Maritime Silk Road

September 2023

This is episode six of our special mini-series on the maritime history of China and it looks at the Maritime Silk Road. This fascinating topic is far richer and deeper than the name implies. On the one hand we discover all about the ancient maritime trade route by which silk was transported abroad from China – but as you will discover it is far more complicated than that – and far more interesting as a result. It’s a topic that links Asia and Europe’s deep past with the present day and modern China’s strategic global ambitions. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Tansen Sen, Director of the Center for Global Asia and Professor of History, NYU Shanghai.

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    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. Today, we end our mini series on maritime China with an episode on the Maritime Silk Road. Now, you may think that this is a fairly straightforward subject, its name implies, it was a maritime route by which silk was transported abroad from China. But as you will discover today, it is far, far more complicated than that. And I think far more interesting as a result. It’s a topic that links us with Asia and Europe’s deep past right up to the present day. And to China’s strategic global positioning. I’m lucky to have sailed on a number of the routes we discuss for a National Geographic documentary down the coast of China past Vietnam to the Gulf of Thailand, on to Singapore and beyond to the Malacca Straits and then out into the Indian Ocean and the numerous trade routes that open up. And so I was particularly pleased to balance my practical experience with a bit of proper education by talking with none other than Tansen Sen, Director of the Centre for Global Asia and professor of history at New York University in Shanghai. He specialises in Asian history and religions and has special scholarly interest in India-China interactions, Indian Ocean connections and Buddhism. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is a man who has truly met the considerable challenge of understanding how different nations and cultures interact in both past and present. It’s the far sighted Tansen.

    Sam Willis
    First of all, Tansen let me say thank you very much for joining me today.

    Tansen Sen
    Thank you, Sam, it’s great to talk to you about maritime history.

    Sam Willis
    So the Maritime Silk Road, the phrase the Maritime Silk Road is is surprisingly complicated. What do you think it refers to?

    Tansen Sen
    I think it’s a creation as a constructed idea that comes from the Silk Road idea that was invented by the German geographer in the 19th century. And it became very popular, especially among the Chinese and the Japanese. And they wanted to recreate that in the maritime world, which I argue is perhaps not appropriate, because the maritime world is hugely complicated. And perhaps no one term really can define it. Because it’s not just silk, that was being traded. There were many other commodities, many other things going on. And the fact that it was a route is also very complicated, because there are many segments and routes across the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, East China Sea. So I think that’s why it’s constructed, trying to bring everything together. But it really comes out of this, I would say a nationalist idea, both in Japan initially and then in China, to connect themselves to the larger Indian Ocean world.

    Sam Willis
    What sort of period did that happen? When did the Japanese and the Chinese decide to do this?

    So it started in the 1960s by this Japanese scholar called Mr. Gu TakaToshi, who actually travelled the other direction that you are travelling in your trips, he travelled from Japan to Turkey. During his voyages, all the way to Turkey, he saw Chinese ceramics. And he later became one of the leading experts on Chinese porcelain. And he in 1965, created this term initially in Japanese, but then translated to English as the Maritime Silk Road. So he pointed out in his book, published in 65, and later he was part of the NHK filming of various kinds of maritime related documentaries, that it’s not just about Silk, because he himself was a scholar of ceramics. But he said that this is one way of propagating this idea that is something that connects the maritime world. So he was the person who I have argued, invented this term, Maritime Silk Road and the concept behind it. But in China, it comes about in the 1980s, and the Chinese scholars, a one in particular called xxx from Peking University, who then coined this term, not knowing that the Japanese had already started talking about it. So for him, he was the one who was inventing it For him, this guy was a Burmese scholar he studied Burmese language Burmese history. And he was interested in looking initially at the route that connected China to India through Burma. And before he started using this term Maritime Silk Road, he actually coined this term called the southwestern Silk Road, which connected China to India through Burma. And then in 1981, he became interested in the maritime world, and at a very important conference, he then propose this term called Maritime Silk Road in 1981.

