China’s Underwater History
This article is the last in a series on the history and culture of Quanzhou.
To hear some tell it, globalization began with the “Age of Discovery,” a time when Western European navigators circumnavigated the globe, opening trade routes and laying the foundations of colonial empires. There’s some truth to this narrative, but to frame the globalization of trade and empire as exclusively the work of Western European explorers beginning in the 15th century is to diminish all that came before — not least the greatest of all continent-spanning empires: the Mongols.
Indeed, historians like Masaaki Sugiyama argue that globalization has its roots in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Mongol empire unified a territory stretching from China in the East to Central Europe in the West. If the Mongols are credited with anything in the popular imagination, it’s generally with reviving and overseeing the expansion of the Silk Road, the complex network of overland trade routes that brought Marco Polo to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) court in Beijing. Less well known, however, is the Yuan’s naval prowess — not just their failed invasions of Japan, but their vast trading fleets that helped connect China with Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and North Africa. And nowhere was more important to this nascent but burgeoning maritime trade than the city of Quanzhou, on China’s southeastern coast.
Quanzhou was home to a sturdy fleet of seafaring vessels as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). These were hardy ships, constructed from robust materials like durable nanmu wood from southern China. Some were longer than 60 meters, stem to stern, and could carry more than 600 people at a time. Their designs made use of sophisticated carpentry techniques such as mortises and tenons, as well as powerful sealants made of lime and tung oil — technologies not dissimilar from those used on Columbus’ ships 800 years later — which allowed for the creation of independent, watertight cabin spaces capable of containing flooding at sea.
By the Yuan Dynasty, Quanzhou had become the largest seaport in East Asia. In 1346, the famed traveler and travel writer Ibn Battuta arrived in Quanzhou by boat from Calcutta. He later recounted witnessing hundreds of large ships and thousands of small boats along Quanzhou’s quays, some of them able to transport up to 1,000 passengers.
These junks made frequent trips along what is today known as the Maritime Silk Road, a collection of overseas trade routes that arguably reached its zenith during the Yuan. Stretching from Quanzhou and Guangzhou in southern China, around the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea, it brought medicinal herbs and treasures to the Chinese mainland, while carrying fine manufactured wares and fabrics as far as East Africa and the Mediterranean.
One example of the power of this trade is the global spread of tea. Originally, seafarers from Quanzhou — which is located close to the center of tea production in China — brought large quantities of tea leaves with them on their voyages — not for trade, but to prevent scurvy. Gradually, people from across the Eurasian continent fell in love with the drink, though often in modified form. These origins can still be seen in the English word “tea,” which is derived from the Quanzhou pronunciation of the Chinese ideogram for the drink.
Given its importance to the emergence of Eurasian trade networks, why is the Maritime Silk Road largely forgotten today, especially compared with its overland counterpart? The answer, at least in part, lies in the difficulty of conducting archaeological excavations on seabeds miles under the surface.
That’s starting to change. In 1987, a huge shipwreck dating to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was discovered off the shore of Yangjiang City in the southern province of Guangdong. Two years later, the wreck, later named “Nanhai One,” was surveyed in a joint effort by the National Museum of China and the Asian Research Institute of Underwater Archaeology in Japan. This “dig” — which identified between 50,000 and 80,000 items — marked the start of underwater archaeology in China.
But recovering these relics remained a challenge. Beginning in 2001, some 4,000 pieces were brought up from the sea floor, but it wasn’t until 2007 that archaeologists carried out a globally unprecedented “salvage operation” to lift the entire shipwreck out of the water. In addition to the immense collection of recovered precious Song Dynasty porcelain, archaeologists also discovered many fine gold ornaments on board, such as a 1.8-metre long, Persian-style gold belt, as well as four gold bracelets weighing 100 grams each. Even more intriguing, there were numerous unadorned golden rings on board, suggesting that the ship may have been part of an international industrial chain with a sophisticated division of labor involving multiple stops along the Maritime Silk Road, each responsible for a different step in the manufacturing process.
Cui Yong, leader of the Nanhai One archaeological team, has called the ship a “time capsule” that preserved the true state of maritime trade during the Song Dynasty. Nanhai One is far from the only such “time capsule” from the Maritime Silk Road still resting beneath the waves. In 1998, a Tang Dynasty-era shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Indonesia. Later excavations identified more than 67,000 pieces of porcelain as well as the world’s only extant Tang Dynasty bronze mirror.
As underwater archaeological technologies and techniques mature, it’s likely that we will gain a clearer picture and deeper appreciation of the Maritime Silk Road. These discoveries are not just important to the history of Quanzhou or China: They will reveal truths about global history and interconnectedness that have long been subsumed by more Eurocentric accounts of the past.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A museum exhibit on maritime trade during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) at the Maritime Silk Road Museum in Yangjiang, Guangdong province, 2019. People Visual)