rightSilk Road trade was strong and vital for the exchange of ideas, art forms and religions during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 - 907). The independent art scholar Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: “Successful military campaigns ensured far-reaching and stable trade routes, such as the network now known as the Silk Road, which provided a thoroughfare for goods and ideas between China, Central Asia, India, and Persia. A web of maritime routes connected Chinese seaports like Guangzhou in the south to India, the Persian Gulf, and from there to the east coast of Africa. The direct exchange of goods, such as textiles, metalware, and ceramics, inspired Tang craftsmen to experiment with novel techniques, shapes, and designs. [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

According to the Asia Society Museum: Trade along the Silk Road “fueled by an insatiable appetite for foreign exotica and luxury goods, and China continued to welcome foreign merchants. Compared with the earlier period, however, Tang rulers had a more sophisticated understanding of the outside and a greater confidence in adapting and assimilating foreign ideas and artistic idioms to a Chinese context. Often, forms and motifs were adapted from one artistic medium to another. In the process of this assimilation, Chinese artistic traditions were themselves transformed and out of this synthesis emerged a truly cosmopolitan culture. [Source: “Monks and Merchants,” curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001,Asia Society Museum == ]

Extensive trade on the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty can be attributed to three main reasons: 1) Tang Dynasty was strong and open to trade, exchanges of ideas and relations with foreign states and peoples; 2) the emperors paid special attention to the management and expansion of lands in the vast Western Regions that included western China and parts of Central Asia; and 3) the formidable states to the west of the Tang Empire, such as Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), Iran-based Persia and Baghdad-based Arabian-Muslim Empires were also relatively stable and open to trade and, to varying degrees, exchanges with foreigners, and were willing to build good relations with China. Along with silk brocades and raw silks, the art of paper-making made its way to the West from China along the Silk Road, which stretched as far west as Italy and Spain and as far east as Japan, connecting cultures in between.

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes;

History of Silk Road Trade During the Tang Dynasty

Bandit attack on the Silk Road

At the end of the 7th century, China, under the Tang Dynasty, was one of the most prosperous empires in world. Its territory reached as far as the edges of the Middle East, where there was flourishing trade exchanges between eastern and western cultures. Although the Silk Road from China to the West was initially formulated during the reign of Emperor Wu (141–87 B.C.) during the Han, it was reopened by the Tang in 639 when Hou Junji (d. 643) conquered the West, and remained open for almost four decades. It was closed after the Tibetans captured it in 678, but in 699, during Empress Wu's period, the Silk Road reopened when the Tang reconquered the Four Garrisons of Anxi originally installed in 640, once again connecting China directly to the West for land-based trade. In the interior of China, trade was facilitated by the Grand Canal and the Tang government's rationalization of the greater canal system that reduced costs of transporting grain and other commodities. The state also managed roughly 32,100 kilometers (19,900 mi) of postal service routes by horse or boat. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Tang captured the vital route through the Gilgit Valley in present-day Pakistan from Tibet in 722, lost it to the Tibetans in 737, and regained it under the command of the Koguryo-Korean General Gao Xianzhi. When the An Lushan Rebellion ended in 763, the Tang Empire had once again lost control over its western lands, as the Tibetan Empire largely cut off China's direct access to the Silk Road. An internal rebellion in 848 ousted the Tibetan rulers, and Tang China regained its northwestern prefectures from Tibet in 851. These lands contained crucial grazing areas and pastures for raising horses that the Tang dynasty desperately needed. +

Despite the many western travelers coming into China to live and trade, many travelers, mainly religious monks, recorded the strict border laws that the Chinese enforced. As the monk Xuanzang and many other monk travelers attested to, there were many Chinese government checkpoints along the Silk Road that examined travel permits into the Tang Empire. Furthermore, banditry was a problem along the checkpoints and oasis towns, as Xuanzang also recorded that his group of travelers were assaulted by bandits on multiple occasions. +

