In ancient times, trekking from one end of the country to the other was considered hard. Travelling to a different country, then, was thought of as tremendously difficult. There were no cars, no planes, and no trains. But traders and envoys of royal families, carrying items unique to their home country, would set out on arduous journeys that could last for years at a time.
Many of those that left China travelled along trading routes that would become known as the Silk Road. These were routes stretching from east to west, and were used by many other countries too. It was known as the Silk Road because of the popular trade in silk.
The Silk Road doesn’t just refer to actual roads, though. Many of the routes along the Silk Road were by sea, on what became known as the Maritime Silk Road. These routes helped China expand as a civilisation, because so many other countries wanted what China was willing to sell. Today, we have something pretty similar – the Belt and Road Initiative. This is also known as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, and was first proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013.
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The Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre and Guangdong Museum have worked together to put on an exhibition called “Sailing the Seven Seas: Legends of Maritime Trade of Ming dynasty”. It looks at the impact that Hong Kong and China had on trade along the Maritime Silk Road in 1368-1644 – during the Ming dynasty – and how trading helped shape and influence the city.
Young Post talked to Celia Shum, assistant curator at the Antiquities and Monuments Office, to find out more.
The exhibition showcases artefacts that were recovered from two shipwrecks, as well as Ming ceramics that were unearthed from Penny’s Bay in Lantau and Wun Yiu in Tai Po.
During the Ming dynasty, a mariner and explorer called Zheng He led seven sea voyages out from China. He would take with him gold, silver, porcelain, and silk, and he would bring back treasures from countries such as Kenya and Indonesia.
Not every ship that left China would be as successful as Zheng’s, though. Some would never reach their destinations. Two ships, the Nan’ao I and the Wanli, sank – the Nan’ao I was discovered near the island of Nan’ao, off the coast of Shantou in Guangdong, and the Wanli was found near Terengganu, Malaysia. Divers recovered all sorts of ancient Chinese treasures, like porcelain, and iron and copper wares.One of the items you will find at the exhibit is a Kraak porcelain plate, recovered from the Wanli. The name, Shum told us, came from the big Portuguese ships – carracks – that these wares would leave China on. Porcelain was very well regarded as a product by Europeans, and just about everyone wanted a blue and white dish, pot, bowl, or jug made in China.
“Porcelain was popular overseas,” Shum says. “That’s why the Maritime Silk Road was also known as the Marine Porcelain Road. During the late 16th to mid-17th centuries, European, Southeast Asian, and African countries traded with China via these routes.”
Another item on display at the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre is a kendi (a pot with a spout but no handle) in the shape of an elephant.
“[The word] kendi comes from kundika, which is the Sanskrit word for an Indian pouring vessel. It was introduced to China around between the Sui and Tang dynasties [6th-10th centuries], and was also in use in the Qing dynasty [1644-1911],” Shum says. A kendi, Shum adds, would have been used to store water and to clean the hands of people taking part in religious ceremonies. The act of washing your hands would have symbolised purity and fortune. This kendi, Shum says, is special because it is square, with an elephant’s head. They would have typically been round, and tall, with a narrow neck.
Other items found from the shipwrecks include things that perhaps weren’t meant to be traded, but were used by the crew. Walnut shells, dice made from bone, an acupuncture needle, and game pieces used to play Go (a Chinese board game) are also on display at the museum.
“Sailing the Seven Seas: Legends of Maritime Trade of Ming dynasty” runs until March 4 at the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.