July 12, 2016
Today we had the great pleasure of visiting the ancient city of Quanzhou. While the city was first established under the Tang dynasty around he 7th century, it was under the Song and Yuan Dynasties that Qaunzhou would become one of the largest shipping parts in all of China.
What first struck me is the fact that I had never learned about this great port city in all of my time learning about world history, which included many months on the Silk Road as well as the Indian Ocean trading system. I had never heard of the so-called “Maritime Silk Road”. Yet as I moved from exhibit to exhibit in both the Maritime and Relations Museums the magnitude of the trading port and its cultural significance was quite clear. I find it fascinating that as an American student we were only taught about the silk road that traveled through the Western fringes of the Chinese territory, thus avoiding having to go into depth about the Chinese civilization that was present and instead being able to focus more on the European aspects of the trading system. The massive prosperity of Quanzhou were left out, even though there were large communities of foreigners, possibly because the diversity and excepting nature of the great port city made the very much intolerant civilizations of the west less dominate.
While the Maritime Museum provided an impressive perspective on the Quanzhou’s function as the start of the Maritime Silk Road, with the many models of shipping junks as well as maps of the trading routes, it was the Overseas Relation’s exhibits that were most fascinating for me for reasons I have alluded to above. Still to this day, there are very few examples of two religions occupying the same cities: at least not peacefully. Yet in the city of Quanzhou, there were not two, not three, but four different religions inhabiting the same space, and to my astonishment this rare state of acceptance lasted for almost 1,000 years. This acceptance of religions did not happen recently, but long ago between the 8th and 14th centuries. It must be noted that at this time in the West there was very little if any religious tolerance. This is a time when the crusades took place, where individuals of a religious background went out of their way, traveling thousands of miles to attack another religion unprovoked. While the inquisition was terrorizing Spanish cities and minority populations and while the church was holding public burnings of accused witches throughout Europe, in Quanzhou Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism inhabited the same space for 10 centuries with little or no conflict. In this sense, Quanzhou was truly ahead of its time, as there is still no other city that can rival the religious tolerance exemplified by this ancient shipping port. Seeing the Christian, Islamic, and Budist tombstones housed in the same building really demonstrate the close proximity in which these religions operated.
More impressive still is that a mosque still remains from the time period: 清淨寺. There are again very few examples of mosques in western countries, and certainly none that have survived to this day. Yet on the far eastern side of the world such a mosque exists, again demonstrating not only that Quanzhou was a great cultural melting pot, but that these sentiments of tolerance more or less remained after the prosperity had left, thus allowing a relic of a distant religion to remain remarkably well preserved.