Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty once sent a fleet to sea to open the way to overseas trade

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Overlooking the earth from space, the vast ocean decorates it as a blue glass ball on the deep sky. The blue edge and magnificent sinuous coastline outline the outline of seven continents. To the east of the Eurasian continent, from the mouth of the Yalu River to the mouth of the Beilun River, the long Chinese coastline is studded with dotted ports like pearls.

Over the past 2000 years, starting from here, silk with oriental charm has crossed the three oceans, connecting ancient civilizations such as Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia and India, and conquered the world with the beauty of “this thing should only exist in the sky”.

As a province with the longest coastline and many harbors, the ancestors of Guangdong were “good boats”. On this artery, the “Gold Coast” of the maritime Silk Road, more than 200 ports, large and small, in southern Guangdong spread many moving stories.

For the first time in official history

Records of the maritime Silk Road

Driving along the southernmost coastline of Chinese Mainland, looking across the sea from Erqiao village, Nanshan Town, Xuwen County, Guangdong Province, the outlines of the three islands emerged in turn in the afternoon backlight. “This is the famous big man three piers”. If it weren’t for the introduction of Xu Wen, the “county treasure” Lao Wu, who led the way, we wouldn’t associate them with the most important port of exit of the maritime Silk Road in the Han Dynasty.

To ask where the maritime silk road starts, Xuwen is destined to be an unavoidable ancient port. The book of Han geography records an ocean voyage from Xuwen to the sea during the Western Han Dynasty.

It was during the reign of Liu Che, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. In order to unite Da Yueshi in the western regions to fight against the Xiongnu, Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty was very eager to find a new channel to the western regions when the Hexi corridor was controlled by the Xiongnu for a long time.

After returning home from his first failed mission to the western regions, Zhang Qian brought an interesting message: in the great Xia state, Zhang Qian found that silk, bamboo sticks and Chinese wolfberry sauce from Sichuan had arrived there before him. It can be said that they came from India in the southeast of Daxia.

In 120 BC, an elephant paying tribute from the South inspired Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. According to the official in charge of delivering tribute, the elephant came back from overseas in exchange for pearls.

Is there another way to reach the western regions on the South Sea?

From about 111 B.C. to 87 B.C., Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty dispatched translators belonging to the Huangmen (the emperor’s near attendant) to recruit “recruiters” to form an official fleet, “starting from the southern barrier of Japan (then belonging to the Western Han Dynasty, now Danang, Vietnam), Xuwen, Hepu (now Hepu County, Guangxi)”. The fleet sailed along the Indochina Peninsula, through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and other places today, to huangzhiguo (now kanchpram, India), and finally arrived at chengbuguo (now Sri Lanka) to return.

Although the voyage did not reach the western regions as expected, it unexpectedly opened a trade channel leading overseas. This is the first record about the maritime Silk Road in official history.

The gold and miscellaneous silk (silk goods) brought by the fleet to sea were exchanged for pearls, emeralds and various strange stones and foreign bodies. Since then, the Huang Zhiguo has sent envoys to the Han Dynasty many times, and even offered rhinoceros in 85 BC. Folk business contacts also gradually formed.

In 1990, more than 290 Han Tombs discovered by Xuwen archaeology unearthed a large number of cultural relics such as “long live” tiles, crystal beads, glazed beads and amber beads, confirming Xu Wen’s extraordinary position in the history of the maritime Silk Road.

200 ports of all sizes

Perform a Millennium legend

Located at the main gate of Nanhai temple in Miaotou village, Suidong street, Huangpu District, Guangzhou, the four characters “the sea does not lift waves” quietly tell of its past glory. This place was called Fuxu port in ancient times. In 594, Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty issued an imperial edict to sacrifice the four seas and built a temple here. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, Chinese and foreign merchant ships must worship the God of the south sea here and pray for peace at sea.

Although the “Hanshu” records that there are only three ports of entry and exit: ri’nan, Xuwen and Hepu, geographically speaking, the inland river shipping and land transportation of xu’wen and Hepu are not convenient, and there is no inland river connection between ri’nan and the mainland. It is very difficult for goods such as silk from the Central Plains to arrive here directly.

