How Wenzhou Became a Trading Hub
When it comes to Wenzhou, the first word that springs to mind is probably business. Known as the birthplace of China’s private economy, Wenzhou natives have spread out across the world, opening shops and forming trading networks wherever they go. A handful of climbers or nature enthusiasts might bring up Yandang Mountain, one of the best known in southeast China. Almost no one would say history.
That’s a shame. This year marks the 1,700th anniversary of the city’s founding in A.D. 323 as an outpost of the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420). Rimmed by mountains, with the Ou River to the north and Huichang Lake to the south, it offered an excellent harbor for maritime trade along China’s eastern seaboard. By the late Tang dynasty (618-907), Wenzhou was one of the primary ports used by Japanese merchants visiting the Chinese coast, and its importance would continue to grow before peaking during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties.
Much of this history lay forgotten until 2021, when archaeologists working on a dig in the city discovered a steep gate leading into the ruins of Wenzhou’s ancient port. Further excavations produced a series of stunning finds, from centuries-old piers to sunken merchant ships. Their work was rated among the top 10 new archaeological discoveries of 2022 in China.
These digs have shed new light on the shape of the city’s old port, as well as its evolution as the coastline shifted over the centuries. Arguably the most remarkable finds, however, were the remains of not one, but two Fujian-style junks dating to the Song dynasty. The first, measuring approximately 20 meters bow to stern, was found split in two; the second was discovered in remarkably pristine condition and is already being used to study important shipbuilding techniques from the era, including the design of ships’ keels and watertight compartments.
Although the finds were surprising, their proximity to Wenzhou makes sense. The area was a center for China’s shipbuilding industry as early as the Three Kingdoms era (220-280), thanks in part to its abundant forests. Timber was shipped down the Ou River, where it was turned into ships or loaded up for transport elsewhere — a practice that laid the groundwork for Wenzhou’s later reputation as a center of trade and exploration.
Of course, traders need goods to sell, and Wenzhou’s commercial fortunes were inextricably linked to the emergence of porcelain kilns in the surrounding eastern Zhejiang region during the Song dynasty. Recent excavations in the city have unearthed a remarkable quantity of porcelain produced by the famed Longquan kilns: The vast majority of these finds show no traces of having ever been used, likely because they were designated for trade.
Beginning in the Northern Song (960-1127), the Yue kilns of northeastern Zhejiang went into decline and the center of pottery production in the region gradually shifted south and west, to Jincun and Dayao in Longquan County. The Longquan County Annals describe a landscape in which there were “as many porcelain kilns as trees in a forest, the smoke from their fires merging with each other and filling the sky as porcelain trade ships weaved in and out of the river.”
That river was the Ou, putting the kilns just a short journey away from Wenzhou’s port. From there, they were loaded up and sent to markets across China and Asia, eventually reaching as far away as Africa and Europe.
In the past, historians of the Maritime Silk Road tended to focus on better known trading centers like Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Ningbo, and Nanjing, an understandable approach, but one that missed the way China’s burgeoning maritime export system actually worked. Ningbo and Quanzhou may have been bigger, but they relied on feeder ports like Wenzhou to facilitate the transfer of valuable, sought-after goods from production centers further inland. Hopefully, the recent discoveries in and around Wenzhou will help restore that history — while calling attention to just how much we have left to learn about how the Silk Road really functioned.
Translator: Matt Turner; editor: Wu Haiyun; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A view of the ruins of the ancient port in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. Courtesy of Liang Yanhua)