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Millennium in the Making

Previously the start of the Maritime Silk Road, Quanzhou may have slid into obscurity as trade waned and its rivers silted up. Now listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site, the city is looking outward again

By Ni Wei Updated Oct.1

Liusheng Tower, Quanzhou

On July 25, the ancient port city of Quanzhou, previously known as Zayton when it was a major hub for overseas trade, was designated a World Heritage Site by the 44th session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, an online meeting presided over by China in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian Province. The ancient city was once at the center of China’s maritime trade, a melting pot of cultures and religions, and during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was visited by famous travelers including Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.  

The travelers may well have disembarked at Shihu Port, from where porcelain, silk and tea were shipped through the Maritime Silk Road all over the known world. Imports of spices, ivory and ginseng came in. Although the ancient ports have long since silted up, Quanzhou is still a modern metropolis and manufacturing center with a population of more than eight million, and an important tourist destination in Southeast China’s Fujian Province.  

It has been a long haul for the city to achieve the UNESCO designation, having failed in an earlier bid. After reconfiguring their bid and expanding its scope, two decades after the city started the process the hard work has paid off. The final theme accepted by UNESCO was “Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China,” and it includes 22 heritage sites in and around the city.  

“The success of gaining the title is a new start for the ancient city of Quanzhou,” Wang Yongli, Quanzhou Municipal Party Secretary told the People’s Daily in late July, adding that more efforts including setting up laws and regulations for preservation and revamping the city plan to sustain its vibrant atmosphere will come soon. According to Wang, the city will involve more people to join with preservation professionals and participate in the protection and inheritance of the cultural treasures of the city.  

Ups and Downs 
Guo Zengpei is invested in Quanzhou’s heritage more than most. On the afternoon of July 7, he was riding his e-bike around the sites he takes care of. As an employee of Shihu Dock Protection and Management Station, Guo watches over two historical sites, including Shihu Dock and Liusheng Pagoda, two of the 22 major listed historical sites in Quanzhou.  

Born in 1993, Guo is from Shishi Village. After graduating in business administration in 2017, he applied to Shishi City Museum. His work involves looking after a place where he often played as a child, swimming, fishing and picking shells on a flat shelf of rocks, though at the time he was unaware it had been used as a dock for over a thousand years. Originally named after the man who built it, Tang Dynasty (618-907) navigator Lin Luan, the ancient Lin Luan Ferry Dock was the first stop for foreign merchant ships to enter Quanzhou Port. Small fishing boats still use the old stone dock, while big ships now berth not far away at a modern facility.  

When Quanzhou was applying for World Heritage Site status, the ancient dock was frequently visited by inspectors and delegations and Guo showed them around.  

After the Tang period, Quanzhou became even more prosperous. During the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, Quanzhou constructed numerous buildings and sites related to marine commerce and culture, and the port became the secondbusiest in the world after Alexandria, Egypt, due to trade along the Maritime Silk Road.  

The 22 historical sites are scattered in Quanzhou, from the seaside to the ancient city to a kiln site in the mountainous area. Some are 100 kilometers away.  

Many of the heritage sites are clustered within the ancient city area, today’s Licheng District. The one-kilometer Tumen Street runs through the center of the ancient city from west to east. A millennium earlier, Confucius and Taoist temples and a mosque were neighbors on this street, with a major Buddhist site, Kaiyuan Temple, not far away.  

At the west end of Tumen Street is the Confucius Temple and School, the largest Confucius temple in southeast China and the city’s highest institute of education. Two hundred meters east, Qingjing Mosque is the oldest mosque built in China, although it is not a place of worship now. It was modeled after the chapel of Damascus in Syria and built in 1009.  

Quanzhou is known as the “World Religion Museum.” During the Song and Yuan dynasties from the 10th to 14th centuries, Islam, Hinduism, Manichaean, Catholicism, Judaism and other foreign religions spread, and Buddhism, Taoism and folk religions flourished. This was a rare period of religious harmony and the preservation of different types of religious architecture in China.  

Tumen Street, still bustling today, is not as diverse as it was 1,000 years ago when the voices of people from all over the world could be heard. The diversity of the population was much greater then, comparable to cosmopolitan Chang’an, capital of the Tang Dynasty, today’s Xi’an. Religions prospered alongside the booming economy during Quanzhou’s heyday.  

The ancient Anping Bridge, Quanzhou

Age of Sail 
“It was the great age of sail in China,” Li Jiping, a special researcher at the Fujian Maritime Culture Research Center and former vice chairman of the Quanzhou Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told NewsChina, “It created a free maritime trade route for Europeans and Chinese to come and go.”  

At that time, many flowering coral trees (citong in Chinese) grew in the city, which is why foreign merchants called it Zayton. Jacob d’Ancona, an Italian who apparently visited Quanzhou between 1271 and 1272 described it as a city of red flowers in autumn days, and full of bright lights in the busy harbor at night. Based on manuscripts the Jewish merchant supposedly wrote, a travel book was published in 1997 called the The City of Light, which claimed d’Ancona was in Zayton four years earlier than Marco Polo. There has been debate over whether the found manuscripts are authentic, however.  

