Silk Road Blends Civilisations
The Silk Road is an ancient network of trade routes that connects East and West. For thousands of years, it was along this route that friendly economic and cultural interactions took place between China and Central Asia, West Asia and Europe.
The Silk Road is an ancient network of trade routes that connect East and West. For thousands of years, it was along this route that friendly economic and cultural interactions took place between China and Central Asia, West Asia and Europe. In the desert in China’s Western Regions and on the southeast coast of China, cultural exchanges occurred along the ancient land Silk Road and maritime Silk Road to promote peace and development.
Today, by building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit that are represented by the historical Silk Road are being promoted again.
From Xi’an to Samarqand
The historical Silk Road started in Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) in the east, and extended through Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang, the Pamirs, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and other regions all the way to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea (present-day Rome). It had a total length of some 7,000 kilometres, including 4,000 kilometres in China.
It was an artery that connected different parts of Asia for the purpose of trade, but was also an important route that connected the cultures of East and West.
The Discovery and Expansion of the Land Silk Road
The Silk Road was opened up for trade by the various countries along it. Before the 11th century, the centre of trade in the world was the Mediterranean Sea area, and extensive trade was conducted between city-states along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and China. In particular, after the expedition of Alexander the Great into Asia and the rise of the Roman Empire in the fourth century BC, Europeans had great demand for Chinese commodities, especially silk, and wanted to find a land trade route to reach China. This need was, by chance, identified by Qin merchant Wushi Luo towards the end of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC).
Wushi Luo was a cattle and sheep dealer in the state of Qin (221–206 BC). In 216 BC, Wushi obtained a batch of silk from the Qin government and traded it for cattle and sheep with the chief of his tribe, who traded the silk for gold with the Yuezhi and Saka people in the Hexi Corridor, who traded the gold for goods from Central Asians, West Asians and the Romans. The Yuezhi and Saka people, who were nomadic herders, thus acted as the earliest silk dealers with the people of the Central Plains and Western Regions.
While making an inspection tour in Yunzhong Prefecture, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang (reign: 246–209 BC), learned that Wushi Luo had made his fortune by selling silk and therefore saw enormous business opportunities in this trade. To exchange silk for gold to finance the construction of the Great Wall, his mausoleum and other projects, the emperor promoted silk trade.
However, the rise of the Xiongnu tribe 77 years later made it impossible for the Yuezhi and Saka, who exchanged goods for silk, to travel east, and the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) had to expel the Xiongnu to secure the silk trade route. Therefore, in 139 BC, Emperor Wu of Han (reign: 140–86 BC) sent diplomat Zhang Qian (164–113 BC) on missions to the Western Regions to seek an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu.
Zhang Qian's first mission to the Western Regions lasted for 13 years, during which time he learnt about the geography, products and customs of the Western Regions, therefore providing indispensable information for the Han Dynasty to open a traffic artery leading to Central Asia, connecting East and West. In 119 BC, Zhang Qian began his second mission to the Western Regions, which lasted for five years and helped open up a traffic route between the Han Dynasty and the Western Regions.
Later, the Western Han government established four prefectures in Hexi (presentday Gansu Province) and four protectorates in the Western Regions on the only roads to present-day Xinjiang, Central Asia and West Asia, thereby putting traffic and trade on the Silk Road under state administration. From then on, envoys and merchants from different countries travelled on this trade route that connected the Central Plains, the Western Regions, the Arab world and the Persian Gulf. Today's Silk Road, starting in Xi'an and extending through Gansu and Xinjiang to Central and West Asia, and then to the Mediterranean Sea, took centuries of efforts.
Over the course of more than 2,000 years, the use of the ancient Silk Road ceased several times. However, the importance of the land Silk Road did not decline until the 15th and 16th centuries, when the maritime Silk Road arose.
Picturesque Landscapes along the Silk Road
The areas the Silk Road ran through included plateaus, mountainous regions, hills, plains and basins. Each had a different climate, such as a temperate continental climate, a subtropical monsoon climate, an alpine climate and a subarctic climate. These created varied natural landscapes of forests, deserts, rivers, oases and snow-capped mountains, as well as special landforms.