    Sam Willis
    And how did the sort of politics of China in the 1980s affect this because there’s a growing sense of national identity. And it all kind of builds from this period, isn’t it?

    Yeah, it’s quite interesting, because 1981 is just a few years after China started opening up. So the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had proposed this open door policy, and one of the parts of this open door policy was to connect with the maritime world. And so it the idea of the Maritime Silk Road then became very closely connected, especially among intellectuals first, and then in the mid 80s, among the Chinese politicians, about China going out to the seas and and that became part of ways in which they created this narrative that going out is something good, and Maritime Silk Road is harmonious, peaceful, and China, when it’s going out is not a threat. So it became a way in which to project the soft image of China as it engaged with the world after the Cultural Revolution. And then the open door policy started. So we see in the literature, when the open door policy is usually discussed, the Maritime Silk Road will be brought up as a way in which China is connecting to the larger world.

    Sam Willis
    It’s interesting that the Chinese were then looking back to an earlier period of the Chinese I’m thinking of the Zheng He voyage is going out and exploring the world. Do you think that they cared about how accurate their understanding of history was?

    No, I think that that never was the case. I think accuracy was problematic. But the linking of the Maritime Silk Road to Zheng He actually starts when they celebrate the 580th anniversary of the voyages, which took place in 1405 and continued until 1433. And it was a way in which to say that at one point, China was a maritime power, but the power part was different from what the European colonisers did. China, according to them in the 15th century really did not occupy colonise the places that Zheng He, this Ming Dynasty Admiral went to. So China was a maritime power, but used the power to create diplomatic engagements with the Indian Ocean world, rather than use military power. And the Maritime Silk Road was a depiction of that kind of a harmonious Chinese way of connecting to the world. So yes, since 1985, Zheng He and the Maritime Silk Road became really very much entwined in the narratives both by the state and by the intellectuals.

    Sam Willis
    It’s fascinating, isn’t it? How does the relationship fit now between China’s political ideas and the history trying to back it up do you academics have to kind of fit into this awkward position?

    I think especially with the Belt and Road Initiative, it has become more integrated into the state narrative of China’s maritime engagements in the past and the present. So that’s the reason why when we are talking about the narrative, or the historical narrative of Belt and Road Initiative, which includes the Zheng He voyages, it includes the use of Maritime Silk Road, the attempts to create it as a world heritage, listing a shared world heritage thing, we have to be very careful about it because the use of historical narratives, and I’ve argued with the case of Zheng He himself, that these voyages were actually not that peaceful. We see evidence of use of military power. Almost every expedition and he went on seven expeditions carried about 20,000+ soldiers, some of the most advanced weaponry, some of the largest ships, and there are records of Zheng He and and his soldiers engaging in actually changing regimes. That happens in Southeast Asia. It happens in South Asia, so you know, if we, as historians look at those voyages, then we have to point out, the Chinese historical records themselves indicate otherwise, that these voyages were not all peaceful and harmonious.

    Sam Willis
    It’s interesting you bring up the Belt and Road Initiative. That’s clearly such an important part. And it’s a slightly confusing name, isn’t it? Because the road in the Belt and Road Initiative refers to the sea. And the belts refers to the land. Yes. Yeah, I mean, tell us about. I suppose that the pressure on historians that arose from this sudden the arrival of the Belt and Road Initiative, because it’s a new phenomenon, isn’t it?

    Yeah, I mean, so. So it’s a hugely economic agenda of the state. Right. So 2013, when the Chinese leader Xi Jinping started, this actually started with the belt idea. So it was initially One Belt, One Road that he proposed first in Central Asia, and then the road idea he proposed in Indonesia the same year. And at that point, the narrative was not clear what exactly this, this initiative was. And gradually, it became from One Belt, One Road to Belt and Road Initiative. Yes, the belt was this Economic Belt, that that existed across the let’s step step route, and the Silk Roads, the land, Silk Roads, the road, I think, most likely, he was talking about the Maritime Silk Roads road. Alright. So I think that’s how the word came about, right? Why the road will because the Maritime Silk Road idea that term had already existed before 2013. And it did not make sense beyond China’s economic policy at that time, 2013, which became a political policy as well, because this was a nod going to the US as it was going to Africa. And then later on to Europe, Japan was not involved. So it became a hugely political issue. And then in, in order to address that political issue, the Chinese started bringing in culture, so it became economic, political and cultural aspect, that now are three important, you can say, legs of Belt and Road Initiative.

