The following is translated from the preface to Wang Dayuan’s Daoyi zhilue (A Synoptical Account of the Islands and their Barbarians) by its editor Su Jiqing, published in Wang Dayuan, Daoyi zhilue jiaoshi, edited by Su Jiqing, Zhongwai jiaotong shiji congkan series (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981, rpt. 2000).
written by Su Jinqing, translated by Sally K Church
Of the accounts that survive of long-distance maritime voyages during the Yuan dynasty, one is Zhou Daguan’s Zhenla fengtu ji and the other is Wang Dayuan’s Daoyi zhilue. Daoyi zhilue fills an important gap between Lingwai daida and Zhufanzhi [Song dynasty works described earlier in the preface], and Ming accounts such as Yingya shenglan [by Ma Huan] and Xingcha shenglan [by Fei Xin].
Wang’s work has 99 sections in which he describes places he visited personally. The 100th section quotes accounts by other writers from a work called Yiwen leiju (A collection of strange things people have heard), and is not based on his own travels. He also mentions other places within his 99 sections, thus there are a total of 220 places mentioned in the work as a whole and listed in the index. [The modern edition contains three indices: one of place names in Chinese, one of place names in English and one of trade goods, identifying the section in which it is mentioned.]
In his History of Communications in the South Seas, Feng Chengjun said, “This book contains many errors introduced through copying or printing” (p. 84). What he says is still a superficial observation. The arrangement of the places treated in Wang’s book is not entirely according to their geographical location, and there are occasions where he gives different translations for the same place name. This will be apparent to the careful reader.
Paul Pelliot did not annotate this work, and may not have read the entire work, but he urges the reader not to rely on the identification of place names too heavily (1936, T’oung Pao, p. 372). He did not mean that the book was totally unreliable, but was just warning his readers to treat the identifications with caution.
Not much is known about Wang Dayuan’s life. There are two prefaces to the work by Zhang Zhu and Wu Jian, which say that his style name was Huanzhang, and that he was from Nanchang. Zhang’s preface says, “When he reached capping age [guannian] he sailed on two maritime voyages to the Eastern and Western oceans”. Because in ancient times men reached capping age at 20 years old, this must mean he took his long-distance maritime voyages when he was just 20 by ancient Chinese reckoning (by which a person is considered one year old at birth). This would mean he was 19 years of age in the modern sense. So he must have been born in the fourth year of the Zhida reign period of Emperor Wuzong of the Yuan dynasty, or in 1311.
In the book itself, he records two dates: one is 1330 (the gengwu year of the Zhishun reign period of Emperor Wenzong) in the entry on Dafoshan (Great Buddha Mountain), saying that in the winter of this year he moored at the foot of Dafoshan (on the coast of present-day Sri Lanka), and the other is in the entry on Siam (Xian), where he speaks of the summer of 1349 (the jichou year of the Zhizheng reign period of Emperor Shundi). The entry on Siam is appended to that on Luohu. These two dates are almost 20 years apart, and it is suspected that there is something wrong with the second one – see the note on the Siam entry [zi cong lue]. Zhang’s preface says that Wang took two trips, but Wu’s preface does not mention the number of times he sailed, but only says he sailed for several years. Nowadays it is thought most likely that he made two trips, altogether amounting to 8 years.
We do not know the exact date when he returned from his first voyage, but he seems to have sailed throughout the Indian Ocean. During the Yuan period, one navigators whose name appears in the sources is Yang Shu, who was Wang’s contemporary. A funerary inscription for Yang Shu by Huang Jin, entitled “Haiyun qianhu Yang Shu muzhiming”, says that he left the capital in 1304 (in the 8th year of Dade) and arrived at Hormuz in 1307 (the 11th year), and that “on this trip, he travelled amidst the great wind and giant waves for five star-frosts [xingshuang], or five years” (Collected works of Huang Jin, Jinhuang Huang xiansheng wenji, juan 35). Therefore Wang’s first return journey must have taken 5 years, and he must have come back in the summer or autumn of 1334 (the second year of Yuantong, under Emperor Shundi). After he returned to China, he lived in Quanzhou or Nanchang for about three years. On his second journey he departed from Quanzhou, probably in 1337 (in the 3rd year of Zhiyuan under Emperor Shundi). He probably covered a smaller area on his second voyage than on his first, travelling only in Southeast Asia, and probably for three years. Most likely he returned to China in the summer or autumn of 1339 (the 5th year of Zhiyuan). Therefore, his two voyages took approximately 8 years. On his return Wang was 27, which accords with what he says in his own preface to the work, “In my youth I once took ship and sailed on the seas”. Thus we can construct a timeline of his voyages as follows:
1311 (Zhida 4, Emperor Wuzong) – Wang Dayuan was born.
1330 (Zhishun 1, Emperor Shundi) – Departed from quanzhou on his first voyage.
1334 (Yuantong 2, Emperor Shundi) – Returned to China in the summer or autumn.
1334-1337 (Zhiyuan 3, Emperor Shundi) – Stayed in China.
1337 – Departed from Quanzhou on his second voyage
1339 (Zhiyuan 5, Emperor Shundi) – Returned to China in the summer or autumn.
1349 (Zhizheng 9, Emperor Shundi) – He wrote Daoyi zhilue.
These dates are just estimates of course, and can be correlated to Pelliot’s research. (pp. 9-11)