By Awang Sariyan
The year 2019 marked the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Malaysia. Over the past decades the two countries have forged profound friendship in many areas, especially cultural exchange. Modern relations are enhanced by the history of more than 2,000 years of interaction and exchange between the two countries, as evidenced by records in many Chinese historical texts.
Friendship Since Antiquity
Chinese civilization and the Malay world established a solid relationship during China’s Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). The earliest bilateral exchange was documented in the Treatise on Geography, a volume of Book of Han. The work explained that the envoys commissioned by Emperor Wu of Han bartered with countries located on the Malay Peninsula during their trip to India. According to Book of the Later Han, Yavadvipa, an ancient state occupying Java or Sumatra, sent messengers to pay homage to China in the year 131 and received a handsome reward from the Chinese emperor.
After the establishment of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the rise of Sumatra– based Srivijaya Kingdom (today’s Palembang of Indonesia), interactions between China and the Malay world made new progress. The two sides strengthened trade relations while conducting fruitful dialogue on ideas and religious beliefs, completing remarkable progress in inter-civilizational exchange. Both witness and contributor to closer Chinese- Malay relationship, famed Chinese monk Yijing spent six months in the capital of Srivijaya to help promote the development of Buddhism. He translated many Buddhist scriptures into Chinese and authored books on the lifestyles and religious practices of the Malay people. Thanks to such efforts, the Tang Dynasty valued its relations with Srivijaya and considered it an important center of the Malay civilization.
Chinese-Malay relations grew even closer during China’s Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties, reaching a peak in the 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 1403 during the reign of Emperor Yongle, the Malacca Sultanate, a kingdom founded by Parameswara largely in the presentday state of Malacca, Malaysia, became the first country in the Malay world to establish diplomatic relations with the Ming, according to the History of Ming . Fruitful work in promoting political relations, trade ties and cultural exchange between the two major powers continued for centuries after.
Landmark events recorded in historical texts evidence rapid development of bilateral relations. One was the far-reaching ocean voyage made by Chinese diplomat and explorer Zheng He, known as Admiral Cheng Ho in the Malay world. During the reign of Emperor Yongle, the admiral was commissioned to make naval expeditions to countries in western, southern and southeastern Asia with a fleet of 100 to 200 ships as well as 27,000 to 28,000 officers, sailors and soldiers. The largest vessel in Zheng’s fleet carried 1,000 men and 2,500 tons of cargo.
Another major development was Malacca kings’ frequent visits to China. Parameswara and a royal party of 540 people departed for China in 1411. Three years later, Prince Megat Iskandar Shah, the son of Parameswara, visited China to inform Emperor Yongle that his father had died. He visited again in 1419. Sultan Muhammad Shah, the successor of Sultan Megat Iskandar Shah, made three visits to China in 1424, 1433 and 1434, respectively. The Malacca Sultanate and Ming China enjoyed friendly relations for more than a century between 1403 and 1521, highlighted by repeated high-level visits, close trade relations and extensive cultural exchange. A total of 57 diplomatic activities during this period were documented in the Chinese annals Ming Shilu .
Development of Malay Language in China
Civilizational exchange helped promote the development of the Malay language in ancient China. During the Srivijaya period, most Malay learners in China were Buddhist monks. After the language evolved into a sort of lingua franca in the Malacca Sultanate, it was studied and used by Chinese merchants as well. Of the 60 translation officers appointed by the Ming government to facilitate diplomatic activities, two Malay translators were responsible for foreign affairs of Malacca and Sumatra respectively.
With a mission of training foreign language specialists, the Bureau of Translators was founded by Emperor Yongle in 1407. The organization included eight departments covering many languages. Malay, along with Persian, Arabic and other languages used in Malacca and Java, was categorized in the department of languages spoken by Muslims. The bureau was renamed in 1748 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and functioned for more than 400 years before it was shut down after the First Opium War in 1840.
Compilation of bilingual dictionaries in China began in the 14th Century during the reign of Emperor Hongwu, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. In the 15th Century, a Chinese- Malay bilingual dictionary emerged as a result of the growing importance of the Malay language in China, helping facilitate trade and cross-cultural communication between the Chinese and Malay people.
