Fei Hsin

Fei Hsin was one of the three officials who accompanied Admiral (Eunuch) Zheng-He during his voyages to the Indian Ocean in the early medieval period. His description of the Court of Bangla (Bengal) is an important source to reconstruct the history of medieval Bengal.

Born in 1388 in a family of humble scholars in the Kunshan district of Suzhou prefecture of China, Fei Hsin joined military service at the age of 13 and was chosen to accompany Zheng Hes third voyage (1409-11) in a military capacity at the age of 21. He also accompanied three other voyages, namely, that of Yang Min (1411- 14) and the fifth (1417-19) and seventh voyages (1431-33) of Zheng-He.

On his return home in 1433 he wrote a book in 1436 containing notices on various countries and experiences in the Pacific and Indian (called Western by the Chinese) Oceans. The title of his work was Shingocha Shenglan (The Overall Survey of the Star Raft); the 'Star Raft' being the ship that carried the imperial ambassador. It is not known when the book was first printed; its earliest version is known to have been published in 1544.

Fei Hsin's travelogue is about half the length of Ma Huan's, but within that limit he provides notices on forty-five places as compared with twenty-one countries described by ma huan. While 19 places are common to both writers, Fei Hsin gives accounts of twenty-six places which are absent in Ma Huan's travelogue; on the other hand, Ma Huan describes two countries which find no place in Fei Hsin. Fei Hsin is the first of the medieval writers to provide information, albeit at second-hand, of Lasa (probably at Muscat or near Bir Ali, 18.19E) in Arabia, and Mogadishu, Brava and Giumbo in East Africa.

Although much shorter, his book complements Ma Huan's on many points. Fei Hsin adds that in Sri Lanka a memorial stone was set up; king Alagakkonara was defeated and captured and the Chinese mission to Bangla included soldiers, received a ceremonial welcome at the custom-station of Chittagong and was lavishly entertained by the very generous Sultan of Bangla in his magnificent court at the prosperous capital of Pandua.

There exist many inconsistencies between the accounts of Fei Hsin and Ma Huan; for example, Fei Hsin reports that Phanrang (Panduranga) is a different country from Champa (central Vietnam), whereas Ma Huan's position is that it formed part of Champa. Again, Fei Hsin says that in Champa ten Chinese months made one year, although Ma Huan gives the number as twelve. In India, Ma Huan notices only one Quilon (Kollam), ie the Little Gelan (Xiao Gelan), whereas Fei Hsin seems to have known both Quilon and Cain Kolan which he names Da Gelan (the Bigger Gelan). As regards Bangla, no other Chinese traveller gives the capital's name as Pandua, and for a student of India China trade Fei Hsin provides excellent data about the exchange trade of China with other countries giving the details of payments by China in terms of silks, porcelain wares, gold and other objects.

Fei Hsin and Ma Huan are complementary to each other for knowledge about South Asia during the fifteenth century. [Haraprasad Ray]