Civilizations in Contact

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Research topics - Sally K. Church

Diplomacy, Travel, and Trade in Pre-Modern China

Photo of model Chinese Junk.

Model of a Chinese Junk,
on display at the Song
dynasty theme park in
Hangzhou.

This project examines Chinese diplomatic missions of the Ming dynasty, conducted by both land and sea. Its scope extends to mapping the overland route of Chen Cheng to Herat, and investigating the ships used on the maritime expeditions of Zheng He. The focus is largely on the diplomatic missions to and from China throughout its history, with a concentration on the period between the Tang (618–906 CE) and Ming (1368–1644 CE) dynasties, but also on other periods, and other reasons why people travelled, including religious pilgrimage.

Photo of stone compass.

Stone Compass, Song Dynasty,
on display at the Song dynasty
theme park in Hangzhou.

The diary of the Ming dynasty diplomat Chen Cheng, written during his 4,800-kilometre journey to Herat in 1414, provides an opportunity to map the route he followed across Central Asia, from the beginning of the Silk Road in China to the present-day capital of Afghanistan. Mapping the route not only documents Chen Cheng's journey and brings it to life, but also generates precise georeferences for more than 100 places mentioned in his account. It is also possible to find approximate locations for unnamed places where he camped by the side of the road.

There are extensive records in the Ming Shilu (Veritable Records) of the diplomatic and trade exchanges between foreign countries and the Chinese empire. Many of these result from the flurry of activity sparked by the Ming Voyages of 1405–33 CE. These records are so detailed that they often mention the name of the head of the foreign embassy that came to China, as well as the country from which it originated, the goods that it presented to China—in the form of what China termed "tribute"—and the goods that China gave the foreigners in return. These entries also provide information about the domestic and foreign relations of the countries in question at the time. China sometimes intervened in the domestic politics of the countries the expeditions visited, as well as in relations between countries, and these interventions indicate the role China saw herself playing in international politics. Records of the voyages, and the trading missions that returned to China in response to them, are being collated and studied for the light they shed on China's foreign relations at the time of the voyages.

Woodcut of The Imperial Readiness Ship.

The "Imperial Readiness Ship"
is the first of the 24 ship
illustrations in the Longjiang
Shipyard Treatise (1553). It
was maintained in a constant
state of preparedness in case
the emperor needed to flee
the capital.

Arising from the study of the Ming Voyages is the topic of Chinese ships, and in particular the ships that were used on the maritime expeditions. An important work for this topic is the nearly contemporary shipyard treatise Longjiang chuanchang zhi (1553), written by the shipyard director Li Zhaoxiang. This shipyard is often confused with the Treasure Shipyard (baochuan chang), because it was located so close to it in Nanjing. It is a rare work in which a scholar took the time to record for posterity the technological details of a practical project like shipbuilding, including the materials necessary to build particular sizes and types of ship, and the materials and procedures for caulking and for making such necessities as sails, anchors, masts, and ropes. Even the cost of these materials and the number of workmen and man-hours needed to do each job are specified. Joseph Needham has called this work "one of the treasures of technological literature", and notes that it contains "a great mass of information (not yet digested by historians)". To date there has been a thesis on it in German, but nothing in English. This important treatise is being translated into English to make it available for further detailed study by sinologists and maritime historians alike. A recent (2006) archaeological report on the excavations that have been done on one of the basins at the shipyard in Nanjing is also being translated.

Photo of a Bodhisattva.

Sculpture of a Bodhisattva
at Lingyinsi (Temple of
Soul's Retreat), at
Feilaifeng, West Lake,
Hangzhou.

Faxian was the earliest Chinese Buddhist monk to journey to India and back to China again. His journey took place between 399 and 414 CE. A new translation of Faxian’s travel account into English is being prepared with Dr Robert Harding. This will be the first scholarly translation of Faxian’s text into English since the pioneering renderings produced by Legge and Giles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.