Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dissolving Hegemony or Changing Trade Pattern? Images of Srivijaya in the Chinese Sources of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dissolving Hegemony or Changing Trade Pattern? Images of Srivijaya in the Chinese Sources of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Article excerpt


The history of Srivijaya has been one of the most controversial subjects in premodern Southeast Asian history. Among the crucial issues in relation to this subject are the timing and cause of its decline and, in particular, to what extent changes in trade patterns contributed to such a development. Recent scholarship, largely derived from new interpretations of the epigraphical and archaeological findings in Southeast Asia, has contributed much to advance our understanding of this ancient empire. Yet, information available in those sources is still far from adequate to make a conclusive historical judgment. It is thus imperative to re-examine Chinese accounts of Srivijaya in the light of this new scholarship.

This paper begins with a brief summary of recent discussions on the decline of Srivijaya in the eleventh century based on local epigraphical evidence, mainly drawn from work by O.W. Wolters and Kenneth Hall. This will be followed by a detailed examination of Chinese materials relevant to the issue. The conclusion will offer some suggestions of how to comprehend discrepancies among these sources.

The Srivijayan Hegemony and Its Decline in Southeast Asian Historiography

Scholars have established that Srivijaya should be identified with a prosperous Southeast Asian empire known as Shi-li-fo-shi in Tang sources, San-fo-qi in Song sources, and Zabaj or Sribuza in medieval Arabic records. It is believed to have been the dominant maritime power in insular Southeast Asia mentioned in a number of local inscriptions which are dated from the seventh to the twelfth centuries.(1) By the seventh century, it became a thalassocracy in the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, claiming suzerainty over many local Malay polities in both Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Strategically situated, it dominated the sea route between China and the Indian Ocean, and hence the lucrative international Nanhai trade.(2) Its capital was first located at Palembang, but might have moved elsewhere after the eleventh century.(3)

In terms of hegemony, the Srivijaya empire, or bhumi in Sanskrit, consisted of its ruling house or Maharaja residing in the kraton (palace) of Srivijaya (Palembang) and a number of vassals. These vassals can be further divided into two groups: those ruled by datus located along the upstream and downstream Musi River hinterland, and the peripheral ones at other river-mouth ports in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.(4) The Maharaja ruled the former group through a combination of spiritual and material bondage built upon allegiance to the king affirmed by religious oath-taking, and the redistribution of wealth and commodities derived from an international trade that was dominated by royalty. ln rerum, these vassals supported the Srivijayan kraton with exportable forest products, provision of food, and extra manpower for military purposes in times of crisis or conquest.(5) Force may have been a deterrent factor but was not frequently employed. On the contrary, the tributary submission by the peripheral vassals would rely more effectively on military strength, though control through cultural dominance and material benefit must also have been present.(6) Srivijayan naval supremacy is believed to have been established with support not only from the manpower obtained from the Musi River valley, but also from the sea nomads, or orang laut, living on the coast and the offshore islands of southeastern Sumatra. And in order to keep their service and to prevent them from reverting to piracy, it was necessary for the Srivijayan king to monopolize the profits from international trade in insular Southeast Asia so that sufficient wealth could be generated to sustain this system.(7)

The trade pattern, which played a decisive role in the Srivijayan hegemony, consisted of three layers: the principal entrepot of Srivijaya (Palembang); sub-regional entrepots; and other lesser ports serving as feeder points. …

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