Silk and Trade During the Tang Dynasty

Uighur Princes from Bezeklik Caves

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: “Silk continued to be popular in the Mediterranean region even as Rome declined. In Byzantium, the eastern successor of the Roman state, silk purchases accounted for a large drain on the treasury. In 552 C.E., legend has it that two Assyrian Christian monks who visited China learned the secret of silk production and smuggled out silkworms and mulberry seeds in their walking sticks. They returned to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and provided the impetus for the growth of a local silk industry. Under Emperor Justinian I, Constantinople’s silks were used throughout Europe for religious vestments, rituals, and aristocratic dress.[Source: Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution |*|]

“The Persians, too, acquired knowledge of silk production; and Damascus became a silk center under Arab rulers. By the time the second Silk Road developed under the Tang dynasty in China, Central Asians had also learned silk cultivation and developed the famed abr technique of silk resist dying generally known today by the Indonesian term ikat. Chinese silks, though, were still in demand for their exceptionally high quality. The Tang rulers needed horses for their military. The best horses were in the west, held by the Turkic Uyghurs and the peoples of the Fergana Valley. The Tang traded silk for horses, 40 bolts for each pony in the 8th century. |*|

Silk Road and Religion During the Tang Dynasty

Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: “Trade routes were also traversed by Buddhist pilgrims. The most famous was the Chinese monk Xuanzang (602–664), who, in defiance of the emperor Taizong's prohibition against travel beyond China, departed Chang'an in 629 and walked to India. He returned triumphantly more than sixteen years later, accompanied by a caravan laden with sutras, statues, and relics, which he bestowed to the emperor. He chronicled his journey, describing the climates, peoples, and customs he encountered, in his book Record of the Western Regions. \^/ [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

There was great contact and interest in India as a hub for Buddhist knowledge. Xuanzang managed to bring back valuable Sanskrit texts to be translated into Chinese. There was also a Turkic–Chinese dictionary available for serious scholars and students, while Turkic folksongs gave inspiration to some Chinese poetry. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xuanzang wasn’t the first Chinese monk to travel on the Silk Road, The Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-hsien) left China around A.D. 399 to study Buddhism and locate sutras and relics in India. He traveled from Xian to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas. He crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.



In A.D. 645, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) left China for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He made it to Central Asia and India despite being held up by surly Chinese guards and guides who abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. In Central Asia he traveled to Turfan, Kucha, the Bedel pass, Lake Issyk-kul, the Chu Valley (near present-day Bishkek), Tashkent, Samarkand, Balk, Kashgar and Khoton before crossing the Himalayas into India.

Xuanzang spent 16 years in India collecting texts and returned with 700 Buddhist texts. His journey inspired the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West by Wu Ch'eng-en, a story about a wanderings Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit.

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, "The human skeletons were piled up like signposts in the sand. For Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk traveling the Silk Road in A.D. 629, the bleached-out bones were reminders of the dangers that stalked the world's most vital thoroughfare for commerce, conquest, and ideas. Swirling sandstorms in the desert beyond the western edge of the Chinese Empire had left the monk disoriented and on the verge of collapse. Rising heat played tricks on his eyes, torturing him with visions of menacing armies on distant dunes. More terrifying still were the sword-wielding bandits who preyed on caravans and their cargo’silk, tea, and ceramics heading west to the courts of Persia and the Mediterranean, and gold, gems, and horses moving east to the Tang dynasty capital of Changan, among the largest cities in the world. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, June 2010]

What kept Xuanzang going, he wrote in his famous account of the journey, was another precious item carried along the Silk Road: Buddhism itself. Other religions surged along this same route—Manichaeism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and later, Islam—but none influenced China so deeply as Buddhism, whose migration from India began sometime in the first three centuries A.D. The Buddhist texts Xuanzang carted back from India and spent the next two decades studying and translating would serve as the foundation of Chinese Buddhism and fuel the religion's expansion.