Among these unique landforms,
yardangs are especially eye- catching. The word “yardang” comes from Uygur origins, meaning “steep bank.” A yardang is a protuberance carved from bedrock or any consolidated or semi- consolidated material by the dual action of wind abrasion by dust and sand, and deflation, which is the removal of loose material by wind turbulence. The Bailongdui Yardang is one of the three major yardang landscape clusters in the Lop Nur area. The ancient Silk Road extended into Lop Nur and passed through Bailongdui, which was the marked route for merchants to take before the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Today, yardangs attract tourists to Lop Nur.
The Xinjiang section of the Silk Road is the longest section and the one with the most cultural and natural resources. The Pamirs here, known as the roof of the Asian continent, are at the junction of major mountain ranges in South and Central Asia, such as the Himalayan Mountain Range, the Karakorum Mountain Range, the Kunlun Mountains, the Tianshan Mountains and the Hindu Kush Mountains. The Tianshan Mountains, one of the seven major mountain ranges in the world, extend 1,700 kilometres in China, cover an area of more than 570,000 square kilometres, and traverse central Xinjiang, accounting for around one-third of the total area of Xinjiang. In 2013, part of the Tianshan mountain system called Xinjiang Tianshan, which comprises Tomur, Kalajun-kuerdening, Bayinbuluke and Bogda, was placed on the World Heritage List. Traditionally believed to be “the primogenitor of mountains,” the Kunlun Mountains in Xinjiang are one of the longest mountain ranges in Central Asia and an essential part of China's western mountains.
In addition, Xinjiang is home to such natural landscapes as the Tarim River, Lop Nur, Kongque River, Yarkand River, the Tarim Basin, the Turpan-hami Basin and Taklamakan Desert, as well as the ruins at Jiaohe, Gaochang, Niya and Kashgar.
On other sections of the Silk Road there are some well-known natural wonders, such as Mingsha (“echoing-sand”) Mountain five kilometres south of Dunhuang in Gansu Province. Mingsha Mountain is made of fine sand in five colours: red, yellow, blue, white and black. The terrain here is varied, and one can see many different shapes in the sand, like crescents, pyramids, snakes and fish scales. Walking on the sand, one can hear sounds as light as those produced by bamboo instruments or as loud as those made by thunderous drums.
The Yueya (“crescent moon”) Spring scenic area is at the northern foot of Mingsha Mountain. Known as one of the “Eights Sights of Dunhuang” since the Han Dynasty, Yueya Spring is around 100 metres long from south to north, and around 25 metres from east to west. With a maximum depth of five metres, the spring is deeper in the east and shallower in the west and is shaped like a crescent, hence its name. Pondweed and other vegetation grows in the spring, and there are dense reeds on its south bank. Drifting sand surrounds but does not fill the spring, which never dries up, creating a natural wonder.
The Silk Road, with its enduring charm, still attracts tourists from around the world with its numerous historic sites, picturesque natural landscapes and diverse ethnic customs.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites along Silk Road
Sections of the Silk Road that link different countries and continents, as well as different ancient cultures and civilisations, have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
In June 2014, UNESCO designated a 5,000-kilometre section of the Silk Road, known as the Routes Network of Chang'an– Tianshan Corridor, as a new World Heritage Site. UNESCO initiated a study of this site in 1998, and after many years of preparation, in 2013 China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian nations submitted their applications to UNESCO for approval. This route consists of 33 sites and covers a total area of 42,680 hectares. It was the first transnational nomination submitted to UNESCO by China and the first such nomination in the world to be placed on the World Heritage List.
