Keywords of the Greater Bay Area

Maritime Trade


Nikita Yingqian Cai

Maritime Silk Road

In 1988, UNESCO launched a ten-year program, entitled “Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue.” This cross-national study viewed the Silk Road as the common heritage of East and West, which fostered cultural exchange in the Eurasian Continent. This program's definition of the Silk Road was primarily based on the concept of die Seidenstrasse, an interlocking set of overland routes that connected the western Han dynasty and the Roman Empire, proposed by Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), a German geographer and founder of modern geography. In September 1868, von Richthofen arrived in Shanghai on a steamship with the ambition to explore coal resources in inland China. In that quest, he traveled across the Gobi Desert seven times in four years. His map centered on Inner Asia, with China, the Mediterranean world, and even the Indian Subcontinent on the periphery of Eurasia. He understood the importance of the spice routes across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, but for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, oceans were not a focal point of the imperialist competition for resources.

In 2007, Roderich Ptak published Die Maritime Seidenstrasse (The Maritime Silk Road ). He describes maritime navigation and trade in Asian seas prior to the sixteenth century and offers further insight into the indigenous peoples inhabiting the endless coastline and maritime worlds of the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, Java, the Strait of Malacca, the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and even East Africa. During this time, trade between Asia and Europe was limited, but in the Age of Discovery, American silver extracted by Spanish colonizers was shipped to Asia (primarily China), and Asian products were sold all over the world as luxury goods. When the Europeans, who were more accustomed to navigating the Mediterranean Sea, arrived in Asian waters, they often needed to rely on the navigation skills and knowledge of local sailors. The monsoon was crucially important; in seas where the North Star was not visible, sailors navigated by identifying cloud forms and waves and observing the ocean surface and the behaviors of birds and animals near islands. Pre-modern rulers along the Maritime Silk Road had different conceptions of territory than sovereign states; sailors, merchants, and fishermen from different areas sailed and fished on the open seas, negotiating and trading with different groups.

With the advent of post-colonial deconstruction, the Maritime Silk Road in the twenty-first century became the focus of nation-building, politicization, and aestheticization efforts, such as China's New Maritime Silk Road project in 2013 and India's Project Mausam in 2014. Many Maritime Silk Road Museums and sites have been constructed. Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road could be envisioned as the interweaving of different worlds, which involve tributary systems, imperial trade, contemporary globalization, and different belief systems; Kunlun slaves, Persians, pirates, sailors, refugees, and boat people; Arabic, Sanskrit, Malay, and various pidgin languages; ports, islands, shipping, tropical climates, and plantations; spices, seafood, silk, porcelain, minerals, and opium… In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road has no center and no beginning.

(Translated by Bridget Noetzel )

About Keywords of the Greater Bay Area

The "Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area" is a new construction envisioned from a top-down perspective and territorial integration. It is a blueprint for a future urban development based on efficiency, speed, and mobility. What if we conceive the Greater Bay Area as an experiment, an imaginary experiment? On the one hand, there is the question of 'diversity'. When we talk about smart cities, artificial intelligence, automation, ecological crisis, information security, the future of virtual reality, global trade, etc., where does this view of the future come from, and what determines it? On the other hand, a profound political, spatial, historical, and geographical significance is present in the Greater Bay Area. Is it possible to develop a different imagination based on the history and culture of the "Pearl River Delta-Greater Bay Area;" meaning, to consider a development departing from local knowledge production, negotiating with accelerating technologies, facilitating collaborations between art and other disciplines, and reshaping the vision of institutions of art and technology? By exploring the diversity of technologies, human and non-human ecologies, and reproduction of social relations, might it be possible to reposition the "Greater Bay Area" as a pioneering experiment of southern China's technological and cultural imagination beyond a mere economic zone?

Editors: Jianru Wu, Guo Yun
English editor: Christy Lange