Near the end of his 16-year journey, the monk stopped in Dunhuang, a thriving Silk Road oasis where crosscurrents of people and cultures were giving rise to one of the great marvels of the Buddhist world, the Mogao caves.

Spread of Culture on Silk Road to Tang Dynasty China

Richard Kurin wrote: “Not only did silk move, but so did designs and motifs as well as techniques for weaving and embroidering it. Chinese silk weaving was influenced by Sogdian (Central Asian), Persian Sasanian, and Indian patterns and styles. For example, Chinese weavers adapted the Assyrian tree of life, beaded roundels, and bearded horsemen on winged horses from the Sasanians, and the use of gold-wrapped thread, the conch shell, lotus, and endless-knot designs from the Indians. Byzantines were also influenced by the Persians, weaving the Tree of Life into designs for European royalty and adopting the Assyrian two-headed eagle as their symbol. The Egyptian draw loom, adapted for silk weaving, was brought to Syria, then to Iran and beyond. Discoveries of the silk stowed in the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang in about 1015 C.E. reveal the tremendous richness of silk work of the time, as well as an archaeology of shared styles of silk weaving and motifs. [Source: Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution |*|]

Tang ladies preparing newly woven silk

The Silk Road also had an impact on Tang dynasty art. Horses became a significant symbol of prosperity and power as well as an instrument of military and diplomatic policy. Horses were also revered as a relative of the dragon. Through use of the land trade along the Silk Road and maritime trade by sail at sea, the Tang were able to gain many new technologies, cultural practices, rare luxury, and contemporary items. From the Middle East, India, Persia, and Central Asia the Tang were able to acquire new ideas in fashion, new types of ceramics, and improved silver-smithing. The Chinese also gradually adopted the foreign concept of stools and chairs as seating, whereas the Chinese beforehand always sat on mats placed on the floor. [Source: Wikipedia]

Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: ““As is evident in tomb paintings and figurines, international trade whetted a taste for striking and sumptuous fashions among the Tang elite. Leopard-skin hats and close-fitting sleeves, imitating the clothing of Central Asians and Persians to the west, were popular in the mid-eighth century. High boots, practical for riding, were worn by both men and women, as were short tunics. Polo and archery contests, musical instruments and styles, and the scandalous Sogdian whirling dance were imported from kingdoms of Central Asia and fervently embraced in Chinese avant-garde circles.” [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Songs, dances, and musical instruments from foreign regions became popular in China during the Tang dynasty. These musical instruments included oboes, flutes, and small lacquered drums from Kucha in the Tarim Basin, and percussion instruments from India such as cymbals. At the court there were nine musical ensembles (expanded from seven in the Sui dynasty) representing music from throughout Asia. +

Spread of Culture on Silk Road from Tang Dynasty China

Heather Colburn Clydesdale wrote: ““Tang culture also emanated outward. Tribute was met with equal or, in some cases, more valuable donations of silk. As the dynasty wore on, the Turks supplying horses were able to demand exorbitant "prices" for their offerings. Attempts to solidify uneasy diplomatic alliances were made with marriage to a Tang princess, who would arrive with her own extensive retinue, dowry, and customs. Tang China was also the destination for pilgrims like Ennin, who came from Japan in 838. The transmission of Chinese manifestations of Buddhism to Korea and Japan, such as the Chan sect and temple architecture modeled on Chinese palaces and incorporating pagodas, intensified during the Tang. Aspects of the Chinese writing system, as well as political structure and Confucian values, were adopted in Japan as well as kingdoms in Korea and Vietnam." [Source: Heather Colburn Clydesdale, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Tang ladies preparing silk

The Islamic world coveted and purchased in bulk Chinese goods such as silks, lacquerwares, and porcelain wares. Richard Kurin wrote: The Tang Chinese developed a satin silk, readily adopted elsewhere. Japanese weavers in Nara developed tie-dye and resist processes for kimonos. In some cases, weavers were uprooted from one city and settled in another; for example, after the Battle of Talas in 751, Chinese weavers were taken as prisoners of war to Iran and Mesopotamia. During the Tang dynasty, cultural exchange based upon silk reached its apex. [Source: Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution |*|]

