Cultural gateway to the Maritime Silk Road

NINGBO was a key point of the Maritime Silk Road and it is from this city that the Chinese traditional arts and crafts, highlighted by the building craft, spread to East Asia.

Ningbo was a key point of the Maritime Silk Road and it is from this city that the Chinese traditional arts and crafts, highlighted by the building craft, spread to East Asia.

The south gate of Tdai-ji, a UNESCO listed world heritage site in Nara, Japan was built by Ningbo craftsman Chen Heqing in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), who traveled through the Maritime Silk Road from Ningbo to Japan.

Chinese traditional building craft, featuring wooden structured beams, combined with columns for good stability, were applied by Chen into the gate and exerted an influence on Japanese religious buildings.

As a large transportation network on the oceans, the Maritime Silk Road connected China with South and West Asian and East African countries through the South and East China Sea, Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The road flourished in the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279), peaked in the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and ended in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Ningbo was one of the top three Chinese port cities during Tang and Song dynasties, and its shipping routes connected areas such as the Korean Peninsula and Japan, boosting both the porcelain trade and Buddhism communication among these areas.

Ningbo, together with 13 other ancient ports and cities, are living fossils recording the history of the Maritime Silk Road, said Chinese President Xi Jinping on Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing last May. It was a history of traveling through unpowered ships and products made in China that attracted foreigners to sail from far away to trade.

“Ancient ships didn’t have engines and thanks to the proper monsoon and ocean current, Ningbo was a perfect port for ships sailing to and from the east,” said Wang Lijun, director of the Ningbo Museum.

Wang said the trade through Maritime Silk Road was profitable but only a few Chinese dared to take a risk sailing, as many of them could already earn a good living by selling silks, teas and porcelain to foreigners coming to China. In addition, not only were goods transported but also envoys, craftsmen and monks.

“Envoys traveled through the Maritime Silk Road for diplomatic relationships, craftsmen for arts and monks for Buddhism,” said Wang.

Exploring the Maritime Silk Road heritage in Ningbo is a journey, from a historical navigation and wharf mark indicating the glory of Chinese shipping, to archaeological sites featuring porcelain and kiln, and from a guesthouse accommodating Korean envoys to old temples promoting Buddhism in Asia.

Tiantong Temple

At the foot of Taibai Mountain in Yinzhou District, the temple was a place promoting cultural exchange between China and Japan when the two were connected by the Maritime Silk Road in the Tang and Song dynasties, and it is the cradle of the St school, one of the largest traditional sects of Zen in Japanese Buddhism.

The prestigious temple, which dates back 1,700 years and covers 76,400 square meters, attracted a group of Japanese monks to study Buddhism. Several of them applied what they learned into developing Japanese Buddhism, among whom the most influential monk is Daoyuan (1200-1253). He came to the temple in the Southern Song Dynasty and founded Eihei-ji in Japan, a temple developing the Japanese St school and he applied Tiantong’s Buddhist management system there. There also stands a monument in the garden at the front of the temple’s Tianwang Hall, in memory of the Thousand-Buddha Pavilion that was built with timbers carried by the Japanese monk Yousai (1141-1215) from Japan in 1190.

How to get there: People can take Bus No. 690 in Ningbo’s downtown, then transfer to Bus No. 162 at Tongyi Stop and get off at Tiantong Scenic Zone Stop.

Yu Aimin

Tiantong Temple

Tianfeng Pagoda

The pagoda, preserved from the Tang Dynasty in Haishu District, is the tallest ancient building in Ningbo. It was the navigation mark for people shipping along the Maritime Silk Road to Ningbo thanks to its height.

“Traditionally, pagodas were places for people to pay homage to Buddhas in China. Tianfeng Pagoda was also a landmark of Ningbo and what people first saw when they sailed into the Yongjiang River near the city’s downtown,” said Wang from Ningbo Museum.

The hexagonal 14-story pagoda, renovated in 1989, is also an important archeological site. Around 100 kilograms of coins, dating from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) to Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (AD 907-979) and 140 pieces of cultural relics, were unearthed from its underground chamber during the same period of its renovation, including several copper statues of Buddha.

How to get there: You can take Metro Line 2 and exit at Chenghuangmiao Station. The pagoda is 700 meters away from the station.

