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The Ancient Maritime Silk Road: Sailing Across the Vast Oceans
China has a long history of seafaring. As early as the Neolithic period, the earliest settlers on the southeast coast began to explore uncharted waters by using simple seafaring tools and opened up the first sea routes. Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty was committed to extensive overseas exchanges, sending ships from Xuwen, Hepu, and other ports far across the ocean for diplomacy and trade. His efforts made China better known as a major Asian power. China’s trade with other countries continued to grow during the Western Jin, Eastern Jin, Sui, and Tang dynasties, and peaked during the Song and Yuan. Such international ports as Guangzhou, Quanzhou, and Mingzhou (today’s Ningbo) witnessed the panorama of masts. In the early Ming Dynasty, Admiral Zheng He’s voyages to the western seas were a seafaring feat unprecedented in the era of sailing boats. With the changing times and continuous exchanges and communication between eastern and western civilizations, the ancient Maritime Silk Road entered its final days, while a new global trading system began to take shape, bringing new opportunities and challenges.
The ancient Maritime Silk Road was a road of peace connecting the East and the West by sea through trade and cultural and artistic exchanges. Its far-reaching significance served to promote and influence world civilization. This exhibition presents the coastal provinces’ collective showcase of the great legacies of the ancient Maritime Silk Road. It unrolls a scroll of China’s landscape through the ages, reproduces the majestic scene of navigation, and explores the significance of ancient trade and cultural exchanges between the East and the West. It not only rekindles our memory of age-old oceans, but also assists in the great renewal of the Chinese nation.
Communications between Chinese civilization and other world civilizations started at an early time via land and sea. Ferdinand von Richithofen, a Prussian scholar, called the land route the “Silk Road.” This led to calling the sea route the “Maritime Silk Road”. The Maritime Silk Road has become a major academic concept involving a host of topics such as global transport, navigational sciences, religion, folk customs, porcelain, urban development, and the regional economy. The ancient sea route stretches from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia to East Africa and then extends to Europe by way of the Red Sea, connecting the ports dotted along the route. The ancient merchants from China, India, Arabia, Egypt, Rome, and Greece were committed to opening up commerce on the sea through transshipment or direct sailing. Because the commodities traded on the route included porcelain, silk, tea, and spice, it was also called “porcelain road,” “spice road,” “tea road,” and “silver road”.
After the development of the Western and Eastern Jin dynasties and the Northern and Southern dynasties, the northern sea route to Japan and Korea and the western sea route to West Asia, South Asia, and East Africa were improved even more during the Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties, with fewer detours and more convenient direct sailing. The Maritime Silk Road became as important as the Silk Road on the land.
The Maritime Silk Road was in its heyday during the Song and Yuan. As the national economic center shifted to the south, and rapid progress was made in navigation technologies and in world civilizations, more sea routes were opened up. The large-scale international trade brought unprecedented numbers and varieties of commodities.
The brilliant feat of Admiral Zheng He’s voyages to the west in the early Ming Dynasty bears witness to the peak of seafaring in ancient China. Beginning in the 15th Century, the Age of Discovery initiated by Portugal and Spain brought European seafaring and shipbuilding techniques abreast of those used in the east. Later those techniques surpassed those of the East. The vast expanse of oceans became a thoroughfare making free movement possible. With new developments in cultural exchanges and trade between the East and the West in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the ancient Maritime Silk Road, after its days of glory, was gradually integrated into a global trading system and waited a long time to be renewed. Now, since China adopted the reform and opening policy and opened itself to the outside world again, coastal ports are pulsing with vitality. Chapters of a new Maritime Silk Road can now be rewritten.