Maritime Silk Road

Book Reviews | Muhammad Saeed | 6-04-2017, 09:10

Maritime Silk RoadThe book under review, Maritime Silk Road, was written by Li Qingxin in Chinese and translated into English by William W. Wang. In this book, Li Qingxin tries to portray the past glory of Chinese civilization, especially, in the maritime domain. It recognizes that current ventures in the Indian and Pacific Oceans undertaken by the People Republic of China (PRC) are not contemporary innovations, but are rather inspired by the rich legacy of the Chinese past endeavors. 

The author divides the Chinese maritime history into several main periods. The first one is ancient history, which covers the period from Hemudu Culture (5500 BC-3300 BC) to Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The second era lasts throughout the Middle Ages, which twitches from Sui Dynasty (581 AD-618 AD) and Tang Dynasty (618 AD-907 AD) up to Ming Dynasty (1368 AD-1644 AD) and the third era, contains modern history, the whole reign of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  

In the first part of the Chinese maritime history, the author draws the historical background of Chinese maritime trade with ancient Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, the Roman and Greeks empires since 5000 BC. The author claims that archeological findings ravel that the Liujiang people from South China migrated to the present day South Korea and Taiwan through the East China and the South China seas. Later, hundreds of tribes shifted from China towards south east, especially, in the present-day Philippines and Indonesia. These people launched trade in different commodities from the South-Eastern China to the other countries of the Pacific region. 

The author further denotes that around 3000 BC, Mediterranean was the hub of communication and exchange between Europe, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. For the first time then, the Mesopotamian Empire started to trade with Persia and ancient India. Through the Indian Ocean, the goods from Mesopotamia and Europe arrived in Chinese region as well. In 1989, archeologists discovered the Persian art craft, ivory from Africa and some other goods near the present-day Guangzhou. These discoveries indicate that Han and Qin dynasties developed at good trade relations with Persia and other western kingdoms. 

According to the author, commercial trade between India and China can be traced back to the 4th century BC. In this era, Indian spice traders came to China and brought back Chinese silk to the subcontinent. The ancient maritime trade route between Persia, India and China had been the same route of contemporary Indo-Pacific sea lane of communication, and that is why different heritages of Asia-Pacific region are the mixture of Chinese and Indian civilizations. The ancient maritime Silk Road took start from Guangzhou and Jianzhou (present day northern Vietnam) to the Strait of Malacca, and then extended towards the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Sea trade between Romans and China had definitely been started some time before the 2nd century AD: the Romans had found China as “Nation of silk” and enjoyed Chinese hospitality a lot. 

As to the second era of the Chinese maritime history, the author states that it was the great time for trade and development. During the reign of Sui Dynasty (607 AD) fabric, cotton, rice, butter, cane and coconut were the major exports to East and South East Asia. The Tang Empire of China, the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate were the main commercial and cultural hubs of the world during 7th and 8th centuries. Tang dynasty, with its capital in Guangzhou had enjoyed healthy diplomatic relations with the mighty empires of the world: it was famous for its rich culture and diplomatic etiquette. The treatment of business persons and traders was especially well-known to be very much decent. Wide immunities to everyone regarding their religious beliefs were properly complied with.

The author elaborates on the time that maritime voyages from China to the Middle East and North Africa took. Thus, it was a three days’ voyage from Guangzhou to Kauthara (northern Vietnam), a further two days’ voyage to Poulo Condore (the southern tip of Vietnam) and five more days to reach the Strait of Malacca. From the Strait of Malacca to Sumatra, trade ships arrived in three days and from there, in five more days, ships could reach the Nicobar Islands. A voyage from Nicobar to Sinhala (Sri Lanka) took four days, then ships from Sinhala to Diuli (Karachi) arrived in ten days due to stopovers at small coastal ports along the way. From Diuli to Djerramh (Iran) there was a twenty days’ trip and from Djerramh to Moluaguo (Iraq) there was a voyage of three more days and then ships took some more twenty days from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Adan (Yemen). 

Li Qingxin mentions the voyages of different Arab explorers and adventurers to east. Particularly, he cites Ibn Khordadbeh’s book Kitāb al-Masālik w'al- Mamālik, Sindbad, The Thousand and One Night. According to the author, these books had portrayed the glory of Pearl River Delta and prove that from 7th to 9th century, Baghdad and Guangzhou were the major international commercial hubs. Along with silk, ceramic pottery was also the key export to rest of the world. That is why the Silk Road was called Ceramic Road as well. 

