The Belt and Road – Part 01: Mirihana becomes new capital down the Silk Road

By Prof. Samitha Hettige | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020
FT The Belt and Road – Part 01:  Mirihana becomes new capital down the Silk Road

By Prof. Samitha Hettige

One Belt One Road (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the official name of the 21st century Silk Road initiated by the People’s Republic of China at the beginning of the 21st century. Since silk was the popular commodity that was traded along the ancient trade routes from Western and Northwestern China to the rest of the world along with porcelain and other products, it was commonly known as the Silk Road in the ancient world.

The Maritime Silk Road was an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. Chinese Admiral Zheng Ho who visited Sri Lanka in the early 1400s during his famous voyages along the maritime Silk Road contributed to stabilise our country and economy. It was during this period that Parakramabahu VI united the country for the last time before colonisation and selected Sri Jayewardenepura as his seat of governance and decided to reside at Mihiri – Ana (Present day Mirihana).   

This article is the first in a series that would update Sri Lankans about the developments along the modern Silk Road (OBOR or BRI) weekly.

Ancient Chinese rulers did their best to promote and protect products going out of China and coming into China from the rest of the world, and protect the traders who were involved, as it energised their economy. Recorded history of the ancient Silk Road goes centuries beyond the birth of Christ, even passing the times of Gautama Buddha. This road network which expanded towards the Middle East and Europe through the Himalayan range and the grasslands of Central Asia (present day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics) was not a safe pass for traders in most times. 

Therefore, Chinese rulers did their best throughout to ensure safety and security of the trade delegations. One good example is the services rendered by communities such as the Yuezhi, who settled in the ancient Silk Road to facilitate traders, and provided much-needed security for trade delegations. 

The Yuezhi community in fact had good control over the region and has helped initially to take the message of the Buddha to the Chinese empire. The Silk Road has also been a contributor to develop strong links between the Persian Empire (Most advanced Power base in the known Western world) and China during 6th century BC. 

The maritime Silk Road was initiated to expand China’s trade capacity in the 1400s AD. According to Chinese historic records, China had experienced uncertainty in the late 1300s. A Buddhist monk had joined the army, rose through the ranks and established the Ming dynasty. It was during the Ming dynasty in (1400-1470 AD approximately) that Admiral Zhen Ho was given the task of expanding trade.

 Considered one of the world’s most decorated seafarers, Admiral Zheng Ho sailed many voyages commanding a fleet of about 300 ships and 20,000 men. Historic evidence shows he visited Sri Lanka on a few occasions about a century before the arrival of the Portuguese, and had made a few notable contributions to stabilise the social, political and economic situation of our country, which was also passing a period of chaos and uncertainty at the time. 

An unbiased analysis would show that Admiral Zheng Ho left a lasting impact on establishing Sri Jayewardenepura as the capital of Sri Lanka and constructing expressways back in the 1400s. Some of his minor contributions are recorded in the trilingual stone plaque written in Tamil, Persian and Chinese, now on display at the National Museum in Colombo.   

The Silk Road was also known as the Envoy Road, as Diplomats and Envoys travelled through, connecting the power bases in Europe, Persia and Middle East with the power bases in the Far East. According to Chinese Archaeological findings, there are accurate records of about 1,400 diplomats who had entered China through this road network long before western colonisation in the 1500s. 

During the Han dynasty in 2nd Century BC, military diplomats such as Zhang Qian also contributed immensely to connect China with the world and contributed in establishing law and order in the Northwestern and Western parts of China. 

Chinese civilisation was the first to have an organised public service recruitment system according to historic records. In the 2nd century BC, it was the Chinese who introduced a competitive examination to enter public service. The candidates were tested for the subject knowledge on nine separate subject areas based on the teachings of Confucius. 

The answer scripts were rewritten by another person, so that those who marked the answer scripts could not recognise the candidate by handwriting. This clearly shows how concerned the Chinese rulers were in maintaining a system of high-quality administration that would benefit smooth trade. 

It is a notable feature in any society to have an efficient public administration system to strengthen the economy and to this date, we see political leaders from various countries talking about their contribution to strengthen their public services. 

Sri Lanka was connected to the ancient Silk Road through the Maritime Silk Road as mentioned above. By the mid-1400s AD, Admiral Zheng Ho died, and the Chinese rulers decided to recall the naval fleet that contributed much to the world economy. As a result, supplies from China to the Middle East reduced, increasing the prices of silk and other products in the European markets. 

The concerned European powers were ultimately forced to sail eastwards around the African continent, looking for silk, porcelain, spices, precious stones, etc. They had developed reasonable naval power by that time, although they were no match for the ships commanded by Admiral Zheng Ho. 

The absence of the Chinese maritime power resulted in the Portuguese initially arriving in Africa, India and Sri Lanka, thus renaming the ‘Lakdiva Sea’ around Sri Lanka as the ‘Indian Ocean’. Since it was economical and militarily feasible to get Silk produced in ancient Sri Lanka rather than going all the way to China, it is recorded that the Portuguese initiated a research project to grow Mulberry plants in a land closer to the present Thotalanga area in Colombo North, and tried producing silk with a few Chinese prisoners – but failed and abandoned the project. The abandoned land, thus remained as ‘Sedawatta’, as ‘Seda’ was the Portuguese word for silk.

The OBOR or BRI would offer many trade opportunities to partner countries such as ours. The competition among 28-plus Indian Ocean countries to grab trade opportunities that comes with the BRI is clearly visible at present. Sri Lanka can attract unprecedented economic activity and investment that comes with the OBOR or BRI using the Hambantota Port, the Colombo International Financial City, and especially the skilled, world-class human resource we can develop. 

As a country, we should be intelligent enough not to get distracted by various conflict-igniting forces, while our rulers should be smart to balance the two upcoming superpowers, namely China and India, to get the best returns for the country.   

“The future is encouraging and inspiring. Happiness does not fall from the sky. We shall establish a spirit to prevail and continue to immerse ourselves in hard work” 

– Xi Jinping.

[To be continued] 

(The writer is Head of Research at CINEC Maritime Campus, Malabe) 

By Prof. Samitha Hettige | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 24 2020

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