On the contrary, Panyu (today’s Guangzhou), located at the mouth of the Pearl River, was one of the nine major cities in the country at that time. According to historical records, the biography of goods colonization, it was “a collection of pearls, rhinoceros, tortoiseshell and fruit cloth”, and it was a distribution center for all kinds of goods. Starting from Panyu, there are many waterways, such as Yuecheng Road, Jiuyi mountain road, Qitian Road, Dayu Road, which connect the Yangtze River system and lead directly to Luoyang and Chang’an. Therefore, Huang Qichen, a professor of history at Sun Yat sen University, boldly speculated that Xuwen and Hepu were probably the outer ports of Panyu at that time.

Quan Hong, curator of the Nanyue Palace Museum in Guangzhou, said that according to the Han ship model unearthed in Guangdong, the ship at that time was a flat bottomed ship with a poor stability coefficient, which was difficult to resist the heavy winds and waves in the South China Sea. In addition, at that time, the tonnage of the ship was small, and after loading the cargo, the storage of fresh water, grain and other necessities needed by the crew was extremely limited. Therefore, the merchant ships departing from Panyu can only travel along the coast, first, to reduce the attack of wind and waves, and second, to supply along the road, and officially sail from ri’nan, Xuwen, Hepu.

Therefore, there may be a “prequel” to the voyage organized by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty: the mission set out from Xi’an with gold and silk, and headed south along the waterway to Panyu first. At that time, Panyu was rich and prosperous, and various exotic treasures from overseas transactions could be bought on the market, which amazed the crew. After the rest and rectification in Panyu, the fleet left the Pearl River Estuary and drove southwest along the coastline. It may not be autumn and winter when they arrive at Xuwen, Hepu and rinan. At that time, the navigation power was mainly driven by the wind, so the fleet stopped slightly, first, to supply fresh water and food, and second, to wait for the northeast monsoon to blow southward before they really left the country.

Therefore, the legend of Guangzhou in the history of the maritime Silk Road, which is “the most qualified and the only one that has survived through the ages”, is likely to have been opened in the Han Dynasty. Since then, in more than 2000 years, although the inland waterway and coastline have changed from time to time, and the specific location of the port has changed from time to time, Guangzhou has always been the largest port on the maritime Silk Road, except that it was replaced by Quanzhou port for more than 100 years from the late Southern Song Dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty. The eternal incense of Nanhai temple and the wish of “the sea will not lift waves” are the best witnesses.

It is the continuous accumulation of thousands of years that more than 200 ports, large and small, have been formed on the long coastline of Guangdong in southern China.

River sea combined transportation

Unique geographical advantages

In fact, such “intimate relationships” as Panyu and Xu Wen can be found everywhere in the history of the maritime Silk Road. For example, many ports in eastern Guangdong flourished in different periods – Fengling port in the Tang and Song Dynasties, piwang port in the song and Yuan Dynasties, Zhanglin port in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Shantou port in the late Qing Dynasty, etc. the late dusongnian, an old expert in Guangdong economics, once wrote that they were located between the two major ports of Guangzhou and Quanzhou, and there were many overlaps in the prosperous period, so ships, goods, and people must flow between them. And most of the time, their outer ports are either Shantou Nan’ao port or Raoping Zhelin port, which are closely related to each other.

When you open the map of Guangdong, you can find that there are more than 200 ports, large and small, along the long coastline. Such as Shanwei port, Haimen port, Anbu port and Jieshi port in eastern Guangdong; Huangpu port, Shekou port, yamen port, Gaolan Port, Yantian port, Jiangmen port, Xinhui port, Lianhuashan port, etc. in central Guangdong; Xuwen port, hailing mountain port, Yangjiang port, Bohe port, Zhanjiang port, etc. in western Guangdong. They are interwoven into a network through routes. In different historical periods, they are more or less related to the maritime Silk Road, either as the starting port for sailing, or as a transit station for loading and unloading goods, or as a supply point for rest in the middle of the journey, or as a shelter from wind and waves.

It is worth noting that the large and small harbors on which these ports depend are often connected with developed river systems, which ensures that silk, tea, ceramics and other goods from inland origin come in a steady stream, and imported goods can also go north smoothly. Huang Qichen believes that it is the monsoon climate in the South China Sea and the geographical location of river sea combined transportation that make Guangdong an important birthplace of the maritime Silk Road.

