Ying-yai Shen-lan, "The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores" [1433]

Ma Huan.
Translated and edited by J.V. G. Mills.
Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society, Extra Series No. XLII, 1970

Reviewed by Barbara Evans

Yemen Update 43(2001)

Amongst the most rewarding sources for the fifteenth century history of southern Asia, including Arabia, are the Chinese authorities. It was the heroic age of Chinese naval expansion, when four Chinese fleets set out to the west, and traversed the Indian Ocean simultaneously. Flotillas explored the four seas from southern Africa to Timor; the imperial court was thronged with royal visitors or envoys from Japan to Hormuz, and Chinese manufactures were sought after in the markets of Asia from Majapahit to Baghdad.

One of the most interesting of these Chinese sources is Ma Huan, the Muslim interpreter of the famous envoy Cheng Ho, whom he accompanied on three of his enormous expeditions. Ma Huan's book was entitled Ying-yai sheng-lan, 'The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores', and contains Ma Huan's descriptions based on personal observation of twenty countries from Champa (Central Vietnam) in the east to Mecca in the west. The seventh and last expedition was from 1431 to 1433.

Ma Huan visited Tsu-fa-erh, Dhufar, on the southern coast of Arabia, and A-Tan, Aden , probably during the sixth or seventh voyages (or both). Indeed, as a Muslim, Ma Huan would want to make the pilgrimage; he describes Mecca in his book, claiming to speak from personal experience. Accompanying the book is the remarkable maritime cartogram ('Mao K'un Map') to trace the stages of the voyages. Lo-fa, or Luhaiya, "a town", is one of the most extreme westerly points shown on this map, and is featured in the text in comparisons of the stellar altitudes and sailing directions of contemporary Chinese and Arab navigators.

There are fine descriptions. Of Dhufar [on the southern coast of Arabia] he writes [I give excerpts]:

"The king of the country and the people of the country all profess the Muslim religion . . . they are sincere in speech . . . As to the king's dress: he uses a white, fine foreign cloth to bind round his head: on his body he wears a [robe] which has fine silk embroidery in a blue floral design as large as [one's] thumb and covers the head [a sort of burnous], or else he has a robe of gold embroidery; and on his feet he wears foreign boots, or else leather shoes with a shallow face. [so what is new? BE]

When he goes about, he rides in a sedan chair, or else he mounts a horse, before and behind him are ordered ranks of elephants, camels companies of cavalry, and men with swords and shields; they blow whistles [footnote: pi-li, a Tartar pipe, made of bamboo, and a reed, with 9 finger-holes, which makes a mournful sound] and pipes [footnote: so-nai, Persian surnai, a reed pipe or oboe with a wooden tube] and proceed in a dense throng.

If it happens to be the day of worship, trading in the markets is stopped before mid-day; men and women, old and young, all bathe themselves; when that is finished they take rose-water or sinking incense and oil, and rub it over their faces and four limbs; all put on neat, newly-washed clothes; they also take a small earthen incense-burner, light some sinking incense, sandalwood, ... and set it on the incense-burner; having perfumed their clothes and limbs, they then go to the temples of worship; after the worship has finished, then they return home; and the fragrance of the incense lingers fior some time in the market-streets through which they pass.

... marriage and funeral rites ... they act in conformity with the regulations of the Muslim religion.

When the treasure-ships of the Central Country arrived there, after the reading of the imperial will and the conferment of presents was finished, the king sent chiefs everywhere to the people of the country [and] they all took such things as frankincense, dragon's blood [footnote: red resin produced from two species of Dracaena, still produced in Socotra], aloes, myrrh, benzoin, liquid storax ... and came to barter them for hemp-silk, porcelain ware and other such articles.

Also, there is no lack of such things as husked rice, wheat, pulse, unhusked rice, glutinous millet, panicled millet, hemp-seeds, and all kinds of vegetables, gourds, oxen, goats, horses, donkeys, cats, dogs, fowls, and ducks.

In the mountains they also have the 'camel-fowl' [footnote: ostrich]; some of the local people catch them, too, [and] come in to sell them ...

As to their camels; they have single-humped ones, and they have double-humped ones; the people all sit and ride on them.to go to the market streets; [and when the camels are] about to die, they kill them and sell the flesh.

The king casts a gold coin . . . on one side there are lines, on one side the design of a man's figure. He also casts a small coin of copper ... for petty transactions."

The description of Aden is equally impressive. As the people of Dhufar professed the Muslim faith, so too the people of Aden followed the same rituals, and spoke the A-la-pi [Arabic] language. However, "The people are of an overbearing disposition" he wrote. After the initial courteous presentation of gifts "with great reverence and humility", from the imperial treasure-ships, the king ordered only those with precious items to come forth to barter ...

