Secular Trends and Recovery from Crisis 1
John E. Wills, Jr.,University of Southern California
The modern borders of Yunnan province, roughly following those claimed but not always controlled by the Qing, include an important group of Tai people in the very tourist-friendly area called Xishuangbanna. The traditional polity of these people was on the outer fringes of loosely nesting polities that reached all the way to the Siamese heartland around modern Bangkok. But the Qing relation with Siam was altogether a matter of maritime trade and of embassies sent by sea. From the early 1400's on the kings of Siam, with their capital at Ayutthaya not far north of Bangkok, promoted and controlled maritime trade as a source of revenue that would give them a political edge over regional leaders whose main resource was levies of soldiers out of the populous rice lands. Chinese sojourning and settling in Siam could begin to fit in to Siamese society, with its rice agriculture, Buddhism, and substantial monarchy, without having to confront any differences as great as those they encountered in Muslim societies9.
The kings of Siam often employed resident Chinese merchants as Phra Klang, royal ministers in charge of foreign trade10. In the fifteenth century trade accompanying tribute embassies was the only form of completely legal trade in Chinese ports; thereafter it always was facilitated and exempted from many tolls. From the 1400's on, the Chinese authorities occasionally noted that the envoy bearing tribute from Siam was of Chinese origin. A very important feature of traditional Chinese views of foreign relations was a focus on the "Chinese traitor" (Han jian) as a key factor in any foreign menace, working from within to guide and collaborate with invaders or settling at a foreign court and advising it on strategy and organization. Chinese settled in Siam in the 1400's, when no Chinese legally sailed abroad, certainly were viewed with such suspicion by Ming authorities.
In the eighteenth century Qing rulers imprisoned some people who returned from long sojourns in Java, and rejected proposals of punitive action after massacres of Chinese there in 1740; those massacred, having forsaken the imperial realm to live among foreigners, were not worthy of protection. But others returning from overseas were tolerated, even when they came as tribute envoys from the sultans of Sulu11. And there is abundant evidence in the archive sources I read and in sources used by others that the Qing rulers were quite comfortable with the knowledge that many of the merchants coming to China on Siamese tribute ships and managing their trade on behalf of the King of Siam were Chinese, with Chinese names, not even bothering to hide behind exotic multi-syllabic Siamese names. In 1742-1743 these men were key intermediaries in the negotiation of an elaborate set of tax incentives for ships that would bring large quantities of rice from Siam.
This highly functional relation within the matrix of the tribute system was shattered by the fall of Ayutthaya to Burmese invaders in 1767. Several eyewitness accounts of the ensuing chaos reached Chinese ports and eventually the archives of the imperial court. Taksin, a Siamese provincial governor whose father was an immigrant from China, soon rallied resistance, including many others of Chinese descent, and pushed back the invaders. But when he sought recognition from the Qing court as king of Siam he was told first that he should try to find and install as king descendants of the old ruling house. When the Qing rulers were convinced that no such person could be found they recognized him as "lord of the country" but not formally as king".
The difficulty was that Taksin's envoys were not the only Chinese emigr¹s keeping Qing officials informed about the situation in Siam. Since about 1700 there had been an important commercial and naval base of emigr¹ Chinese at Ha Tien on the western edge of the Mekong Delta, almost on the modern Vietnam-Cambodia border, ruled by a succession of members of a family using the surname Mac12. In 1767 the current ruler of Ha Tien, Mac Thien Tu, gave refuge to two princes of the old royal house of Ayutthaya fleeing the Burmese invasion, declaring his intention to restore one of them to the throne of Siam. His naval expedition to Siam in 1768 accomplished nothing. Taksin, rallying his forces in Chantaburi on the eastern coast of Siam, worked all his connections among the many Chinese emigr¹s in the region to destabilize Ha Tien, and finally conquered it in November 1771.
In the meantime, Mac Thien Tu had sent four envoys to Guangzhou to present his version of events, including the legitimate rights of the Ayutthaya princes, to the Qing authorities, who had responded by sending at least three missions to Ha Tien to investigate. I have noticed no trace in the Qing documents on these events of misgiving about dealing with and accepting the information of long-time Chinese emigr¹s. The continuation of a legitimate succession in a tributary kingdom always was preferred as far as possible; surely this enhanced the appeal of the solution to the Siam crisis Mac Thien Tu advocated. It was only after the disappearance of this alternative that the Qing began to evaluate seriously the legitimacy of Taksin's claim. He finally was fully recognized as king in 1681, but within a year after that a coalition of his generals had deposed and executed him, calling him insane and unfit to rule.
The general who now emerged supreme in Siam became Rama I, the first king of the Chakkri Dynasty that still reigns. He had a Chinese mother, and reportedly had spent some of his youth as an adopted son in Taksin's household. But that does not entirely explain the extraordinary terms in which his accession was reported to the Qing court. In a document which needs further examination but which probably was prepared in Thailand in Chinese, he reports the death of his beloved father Taksin (penipu besar), and states that on his deathbed Taksin "exhorted me to rule with care, not to change the old order, to have care for our own sovereign land and to honor the Heavenly Dynasty"13.
The phrase I translate "sovereign land" is the very ancient sheji, "altars of earth and grain". If this document was prepared in Siam - it has a very un-Chinese Siamese seal on its cover (menipu cop mohor yang diberikan oleh Maharaja China Islam)- it must have been written by a well-educated member of the Chinese community there, and I suspect that it was a result of a decision by the Chinese leadership to conceal from the imperial court the kind of change of ruling house that had led to such long delays in full recognition after the fall of Ayutthaya. Rama I used the same Chinese surname as Taksin - Zheng, with all its echoes both of the eunuch admiral Zheng He and the Ming Loyalist leaders (sedangkan hari ini kita tahu Cheng Ho dan Maharaja ming dahulu adalah Islam). His descendants continued to use it and maintained active tribute relations with the Qaing until 1855.
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