Tracing Southern Orang Runcuk from the Lontar Archive of Qing Dynasty’s Legacy

By Rio Belvage

Tracing Southern Orang Runcuk from the Lontar (1) Archive of Qing Dynasty’s Legacy

A. Introduction

The historian Mee Ong lately found a pile of archives that are assumed to be the legacy of the Qing Dynyasty (1644-1911) while conducting a research in Hepo plateau (usually called Hoppo) in Jieyang. Those archives consist of pieces of lontar inscribed with Chinese letters and unrecognized scribbles that are predicted as letters from other land.

The lontar were found wrapped in a cloth within a damaged wooden chest worn out by time. Some parts that can be saved were studied by Mee Ong who then collaborated wih a philologist named Zarkelijk. After a course of radiocarbon dating (used to determine the age of an organic material) and philological examination, it is revealed that the unrecognized scribbles inscribed on those lontar originated from the late 17th century and have similarities with the form of letters inscribed on Orang Runcuk’s slates whose existence remains mysterious for some people, particularly for the researchers working in the Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies (CTRS).

According to temporary translation of those lontar that Mee Ong and Zarkelijk managed to proceed, the largest lontar reads as follows: “about a group of men who are unvirtuous, foolish, and lagged behind”. Meanwhile, on the other lontar those Chinese letters are interspersed with equations in numbers. By this time, numerous hypotheses have been posed in order to figure out the actual function of those numbers in the past.

In spite of the pros and cons of the finding and the methodological lacks that remain being acuminated in the next process, what Mee Ong has dicovered is certainly very valuable in completing the course of history from the side that has not been intensively studied during the researches conducted by CTRS. Therefore, departing from Mee Ong and the philologist’s finding as well as other archives, I tried to rearrange the description on the history of Orang Runcuk who resided in the Southern Zone, especially in the age of transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural tradition.


B. The History of the Southern Zone People

As a small group known to be accustomed to agricultural activities, Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone may be categorized as subsistence farmers in terms of modern economic development. The settlement flanked by Tanaujung Volcano and Pacakgilo Volcano was a land with certain fertility level that enabled human to survive by gathering plants and grains for food. Compared to other groups of Orang Runcuk living in the other area, where most of them still went for hunting and gathering as well as carrying out swidden agriculture as the main sources of life necessities, the technology developed by Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone had been far more sophisticated. Such progress was not unreasonable. There had been some myths that attached the life of Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone to their economic activities, before a group of blond men came and introduced themselves as Tuan Perentah Tanah Runcuk (TPTR—a sort of antecedent government in Tanah Runcuk).

Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone had the proper abilities to conquer the malignancy of the volcano and utilize the fertile soil such as by making terraced fields that might be classified as more advance than other groups outside the zone. Such abilities might be traced back to the Yangtze River valley in China. Because of its ceaseless stream, the river is known as one of the longest rivers in China and Asia lying about 6397 km long, that ends in Mount Tanggula in Qinhai to the Tibetan Plateau. On the history of Orang Runcuk agriculture will be reviewed further in the section of agricultural civilization.

We are back on the history of Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone. From the lontar being studied by Zarkelijk, the equations in numbers that were initially assumed as merely scribbles turned out to lead to conclusions that assisted one another. Those numbers were strongly suspected as the proof of trading transaction, a kind of contract of sale in the past. Thus, Mee Ong believed that there had been a contract of sale between Chinese citizens with the remote areas of Huangci(2).

If what Mee Ong adduced is true, it means that the civilization of Orang Runcuk was much more advanced than what has been imagined so far. The pieces of lontar found by Mee Ong originated from the range of time when the Dutch fleet boarded by de Houtman brothers docked in Nusantara for the first time in 1596. It preceeded the moment of six years later, after the fleet had already comprehended initial description on Asia’s topography and trade, when a trading company was established, consisting of some Bataaf merchants called “The Dutch East Indies Company” (Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, VOC) (3).


The ability of Orang Runcuk in adapting their life to the nature is a sure thing. Especially those living in the Southern Zone. While people from other zones were still relying on the availability of the game meat to survive, the people in the Southern Zone had recognized more progressive technologies, namely the ways to carry out agriculture, starting from cultivating the soil and making terraced field plots with wonderful shapes that were adjusted to the height and wideness of the ground surface around the mountain slope. Moreover, by such abilities, Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone might even live and earn more than enough. They also earned some more from the trade relations with white people—as Mee Ong stated—who, in the local mythology, were described as “clever men whose bodies are short and skin as white as cotton, and so are their manners”(4). Those are the people whom the name Saviour in the mythology of Southern Zone Runcuk was referred to.

