Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2014
In his discussion of Southeast Asia's commerce with India and China, Anthony Reid remarks, ‘Situated between the world's two major sources of fine cloth—India for cottons and China for silks—Southeast Asia became internationally known as a consumer rather than as a producer of textiles.’ Reid's allusion to Southeast Asian consumption of Chinese silk and Indian cotton cloth implicitly raises questions about the nature of commercial relations between these two great Asian civilizations. While it is well known that India and China supplied much of the Southeast Asia and West Asia with cotton and silk cloth respectively, much less is recorded about the degree to which these ‘countries’ or regions sold their apparently complementary textile products to each other, and whether or not other additional natural or manufactured goods comprised an important segment of Indo-Chinese trade. While the available sources to study the commerce between South Asia and China in pre-European times are predictably fragmentary, they suggest a pattern of complementary trade relations in textile manufactures as well as a broader range of commercial exchanges.
In broad outline, Indian and Chinese sources suggest two things about Indo-Chinese commerce in textiles prior to the sixteenth century. These are, first, that China sold silk textiles to India throughout nearly two millennia from the early years of the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) to the period of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE), and did so even though Indians began producing the cloth in the early Gupta period and vastly expanded silk cloth production from the thirteenth century onwards.