Before the land routes of Silk Road took shape, China had already developed maritime contacts with overseas. Just like the land routes, the Maritime Silk Road was a whole network of communication lines between China and foreign countries, whose significance has been by no means inferior to that of former.

Starting at such port cities in east China as Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Ningbo, Yangzhou, Penglai etc., the Maritime Silk Road network consists of ship routes in two general directions: the East China Sea routes and the South China Sea routes.

The East China Sea routes connected Chinese mainland to Northeast Asian regions of Liaodong Peninsula, Korean Peninsula, and the Japanese Isles, etc. The earliest contact with these regions in historical records took place in the 12th century BC, when King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty enfeoffed Jizi to the Korean Peninsula. Jizi set sail at a certain port in the Bohai Bay, crossed the Yellow Sea, and reached Korea. And Chinese production techniques such as sericulture, filature, and silk weaving spread to the Peninsula.

The South China Sea routes were a much more complex system of ship routes. Historical records reveal that China had trade contacts with the Malay Peninsular since the Han Dynasty. (206 BC – 220 AD). The Malacca Straits leads the voyage from Southeast Asia further into the Bay of Bengal, thus linking China to the coasts of the Indian Ocean, including the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the African continent.

The Maritime Silk Road had used to be a supplement to the Silk Road on the continent. Yet, the latter was constantly subject to political circumstances along the route, and was often obstructed by hostilities. And since mid-Tang Dynasty, the Maritime Silk Road, thanks to development in shipbuilding & ocean navigation techniques, gradually superseded the land routes as China’s main communication line with overseas.

Compared with the land routes, the Maritime Silk Road enjoyed the natural advantage of water transport. Transport efficiency by the water was much superior to land route transport, as the shipment quantities are much larger with much lower costs. Sea transport of goods, especially fragile, heavy goods like porcelain, was much more convenient and cheaper, hence the Maritime Silk Road being sometimes known as “Porcelain Road”. Furthermore, the southeast regions of China, the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road, happened to be both the production base of the major goods --- tea, silk, porcelain, etc.--- and the area where shipbuilding industry and navigation techniques were the most developed.

The Maritime Silk Road contributed greatly to China’s ancient overseas trade and national economy. The governments of the Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties put in place administration and regulations of, and drew large revenues from, foreign trade. Exchange of goods with distant lands was coupled with exchange of culture. While China’s major exports on the sea included silk, porcelain, tea, sugar etc, goods imported featured a rich diversity --- jewels, herbs, tusks, glass, cotton, rhino horns, gold & silver wares, to name but a few. Marco Polo traveled to China by the Steppe Silk Road, and returned to Italy via the Maritime Silk Road instead. The most famous trip on the Maritime Silk Road took place between 1405 and 1433 when Zheng He, on an imperial diplomatic mission, led seven voyages of unprecedented scale to the West Oceans.

Of course, due to certain political and cultural reasons, the imperial governments of successive dynasties (the Ming & Qing Dynasties in particular) had constantly placed restrictions on, or even totally banned for decades, maritime trade, causing disruption to China’s exchanges with the outside world. And despite the interesting fact that the Maritime Silk Road kept expanding its network to more regions of the globe in each dynasty, the inadequacy of communications with the West, which witnessed the industrial revolution and was well on its way to modernization, contributed partly to China’s failure to keep up with the advanced West.
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