South­ern Song: Global Ocean Power

China Scenic - - Silk Road -

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-

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