Of the 33 sites, 22 are in China, including seven in Shaanxi Province: The site of the Weiyang Palace from the Han Dynasty; the remains of Daming Palace from the Tang Dynasty; the Tomb of Zhang Qian, a Chinese official and diplomat who served as an imperial envoy in the second century BC; the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, housing sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by the Buddhist translator and monk Xuanzang (c. 602–664); the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, housing sutras that were brought to China from India by eminent Tang monk Yijing (635–713); the Xingjiao Temple Pagoda (Xuanzang's Dagoba); and
the Great Buddha Temple Grottoes in Binxian County. Sites in Henan Province include the remains of Luoyang City from the Eastern Han to Northern Wei dynasties (25-534); the archaeological site of Dingding Gate in Luoyang City during the Sui (581–618) and Tang dynasties; the remains of Hangu Pass; and the Shihao section of the Xiaohan ancient route. In Gansu Province there is the Maijishan Grottoes, the Bingling Temple Grottoes, the remains of Suoyang city, the site of Yumen Pass, and the site of Xuanquanzhi Posthouse. And in Xinjiang the six sites are the Gaochang Ruins, the Jiaohe Ruins, the Kizilgaha Beacon Tower, the Kizil Grottoes, the Subash Buddhist Temple Ruins and the Beiting Ruins.
The Silk Road was a transnational achievement. In the transnational nomination to UNESCO, the eight Silk Road properties in Kazakhstan, namely, the sites of Kayalyk, Talgar, Karamergen, Aktobe, Kulan, Ornek, Akyrtas and Kostobe, as well as the city of Suyab (the site of Ak-beshim), the city of Balasagyn (the site of Burana) and Navikat (the site of Krasnaya Rechka) in Kyrgyzstan, were also placed on the World Heritage List.
Besides these locations, there are many other world-famous historic sites along the Silk Road, such as the Terra Cotta Warriors from the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, known as the Eighth Wonder of the World; Famen Temple, which houses relics of Shakyamuni Buddha; the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, which contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art; the Maijishan Grottoes, which contain over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and over 1,000 square metres of murals; Jiayu Pass, where the Silk Road and the Great Wall joined; remains of beacon towers from the Han Dynasty; Taer Temple, a centre of Tibetan Buddhism in northwest China; and the ruins of Gaochang, an important town along the Silk Road.
Numerous traces of ancient civilisations have also been left in other countries along the Silk Road. In Uzbekistan alone, there are Tashkent, one of the oldest cities of Central Asia; Samarkand, the oldest city in Central Asia, which Alexander the Great highly praised; and Bukhara, a centre of Islamic culture.
There are many other historic sites along the Silk Road that have not yet been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as numerous artefacts. They witnessed the past, support the work of researchers and scholars, and are ideal tourist destinations.
A Communication Artery Connecting East and West
The Silk Road traverses the Eurasian continent geographically, but it has an unusual significance for world culture, because its east and west ends are the sources of Eastern and Western civilisations. Like vertical and horizontal latitude and longitude, they weave together China, Egypt, India, Greece and Mesopotamia. In ancient times, when communication and traffic were not so developed, the Silk Road was the channel through which the nations at both ends got to know the other's strange world, and was the main artery for contact between East and West.
China has always been a large agricultural country, and receiving and cultivating plants from foreign countries was a source of great pride for ancient Chinese people. Through the Silk Road, new varieties of plants from Central and West Asia, like grapes, alfalfa, pomegranate, red orchids, walnuts, peas, cucumber, olives and others successively entered China, where they took root and bore fruit. Asia and Europe also exported a variety of rare birds and animals through the Silk Road to China. Ferghana horses, camels, lions, rhinoceros and peacocks, which people are familiar with today, were all imported along the Silk Road from the Western Regions and Central Asia into China's Central Plains.
According to records from Chinese history, many precious objects were imported into China through the Silk Road, such as coral, mercury and amber from present-day Rome; agate and crystal from Central Asia; and diamonds, tulips, shells and beads from South Asia and India. The introduction of glass and glaze, which had a great impact on ancient China, not only enriched the daily lives of Chinese people, but also directly contributed to the development of China's porcelain industry.
