Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

Tamils and Tamizhakam in Chinese eyes

The Chinese and Tamil communities have celebrated thousands of years of friendship. And this rich bilateral exchange has been recorded by several monks and traders.

Tamil and China Kaiyuan Temple and the Hindu God sculpture on the pillar.

The history of Tamil-Chinese interactions dates back two thousand years ago. From the renowned Buddhist monk XuanZang to nameless explorers, numerous Chinese travellers and historians have left notes on Tamil people and the Tamil land. The earliest historical document that recorded the mutual contact was Hanshu (The History of Han Dynasty) in 111CE. Till the last feudal dynasty the Qing Dynasty (1636- 1912), records of Tamil-Chinese exchanges can be traced abundantly in both official and folk historical documents.

India-China interactions

The Tamils recorded by China’s historians in ancient times are almost exclusively geographically from Southern India. So, we have to look briefly into the early and medieval India-China interactions first, especially two essential elements in the contact: Buddhism and trade.

From AD 1600, transmission of Buddhism from India to China paralleled an active trade between the two countries. Buddhism was the main factor promoting mutual interactions. According to Chinese scholar Liu Xinru, India was considered by many as a holy land due to religious reasons. Buddhism ritual and religious activities promoted the production and distribution of commercial goods.

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Then during AD 600–1400 we see a realignment of India–China relations. Despite the decline of Buddhism, non-Buddhist merchandise between the two countries began to thrive, especially after AD 1000. At the same time, due to political instability in Central Asia maritime routes became a more viable way for transporting commodities.

Tamizhakam as a tributary and home of Bodhidharma

The earliest available Chinese literature about the land of the Tamils dates back to the Han Dynasty (206BCE-23CE). The geographical record of Hanshu, part of The History of Han Dynasty, mentioned “Huang Zhi Guo”, which was disputably considered as nowadays Kanchipuram.

“Sail from GuangZhou (a southeast coastal city in China) for over 2 months, there is Huang Zhi Guo. It has vast land, big population, and novelties.” Another chapter written pays a rhino as tribute to the Chinese emperor.

The following historical literature found was about the Buddhist monk from Kanchipuram: Bodhidharma. Being popular among the Tamil audience due to Surya’s film ‘7Aam Arivu’, Bodhidharma was widely known in China as the founder of Shaolin Temple. However, almost everything about his timeline is contentious.


The earliest text mentioning Bodhidharma is The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang which was compiled in 547. It has mentioned Bodhidharma’s longevity of 150 years. He has left loads of other mystic legendaries. Several Chinese proverbs come from his stories, such as “Yiweidujiang”, meaning to cross the river on a reed. Legends also say he gazed at the wall for nine years and meditated on the top of the hill next to ShaoLin Temple which gave rise to the thorough understanding of Zen Buddhism.

In Tanlin’s (506–574) brief biography of the “Dharma Master”, a text traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma and the first text to identify him as South Indian, it says he came to Chine in Nan-liang Dynasty (520-526), sailed to China from as a “South Indian Brahmin”. Afterwards historical work regards Bodhidharma to be the third son of a Pallava king from Kanchipuram.

Despite these contentious and unreliable folks, Bhodidharma’s name is well-known to many Chinese, usually with a fantastic colour. However, very few Chinese have the knowledge that the apotheosis of our national pride kung fu was a Tamil.

Tamizhakam in Xuan Zang’s records


If I can say the most famous Tamil in China is a monk, then the best known Chinese in India might be another monk: Xuan Zang. This Chinese monk’s Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (646CE), which record his 18 years (627-645) Indian travel and knowledge, was irrefutable the key historical data for both countries.

In his trip, Xuan Zang reached Kanchipuram. In the Biography of SanZang (Xuan Zang) in CiEn Temple (688CE), it was recorded that Xuan Zang planned to visit SengJaluo Guo(Sri Lanka) to learn Theravada Sudra.

“From Kanchipuram it takes three days by boat. ”

However, due to internal disorder, the monks fled from Lanka to Kanchipuram. XuanZang dropped his plan to cross the strait and learnt Buddhism sudra from them right in Kanchipuram and stopped southward trip.