Tianfeng Pagoda

Archaistic seaport wharf in Zhenhai

The wharf, at the estuary of the Yong River running into the East China Sea in Zhenhai District, has been preserved from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and was the place where Chinese ships set sail for the Korean Peninsula and Japan in the east.

The historical wharf, renovated in 2003, witnessed China become world leaders in shipbuilding technology in the Song Dynasty. The wharf now berths an archaic model ship of “Wanhu Shenzhou (万斛神舟),” which means a super ship with a large loading capacity. It used to be one of the best ships in the world and was built by a local shipyard at the foot of the Zhaobao Mountain near the wharf.

Chinese envoys took the ship from the wharf to the Korean Peninsula for diplomatic assignments a thousand years ago.

There also stands a stone gate, built by ancestors, where people were blessed as they set sails at the wharf, featuring four pillars and Chinese characters carved on its upper part, of which “利涉” means safe sailing and “衜頭” means wharf.

How to get there: Take Bus No. 390 to Dianyingyuan and then walk south along Miaopu Road for around seven minutes.

Archaistic seaport wharf in Zhenhai

Yongfeng Stonehouse Site Park

Formerly a Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) warehouse in Haishu District, it originally housed celadon wares for trading along the Maritime Silk Road.

Over 800 cultural relics have been unearthed from the site since 2001, most of which are celadon produced by the Yue Kiln in Cixi City and Longquan Kiln in Longquan City. Over 10,000 similar porcelains were found in the Shinan shipwreck, discovered in 1976 in the southeastern sea of South Korea. It sunk when sailing from Ningbo to the Korean Peninsula in the Yuan Dynasty. The warehouse, built in 1276 to store confiscated goods, is the only ancient architecture preserved from the Yuan Dynasty in Ningbo, featuring wood and stone.

How to get there: Take Metro Line 2 and exit at Gulou Station.

Yongfeng Stonehouse Site Park

Exhibition hall of Ningbo-Korean exchange history

This is an ancient-style courtyard built on the archeological site of a guesthouse accommodating Korean envoys in the Northern Song Dynasty. Now, in Haishu District, it is an exhibition hall representing the diplomatic relationship between ancient China and Korea from the Tang to Song Dynasty.

“The Nothern Song Empire was forging a good relationship with Korea in order to make an alliance to fight against the Liao Empire,” said Wang.

Korean envoys were well greeted when they came to Ningbo but the hospitality for them was costly. Local officials even filled Ningbo’s Guangde Lake with soil in 1117 for increasing farmland to get more fiscal revenue to make ends meet, which caused drought and flood troubles at that time.

How to get there: Take Bus No. 906 to Ningbo First Hospital, walk for 900 meters along Zhenming Road

Opening hours: 9-11:30am, 1:30-4:30pm, Tuesday-Sunday

Exhibition hall of Ningbo-Korean exchange history

Yue Kiln sites by Shanglin Lake

A total of 115 Yue Kiln archeological sites (named after the area’s old name ‘Yue Prefecture’ in the Tang and Song dynasties) have been discovered since 1993 around Shanglin Lake in Cixi, proving this was China’s biggest production center of celadon wares, with jade colors and lotus patterns, that were exported to countries along the Maritime Silk Road.

“Thanks to local clay that was suitable for making porcelain, the manufacturing of celadon wares was a mainstay industry here during the Tang Dynasty and it ended in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279),” said Huang Songsong with the Cixi Bureau of Culture, Radio, TV, Press and Publication.

Celadon wares made by Yue Kiln were also discovered in over a dozen of archeological sites in the Korean Peninsula, such as Baekje (today’s southwestern part of South Korea), and a bottle of its kind is preserved in Hry-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara, made in the 7th century, which is one of the earliest Yue Kiln celadon wares brought to Japan. The artisanship of celadon wares was also brought to the Korean Peninsula when the Koreans made porcelain with the pattern of lotuses too.

“South Koreans, including officials, scholars and artisans of porcelains, now often come to visit these sites as they consider it as their cultural origin of celadon ware making,” said Huang.

How to get there: Take a coach from Ningbo South Coach Station to Cixi West Coach Station, then take Bus No. 226 to get off at Shanglinhu Stop.

Yue Kiln sites by Shanglin Lake

Yue Kiln celadon ware

Yue Kiln celadon ware