Chau ju-kua’s Chu fan Chi and Malabar  

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One of the earliest written documents referring to the details of Chinese and Arab trade with Malabar and the Malabar ports is the Chu fan Chi written by Chau Ju Kua. Though there is one other document, which is the reference provided by Suleyman the merchant, revised by Zayid Hasan of Siraf and Masaudi between the 9th and 10th centuries respectively, the Chau ju-kua (pronounced Zhao Rugua) book has special importance as this touches on the Chinese trade with Malabar.

The phrase Chu Fan chi means ‘Description of the barbaric (could also mean foreign) people’ and covers the Chinese Arab trade of the 12th and 13th centuries. I have referred to the English translation provided by Friedrich Hirth and WW Rockhill.

First some background - The first mentions of Chinese traders comes from Ceylon which was also a focal point of Arabic Red sea traders. Early mentions of far eastern sailors can also be found in ‘Cosmas Indicopleustes’ which was written around the 6th century and mentions goods from China. It is also known that Canton had Arab & Indian colonies at the port as early as 200AD. Trade existed between India and China as early as 2nd century AD, over Northern Pegu (Burma) but this was mainly overland. Maritime trade with Chinese ships started in the early decades of the 7th century first via Siam (Thailand). Nevertheless there are allusions to extensive trade which Coriander mariners conducted between the shores of Malabar, Coromandel ports, Ceylon, Indonesia and even Indo-China even before that. Documentation though is very difficult to come by.

However Chinese accounts do mention sea trade with India as early as 120BC. Herein lay a strange anomaly. Probably due to errors or confusion with translation, many historic books talk about tribute being paid to Chinese kings. Dr G Banerjee in his book ‘India as known to the ancient world’ is emphatic in pointing out that tribute was actually confused with the word trade and it involved bilateral exchange of produce. So while many books talk of the mighty Chinese empire being paid tribute, the actual situation was a conduct of normal trade without any might attached to it. The main tributary countries to China were India, Arabia and Persia. Prof Hirth believes that port of Canton was in existence since 3 BC. India was known as Tien chu ( from Sanskrit Sindhu – Shindu) in Chinese writing.

Though one of the first Chinese to undertake a sea voyage and write about it was Fa Hien who went from Hoogly in Calcutta to China in the early part of the 5th century, (He went from Hoogly to Ceylon, then to Java and finally Chinese shores, in a wind sailing ship) Documented Arab trade routes came up first in the 8th century from the port of Kia Tan and here one can see that the port of Kulam Mali or Quilon is the main stopping point in Malabar for Arab ships (However these were heresy information and the Chinese still did not have first hand trade with India. The route beyond Quilon, to the Red sea ports is missing or sketchy). At the same time earlier mentions that very large ships (Arab or Indian) were entering Canton harbor and that ladders many tens of feet high were needed to scale those ships for unloading have been found. As trade progressed, the colony in Canton had become Muslim and had numerous Persians and Arabs. Around the 9th century another port became popular, named Zeytoun. But by then the revolt in the area resulted in many of these foreigners fleeing China and settling down in West Malaysia.

Chinese shipping started roughly between the 9th and 12th centuries and touched the Malay, Indonesian and other Far Eastern ports. The lucrative trade was run directly by the Chinese monarchies. By the 12th century Chinese junks (square in shape and built like grain measures) seem to have started calling at Quilon. By the 12th century the Chinese compare themselves to Arab ships stating that while their ships housed several hundred men, the ones from the Arab side were much bigger and housed a thousand.

Chau Jhu-kua, an inspector of foreign trade at the customs department in Quanzhou (Fukien – Fujian) a.k.a Zeytoun, then (Information collected from around 1211 and completed by 1225) documents (together with another man called Chou Ku Fei) for the first time whatever knowledge he has heard in the ports about the seas, the ports of call, the ships and the material traded. The second volume lists all the traded goods and their characteristics.