The introduction of these animals, plants and products not only greatly improved the economic lives of people all over China, but also had either a direct or indirect impact
on the development of China's agriculture, animal husbandry and handicrafts. While these products were being imported into China, China also introduced its own products and some of its advanced technologies to other parts of Asia and Europe, which played a significant role in promoting the social and economic development of various countries in Asia and Europe.
The westward introduction of China's silk and silk production technology was an important part of the East-west economic exchange that took place along the Silk Road. After Zhang Qian went to the Western Regions as an imperial envoy, Chinese cavalry and smelting technology was transferred along the Silk Road to the West. Papermaking, printing and gunpowder, which are among China's world-famous four major inventions, were all introduced through the Silk Road to the West. Their westward spread had played an important role in the economic and cultural development of Asia and Europe. Also through this road, the whole world began to enjoy sericulture, gold and silver manufacturing, steel making, wellsinking technology and other technologies that the Chinese people possessed. With the opening of the Silk Road, astronomy, medicine and music were also continuously introduced from China to the West.
In the meantime, as Chinese culture was passing to the West through the Silk Road, the cultures of other parts of Asia and Europe also continued to enter China. In the process of the eastward spread of Eurasian culture, acrobatics, music and dance were most prominent. These arts had a multitude of names and were rich in content, having a significant impact on ancient Chinese culture.
During the Tang Dynasty, ambassadors and students came to China from overseas and scattered in all directions, engaging in cultural exchange. The arts of the Western Regions, which also spread to the Central Plains through the Silk Road, greatly enriched traditional Chinese arts. The introduction of different kinds of art, different forms of art, and artistic thought all had an impact on the culture of the Central Plains. Western culture and art merged with indigenous Chinese art to form unique artistic and cultural creations.
The ancient Silk Road was a symbol of China's opening up. In this trade channel, people not only exchanged goods, technology, life, art and other aspects of their cultures— they also exchanged thoughts. The Silk Road was a meeting place for religious ideas and cultural exchange. Buddhism and Hinduism from India, Islam from the Middle East, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism and Manichaeism from West Asia, Taoism and Confucian philosophy from the Central Plains, Shamanism and other belief systems all developed here, constituting a unique landscape in the history of world religion. Absorbing thoughts from around the world, the Silk Road became a natural museum of religious culture.
It is no exaggeration to say that most of the great inventions and schools of thought in the ancient world that are of great significance first spread to the world along the Silk Road.
From Quanzhou to Rome
The Maritime Silk Road was more than one shipping route for trade, and traded more than just silk and silk products. Instead, it is a general term for various shipping routes from the east, south and North America. The maiden voyage of the Maritime Silk Road was launched some 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. Since then, history has witnessed the rise and fall of successive dynasties along the Maritime Silk Road, as well as commercial communication and cultural exchanges between different countries at different times.
In the middle and later periods of the Tang Dynasty, the Maritime Silk Road gradually took the place of the land Silk Road to become the main channel for trade between China and other countries and regions. The ships set off from three major ports in China—quanzhou, Guangzhou and Ningbo—for key shipping ports in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Arabia, reaching as far as the eastern coast of Africa. These ships departed China with porcelain and returned with spices from other countries. They charted the maritime routes through which China conducted political, economic and cultural exchanges with other countries and regions in ancient times. Technological Development along the Maritime Silk Road
The maritime Silk Road extended from the coastal ports in ancient China to ports in the following three directions: The Korea Peninsula and Japan, Southeast Asian countries, and countries along the coast of East Africa via South Asia and Arabia.
The Maritime Silk Road dates back to the Han Dynasty. During the Qin and Han dynasties, the first two feudal dynasties, social stability and development were seen as the most crucial aspects of unifying the country. At that time, shipbuilding technology experienced unprecedented development. As the navigation routes were unblocked along the coastal regions, China possessed fleets of ships that could reach Japan, as well as ships that could reach as far as the southern tip of the Indian Peninsula via the Strait of Malacca. It was based on these routes that the first ocean-going route in the history of China, and even in the world, came into being: the maritime Silk Road, extending from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.
