Silk Road: A tour of global exchange

By SUN JICHENG / 07-29-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Sally K. Church (Left) and Sun Jicheng (Right) at the Gate of NRI. Sally K. Church is a researcher at the Needham Research Institute and the director of the Civilizations in Contact at Cambridge in the UK. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

In a recent interview by Sun Jicheng, an associate professor at Shandong University of Technology, Dr. Sally K. Church, a researcher at the Needham Research Institute at Cambridge, shared her insights and experiences in studying the Silk Road.
Sun Jicheng: Your doctoral dissertation is not directly related to your subsequent Silk Road research. How did you start your research on China’s Silk Road? 
Sally K. Church: The continuous study of Chinese history and literature provided me with a solid knowledge background for studying the Silk Road in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). When I studied the Silk Road, I learned something significant from something insignificant (or vice versa) to study the Silk Road issues more clearly and analytically. In 2001, I participated in an international conference on Zheng He’s “Going to the Seas” in Taiwan, China. At the meeting, I heard Professor Xin Yuan’ou of Shanghai Jiao Tong University discuss the size of Zheng He’s ships, which inspired my research on Zheng He’s Treasure Ships. In 2005, I published “Zheng He: An Investigation into the Plausibility of 450-ft Treasure Ships” in Monumenta Serica. In 2010, I published two articles about Zheng He’s voyages to the West, one of which is titled “The Giraffe of Bengal: A Medieval Encounter in Ming China.” 
“The Giraffe of Bengal: A Medieval Encounter in Ming China” is one of my earlier papers on China’s Silk Road. It chronicles the development of diplomatic relations between China and Bengal in the early 15th century. In 1414, Bengal presented a giraffe to the Chinese Ming court as a gift of friendship. The article sorts out the contacts between Bengal and Ming China in the nautical records of the Ming Dynasty from 1405 to 1433 and focuses on the Chinese documents related to the envoy of Bengal. In addition, it also focuses on the historical background of the exchanges between the two countries, the relationship between China’s maritime expeditions and diplomatic missions, and the authenticity of historical data on the Chinese record of Bengal and its rulers. 
I tried to clarify these many complexities related to the seemingly simple diplomatic event of tributing the giraffe. The above technique is also a primary method for me to research the Silk Road in China, which is to connect with others through a small event and then form a big picture from the small ones and explore new ideas.
Sun Jicheng: In the study of the Silk Road, you have elaborated on the diplomatic contribution of Chen Cheng in his envoys to Herat in the 15th century. Please briefly introduce your point of view.
Sally K. Church: Chen Cheng (1365–1458) was an outstanding diplomat in the Ming Dynasty. In March 1396, he made his first trip as an assistant envoy to the Western Regions (the northwestern area of the Qaidam Basin). During the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1403–1424), Chen had accompanied the eunuch envoys in their three diplomatic missions to Herat. He was praised for his outstanding performance. On the way to the fourth mission to Herat, he had to quit the mission and turn back halfway due to the death of the Yongle Emperor. Since Chen did some coordination and auxiliary work under the leadership of the eunuch envoys every time he traveled to Central Asian countries, it is difficult to find enough evidence to prove that he had made outstanding personal contributions to the diplomatic relations between China and the Timurian Khanate or other countries. 
Being loyal and diligent, Chen was an official who abided by his duties and accomplished his missions well. Their missions to the Western Regions had objectively facilitated the political, economic and cultural exchanges between the Central Plains and the Western Regions in the Ming Dynasty. They made significant contributions to the northwestern border areas’ stability and prosperity in early Ming Dynasty.
Sun Jicheng: In “Traces of Maritime Culture: Evidence of Shell-First Construction in the Longjiang Shipyard Treatise of 1553,” you revealed that the “Shell-First Construction” ship-building technology of the Ming Dynasty in China was different from the British “Keel First” ship-building technology. What is the significance of this difference for the study of Zheng He’s Treasure Ships?
Sally K. Church: Longjiang Shipyard Treatise is a shipyard chronicle written by Li Zhaoxiang, director of the Ministry of Industry in the Ming Dynasty. This book was of great importance for studying Zheng He’s Treasure Ships. According to its records, the dock of Longjiang Shipyard was about 41 meters wide and more than 421 meters long and was connected to the Yangtze River on the West. Therefore, according to the length and width of the dock, the largest ship size built by the shipyard at that time could be imagined. From the size of the dock, the size of the ships in the fleet led by Zheng He in his voyages to the West could be inferred. 
The sea-going ships used by Zheng He in his voyages to the West were built mainly by Longjiang Shipyard, except for some constructed in Fujian Province and other places. According to the record of Gu Qiyuan (1565–1628) in Guest’s Remarks: Treasure Shipyard in the Ming Dynasty: “The big-sized ship is forty-four zhang and four chi, and the width is 18 zhang; the middle-sized ship is thirty-seven zhang, and the width is 15 chi.” [zhang is a traditional Chinese measure of length equal to 10 chi, or approximately 3.333 meters] Research has shown that the length and width of most ships were only half of this size, which also shows China’s superb ship-building technology in the early Ming Dynasty, reflecting the considerable ship-building scale and production capacity of the Treasure Shipyard.
In the second volume of the book, I found a particular section titled “Components of the Ship Vessels,” which explained the various parts and structures of ancient ships and diagrams marking the structure and functions of the ship’s components. Accordingly, I deduced ship-building methods in ancient China and discovered the possible ship-building process: To build the shell first, not the keel or structure first. It is very different from Western ship-building craftsmanship. To a certain extent, this discovery corrected the vague understanding of Western ship-building experts on the construction technology of ancient Chinese ships, because they generally believed that the ancient Chinese ships were first built with the keel, then the girder, and finally a fixed stack to the girder. The ship-building process of ancient Chinese ships might be “shell first” in the ship-building process. It is the difference between Chinese and Western ship-building craftsmanship that I discovered during the translation process. It can complement the Western experts’ understanding of the construction of ancient Chinese ships. I think this is very meaningful.
Sun Jicheng: As a scholar who has made achievements in the “Maritime Silk Road” study, how do you evaluate Zheng He’s contribution in his voyages to the West?
Sally K. Church: As a great navigator in Chinese history, Zheng He led 62 Treasure Ships on his seven voyages in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea from 1405 to 1433 and traveled to many countries and regions along the Asian and African coasts. Zheng’s voyages to the West marked the beginning of the transition from land to sea in human civilization, and at the same time, he created a miracle in the history of navigation in China and the world. 
It is worth mentioning that Zheng’s seven voyages to the West demonstrated the wisdom of the Chinese nation in ship-building, the courage to sail, and proved that the Chinese nation has an open spirit and broad-mindedness to the world in history. In addition, his voyages to the West were peaceful and friendly journeys for the Chinese in the Ming Dynasty and other people they encountered in the world.
Sun Jicheng is an associate professor at the School of Foreign Languages at Shandong University of Technology, and a visiting scholar at the Needham Research Institute in the UK.