    Sam Willis
    It’s fascinating, isn’t it? So you’ve got the politicians who have their own concept of history, which they use to their own ends, and then you’ve got academics who are being a bit more cautious and say, Whoa, we need to actually talk about what really happened. What about everyone else? Do the Chinese have a keen sense of their own maritime history or not?

    so so they have, but before I go and talk about that, I should point out that it’s not just about the Chinese, you know, this book called 1421, that Gavin Menzies wrote, which argued that the Chinese had discovered the world. And this is totally made up history, which was designated, unfortunately, as a nonfiction by the Library of Congress. And Gavin Menzies has made a lot of money propagating that idea, which is totally useless. But that got accepted in many places, including by the Chinese leadership initially, right? So it’s not not just the Chinese government or the Chinese scholars, who are using their ways of looking at history to construct something they want to propagate. But it’s others as well as there are various disciples of Gavin Menzies running around arguing that the Chinese went to US before Christopher Columbus discovered the entire world. So so that that I think, is a caution that we should have you see in my background is a 1421 book there.

    Sam Willis
    But I have one by my desk as well. And whenever I whenever I want to entertain myself, I read all about dogs, dogs in Brazil or something and how that proves that Chinese came? Yeah.

    Tansen Sen
    So So I think this this is, this is an issue that, that we have to be aware of, and and point out as historians that you know, there are problems in the interpretation. That’s what historians do. And we are not always right, we have to acknowledge that interpretation continues, right? People come up with new sources, and there are new ways of looking at the maritime history. And the Chinese were aware of that. But it’d become complicated in China because of the colonial experience that the Chinese had, since the Opium War, which was a maritime engagement between China and the colonial powers, the British in particular in the 1839-40s. So their concept of maritime history, you can say comes from that kind of engagement with the colonial power. So when they look back at their maritime history, they are thinking about the 19th century experience. But you know, there are other Chinese scholars who are looking at archaeology and and what kind of evidence there is, with regard to the maritime engagement. And initially, there’s very little. And because China was mostly engaged with the northern parts of their empire, Central Asia, Mongolia. And so the Chinese engagement with the maritime world actually starts in around 1000 ce, when the Chinese start developing their own ships that can go into the seas. And that is something that they recognise. But still, there is a view and and this is part of the nationalist way of creating this 5000 years of Chinese history. The idea within China that – no – China has been engaged with the maritime world, with their ships long time before that. And this is something that has been ingrained into the Chinese scholarship. And it’s very difficult to argue, even with Chinese scholars that you know, you can’t really say that because the evidence of Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is totally lacking, right. So we don’t see Chinese ships arriving in India, for example, before 1000 CE, same in Southeast Asia, and then it relates to the shipbuilding industry and in China as well, that the Chinese really have the technology to build ocean going ships. As you know, these ships are constructed very differently. The wooden planks are very different, because of the salty waters of the oceans. So where did that technology come from? And it’s clearly Southeast Asian influence that results in the building of these ocean going ships. That happens in the 10th 11th century only.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah. It’s interesting talking about that area, particularly the Indian Ocean, because the narrative we often get is so China centric. Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about that? And whether it’s fair.