“The growth of silk as a trade item both stimulated and characterized other types of exchanges during the era. Curative herbs, ideas of astronomy, and even religion also moved along the Silk Road network. Arabs traveled to India and China, Chinese to Central Asia, India, and Iran. Buddhism itself was carried along these roads from India through Central Asia to Tibet, China, and Japan. Islam was carried by Sufi teachers, and by armies, moving across the continent from Western Asia into Iran, Central Asia, and into China and India. Martial arts, sacred arts like calligraphy, tile making, and painting also traversed these roads. The Tang capital city of Chang’an, present-day Xi’an, became a cosmopolitan city — the largest on earth at the time, peopled with traders from all along the Silk Road, as well as monks, missionaries, and emissaries from across the continent.” |*|

“River rituals involving human sacrifices to river deities were prevalent on the Chinese continent in the Shang, Zhou and Warring States eras and may have imported by Chinese immigrants into Japan over the long periods of time. The Korean kingdoms too had numerous river and water deities to whom the people tried to appease through their offerings. |*|

Foods Obtained from the Silk Road and Outside China

From the trade overseas and over land, the Chinese acquired peaches from Samarkand, date palms, pistachios, and figs from Greater Iran, pine nuts and ginseng roots from Korea and mangoes from Southeast Asia. In China, there was a great demand for sugar; during the reign of Harsha over North India (r. 606–647), Indian envoys to the Tang brought two makers of sugar who successfully taught the Chinese how to cultivate sugarcane. Cotton also came from India as a finished product from Bengal, although it was during the Tang that the Chinese began to grow and process cotton, and by the Yuan dynasty it became the prime textile fabric in China. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Silk Road Foundation:"Barbaric food" became widely admired. In everyday things, the Chinese had learned from India ways of making sugar from cane, wince from grapes, and of making optical lenses. Spinach, garlic, mustard and peas introduced from the Silk Road, were now grown in China. Of these the most popular were little "foreign" cakes of various kinds, especially a steamed variety sprinkled with sesame seeds, and cakes fried in oil. The art of making these had been introduced from the West but they were ordinarily prepared and sold by Westerners. Of course some of the foreign recipes required expensive imported ingredients was costly. Especially popular were aromatic and spicy dishes. [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation ]

Exotic Styles and Luxuries Obtained from the Silk Road

According to Silk Road Foundation: “Thriving commerce attracted merchants from everywhere during Tang. They came by caravans from Persian and the Central Asian kingdoms through the Silk Roads, by ships from Korea, Japan, India and Indonesia. The taste for all sorts of foreign luxuries and wonders permeated every social class and every part of daily life. Horses were imported from Karashar and Kucha, glass goblet from Byzantium, jade from Khotan, medicine from Kashimir and India, crystals and agate from Samarkand and cotton from Turfan. In exchange, silk textiles, tea, paper, ceramics and above all, ideas and technology moved into these regions. [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation ^^^]

Pipa player from Kizil caves

“In the 8th century, the fashionable circles loved foreign clothing and hairstyles. Fashions in the two capitals, Ch'ang-an and Loyang tended to follow Turkish and East Iranian styles and most men and women liked to wear "barbarian" hats when they went abroad or on horseback. Court ladies wore "Uighur chignons." or dressed like men and men wore leopard skin hats with tight sleeves and fitted bodices in the Iranian styles. The most extreme enthusiasm for foreign customs was reported when the prince Li, Cheng-chien, Tai-tsung's son, preferred to speak Turkish than Chinese, and erected a complete Turkish camp on the palace ground, where he lived and dressed like a Turk. ^^^

