IN the 19th century, noted German geographer Baron von Richthofen is credited with developing the concept of the Silk Road, which refers to the ancient land and maritime routes that facilitated trade and cultural exchange between Asia and the West.
Hangzhou was one of the starting points of the Maritime Silk Road. It produced top-notch silks, teas and ceramics for centuries. Today, these three local specialties still find favor with customers around the world.
Until January 25, an exhibition at the Hangzhou Archive displays an abundance of historical documents on the city’s role in the Maritime Silk Road. The exhibition is divided into sections tracing the development of silk, tea and porcelain in Hangzhou.
A brocade excavated at the Qianshanyang Relic Site is considered to be the oldest silk artifact ever discovered. Tools unearthed at the site also indicate that people in the area were weaving silk and breeding silkworms as early as 4,000 years ago.
To encourage silk production, emperors in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) launched preferential policies to relieve the tax burden on silk farmers. In the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280), an official weaving department was established to produce products for imperial use.
Ancient craftsmen were also instrumental in the development of porcelains. The Deqing Kiln is considered the oldest kiln, with the longest firing history on earth. The first porcelains came into being during the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC).
Demand for porcelains rose along with the spread of tea cultivation and consumption. In the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), tea production began to take shape. The Tianmu Mountain Range was the production center for the local tea industry. At the time, famed tea connoisseur Lu Yu lived in seclusion in northern Zhejiang Province, and hugely contributed to the advancement of tea culture.
Japan dispatched numerous monks to study Tang culture, and during this time tea and the tea ceremony spread to Japan. This marked the first time that Chinese tea was distributed to a foreign country.
Taking to the water
As more people drank tea, this stimulated the production of porcelains. The renowned Yue Kiln boomed during the Tang Dynasty. Porcelains from this kiln featured exquisite bluish-green glazes and varied shapes. According to historical records, many porcelains found in Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Africa and the Middle East were Yue Kiln products, which showcased their high status as objects of trade.
The Maritime Silk Road would not have developed without shipbuilding technology. Wooden canoes and paddles from the Neolithic Hemudu and Liangzhu cultures reflect that ancient people in what is today Zhejiang were engaged in the exploration of rivers and lakes, which led to a boom in marine technology in the next millennia.
By the Tang Dynasty, the shipbuilding industry was thriving. Tenon-and-mortise joinery was applied to build strong, sophisticated ship structures, which laid the foundation for a surge in maritime trade during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
As the Song court retreated to Hangzhou, they brought advanced weaving tools and techniques, which made Hangzhou silks even more elaborate. According to historical archives, the city was dotted with numerous workshops and thousands of residents were engaged in the silk industry.
The seaborne trade expanded during the Song Dynasty. At that time, the Yue Kiln no longer dominated local output, since the Longquan and imperial kilns prospered and small local kilns had sprung out.
The prosperous trade stimulated the development of ports. In addition to Hangzhou, many other ports came into being nearby, like Zhapu and Ganpu ports in present-day northern Zhejiang Province.
Thanks to the trade, large quantities of Song Dynasty currency found their way into other countries. It served as a universal currency in places like Japan, the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia.
The Song court also established a royal department that resembled today’s custom bureau. Exotic products were unloaded there, and then transported across the country through local watercourses.
The exchanges were supported by endless streams of travelers, evangelists and merchants. They acted as a bridge between China and the outside world, and promoted interactions in culture and commerce.
The most renowned cultural ambassador was Marco Polo. He was not the first European to reach China, but was the first to leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. He visited Hangzhou and described it a “heavenly and significant” city during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
Another notable visitor was Muhammad Ibn Battuta, a medieval Moroccan traveler who arrived in Hangzhou during the 14th century. He described Hangzhou as one of the largest cities he had ever seen, saying that the city sat on a beautiful lake surrounded by gentle green hills. During his stay in Hangzhou, he was particularly impressed by the large number of well-crafted and well-painted Chinese wooden ships with colored sails and silk awnings assembled in the Grand Canal.
Around 20 stone tablets dating to 700 years ago were found at Phoenix Temple on Zhongshan Road. They were inscribed in Arabic and are believed to be gravestones for Arabian merchants and officials who came to China for cultural and commercial exchanges.
Date: Through January 25 (closed on weekends) Address: 3 Xiangjisi Rd Admission: Free