Anthropologizing Prehistory: Mutual Trust to Mutual Distrust in Exchange

While writing my last blog post, Losing To Win, I felt my assertions were somewhat vague and lacking in substance. Even though I hate copying and pasting citations and passages in quotations, I always try to find papers or books I can cite to support my views in case push comes to shove.  I hate when someone accuses me of relying on my opinions and irresponsibly passing them around as facts.

So, I challenged myself to find articles by Chinese scholars and historians that could enlighten me more about the economy and exchange in the prehistoric Philippines.  I was so convinced that it was the Chinese who introduced complex business dealing that involved conflict, negotiation, and strategies that were unethical, exploitative, and dishonorable to the prehistoric Filipinos.

First, I found this message, China-Philippine Friendly Relationship Will Last Forever (October 1... posted on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Manila.  It seemed it was someone's speech. It said:

"China and the Philippines are friendly neighbors separated only by a strip of water and the two peoples have enjoyed a time-honored friendship and cooperation dating back to 1,700 years ago. History record tells us that Chinese started to come to the Philippines as early as the 3rd century. The Tang and Song Dynasties saw close trade and cultural exchanges between our two countries. Chinese began to settle down here in the Philippines in the Ming Dynasty. They were well received and lived together in harmony and amity with local people. Today, numerous Philippine people have Chinese blood in their veins, if their roots are to be traced. And it is no exaggeration at all to say that there is genetic connection between the two peoples."

I wished they mentioned their source.  Knowing that the Chinese government relies much on seemingly sound historicism in their foreign diplomacy and relations when they extend friendship or claim islands, I assumed what I read had an historical basis, but I was not satisfied.

So, I continued looking and found this one on Wikipedia: "Wang Zhenping (2008). "Reading Song-Ming Records on the Pre-colonial History of the Phili...Journal of East Asian Cultural Interaction Studies 1: 249–260".  I hit the bull's eye.  

Indeed the prehistoric Filipinos were honest and had integrity and word of honor as far as business dealing is concerned.  Zhenping wrote:

"When Chinese merchants of the Song dynasty arrived in Mayi to do business, they would anchor their ships
at an offi cially designated place (guanchang 官場) that would serve as a trading plaza. They were allowed to
disembark from their ships and mingle with the locals. They often presented white umbrellas to the local chieftain
as a way to build rapport with him. Trading practice in Mayi was unique and was based entirely on mutual trust.
The tribesmen approached Chinese ships on their skin rafts. They would make several trips to transport the
precious Chinese goods ashore; but they made no payment in kind or left behind anything as collateral. Total
strangers to each other at fi rst, they became acquaintances of their Chinese trading partners after they had made a
few trips to unload cargos from the Chinese ships. During this operation, not a single item would be stolen or
missing. Local traders then sailed off to other islands to sell the goods. They would take several months to return
to the trading plaza with local products. They then negotiated with the Chinese to determine the type and amount
of local products to be submitted as payment. Due to the long period of concluding the business, Chinese merchants
trading to Mayi were usually the last to leave the Philippines for home.18)During the Yuan dynasty, local merchants
became more sophisticated in trading. They would fi rst negotiate with their Chinese counterparts to determine the
values of the imported goods before unloading them to their rafts. And they closed a deal with the Chinese
merchants by paying them local products, the type and amount of which had been previously agreed upon by
them. One thing, however, remained unchanged: they were honest in all business transactions with the Chinese.19)"

Then something changed in the mutual trust between the Chinese and the prehistoric Filipinos.

