Sumatra, Java and a Chinese wise man

This extract from Pyenson’s paper serves as addendum to a number of my earlier posts, including  ‘The “beastly” Lombardy Herbal – Part 2‘; Botanical and Pharma sections Note; and references to John de Marignolli especially those where he describes how in Saba, though suffering  from what he describes as “an incurable dysentery of the third species for something like eleven months, a disease such as they say no one ever escaped from with life” yet “God had compassion on me and spared me to relate what I had seen. For I did recover, by the aid of a certain female physician of that Queens, who cured me simply by certain juices of herbs and an abstinent diet. [1]


The following from Lewis Pyenson, ‘Assimilation and Innovation in Indonesian Science’, Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 13, Beyond Joseph Needham: Science, Technology, and Medicine in East and Southeast Asia (1998), pp. 34-47. Available through JSTOR.

The importance of Buddhist scholarship in Sumatra, especially, is revealed in Chinese sources, which provide firsthand commentary from the late seventh century through the Tantric revival of the thirteenth century. The earliest of these sources (by no means the earliest discussion of Indonesia in Chinese) is provided in the account of the Tantric Buddhist monk Yi-Xing (I-Hsing). Late in the seventh century he traveled from Canton to Palembang, in the kingdom of Srivijaya, where he spent six months studying Sanskrit in preparation for a longer stay in the Buddhist center of learning at Nalanda in Bengal. Some fourteen years later he returned to Srivijaya. There he stayed for four years, translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese. He went briefly to China, obtained supplies and four coworkers, and then came back to Srivijaya, where he wrote several memoirs on Buddhism. He eventually found his way back to his native land, where he drew on his foreign wisdom to distinguish himself as the most talented astronomer and mathematician of his time. Yi-Xing chose Srivijaya, on Sumatra, with its monastery of a thousand monks, as the best place for undisturbed creative work. What was known in Nalanda would have been known in Srivijaya, and this corpus almost certainly included South Asian and Hellenistic mathematical astronomy as well as medicine.  So few of Yi-Xing’s writings have survived that we are left to conjecture about the intellectual climate in what might have qualified as the world’s first truly ecumenical scientific setting – in Indonesia. Through the fourteenth century there were persistent trade and diplomatic connections between Indonesian and Chinese regents, just as there were with kingdoms in South Asia. The China trade no doubt continued after Kublai Khan’s unsuccessful invasion of 1294, the outcome of which saw the establishment of the Majapahit empire. For all the traders – Chinese, Indian, Arab, European- Indonesia was the source of highly valued raw materials. One may imagine, for example, an interest among Indian physicians of the Ayurvedic tradition in Indonesian plants; certainly Indian treatises were translated into Javanese, and words of Sanskrit origin were used by some Indonesian physicians. We know about Arab and Chinese trade in benzoin and other resins used for the medicinal value of their smoke; the spice trade is legendary.  Nor is there doubt about what the traders brought: Chinese ceramics are a common archaeological find, and the imported material was consistently superior to local manufactures. Foreigners lived permanently in large settlements at market towns (the fondachi that are the inspiration for university-type colleges from Nalanda to Bologna), but trade was by no means entirely in their hands. Indonesian trade embassies went as far away as Madagascar.”

[1] I continue to take my translation of Marignolli’s account from Yule, via the Silk Road Seattle site.


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