The Chinese Presence in Ancient Myanmar, (Burma) has a long and colourful history. It is known that in the early part of the first millennium that Chinese traders traveled through Myanmar to the Gulf of Muttama (Martaban), in lower Burma where there was a lively trade route to and from India across the Gulf of Martaban. Even before the Christian Era in the second century BC Chinese records refer to a kingdom in what is now Upper Burma and a trade route through the mountain passes of Southwest China linking to Burma, Central Asia India and the Indian Ocean.
The Pyu, a Tibeto-Burmese tribe who founded several city kingdoms in the Irrawaddy Valley prior to the rule of Anawrahta, (1st King of Pagan, coming to the throne in 1044 AD), possibly engaged with the Chinese through trade and exchange of cultures for several hundred years before his rule, and that some smaller states in Burma from the Tang up until the Song Dynasty did likewise.
During the reign of King Anawrahta Buddhism was adopted as the main religion of Myanmar there was a flurry of activity and the Pagan Empire emerged with hundreds of stupas and temples being built to honor the Buddha, as well as a popularity for Buddhist iconography.
THE CHINESE IN ANCIENT BURMA
In this excellent paper written by Bob Hudson in 2004 “The archaeological landscape of Upper Burma to AD 1300” he writes about the existence of the Chinese in Myanmar.
Excerpt from his writings: Ref: page 36
“Chinese historians and geographers began to mention the territory that is now Myanmar as early as the second century BC, focusing on the Pyu kingdom(s) and people. There are references to overland trade or pilgrimage routes linking China, Upper Burma and India from 128 BC, to Pyu migrants settling in Yunnan (before AD 76), to a Buddhist kingdom, Linyang (nominated by Luce as the first textual mention of Buddhism in association with Burma) in the first half of the 3rd century, to a route from Yunnan to the Pyu kingdom (before AD 290), to a “civilised people” called the P’iao (before AD 420) and again around AD 524, to Linyang (Beikthano, or Vishnu City).
Gordon H. Luce’s “Old Burma, Early Pagan” Volumes 1, 2 and 3 can be viewed here
During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) a Pyu capital, Shilichadaulo (Sriksetra) was mentioned in AD 646, 648, around 675 (the latter two in relation to Chinese Buddhist pilgrims), and 691. The overland trade route between Yunnan, Burma and India was described in detail in AD 810. Poems of the early 9th century describe performances by Pyu artistes at Chang-an, the Tang capital, in AD 800 and 801-802.
Later historical compilations the Man shu, or Book of the Southern Barbarians (AD 863), the Jiu Tang shu or Old History of the Tang Dynasty (AD 945) and the Tanghuiyao or Important Documents of the Tang (AD 961) all refer to the musicians’ visit of AD 801-802. The Xin Tang shu or New History of the Tang Dynasty contains a detailed description of the Pyu kingdom, even listing the songs performed by the Pyu on their visit to Chang-an.
During the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), missions to the Song court from the P’u-kan kingdom in AD 1004 and 1106 are recorded in the Zhu fan shi or Description of Foreign Peoples of AD 1225. There is a record of missions from Bagan and Dali, including the presentation of gifts and Buddhist scriptures, to the Southern Song court in AD 1136. The name Pugan appears for the first time in Chinese records in AD 1178. An inscription of AD 1278 describes an incursion by the Bagan army into Yunnan.
From the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1279-1368) the Yuan wen lei or Collection of Literary Works of the Yuan (AD 1334) contains a detailed account of the wars between the Yuan and the Burmans in the period AD 1271-1301 (Pelliot 1904; Luce 1924: 137; Luce 1932, 1937, 1961; Luce 1969: 8, 95-96, Vol 1; Luce 1985: 47-108; Sun Laichen 1997: 9-20; Bhattacharyya 1998: 157-172; Chen Yi-Sein 1999: 65-90).
On page 37 – he mentions the presence of Mongoloid tribes in upper Burma, is it possible that this stone stele of the Maitreya could have its origins in this area, I say this because the wide set upwards slanting eyes and eyebrows that are barely arched could be of a Chinese or Mongoloid appearance, although the mouth is similar to those seen on some Burmese statues. The full rounded halo is also not typically seen on Burmese statues and is seen more frequently in Chinese Buddhist iconography from early times.
Although today the halo has been given some importance on modern Buddha statues in Burma in the form of glowing flickering lights or glass mosaics.
In the first significant western history of Burma based on Burmese sources, which covered the period “from the earliest times to the End of the First War with British India”, Phayre (1883) was generous to the traditional accounts, relating the history as told in the chronicles in detail, though at the same time pointing out their legendary nature. He accepted that Upper Burma’s Mongoloid tribes, with a language related to Tibetan, had been joined over time by Indian settlers moving across from East Bengal, resulting in “the gradual consolidation of those tribes into a nation, through the instruction of a more advanced race”. He introduced the periodisation that is still generally accepted – “The Pagan period”- “the Konbaung period” etc- and treated the Burmese chronicles as a “rational record with certain magical and non-rational accretions”(Tinker 1961).
The full document “The archaeological landscape of Upper Burma to AD 1300” can be viewed here