Guangzhou’s grand history as port on Maritime Silk Road

By LI QINGXIN / 06-23-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The port of Canton trading with foreign merchants in the middle of the Qing Dynasty Photo: William Daniel/NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM

Opening up
Historical and archaeological records show that from around 2 BCE, coastal areas in China opened up maritime trade routes towards Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and even the Indian Ocean. Rising in the era of the Qin and Han dynasties, the Nanyue Kingdom made its capital at Panyu (now Guangzhou), a city that advanced as a metropolis and hub for imported products. The Treatise on Geography in the Book of Han by Ban Gu (32–92) recorded that the Han Dynasty conquered Nanyue in 1 BCE and sent ambassadors from Xuwen county and Hepu county, near the Beibu Gulf, to explore business opportunities in the South China Sea area, the Huang-chi Kingdom and Sri Lanka near the Indian Ocean. The maritime route connecting the East and the West was forged at this time, becoming a landmark of marine traffic and the signal of the rise of the Maritime Silk Road.

After the 3rd century, the Six Dynasties invested strongly in marine strategies. New marine routes across the South China Sea and Southeast Asia were opened and an international sea network covering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean gradually formed. Entering the Sui and Tang dynasties, the well-known Guangzhou Tonghai Yidao (the early Maritime Silk Road) became an important route to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf region. As a great oriental port, many Arab merchants and other foreign businessmen gathered in Guangzhou, forming foreign residential zones.

After the 1990s, archaeologists discovered the Batu Hitam shipwreck and the Siam shipwreck in the seas surrounding Southeast Asia. In these Arab business ships, exported porcelain made in the Pearl River Delta region were discovered, which indicates that these ships had moored in Guangzhou and sank on their journey back. EH Schaffer, an American sinologist, mentioned that of all the cities and counties in South China that foreign traders had associated with during the Tang Dynasty, none was more prosperous than that of the huge harbor in Guangzhou.

With a focus on marine strategy, the Nanhan court (917–971) also paid great attention to managing sea traffic and affairs and developing foreign trade. The Maritime Silk Road reached its peak during the Song and Yuan dynasties, with a number of significant trading ports functioning. Guangzhou is a vastly important port. When sailing from this destination, domestic merchants could travel to Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Africa and the Mediterranean region. The Pingzhou Ketan, written by Zhu Yu, recorded that Guangzhou’s income was higher than other cities and counties in the Southern Song Dynasty, which was a great resource of national finance, known as the “royal court’s southern exchequer.”


From the beginning of the 15th century, the age of exploration arrived and Europeans forged marine routes to China. They sailed south along the west coastline of Africa, detoured around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, travelled across the Indian Ocean and the Sunda Strait near Sumatra and entered the South China Sea, arriving in Macao and Guangzhou. They also sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, travelled around the Strait of Magellan and across the Pacific Ocean, arriving at the Philippines before sailing to Macao, Guangzhou and other ports.

A tributary system was introduced during the early Ming Dynasty; special maritime trade bases (shibosi, often called trading-ship offices) were set up in Ningbo, Quanzhou and Guangzhou and the Anyuan, Rouyuan and Huaiyuan hotels were built near these bases, respectively. The Guangzhou office governed the busiest tributary-based trading from countries in the South Sea, while the Huaiyuan post consisted of 120 rooms, being the largest of the three posts. As Cristóvao Vieira, a Portuguese trader who had been to Guangzhou said, “China’s government regulated that only Guangdong Province can trade with foreign businessmen while any other provinces are not permitted. We can see that Guangdong benefits from the regulation and possesses great capacities to do business with foreigners” (A Letter from Guangzhou by Cristóvao Vieira).

Considering historical, geographical and political factors, in 1757, the Qing court restricted marine trade with European nations to Guangzhou with the purpose of curbing attempts of foreign traders to expand business into northern ports. Until the middle of the 19th century, except for Macao’s renting by Portugal, Guangzhou became the only port in China that permitted westerners to enter and do business.


At the forefront
The Maritime Silk Road also played an important role in promoting diplomatic relations, cultural exchanges, and religious transmission. After the 3rd century, Buddhism was introduced into China and spread across the Lingnan area and northward to the mainland. One of the most influential religious events of the time consisted of the Indian Buddhist Bodhidharma travelling up to Guangzhou along the marine road and building the Xilai Temple near the present Hualin Temple in 527. After, he travelled north to the central plains region and became the first Chinese patriarch of Chan Buddhism. Guangzhou was not only a significant base for foreign religious agents to preach their various religions, but also a major platform for domestic monks to travel west for the purpose of acquiring Buddhist sutras. The Persian and Arab merchants who embraced Islam lived in Guangzhou’s foreign residential zones during the Tang and Song dynasties. Along with doing various types of business, they also built sites for religious activities. The Lighthouse Mosque, still preserved today, is the earliest mosque introduced into China.

After the middle of the Ming Dynasty, Catholic missionaries came to Macao, Guangzhou and the mainland together with Western merchants. Francis Xavier (1506–1552) was the first Catholic missionary to visit China. After that, Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1669), Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) and other missionaries from the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) brought European science, technology, arts, geography, calendars, mathematics, printing and firearms manufacturing as well as painting and music. In the early 19th century, Protestantism spread into China. Protestant missionaries established schools and hospitals, opened presses and newspapers and translated various books. Guangzhou at that time became an important gateway for the eastward transmission of Western learning.

Portuguese was a commonly used business language in many Asian ports until the 18th century. After the opening of Macao, Cantonese Portuguese, a common language used in Sino-foreign trade, emerged, which was derived from the integration of Cantonese dialects and Portuguese in Macao and Guangzhou. With the rise of the British Empire in the 19th century, a new type of business language called Cantonese English gradually formed after long-term trading with foreigners. After the Opium Wars (1840–1842, 1856–1860), all trading ports required multilingualism. As such, Tongshi and compradors who could speak “Cantonese English” fluently and could thoroughly understand foreign affairs became sought-after talents in Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.

On the Maritime Silk Road, much of China’s marvelous technology and art, including its textiles, papermaking, compasses, porcelain making and painting, were also spread to Europe by those foreign merchants and missionaries. In addition, Chinese ancient classical books were translated and brought to the West. The influence of Confucian thought on the Enlightenment, Rococo fashion and art, and exquisite clothing and furniture adored by Western upper classes all are testament to the refinement of Chinese culture through the millennia.

Guangzhou has always been at the forefront of China’s foreign trade and marine transport systems, from the Qing and Han dynasties to the Ming and Qing dynasties. The city has stood for more than 2,000 years and become a great Eastern harbor and an important hub of the Maritime Silk Road. Its role in the commercial activities and cultural exchanges between the East and the West could never have been replicated.


This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Li Qingxin is a research fellow with the Guangdong Maritime History Research Center at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences.


​edited by NIU XIAOQIAN

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