However, things are interesting on the other side. In TPTR documents, the mythology said the other way around, and the white people were familiarly known as De Godelijk Bedrieger, or the God of Deceiver. Furthermore, in other aspect, allegedly due to the smooth relationship between De Godelijk Bedrieger and Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone, TPTR personnels then hired a bard to create some stories that in the future would be famously known as Het Oost Runcuk Sprookje van den Gulsigaard, or The Tale of Runcuk about the Greedy.


C.    Politics of Agriculture

The development of a complex social order according to social classification consisting of the classes of ruler and peasant that produces food—in the knowledge system of Western social scientists—is commonly termed as the development of civilization. Such terming has a quite long and complicated history; archaeological records show a great variety of processes that enable human throughout the world to encounter a transition from primitive human to peasant (Wolf, 1983: 5). Unfortunately, for Orang Runcuk living in the Southern Zone, things did not work that way. Due to the abundant yields they harvested in the area, Orang Runcuk were widely known to be insusceptible to lean seasons.

They did not need to encounter hard and complicated stages of development as described by Eric Wolf on the life of the peasant in Europe and America. Orang Runcuk were even able to survive for an entire season with the yields they produced in only one harvest season (if they did not exchange them with other needs such as salt and fish).

Hoe de Rijst onstond – De Spijze nooit verveelt is another mythology about Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone recorded by a Dutch folklorist when TPTR came and investigated the welfare sources of Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone. Sibinga (1948), in one of his writings, described the origin of paddy, that purportedly came from the ashes of a beautiful goddess. The goddess passed away because she had been continuously undermined by the ugly giant who fell in love with her. The giant was persistent, that after the death of the goddess, he kept disturbing her by transfiguring himself into weeds that interfered with the fertility of the paddy crops (as the incarnation of the goddess), his love(5).

Orang Runcuk’s limits in thinking hindered them from creating novelty in their life space. It includes the originality of the myth aforementioned that tended to be similar to myths in other places, for example, the myth of Dewi Sri (Shridevi) in Java and Goddess of Prosperity in an area of Nusa Tenggara Timur (East Nusa Tenggara)(6). Thus, it can be figured out that Orang Runcuk basically had a remarkable ability to adapt (mimetic desire). That is what made Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone could easily duplicate not only the mythological aspect, but also the system of production belonging to a certain established society from other cultures, only by following simple instructions demonstrated by one foreigner.

It has been mentioned before that the agricultural ability of Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone can be traced back to the Yangtze River valley in China. In the past, Yangtze River had its own civilization. The river stream supported the crucial trade route that connected Chinese people from the remote area to those living in the coastal area. Its significant existence did not only function as an economic trade route, but also as the spaces for symbolical exchange, particularly as the melting pot of many cultures from other nations. That is what makes Yangtze River is later also renowned as “The Mother of Rivers” from China.

According to Mee Ong’s advanced historical investigation, the relationship between Chinese people and Orang Runcuk who lived in colonies was initiated by a stranded Chinese merchant ship that due to a big storm was landed in the territory of Southern Runcuk River. This period was predicted as the beginning of the life change of Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone.

It was told that during the big storm, all ship crews were missing. Some thought that unidentified wild fish preyed on them. There was only one man surviving after the accident, and he was found dying. He was rescued by several Orang Runcuk who were coincidentally hunting on the river side. The foreign man was then carried to a hut of a shaman and he lived there for days. For a certain length of time, his life depended on Orang Runcuk’s game meat. At the time he was fully recovered, he inevitably had to follow Orang Runcuk’s way of life to survive.

One day, he went for a walk with a little child, walking down the valley to the mountain slopes full of springs. Looking at the surface of the Southern Zone, he was reminded of his homeland in the slopes of Mount Tanggula for a moment. However, in his homeland, near Yangtze River, should one looked everywhere, there would be green fields of rice. While in Runcuk, what he saw was not more than the sceneries of lush hills and dark forests that promised nothing to him. In the middle of his reflection, suddenly he was reminded of the ship carrying agricultural products that stranded him here. He immediately visited the shipwreck and found what he searched: rice and several kinds of grain that had been rotten partially.

Afterwards, he brought those grains to where Orang Runcuk usually gathered. Communicating in sign language, it was not too difficult to invite and convince stupid Orang Runcuk to cut some trees down, distribute some works, and open up some fields. He then taught them how to cultivate the field, build an irrigation system, and eventually modify a vacant field by planting the grains he had brought. Since that occasion, in a short time, the hunting tradition Orang Runcuk had been long accustomed to was replaced by agricultural tradition. Even though it was not entirely true, but Sahlins’ argument (1960) on primitive economy was presumably able to reflect on the indications of Orang Runcuk’s livelihood system changing, that in the end stimulated the changes of social relations and political formations in the Southern Zone. It was represented in his following statements;

“In primitive economies, the largest part of production result is meant to be used by its own producers or to perform kinship requirements, and not to be exchanged for the sake of earning profits. The consequence is that de facto, control over the means of production in primitive society is decentralized, local, and familial.