Relying on the maritime Silk Road, Guangdong and the vast economic hinterland of the mainland and the globalized trade network are closely intertwined and benefit from it. For example, Chenghai Zhanglin port, which is historically known as “the gateway of eastern Guangdong to foreign countries”, is recorded in the annals of Chenghai County, “whenever there is a spring and autumn wind, there are no fewer than thousands of people who come with sails and bundles. High teeth are misplaced, people are abundant, people are calculating and raising money, and people hoard in strange places, making it a metropolis in the corner of the sea.” Chen Chengbo, director of the Management Committee of Zhanglin ancient port scenic spot, said that in its heyday, the tax revenue of the Cheng customs where Zhanglin port was located accounted for 1/5 of that of Guangdong.

Although the profits are quite abundant, “the profits obtained from a sea trip are about the same as the cost of a ship”, Chen Chengbo said that the winds and waves are merciless, and pirates are rampant, so how many ships have to go without returning. This has also cultivated the Cantonese ‘character of being born to the sea, resolute and fearless, and daring to explore. The stars have changed and the sea has changed. Starting from Guangdong and moving forward along the Silk Road, China has entered the world.

Walking on the well preserved Xinxing street of Zhanglin ancient port, 54 warehouses are neatly arranged on both sides. They used to be used only as warehouses, but now they are either converted into folk houses or abandoned. They are no longer busy more than 200 years ago. Only the ancient temple dedicated to the sea god in the street still has pilgrims praying. In the Ming and Qing dynasties before Shantou was opened as a port, it was the largest seaborne port in eastern Guangdong, and its prosperity was known as “fairy mansion in the sky, Zhanglin Street on the ground”.


Guangdong’s status as the “birthplace” should be upheld


Yi Lin, director of the business department of Guangdong first customs Memorial

Every weekend, there is an endless stream of tourists from Huangpu ancient village, Haizhu District, Guangzhou. What attracts them may be the antique village buildings here, the pleasant leisure environment along the waterfront, or a bowl of fragrant ginger milk. But in Yi Lin’s view, the more important significance here is that it is the location of Huangpu ancient port and an important historical evidence of the history of the maritime Silk Road.

Yi Lin graduated from the Department of Anthropology of Sun Yat sen University in 2011 and entered the cultural relics and museum management center of Haizhu District, Guangzhou. The memorial hall of the first pass of Guangdong in Huangpu ancient village and the Huangpu ancient village humanities and history exhibition hall are her daily work places. Recently, Yi Lin was busy preparing for the 230th anniversary of the first voyage of the US “Empress of China” to China. “At that time, in addition to a sculpture of the empress of China settling in Huangpu ancient port scenic area, I am also collecting some relevant information”, Yi Lin said that it is this work that has cultivated her deep feelings for the maritime Silk Road. “I hope that through our platform, more people can know the status of Guangdong on the maritime Silk Road”.

For many scholars studying the maritime Silk Road in Guangdong, this may be a common aspiration. Guangdong is recognized as an important birthplace of the maritime Silk Road, but when it comes to the maritime Silk Road, its reputation is not as big as Quanzhou, Fujian. Yi Lin explained that the Ancient Song Dynasty ships unearthed in Quanzhou in 1974 made Quanzhou famous internationally; At that time, the important position of Guangdong was mostly seen in historical materials, with only a few marginal relics such as Nanhai temple and Huaisheng temple. Therefore, in 1991, only Quanzhou was recognized by UNESCO as the starting point of the maritime Silk Road.

However, with the discovery of ancient ships such as Nanhai I and Nan’ao I, Guangdong’s position on the maritime Silk Road has been increasingly valued. Guangzhou, together with Quanzhou, Ningbo, Yangzhou, Penglai, Beihai, Zhangzhou, Fuzhou and Nanjing, has also been included in the maritime Silk Road heritage application plan.

As for Guangzhou, which is famous for its “one port trade” and “the only port that has not declined for more than 2000 years”, there are also doubts that Guangzhou has monopolized foreign trade for a long time, mainly because in the eyes of the rulers, its geographical location is the farthest and safest from the capital, which is caused by official policies.

