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Tracing the roots: A journey of Chinese migration to Indonesia

Jakarta Globe - February 5, 2023

Anastasia Ika, Fadhlan Aulia Akbar. Jakarta – This Sunday marks the celebration of the Cap Go Meh festival for 2.8 million Chinese-Indonesians. Behind the celebrations that typically involve colorful dragon and lion dances, fireworks displays, and feasts, the festival also serves as a testament to the Chinese ancestral migrants who have come to the Nusantara archipelago and helped shaped its community and culture since prehistoric times.

Studies suggest that Chinese migrations to the Indonesian Archipelago are among the earliest in human history. A study by Hugh McColl and colleagues found that Chinese farmers began migrating south during the Neolithic transition, between 9000-5500 years Before the Present when rice and other cereals were domesticated.

These migrants were divided into two groups, those who migrated by land and those who migrated by sea. The study found that the Chinese migrants shared an ancestral lineage with people in the Peninsular Malaysia region and contributed to the spread of Austroasiatic and Austronesian languages.

Those who migrated by land are believed to have contributed to the expansion of the Austroasiatic languages, while those who migrated by sea are linked to the spread of the Austronesian languages.

Archaeological findings also suggest that the Bacson culture in Vietnam and Central Halmahera in North Maluku Province had technology transfer and cultural intermingling with their surrounding communities.

The kingdoms and colonial eras

The oldest record of Srivijaya in the Indonesian Archipelago was made by the Buddhist monk I-Tsing, also known as Yi Jing or I Ching.

I-Tsing journeyed from China to India to study Buddhism in the seventh century. During his travels, he boarded a merchant ship along the sea trade routes and made two stops in Srivijaya, which he referred to as "Shih-li-fo-Shih."

I-Tsing stayed in Srivijaya for six months between 671-672 AD, and then again for many years from 685-689 and 689-695, before returning to China. During his time in Srivijaya, he reproduced Buddhist texts obtained in India and documented his travels.

Before I-Tsing, there was another Chinese traveler, Bhikkhu Fa Hien, who traveled overland to India in 400 AD. During his return journey to China, Fa Hien stopped at Java Island, but did not mention any details of the island in his book, "A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms."

Victor Purcell, a British historian, categorized the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian Archipelago into three stages.

In the first stage, during the kingdom period, various kingdoms ruled the archipelago and the Chinese sailors settled in coastal areas. For example, ethnic Chinese colonies were established in Java during the reign of King Airlangga of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Kahuripan (1009-1042).

In the second stage, with the arrival of European fleets in the 16th century, Chinese migration to the Indonesian Archipelago increased, largely for trade purposes, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Chinese traders temporarily settled in several Java and Sumatra coastal cities and cultivated agricultural land and pepper in the forests.

The third stage occurred under Dutch colonial rule when Chinese settlements began to emerge in West Kalimantan, the East Coast of Sumatra, and the northern coast of Java. Pramoedya Ananta Toer also narrates this history in his book "Hoakiau in Indonesia".

Ma Huan, a member of Admiral Zheng He's fleet, wrote about the Chinese settlements in Java during his travels with the fleet in the 13th century. Most Chinese settlers were from the Fukkien and Kwantung regions, mostly from Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese tribes.

Trader, laborer, and wanderers

Another attempt to describe the Chinese migration to the Indonesia archipelago was made by Wang Gungwu, a historian from Singapore. In his book "China and the Chinese Overseas." According to Wang, there were three main patterns of Chinese migration to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.

The first pattern was huashang or trading. This pattern of migration started with economic activities in Mainland China and then expanded to Southeast Asian regions. Buddhist monks were among the earliest migrants in this pattern, arriving between the 5th and 18th centuries.

The second pattern was huagong or labor migration. This pattern became prevalent during the period of Western colonial rule in Southeast Asia when colonial powers needed Chinese workers for mines and plantations. Most of the workers in this pattern came from low-income families in China.

The third pattern was huaqiao or wandering migration. This pattern was characterized by the migration of teachers and journalists. Finally, Wang's theory also includes huayi or remigration, which refers to the movement of Chinese people who had previously migrated from Mainland China back to their home country. These individuals came from a variety of professions, families, and educational backgrounds.

Source: https://jakartaglobe.id/lifestyle/tracing-the-roots-a-journey-of-chinese-migration-to-indonesi