Foreign trade kept up a heavy demand on China's production of art goods. Metalwork of bronze, gold and silver flourished with Persian designs. Pottery and porcelain became more and more beautiful. One aspect of the figurines which has attracted much interest is the frequency of foreign faces among them. The artists of Tang loved to show the gods and saints of foreign lands and the sculptors loved horses and alien faces. The exoticism in the arts showed the foreigners were widely active in Chinese life. Foreign activities in fields such as the Palace Guard, entertainment and commerce are frequently reflected in the figurines. The strange features of these foreigners which most struck the Chinese, then as now, were their great noses and hairy faces, features which were a gift to the craftsmen in clay. One of the most eminent of foreign painters was Visa Irasanga or Yu-Chih I-seng in Chinese. He was a Khotanese and came to the Chinese court in the mid 7th century. He brought a new painting style of Iranian origin and had profound influence in Chinese Buddhist art. He was credited with having helped bring the Western technique of using a line of unvarying thickness to outline figures -- the "iron-wire" line -- to the Buddhist temples in many Chinese cities. ***

Maritime and River Trade During the Tang Dynasty

Chinese envoys had been sailing through the Indian Ocean to India since perhaps the 2nd century B.C., yet it was during the Tang dynasty that a strong Chinese maritime presence could be found in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, into Persia, Mesopotamia (sailing up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq), Arabia, Egypt, Aksum (Ethiopia), and Somalia in the Horn of Africa. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Vessels from Korean Silla, Balhae and Hizen Province of Japan were all involved in the Yellow Sea trade, which Silla dominated. After Silla and Japan reopened renewed hostilities in the late 7th century, most Japanese maritime merchants chose to set sail from Nagasaki towards the mouth of the Huai River, the Yangzi River, and even as far south as the Hangzhou Bay in order to avoid Korean ships in the Yellow Sea. In order to sail back to Japan in 838, the Japanese embassy to China procured nine ships and sixty Korean sailors from the Korean wards of Chuzhou and Lianshui cities along the Huai River. It is also known that Chinese trade ships traveling to Japan set sail from the various ports along the coasts of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. +

In the interior of China, trade was facilitated by the Grand Canal and the Tang government's rationalization of the greater canal system that reduced costs of transporting grain and other commodities. The state also managed roughly 32,100 kilometers (19,900 mi) of postal service routes by horse or boat. +

Model of Tang-era ship wrecked in Indonesia

Maritime Silk Road During the Tang Dynasty

Around the A.D. 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty, 500 years before Marco Polo arrived in China, Silk Road land routes fell into decline as sea routes opened up between China and the Middle East. An extensive trade network between China, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East was established by Arab traders. Chinese coastal cities blossomed. Guangzhou in China had 200,000 foreign residents, including Arabs, Persians, Indians, Africans and Turks. Land routes began opening up again when the sea routes became dangerous as a result of pirates and the Mongols eliminated petty states and local officials by creating a huge unified empire that stretched across Asia and Europe. Marco Polo traveled by both land and sea but reported more trouble when he traveled by sea.

The Chinese engaged in large-scale production for overseas export by at least the time of the Tang. This was proven by the discovery of the Belitung shipwreck, a silt-preserved shipwrecked Arabian dhow in the Gaspar Strait near Belitung, which had 63,000 pieces of Tang ceramics, silver, and gold (including a Changsha bowl inscribed with a date: "16th day of the seventh month of the second year of the Baoli reign", or 826, roughly confirmed by radiocarbon dating of star anise at the wreck). See Below [Source: Wikipedia +]

It is not difficult to see why sea travel was preferred over overland travel. Caravan routes were treacherous and time consuming. Merchants had to worry about bandits and pay bribes and commissions to middlemen and officials. Those that traversed western China passed through some of the most barren and inhospitable deserts on earth. When the going was easier thieves and bandits were a constant threat. Sea routes by contrast were faster and easier and there were fewer transactions and officials. A trader who purchased goods in the East could have control over the goods until they reached ports in the West and make greater profits by eliminating middlemen. The biggest risks with sea travel were storms, disease and pirates.