However, Yi Lin pointed out that Guangzhou was already the most important port before Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty abolished the municipal shipping departments of Quanzhou and Ningbo in the first year and only retained Guangzhou as the only port for tributary trade. For example, in the 10th year of Xining in the Northern Song Dynasty (1077), 354449 kilograms of frankincense were imported in a year, while Guangzhou imported 348673 kilograms, accounting for 98% of the total imports.

Before the realization of “one port trade” in the 22nd year of Qianlong reign of the Qing Dynasty (1757), in the 72 years from 1685 to 1757, 312 merchant ships from European and American countries traded in China supplied oil, of which 279 entered Guangzhou through Huangpu port, accounting for 89% of the total. “This shows that the reason why Guangzhou is open to trade is not only because its geographical location is far away from the capital, but also because its original trade volume is the largest, so it will be retained.” Yi Lin said.

Yi Lin said that the major ports on the Silk Road in Shanghai in history, such as Quanzhou and Ningbo, have been interrupted due to war, sea ban and other factors, except Guangzhou, which has not declined in 2000. Therefore, when it comes to the birthplace of the maritime Silk Road, Guangzhou and even the entire Guangdong Province should not give up their position.

Physical evidence

Bagua beacon lamp holder

Located on the high cliff of shiweiling in Nanshan Town, Xuwen County, it is carved from a natural boulder. It is octagonal in shape, with a diameter of 2 meters and a depth of about 40 cm. The octagons are decorated with eight trigrams. It is a typical navigation lampholder in the Han and Tang Dynasties. Less than 10 meters away from the Bay, it is the best location for navigation of ships.

Nanhai Temple

Located in Miaotou village, Huangpu District, Guangzhou. In the 14th year of emperor kaihuang of Sui Dynasty (AD 594), Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty issued an imperial edict to sacrifice the four seas and built a South China Sea Temple in huangmu Bay, a port outside Guangzhou. The emperors of successive dynasties also sent personnel to the temple to erect a monument to offer sacrifices. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, Chinese and foreign merchant ships entering and leaving the sea must pray here for smooth sailing. This is the only official Temple that has been completely preserved among the four sea temples in China, with the words “sea does not lift waves” engraved on the front door.

Xilai Chudi

There is a stone tablet on Xiajiu road in Xiguan, Guangzhou, which reads “Xilai Gu’an” to commemorate the Indian Zen master Bodhidharma’s eastward journey to China to preach. In order to spread Buddhism to China, Dharma took three years to cross the ocean and landed in Guangzhou during the ordinary years of emperor Liang Wu of the northern and Southern Dynasties. At that time, the coast was near Xiajiu road. After Dharma arrived in China, people built Xilai nunnery nearby. Dharma preached in Xilai temple, which played an important role in the establishment of Zen in China. This area is therefore called “the beginning of the west”.


Gothenburg is a famous Swedish ocean going merchant ship in the age of great navigation. It has sailed to Guangzhou for three times. On January 11, 1745, the Gothenburg set sail from Guangzhou to return home, loaded with about 700 tons of Chinese porcelain, tea, silk and rattan. Eight months later, the Gothenburg sailed to a position only 900 meters away from the Gothenburg port, but unfortunately hit the reef and sank. On October 2, 2005, the reconstructed Gothenburg resumed the maritime Silk Road and sailed to China, and successfully arrived at Guangzhou port on July 18, 2006.

Xinxing Street

Xinxing street is the warehouse street in the heyday of Zhanglin ancient port. In the seventh year (1742) and the fifty sixth year (1791) of the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the application of businessmen was approved, and 141 shops were built in the front and back, arranged along the two sides of the inner port, forming eight streets, surrounded by six villages, so it was called “eight streets and six communities”, and then three streets and many shops were built, covering a radius of more than ten kilometers. Xinxing street is one of them that is well preserved. Today, you can still see the stack number of “Anping stack” preserved. The street is nearly 200 meters long and consists of 54 double-layer warehouses. The warehouse on one side is close to the inner port, and the goods can be transported directly from the ship to the warehouse.

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