Therefore Kanchipuram was considered by many Chinese historians as the southern tip of XuanZang’s Indian trip. In his Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, he described Kanchipuram as follows:

“The land is fertile and crops flourish, is a land of treasure teem with flowers and fruits. Climate is warm. People are brave and staunch with moral integrity. They are deep in righteousness, well learned and noble-minded. Their language is different from middle India…”


XuanZang went to India during the Tang Dynasty, which is considered as the peak of Buddhism in China and also the gold age of China’s cosmopolitan culture and economy. In the following dynasty, called Song Dynasty, the frequent trade between China and Tamil land is also mentioned.

A country of Pearl

In a later historical document Taiping Yulan, meaning Taiping Imperial Encyclopedia (977-983), it recorded Kanchipuram or “Huang Zhi Guo” as: “Its customs is similar to ZhuYa (Hainan, China’s tropical island). It was abounds in pearls, blue-coloured glaze, and rare stones. Big pearl’s diameter reaches 2 Cun (around 6.6cm). With a perfect round shape, it spins all day without stop.”

China’s sources on the Cholas


The early medieval period saw an economic structure dominated by the rise of powerful Tamil empires under the Pallava and Chola dynasties. Middle East commodities transferred to China via Cholas. Chinese sources have recorded Chola envoys’ multiple visits to Song court with tribute missions as acknowledging the power of China and its important position in Asia.

Cholan empire celebrated its golden age in the 11th and 12th centuries. As mentioned, marine time route trade gradually boomed after the 7th century. Despite the rising of Sri Vijaya has to some extent brought pressure on china-Cholan trade.


China’s sources of China-Tamil interactions also was abundant. Most of the material has been sorted and translated by two principal experts on the Cholas and Indian-China interaction history: Tansen Sen, and Noboru Karashima.

Other Chinese texts on the Chola Kingdom as Zhu-nian include Songhuiyao Important Documents of the Song Dynasty; Songshi History of the Song [Dynasty]; Zhufan zhi Records of the Barbarous People; Lingwai daida Information of what is Beyond the Passes; and Wenxian tongkao Comprehensive Examination of Literature.

It is interesting to see how the Chinese view the Cholas. In the fifth section of the foreign biography in Songshi, the History of the Song, written by court historians, the depiction of the layout of cities in Chola empire read: “In the kingdom there is a city which is enclosed by seven-fold walls that are seven-feet high…Within each wall are planted various flowering plants and fruit trees.”

“At banquets, the king and the four ministers prostrate themselves at the foot of the steps. Then, they sit together and watch music, song and dance.

“They don’t drink alcohol, but eat meat. They are accustomed to wearing cotton and linen clothes and eating ear shaped dumplings. They employ ladies as attendants for table and personal service.”

On the engagement, the wrote: “When arranging a marriage, initially the man’s family sends the matchmaker to the woman’s house with gold and silver rings. After two days, the woman’s family meets with the man’s family, and make an engagement with gifts including the quantity of fields, domestic animals, and arrack. The woman’s family also presents to the prospective bridegroom gold and silver rings, a Western Region fine cloth and the brocaded cloth to be worn by the bride.

“If the man regrets about this engagement, he should not take the things offered, and if the woman regrets, she has to return to him twice of what was received.”

In the eyes of historiographers from the Song court, it seems Tamils were good at city planning and afforestation. Also, the Song historians seemed surprised to know Cholan King and ministers didn’t drink alcohol, and thus specifically recorded this information. During the fun-loving Song period, an atmosphere of drinking had flourished.

Tamil inscriptions found in China

After the Song dynasty, sources from the Yuan period (1271-1368) write of active Tamil merchants and guilds.

The 13th century bilingual inscription (1281 AD) found in China’s Southeast port city of Quanzhou — usually considered the starting point of Maritime Silk Road in China — contains content in both Tamil and Chinese. The Tamil words praise lord Shiva while the Chinese content has a Buddhist meaning. The bilingual inscription indicates the establishment of Tamil trading diaspora and guilds early in Song-Yuan (960—1368) China.

Tamil and China Bilingual Tamil-Chinese inscrpiton from Qunzhou, 1281, Xiamen University Museum.

I have been asked by many Tamil friends what the Chinese means. A tentative translation of the line, which seems Buddhist in nature, by Professor Tansen Sen is as follows: “Luhezhiri, [who was] versed [in Chinese language] (alternatively, “[after] gaining access[to China]”), compiled the Sutra of Torching the Mountain Without Assistance (i.e.,self-enlightenment?).”

It is not my purpose in this article to probe into fragmental Brahimincal sculpture segments found in China. But the Yuan dynasty was considered built by Tamil merchant guilds and proves an unencumbered trade opportunity then. Envoys were sent to each other by the two courts and Yuan dynasty was considered at the peak of south Indian trade in the port.