Beginning in 785, the Chinese began to call regularly at Sufala on the East African coast in order to cut out Arab middlemen, with various contemporary Chinese sources giving detailed descriptions of trade in Africa. The official and geographer Jia Dan (730–805) wrote of two common sea trade routes in his day: one from the coast of the Bohai Sea towards Korea and another from Guangzhou through Malacca towards the Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka and India, the eastern and northern shores of the Arabian Sea to the Euphrates River. +

In 863 the Chinese author Duan Chengshi (d. 863) provided a detailed description of the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade in a country called Bobali, which historians suggest was Berbera in Somalia. In Fustat (old Cairo), Egypt, the fame of Chinese ceramics there led to an enormous demand for Chinese goods; hence Chinese often traveled there (this continued into later periods such as Fatimid Egypt). From this time period, the Arab merchant Shulama once wrote of his admiration for Chinese seafaring junks, but noted that their draft was too deep for them to enter the Euphrates River, which forced them to ferry passengers and cargo in small boats. Shulama also noted that Chinese ships were often very large, with capacities up to 600–700 passengers. +

Guangzhou: Tang-Era International Maritime Trading Hub

During the Tang dynasty, thousands of foreigners came and lived in numerous coastal Chinese cities such as Guangzhou for trade and commercial ties with China. These included Persians, Arabs, Hindu Indians, Malays, Bengalis, Sinhalese, Khmers, Chams, Jews and Nestorian Christians of the Near East, and many others. [Source: Wikipedia +

In 748, the Buddhist monk Jian Zhen described Guangzhou as a bustling mercantile center where many large and impressive foreign ships came to dock. He wrote that "many big ships came from Borneo, Persia, Qunglun (Indonesia/Java)...with...spices, pearls, and jade piled up mountain high." [Source: Yue Jue Shu (“Lost Records of the State of Yue”)]

During the An Lushan Rebellion Arab and Persian pirates burned and looted Guangzhou in 758, and foreigners were massacred at Yangzhou in 760. The Tang government reacted by shutting the port of Canton down for roughly five decades, and foreign vessels docked at Hanoi instead. However, when the port reopened it continued to thrive. +

In 851 the Arab merchant Sulaiman al-Tajir observed the manufacturing of Chinese porcelain in Guangzhou and admired its transparent quality. He also provided a description of Guangzhou's mosque, its granaries, its local government administration, some of its written records, the treatment of travelers, along with the use of ceramics, rice-wine, and tea. However, in another bloody episode at Guangzhou in 879, the Chinese rebel Huang Chao sacked the city, and purportedly slaughtered thousands of native Chinese, along with foreign Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims in the process. Huang's rebellion was eventually suppressed in 884. The death toll could have ranged from 120,000 to 200,000 foreigners. The American Baptist Foreign Mission Society reported in 1869: “Foreigners have at different periods settled in China; but after remaining for a time, they have been massacred. For instance, Mohammedans and others settled at Canton in the ninth century; and in 889, it is said that 120,000 foreign settlers were massacred.” +

Tang-Era Arab Shipwreck

In the 1998 sea cucumber divers working in the Gelesa Straight found some coral-encrusted ceramics, and further scraping away revealed a 9th century Arab dhow laden with 63,000 handmade ceramics and some pieces of gold and silver. Much of the cargo was made of up cheap, mass-produced, Chinese-made bowls, known as Changsa bowls, placed n large storage jars. There was also ink pots, spices jars of various sizes and ewers. [Source: Simon Worrall, National Geographic, June 2009]

Changsha bowl inscribed with a date: "16th day of the seventh month of the second year of the Baoli reign", or 826, roughly confirmed by radiocarbon dating of star anise at the wreck. The destination of the ship appeared to be Middle East, meaning that ship was traveling the maritime Silk Road. Many of the bowls were decorated with geometric decorations and Koranic motifs that were clearly intended for Middle Eastern market. This implied she objects were made to order for Middle Eastern customers.

