Webinar on “the Thalassocracy of Longyamen During the 13th-14th Centuries With Evidence From Historical Sources and the Empress Place Excavation in Singapore”

In the first webinar of Temasek History Research Centre, Dr Tai Yew Seng discussed the politics and trading patterns of Temasek.


Thursday, 14 May 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar delivered by Dr Tai Yew Seng who is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Temasek History Research Centre. Dr Tai is a ceramic archaeologist who had participated in numerous projects in China, Kenya, Indonesia, and Singapore. Dr Michael Flecker moderated the session.

Using clues from the ancient writings of Wang Dayuan and Zhao Rukuo, the Mao Kun map, together with physical evidence from archaeological digs in Singapore, Dr Tai Yew Seng sheds light on the type of civilisation present in ancient Singapore during the 13th – 14th centuries. With Dr Michael Flecker as moderator of the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In summary, Dr Tai presented archaeological and text-based evidence to suggest that ancient Singapore – commonly known as Temasek – displayed traits of a thalassocracy, and that it came into existence two centuries earlier than conventionally believed. Dr Tai also attempted to reconcile differing opinions on the origins and meanings of “Longyamen” and “Lingyamen”, and concluded that they referred to Temasek. In addition, Dr Tai highlighted aspects of trade volume, defense, and foreign affairs over three centuries of its existence.

Dr Tai began by analyzing Chinese trader Wang Dayuan’s 14th century text description of Singapore. He argued that Wang, although well-travelled, had failed to understand the thalassocratic culture of the region. Wang’s perception of maritime plunder in the Singapore Strait may have, in fact, been acts of war between Siam and the inhabitants of Singapore – events that were trivialized by many as mere piracy.

Dr Tai noted that Zhao Rukuo’s (Quanzhou port authority) 13th century text description of the Srivijaya Empire reflected the use of naval supremacy to protect and expand its economic interests – a thalassocratic hallmark that may have shaped ancient Singapore and subsequent maritime powers in the region. Dr Tai argued that what appeared to be piracy (as described by Wang and many others) was open to question and deserved further study.

Contemporaneous documents had mentioned “Lingyamen” and “Longyamen”, which later voyagers and researchers identified as two different locations in or near Singapore. By analyzing the similar sounding words used in Zhao and Wang’s book with the Quanzhou working language, Dr Tai surmised that both names found in the Chinese records had, in fact referred to Singapore. As for the “Cemaxi” (a variant of “Temasek”) found in the Vietnamese records, by analyzing the consonant properties of the various forms of the first characters of Temasek used in Vietnamese, Mandarin, and the Hokkien (the language spoken in Quanzhou), Dr Tai suggested that the names found in the Vietnamese Annals were in fact “Tien-ma-sek” in Hokkien, a third variant of “Temasek” in Chinese characters. This apparent ‘mistake’ may have caused confusion amongst the scribes of the Vietnamese Annals and researchers.

Additionally, Vietnamese historical records reflected the political links between the rulers of Singapore and Vietnam at least half a century before any known Chinese record of Temasek. This political alliance could be an attempt by the ruler in Singapore to counter the Siamese threat. At the same time, Dr Tai suggested that trading activities in Singapore began much earlier – from the 12th century and not the 14th century as commonly believed by researchers. From artefacts recovered at the Empress Place excavation in downtown Singapore, Dr Tai identified stamped impressions on ceramic wine jars that could be dated to circa 12th century. The archaeological artefacts from Empress Place offer substantial evidence for asserting that Temasek’s trading activities may be dated back to the 12th century.

Large quantities of 12th century Guangdong stoneware ceramics, 13th century Fujian wares, as well as later 14th century Longquan and Jingdezhen porcelain wares identified in Dr Tai’s sample set indicated that the port settlement remained prosperous over three centuries. Port documents by Zhao in the 13th century also indicated that there was substantial trade volume between Quanzhou port and Srivijaya, and a large proportion of goods were unloaded at Lingyamen (Singapore). This meant that Singapore was a bustling port with an impressive handling capacity. Dr Tai also outlined its defence capabilities and diplomatic links with China. Subsequent warfare and political instability in China and the region may have resulted in the decline of trade with Singapore as evidenced in the archaeological record.

This webinar attracted 164 participants, many of whom were members of ISEAS, government agencies, the public, and universities, and research organizations from around the world. A lively Q&A session showed strong interests in the archaeological data and its chronological and spatial implications. The audiences were also eager to find out more about the socio-political orientation of ancient Singapore.

This webinar attracted over 160 participants from various backgrounds, including government agencies, the public, and universities, and research organizations from around the world. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)