take over the trade lost by Malacca, but none of them would emerge to be its substitute. It was not until the rise of Batavia under the Dutch in 1619 that we find an emporium to grow into a new distribution centre in maritime Southeast Asia.

The Portuguese at first attempted to monopolize the Euro-Asian trade as well as the Indo-Southeast Asian trade, but they failed on both counts. Constrained by military and financial capacity, they soon had to abandon the plan of a trade monopoly, and by the mid-sixteenth century Portuguese Estado da India had lapsed into more a redistributive system than a commercial organization, deriving its revenues increasingly from selling protection rather than from trading. Niels Steensgaard has characterized it as follows:40

Estado da India was a dynamic system, but the innovations were kept within the pattern of redistribution and the profit was consumed in a seigneurial way of life or reinvested in redistributive enterprises, not in productive or productive-increasing enterprises. The Portuguese were tax-gatherers and Estado da India was a redistributive institution.

He went on to say:41

This view of Estado da India very closely approaches that advanced by van Leur. Although recent research has attacked his views on the basis of more comprehensive material, I do not find any evidence has been produced that would shake his fundamental assertion: “[…] the commercial and economic forms of the Portuguese colonial regime were the same as those of Asian trade and Asian authority: a trade relatively small in volume conducted by the government as a private enterprise, and all further exercise of authority existing only to ensure the financial, fiscal exploitation of trade, shipping and port traffic, with higher officials and religious dignitaries recruited from the Portuguese aristocracy […]” and further: “The Portuguese colonial regime, then, did not introduce a single new element into the commerce of Southern Asia.”42

As a mere participant among the many Asian trading groups in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese did not bring about radical changes in the Asian trading world. They were content to enjoy the income deriving from the tax revenues of the ports under their control and from selling passes of safe conduct in the Indian Ocean, thereby letting the maritime trade there go on in its traditional way. As a participant the Portuguese came to share with the South and West Asians the carrying and marketing business of Indo-Southeast Asian trade, somehow squeezing the scope of commercial interests of South and West Asians in Southeast Asia. The squeezing effect was limited though, as their trade volume was small. Meanwhile Portuguese commercial interests had stretched too far and too wide in Asia, to be effectively maintained by their small human resource.43 Save for a few strategic trading sites like Hormuz, Goa and Malacca, where the Portuguese domination was present, trade in Asia went on largely unaffected. By just paying a tax of free passage an Indian ship could sail and trade as freely as before. With regard to Indo-Southeast Asian trade the Portuguese had to compete with traditional Asian traders on relatively equal terms in open market operations. Of course the Portuguese government in India was never an efficient economic organization either.

The north-western Europeans appearing in the late sixteenth century were very different from the Portuguese in their vision of Asian trade. In contrast with the Iberian conquest empire overseas, prior to the nineteenth century the northwestern Europeans came to Asia solely in pursuit of a maritime trading empire. By grouping themselves under various private companies they began to show up in Asian waters in the 1590s. After a few years of experiment two important chartered companies emerged at the beginning of the seventeenth century: the English East India Company (1600, EIC), and the Dutch United East India Company (1602, VOC).44 These companies were completely oriented to commercial profit, which they achieved, with their military and financial might, in exercising quasi-monopolistic regulation of supply and prices “within the limits determined by marginal rates of substitution.”45 That is, by adjusting the quantity mix and price mix of various spices the companies were able to accomplish their target profits in spite of the fluctuations of supply and demand. Characterized with an institutional arrangement that could sensitively respond to cost-benefit accounting, they internalized protection costs and increased market transparency as much as they could, effectively linking maritime Asia to the world market in an unprecedented way.46

Domestically these companies were chartered to monopolize the trade of their home country with the East Indies. Externally they had to compete in the Euro-Asiatic as well as the intra-Asian trade. Unlike the EIC, which was content with an open international market for European participants, with an initial capital of more than ten times that of EIC, the Dutch VOC was more earnest in pursuing a policy of trade monopoly in maritime Asia. This it had done chiefly through the control of production and distribution: Making the VOC the single buyer and the only seller. In the country trade between India and Southeast Asia the Dutch VOC from the very beginning tried not only to monopolize the purchase and sale of spices from the Southeast Asia; it also tried to monopolize the export of cotton piece goods from India to Southeast Asia. Political divisions and financial weakness in both India and Southeast Asia opened the way for the Dutch VOC’s success.47

