Quanzhou: a crucial port along the eastern maritime Silk Roads

Quanzhou / © Municipality of Quanzhou

Located on the south-east coast of China, the city of Quanzhou was one of the most important Chinese ports along the historic Maritime Silk Roads. Known as Zayton (or Zaitun) by traders arriving from the Arab world, the port has welcomed sailors and travellers from many different cultures and religions as they traversed these routes. Commercial and cultural interaction between the city and other regions, particularly around the South Sea, can be dated to as early as the Chinese Southern Dynasties of the 6th century AD. Subsequently, the port was one of the four major Chinese ports in use under the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and went on to become the largest port in eastern China during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) and Yuan dynasty (1271—1368 AD). It was also linked with around one hundred other ports along the Maritime Silk Roads, including Madras in India, Siraf in Iran, Muscat in Oman and Zanzibar. From the 10th century, Erythrina variegata trees have been planted around the harbour entrance to welcome and impress sailors with their eye-catching red flowers, and the Chinese name for the plant, Citong(刺桐), is reflected in the city's Arabic nickname of Zayton.

An ancient map of the Maritime Silk Roads/ © Quanzhou Municipality

A number of famous medieval explorers, such as Marco Polo, Friar Odoric of Pordenone, and Ibn Battuta, visited Quanzhou and wrote descriptions of the port as one of the biggest harbours in the world, with ships of all sizes and provenances docking and setting sail, and a vibrant market in which merchants from across many different regions exchanged their wares. It also appears that Marco Polo set off on his mission to accompany a Mongol Princess for her marriage ceremony in Persia (Modern Iran) from Quanzhou.  

This glorious past is attested by several historic sites linked to the maritime Silk Roads in Quanzhou. Shipwrecks excavated in Quanzhou bay and the South China Sea testify to the prosperity and vibrancy of the port, such as the wreck of a sailing ship with a wooden hull, unearthed in Houzhu Harbor (Quanzhou Bay). This three-masted ocean-going commercial vessel seems to have been originally built in Quanzhou in the 13th century, and at the time of the wreck, was returning from South-East Asia loaded with spices, medicines and other merchandise. Additionally, as well as being one of the major hubs of commerce and exchange along the Maritime Silk Roads, Quanzhou was a leading centre for shipbuilding and the development of navigation technologies during the Song dynasty.

Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta Statues in Quanzhou/ © Municipality of Quanzhou
Sailors, merchants and explorers came together in Quanzhou from across many different regions of the world, and their continual presence in the city contributed to the development of peaceful coexistence between the many different ethnic and religious groups in the city, including Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Nestorians, Manichaeans, Jews, Catholics and Muslims. This is illustrated by the diversity of historic religious sites and monuments in the city of Quanzhou. The Kaiyuan temple, with its twin pagoda towers, is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in China, whilst the Laojun statue, which is the biggest Chinese stone statue of its kind, illustrates the presence of Taoism. The Qingjing Mosque, furthermore, is China's oldest mosque, and stands as a witness to the long-lasting interaction between Quanzhou and the Arab-Islamic world. Additionally, the Can An (Thatched Hut) Manichaean temple hosts the only stone statue of the Manichaean prophet, Mani.

Furthermore, a number of civic monuments such as the stone-beam bridge, Luoyang, and the scenic long bridge, Anping, not only stand as witnesses to the prosperity of the Quanzhou-Zaitun harbour, but also reflect a blend of Chinese and other cultures in their design and architecture.

In recognition of the role played by Quanzhou as one of the major ports along the Maritime Silk Roads, a team from UNESCO visited the city in 1991, as part of the Organization’s Maritime Silk Road expedition. Over the course of a five day stay, in addition to numerous meetings and discussions between renowned international and local Silk Roads experts, UNESCO recommended the establishment of a Maritime Silk Roads study center in the city.

Wrecks of ancient ship from Song Dynasty / © Municipality of Quanzhou
More recently, in commemoration of its historical importance along the Maritime Silk Roads, the municipal government of the city of Quanzhou, in collaboration with the Permanent Delegation of the Peoples' Republic of China to UNESCO, organized an exhibition entitled “Greeting from Quanzhou”, which took place in the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, on 14-18 October 2014. The exhibition displayed and explained different aspects of the cultural heritage of Quanzhou and highlighted the city's links to the Maritime Silk Roads. It was inaugurated by a message from UNESCO's Director General, Ms. Irina Bokova, delivered by the Assistant Director General for Strategic Planning, Mr Hans D'Horville.

In her message, the Director General underlined Quanzhou's historic role as the most famous Chinese port along the Maritime Silk Roads and emphasised the city’s attachment to the sea as the major route for dialogue and exchange among peoples and cultures. Ms. Bokova also highlighted the remarkable cultural heritage of Quanzhou, as illustrated by the city's presence in a number of different UNESCO heritage lists, including the World Heritage and the Intangible Heritage lists.

Special tribute was paid during the inauguration ceremony to the former director of UNESCO’s Silk Road initiative, Mr. Doudou Diene, both by the UNESCO Director General and the Quanzhou authorities.

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