Treaty of Nanking

Staying true to its routes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am


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The overland Silk Road has a cousin, the Maritime Silk Route, which began much earlier, carried more cargo and visited more cities than the famous camel caravans that crossed the deserts of Central Asia.

The maritime route had an enormous impact on world affairs from the 16th century until the late 19th century, and has been revived in the past 30 years as traditional ports such as Ningbo fuel the modern global economy.

It all began with silk. The silk trade began in ports such as Ningbo, Guangzhou and Penglai before travelling south through the Malacca Straits, picking up spices along the way, and then sailing along the coasts of Malaysia, Thailand and India on their way to the Persian Gulf and East African ports.

The route eventually passed through the Red Sea to Egypt and into the Mediterranean, where great ports such as Venice and Damascus took Oriental goods deeper into Europe via alpine land routes. The route internationalised these ports and brought vast numbers of Malays, Indians, Persians, Arabs and Ethiopians to East Asia.

In 2006, Ningbo unearthed a Song dynasty cargo ship, restored it and then displayed the ancient vessel as evidence not only of the route itself but of Ningbo's major role in that ancient trade network. Europeans took part in the maritime trade route in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries as the overland route to China became more precarious. The first to arrive were the Portuguese and the Dutch.

The Portuguese were very active in Ningbo, going so far as to set up a permanent trade mission and settlement in about 1540. They were an unruly lot, however, and were eventually violently expelled by Ming dynasty forces for raping and pillaging.

Europeans again pried open Ningbo and other ports in the mid-19th century with the Treaty of Nanjing, which created five treaty ports - Ningbo among them - which were surrendered to the British after the Opium wars. The Old Bund is a relic of that time, as are fortresses down the Yuyao River towards the East China Sea. Although many of the old trade missions and residences of the Old Bund are renovated and active, the fortresses and battlements towards the mouth of the river are in ruins, symbolic of the transition from warfare to business for dispute resolution.

Today, Ningbo stays true to its roots as a major gateway for goods going in and out of the mainland, pumping out about 400 million tonnes of cargo annually.

Every single item imaginable flows out of the deep water port, from shoes and shirts to oil rigs, steel beams and, even today, silk and porcelain.

Last December, Ningbo joined six other cities in a joint petition advocating World Heritage status for the Maritime Silk Route, a living trade network that has been criss-crossing the globe for more than 2,000 years.