    It’s not fair but I think we understand that because it’s not just China again, that does it. Other countries have done it. Oman, for example, does it very often, India does that the long history of its maritime heritage. And I think China has been good and doing that for one particular reason, which is they have lots of historical documents, unlike the Oman, or India, because their historical documents, go back to the Pre-Common Era times. And then you can find records of Southeast Asia and information is most likely coming from foreign travellers, foreign traders, but they have nonetheless, records. And those records are what you know, scholars have to really look at and interpret, and you can’t take those records on their face value. That’s what historians have to do is to know, not just read the records, but try to analyse, deconstruct those records. And once you start deconstructing those records, then you can see the problems in the records, even though they are a huge number, right. So so I think those who lack a knowledge of classical Chinese, perhaps will be stuck with one kind of interpretation that people are making and not looking at the original sources and trying to try to decipher what those records indicate. But one of the reasons, as you said, for the China, China centric views of the maritime world, is that they have the records. And they can use it to play that that role of sino centrism, and say, Look, we have the records and we think this is the way and this became an argument actually, between Chinese scholars and Japanese scholars with regard to the Maritime Silk Road idea because the person who invented this term in China Chen Yeng would say, why are the Japanese interpreting our sources? We Chinese have the sources we should be writing the history of the Maritime Silk Road and not the Japanese. So Japanese also read Chinese characters, so they were the ones not only reading it, but also interpreting it. So it’s very interesting to see how the Japanese interpretation of same sources differ from how the Chinese were doing it. And and this combination that I mentioned earlier between what was happening in China politically, and this idea of Maritime Silk Road, propagated by Chinese intellectuals became so intertwined that the sino centrism idea, concept really took off from that because these intellectuals also wanted China to open up.

    Sam Willis
    I think it’s fair for us to say that it’s unlikely that we’re suddenly going to discover some new ancient Chinese or Japanese sources, which is going to change our perspective on all of this, which suggests to me that the future battleground over this is going to be maritime archaeology. Is there, is there a sense of that in the maritime community? Yes.

    Tansen Sen
    And, you know, part of the Belt and Road Initiative is to invest in maritime archaeology. And the Chinese have really developed maritime archaeology, also since the 1990s. And they realise that as part of the argument on the Maritime Silk Road, which said, you know, Chinese were there first. And the Chinese were visiting different places in the Indian Ocean, they think maritime archaeology is what can provide them the evidence. So one of the things they have been doing in Kenya, for example, actually, the whole eastern African coast, is trying to find the ships that belong to Zheng He. And with all the records that we have about Zheng He, we do not have any evidence about his ships. And so one of the things that the Chinese government has been doing is to invest a lot of money in maritime archaeology. And then you would know this, because states lack funding for maritime archaeology, it costs a lot. But the Chinese government seems to have that money to invest in maritime archaeology. And on one hand, this has really helped the field of maritime archaeology in China. But on the other hand, it has, again become very much part of the Chinese nationalism, China’s China centric ideas of the maritime world, it has been done to promote the idea that the Chinese were engaged in the maritime world from early on. So you see this a number of different places, you see it in South China Sea as well, where it’s connected to the issue of sovereignty or territorial claims, and so forth. So in South China Sea, you have a number of different shipwrecks. And many of these ships have Chinese goods, porcelain, for example. But the ships themselves were perhaps constructed elsewhere, and perhaps run by people who are not Chinese. But the Chinese government has claimed that if the if the commodities in the ships are Chinese, it’s a Chinese shipwreck. So you know, this, this, this becomes a whole issue about whose ownership here about underwater archaeology, so UNESCO has been dealing with this, whose heritage right I mean, if you have a shipwreck, and this is a controversial issue with UNESCO, who can then claim this a shipwreck that is discovered in South China Sea? Right. So I think I think that gets into a complicated issue about heritage making a claim to territories, creating new narratives of history. So I think it’s maritime archaeology underwater. Archaeology is very, very interesting, I think, going forward.

    Sam Willis
    Yeah, you mentioned Kenya, I’ve actually been to Malindi, and I’ve dived on a wreck, which was supposedly Chinese, but it was not it was Portuguese, they discovered it was Portuguese, shortly after they thought it was Chinese. So Africa is obviously a hotspot that clearly matters. Is there a kind of a ranking of important places for the Chinese to prove that they identify with them? I’m thinking of maybe Cambodia or whatever it might be? Do you get a sense of priority?

