The Maldives have a long and rich history and although a great deal of it is unclear now, we do know that friendly relations between China and the Maldives go back hundreds and hundreds of years. A Chinese record from the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) documents a Maldivian delegation visiting China in order to take gifts from King Baladitiya to Emperor Kao-Tsung in 658 AD and again in 662 AD. In this document, the Maldives are referred to as “Mo-lai”.
This document is just one of many giving us information about the Maldives and Sino-Maldivian contact. The Maldives were a popular stop-over for sailors who had been travelling the busy Indian Ocean trade routes between Southeast Asia or China and East Africa. Therefore there are many travellers’ accounts from the time which contain descriptions of the Maldives and the trade which was taking place. Many Chinese travellers documented the trading of dried fish, coconut and cowry shells with China. In fact, cowry shells were used from Africa to China as currency until the 16th century. The Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta has also provided us with useful information about trade at the time. Ibn Battuta wrote in 1344 about the process of drying fish which was then exported to China. In 1355 he wrote about how the Maldivians collected the juice from a coconut and made it into an ‘elegant honey’ which was purchased by Chinese merchants. The Maldives was undoubtedly an important place for Chinese shipping; vessels from China bound for the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea would touch at ports in Sri Lanka, Maldives or southern India before carrying on with their journey.
Perhaps the most informative records about this time come from accounts from the Ming Dynasty (1377-1644 AD), when the renowned Chinese explorer, Zheng He, visited the Maldives. The exact details of his trips are a little unclear but it is believed that he visited the Maldives twice; the first time in 1412 and the second time in 1430. Zheng He’s records provide details about the Maldives’ products and customs, among other details. Chinese archives also inform us that in 1417 AD, the Maldivian King Yusof sent an ambassador to visit the Emperor in Nanjing, which was then the capital of China. It is also believed that the King sent an envoy to China a further two times during this period.
Further evidence about interactions between China and the Maldives come in many forms. John Carswell discovered many pieces of 10th century Chinese porcelain during an excavation in Malé. There is a book written by Francois Pyrard in 1611 about his voyage around the world, including a stop in the Maldives, in which he describes the dazzling wall-hangings displayed in the King’s palace which have been imported from China. He also mentions how the King ate from Chinese porcelain and that the soldiers and king’s officers carried daggers from Indonesia and China. Furthermore, there is a poem in Dhivehi dating from the 18th century which describes a fleet of 50 vessels arriving in China.