Nevertheless, it is clear that from the Tang to Yuan dynasties, the culture of Quanzhou spread throughout Asia and Europe. There are two Islamic tombs in Quanzhou, believed to be the final resting places of two Muslims who came to Quanzhou in the seventh century, supposedly sent by Muhammad. 

When the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) imposed a ban on seafaring, the largest port in the east fell into decline, and the dock in Guo Zengpei’s village was abandoned. Hundreds of years later, Quanzhou became famous again for being the hometown of overseas Chinese and the location for companies producing popular Chinese sports brands such as ANTA and 361°.  

As its reputation faded, Quanzhou started to regain world recognition in 1990 and 1991, when UNESCO sent a team to revisit the Maritime Silk Road sponsored by the King of Oman. The delegation spent six days in Quanzhou.  

Dr Doudou Diene, the international team leader of the UNESCO Maritime Route Expedition, who visited Quanzhou in 1991, said he was impressed by the Statue of Mani in Cao’an Temple, a temple of Manichaeism, which originated in ancient Persia. Little remains of it today. The rare Manichaean statue in Quanzhou was adopted as the emblem of the World Manichaean Society. 

To help arrange visits and liaise with international experts, Quanzhou set up a special office. Chen Bingkun, then director of the Quanzhou Bureau of Cultural Heritage, was deputy director. He told NewsChina they took extreme care when arranging the visits, even when one delegation arrived on the first day of the Chinese New Year. It rained a lot that year, but local people were very welcoming.  

Throughout the 1990s, research on the Maritime Silk Road flourished in Quanzhou. In May 1999, Richard Engelhardt, UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, suggested that Quanzhou could apply for World Heritage status. The many scattered ancient sites could be bundled together to make a complete application.  

China had only been party to the World Heritage Convention since 1985, so even in the late 1990s, local authorities lacked experience in the application process. They started in April 2001, Chen said, who added that it was a very long journey.  

In 2018, Quanzhou delivered its initial proposal for the application titled “Historic Monuments and Sites of Ancient Quanzhou (Zayton),” featuring 16 component sites. After it was presented to the World Heritage Committee for deliberation, it was deferred by the committee at the 42nd session in Bahrain that year.  

China was told it needed supplemental material before resubmitting its application. The International Council of Monuments and Sites, the advisory body involved in the deliberations, believed the relationship of some sites and maritime trade routes was not well illustrated. 
In 2020, as Quanzhou sought its second attempt for World Heritage status, it changed its theme to the current one: “Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China,” and added six more ancient sites.  

“A major adjustment has been made to the declared project from the technical level, and the theme is much clearer and complete,” said Zhang Lei, head of the World Cultural Heritage Department of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.  

Most of the newly added heritage sites are archaeological sites, including new discoveries since 2018. The Southern Clan Office was an administrative agency established for Song Dynasty kinsmen who relocated to Quanzhou in 1130 and after.  

Others include ancient kiln sites for porcelain production – the Dehua Kilns date from the Song and Yuan, while the Cizao Kilns are much older, dating from 420 to 589. Xiacaopu Iron Production Site in Qingyang Village in Anxi is a Song Dynasty metallurgical producing area, indicating that Quanzhou was more than just an area for trade and transport.  

The sites were not originally included, Chen said, because they are located in rural regions, and the kilns are nearly 100 kilometers away from central Quanzhou and were difficult to access.  

“But now, the facilities have been enhanced and the environment improved, and it’s quite different from over a decade ago.”  

New Efforts 
Now, all 22 sites are monitored through a modern network, where information is gathered and delivered to Quanzhou Heritage Monitoring Center in real-time. Dedicated personnel manage the sites, each of which face risks such as fire and floods.  

Over the years, protection of cultural relics in Quanzhou has improved in line with global standards of cultural heritage protection. The 2.5-kilometer Anping Bridge, which dates from 1152, has monitors that observe the vertical settlement and lateral cracking of the pier, and also gather data to study the impact of potential earthquakes. Built between 1111 and 1118, Liusheng Pagoda stands 36.6 meters tall on the coast and served as a landmark for approaching sailors. It survived a devastating earthquake measuring eight on the Richter scale in 1604, and now it has state-of-the-art monitors which can detect even the most subtle displacement. 
Compared with the previous applications for World Heritage status, the new version described the sites in much more detail, and linked them to how Quanzhou operated as a port and trade center. Li Jiping, a scholar with the Fujian Marine Culture Research Center, said: “We had to interpret the material, spiritual and institutional civilizations of ancient Quanzhou.”  

In 1991, Li participated in a UNESCO expert inspection visit to Quanzhou, and continued to conduct maritime trade research in ancient Quanzhou. He also visited Sri Lanka, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, India and other countries along the marine trade routes that spread out from the city. As he traveled, he felt that “peace” best embodied the spiritual heritage of ancient Quanzhou.  

“These are the lessons we learn from history,” Li said. “Countries and cultures in the world can live peacefully and develop together, which we fulfilled a thousand years ago. From now on, we should tell the world more about it.”