Shipwrecks are time capsules. Hidden beneath waves, they are suspended in silt and sand. Just down the coast from Dongguan ARE the remains of Nanhai One.
The 1987 discovery of Nanhai One, and the raising of the vessel and its artifacts in 2007, resulted in a heightened level of sweaty panting by state media in China. In this stage of One Belt, One Road fever, Nanhai One was a significant archaeological discovery along the “Maritime Silk Road,” which linked the South China coastline with the ports of the Indian Ocean basin. The wreck also figures into attempts by Chinese historians and politicians to consolidate PRC claims over large swaths of the South China Sea. (The official name of the wreck translates as “South Sea.”)
Whatever the contemporary political implications of the wreck and its discovery, Nanhai One remains an important link in understanding the role Guangzhou played in the development of long-range trade routes which circulated vast amounts of goods, people and ideas centuries before pundits would coin the term “globalization.”
The Pearl River Delta was a place where merchants from around the world could settle and pursue business opportunities in international communities—with some notably violent exceptions (massacres of the foreign population occurred in Guangzhou and Yangzhou during the 8th and 9th centuries). Contrary to the myth of a closed China coast blown open by the cannons of the British during the 19th-century opium wars, maritime trade, at least during the Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279), and Mongolian Eras (1271-1368), received both official sanction and support. Although, overseas trade centered on the Pearl River Delta has a history, which goes back much further.
There is archaeological evidence that as early as 6000 BCE, the Xiantouling culture, which was centered near present-day Dongguan and Guangzhou, were using dug-out canoes to venture into open waters. In 1974, archaeologists also discovered the remains of a shipyard near Guangzhou, which is thought to date from the second or third century BCE.
There is archaeological evidence that as early as 6000 BCE, the Xiantouling culture, which was centered near present-day Dongguan and Guangzhou, were using dug-out canoes to venture into open waters.
Later developments in sail technology allowed early mariners to take advantage of the alternating winds and currents in the Indian and South China Seas. The first century BCE Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, makes mention of the Monsoon winds, which dictated the schedule of trade on the Indian Ocean until the development of steamships in the 19th century.
Not only Chinese craft plied the waters of the Guangdong coastline. Writers of the Tang Era describe foreign ships, which appeared year after year at Guangzhou, exciting local merchants who would compete vigorously for the right to be first to market with goods from all over the Indian Ocean basin. Ships departing for the return voyage would be laden with silk, spices, porcelain and religious pilgrims. The Chinese monk Yijing traveled to India in 671 on a Persian merchant ship.
The maritime routes became even more important as conduits of trade, following the rebellion of An Lushan, a Sogdian military commander for the Tang Empire who turned against the court in 755. This led to the decline in Tang control over the land routes connecting the Chinese heartland with Central Asia and beyond.
Arab maritime accounts of the 9th century describe sizeable Arab settlements in Chinese cities. Chinese artisans even began imitating Persian and Arab artistic influences to increase the market for their wares.
Tang Era Guangzhou was not only a major trading hub, but also a critical source of tax revenue for the imperial court. An official Superintendent of Trade supervised merchant activities at the port and made sure that the government received its share of the revenue. The demise of the Tang Empire in 960 CE and the loss of the north to non-Chinese conquest states during the Song Era increased the importance of Guangzhou and the Southeast China coastal cities. Trade and diplomatic missions complained that they were unable to reach China overland and so, the Song emperor decreed that missions of trade and tribute would henceforth be conducted by sea.
Strategic concerns by the Ming (1368-1644) led to further declines in officially sanctioned trade along the Guangdong coastline further diminishing Guangzhou’s role in the Maritime Silk Road trade. The first European traders in the region beginning in the 16th century thought they had stumbled on a closed country, in fact, they had just come a bit late to the party.
Today, you can relive this history by visiting the remains of Nanhai One at The Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum. The museum features an aquarium with the same water temperature and quality as the original wreck site. Underwater archaeologists now study the vessel inside the aquarium and continue to recover artifacts from the interior of the ship.
The museum is located southwest of Macau, on Hailing Island, Yangjiang City and is open daily from 9:30 am – 5 pm.