E04: Early Chinese Cultures

It would be natural to guess that China might have invented lighthouses at some point in her long history, after all, they did invent the magnetic compass! The evidence does not support this. The primitive Shang people of early China lived in the period roughly from 1700 to 1100 BC. They worshipped Heaven above all things and their religious beliefs were passed on to the next major culture known as the Zhou people. The supreme ruler did so with a mandate from Heaven and when things went wrong, as they did in times of famine and storm or pestilence, the ruler had lost his supernatural potency and mandate to rule. The Zhou created an elaborate social system of ranks and fiefdoms.

After a period of instability in which the rulers quarrelled amongst themselves, a man called Confucius (551-479 BC) developed a philosophy by which stability could be restored, but it was not until after his death that his ideas had a widespread influence. The practices admired in Confusianism were developed from the earliest ideas of the Shang people and survived throughout all the Chinese dynasties that followed. In the third century, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty imposed a ‘party line’ on his peoples in a way that is typical of Chinese actions even today. According to Borthwick [4]:

“The good life, then, was for the Confucianists a spiritual achievement. It depended on the notion that people are, at heart, good. Given proper leadership, goodness will blossom and harmony will prevail throughout the land.”

As far as we can tell, all these peoples had little or no interest in sea travel. The early Asian culture was very much a land-dominated one, as readily becomes apparent if you take a globe and position Beijing at its centre. On the other hand, when Manila, centre of the Spanish presence in Asia, is placed at the centre, the focus changes to an ocean-dominated perspective. Thus we can explain why the Chinese are not well known for exploration of the world by sea. Whilst the Vikings discovered America, the Chinese did not – though they could have! For many centuries, rich treasures and innovations flowed out from China on foreign-owned ships with foreign crews. The impact of goods and ideas on China was almost non-existent. The continental-centred Chinese world-view dominated the continent until the nineteenth century, by which time the European countries had already established their Asian trade centres and routes.

Thus, the Chinese are not well known for being a natural sea-going people, although there have been many times in their history when it has been important to them. Throughout their early history, they seemed to have little interest in the use of sea routes to develop their interests. Their focus was very much on the overland routes – the Silk route being the prime example and there was little recognition of the importance of sea travel or trade. For many centuries, sea borne traffic to and from China was almost entirely in the hands of non-Chinese. People belonging to the Indian ethnic groups were excellent seamen, although again, we have no knowledge that they ever used artificial aids to navigation. The first to develop the routes to China were the inhabitants of the city-states along the Gulf of Siam, along with Malaysian populations with Indian cultures and rulers. By the second century, Indian seamen had got as far as the East Indies, Sumatra and Java and significant colonies and trading centres sprang up. The vast majority of all of the sea traffic to and from China used coastal routes, and there were endless problems with pirates who carried out practices that were considered barbaric to Europeans. Ships often travelled in convoys for greater safety and self-defence was an important aspect of sea travel in these times.

By the eighth century, there was extensive sea traffic between the powerful Islamic empire based in Baghdad, to China through the port of Canton. In the ninth century, Arab traders travelled farther north to the Chinese port of Amroy where they met other traders from Korea and the Liu-Chiu (Ryu-Kyu) islands. Thus we see that during the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries, Persian and Arab traders were able to establish significant and firm relations with China by means of Arab ships. This had ceased by 925 when the T’ang dynasty weakened, and by the late part of the 10th century Chinese peoples had firmly established themselves as sea traders, and are famous for using the magnetic compass for navigation, and travelling as far as Ceylon and India [5] without, apparently, recourse to lightstructures as navigational aids.