He states in the second book that Malabar exports cotton and spices in return for silk and Porcelain. While the cotton and other produce was of smaller quantities, pepper was sizeable (if you recall Marco Polo mentions that the amount of pepper that goes to China is 100 times more than what goes to Europe). So the trade with Malabar was robust and continues so until it reached an abrupt end in the 13th century was briefly reignited when Cheng Ho came in the 15th century and stopped again after the Portuguese came. It would be interesting how the pepper reached China after the 15th, it probably got re routed via Far East Asia, but that will be discussed in some later article.

Let us see what he has heard of and how he describes Malabar

Malabar (Nan-pi)

The Nan pi country is in the extreme south west. From San fo tsi, one may reach it with the monsoon in a little more than a month. The capital of the kingdom is styles Mie-a-mo (Malabar) which has the same expression as the Chinese expression Lissi.

The ruler of the country has his body draped, but goes barefooted. He wears a turban and loin cloth, both of white cotton cloth. Sometimes he wears a white cotton shirt with narrow sleeves. When going out he rides an elephant and wears a golden hat ornamented with pearls and gems. On his arm is fastened a band of gold, and around his leg is a golden chain.

Among his regalia is a standard of peacock feathers on a staff of vermillion color, over twenty men guard it round. He is attended by a guard of some five hundred picked foreign women chosen for their fine physiques. Those in front lead the way with dancing, their bodies draped, bare footed and with a cotton loin cloth. Those behind ride horses barebacked, they have a loincloth, their hair is done up and they wear necklaces of pearls and anklets of gold, their bodies are perfumed with camphor and mush and other drugs, and umbrellas of peacock feathers shield them from the sun.

In front of the dancing woman are carried the officers of the king’s train, seated in litters (bags) of white foreign cotton and which are called pu-toi-kiou and are borne on poles plated with gold and silver.

In this kingdom there is much sandy soil, so when the king goes forth, they first send an officer with an hundred soldiers and more to sprinkle the ground so that the gusts of wind may not whirl up the dust.

The people are very dainty in their diet; they have a hundred ways of cooking their food, which varies every day.

There is an officer called Han-Lin who lays the viands and drinks before the king, and sees how much food he eats, regulating his diet so that he may not exceed the proper measure. Should the king fall sick, through excess of eating, then (this officer) must taste his faeces and treat him according as he finds them sweet or bitter.

The people of this country are of a dark brown complexion, the lobes of their ears reach down to their shoulders. They are skilled in archery and dexterous with their swords and lances; they love fighting and ride elephants to battle, when they also wear turbans of colored silks.

They are extremely devout Buddhists.

The climate is warm, there is no cold season, Rice hemp, beans, wheat, millet, tubers and green vegetables supply their food, they are abundant and cheap. They cut an alloyed silver into coins, on these they stamp an official seal. The people use it in trading. The native products include pearls, foreign cotton stuff of all colors (i.e. colored chintzes) and tou-lo mien (cotton cloth).

There is in this country a river called the Tan shui kiang which at a certain point where its different channels meet becomes very broad. At this point its banks are bold cliffs in the face of which sparks (lit stars) can constantly be seen and these by their vital powers fructify and produce small stones like cat’s eyes clear and translucid. These lie buried in holes in these hills until some day they are washed out by the rush of a flood when the officials send men in little boats to pick them up. They are prized by the natives.

The following states are dependent on this country of Nan pi. (City names in brackets provided by Rockhill, and are assumptions)

Ku-Lin (Quilon)
Fong ya Lo (Mangalore)
Hu Cha La (Gujarat)
Ma li mo (Malabar)
Kan Pa i (Cambay)
Tu nu ho (Salsette island - Bombay)
Pi li sha ( Broach)
A li jo ( Eli mala – Cannanore)
Ma lo hua (malwa)
Au lo lo li (Cannanore or Nellore)

The country of Na Pi is very far away and foreign vessels rarely visit it. Shi lo pa chi li kan father and son, belong to this race of people, they are now living in the Southern suburb of the city of tsuan (chou fu)

Its products are taken thence to ki lo tu sung and San fo tai abd the following goods are exchanged in bartering for them: Ho-chi silks, porcelain ware, camphor, rhubarb, cloves, sandalwood, cardamoms and gharu-wood.