The efforts of Emperor Wu in the Western Han Dynasty made it possible for China to open important navigation routes along the coastal regions from north to south and routes leading from China to Korea and Japan. With the development of shipbuilding and navigation technology in ancient China, the maritime Silk Road ushered in a period of prosperous development of trade in the Sui, Tang, Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties. In particular, China established nine major administrative agencies for commercial ships in coastal cities during the Song Dynasty, and Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Ningbo became three major trade ports at that time.
In the process of exploring and developing the maritime Silk Road, these three major ports played an extremely important role. Of these, Guangzhou is the only major port that has continued to thrive for 2,000 years of Chinese history. It became a major port on the maritime Silk Road as early as the 230s. By using the advantageous conditions of maritime traffic and transportation, Guangzhou became the cradle of China's foreign trade.
Quanzhou was the largest port in the world during the Yuan Dynasty, as it had favourable geographical conditions for becoming a major port. Mainly located in south Fujian, it borders the vast East China Sea in the east, adjoins huge mountains in the north, west and south, and abuts the Taiwan Strait, creating an ideal natural harbour. In addition, Quanzhou had fertile land and a wide variety of products. Thus, by the end of the Tang Dynasty and the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907–960), the the city's shipbuilding industry was already well developed.
Ningbo has also been a major harbour in southeast China since ancient times. The Yong River, which has a vast surface of water and stable riverbed, flows through Ningbo into the East China Sea. Ningbo has inland navigation routes extending in all directions. Due to its flat terrain and fertile land, Ningbo also had the suitable geographical conditions for developing a harbour city.
The greatest diplomatic events in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) were the seven voyages to the western seas by the explorer and diplomat Zheng He (1371–1433). Starting from the coastal regions in southeast China, Zheng He commanded ships to travel through the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea until they reached East Africa and Europe. The Chinese products on board were taken to these destinations, promoting trade and cultural and technological exchanges between China and the countries along the maritime Silk Road. At that time, this route had already become China's main channel for international exchange.
Later, in the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, the government instituted a policy of banning maritime trade. However, such a policy failed to block the trade between China and the countries along the maritime Silk Road. The ancient trade channel still played its inherent and important role of promoting trade and cultural exchanges between China and other countries and regions.
Flourishing Trade along the Maritime Silk Road
These seaports served as the conduit by which economic, cultural, scientific, technological and religious exchanges were conducted and ideas were communicated between East and West. The cultural legacy of the maritime Silk Road is represented by the ruins of the seaports at coastal cities such as Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Ningbo and Nanjing. Many historical reminders of the development of the maritime Silk Road can still be seen in these port cities.
Quanzhou was one of the important points of departure for the maritime Silk Road in ancient China. It has preserved many valuable historical sites related to this route and has created a maritime Silk Road culture around such sites. Ancient buildings, including the Eastern Pagoda, the Western Pagoda, Luoyang Bridge and Anping Bridge, reflect the brilliant culture of that period with their imposing forms and rich connotations. Religious sites, including Qingjing Temple, Lingshan Holy Tomb and the Statue of Lao Tzu, demonstrate visually and silently the cultural diversity of Quanzhou. The ancient ships built in the Song Dynasty, the Qifeng stone carvings at Jiuri Mountain, the tablet inscriptions about Zheng He's voyages to the western seas, and other historical relics, all bear witness to the prosperous economic, trade and cultural exchanges between China and other countries in the past. One thousand years later, these cultural legacies still clearly represent the style of the maritime Silk Road.
In Jiangsu Province, many relics of the cities and harbours relevant to the trade, cultural exchange and marine administration of the maritime Silk Road still exist. For example, there are historical sites such as the Stone City in Nanjing, which served as the capital for six dynasties and was an important gateway for China to conduct international exchanges; the historical site of Yangzhou City, which experienced prosperity as a city of international trade during the Tang and Song dynasties; and the stone inscriptions made during the Xin Dynasty (AD 9–23) as boundary markers in Donghai and Langya prefectures in Lianyungang City, which reveal an awareness of marine administration in ancient China, and are the only ones of their kind found in China. Other historical sites reflect different aspects of the historical evolution and the development of ancient China in administrating overseas traffic and trade and the worship of sea gods. These historical sites include Tianfei Palace in Liuhe, the historical site of Huangsipu
in Zhangjiagang, the historical site of Longxing Temple at Kongwang Hill, and the inscriptions on cliffsides at the Dragon Cave in Lianyungang.
