On the one hand, approval of U.S. leadership is at an all-time high for this century. At the same time, there appears to be far less approval of Obama’s China policy, at least among the neighbors that are most concerned about Beijing’s assertive policies.The Medieval Geography of Sanfotsi and Zabag

The Medieval Geography of Sanfotsi and Zabag


The great kingdoms of Sanfotsi and Toupo (Shopo) mentioned in the Chinese geographical works of Chau Ju-Kua, Chou Ku-Fei and Ma Tuan-lin are often located in areas of the West like Sumatra, Java and Malaysia. However, a close analysis of the texts give directions that point decidely further East. Thus, scholars like Roland Braddell and Paul Wheatley have looked further East, specifically to the region of Northern Borneo. Some other researchers, though, like J.L. Moens, from the Leiden school, M. Yang-ouen-hoei, D'Harvey de St. Denis and Austin Craig asserted that either Sanfotsi or Toupo were located among the Philippine islands.

Sanfotsi, Entrepot of the South

Here is a paraphrased excerpt of the translation of Chau Ju-kua's Chu-fan-chi by Hirth and Rockhill regarding Sanfotsi. Notice the directions given for voyages to that country:

"Sanfotsi lies between Chenla and Toupo. Its rule extend over fifteen chou. It lies due south of Tsu'an-chou. In the winter, with the monsoon, you sail a little more than a month and then come to Lingyamon (Lingayen?), where one-third of the passing merchants before entering this country of Sanfotsi.

A large proportion of the people are surnamed P'u (Apu?). The people either live scattered about outside the city, or on the water on rafts of boards covered over with reeds, and these are exempt from taxation.

They are skilled at fighting on land or water. When they are about to make war on another state they assemble and send for the such a force as the occasion demands. They appoint chiefs and leaders, and all provide their own military equipment and the necessary provisions. In facing the enemy and braving death they have not their equal among other nations.

During most of the year the climate is hot, and there is but little cold weather. Their domestic animals are very much like those of China. They have wine of flowers, wine of coconuts, and wine of areca nuts and honey, all fermented, though without any yeast of any kind, but they are so intoxicating to drink."

Chou Ku-fei has pretty much the same thing to say about Sanfotsi:

"Sanfotsi is in the Southern Ocean (South China Sea). It is the most important port-of-call on the sea-routes of the foreigners from the countries of Toupo on the east and from the countries of the Arabs and Kulin (Thailand?) to the west; they all pass through on the way to China.

The country has no natural products, but the people are skilled in fighting. When they are about to fight, they cover their bodies with a medicine which prevents swords wounding them (anting-anting?). In fighting on land or on water none surpass them in impetousity of attack; even the Kulin people come after them. If some foreign ship, passing this place, should not enter here, an armed party would certainly come out kill them to the last."

Examining the accounts above we find that Sanfotsi was to the south of China, and was, in fact, due south of the port of Ts'uan-chou. This is supported by an official historical document describing the trade routes of the South, which mentions the voyage from Sanfotsi to China.:

"Sanfotsi is an important thoroughfare on the sea-routes of the foreigners on their way to and fro. Ships (leaving it for China) sail due north, and having passed the Shang-hia-chu islands and the sea of Kiau-chi (Tongking), they come within the limits of China."

If we study the map below (not to scale), we see that Ts'uan-chou is located by most geographers on the South China coast adjacent to northern Taiwan. It is generally reated either with present-day Fuzhou or Xiamen at about 120 degrees East longitude.

Map gif

Obviously, if we head due south of Ts'uan-chou, we will be heading on a course for the Northern Philippines, or at least the northeast coast of Borneo. It may be that in this same area was the land known as Foshi by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, I-Ching. Foshi is often related linguistically to Sanfotsi, and it was reached by a 20 day journey to the south from the ports of Canton or Ts'uan-chou during the winter monsoon. This closely matches the description of travel to Sanfotsi. Here is the description of the voyage to Foshi by Kie Tan:

"From Kuang-chou (Canton) towards the southeast, travelling by sea for 200 li, one reaches Mount T’un-mon. Then, with a favourable wind going westward for two days, one reaches the Kiu-chou rocks (Hainan). Then southward, and after two days one reaches the Siang-shi, or Elephant Rock. Then southward after three days, one comes to Mount Chan-pu-lan, this mountain is in the sea at 200 li east of the country of Huan-wang (Tongking). Then southward, after two days journey, one reaches Mount Ling. Then, after a day’s journey one comes to the country of Montu. Then after a day’s journey one comes to the counry of Ku-tan; then after a day’s journey one reaches the territory of Pon-to’o-lang. Then after two days journey one comes to Mount Kun-t’u-nung. Then after five days journey one comes to the strait the Barbarians call Chi. From the south to the north it is 100 li.. On the northern shore is the country of Lo-yue, on the southern coast is the country of Foshi."

Toupo, Entrepot of the Southeast

Toupo was Sanfotsi's main competitor in the South China Sea. Both were great island empires that thrived on trade. Here is a description of the journey from Toupo to China from the official Chinese documents:

"Ships coming from Toupo go a little northwest but when they have passed the Shi-ir-tzi rocks, they take the same route as the Sanfotsi ships from below the Shang-hia-chu isles."

Thus, the ships from Toupo sailed northwest toward Sanfotsi, which after passing, they headed due north along with ships from that port. Chau Ju-kua states about Toupo:

"The kingdom of Toupo also called P'u-kia-lung is in a southeasterly direction from Ts'uan-chou, whence ships start, as a rule, during the winter, for sailing continually with the north wind, they arrive within about a month."