"With business transactions conducted at a designated place and goods handled by local merchants, this trading practice at Mayi aimed at monopoly of maritime trade. Moreover, many of the imported goods were not consumed locally, but were transported and sold to other places. This consumption and distribution pattern of foreign goods indicated that some of the chiefdoms in the Philippines maintained inter-archipelago economic ties with one another.20)Through monopoly of China trade, the ruler of Mayi managed to exercise a degree of infl uence and control over such minor chiefdoms as Jamayan, Balaoyou, and Bajinong 巴吉弄 (present-day Busuanga). Chinese sources record them as “subordinates (shu 屬)” to Mayi.21)Together, they formed a “paramount chiefdom” headed by the ruler of Mayi. A “paramount chiefdom” was one that had a first-order center, which directly or indirectly controlled several second-order centers, each of which consisted of a number of local communities.22)The ways the Mayi chieftain managed the Chinese and their own traders offer us a good example of how a “paramount chiefdom” functioned during the Song period.

To break Mayi’s monopoly of their business, some Song-dynasty Chinese merchants sailed directly to Sandao
and Pulilu 蒲哩嚕 (present-day Manila). 23)They probably fetched higher prices for their goods. In the meantime,
they, however, lost the effective protection that the powerful Mayi chieftain had once offered them. Chinese
merchants now dared not go ashore after they had reached a tribal settlement. Instead, they anchored their ships in
the middle of the river and announced their arrival by drumbeats. Local merchants came to meet them with their
rafts loaded with local products. Goods now changed hands on Chinese ships. And the spirit of mutual trust was
lost. At times, the head of local merchants had to step in to mediate disputes over the value of goods. To smooth
the mediation, Chinese merchants presented him with silk umbrellas, porcelain, and rattan containers as gifts.
Distrust prompted local merchants to request that one or two Chinese stay ashore as hostages, and that exchange
of goods also be conducted ashore. Chinese hostages were allowed to return to their ships only after trading had
been completed. Chinese merchants developed a sense of insecurity as well. They often left a tribal settlement
after only a few days of trading there. 24)Taking hostage thus became a unique feature of trade. And this practice
continued into the Ming dynasty, albeit at a different time of the trading process and for a different purpose. The
Sulu chieftain, for example, took Chinese merchants hostage not during the trade negotiation, but after the business
had been completed. The purpose of this action was not to guarantee smooth exchange of goods, but to ensure that Chinese ships would come back next year to fetch the hostages, thereby bringing more business to Sulu.25)"

After reading  Zhenping's paper, many questions came to mind.  What caused the shift from mutual trust to mutual distrust in the exchange between the Chinese and the prehistoric Filipinos?  Was it the double-dealing of the Chinese?  Was it the later involvement of money or precious metals as media of exchange that changed the cultural values of the prehistoric Filipinos in relation to their economic or business dealings?  Were those prehistoric Filipinos influenced by the Chinese in their sophisticated conceptualization of value that brought forth complex strategy and negotiation in exchange? Was the shift a case of monopoly and/or low supply and high demand?  These questions were not answered in the paper.

My concluding question then is: can we use anthropology, specifically contemporary ethnographic accounts, to fill in the blanks prehistorians have failed to recount? In my next post, I will go back to my experience among my drug-dealing "friends" when I used to live adventurously in the streets.  I also observed the shift, from mutual trust to mutual distrust, in their drug dealings and underground exchanges plagued with bribes, monopolies, double-dealings, unfair deals and relationships, and other dishonest interactions.   







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Comment by John McCreery on August 9, 2012 at 6:41am

can we use anthropology, specifically contemporary ethnographic accounts, to fill in the blanks prehistorians have failed to recount?


The answer has to be, only very, very cautiously. I always recall an Arthur C. Clarke (I think it was) science fiction story about a team of alien archeologists who are studying a completely glaciated and utterly dead Earth. One day they discover a metal container. It is circular, less than a foot in diameter, less than an inch thick. Taking every conceivable precaution they open it and find inside a role of film. After painstaking research they determine that it it contains images and eventually work out how to show the movie. The movie is an archeological treasure trove illustrating in rich detail the customs and habits of the planet's inhabitants. One mystery remains, the enigmatic text at the end of the film, which they have no way of translating— "A Walt Disney Production."


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