Maritime Knowledge for China Seas

Maritime Knowledge for China Seas

(Joint project of the École Française d’Éxtrȇme Orient, France, and the Academia Sinica, Taibei)

In an era where Chinese naval presence in Asian Seas is increasingly discussed and even disputed, it seems important to reconsider and review our knowledge on China’s seafaring tradition. With focus paid to the practical know-how that was available to the craftsmen, seamen and merchants during the xvith-xviiith centuries, as well as the special emphasis on sailing and trading knowledge, this current project proposes a new approach for analysing Chinese maritime history. It falls within a renewed historiographical framework for China and is supported by recent advances in archaeology, improved access to archival material, and new synergies between scholars working on maritime Asia. Our purpose is to carry out a large-scale investigation that combines multidisciplinary research to better understand this technical and concrete experience, both for themselves, and within their specific temporal and geographical environment. This geographical area goes beyond national borders, covers the professional network abroad – in our case, the South-East Asia – and includes the enlarged sphere of intercultural exchanges, and the interaction between various nautical traditions with the arrival of the Europeans in the zone. In order to build a comprehensive research field, our study will focus on the maritime expertise of networks in Taiwan and Southern China provinces (Fujian, Guangdong), and some of their ramifications into South-East Asia. These regions have in fact played a central role in human maritime adventure during this period.

In order to establish a fundamental research instrument concerning Asian maritime knowledge, we will (as far as we know) create the first database that would realistically reflect basic xvith-xviiith century-China seas sailing expertise. The research programme will be focus on the following three main issues: 1) Navigation knowledge; 2) Port governance and infrastructure; 3) Seafaring languages. The purpose of the first section is to provide: a) a more relevant typology of Chinese ships and their construction techniques and methods, in comparing written sources with archaeological data, and b) the elements of maps, charts and sea pilots which have been used by sailors for determining their route and position in space (coastal warning and guidance devices), their indicators (landmarks, islands, shores, cape, etc.). The aim of the second section is to analyse any significant aspects of harbour-specific purposes and professional activities that may have been neglected, including organization and networks: shipbuilding and repair, storage and/or transfer of commodities, ship’s equipment, etc. In order to comprehend the type of traffic and vessels received by the harbours, as well as to understand governance, our research will be conducted on specific harbour areas. Their nautical aspects will be analysed by geo-archaeological methods so as to estimate the shape and height of the wharfs in order to identify available mooring and berthing possibilities and, hence, probable maximum vessel draught. The third section examines the issue of language—one that could be extremely important and could play a key role in our understanding of some maritime professional practices and techniques. Questions underlying this last problem include: “How did the people of China seas communicate amongst themselves? “Could we distinguish a China seas ‘lingua franca’, as we can in the Mediterranean world?” We know that this kind of language has been used in trading activities but, to date, no specific study related to this topic has been carried out.

Finally this research is an attempt to promote this endangered naval heritage at several levels: 1) through a close collaboration with archaeologists, it may be possible to better determine the targets of future excavations; 2) the collection of important sources will constitute a basis for further research; 3) it will aid in the protection and enhancement of regional naval heritage.

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