SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
Commodity markets and their traders ignore history. They follow the recent history of trading daily averages, the trends over a quarter, changes after the announcement of a shift in policy, and so on. But they have no time for history, which is a shortcoming of a generation of traders, financiers, bankers and speculators the world over. The older cadre of traders and speculators in gold may be keeping an eye on the goings-on at the Shanghai Gold Exchange, while sending some underling to trot off to the nearby library to take notes, the old-fashioned way. Those interested enough would do this because the gold lore within those volumes printed in Vietnamese, Thai and likely some Mandarin too is still to be found in the original only.
But the present sees with some puzzlement that the prices for gold have dropped, as the anxiety-ridden young trader complains, to levels that are nearly the lowest in four years (as if four years was a long time). Worse still, in the view of young traders, buyers of gold in China (which is now as a country the world’s largest purchaser of the metal) have not been tempted by the relatively low prices to overcome their forbearance and depart for the nearest jeweller’s store, to line their sagging pockets with yet another ounce. Because they tend to shun history (perhaps for no reason other than history is not a tradeable commodity) they are the poorer for relevant knowledge.
Historical sources inform us that the Chinese of old knew much about and were impressed by the quantities of gold available in South-East Asia, for one of the earliest recorded descriptions of the pre-Angkor Funan empire was written by Chinese emissaries who visited Funan during the Jin Dynasty (in the years 265 to 419 of the common era).
Mention tax and our metal traders of today may glance up from their hyperactive smartphones, for the administrator of old Funan had imposed a tax on gold, suggesting that the metal was readily available, if not locally produced. An early Chinese text, known as ‘The History of Southern Ch’i’ (considered to have been written in the fifth century) observed with some admiration that “the inhabitants of Funan make rings and bracelets of gold and plates of silver”. But, very similar to the caution with which careful investors treat the ‘advice’ of market ‘experts’ today, there was exaggeration and outright untruthfulness in the accounts of South-East Asia of half a millennium and more ago. Historians have found, after a great deal of argumentation, that the Javanese embassies to China in the latter half of the 9th century refer to Java as rich in gold whereas Java was quite devoid of any gold deposits and instead imported the raw metal possibly from neighbouring Malaya, Sumatra or Borneo (gold was still being mined there in the 19th century). There’s plenty of evidence for this. In the 14th century, one of the several titles borne by the Sumatran ruler Adityavarman was ‘Kanakamedinindra’, which has been interpreted to mean landlord of gold. What Java certainly did have at the time were goldsmiths, and it is clear from the archaeological evidence that this culture had developed a sophisticated gold working technology, which relied on the importing of substantial quantities of metal. It would pain the descendants of those Javanese goldsmiths perhaps as much as the great-grandchildren (many times removed) of Adityavarman that today, those who fix a beady eye on the indices of the Shanghai Gold Exchange (the world’s biggest platform for physical trade of gold) prefer their gold in the unimaginative shape of gold coins rather than delicately worked jewellery.
Gold there was aplenty in South-East Asia of old, and considerably more so the many diverse accounts indicate than satisfied the questing diarists of the Jin dynasty. Gold beads from the Lopburi site in central Thailand have been found; hammered sheet gold remnants are said to originate from a site near Battambang, west of Angkor in Cambodia; in 1999 Iron Age gold items, which are said to have included a bronze helmet inlaid with gold and gold jewellery, were plundered from the cemetery site of Phum Snay, north of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia. Gold beads were also found from Khao Sam Kaeo, in eastern peninsular Thailand; and perhaps most impressive of all, at the site of Oc Eo, considered an early commercial centre in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, is the earliest evidence of a gold workshop. For the present, bullion investors wait and watch China’s appetite for gold, alas unmindful of the long history that once beckoned curious emissaries to fabled Funan with its distant glitter.