Twenty-first Century "maritime Silk Road" and the international communication platform

From Debate on "Port of Departure" to Joint Application for World Heritage

2014-05-10 15:18:00   By:中国东盟传媒网    Hits:


The three-month exhibition entitled “Across the Ocean -- China 'Maritime Silk Road' Heritage Boutique Exhibition of Nine Cities” was opened at China's Guangzhou Museum in April, 2014. It marks that the joint application for world heritage status by nine Chinese cities including Beihai, Nanjing, Yangzhou, Ningbo, Quanzhou, Fuzhou, Zhangzhou, Penglai and Guangzhou has entered the substantial stage. According to the scheme, the application will be officially launched in 2015.

Previously, these cities have contended with each other for port of departure of Maritime Silk Road for over 20 years. Nowadays, the shift from debate on port of departure to joint application has showed the huge economic effects of Maritime Silk Road and people’s consensus on the influence of Maritime Silk Road in trade and culture.

The Unceasing Debate on “Port of Departure”

With the opening of the Maritime Silk Road in the Qin and Han dynasties, China’s coastal areas have become the center of maritime civilization in the East. The southeast costal areas, in particular, had grown into important birthplaces of the Maritime Silk Road. As for the port of departure of Maritime Silk Road, it has provoked intense controversy in the research field in recent years.

The debate on port of departure of Maritime Silk Road started from 1991. In February that year, the UNESCO began its research on “Maritime Silk Road” in East Asia. In the following year, it listed Quanzhou as the only city along the Maritime Silk Road in the Chinese section, which was repudiated by other Chinese port cities. This has not stopped China’s coastal cities from contending for the status as port of departure of Maritime Silk Road. In recent over 20 years, China’s major coastal cities have never ceased defending themselves as port of departure of Maritime Silk Road.

In 2000, Professor Huang Weizong at Sun Yat- Sen University discovered in his research that Xuwen (Guangdong) and Hepu (Guangxi) are the earliest ports of departure of “Maritime Silk Road”, nearly 1,000 years earlier than Quanzhou in the Tang and Song dynasties.

In 2001, the provincial government of Fujian authorized the municipal government of Quanzhou to bid for world cultural heritage in the name of “East end of Maritime Silk Road -- Quanzhou”.

In September, 2003, some experts called for salvaging the wrecked ship in Song Dynasty – Nanhai No.1, and suggested combining commercial development with application for world heritage status.

The fight for the status as port of departure of Maritime Silk Road ranged on around 2003. Under such a circumstance, quite a few experts called for joint application, which was approved by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage. This has superficially put the debate to an end.

In 2010, however, Ningbo organized a symposium which was attended by over 50 experts, during which the Ningbo Consensus was reached, regarding Ningbo as port of departure of the Maritime Silk Road in the Chinese section.

The success of each application for world heritage brings colossal economic benefits. Apart from the financial aid from the UN, economy will also witness a boom. For instance, tourist income of Mount Huang rocketed from several million yuan to 0.2 billion yuan per year after Mount Huang was listed as a part of world heritage. Likewise, the Longmen Grottoes received 27 million yuan ticket income the next year after being listed as world heritage. The amount was only 10 million yuan in the previous year. Similarly, the fight for port of departure status might be the result of market economy.

Do We Have Only One Port of Departure?

However, is there only one port of departure along the Maritime Silk Road? The fact is that ever since the opening of South China Sea route, which is the earliest one, the Maritime Silk Road has been growing and witnessed enormous changes in the following over 2,000 years. This means that port of departure of Maritime Silk Road is also ever-changing.

With the continuous excavation of archeological evidence, Hepu port (Guangxi) fully deserves its honor as port of departure of Maritime Silk Road in the Han Dynasty. However, with the development of China’s shipbuilding, navigation and trade after the 230s, ports of departure gradually shifted to Panyu (Guangzhou) and Quanzhou, which had become major ports of departure after Tang and Song dynasties. Compared to other port cities, Guangzhou is regarded as the only port that is ever-growing during the 2,000 years’ development of Maritime Silk Road, whose historical position is further confirmed with the salvage of Nanhai No.1. From the end of Song Dynasty to Yuan Dynasty, Quanzhou surpassed Guangzhou to be the “World’s No.1 Port”, the same with Alexandria of Egypt. Nonetheless, due to wars and ban on maritime trade in the early Ming Dynasty, Quanzhou began to decline.

There is still no conclusion made concerning who will win the laurel of “port of departure”. And there should not be one. Although the debate on port of departure is of significant meaning to further research on this topic, there exist lots of doubts on whether “port of departure” is a rigorous scientific term. From the navigation perspective, each voyage has a port of departure, port of transshipment and port of arrival. Moreover, in the course of more than 2,000 years’ development, the Maritime Silk Road has developed into two rather than one route, which contains more separate routes.

Joint Efforts to Promote 21st Century Maritime Silk Road

According to the statistics, there are about 100 academic papers published in recent years, which elaborate on the important position and role of China’s coastal ports in “Maritime Silk Road”. These papers point out that there are different ports of departure at different periods, which have their own features and follow different courses of rise and fall. Ports like Hepu, Xuwen, Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Shanghai, Ningbo, Xiamen, Zhanjiang and Beihai, with their glorious past, have brought over 2,000 years’ glory to the Maritime Silk Road. So, in the eyes of Zhao Minglong, director at National Institute of Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences, port of departure of Maritime Silk Road shifts with the changes of economic focus and the rise and fall of major commercial cities. Therefore, efforts must be made to examine the historical contributions and practical significance of each port from an all-round and objective historical view rather than fight for the status as “port of departure”.

In October, 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the strategy of constructing the 21st century Maritime Silk Road in his speech at the Indonesian parliament. At present, the most important thing to do is to “find a good fit with history”. So, some experts pointed out that only by joint application for world heritage status could we carry on the profound cultural and historical connotation of “Maritime Silk Road”. Now, China’s nine cities which are main ports of the ancient “Maritime Silk Road” are jointly applying for world cultural heritage status. This will undoubtedly form a joint force in constructing the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.

The past foretells the future. Standing on the new starting point, we look back to the history on port of departure of Maritime Silk Road over 2,000 years ago, and look forward to the brand- new glory of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road. When we listen to the echo of history, we can hear the footsteps of the future. 

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