Ku-lin may be reached in five days from the monsoon from Nan Pi. It takes a tsuan chou ship over forty days to reach lang Li (Lan wuli) there the winter is spent and the following year, a further voyage of a month will take it to this country.

The customs of the people on the whole are not different from those of the Nan Pi people. The native products comprise cocoanuts and sandalwood, for wine they use a mixture of honey with coconuts and the juice of a flower which they ferment.

They are fond of archery; in battle they wrap their hair in silken turbans.

For the purpose of trade they use coins of gold and silver, twelve silver coins are worth one gold coin. The country is warm and has no cold season.

Every year ships come to this country from San fo Tsi, Kien-pi and Ki-to and the articles they trade are the same as in Nan pi.

Great numbers of Ta-shi live in this country. Whenever they have taken a bath they anoint their bodies with yu-kin as they like to have their bodies gilt like that of the Buddha.

Preliminary comments

Strangely little is written about Ku Lin (just the last two paragraphs), the place where they docked, but much is written about Ku Li or Calicut. This probably signifies the might of Calicut and the Zamorin’s control in the pre 12th century period.

The Nair family that settled in China is very interesting – Shi lo pa and Chi li kan. Though many historians refer to them as Nair’s it is very difficult to infer so from the sounds of the names. I do recall an ambassador Narayana from the Zamorin in the 15th century. It is noted from the translator’s comments that after the arrival of the two Malabar people in China, the trade increased drastically.

Tanshuikiang River – Which could that be with the mountains and hills behind it? Was it the Chaliyam River, Korappuzha or perhaps something bigger from the past? It could very well be. Maybe it is the river mentioned by CKR in his comments as flowing through the middle of today’s Calicut.

The golden amulet is noticed by many visitors. Vasco DeGama (Correa) mentioned that it was so heavy that it needed a person to support his arm.

It is unlikely that the Zamorin had a retinue of female guards. So were the women guards some sort of fanciful thinking? The first woman warrior mentioned in Malabar history was Unniarcha, to my understanding, but of course there were others before that.

The mention of silver coinage is a little strange. I do recall from Ma Huan’s book that 12 silver coins is equal to one gold coin in the 15th century. But until then Silver seems to have held up as main monetary token. This somehow contradicts mentions of that period that barter was the main method used by Coromandel traders. Probably large volume trade was bartered, and coins were used for smaller trade.

Officers carried in palanquins or riding on horses? That is indeed strange for there are hardly any other mentions of Malabar kings and officers on horses which were only popular and suitable in hard soil as found in neighboring Vijayanagar and Chola regions. Elephants of course are quite often mentioned in other accounts.

Cats eyes from the waterfall? Waterfalls were not unique to Malabar for such an impression to be made and documented. As Rockhill states, much of what Chau Ju Kua heard was from Arab traders who mentioned only what they wanted the Chinese to know, not necessarily the whole truth.

Han lian – officer seems to be some kind of Moosad vaidyar who was the personal physician. They existed well until the 19th century as personal Ayurvedic physicians. However the sampling of faeces is pretty new and totally unlikely (the rules of pollution would never allow that), it must have been imagination. The Zamorin wearing a white turban is also a new observation.

The great numbers of Ta-shi living in Quilon is again a very interesting observation for Ta-shi are Arabs. But Arabs anointing their bodies with oil is pretty rare but quite possible.

In another part of the book, it is mentioned that the Quilon people did not tie their hair up on top, wearing them loose compared to Malabar people and wore red leather slippers.