Ma Huan writes, "and there our people were able to buy cat's eyes [opalescent yellow-green stones], and all kinds of yaku [ruby and corundum] ... and large pearls, and several stems of coral tree ... and such things as golden amber, rose-water, lions, patterned fu-lu [zebra], golden-spotted leopards, 'camel-fowls' and white pigeons ... and these things were brought home.

As to the dress of the country's king: on his head he dons a gold hat; on his body he wears a yellow robe; [and] round his waist he binds a gold belt adorned with jewels. When the day of prayer arrives he goes to the temple of worship, he changes [his attire], binding his head with fine white foreign cloth, on which he superimposes a top-piece of gold brocade; on his body he wears a robe of white; [and] he proceeds [to the temple] sitting in a carriage, with a formation of soldiers.

All his chiefs have different hats and clothes according to their gradation of rank.

As to the dress worn by the people of the country; the men bind the head, and wear sa-ha-la, or a woollen [footnote, so-fu, or Arabic suf] or an elegantly embroidered hemp-silk, or other such garment; and on their feet they put boots or shoes.

As to the dress of the women: over the body they put on a long garment; round the shoulders and neck they set a fringe of gem-stones and pearls - just as Kuan-yin [a goddess] is dressed; in the ears they wear fiour pairs of gold rings inlaid with gems; on the arms they bind armlets and bracelets of gold and jewils; and on the toes they also wear toe-rings; moreover they cover the top of the head with an embroidered kerchief of silk, which discloses only the face.

All the people in the country who make and inlay fine gold and silver ornaments and other such articles as their occupation, [produce] the most refined and ingenious things, which certainly surpass anything in the world.

Again, they have market-places and public bathing establishments, also shops selling cooked foods, silk, silk fabrics, books, and every kind of article - all these they have.

The king uses red gold to cast a coin for current use ... He also uses copper to cast a coin named fu-lu-ssu [footnote: fulus is the plural of fils, for the classical Arabic word fals; the term was employed in the Middle Ages for copper money in general ...]

In fixing the calendar they have no intercalary moon; they merely take twelve moons to make one year; and they have no long or short moons. If their chiefs see the new moon one night, then the next day is the beginning of the moon ... [The dates] of the four seasons are not fixed ...

Of course they have astrologers...

As to the drink and food of the people: all kinds of rice-flour and wheat-flour - all these they have. Many of the people make up a mixture of milk, cream, butter, sugar and honey to eat.

For fruits, they have such varieties as Persian dates, pine-nuts, ... dried grapes, walnuts, apples, pomegrantes, peaches, and apricots.

Elephants, camels, donkeys, mules, oxen, goats, fowls, ducks, cats, and dogs ... they have; only they have no pigs or geese. The sheep have white hair and no horns; on the head they have two lumps of black hair, like that hanging on the heads of boys in the Central Country; under the neck they have a bag, like that of an ox; their hair is short, like a dog's; [and] their tails are as fat as a basin.

The residences of the people are all built with layers of stone [footnote: suggests a kind of coral ...]; over them they have a roof of earth;; in some cases the layers of stone rise to three storeys, four or five chang in height[footnote: 1 chang was 40feet 9inches]. sometimes too, wood is used to construct a frame-work for storeyed residences; and all this wood of locally-produced red-sandalwood."

Ma Huan describes the more exotic animals such as the zebra, ostrich, lion and golden-spotted leopard in greater detail and with some amazement. Of the giraffe he writes, "The front part is tall and the hind part low, men cannot ride it ... it has the tail of an ox and the body of a deer". He adds, the lion's roar "is like thunder .. it is indeed the king among the beasts."

Before the Chinese ships left, the king ... "specially made two gold belts inlaid with jewels, a gold hat studded with pearls and precious stones, besides ya-ku and all other such kinds of precious stones, two local horns, and a memorial to the throne written on gold leaf; [and] he presented these things as tributte to the Central Country".

These brief extracts from the book are only to indicate the relative value of further study, for each Chinese word is picked over in the ample footnotes, comparing the innuendos of now one translation, now another. However, wildlife apart, even with just these few slender references to isolated Yemeni towns, what emerges is the astonishing similarity to life in Yemen today, though this was written six hundred years ago. Only the extreme signs of the conspicuous wealth of the "king", the possible better welfare of the people in that they seemed particularly clean and surprisingly well shod - and absence of the mention of ghat-chewing - can be highlighted as different, while the exchange of gifts and general attitude to hospitality has changed not at all.

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