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Arab Merchants and Maritime Silk Road

posted on: Feb 8, 2021

By: Yidan Fan/Arab America Contributing Writer

The Maritime Silk Road was an important business channel connecting China and Arabia in the history. Many Arab merchants came to China through the Maritime Silk Road to do business and even settled down in China. This article will lead you to learn about this history.

Maritime Silk Road

In the second century BC, during the first year of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, Zhang Qian was sent out as an envoy to the Western Regions, which lasted more than ten years. Since then, the trade channel between China and the West was opened and the famous Silk Road was formed. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, another trade channel connecting China and Arab world, the Maritime Silk Road, was also formed. After the opening of the Maritime Silk Road, the commercial exchanges between the Chinese and the Arabs became very close and frequent. A large number of Arab merchants came to China and many of them settled down along the coast and the west of China.

Sea-going Ships

Maritime Silk Road

Before the Sui and Tang Dynasties, the Maritime Silk Road was only a supplement to the land Silk Road. However, the land-based Silk Road had many limitations. Merchants needed to climb over high mountains and cross vast deserts. Their transportation means mainly relied on horses and camels with limited carrying capacity, small transportation volume, contributing to high cost, high consumption, and long transportation times. The Maritime Silk Road could help overcome the limitations of the land-based Silk Road because ships had a large capacity allowing for low costs and relatively short transportation times.

The land Silk Road reached its peak in the early Tang Dynasty and declined in the middle of the Tang Dynasty, when the Maritime Silk Road emerged. Since the middle of the Tang Dynasty, China’s economic center began to shift south. After the Anshi Rebellion, a large number of northerners went to the south of the Yangtze River to avoid the chaos. The economy of the Jianghuai region achieved unprecedented development. At that time, 90% of the taxes collected by the state came from the south and the exported commodities such as silk, porcelain, tea, etc. were also mainly in the southeast. The developed economy in Jiangnan provided a solid foundation for the prosperity of the Maritime Silk Road.

The development of the shipbuilding industry in the Tang Dynasty also promoted the prosperity of the Maritime Silk Road. Since Emperor Yang of Sui opened the North-South Grand Canal, water transportation in the Sui and Tang Dynasties had become more developed and shipbuilding technology had also been greatly improved. In the Tang Dynasty, China was able to build the largest sea-going ship in the world. At that time, Arab merchants were willing to board Chinese sea-going ships when they came to China. If the Chinese ship did not arrive, they were also willing to wait patiently. After the mid-Tang Dynasty, the Maritime Silk Road finally replaced the land Silk Road and became China’s main channel for foreign commercial exchange–including exchange with the Arab World.

Art depicting Arab Merchants

Arab Merchants

After the opening of the Maritime Silk Road, the number of Arab merchants arriving in China by sea increased day by day. They mainly lived in coastal cities such as Guangzhou, Yangzhou, Quanzhou, Hangzhou, Chang’an and Luoyang. The four great inventions of ancient China were first spread to Arab countries and then spread to Europe and other parts of the world through Arabs.

In the Tang Dynasty, many Arab merchants who lived in China married and had children with local Chinese people and settled down in China. According to the records of “Zi Zhi Tong Jian”, since the Tianbao reign of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, “fans” or “hus”, including Arab merchants, “stay for a long time or more than 40 years…”

The core of the Muslim community gathered in mosques. The four mosques with the longest history in China are all located in the southeast coastal cities, which also shows that Islam was mainly introduced into China by sea. The four ancient Muslim temples are Huaisheng Temple in Guangzhou, Shengyou Temple in Quanzhou, Xianhe Temple in Yangzhou and Phoenix Temple in Hangzhou. Islam took root in China and later developed into one of the main religions in China.

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