Marco Polo states that Indian traders continued to be active in Quanzhou in the late 1280s and early 1290s. The renowned Kai Yuan Temple, a Shiva Hindu temple located in now Quanzhou, is also built in the Yuan Dynasty.

Zhenghe’s donation stele in Sri Lanka

After the Yuan Dynasty, a famous Chinese navigator Zhenghe in Ming dynasty (1368-1644) greatly promoted commercial intercourse between China and south India. Zhenghe, the Chinese admiral, was known for commanding seven great voyages through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433.

He had not travelled to the east coast of India but been to Malabar, where it is said he passed away on a voyage back to China.

His connection to the Tamil people was brought to focus in the year 1911, when a 1409 trilingual inscription was discovered by provincial engineer Mr H F Tomalin in Galle, Sri Lanka. The Donation Stele was written in Chinese, Tamil and Persian. It recorded the donation from Chinese Ming court to Sri Lanka. On his third voyage (some say second), Zheng sailed from China in 1409, and carried with him the trilingual tablet which he planned to erect in Sri Lanka. The discovery of the Donation Stele of Ceylan Buddha is historic evidence of the friendship between China and Sri Lanka.

It is also a rare cultural relic for the study of China-Tamil interactions.

The Chinese portion of the tablet says the emperor of Ming Dynasty despatched the Zhenghe, Wang Jinghong and others to set forth his utterances before Lord Buddha.

The list of alms bestowed as offerings at the shrine of the Buddhist temple in the mountain of Ceylon included “1,000 pieces of gold; 5,000 pieces of silver; 50 rolls of embroidered silk in many colours; 50 rolls of silk taffeta, in many colours; 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 of 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 vessels in vermilion red, gold picked on lacquer, with gold stands; six pairs of golden lotus flowers; 2,500 catties of scented oil; 10 pairs of wax candles; 10 sticks of fragrant incense.”

The same information was also recorded in Tamil and Arabic. The Tamil inscription offered similar praise to the god Tenavarai-Nayanar, perhaps a local form of Shiva, and the Arabic portion gave praise to Allah.

‘Madalasa (Madras)’ in later maritime explorers’ notes

After Zhenghe, Ming emperors gradually launched a strict ban on maritime trade. The following dynasty, Qing (1644-1911), was the last feudal dynasty in China. It continued and even reinforced the restricted intercourse with foreign countries in order to limit the rampant smuggling and piracy at sea, especially the British’s opium peddling.

In 1857, Guangzhou remained the only area for foreign trade, beginning decades of isolation for the Qing China.

The Qing Dynasty also witnessed China’s power recession and semi-colonisation by the British. This is the reason less literature has been found and translated on China-Tamil interactions during Qing.

Records that have been recovered, however, are merely geographical records of south India rather than interactions.

In Yinghuan Zhilue (The World Geography), written in 1849, the references to “Madras” and “Pondicherry” in Qing China are very similar to Tamil.

“Madalasa (Madras, according to Chinese pinyin), or Madelasida… the British set a headquarter here to rule the southern part of India… In the third year of JiaQing Emperor (1799), the kingdom to the northwest of it revolted and was frustrated by the British.

“… To its south is Bendi zhili (Pondicherry), occupied by France…”

This was recorded during the years of Dao Guang Emperor (1782—1850). Towards the end of his reign, the 1840 opium war broke out. Afterwards, China was involved in a number of wars with western powers and hardly any literature on Tamil was found.

During my visit to Tamil Nadu this January, I had expected to see coins collections from the Song Dynasty, which witnessed high trade at a time when both economies peaked. But to my surprise, in both Tanjavur Sarasvathi Royal Library and Chennai St George’s Fort Museums, what I found in China’s coins collections, instead, was “DaoGuang TongBao” coins used in DaoGuang years. This means despite the isolation policy and war, trade between Tamil and Chinese was not totally stopped in the late 19th century.

Research has shown that India, under the rule of East India Company, continued trade with China especially in tea and silk. Chinese guild was displayed in the Madras Exhibition of the Raw Products of Southern India in 1859. I believe there were more commercial exchanges during the colonial period which may need further detailed study.

The 1911 democracy revolution ended Qing Empire and China’s 2000 years feudal era.

Zhou Xin is a lecturer in the Tamil department of Beijing Foreign Studies University.

First published on: 02-08-2019 at 11:36 IST
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