Nanjing was the capital city in the early Ming Dynasty and it was right here that Zheng He's voyages to the western seas began. Zheng set off from here with his fleet and came ashore on his return trip, and he collected all the goods, materials and people he needed for his voyages here. Nanjing was also the centre for China to conduct friendly contacts with Southeast Asian countries. There are many historical remains of Zheng He's seven voyages in Jiangsu, including the remains of the Longjiang Shipyard; the Tomb of Zheng He; the remains of Bao'en Temple in Nanjing; the historical site of the tomb of Hong Bao, who was the assistant to Zheng He; the historical site of Tianfei Palace at Liuhe, the point of departure for the fleet under the command of Zheng He; the stele of Tianfei Palace; the historical site of Jinghai Temple; the relics of Jingjue Islamic Temple; and the tomb for the King of Brunei (Negara Brunei Darussalam), who unfortunately passed away during his visit to Nanjing.
In 2016, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage formally designated Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Ningbo and Nanjing to jointly promote the work of applying for the status of world heritage sites for the new Maritime Silk Road. It finally made it clear that 31 heritage sites in eight cities (Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Nanjing, Zhangzhou, Putian, Lishui and Jiangmen) would be listed as the first sites applying for the status of world heritage for the Maritime Silk Road. The wreck of the Nanhai No.1 ship in Yangjiang City in Guangzhou Province was also designated a heritage site. Quanzhou ranks the first in terms of the number of sites to apply for the status of world heritage, with 14 sites listed in the first batch of applications.
The remains of ancient civilisations can be found everywhere along the maritime Silk Road. Outside of China, there are Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the Taj Mahal, one of the most wellknown historical sites in India; Borobudur in Indonesia; Malacca City in Malaysia; the historic City of Vigan and the baroque churches in the Philippines; the historic town of Sukhothai and the Ban Chiang Archaeological Site in Thailand; the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty and Hoi An Ancient Town in Vietnam; the Pyu Ancient Cities in Myanmar; the ancient city of Luang Prabang and the Champasak Cultural Landscape in Laos, and others. The wisdom of humans finds its expression everywhere along the Maritime Silk Road.
Supplying Trade along the Maritime Silk Road
Economic and trade between the countries in the East and the West along the Maritime Silk Road enriched the economy of these countries, enabling them to share material achievements. With China's ancient civilisation, Chinese products have always enjoyed popularity in the international market. In trade, the structure of imported and exported commodities has changed throughout time.
Since the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–220), throngs of people moved from the north to southern China. The population in regions south of the Yangtze River soon skyrocketed; agriculture developed; and the handicraft industry including silk, porcelain and metals prospered, providing a commercial basis for the expansion of overseas trade. Prior to the Tang Dynasty, silk and gold were China's main exports. Silk was one of the great inventions made by Chinese ancestors. It became one of the most treasured luxuries in the Roman Empire, equal in value to gold after it was spread to the West in the fourth century BC. Commodities imported into China mainly included luxury goods such as spice, pearls, jade, rhinoceros horns, ivory, hawksbill turtle, coloured glaze, glasses, agate and precious stone.
