A Witness to Ancient Chinese Maritime Civilization

2021-07-27 10:24:09

A Witness to Ancient Chinese Maritime Civilization

The Luoyang Bridge linking the port to the mainland  File photo


A Witness to Ancient Chinese Maritime Civilization

The site of the Deji Gate, built in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279)  File photo


A Witness to Ancient Chinese Maritime Civilization

Qingjing Mosque, built in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127)  File photo

A Witness to Ancient Chinese Maritime Civilization

The Kaiyuan Temple and its twin pagodas, a hotbed of cultural diversity   File photo

Quanzhou Port is an ancient heritage site that has witnessed the embrace of maritime civilization by the Chinese nation. 

On July 16, 2021, the widely anticipated extended 44th session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO kicked off in Fuzhou, China. “Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China”, one of the cultural sites nominated by China for inscription in the World Heritage List, became a focus of attention among other nominations. 

In 2016, the National Cultural Heritage Administration launched an initiative to nominate Maritime Silk Road sites for inclusion in the World Heritage List. Quanzhou, as one of the leading cities in this initiative, launched several cultural heritage conservation programs. In 2018, China nominated the “Historic Monuments and Sites of Ancient Quanzhou (Zayton)”, but the 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee decided after deliberations that more information was needed. 

After more detailed archaeological excavations, as well as reinterpretation of the value of the heritage site and adjustments to the application, the current nomination, “Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China”, has a more distinct theme and includes a clearer and fuller description of the site’s value. Its component sites were also increased from 16 to a total of 22, a richer scope that has been applauded by heritage professionals.

On July 25, “Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China” was added to the World Heritage List. In what areas does the heritage site stand out in? 

A pioneer in expanding maritime routes and linking China to the world

Quanzhou’s geographical location made it well-suited to be a maritime hub. The city was located near sea, with favorable mansoon and abundant material wealth. As such, the people of Quanzhou developed a practice of launching ritual ceremonies to pray for favorable winds for safe voyages, becoming pioneers in expanding maritime trade routes and linking ancient China to the world. In 1087, during the Northern Song Dynasty, the imperial court established Maritime Trade Offices in Quanzhou, marking the beginning of Quanzhou’s growth into an outstanding representative of the world’s port cities that has played an important role in world maritime history. 

In terms of urban planning and layout, the old city of Quanzhou can be regarded as a model for port cities. Its port was built at a site where inland waterways flowed into the sea, making transportation convenient while also sheltering the port from typhoons. The city itself was built along the river, with docks, street shops, markets and warehouses orderly spaced out. Government offices, official residences, residential dwellings, and compounds for foreign merchants were interspersed throughout the city. The city also relied on the Jinjiang River network and its well-developed land transportation system to form an economic ecosystem that supported the development of trade in its port. Porcelain kilns and tea gardens were built along the river, while iron smelting and textile workshops are intensively developed. Inside the city were handicraft workshops run by skilled craftsmen, while the areas outside the city became a trading zone frequented by local businessmen and densely dotted with residential compounds for foreign merchants. All sorts of workshops for processing gold, silver, copper, iron, and tin wares could be found inside and outside of the city. Even today, ancient street names like “Ironsmith Street” and “Tinsmith Street” are still in use. Quanzhou natives have even introduced the name “Ironsmith Street” to the old city of Malacca.

It was Quanzhou’s unique geography, vibrant economy and the maritime culture deeply ingrained in its people that allowed it to become a heritage site of ancient Chinese maritime civilization. This heritage site demonstrated the survival wisdom and spiritual pursuits of the ancient Chinese from a different side. 

In ancient times, fleets of merchant vessels that set off from Quanzhou voyaged to the Gulf of Thailand, Java Sea, Straits of Malacca, and even as far as the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The Chinese nation, which had already created a vibrant agrarian civilization, left its mark on far-flung territories across seas that had once seemed too vast to cross. 

There were mountains of perfume ingredients, gems, precious lumber, gold and silver accessories on the market of Quanzhou; even the Port of Alexandria, the perfume center in the Mediterranean region, registered a perfume trade volume less than one-tenth of that of Quanzhou Port, as depicted by Marco Polo.

Ibn Battuta of Morocco and Wang Dayuan of China ¬– two great travelers whose accomplishments were as great as Marco Polo’s – had completed the lengthy voyage from the Persian Gulf to Quanzhou. Wang even made two return journeys. Each left behind accounts of their adventures that have become canonical works of maritime history, respectively The Rihla and A Brief Account of Island Barbarians. Zheng He’s voyages (1405 to 1433), a legendary accomplishment in Eastern maritime history, also left their mark in Quanzhou. An ancient stele erected to commemorate Zheng He’s prayers for a smooth voyage still stands at the city’s Lingshan Hill, testament to the grand voyage of Zheng He’s fleet, the largest in the world then, to the Persian Gulf. 

A land of spectacular cultural diversity 

Quanzhou Port not only links China to the world and serves as a record of ancient maritime history. It is also representative of global maritime heritage from an era before the Age of Discovery. As such, UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites have deemed that the ancient port of Quanzhou has “outstanding value to humanity”, a criterion for inscription in the World Heritage List. 