According to the 1930s studies of British scholar of Chinese studies Evangeline Dora Edwards and Malay specialist Charles Otto Blagden, the first Chinese- Malay bilingual dictionary was titled A Chinese Vocabulary of Malacca Malay Words and Phrases . It is considered to include Malay vocabulary from the period when Ming China and the Malacca Sultanate established diplomatic relations in 1403 to the fall of the kingdom to the Portuguese in 1511. With each word followed by an explanation and pronunciation in Chinese, a total of 482 entries were listed and divided into 17 categories covering astronomy, geography, plants, animals, customs, history, literature and mathematics. The dictionary was initially complied for diplomatic purposes and served as an important reference work for history compilation until the late 16th Century. The development of the Malay language in ancient China demonstrated how inter-civilizational exchange profoundly contributed to language promotion.
Malay Language Education in China
As China endured political unrest and Malay countries became occupied by Western colonizers, interactions between the two civilizations were suspended for a long time before resuming in the 18th Century. At that point, the forms of communication changed dramatically. The Chinese people visiting Southeast Asia were no longer envoys sent by Chinese emperors, but ordinary people employed by tin mining firms run by Westerners or operators of their own businesses. During the period of the Federation of Malaya, the Chinese and Indians who settled in the country obtained citizenship and became a part of the federation, which was named Malaysia a few years later. Today, a quarter of the Malaysian population has Chinese origins. The immigrants enriched the local community in many areas including arts, festivals, food, clothing and religion, making unique contributions to regional cultural diversity.
In the early 1970s, both China and Malaysia felt an urgent need to renew their bilateral relations, which served their common interests. In 1974, Malaysia became the first Southeast Asian nation to establish diplomatic relations with China. Their political and economic ties have continued to strengthen ever since, while bilateral exchange has expanded to areas like tourism, education and culture.
The teaching of Malay has a long history in China. Over the years, Chinese higher education institutions have trained many students who now wield a good command of Malay and play roles in promoting friendly exchange between China and Malaysia. As early as the 1920s, a course on Indonesian, a dialect of Malay, was offered at the department of foreign literature of the National Central University (now Nanjing University). The course continued at Peking University after 1949. To this day, the Indonesian language and related studies remain a key realm at Peking University.
Thanks to the efforts of Professor Wu Zongyu, a trailblazer of China’s Malay language education, an undergraduate program focused on Malay was introduced at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) in 1961, followed by an Indonesian program at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies (GDUFS) in 1970. Around the turn of the century, Luoyang Foreign Languages College (now Information Engineering University) and Beijing Broadcasting Institute (now Communication University of China) started offering Malay courses in 1998 and 2001, respectively. In September 2008, a Malay language program was launched at Guangxi University for Nationalities based on the existing Indonesian program. More higher education institutions followed including Yunnan Minzu University in 2010, Tianjin Foreign Studies University in 2014, GDUFS in 2015 and Xi’an International Studies University in 2017. Hainan College of Foreign Studies began offering a diploma program on the Malay language in 2017 as well. Today, Malay is taught in numerous Chinese high schools as a foreign language course. At the collegiate level, a total of nine universities award bachelor’s degrees in Malay in addition to a diploma program offered by a college. Considering the rapid development of Sino-Malaysian relations, courses on the Malay language will be introduced in more universities, colleges and schools in China.
BSFU was the first Chinese university to offer an undergraduate program on Malay. On July 20, 1997, the China Malay Language Teaching Center was established at BFSU with joint support from the Chinese and Malaysian governments. The institution was renamed the China Malay Studies Center and inaugurated by then-Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2005, raising the development of the Malay academia in China from teaching to research. Committed to Malay language promotion in higher education institutions, the center has been serving as a Chinese hub for academic activities related to Malay language, literature and culture.
Another remarkable sign of the immense progress in China- Malaysia educational cooperation was the establishment of the Senior Visiting Scholar Program at BFSU, an honorary post jointly sponsored by the Chinese and Malaysian governments to recognize the university’s unique contributions to the promotion of the Malay language in China. Malaysian scholars who take the position are responsible for sharing the latest achievements in Malay studies, helping improve China’s academic standards for undergraduate and graduate programs, enhancing joint publishing and educational exchange and helping other Chinese institutions develop programs on Malay studies. Such scholars also serve as a key source of information related to the Malay world, especially Malaysia.
Thanks to the cooperation projects launched in recent years by China and Malaysia within the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, bilateral exchange has become even more frequent. Many Malaysian scholars were invited to various forums held in China and showed confidence in mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries. They have played an important role in presenting Malaysia to China.