The dhow was almost 20 meters long. It resembled a kind of sailing dhow still used in Oman called a baitl qarib. Built of African and Indian wood, it had a raked prow and stern and was fitted with square sails and made of planks sewn together with coconut husks fiber.

Significance of the Tang-Era Arab Shipwreck

Items found on Tang shipwreck

Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop wrote in the New York Times, “For more than a decade, archaeologists and historians have been studying the contents of a ninth-century Arab dhow that was discovered in 1998 off Indonesia's Belitung Island. The sea-cucumber divers who found the wreck had no idea it eventually would be considered one of the most important maritime discoveries of the late 20th century. The dhow was carrying a rich cargo “ 60,000 ceramic pieces and an array of gold and silver works “ and its discovery has confirmed how significant trade was along a maritime silk road between Tang Dynasty China and Abbasid Iraq. It also has revealed how China was mass-producing trade goods even then and customizing them to suit the tastes of clients in West Asia. [Source: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, New York Times, March 7, 2011]

“Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds," an exhibition that opened at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore in 2011 and was put together by the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, featured many artifacts from the Belitung shipwreck. “This exhibition tells us a story about an extraordinary moment in globalization," Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, told the New York Times. “It brings to life the tale of Sinbad sailing to China to make his fortune. It shows us that the world in the ninth century was not as fragmented as we assumed. There were two great export powers: the Tang in the east and the Abbasid based in Baghdad."

Until the Belitung find, historians had thought that Tang China traded primarily through the land routes of Central Asia, mainly on the Silk Road. Ancient records told of Persian fleets sailing the Southeast Asian seas but no wrecks had been found, until the Belitung dhow. Its cargo confirmed that a huge volume of trade was taking place along a maritime route, said Heidi Tan, a curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum and a co-curator of the exhibition.

Mr. Raby said: “The size of the find gives us a sense of two things: a sense of China as a country already producing things on an industrialized scale and also a China that is no longer producing ceramics to bury." He was referring to the production of burial pottery like camels and horses, which was banned in the late eighth century. “Instead, kilns looked for other markets and they started producing tableware and they built an export market."

Artifacts from the Tang-Era Arab Shipwreck

more stuff found on Tang shipwreck

“Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” featured only 450 of the 60,000 objects found in the shipwreck but the rows of similar bowls that were displayed underscored the importance and size of the find. Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop wrote in the New York Times, ‘stacked in the dhow, hundreds of tall stoneware jars each held more than a hundred nested Changsha bowls “ named after the Changsha kilns in Hunan where they were produced. Of the thousands of hand-painted pieces, almost all carry one of a few set patterns, but these were copied by many hands, resulting in an impression of huge variety. [Source: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, New York Times, March 7, 2011]

Not all of the ceramics were mass-produced. Among the most interesting pieces in the exhibition is an extremely rare dish, one of three found in the wreck, with floral lozenge motifs surrounded by sprigs of foliage. They are believed to be the earliest known complete Chinese blue-and-white ceramics.

Ms. Tan, the curator, said: “It demonstrates that the Chinese potters were already experimenting with imported cobalt blue from Iraq, which they applied as underglaze painted decoration, some 500 years earlier than the famous blue and white porcelain of the 14th century." At the time of the dhow's discovery, cobalt-blue pigments had been found only in the Middle East, not yet in China, said Alan Chong, director of the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Aside from the rare ceramics, the haul also contained gold and silver objects, some of which Mr. Raby of the Smithsonian described as “of the very best quality you can see, clearly of imperial quality," adding, “so we believe these were possible diplomatic gifts." The form and decorative motifs of an octagonal gold cup “ musicians and dancers with long hair and billowing robes “suggest Central Asian metal wares. Mr. Raby said it was believed to be the largest known such gold cup from Tang China, even upstaging, he added, one of the great treasures of Tang gold and silver work: the so-called Hejiacun Hoard, found in what had been one of the southern suburbs of the Tang capital of Xian.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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