The Maritime Routes have always held a significant place in Chinese history. Before the 3rd century BC, a Chinese marine society started to emerge leading to the growth of a marine culture, and harbour cities, such as Quanzhou in the South East coast of China. The harbour city had a key geographical position at the mouth of the Jin River and was at the centre of several maritime roads.
From the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), navigation started to take an essential place in politics, economy, diplomacy, and culture. Helped by astronavigation and monsoon drive, Chinese navigators started to go to the Japanese Islands and South Asian regions. With the development of the Maritime Silk Roads, they succeeded in reaching other Asian regions.
Quanzhou became an important centre for trade especially during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Indeed, at these times, the silk industry, dyeing, mining and metallurgical industry, ceramic production, paper-making, printing, tea-making, and shipbuilding industry were prosperous. This prosperity conducted to the growth of exportation of these merchandise through Maritime routes to many regions in Asia and Africa. These exchanges resulted in establishing relations between China and distant regions through by the 8th century CE.
Quanzhou port played a key role in maintaining these relations between China and other neighbouring and more faraway lands. For example, sea contacts were set up with the Korean Peninsula, Japan Islands, and also with the Kamchatka Peninsula (in North East Asia, modern Russia) through the Okhotsk maritime road. In Southeast Asia, traditional navigation trade started to grow, and the maritime roads almost reached all coasts and islands of the Southeast Asian regions.
In South Asia, China had intense material and cultural exchanges with the Indian Subcontinent and modern Sri Lanka. In Western Asia and East Africa, the relations between the Chinese dynasty and Arab regions evolved. For example, a “China Market” selling Chinese products was established in Baghdad. Through these exchanges, foreign merchants also began to settle in the harbour cities such as Quanzhou, leading to the apparition of “foreigners’ communities”. The various tombstones of foreign merchants are witnesses of the presence of these foreign communities in Quanzhou during the 13th and 14th centuries.
Quanzhou became also a shipbuilding hub where many of the commercial ships were built to meet the growing demand of diplomacy and trade.
After its emergence during the Tang dynasty, Quanzhou progressed rapidly during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), notably due to convenient political and economic circumstances. Several bridges that used to facilitate movement between the different regions were built, as well as stone towers that facilitated the navigation and harbouring of the trade ships. These structures are the witnesses of the importance given by the Song Dynasty to Quanzhou.
Quanzhou preserved its importance also during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE). It is believed that the famous harbour of Quanzhou, “Zaitun” received its name from the Arab sailors who visited the port regularly during the 13th and 14th centuries CE. Moreover, well-known travelers such as Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta visited respectively in 1292 CE and in 1342 CE Quanzhou and quoted it in their travel notes.