Porcelain was a treasure offered by Chinese to the rest of the world. Following the completion of the construction of the Grand Canal during the Sui Dynasty, Jiangsu boasted advantages in inland water transport and became the main transfer station for exporting goods in bulk such as porcelain and tea leaves, and importing and selling commodities like spices and glaze. Since the Tang Dynasty, porcelain has become popular in overseas markets. Yangzhou left behind a brilliant chapter in marine trade and cultural communication in the Tang Dynasty. It became an important city of departure for the “Maritime Silk Road” and a well-known harbour of the East. Since the mid-1970s, many porcelain pieces have been unearthed in the ancient Tangcheng inside Yangzhou. These samples encompassed products of almost all major kilns in both south and north
China in ancient times. Of those that were excavated, the number of those produced at the Changsha Kiln in Hunan and sold to India and Arabian regions was next only to that of the porcelains directly sold from the Changsha Kiln. In the Song and Yuan dynasties, porcelain became the commodity exported most, giving the Maritime Silk Road the alternative name “Maritime Road of Porcelain”.
As spices were also accounted for a large part of exported commodities, the Maritime Silk Road was also called the “Maritime Road of Aromatic Spices”, As well as the “Road of Tea Leaves” for its tea leaves exported from China to Europe at the end of the Ming Dynasty. At the end of this period, China imported wool fabric, cotton goods, clocks, perfume, leather, fur products and metal from the West in addition to traditional local goods from Southeast Asia.
Prior to 1840, Guangzhou's government granted franchises to trade firms engaged in foreign trade. The trade firms were named the “thirteen factories” but the number of these firms wasn't fixed at 13. In the Qing Dynasty when China's isolation policy from the rest of the world was carried out, it was stipulated that Guangzhou was the only city allowed to conduct foreign trade. As the only harbour “open to business with foreign countries”, the “thirteen factories” further developed, and represented a peak development of the Maritime Silk Road. Although the “thirteen factories” thrived for a certain period of time, it gradually disappeared later due to different reasons, yet a legend still exists about a scene where the “thirteen factories were filled with money.”
With commercial trade along the Maritime Silk Road, China and the countries along the Maritime Silk Road supplied each other with necessities. Such a link not only increased friendly relations between countries, but also enabled people in using commodities. This changed to a certain extent the life habits and culture of people living in different neighbourhoods, and promoted the economic prosperity, social progress and civilisation of different countries.
As early as the period of the Three Kingdoms (AD 220–280), Kingdom Wu dispatched envoys Zhu Ying and Kang Tai to visit what is today's Cambodia. At the suggestion of Kang Tai, locals in Cambodia began using the straight skirt made of Chinese silk. It was recorded in Slapping the Table in Amazement First Collection, a novel first published in 1628, a story about how a small orange produced in south China was transported from China along the Maritime Silk Road to Western Europe where it was settled and saved the lives of thousands of European sailors in the 17th century. Today, oranges are still called “Chinese apples” by the Dutch and Germans. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, sailboats from China frequently visited Southeast Asia and sailed the Indian Ocean. At that time, overseas Chinese who left China through the Maritime Silk Road were engaged in reclaiming and cultivating wasteland in these regions, processing agricultural produce, and exploring mines, playing a crucial role in these regions.
Economic exchanges and trade between different countries complemented each other on the Maritime Silk Road. The cultures of different countries blended well with each other.
Opportunities for Cultural Exchanges
The Maritime Silk Road is not only a traffic and trade route, but also a road of cultural communication linking centres of major world civilisations including China, India, Arabia and Mediterranean regions. Along this ancient sea route, merchants and shipowners relayed live cinders of Eastern and the Western civilisations, making it possible for different values and civilisations to meet and embrace each other.
Historically, the countries in the South China Sea dispatched envoys to reach China along the Maritime Silk Road. In the dynasties following the Tang Dynasty, administration agencies were established for business ships in Guangzhou to take charge of foreign trade with countries with which China established diplomatic relations, and built post-houses to receive foreign envoys. It was an important function for officials along coastal regions to handle diplomatic affairs and take charge of overseas trade. In the period between 1265 and 1274 during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), Puhaddin, an Arabic man in the medieval period came to Yangzhou to spread traditional Islamic virtues of supporting the weak and helping the poor. Puhaddin made a large circle of friends, so he enjoyed support of local celebrities and received courtesy from the officialdom. Puhaddin presided over the construction of the well-known Crane Temple,
which later became one of the four major mosques in China's south-eastern coastal regions. During the Yuan Dynasty, Ibn Battuta, a renowned Moroccan traveller came to China by travelling by sea, whose Travels of Ibn Battuta amazed the Islamic world. Marco Polo, an Italian traveller, led a diplomatic corps to escort a Mongolian princess on her way to Persia to be married. Travels of Marco Polo also amazed the Christian world. In the early Ming Dynasty, as the capital city of a unified country, Nanjing became the centre for friendly exchanges and cultural communication between China and countries along the Maritime Silk Road.