The winter monsoons mentioned for travel both to Sanfotsi and Toupo blow from South China towards the southeast, the opposite direction of the typhoons of the rainy season during the summer.

According to most Chinese geographical works, the journey from Toupo to the China coast first involved a journey of about two weeks heading northwest before reaching Poni (Panay?), then you resume a northwest heading arriving in a about a week at Mai (Mindoro), from here the journey still continues northwest before reaching Sanfotsi in a few days. From here you head either due north for Ts'uan-chou or a bit northwest for Canton. Clearly, Toupo was well to the southeast of the South China coast. J.L. Moens believed that the capital of Toupo was the city of Toubouk, the old name of Cotabato in Mindanao.

While Sanfotsi was considered the major port of the South, and Toupo of the Southeast, ports at Tongking and Cambodia were considered the major markets of the Southwest from the port of Canton near modern Hong Kong. Clearly from this we can see that both Sanfotsi and Toupo are located to the east of Cambodia and Tongking.

The Muslim Accounts of Zabag and Wak-wak

The Chinese accounts of Sanfotsi and Toupo started from about the 10th century and 5th century respectively, and both continued up until about the late 1200's. During most of this time, the Muslim geographers also wrote on the same area, basing their accounts on the tales of merchants, ambassadors, etc., to the region. Most scholars are in agreement that Sanfotsi was known to the Muslims as Zabag, while Toupo was known as Wak-wak.

Al-Biruni, a noted writer during this period who travelled to India wrote that Zabag was placed on the eastern side of the Sea of Sanf (Champa or coastal central/south Vietnam). This is confirmed by another famous geographer, Mas’udi, who stated Zabaj was oriented toward Khmer, which comprises modern Cambodia and South Vietnam, as Ceylon is oriented toward Madurai in South India. It was known as an island rich in gold mines.

Mas'udi noted that this kingdom had on its east side an ocean of unknown extent, which was basically the same as the Great Eastern Ocean-Sea of the Chinese. The latter ocean was also located to the east of Sanfotsi and Toupo, and it was here that the weilu was located, where waters began to go "downward." It is interesting to note that the Muslim writers mention some interesting flora and fauna when describing the main island of the kingdom of Zabaj. Among them were the dwarf buffalo, the python and the giant camphor tree. Now the dwarf buffalo must be either the tamaraw of Mindoro, or the anoa of Celebes. The python is native to both the Philippines and Borneo, as are the giant camphor trees, although these are more common in Borneo.

The Muslims had much to say about these islands but we will confine ourselves to a few quotes:

"In the sea of Champa (off central/south Vietnam) is the empire of Maharaja, the king of the islands, who rules over an empire without limit and has innumerable troops. Even the most rapid vessels could not complete in two years a tour round the isles which are under his possesssion. The territories of this king produce all sorts of spices and aromatics, and no other sovereign of the world gets as much wealth from the soil." (Mas'udi, AD 943)

"the eastern islands in this ocean (Sea of Champa), which are nearer to China than India, are the islands of Zabaj, called by the Hindus, Suvarnadvipa, i.e. the gold islands*... because you obtain much gold as deposit if you wash only a little of the earth of that country." (Al-Biruni, 1030 AD)

"On its shores (i.e. of the sea of Sanf or Champa), are the dominions of a King called Mihraj, who possesses a great number of populous and fertile islands, covered with fields and pastures, and producing ivory, camphor, nutmeg, mace, clove, aloeswood, cardamom, cubeb..." (Idrisi, 1150)

"The gold is plentiful, the horse bits, the chains and necklaces of monkeys, dogs and other beasts are of gold. The chiefs used golden bricks for their houses and forts and official decrees are engraved upon golden paper." (Hordadzbeh)

"Some people told me they had seen a man who had been to Wak-wak, to do business there. He had told of the riches of the country and the islands. I do not mean that their country is so important, but that the people of Wak-wak are numerous. Among them are men who look like Turks. Of all God's creatures none are more capable or clever in the arts; but they are sly, cunning, deceitful and very quick and knowledgeable in everthing they undertake." (Shariyar, 10th century)

*On the subject of the gold of Wak-wak, Pigafetta stated that when he reached the Philippines that even the common people had massive gold ornaments and that everyone ate from gold plates and partly covered their houses with gold. The Philippines still has world-class gold reserves.


Most of the translations of Chinese texts are quoted from Hirth and Rockhill, while the translations of Muslim texts come mostly from Majumdar.

CHAU JU-KUA, Chau ju-kua: his work on the Chinese and Arab trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries : entitled Chu-fan-chi, translated from the Chinese and annotated by Friedrich Hirth and W. W. Rockhill. Taipei : Literature House, 1965.
MAJUMDAR, R.C., The history and culture of the Indian Peoples, Bombay, 1951.
__,Suvarnadvipa: ancient Indian colonies in the Far East, Delhi, 1986.
MOENS, J.L., "Srivijaya, Yava en Kataha," Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol XVII, 1940.

  • Great Shambhala
  • The Kingdom of Prester John
  • The Spice Routes
  • The Medieval Geography of Sanfotsi and Zabag
  • The Location of the Kingdom
  • Medieval Housing
  • Building a Medieval Playhouse
  • Barns and Sheds
  • Medieval Gardens
  • Importance of a Garden Shed

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