“Therefore we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. relations of enforcement and exploitation in terms of economy and other related social relations, namely dependency and mastership, are not created within the system of production;
  2. since there was no stimulation perceived from the exchange of agricultural products with most goods in the market, there was a tendency to confine the production to goods that could be directly used by the producers.”(7)

In the future, agricultural life sufficiently enabled by their fertile land brought welfare to Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone. The surplus of food reserves were usually given away to animals they used to help them in cultivating the land in the mountain slopes. When harvest season came, Orang Runcuk always celebrated festive feasts for nights. Commonly, every family brought out the entire food reserves they had. Within those feasts, Orang Runcuk would usually make a sort of offering to the statues of gods and goddesses as an expression of gratitude. Besides those feasts may be interpreted as an expression of social solidarity, for Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone, the food being offered therein was also the result of an achievement, thus the position of the food symbolically had a close relation to the tension of souls in each group of Orang Runcuk.

Considering the progress encountered by Orang Runcuk from time to time, the Chinese man who had been living for a certain length of time and able to speak in local language, after the growing season, expressed his desire to invite Orang Runcuk to make something that could float in the ocean—something they had never imagined even once. By following several simple instructions, such as: cutting down big trees which were initially consecrated by Orang Runcuk because they believed trees were the sources of life, chopping the logs, and then tied the logs one another until they formed a ship with four poles that were thirty fathoms long each. Later, this was the thing that would be recorded in history as Jung, derived from the word Chuan that means ship. In Hokkien, it is called Jun, and in Undang-Undang Laut Melayu (Maritime Laws of Melaka) it is called Jung, the cargo ship.

After spending some times outside the growing season, the ship desired by the Chinese man had completed and was ready to sail the ocean. The Chinese man invited several Orang Runcuk to load some surplus of food into the ship and proposed some strong persons to come on board and then sail to the Chinese man’s homeland. It was the beginning of the contract of sale between Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone and Chinese people, who would linger eternally in the myth of the Saviour—in TPTR document the Chinese were called De Godelijk Bedrieger, or the God of Deceiver.

The name the God of Deceiver within TPTR document was not without reason.  TPTR’s desire to inculcate a certain influence in Runcuk people who had many potentials in the Southern Zone had to inevitably meet their competitor: the Chinese people who had previously arrived there and built relationship with Orang Runcuk. The position of Chinese people in Tanah Runcuk was strengthened by the myth or Orang Runcuk’s assumption that called them as the Saviour.

Once again, TPTR’s nicknaming on the Chinese people as the God of Deceiver was based on certain reason. TPTR noted the foolishness of Orang Runcuk who were easily deceived with only foreign goods from the Chinese merchants they used to consider valuable, so that the relationship between Orang Runcuk and the Chinese people got closer—in other words, minimizing TPTR’s opportunity to enter and inculcate their power in the Southern Zone.

Such forms of competition, by igniting racial prejudices, did not actually take place only in Tanah Runcuk, where they were framed within the discourses or myths of the Saviour, the God of Deceiver, and Het Oost Runcuk Sprookje van den Gulsigaard or The Tale of Runcuk about the Greedy. In other places, racial prejudices were even let to heat offhand and then exploded in 1740, indicated by the great massacre towards Chinese people, de Chinezenmoord(8).


D.  Closing

Thus, through the previous explanation, we may figure out what made Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone have the ability to gradually charm a farm from a jungle and to change hunting and gathering tradition into an agricultural civilization. The change of tradition was certainly caused by the unexpected encounter between Orang Runcuk who were hunting and the Chinese man stranded near the river in Southern Runcuk.  An encounter which, as the time went by, was mystified by TPTR, the Chinese people, and also by Orang Runcuk themselves for the sake of earning their own advantages. While TPTR called the Chinese as De Godelijk Bedrieger or the God of Deceiver, and Orang Runcuk called the Chinese as the Saviour because of their merit and ceaseless giving in the past, the Chinese themselves (in the archive found by Mee Ong) called Orang Runcuk as “a group of men who are unvirtuous, foolish, and lagged behind”.

Certainly, there are some lacks within this writing. One of those, for example, limited data and records that became a specific challenge in the process of writing, that leads the description on the elements of ritual and soial relation to be less deep within the elaboration of this writing. To end this writing, let us take a look into the collective experience of Orang Runcuk in the Southern Zone. Through such experience, perhaps we can recognize the social portraits of nowadays, or merely the scattered traces of our ancestors from the past. This writing is fully dedicated as a footnote on a land that currently remains in a search conducted by the Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies (CTRS).



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