Taste of the Qing Court

Rahul Goswami (Cochinchina) / 2 August 2014

Sea cucumber and birds’ nest made a sultan rich and kept chieftains busy

WHEN THE cry went up a few years ago that the People’s Republic of China was importing cereals, meat, fish, and fruit in ever larger quantities the question began to make the rounds in international policy circles: who will feed China? Of course, China feeds itself, for the most part, and for the part that it does not, it looks to South-East Asia. This is something of a tradition, and has been observed from at least the time of the middle period of the Qing era (which was the last of China’s royal dynasties).

Many types of exotic foods from the great archipelagos of Southeast Asia are mentioned as being standard fare of Chinese imperial cuisine by the mid-18th century. Chinese demand for these fabulous foods (which soon caught the interest of the European concessionaires seeking to increase their trade with imperial China) encouraged both the establishment and the growth of trade networks in the archipelagos of modern-day Philippines and Indonesia. To take advantage of the Chinese demand new entrepôts emerged, especially in the area of the Sulu sea and Borneo. Inside the boom, the island of Jolo became a major centre for cross-cultural trade and the sultanate of Sulu Sultanate flourished, and with it so did the Taosug (the people of the current) who inhabited the Sulu islands.

The Chinese sailed to the Sulu Sea southward from the Philippines (where they already did much trade), and they also navigated across the South China Sea through the Palawan passage. The Bugis mariners — who competed for the Chinese market with the Sulu sultanate — sailed north through the Celebes sea into the same sea to secure the same prized commodities. What the Qing merchants sought at Jolo and from the fisheries and forests of Sulu archipelago and sea were ‘tripang’ (sea cucumber), pearls and birds’ nests. Their suppliers were the Taosug traders — mostly coastal ‘datus’ (chieftains) — who mobilised their factions throughout the region to deliver the products, and whose power and wealth grew together with the development of the trade.

The two commodities found in the Sulu Sea and in its islands — ‘tripang’ and birds nest — fuelled Chinese desire for these products and so changed the ecological history of the Sulu Sea because of the impact they made on the tastes, variety of dishes and extravagance of Qing court life. A first class imperial banquet served by the emperor or empress would offer 34 varieties of meat, fish and fruit. The chain of commerce that led backwards from those elaborate and colourful banquets was long and no less entertaining.

‘Tripang’ is a tasteless substance, usually cooked in a rich meat stock and valued for its texture as a food and for its alleged aphrodisiacal qualities. Dotting the gulfs, bays and reefs of the Sulu and Celebes seas were fleets of sailing vessels from Jolo and elsewhere which each year sailed to collect cargoes of ‘tripang’ throughout the zone for the kitchens and banquet halls of Qing China. Diving trips involved hundreds of small craft and lasted several months at a time, which we know of thanks in part to the meticulous historical investigations by James Warren, whose seminal paper, ‘The Global Economy and the Sulu Zone: Connections, Commodities and Culture’, describes the strangely-themed but thriving economies of food practiced by imperial China.

The wilderness of Borneo was the environment that supplied the other specialty for the China trade. Birds’ nest, collected primarily from limestone caves, were obtained by thousands of local specialists and slaves who took commissions from their Sulu masters. The nests belong to tiny golden shrikes, a bird which abounds in east Borneo. The nests were usually attached to the sides and roofs of caves, in incredible quantities and in seemingly inaccessible spots. These caves and shelters were often part of limestone cliffs over hundreds of feet high – the enormous Gomantan caves, near the Kinabatangan river and two days’ journey from Sandakan Bay were perhaps the best known.

The nest gatherers in their thousands erected light scaffolding and ladders of bamboo and cane all over the caves, using which they pursued their hazardous occupation. The extraordinary business was divided amongst the cave pillagers, who collected them at great risk, the Taosug river lord, and the Sultan of Sulu, who supervised the trade with the Qing merchants. Upon the curious collection of two exotic foods was, for a lengthy period until the early 20th century, a roaring trade South-East Asian business conducted from little-known seas to a mysterious imperial court.

The author is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia