The Beginning of the Maritime Silk Road

I wrote the following article in Quanzhou when I was hosted by the Chinese to visit China from 12 to 24 June 2016. This was published in my column The Golden Legacy in The Brunei Times on 3 July 2016.


The ruins of the original Qingjing Mosque, the oldest Arab Style Mosque in China. (Photo by Rozan Yunos)

The Outer Walls of the Qingjing Mosque Complex in Quanzhou, China (Photo by Rozan Yunos)

The Smaller Prayer Hall of the surviving Qingjing Mosque in Quanzhou, China. (Photo by Rozan Yunos)

The Chinese Emperor's Edict protecting Muslims in China. (Photo by Rozan Yunos)

The Beginning of the Maritime Silk Road
by Rozan Yunos

OVER the last two weeks, 15 researchers and I were guests of the Chinese as part of an ASEAN delegation of think tanks visiting and discussing with our counterparts in China.

The journey took the delegation from Beijing in the North of China to Xiamen, all the way to the south where meetings were held at Peking University, Nanjing University and Xiamen University. Discussions with Chinese leaders and provincial leaders were also held as well as visits to important economic development and historic sites. The delegation stayed at six different cities: Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Fuzhou, Quanzhou and Xiamen.

The discussions among the think tanks were with regard to the reincarnation of the old Maritime Silk Road or officially now known as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route which is a Chinese strategic initiative to increase investment and foster collaboration across the historic silk road; as well as issues in the ASEAN-China relationship. The Belt and Road approach initiative was first proposed by Xi Jinping in his speech to the Indonesian Parliament in October 2013.

According to Iftikhas and Abbasi writing for the Centre of the International Maritime Security in a paper entitled “A Comparative View of the Ancient and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (2016) noted that geographically and historically, the ancient maritime Silk Road had two routes.

The first route is from China to the East China Sea linking to the Korean peninsula. The second from China to South China Sea, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Archeological evidence suggests maritime transportation dates back to thousands of years before inception of the Silk Road.

But until the 7th Century, land routes were preferred as it was more profitable. The maritime route finally was favoured over land because of the capacity for greater volume of shipments and relative safety compared to the looting and thefts on land routes. The seaborne trade routes for the Silk Road were strengthened during the time of Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) in China.

Mohammed Kamouch writing for Muslim Heritage website in an article entitled “Jewels of the Muslim Chinese” concurred that “prior to 500 AD and hence before the establishment of Islam, Arab seafarers had established trade relations with the Middle Kingdom (China)”.

Arab ships set off from Basra at the tip of the Arabian Gulf and also from the town of Qays (Siraf) in the Persian Gulf. They sailed the Indian Ocean passing Sarandip (Sri Lanka) and navigated their way through the Straits of Malacca which were between the Sumatran and Malaysian peninsulas en route to the South China Sea.

They established trading posts on the southeastern coastal ports of Quanzhou and Guangzhou. Some Arabs had already settled in China and probably embraced Islam when the first Muslim deputation arrived, as their families and friends back in Arabia, had already embraced Islam during the Holy Prophet’s revelation.

UNESCO in its write up about the Silk Road noted that Quanzhou located on the southeast coast of China is one of the most important Chinese ports along the historic Maritime Silk Roads.

Arab traders know Quanzhou by another name Zayton (or Zaitun). It was said that from the 10th century, Erythrina variegata trees were planted around the harbour entrance to welcome and impress sailors with their eye-catching red flowers, and the Chinese name for the plant, Citong is reflected in the city’s Arabic nickname of Zayton.

Judging from the artefacts at the Quanzhou Maritime Museum, the port has welcomed sailors and travellers from many different cultures and religions as they traversed these routes.

It was around 6 AD, when the Chinese Southern Dynasties began to have commercial and cultural interaction between Quanzhou and the other regions. By the time of the Tang Dynasty between 618 to 907 AD, Quanzhou was one of four major ports in use. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960 to 1297 AD), Quanzhou was the largest port in Eastern China and that continued in the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368 AD).

Quanzhou was linked with around one hundred other ports along the Maritime Silk Roads, including Madras in India, Siraf in Iran, Muscat in Oman, Zanzibar as well as Brunei. Many famous travellers including Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta visited Quanzhou, describing it as the biggest harbour in the world.

This glorious maritime past has been proven by several historic sites linked to the maritime Silk Roads in Quanzhou. Shipwrecks excavated in Quanzhou bay and the South China Sea testify to the prosperity and vibrancy of the port, such as the wreck of a sailing ship with a wooden hull, unearthed in Houzhu Harbor (Quanzhou Bay).

One famous Islamic artefact is the Qingjing Mosque, also known as the Ashab Mosque, which is located in the center of Tumen Street in Quanzhou. Throughout the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279), Quanzhou City attracted many Arabs.

The mosque, built and repaired by Arab Muslims, reflected the friendship and cultural exchange between China and Arabic countries. Imitating a mosque in Damascus, Syria, it was initially built in 1009 AD and today is the oldest surviving Arab-style mosque in China. This magnificent mosque covers an area of 2,500 square meters (0.62 acre) and features a gate, the Fengtian Hall, and the Mingshan Hall.

Facing south, the gate is made of diabase and white granite and consists of four conjoined archways. Many of the gate’s domes are carved with hanging lotus, symbolising respect for sanctity and purity. Each carved lotus is surrounded by a web of liernes, which add depth to the carvings.

A platform on the roof of the gate allows worshipers to watch the moon and decide when Ramadhan begins. To the east of the gate are two stone tablets recording the reconstruction of the mosque in the Yuan (1271 to 1368) and the Ming (1368 to 1644) dynasties. Another stone tablet is located just near the gate, engraved with the imperial edict of Zhu Di — the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The Emperor spread this edict to protect the Mosque and the Muslims in China during his reign.

The spacious Fengtian Hall was once the main prayer hall of the mosque. The hall’s design depicts the popular architectural style of Islamic prayer halls before the 10th century. Unfortunately, the hall’s spectacular roof collapsed in an earthquake, leaving only the granite walls intact. The ornamental walls house stone inscriptions of ayats of the Al-Quran, lit by the large windows carved throughout.

After the earthquake damaged the main Fengtian Hall, Mingshan Hall became the mosque’s central prayer hall. Located in the northwestern portion of the Mosque, Mingshan Hall was built in a more Chinese style and is smaller than Fengtian Hall. It is a quadrangle — resembling a traditional residential compound with a courtyard (common in northern China). Here the stone walls are adorned with Arabic inscriptions dating back to the Song and the Yuan dynasties.

There are many other artefacts both Islamic and non-Islamic in Quanzhou which can be described in future articles. As a parting note, it is worthwhile to note that Quanzhou is also a migration source of many overseas Chinese living in Southeast Asia and to Taiwan during the last couple of centuries. It is estimated that about six million people whose ancestors were from Quanzhou now live abroad.

The Brunei Times


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