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Shipwrecks: Witnesses to China’s Grand Era of Maritime Navigation

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By Situ Shangji, Xu Lu and Zhong Yan
Photographs by Li Bin, and as credited
Translation by Bruce Humes

Shipwrecks: Witnesses to China’s Grand Era of Maritime Navigation

Due to the dispersal, neglect and even willful destruction of large amount of ancient data, historians often lament the “loss” of China’s maritime past. In recent years, however, marine archaeology has pried open the ocean’s grand portal. Like a set of precious keys, many ancient shipwrecks slumbering on the seabed have emerged to unlock treasure chests filled with long-lost evidence of China’s glorious era of bold maritime navigation.
As the prime cargo of ancient Chinese trade junks, ancient chinaware found in shipwrecks are of high archaeological and aesthetic value. Occasionally, archaeologists find an intact, brilliant piece of china among the porcelain shards, despite long exposure to erosion by sea water.

A scene perhaps reenacted a thousand times over: there on the South China Sea proceeds an ancient junk, braving the wind and the billows, sailors busy on deck as the gusts fill the sails. Laden with goods, the vessel races toward a foreign port, with the expectation that it will return home filled with gold, silver and treasure. Suddenly, a storm whirls its way off the ocean surface, and hideous obscured reefs unsheathe their demonic, threatening blades. The huge craft is tossed about like an egg shell on the vast ocean. When everything has subsided, the beautiful junk and cries are nowhere to be seen or heard. On the ocean’s pacific and boundless surface, it is as if nothing had happened; waves nibble cautiously at one another’s ears. Deep in the blue sea, a fish swims amidst a narrow and lengthy shadow, ogling with curiosity its new neighbors—a few pieces of exquisite, sparkling porcelain.

Built during the Southern Song Dynasty, Huangguangjiao No. 1, discovered in the Xisha Islands area of the South China Sea, is a significant shipwreck for China’s underwater archaeology. The main cabin of the junk is well-preserved, with a clear-cut structure. More than 10,000 pieces of porcelain were excavated from the ship, verifying the historical fact that chinaware was the most commonly exported commodity of the Song era.

Ball Park Figure

Ever since China, this ancient land in the Orient, began to nurture the seeds of civilization, her people commenced to explore the vast blue sea. As early as the existence of Hemudu Culture (based in the lower reaches of the Yangtze during the Neolithic Era between 5000 and 3300 BC), the Chinese were already setting forth in light craft, one of the first societies on the globe to explore the ocean.

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