This beautiful harbor nestled amidst erythrina trees had once received envoys and merchants from Southeast Asia, Persia, Arabia, India, Ceylon and even the Mediterranean. The Tianhou Temple, where people pay homage to the sea goddess Mazu, the Buddhist Kaiyuan Temple, the Qingjing Mosque, the Hindu Panfo Temple, along with Manichaean temples that had their roots in Persia, Nestorian temples originating from Syria, and Christian churches from the Mediterranean had all been part of the city, making it a “natural museum” of world religions. 

People of different races, beliefs and languages were able to coexist harmoniously within the city. This led to the formation of an iconic, culturally diverse urban heritage landscape. 

Quanzhou is to the Maritime Silk Road what Dunhuang is to the Land Silk Road, telling a beautiful story of human exchanges. Apart from the ports of Quanzhou, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Yangzhou, and Dengzhou in China, the Maritime Silk Road also includes many well-known ancient ports in other countries, most of which have been included in the World Heritage List or placed on a State Party’s Tentative List. Among these port cities, Quanzhou has a unique oriental charm. This large Eastern port was a hub for tea trading, a thousand-year-old “porcelain capital” and a land of silk. It was a magical land of cultural inclusivity and diversity. 

Restoring the history of ancient maritime trade

Quanzhou is a world heritage site discovered by later generations and "excavated" by archaeologists. 

In the 1920s, Chinese scholars, including Gu Jiegang, Zhang Xinglang and Chen Wanli visited the old city of Quanzhou, which marked the start on research on the city. In 1957, prompted by Xia Nai and other archaeologists, Wu Wenliang, a native of Quanzhou, published Religious Inscriptions in Quanzhou, a compendium of stone inscriptions from his private collection. Quanzhou’s significance in the history of transport began to attract the attention of Chinese and foreign scholars. 

The global influence of this port city a millennium ago was the result of a confluence of factors such as favorable policies, state support, community vibrancy, technology and culture. These have to be uncovered and pieced together from its contemporary urban layout, where antiquity meets modernity. 

The office for maritime trade that was established in Quanzhou during the Northern Song Dynasty was an early customs agency with verifiable records and landmark significance, marking that the city had gained official state approval to be a gateway for foreign trade. Archaeologists have already discovered and verified its site. 

Members of the Southern Song royal family had also once sought refuge in Quanzhou, during which they actively participated in maritime trade. Archaeologists have found and verified the remains of a Southern Office of Imperial Clan Affairs in the city. 

In particular, there have been many new discoveries from archaeological excavations of the remains of Dehua kilns and Cizao kilns, which once produced porcelain wares that were shipped throughout the world. These kilns, which had been in continuous operation for a considerable period, have a comprehensive range of cultural relic specimens and clear technological chains that make them an important source of information for studying the export of porcelains. They have since been placed under sound protection. Together with newly excavated production facilities such as the Xiacaopu iron smelting site in Anxi, the economic ecosystem of Quanzhou and its hinterland has now been vividly showcased. The historical visage of this ancient port has been restored in detail through the efforts of archaeologists and cultural relic conservation experts. 

Quanzhou is also a window of maritime civilization whose influence in world maritime history can be vividly demonstrated by underwater archaeological excavations of countless shipwrecks.

The Quanzhou wreck, discovered at the Houzhu Harbor in 1973 and dated to around 1277, is one of the earliest Fujian-style marine vessels found to date. Its streamlined design and watertight bulkhead structure represent outstanding accomplishments of ancient China in shipbuilding. Watertight-bulkhead technology is a major Chinese contribution to global seafaring. The cabins of the Quanzhou wreck were separated by transverse bulkhead partitions to form separate and watertight compartments, which not only increase hull strength, but also prevent water from reaching other sections if one compartment is flooded after a collision with a reef. The ship would still be seaworthy after damaged compartments are repaired, leading to a far higher level of safety. 

The Quanzhou ship was evidently fully loaded. The cargo discovered within included a rich variety of perfume ingredients and many kinds of other goods. The perfume ingredients on the ship, which include frankincense, agarwood odour, sandalwood scent, logwood, pepper and ambergris, bear witness to the booming trade at the Quanzhou Port and give us a glimpse of ancient maritime trade networks. 

The Nanhai No. 1 shipwreck discovered in 1987, which dates to the Song Dynasty, has been recognized by the international academic community as an important accomplishment in underwater archaeology on the Maritime Silk Road. The ship was a seafaring merchant vessel that set sail from Quanzhou Port with plans to sail to Southeast Asia and even the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, it sank in the waters off the Shangchuan and Xiachuan Islands of Guangdong Province. Its well-preserved hull and abundant goods were breathtaking. The ship was full of goods that were loaded at Quanzhou: ceramics, ironware, silk, lacquerware, tinware, gold and silver jewelry, silver ingots, coins and more. Some of its cargoes were also marked with the surnames of their owners, such as Chen, Lin, Huang and Li, the names of established maritime merchant clans in Quanzhou. Texts such as Pingzhou Table Talks vividly describe how merchants would divide up space on seagoing vessels, store their freight below deck and sleep atop their cargo at night. 

Quanzhou has been praised as a “city of light” in countless classical texts, and known across the world by the name “Zayton”. Even today, we can imagine such a scene. Ships of various sizes gathered in the port, each like a huge chamber and with a sail akin to clouds, awaiting the arrival of favorable winds that could allow them to sail great distances in a single day. We can also imagine what it must have looked like when fully loaded ships returned to the port,where infinite new dreams awaited them.