In the early half of the seventeenth century competition by EIC and other European companies was able to thwart the Dutch ambition of monopoly in maritime Asia. But with the Dutch occupation of the Spice Islands and the fall of Banten into their grip in 1682, the VOC’s monopoly of finer spices, which were most demanded in India and Europe, was virtually achieved.48 By blocking South and West Asians from buying spices in Southeast Asia and by controlling the stable supply of cotton textiles in India, the VOC finally again succeeded in monopolizing the export of Indian cotton textiles to maritime Southeast Asia. The traditional role of South and West Asians in servicing the Indo-Southeast Asian trade was thereby totally wiped out by the success of the Dutch monopoly. Their long-lasting commercial interests in this region accordingly died away soon, leaving the Chinese as the only intermediaries to cooperate with European interests represented by the Dutch VOC, to carry out international trade in Southeast Asia. Anthony Reid has made the following observation:49

Indian and West Asian traders were among those lost out in the crisis period. Turks, Persians and Arabs virtually ceased traveling “below the winds” with the collapse of spice route from Aceh to the Red Sea in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Gujaratis continued to bring their cloth to Aceh until about 1700, though in much reduced numbers after the Dutch onslaught on Aceh’s tin and pepper resources in the 1650s. Chulia Muslims from Coromandel coast of Tamil Nadu were the only major group of Asians from “above the winds” who continued to trade into the eighteenth century, and they too were losing out to European traders during that period.

In addition to the “push” created by the Dutch VOC, Indian maritime traders were increasingly attracted by the “pull” arising from a rapidly expanding market demand for Indian textiles in Europe and America in the seventeenth century. This new demand was so huge that economic gains from it could somehow offset the loss of the traditional trade they were then suffering in maritime Southeast Asia. Many of them quickly shifted their resources to the less risky and very lucrative business of supplying European companies with Indian textiles.50 In this way this new demand hastened the retreat of Indians’ commercial interests in maritime Southeast Asia. Having abandoned trading to Banten after 1682, the EIC totally dropped its business in maritime Southeast Asia, leaving a comfortable VOC monopoly there for over a century. It began to concentrate much of its business on exporting Indian textiles to England, whence a considerable part was re-exported by other companies to Europe, Africa and America. While the VOC purchased Indian textiles mainly as an intra-Asiatic country trade in maritime Southeast Asia, the EIC collected these products primarily to supply its home market and the rising Atlantic economies. In terms of this “pull” effect the EIC was more important as England and the British Americas began to consume the greatest quantity of exported Indian textiles after the mid-seventeenth century.

Unlike the Indians or other West Asians, the Chinese continued to have competitive advantage over foreigners in China’s overseas trade, as foreigners were still banned to come to China until 1684. Even after four Chinese ports were opened in 1684, foreigners were not allowed to take permanent residence on the coast but had to depart from the port of call when trade was completed. Chinese ports were opened mainly for Chinese merchants to trade overseas, not for foreigners to come forth. Therefore except for Macao, no European factories or trading bases were established in Chinese ports, not to mention their settlements. This arrangement made Chinese traders indispensable intermediaries to the Europeans trading to China. After South and West Asians withdrew from maritime Southeast Asia in the late seventeenth century Chinese further expanded their market network which not only serviced Sino-Southeast Asian trade, but facilitated the VOC’s monopoly of Indo-Southeast Asian trade as well.51

4 Conclusion

This paper traces the origin of Chinese mercantile power in maritime Southeast Asia in the period of 1400–1700. The argument in it is simple. Thanks to the retreat of South and West Asian commercial interests, Chinese began to take on the role of trading intermediaries there, shipping and marketing being their most important businesses. Between 1400 and 1600 South and West Asians were displaced by the Chinese in conducting the Sino-Southeast Asian trade. Between 1600 and 1700 they again were displaced by the Dutch and other Europeans in servicing the Indo-Southeast Asian trade. The displacement in these two bilateral trades, which constituted the lion’s share of the maritime trade in Southeast Asia, marked the end of South and West Asians’ long-lasting dominance of mercantile interests in this region and the beginning of Chinese dominance in their place.

