Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Sea, Silk and Sutras

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Sea, Silk and Sutras

Article excerpt

Many stories tell of the exchanges between ancient China and other countries along the "Silk Road" which wound across the deserts of central Asia. Little is know, however, of the seafaring exploits which also made such commercial and intellectual exchanges possible for over 2,000 years.

Ancient annals describe how at the time of the eastern Zhou (770-256 BC) the Qi kingdom possessed many ships that plied through the Yellow Sea. Under the western Han dynasty (306 BC-23 AD) sea-borne trade became an official State activity, and Canton became a major port from which Chinese ships regularly sailed to trade with what is now Viet Nam, Malaysia, Sumatra, India and the Middle East. The return journey along this route took four years.

The Tang dynasty (618-907) was a time of great expansion in shipbuilding and maritime trade. There were two major sea routes, one leading eastwards, the other to the west:

* ships sailed from Dengzhou on the Shandong peninsula across the Yellow Sea to Korea and from there to Japan;

* from Canton a route led across the South China Sea to the Malay archipelago and Sumatra, a major place of call for Chinese traders. Continuing their voyage across the gulf of Bengal, Chinese vessels sailed to India and then on to the Gulf where they traded with the Arabs before embarking on the return journey during which they took on passengers and cargoes at the different ports of call.

The outbreak of armed conflict on the northern frontiers caused the Tang to impose strict controls on exported goods, especially iron objects--it was feared that the nomad warriors would transform them into weapons--and silk, which was used as currency to obtain horses from the people of the steppes. At the same time the Government accorded privileged treatment to foreign traders who reached China by sea from the south; they were protected and exempted from certain forms of taxation. …

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