Seafaring, Trade, and Knowledge Transfer

Seafaring, Trade, and Knowledge Transfer: Maritime Politics and Commerce in Early Middle Period to Early Modern China

January 2014–

This project is being sponsored by the
Logo der Gerda Henkel Stiftung

The aim of this research project is to investigate the qualitative characteristics and changes of China’s maritime commerce and politics over time (c. 9th to 18th centuries) and space (South and Northeast China and its supra-regional, “global” integration), in order to obtain a much more detailed picture of China’s maritime politics and commerce.We will apply a comparative chronological and spatial as well as an integrative perspective (China’s integration into foreign networks and interaction of Chinese and foreign agents) analysing the practice of local trade and knowledge (science) transfer, the specific inter-relation between seafaring and socio-economic and political-military purposes of Chinese governments and their integration into supra-regional foreign networks during periods of significant changes (transitions). Significant transitions occurred (1) at a time period when maritime commerce experienced a significant up-swing in the course of the late Tang to mid Song (I), (2) during the Southern Song and Yuan, when China rose as a real maritime power (II), (3) during the shift from the Yuan period promotion of maritime trade to the early Ming maritime trade proscription (III), and (4) eventually during a period when once again a foreign people (Manchus) ruled China, who allegedly concentrated only on continental borders and border security with little to no interest in maritime commerce and defence (IV). As a final step we will comparatively scan and review the particular characteristics of the four major transition periods, subjecting them to the same criteria of analysis, to produce a broader, more integrative and more thorough narrative of the longue-durée dynamics of China’s historical maritime politics and commerce.

The comparative analysis of recently discovered archaeological (such as shipwrecks with their cargoes, grave objects, tombs and tomb inscriptions) and textual sources from China and her “partner countries” will constitute a milestone of our research. Archaeological sources are relatively well documented and especially from the tenth century onwards we meanwhile possess important sites and recently discovered wrecks to be investigated. The sources to be investigated shall lead us to a better understanding of economic and political-military developments in China’s coastal regions, of influences and impacts on China from abroad, as well as the organisation of commercial and human networks in early middle period to early modern China.

Periods Investigated
(1) Tang-Song transition (c. 850–1200);
(2) Song-Yuan transition (c. 1200–1350);
(3) Yuan-Ming transition (c. (1350–1500);
(4) Ming-Qing transition (c.1500–1800)

I. China’s Maritime Politics and Commerce during the Tang-Song Transition

a) Angela Schottenhammer
China’s tenth-century gate to the southern seas (Nanhai
南海)

b) Li Man
China’s tenth-century gate to the north-eastern world (Dongbei hai
東北海)

II. China’s Maritime Politics and Commerce during the Song-Yuan Transition

Kimura Jun
a) An international trading port in Northern Vietnam (eastern side of the Ha Long Bay, northern part of the Gulf of Tonkin)

b) Kublai Khan’s lost fleet

III. China’s Maritime Politics and Commerce during the Yuan-Ming Transition

Ma Guang (Dongbei hai 東北海)

IV. Human Interaction and Coastal Defence during the Ming-Qing transition

a) Mathieu Torck
The line of fire and the line of duty: the roles of Chinese armies and navies in border defence and maritime trade during the Ming-Qing transition

b) Wim De Winter
Trade diasporas and foreign communities in Canton, Bengal and Nagasaki – A comparative approach against the background of China’s foreign policy during the Ming-Qing transition


[1] In this context, the Chinese historian Liu Shufen even suggested that due to the prosperous maritime trade in China’s coastal regions at that time, the Southern Dynasties (420–589) experienced an “impressive” commercial and urban development. Liu Shufen, “Jiankang and the Commercial Empire of the Southern Dynasties: Change and Continuity in Medieval Chinese Economic History,” in Culture and Power in the Reconstitution of the Chinese Realm, 200–600, ed. Scott Pearce, Audrey Spiro, and Patricia Ebrey. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001, 35–52.

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