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The Kingdom of Funan: The First Great Southeast Asian Empire

The smaller kingdoms develop­ing in the central peninsula came to be dominated by the Kingdom of Funan from the first to the seventh centuries AD. Funan, probably the first great Southeast Asian empire, apparently started out as a simple pirate base at Óc Eo, strategical­ly situated on the southwest coast of Vi­etnam today between the Mekong delta and the main east-west maritime trade routes.

History
By Colin Mackay

Sunday 13 January 2019, 10:00AM


An early Chinese account tells us that the Funanese were a “dark and curly haired people who went naked." According to Indian legend, Funan became a more civilised place when an Indian leader of high birth sailed east, married a Funanese princess and became king. He persuaded the Funa­nese that supplying and trading with passing ships would be more profitable in the longer term than attacking and plundering them.

Óc Eo then developed as the main trading port in the Gulf of Thailand re­gion, a central emporium for goods and traders from China, the Malay world and the Indian Ocean. Archaeological excavations at Óc Eo have unearthed objects there from as far away as Rome, India, China and Japan.

Kangtai and Zhuying, two third-century Chinese emissaries to Funan, noted the wealth of the Funanese and tell us, “They live in walled villages, palaces and houses … [the people] go about naked and barefoot. Their nature is simple and they are not inclined to­wards thievery… they undertake agri­culture… Customs and taxes are paid in gold, silver, pearls and perfumes… there are books and depositories of ar­chives and other things.”

Funan developed a powerful navy and army and attempted to control all trade around the Gulf of Thailand in­cluding the important trans-peninsular portage routes in the Malay Peninsula.

A third-century Chinese report tells of a powerful Funanese king called Fan Chu Man who, “by the might of his arms, attacked and subdued neighbor­ing kingdoms and all admitted them­selves his vassals … He had great ships constructed in which he crossed over the sea [Gulf of Thailand] and attacked and subdued more than ten kingdoms and expanded his kingdom in all direc­tions for some 6,000 li” (roughly 3,000 kilometers: Phuket Island is only some 1,000 kilometers from Óc Eo).

By AD 503, the imperial court of China officially recognised the King of Funan as the leader of all the “Nang Yang” (South Seas) and conferred upon him the title “General of the Pacified south”.

By the late seventh century, however, Funan was attacked and overrun by the Kingdom of Chenla, a large Khmer ag­ricultural kingdom to its north. Chenla was a more agricultural and less mari­time kingdom and it was ultimately un­able to maintain the control that Funan had maintained over the trans-peninsu­lar trade routes and the local kingdoms that had grown up around them.

A few existing Chinese and Arab writings leave us fleeting descriptions of these smaller central Malay Penin­sula kingdoms during this period of Funanese domination from roughly the first to the end of the seventh century.

Tun Sun

BRITISH INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL, PHUKET

Tun Sun seems to have been the early Chinese name for the whole central Ma­lay Peninsula under Funanese control. It was mentioned that this kingdom was centered on the Tapi River which empties into the sea at Surat Thani and that it controlled several of the main central trans-peninsular trade routes.

One third-century Chinese script tells us that Tun Sun was “An ocean stepping stone, situated on a precipitous coast 3,000 li south of Funan … it has five kings, all vassals of Funan … On the east, the kingdom was in commu­nication with Tongking (South China), on the west, with India and Parthia (Persia).”

Another third-century Chinese source, the “Tai Ping Yu Lan” chronicle notes, “Tun Sun was originally an in­dependent kingdom but King Fan Man [of Funan] subdued it.” A fifth-century Chinese chronicle, the “Fu-Nan Chi” tells us:

“Ton-sun is a dependency of Funan. In the country there are five hundred families of ‘Hun’ [merchants?] from India, two hundred ‘fo-te’ [Buddhists?] and more than a thousand Indian Brahmins. The people of Tun sun prac­tice their doctrine and give them their daughters in marriage; consequently many of the Brahmins do not leave the place. They do nothing but study the sa­cred canon, bathe themselves with scent and flowers and practice piety by day and night.”

Clearly these Brahmins, who in In­dia would have been celibate, were en­joying the comparatively more relaxed mores and lifestyle in Suvarnabhumi, which also calls into question their au­thenticity.

The same chronicle also states: “Tun sun is situated across the Gulf of Siam 3,000 li southwards of Funan. Among the inhabitants are many with white complexions.” It is unclear whether this means Malays, Persians, Romans or simply rich traders who did not have to work in the fields or on ships.

The kingdom of Tun Sun is, rather strangely, never mentioned in Chinese writings after the eighth century, prob­ably because Chinese travelers and of­ficials got to know the peninsula better and began to identify the individual kingdoms there after they had become independent of Funan’s overlordship and several of them began to send their own embassies and trade missions north to China.


Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Am­azon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com

 

 

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