Salsette Island incidentally is today’s Greater Bombay. See the wikipedia article for details.

Nan pi is Nampi (as testified by Ma Huan in his book about Cheng Ho’s visit) – or land of the Nampoothiris? It is interestingly stated here in this book that the supremacy of the Nair country extended to Sri Lanka (Si Lan) and the other places listed thouygh it is very doubtful from a factual viewpoint.

About the people being Buddhists one should note that Chinese writers according to Rockhill use the word Fo which is transliterated to Buddha, but may just mean ‘God’.

A clarification about Zeytoun and Canton is needed here. Some historians mentioned that they are the same place, i.e. Quanzhou or Guangzhou, but others confirm that Zeytoun (Xiamen or Amoy now) came about only in the 10th century. Note that they had other names too, Canton was Chin or Sin-kalan or Khanfu and Zaytoun was Ts'iian-chow or Chinchu in Fukien. Hangchow or Hangzhou was a third port, close to Shanghai. Canton is to the south, Hangzhou up North and Xiamen between them.

The word Satin comes apparently from Zaytoun as it originated there.


India as known to the ancient world – Dr Gauranganath Banerjee
Chu Fan Chi - Chau Ju Kua - F Hirth and WW Rockhill
China in Word history – S A M Adshead

Pics - from the net, google images - thanks to the uploaders

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 25, 2009 at Thursday, June 25, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Quite interesting. I wonder as to why the Chinese are not able to tansliterate our place names properly. They seem queer. Your observations seem meaningful. It was like reading Marco Polos travelogue.

June 27, 2009 at 10:24 AM

Once again, you have focused on a little known period of Calicut's glorious history. Very little is known about the Chinese contact with Malabar coast. Surprisingly, there is no mention in your post about P.Kollom which was the main port of entry for the Chinese traders. They were supposed to have had a Chinese colony there.
Also, whether it was Zamorin who ruled Calicut in the pre 12th Century needs to be investigated. The consensus today is that the Zamorin's dynasty was founded in the 13th Century.
A brilliant piece!

June 27, 2009 at 5:57 PM

Thanks PNS.. The Chinese documents and their translation by various English writers was apparently a problem. as you saw from India, they changed entire names to suit their tongues..

Trissiavperrur - Trichur
Kozhikode - Calicut

But their experiments in Chinese are even more complex for a third person to figure out.

June 28, 2009 at 8:18 AM

Thanks CKR - If you recall, I had written previously about Chinese trade, in general. This was more a presentation about the Chu Fan chi.

What is curious here is that the CHu Fan CHi was written when Chinese direct trade existed only with Quilon, but then the written coverage is actually about Malabar. That Nam-pi is Calicut is obvious by the 5 day distance from Quilon but for the area to have been so prominent, it had to have a powerful king and a territory bigger than Nediyiruppu swaroopam, plus control over trade. This means that there was a king (as stated by the Chinese) and it could have been none other than the Zamorin.

In any case, let me dwell upon this in a separate article.

June 28, 2009 at 8:36 AM

Maritime trade often includes the exchange of more than just goods. Where trade goes, ideas, and culture follow. Witness the enormous impact India had on Southeast Asia through trade- the kingdoms of Sri Vijaya, and Majapahit, Pali based scripts for many languages, beautiful edifices like Angkor Wat and Borobudur that exist to this day.

Yet, Chinese trade with the Malabar coast, although extensive, appears to have left little imprint. Apart from the often cited Chinese fishing nets and the wok (cheena chatti), I'm not aware of anything else. I wonder if anyone has done work on the diffusion of Chinese ideas and culture into Keralan arts, crafts, cuisine, philosophy? It would be fascinating to explore!