Two elements were most responsible for the phasing out of South and West Asian’s mercantile power in maritime Southeast Asia. These are the Ming maritime policy and the Dutch VOC’s monopoly. Ming maritime policy consisted of two components: maritime prohibition and tribute trade. Maritime prohibition completely ruined their trading bases in China and canceled their role as intermediary in Sino-Southeast Asian trade. Tribute trade gave Chinese people a total control over shipping and marketing in maritime foreign trade. These two components combined to force South and West Asians out of the trading business between China and maritime Southeast Asia (or even the whole maritime East Asia), thereby paving the way for Chinese rise of mercantile power in this region.

The Dutch VOC was the only European trading empire that successfully enforced a monopoly of trade between maritime Southeast Asia and India in the seventeenth century. With its monopoly South and West Asians in this century were again driven out of shipping and marketing services for the Indo-Southeast Asian maritime trade. Their mercantile power in maritime Southeast Asia died out completely. Due to the importance of China trade, which was controlled by the Chinese traders, and the impossibility of operating local marketing by themselves within maritime Southeast Asia, the Dutch had to rely upon Chinese people, both permanent residents and seafaring sojourners, to help carry out their monopoly trade to India and Europe. The stage was thus set for Chinese mercantile dominance in this region.

Ming maritime policy was restrictive to all private traders, Chinese or foreigners alike. It closed the Chinese market to South and West Asians for the first time in Chinese history. The Dutch VOC’s monopoly was restrictive to South and West Asians, but relatively open to Chinese traders. It closed maritime Southeast Asian market to the former for the first time in Southeast Asian history too. Just as the Ming maritime policy was devised to maximize the political gains of state security, the monopoly policy was pursued by the Dutch to maximize the commercial profit deriving from an assured market. They were not designed to help Chinese private traders, but in the end they both turned out to help set up the foundation of Chinese mercantile dominance in maritime Southeast Asia, essentially at the expense of South and West Asians’ commercial interests. In view of its historical significance and present relevance, the unintended consequence of these two elements reviewed here should not have been overlooked. The pity is that it has been overlooked as a false bill all the time until this moment we pick it up from the sidewalk.52


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1 Olson 1996.

2 Prior to 1770 when the Dutch monopoly was broken, the production of clove was concentrated in the Molucca islands (Ternate, Tidore, Makian, Motir Bacan), Ambon, and Seram. Until the eighteenth century nutmeg and mace were produced only in the cluster of the tiny islands collectively known as Banda. For details, see Reid 1993, 4.

3 Reid 1993, 9.

4 For a brief and useful reference, see Shaffer 1996.

5 Andaya 1992, 513ff.

6 Wang Gungwu (1958, 113ff) gives a very good account of the Chinese passive role and the domination of the Sino-Southeast Asian trade by South and West Asians. See also Chaudhuri 1985, 49-53; So 2000, 11-26.

7 Shiba Yoshinobu, Sōdai Shōgyōshi Kenkyū (Commercial Activities during the Sung Dynasty), Tōkyō: Kazama Shōbo, 1979, 430-434.

8 Billy So (2000, 225f) has pointed out the risk costs Chinese merchants had for entering the Southeast Asian market then under the monopoly of South and West Asians.

9 Ts’ao Yung-ho 2000, 46f.

10 Wang Gungwu (1958, 112-116) and Billy So (2000, 216) have speculated the Chinese learned from South and West Asians ideas and practices in relation to maritime trade.

11 P.T. Chang 1998, 143-155.

12 So 2000, 27-127; Clark 1995.

13 The South and West Asians were politically ranked above the Chinese but next to the Mongols; the Mongols never took part in maritime foreign trade though. See Chen Gaohua 1991.

14 A very good account of Ming maritime trade based on tribute trade system is given by Roderich Ptak (1998).

15 Ts’ao Yung-ho 2000, 187f.

16 Wubei zhi 223.2a; Hucker 1974, 275.

17 Ptak 1998, 157-191; G.W. Wang 1968, 35-62.

18 J.K. T’ien 1981.

19 Reid (1993, 10ff) has the opinion that Chinese market demand created by tribute trade in this period triggered a trade take-off in Southeast Asia.

20 Wang Gungwu (1991, 127) on the other hand holds Confucianism most responsible for the change: “The maritime power as exhibited during those 65 years or so should not be seen as the natural outcome of Chinese political or economic history which was arrested by unprogressive Confucian bureaucracy but as an exceptional phenomenon which lasted as long as the emperors Hung-wu (1368–98) and Yung-lo (1402–1424) were alive and which fizzled out once the traditional state was permitted to regain its equilibrium.”

