National Geographic : 2009 Jun
• Like the shiploads of sneakers or electron- ics stamped "Made in China" today, most of the items recovered from the dhow were trade goods. But at the stern of the ship, divers found a trove of gold and silver and high-grade ceramics whose signi cance is more mysterious. Peeling back a cloud of white, acid-free pa- per, Alvin Chia holds up a cup in gloved hands. " is is the largest Tang dynasty gold cup ever found," he says. Chia is an executive with Sin- gapore s Sentosa Leisure Group, which joined with the Singapore government to beat out several museums and bought the entire cargo in 2005 for more than $30 million. It may one day be the core of a Maritime Silk Route museum. Chia points out that two men depicted on the cup s thumb plate look Central Asian rather than Chinese, with long, curly hair and thick beards. On the cup s side panels are gures in motion: a Persian dancer clapping her hands above her head, musicians playing various instruments. In Tang China, Chia explains, music and dance from eastern Persia were all the rage. A large, exquisitely decorated silver flask might o er a clue to the purpose of the hoard. "See the pair of mandarin ducks?" Chia asks. " ey are a symbol of matrimonial harmony. On ornamental boxes everything is also in pairs: a pair of birds, a pair of deer, a pair of ibexes." Perhaps these were gi s for a royal wedding in the Persian Gulf---a bride s treasure of the sort rarely seen outside of China. Since China rst began trading with the world more than 2,000 years ago, it has opened and closed like a clamshell. During the Tang dynasty the clamshell was wide open and remained so for many centuries. A string of inventions---gun- powder, paper, printing, and cast iron---had set China on course to become the world s lead- ing economic power. Trade with the West had steadily expanded, with Chinese seafarers tak- ing an increasingly dominant role. When the great admiral Zheng He set sail in 1405 with a eet of 317 ships, China ruled the waves. "If you had been sitting in a spaceship looking down on Earth, and you had observed developments from the ninth to the 15th century," says John Miksic, "you would have thought that the Chinese would take the next step---explore the Atlantic and become the dominant world culture." But throughout Chinese history, there has been another, equally powerful force at work: a distrust of merchants and the foreign influences they import, dating back to Con- fucius, who believed trade and commerce should not dictate Chinese culture and values. In . . 878, little more than half a century a er the Belitung ship sank, a rebel leader named Huang Chao burned and pillaged Guangzhou, killing tens of thousands of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Parsis. And not long a er Zheng He s voyages, when Columbus reached the New World, the Confucian worldview won the day; China burned its eet and turned inward. e Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Route, which had linked China to the world, lapsed into dis- use. e Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean, and by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Europe had begun to dominate world trade. " e whole of world history would have been di erent if the Chinese had not gone into their shell for 500 years," Miksic says. Now China competes with India to be the world s workshop. China is open as never before and once again trading with its ancient partners in the Middle East. Iran, for instance, supplies 12 percent of China s oil. In return, Beijing pro- vides machinery and locomotives, builds sub- ways and railroads, and helps Tehran exploit its vast mineral resources, closing the loop from the ninth century, when cobalt was shipped from Persia to China for the blue-and-white ceramics found on the Belitung ship. " e ancient networks are restored through industries and factories in a world that is now globalized," says Wang Gungwu, a historian at the National University of Singapore. For how long this time is anybody s guess. j SIGNS OF LIFE A bone die and inch-high ivory "acorns"---game pieces, perhaps---hint at amusements that helped pass idle hours for passengers and crew on the heavily laden vessel. e voyage ended as a total loss, but its remains enrich our vision of China s long trading history.