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Yuan Dynasty witnessed peak of ancient Chinese maritime exchange

LI MINGFEI | 2019-10-10
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
The picture shows the port of Quanzhou in southeast China’s Fujian Province, which was called Zayton in ancient times and constituted an important part of the Maritime Silk Road. Photo: FILE
 

 

According to the Treatise on Geography in the Book of Han, by the 1st century BCE at the latest, China had communicated with the outside world by sea. However, in this self-sufficient agricultural country prior to the Song Dynasty (906–1279), maritime activities were insignificant in national affairs. In the Song era, the central court began to pay attention to commerce and encourage overseas trade given long-term warfare in the north. Maritime exchanges therefore prospered, making the Silk Road on the Sea increasingly important. 

The Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) was marked by the most frequent maritime activities and most developed overseas trade in ancient China; it was a time when the Maritime Silk Road outweighed land routes. Yuan ships reached as far as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea coast, while travelers from Europe and Africa sailed back and forth between the East and the West. Ancient Chinese overseas trade and maritime exchange reached its peak, paving the way for renowned navigator Zheng He’s expeditions to the West in the subsequent Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). In the middle and late periods of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing times (1616–1911), bans on maritime trade led the ancient Maritime Silk Road to decline. 
 
 
Multiple factors for prosperity 
Multiple factors contributed to the growing prosperity of the Maritime Silk Road in the Yuan Dynasty. 
 
First, the Yuan Empire increased its knowledge of the outside world during its conquests. After Mongols conquered Eurasia, the Yuan border quickly reached the coastline, prompting them to seek overseas expansion. 
 
In the early reign of Kublai Khan, envoys were continually dispatched to subjugate foreign countries. For example, official Yighmish, a Uighur, was ordered out to sea five times, sailing towards India, Sri Lanka, Champa and Sumatra to enlist them as subjects. Official Yang Tingbi went to Kollam off the western coast of India four times, lobbying countries along his journey to send tribute and acknowledge their vassalage to the Yuan Empire. Meanwhile, Yuan troops undertook seaborne expeditions against Japan in the east, Champa and Annam in the south and Java at the end of its rule. Through these wars, the Yuan’s knowledge about the outside world was enriched considerably. 
 
Second, while fighting with the Southern Song regime (1127–1279) and shipping food, the Yuan Dynasty honed its nautical skills and shipbuilding techniques. To defeat the Southern Song, it established a powerful navy and built more than 8,000 ships in total. Following the demise of the Southern Song Dynasty, it took over its enemy’s navy and ships, thus strengthening its sea forces significantly. 
 
Furthermore, the central court instituted the Sea Transport Brigade (Haiyun Wanhu Suo), which was charged with shipping grain from regions south of the Yangtze River to the dynastic capital. Shipping was one of the major modes of transportation at the time, through which navigational techniques and experience were accumulated. 
 
Third, the Yuan court’s encouragement of overseas trade and the imperial family’s demand for luxuries and rare animals promoted the development of the Maritime Silk Road. The government managed overseas trade through the Maritime Trade Supervisorate (Shibo Si) in each port. In addition, it built ships and provided capital for selected merchants, taking 70% of profits from related trade. Apart from business, these ships were also responsible for hunting treasure, looking for drugs and carrying emissaries. 
 
Encouraged by the Yuan government, merchants from the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean flocked to China. When describing the port of modern-day Quanzhou in Fujian Province, Marco Polo said that for one shipload of pepper that went to Alexandria or elsewhere, destined for Christendom, there came a hundred such to the haven of Zayton (Quanzhou). 
Moreover, Mongolian expansion fueled the need for exchange between the East and the West. The Yuan court maintained friendly ties with the Ilkhanate (a southwestern kingdom of the Mongol Empire) and they sent emissaries to each other. As road safety was in question during battles with other khanates in Central Asia, Yuan contacted the Ilkhanate mostly by sea, enlivening maritime routes. 
 
 
Yuan’s development advances 
From the late 13th century to the mid-14th century, China’s leading position on the sea began to emerge. There has been no clear archaeological and documentary evidence to prove that Chinese ships had ever entered the Indian Ocean before the Song Dynasty. In the Yuan times, the state’s presence first extended to the Persian Gulf, and it had close relations with Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and surrounding countries of the Indian Ocean. Chinese ships kept in frequent touch with Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia, set up business travel and trade stations for merchants, maintained long-term close contact with the port of Ormes in southern Iran, and left arrival records on the eastern coast of Africa. 
 