    Oh clearly South China Sea is priority number one, and it’s not just Cambodia, but also the maritime world of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Philippines, this part because it overlaps with, you know, the territorial claims and disputes with Vietnam, with Philippines. So, yes, South China Sea, which is right next to the Chinese coastal region is priority number one, alright. So then you move to the Indian Ocean world, and that extends from eastern coasts of Africa all the way to India, and beyond India, reaching South China Sea, but the eastern coast of Africa is I would say number two, because they they are trying to reach out to that faraway land, connect to Africa, both economically and politically. So again, this idea that China is not a threat, we are harmonious peaceful, we can help you with archaeology. So it’s a public diplomacy kind of thing they are doing in Africa. And then the third I would say, is around India. So Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, I think they are trying to develop some kind of archaeological aspect there as well. And more interestingly, I think is what they’re trying to do in Saudi Arabia with the Middle East also. And I think they are funding various archaeological programmes in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. And I think that has to relate to the Islamic countries oil as a resource, but it’s very well integrated, I would say the political agenda, the economic agenda and the cultural agenda of the Chinese government. Yeah,

    Sam Willis
    it was interesting what you’re saying about the Persian Gulf, I think that’s, that’s really going to change because the one thing that we all know is going to happen is that the oil is going to run out at some point. And tourism is a really important source of money to replace that, which means there’s a real focus on those areas who have a significant history – there’s fascinating history all around there going back to the Neolithic, but a lot of the maritime world’s been very little explored. Do you know of any work going on there in the maritime world at the moment?

    In the Persian Gulf? You mean? Yeah. Yeah, I think there are a number of people studying both archaeology is starting from you know, Oman, outwards, Oman has been also investing money on Maritime Studies, and, and Yemen, which before the conflict there, I think was quite important as far as the Hadrami network was, was concerned. So there is a scholar at Duke called Engseng Ho who really mapped the Hadrami network from Yemen to Southeast Asia. And that kind of study on that region, has been going on by different scholars looking at the art historical part, the archaeological part, Saudi Arabia is also interested in looking at his own maritime heritage. So one, one thing the Chinese have done is, is has made all these countries interested in their maritime heritage, how do they connect to the Chinese Maritime Silk Road? Here, let me the Chinese government would say, let us let us have this exhibition about how Saudi Saudi Arabia connected to China. And we’ll do the exhibition in the Persian Gulf in China so that you know, you understand your heritage as well, and how you are connected to Maritime Silk Road they do that in Sri Lanka. So these kinds of exhibitions, performances are very important part of bringing other nations into this narrative of the Maritime Silk Road because they are offering their own maritime heritage as well. So Oman, does it. Saudi Arabia does it. And so it’s an interesting way of connecting from the other side to China. Yeah,

    Sam Willis
    well, that’s a wonderful place to leave it. Tansen Thank you very much indeed, for your time. Fascinating. I’m definitely going to come back to you and talk to you again.

    Tansen Sen
    Sure. And let me know when you’re coming to China and then we can get you to Shanghai.

    Sam Willis
    Now, thank you all so much for listening. If you have enjoyed this episode, do please check out our other episode on maritime China, we’ve explored a fabulous number of topics my favourite, I think being the episode in which I interview Arthur Jones, a very good friend of mine. He’s also the director of The Six a documentary made about the six Chinese survivors of the Titanic disaster. And please remember that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, you can find the Society for Nautical Research at snr.org.uk, where I would encourage you all to join up. It’s a fabulous way not only a finding out all about maritime history from the very best in the business, but it’s a brilliant way of meeting people with similar interests. Now the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s heritage and Education Centre up to all sorts of wonderful projects, most recently, they’re a wonderful, wonderful thing. It’s called Maritime Innovation in Miniature. And we’ve been filming the world’s best ship models using the very latest camera equipment. It’s absolutely astonishing. Best way to find that is simply to Google Maritime Innovation in Miniature. And we’ll be back soon. Cheerio guys.

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