21 The story of Chinese intermediaries serving in the foreign tributary missions is best documented in the case of the Ryukyuan kingdom, which has been well studied by Kōbata Atsushi (1939).

22 Da Ming huidian 20.21a.

23 For example, Zhuang Jinghui (1993) shows the Muslim origin of a Ding lineage as maritime traders in Quanzhou in the mid-fourteenth century and the process of its sinicization under the Ming rule and beyond. The Quanzhou Maritime History Museum has preserved 59 pieces of Muslim tombstones with Arabic inscriptions, most of which are dated in the period of Southern Song and Yuan Dynasties. Only two pieces are dated in the early Ming, the latest one being in 1387. See Wu Wenliang 2005, 61-117, esp. 75f, A55.

24 G.W. Wang 1990, 409-421. P.T. Chang 1991, 13-28. For a concise explanation of “diaspora”, see J.L. Heilbron’s preface to Wang and Wang 1998, xii-xiv.

25 Zhenla fengtu ji, 147.

26 Daoyi zhilue, 69.17, 248.

27 Xiyang fanguo zhi, 4ff, 8, 11ff. Records here largely repeat what is found in Yingyai shenglan.

28 Xingcha shenglan 1.9f, 18, 20; 2.1. It says (p. 20) Chinese descendants were found at Malacca, but does not say if a Chinese community existed there.

29 Yingyai shenglan, 8.11, 16f, 19. Its record (19) does not explicitly mention the existence of a Chinese community in Siam, but hints at it. For the exact locations of these places, see Mills 1970, Appendix 1, 185-235.

30 Dongxiyang kao 2.33; 3.44, 48, 55, 57ff, 62, 65; 4.67, 70; 5.89-95, 101.

31 Roderich Ptak (1994, 43f) and Wang Gungwu (1990, 405) both speculate that many of these Chinese emigrants were sinicized Chinese Muslims forced out of China by the Ming policy. See also Reid 1999.

32 Rajeswary Ampalavanar Brown (1994, 17) describes the Chinese at that time in Southeast Asia as “omnipresent”.

33 Meilink-Roelofsz 1962, 27-88.

34 In 1593 save for 10 permits for trading in Taiwan, all were given to ships trading to Southeast Asia. See Dongxiyang kao 7.132f; Jinghetang ji 8.10a-b.

35 Cross 1983, 397-423.

36 Prakash 1991, 120. See also Furber 1976, 36.

37 Meilink-Roelofsz 1962, 117-294. Portuguese influence is well summarized in Chaudhuri 1985, 63-79.

38 Steensgaard 1973.

39 Meilink-Roelofsz 1962, 27-88.

40 Niels Steensgaard 1973, 86.

41 Niels Steensgaard 1973, 85.

42 J.C. van Leur (1967, 118f) further asserted that it was the Dutch and the English that heralded a new era in Asian commerce.

43 Boxer 1969, 51-63.

44 There were other European East India Companies of less significance engaging in Indo-Southeast Asian country trade at that time, among which the Danish company beginning in 1616 and the French company formed in 1654 were the ones to be reckoned with. See Furber 1976, 79-124; Diller 1998.

45 Steensgaard 1973, 152.

46 Chaudhuri 1978, 7.

47 Van Goor 1998, 193-214. Arasaratnam 1991. Furber 1976, 79-124.

48 Reid (1993, 23f) points out that the Dutch VOC established a monopoly of the netmeg and mace of Banda in 1621, and a monopoly of the Moluccan clove in about 1650. Banten, however, remained an emporium for international spices trade until it succumbed to the Dutch army in 1682. And in the 1680s, the Dutch had become de facto ruler of Ceylon and achieved the control of cinnamon trade there, thereby completing the monopoly of all finer spices in Asia. See van Goor 1998, 207.

49 Reid 1988, 494. See also Prakash 1991.

50 Chaudhuri 1978, 10-15 and 237-312.; Arasaratnam 1991.

51 The best account is given by Leonard Blussé (1986, 35-155). See also Melink-Roelofsz 1962, 236-246, and P.T. Chang 2009.

52 In fact the VOC’s positive contribution to Chinese mercantile power has been noticed by scholars like Reid (1992, 494) and Blussé (1991, 334), who in an interesting essay comes to the following conclusion: “Western expansion of power meant paving the way for Chinese expansion of trade.” They nonetheless have not paid attention to the significance of South and West Asians’ retreat in the face of Europeans’ competition.

Crossroads 6 (Oct 2012)