The author claims that the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was more skillful in the management of foreign trade, as compared to the Tang Dynasty which brought the Maritime Silk route at its full brilliance. They set up administration of maritime trade at all port cities situated along the sea coast. He narrates that the Mongol-originated Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) captured Eurasia and designated it as their territory. The Maritime Silk Road had been reopened for the merchants from Europe and Middle East in order to enhance China’s trade connections. Kublai khan, the founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty, established a highly standardized and systematic mechanism of trade and commerce as compared to other dynasties. 

Li Qingxin describes that many Arab Muslim merchantshad playeda key role in increasing imports and exports of China. Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Mingzhou had been the most important and bustling ports of China for foreign trade.The people of these cities were renowned experts indetermining the height of the North Starin order to locate their ships’ positions in the seaand used mariner’s compass in their sea fares since the 12th century. He demonstrates that many world-famous explorers including Marco Polo, Wang Dayuan, Friar Ordoric and ibn Battuta travelled through every province and region of China in Sing and Yuan dynasties. These travelers learned Chinese local customs, different native religions and languages.

The author encapsulates about the presence different religions in China during the 13th and 14th centuries. In the Chinese citiesalong the ports, Islam used to be the dominant religion. In about 1320, presence of several thousand Christians is reported. The Hindu gods were worshipped in the city of Quangzhou in the Yuan dynasty, while earlier, during the Tang period, Manicheism first spread in China.

Li Qingxin cites that Qing dynasty stabilized their rule by recapturing Taiwan and wiping out anti-state elements present in China’s South-eastern coastal regions. Maritime merchant ships came from almost all major European countries to Guangzhou for trade and shipment. Portuguese merchants were regarded as the pioneers of upsurge of the maritime trade with the European continent. In1685 standardized customs departments were established in the Chinese provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The government adopted and implemented taxation rules for sea trade, establishing custom departments for fixing custom rates in the different regions of China.

Thirteen trade companiesdealing with foreign goods trade had full monopoly at ports.The author notes that sincethe Ming dynasty up to the 19th century, a huge demand and export of tea, porcelain and silkto America and Europe boosted China’s maritime business. It discloses that throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, silver was China’s main import from Portugal, Spain and Japan. The Chinese currency of copper coins was replaced by silver in the region of South China for legal currency exchange and payment.

The writer analyzes the flow of Western knowledge to China and according to him, Christianity spread in the eastern colonies of European countries during the 16th and 17th centuries. From the Ming to the early Qing Dynasty, some highly educated missionaries kept presenting their knowledge of engineering, calendric system, astrology, geography, mathematics, linguistics, art, music and other subjects to the Chinese and were chief contributors for the spread of scientific knowledge and Western culture.

In the last part of the book the author discusses the impact of the Chinese culture on Europe. He claims that Chinese culture was introduced tothe Western countries by Christian missionaries who spent most of their life time in China. Many missionaries were engaged in literary work and translated the masterpieces of the Chinese classical literature into their native European languages. Consulate staff of the Western countries was also active in keen observations of the local know-how in navigation techniques and international maritime trade developments of China and was sending detailed reports and updates to their respective countries. Large amount of Chinese silk material, porcelain and tea exported to the Western countries since the 17th century improved their economies and posed positive impacts on their social life.


Analysis and Criticism 

This book concluded that China’s advancement in maritime trade rests on its long history. All the major empires of the world were actively involved in trade with China. Most of the Western countries were inspired by the Chinese products, culture and traditions. The Silk Road was the most important trade route of the world in the centuriespast. However, the author exclusively focuses onthe Chinese point of view regarding the ancient maritime trade. He fails to describe the basis of extra ordinary advancement of China in maritime trade because unique management reforms are usually products of vision of some skillful and knowledgeable people and institutions. This book does not mention about such management experts or institutions, just as it is silent about how the Chinese developed their highly-functional port network. It is not mentioned about the knowledge gained by Chinese to use compass in navigation- whether they invented it or obtained its technology from some other countries.

The chief concern of the book Maritime Silk Road is to deliberate the classical background of the Chinese maritime domain. The author discusses briefly the development of the Chinese maritime trade from ancient times to modern history but fails to touch upon the dynasties in post classical history, like the three kingdom era or the Jin dynasty that played their vital role in Chinese history but are not at all represented in the book. The work seems partial and one sided, its reader only finds the Chinese perspective there. The author does not discuss the centuries of humiliation when China fell under the Western and Japanese rule. But despite all these shortcomings, there is no doubt that this book as a beautiful addition in the literature on maritime trade history and Eastern culture and civilization. In effect, it is a useful book for those who are interested to find the genesis of contemporary maritime policy of China in Indian and Pacific Oceans. 


About the author:

Muhammad Saeed

Published news by Author