July 1, 2009 at 6:00 PM

Thanks vijay - From limited information at hand, it appears that the wary Chinese traded at arms length. Until the 14th - 15th century, Chinese allowed traders to live at their ports (e.g Canton, Zeitoun) and establish colonies & even temples. However that did not last. After that period even incoming ships were stopped at the harbor mouth and unloaded into barges & junks. Likewise, they established a small colony & factory/fort at Quilon and one at Calicut, but remained segregated from the Malabar folk unlike the Arabs.

Some writers mention they left few half-caste descendants behind - called Chin bagchans.

I must add also that before the maritime trade links, the rarely documented Buddhist links resulted in much cultural exchange (See my article on Bodhidharma)towards China.

Some say that the Kerala snake boats are same as the dragon boats of China and that there are some similarities between Chinese opera and Kerala art forms like the Kathakali. I also have a feeling that burning sambrani or frankincense may have been a local practice, but the 'sambrani thiri' or 'agarbathi' came from China.

Food items and pots, the Chinese potato (Kurka), Kanji etc still remain as visible remnants of the trade links.

July 2, 2009 at 3:08 PM

Severely Interesting is the least i could say about this article. Keep Coming.

While i would raise a very inconsequential question here.

In Malabar while you find very solid evidence of Arab influence by just noticing the physical characteristics of people, we fail to find any kind of these similarities even though we claim to have had serious trade with China.

Is it that the Chinese were only interested in trade and there was not so much so an impetus on the spreading of religion? (if we could explain the intermingling of cultures in that angle)

I might even be wrong about the deduction i have made on the basis of physical appearances.

What is your take on this?

July 7, 2009 at 1:15 AM

Thanks Tushizap...

You are right, The Chinese presence is an enigma, in the sense that they traded at arms length and did not really intermingle. But some writers do mention the presence of Chinese half caste. the China kribala or Chini baghchan

If you check earlier blogs of mine, you will see that the Chinese who were indeed living in Quilon and Calicut moved to Mailapatanam or Cheenapatanam (Chenna patanam or today's Madras) following a Moplah instigated attack by the Zamorin's forces on them according to some historians and Joseph the Indian.

July 7, 2009 at 11:58 AM

A very interesting piece. It was interesting to note that Chennai came from Cheenapattinam !. Also it may be very difficult to say that the Chinese did not mixed with local people. I think we do have chinese looking faces in Kerala and Tamilnadu, may be accidental...

July 13, 2009 at 1:22 AM

Thanks Raghu..

I am researching on the possible reasons, but as you saw they left Malabar in a huff around the time the Portuguese came. Those who remained may have moved to Malacca and Chennai.

There is also another possibility. The Chinese junks and ships also brought along women for the long voyages (Ibn Batuta testifies to this). So intermingling at ports with the 'barbarians' was minimal.

Arabs however were allowed to mingle locally after conducting local temporary marriages according to Shariya. This was the Muta system.

July 14, 2009 at 10:10 AM

I heard a local historian explain recently as to why there are no Chinese faces in Calicut. According to this person (who holds a doctorate on Chinese trade with Calicut) the entire Chinese fleet comprised eunuchs who had no use for Malabar women! Preposterous?? I thought I will share this gem with your readers!

June 12, 2012 at 10:36 PM

Thanks CHF,
that is obviously not correct,
1. the total crew of a voyage was around 28,000. Under Cheng Ho there were 7 directors, 10 assitant directors, and 52 assistants, all eunuchs. the rest were fully capable and as you may already know the ships had large numbers of whores to service the fleet. Ibn batuta had his eye on some...
2. the problem at calicut was non availability of women who could service the sailors. if you recall, these foriegners were confined to the beach trading areas and they could not really go ashore in that sense. So unchecked fornication perhaps never took place.
3. Then there were obvious caste issues.
4. inspite of all this there was a chinese colony and there were chinese looking Muslims in Calicut. i will write about this later, in some detail. It is probable that the last of them moved to Chinese majority areas in South East Asia and Madras after the Moplah and Zamorin forces routed them from Calicut (as testified by Joseph the Indian)

June 13, 2012 at 10:03 AM

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