Due to long-term overseas trade, porcelain, lacquer, silk and various articles of everyday use from China became common in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region, influencing local living habits. 
 
In his writing Customs of Chenla (present-day Cambodia), Yuan Dynasty commissioner Zhou Daguan said that people in Chenla previously used leaves as spoons to fill their bowls with rice and ate it with their hands. After large amounts of Chinese commodities were imported, locals used Chinese porcelain and copper plates instead. The ground was covered with straw mats from Mingzhou, present-day Ningbo in Zhejiang Province. And the canopies protecting high-ranking officials during their travels were made of Chinese red silk. 
 
Persian historians have noted many times that commodities from China included silk, porcelain, paper, ink, peacocks, harnesses, felt, cinnamon and rhubarb, of which they considered silk and porcelain the best. 
 
As maritime activities had become frequent to an unprecedented degree, shipbuilding technology developed rapidly in the Yuan era. Numerous travellers were impressed by the huge ships made in China. 
 
Marco Polo said that in the early Yuan Dynasty, Chinese ships needed 300 sailors each. They were so large that they could carry 5,000 to 6,000 baskets of pepper. They had one floor, or deck for each, and on the deck there were 60 cabins and four to six sails. 
 
Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta arrived in China in late Yuan. According to his account, each Chinese ship had 600 sailors and 400 warriors, along with 12 sails and four decks. There were guest rooms, suites and shops on the ship, and each suite consisted of guest rooms and bathrooms. 
 
Due to convenient maritime transportation, a host of merchants, envoys, missionaries and travellers journeyed by sea and left precious records. Marco Polo, Friar Odoric and Ibn Battuta all travelled between the East and the West across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean by ship, each leaving famous travel notes that recorded the glory of the Maritime Silk Road. 
 
Chinese voyager Wang Dayuan made two sea trips in his youth. He traveled as far as South Asia and the Australian subcontinent, landing in modern-day Bengal, Sri Lanka, India and areas close to modern-day Darwin, Australia. The account of his travels, Dao Yi Zhi Lue, literally A Brief Account of Island Barbarians, recorded more than 200 countries and places, many first seen in Chinese documents. The geographical scope ranged from the Philippine Islands in the east and Africa in the west. The thriving of sea transportation attracted great numbers of foreign commissioners as well. During the reign of Kublai Khan alone, about 40 countries and regions paid 110 tributary visits to China. 
 
The development of the Maritime Silk Road also pushed map compilation to a new peak in the dynasty. Jamal al-Din, a famous Persian astronomer and scholar who served Kublai Khan, comprehensively collected materials about the territory of Yuan, including various Persian nautical charts, when ordered to keep geographical records of the dynasty. The materials were later incorporated into the Da Yi Tong Zhi, or Comprehensive Geography of the Yuan, which included a complete colored Tianxia Dili Zongtu, literally General Geographic Map of China. Major maps of the following Ming Dynasty were compiled based on the Yuan map. 
 
 
Wide network of communication 
Archaeological data shows traces of navigation by humans dating to 5,000 years before the present. With social and economic development, sailors, merchants, missionaries and travelers constantly sailed  in search of new commodities, new land and the unknown. The travel of these voyagers connected land on the two sides of the ocean and made it a common space through maritime exchange, particularly long-distance trade. 
 
The Yuan Dynasty saw a boom in long-distance trade thanks to the central government’s encouragement of overseas commerce since its early years. Regions exchanged not only commodities but knowledge, beliefs and ideas, bringing nations closer. 
 
The Maritime Silk Road linked China, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, West Asia, East Africa and the Mediterranean together. Each sea area was no longer an isolated geographical, political and economic unit. They were connected into an interwoven transportation network that was wider than ever before. 
 
Moreover, all regions communicated frequently, intensely and quickly by sea, shaping a maritime communication network between the East and the West. The network was a complex whole involving many parts and the relations between them. Though incomparable to today’s international trade, its unprecedented scope and openness was astonishing. 
 
Li Mingfei was from the Institute of Ancient History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
 
edited by CHEN MIRONG