At the order of Emperor Yongle (reign: 1403–1425) of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He embarked on seven voyages to the Western Seas. This heroic feat was regarded as symbolising the Maritime Silk Road entering a prosperous period, and a paragon of peaceful exchanges between ancient China and countries along the Maritime Silk Road. In the 28 years since 1405, Zheng He led a fleet of more than 200 treasure ships to navigate the seas with the advanced navigation technology at that time, and visited various countries to conduct friendly diplomacy. By developing China's overseas trade and disseminating Chinese culture, the fleet led by Zheng He explored the marine undertaking and paved the way for navigation routes between Asia and Africa.
It was through these friendly exchanges that Chinese textile products, paper-making technology, printing technology, gunpowder, compasses, porcelain-making technology and other fine arts were spread to overseas areas along the Maritime Silk Road, and exerted their influence upon scientific, technological and cultural development to countries and regions neighbouring China and western countries in modern times.
Following the Eastern Han Dynasty, with progress in China's navigation technology and navigation experience, regimes in south China explored routes for conducting maritime trade and cultural exchanges. Diplomatic envoys, merchants, and monks from different countries often visited each other. The Maritime Silk Road was not only the “road of business and trade” for countries along the road to exchange goods, but also the “road of peaceful dialogue” for friendly contacts between China and other countries, as well as the “road for cultural communication” between different countries.
The increasing prevalence of Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism were also attributed to the Maritime Silk Road. Ever since Nanjing became the capital city of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317–420), with advanced socioeconomic conditions and convenient traffic and transportation conditions, regions along the Yangtze River represented by Nanjing became not only the main cultural centre of China but also centres of cultural exchange between China and other countries. Nanjing, Yangzhou and Suzhou in Jiangsu became important places for introducing Buddhist culture from other countries to China and the major places for disseminating the Buddhist culture from China to Japan and Korea. Faxian (AD 334–420), a monk in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, was China's first monk who went overseas to acquire Buddhist scriptures and returned to China successfully. He departed from Chang'an (today's Xi'an) on his way to India to acquire Buddhist scriptures along the Silk Road; then boarded a boat at Sri Lanka and embarked on his way back to China along the Maritime Silk Road. He landed at Shandong and finally returned to Daochang Temple, Jiankang. It was at Daochang Temple that Faxian translated most of the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, which exerted impact upon Buddhism's prosperity in the period of the Six Dynasties (AD 222–589) and the development of Chinese culture. Jianzhen (AD 688–763), another eminent monk in the Tang Dynasty, succeeded in visiting Japan after six attempts, and took cultural achievements of the Tang Dynasty in religion, literature, art, medicine and architecture to Japan, making outstanding contributions to economic and cultural exchanges between China and Japan.
Friendly exchanges like these were too numerous to be cited. The Maritime Silk Road links “pearls” scattered on the vast Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean.
The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road are built for integrating development strategies of the countries through strengthening international cooperation, so as to realise the mutual advantages, promote a friendly international society in the new century, and continue writing a moving chapter eulogising friendly exchanges between people of different countries and their mutual benefit.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, the eastern start of the ancient Silk Road
Pamir Plateau, a main area along the Silk Road
Samarqand, a city on the ancient Silk Road in Uzbekistan
A model ship at Nanjing Longjiang Baochuan Plant Ruins Park, manufactured by imitating the vessels Zheng He used during his westward voyages
Ancient Malacca, where Zheng He and his vessels arrived
Remains of Ancient Rome
“Jianzhen Crosses the Ocean to Japan”