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The World Was Its Oyster

A hugely important city as the beginning of the Maritime Silk Road, Quanzhou has preserved much of its multicultural history, even as its glory days faded

By Kathleen Naday Updated Oct.1

Kaiyuan Temple with its two stone pagodas, Quanzhou

Chaotian Gate, one of the seven ancient city gates, stands at the center of Quanzhou

The trip to Quanzhou, Fujian Province, didn’t have an auspicious start – ironic for a city with so much religious history. Having booked an Airbnb and asked ahead if foreigners could stay there, the owner tried to persuade me to cancel my own booking the night before, which would cost me money instead of her. Involving Airbnb, the issue was resolved. At the station, where everyone had to complete a form and scan in, the young lady dealing with me had a slight breakdown. “I don’t know what to do,” she wailed, handing me over to her male colleague. By that time, I was already on the city side of the checkpoint, so deciding it was too much trouble, he waved me on.  

The Airbnb turned out to be in a huge modern complex, where the security staff couldn’t have been nicer. There were supermarkets, restaurants and coffee shops all around, plus a square of extremely energetic dancing aunties, who I discovered, wore different color T-shirts according to the day of the week. It had a great view and was walking distance to some of the main sights of the city, so I was pleased I stuck to my guns.  

With just a day to explore, I set out the next morning to explore the city’s history. There’s quite a lot of it, having once been the embarkation point of the Maritime Silk Road, and home to people and merchants from all over the world. Marco Polo left China for his voyage home around 1292 from Quanzhou, then known to the world as Zayton, a name likely originating from a local type of flowering tree. He described it as a great commercial center and port, and source of 10 percent of the revenue of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The great Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta arrived in Quanzhou in 1345, where there was a large Muslim community of traders, alongside people from many other cultures and religions.  

World of Religion 
Quanzhou has a bike share scheme, but it requires a China UnionPay bank card which I didn’t have on me. So I walked to my first stop, slightly more dangerous than it sounds, as bikes and e-bikes drive on the sidewalk on some streets in the city. Along Tumen Street, the old city’s main thoroughfare, you can get a primer on many of the world’s main religions in one go. First stop is Tonghuai Temple of Guan Yu and Yue Fei, by far the busiest place of worship, despite the Covid restrictions. Popular with the business community, it’s dedicated to Guan Yu, a Three Kingdoms (220-280) general who died around 220. Clouds of incense rise amid the gaudy decorations and offerings. At night, there are lively performances outside.  

Next door is the much quieter Qingjing Mosque, mostly in ruins. First built in 1009, it is the oldest surviving Arab-style mosque in China, although like many ancient Chinese buildings, it has been destroyed and rebuilt. Just over 1,000 years old, In the days of the Song and Yuan dynasties, Arabic traders formed a lively community in Quanzhou, numbering as many as 10,000. Inside is an exhibition of Islamic relics and a peaceful courtyard. Running behind the temple and mosque is a small street with a canal in the middle, and lined with a few old houses, some of which have been turned into antiques shops or teahouses.  

Moving along Tumen Street, not such a hive of activity in the noon heat, you arrive at the large Confucian Temple with a large park in front. It is the largest Confucian temple and school complex in southeast China, and was first founded in 976.  

A warren of small streets lead away from the temple, with small bars, restaurants and boutiques, a lively area at night. Not far away is the last of the downtown religious buildings, the Buddhist Kaiyuan Temple, which made for a nice lunch break in the heat of the day in the extensive gardens. Apart from the main temple buildings, the tree-filled grounds host two pagodas. First established in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was remodeled and added to during subsequent dynasties, and extensively in the Ming (1368-1644). The two pagodas, originally wood, were rebuilt in stone during the Song Dynasty. The eastern Zhenguo Pagoda is 48 meters tall, and dates from 1238. To the west of the temple stands Renshou Pagoda, slightly shorter at 44 meters and built 10 years earlier. Both are decorated with impressive carvings of dragons, lions, Buddhist disciples, kings and gods.  

Bridges, Museums & Shells 
To get a break from religion, I hopped in a taxi to Luoyang Bridge, one of two ancient stone bridges in Quanzhou – and apparently one of China’s four (best?) ancient bridges. It’s almost a thousand years old and still standing, so I’m not arguing. Described as a “stone-bay bridge,” it’s made of granite, with support piers made to look like the prow of a ship, pointed so they break up the current. At 1.2 kilometers long, it was a hot but interesting walk across. Expecting it to be in a remote location, I was surprised to see the city now surrounded the estuary and the bridge, although it’s still a dusty walk at either end to get to a main road for transport options. 

Feeling in a seafaring mood, I wanted to visit the city’s Maritime Museum to get more insight on the Silk Road trade, however it was closed for renovation. After a few misunderstandings with the guards at the gate over health codes and online reservations, I found the small adjacent Religious Stone Carving Hall was open, which contains tomb stones and relics from all the religions represented in ancient Quanzhou – Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Manichaeism, which came with Persian traders.  

Although it was getting late, after the failure of the Maritime Museum, I dashed along to Quanzhou Museum, which also required an on-the-spot reservation. Next to West Park, one of the many green spaces in the city, it gives a decent overview of the region’s history, from the Bronze Age forward. Smaller on the inside than it appears from the outside, an hour is probably enough. The park is nice for a small wander – and apparently popular for local joggers and beer drinkers alike.  

Time for one more stop, I caught a cab to a village apparently made of oyster shells. Xunpu Village is about 10 kilometers south of the downtown, but is now completely surrounded by modern buildings. It was quite hard to find, particularly as the local Quanzhou dialect is completely unintelligible to someone used to standard Chinese. After a few circuits, and walking through a seafood market, I started seeing piles of oyster shells, and followed some ladies who still wear distinctive costumes and an elaborate hairstyle held together with long hairpins and flowers. The center of Xunpu is Mazi Temple, dedicated to seafarers. Around the temple is the main concentration of houses built of oyster shells, although some are in disrepair. Piles of shucked oysters line the narrow alleys. A busy highway separates the village from the coast, where boats are docked, but the road is lined with seafood restaurants, obviously a popular trip from the downtown.  

A fitting end to a busy and hot day, I thought, would be a cool drink. I headed to a craft pub run by a Canadian called the Brickyard. It did have great beer, although food options were limited “by lack of staff.” It was smack in the middle of a huge three-story entertainment ghetto, with strobe lights and pulsating music, with a basketball exhibition in the middle. Still, the bar was chilled out.  

I didn’t quite get around the 22 sites on the new UNESCO World Heritage List, but I managed quite a few. There’s a few more places to tick off in a future visit, but perhaps it will be in the winter next time.