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Quanzhou, Mouth of the Maritime Silk Road

When we think of ancient China, we tend to think of an inward facing culture, an empire possessed by the idea of its own unsurpassable Confucian haughtiness. This is because when Europeans started to arrive in China en masse, Qing China had become a rather xenophobic giant without need for “barbarian inventions” like telescopes or steam engines. When things came to ahead during the first Opium War, China’s fleet of wooden war junks were no match for British gunboats. Little Britain showed Big China that maritime dominion now determined who was boss.

This humiliating episode lingers like a stain on the robes of Chinese history. “They were not seafarers or global traders,” goes the logical conclusion. In fact, if we take the long view, it was only during China’s recent past that the doors were shut. In fact, Imperial China could boast of over a thousand years of global trade running famously down the desert paths of the Silk Road, but also on the waves, via the Maritime Silk Road. And the latter was dominated by the port city of Quanzhou in central Fujian. 

Around Town

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Source: China Daily

Superficially Quanzhou doesn’t bespeak of its glorious past. It’s a likeable, medium-sized city with a tastefully preserved downtown area that isn’t blighted by high-rise towers or shopping malls. The city buzzes with e-scooters and its many arcade-lined streets house boutique clothes stores and local delicacy shops.

The city centred is festooned with temples and shrines. The Fuwen Temple is the largest Confucian Temple in southern China, an expansive complex lined by beguiling banyan trees. At night the adjacent Fuziyuan Tea House hosts free performances of local opera and folk music. The Guandi Miao, with its splendid dragon-topped roofs, is a bustling, incense-imbued shrine dedicated to the Three Kingdom’s hero turned god of war Guan Yu. Then there’s the Kaiyun Temple founded in 686 with its two achingly beautiful stone pagodas that have survived earthquakes and Red Guard vandalism to become the tourist bureau’s picture-perfect-postcard.

Quanzhou’s architectural and musical heritage suggests that it was a prosperous place able to finance important holy sites to appease gods and venerate ancestors, as well as nurturing a class of artists and performers. But it’s all quintessentially Chinese stuff, hardly the trappings of a cosmopolitan sea power.

Qingjing Mosque

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The first real suggestion of outside influence is Qingjing Mosque on Tumen Lu. Founded in 1009 it is evidence that many Arab traders made medieval Quanzhou their home, even taking local wives. Though much of it is in ruin, it’s still very much worthy of the three-yuan entrance fee. Arabic calligraphy embellishes a leaf-shaped gate tower that is said to be a copy of a Damascus original while the freestanding pillars mark the area where a prayer hall once stood. There’s a modern Mosque next door used by the Muslim community that still make Quanzhou their home and a small museum documenting the story of Sino-Arab trade. 

The Maritime Museum

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To get a handle on why Quanzhou native’s pockets jingled loud enough to attract merchants from afar, one best head to The Maritime Museum on Donghu Road. The museum illustrates how advanced Chinese shipbuilders were, especially when compared with European efforts of the time. Maps espouse how Quanzhou’s trade routes reached as far as Indonesia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and even Europe. When the Central Asian Silk Road was falling into decline during the Song Dynasty, Qianzhou’s Maritime Silk Road reached its zenith. Chinese culture was flowering, its porcelain had become a refined commodity desired globally, the world was getting a taste for tea and silk, of course, remained a key export. Qunazhou was well-positioned and equipped to supply the world’s thirst for made-in-Song-China produce and became uniquely cosmopolitan as a result.

Testament to this period of early globalization the museum has a rather fascinating exhibition of antiquities unearthed in Quanzhou. The artefacts hail from all corners of the world and include Muslim gravestones, Christian stone cuttings and even Hindu sculptures.

Qingyuan Mountain

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After a few days touring museums and temples, a county walk might be in order. If so, head to Qingyuan Mountain on the edge of town. It’s essentially a country park with some easy hikes through great vegetation resonating to the sound of birdsong and guzheng music being piped through various hidden speakers. But the highlight is a statue of Laozi made in the 10th century, the largest of its kind in China. The relating tourist notes remind us that the seafaring Qianzhou folk did not just absorb the culture from abroad. As China’s doors closed, they would go out and establish communities overseas in places like Southeast Asia. “Taoist Culture has exerted a far-reaching influence of its neighbours” reads the blurb. With the Maritime Silk Road officially reawakened today, and Qianzhou bustling not just with tourists, but industry people as well, we’re likely to see this Ping-Pong of cultures continue.

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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