Southern Song: Global Ocean Power
The impression among most people is that the “High Tang” represents the pinnacle of dynastic China, while the Southern Song (1127–1279), whose power was centered on the Jiangnan Region (area south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) rather than the Central Plain, has a more decadent and negative image. This is a deeply held prejudice. But when offering his opinion about China’s dynasties, the French sinologist Jacques Gernet praised the Southern Song in the highest terms: “It was the world’s richest and most advanced country of its time.”
Among all of China’s ruling dynasties, the Southern Song holds the crown for national revenue generation within a single year—160,000,000 tael of silver—a truly amazing figure. The best the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) could do at its height only barely reached one-tenth that value. During the reign of Emperor Xianfeng of Qing (1850–1861), when the
ameliorate existing ones, and established a navigation system—with lighthouses located every 30 kilometers along China’s coastline—thereby pioneering a comprehensive new situation for sea commerce.
In this instance, Poseidon has been merciful, leaving a complete and vivid record of this ocean-going era in the form of a shipwreck. A sunken merchant ship, dating from the Southern Song, was discovered by the people of Guangdong’s Yangjiang, and christened “Nanhai (South China Sea) No. 1.” Based on its location and the direction in which the bow pointed, experts conclude that it was bound for Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. This is indeed a distinctive shipwreck, sporting a long 30-meter hull and 600-ton displacement. Well built and incorporating mature watertight bulkhead technology, although it had steeped in ocean water for eight centuries, after drying the wood was still as sturdy as new and resonated loudly when knocked.
As if by miracle, this junk that rested on the sea bottom for a millennium has been fairly well preserved. Probing of the sea bottom revealed the secret for its uneventful slumber: when the shipwreck occurred, the vessel did not capsize, instead sinking slowly straight down. Shortly thereafter it was covered in thick layers of mud, thus avoiding damage from oxidation, and largely preserving the vessel as it was. Even more fortunately, this was a merchant ship loaded with some 80,000 items, prompting some history experts to label it a virtual “sea-based Dunhuang,” a reference comparing it to the immense archaeological value of the ancient Buddhist grottoes in the Gobi Desert.
The primary cargo was porcelain, fired in what were then the four renowned kilns of Jiangxi’s Jingdezhen, Fujian’s Dehua, and Zhejiang’s Jianyao and Longquan. Many of the objects were executed in a distinctive style, indicating that the contemporary handmade porcelain industry had already been significantly affected by maritime trade, i.e., “made-toorder business” was already widespread. Among the very diverse cargo, certain types of products—such as bronze mirrors—were discovered for the first time. The breadth of Southern Song trade far exceeds what one would have imagined. Even more intriguing is that while searching the shipwreck, the divers found the remains of a pair of cobras, and a gilded belt in a very Arabian style. Could they have belonged to Arab and Indian merchants aboard the junk?
With “Nanhai No. 1” and numerous other shipwrecks as ironclad evidence, as well as other historical materials, a vivid illustrated scroll of the oceanbased economy of the Southern Song unfolds before us; this was no “weak Song”, it was actually one of a handful of major economic players of its era, and a marine power in its own right. During the 10-12th centuries, the dynasty’s marine industry served as the engine for great social progress. Significantly, Southern Song was the sole ancient Chinese dynasty that did not suppress commerce. A large amount of labor flowed toward the non-agricultural fields, engendering a pre-motorized “in-