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Hepu and the Opening of the Han Dynasty's Maritime Silk Road

Hepu and the Opening of the Han Dynasty's Maritime Silk Road 
Today, many Chinese scholars believe that China’s first turn to the sea was during the Han Dynasty and took place in Southern China. To explore this theory, we have to travel to the most southern coastal regions of China bordering the South China Sea. This area, historically called Lingnan, roughly corresponds to the present-day provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong. When looking at a map of China, these two provinces are at the most southern point of China. According to Chinese historians this region is the cradle of the maritime silk road in China and there are two reasons why they think so: first, in Lingnan they have discovered the remains of two Han-period ports that are mentioned in an early historical text; and secondly also in this region they have found a large number of so-called ‘oversea goods’ in Han-dynasty tombs.

Historical Evidence: The Book of Han
Let’s first have a look at this historical text, which is the Hanshu or The Book of Han. This work is the official historical chronicle of the Western Han (which was from 206 BC until 9 AD). It contains biographies and records of important events. One single paragraph mentions the oversea journey of an imperial trade envoy. This envoy set off from the Tonkin Gulf near Southern China and Northern Vietnam, and visited a number of foreign kingdoms along the coasts of Southeast Asia, and eventually reached South Asia. This was not an easy journey as the ‘Book of Han’ lists some of the perils the crew had to withstand: “Sometimes barbarians rob or kill them to gain trade profit. They also suffer hardships caused by wind and waves, and many died from drowning”. However, when they survived the journey, many treasures could be obtained, and they exchanged gold and silk for “bright beads, bi liuli, and precious curiosities”. Bright beads are thought to be pearls, while precious curiosities might have referred to the diverse category of precious stones and gold ornaments. When it comes to the meaning of “bi liuli” scholars disagree. Some believe it was emerald from India or lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. However, one group of scholars suggests that ‘bi liuli’ was a word used in the Han dynasty to refer to glass. One Chinese scholar, Ji Xianlin (2008), even believes that the term comes from the Sanskrit word for glass. Considering, the large quantities of glass found in the Hepu Tombs this could very well make sense.

Now, how is this text linked to archaeological discoveries? Besides the names of foreign kingdoms in Southeast Asia and India, which have actually been very hard to locate, the Book of Han, mentions three ports which were located in the South China Sea: Xuwen, Hepu and Rinan. Two of these ports are important for our story about the opening of the Han Dynasty’s maritime silk road, because they can be traced back to present-day locations in coastal Guangdong and Guangxi. In fact, after 2000 years, Xuwen and Hepu are still names for coastal counties in Southern China. And more importantly, in these counties remains of Han-period tombs and settlements have been discovered.

The Hepu Tombs

"Persian" Pot
(Hepu Museum)
The archaeological sites related to the Hepu port, are now found in Hepu district, which is located in present-day Beihai city in southeastern Guangxi. Here archaeologists have discovered the remains of urban settlements and many, many tombs dated to the Han dynasty. For now, over 1200 tombs have been excavated, but it is estimated that there are more than 10.000 tombs still waiting to be discovered. As mentioned before, Lingnan, the region in which Hepu is located, roughly corresponds to present-day Guangxi and Guangdong province. This region was attractive for its natural sources, fertile lands and trade routes leading into Southeast Asia. In 110 BC Emperor Wu, the sixth Emperor of the Han Dynasty, send a fleet of 100,000 soldiers to Lingnan and one year later the region was incorporated in the Han Empire. After this, Emperor Wu send a large number of officials and soldiers to rule this new territory and divided Lingnan into nine different prefectures or ‘commanderies’. One of these was the Hepu commandery, which had its headquarter in present-day Hepu district. Located at the crossroads of inland river systems and having access to the routes of the South China Sea, Hepu seemed the ideal location for acquiring rare exotic goods.

The Hepu tombs are like a treasure trove and contain a fascinating array of objects. Besides beautiful ceramic and bronze vessels, some tombs contain a large number of jewelries made from gold, amber, crystal and glass (Xiong 2015). These were not made by local people and are very different from regional artifacts found in Han-period Lingnan. They most likely belonged to a category of “oversea goods” which were imported over the maritime silk road. Two artifacts, in particular, have perplexed archaeologists. First, an elegant ceramic pot with ‘turquoise glaze’ that is similar in shape and glaze to Persian pottery and second a unique bronze cymbal, which is a kind of instrument, decorated with toads, persimmons, dragons and feathered people. Today, archaeologists believe that both of these objects might have originated from central Asia and resemble products of the Parthian empire (Xiong 2015).

Beads of the Maritime Silk Road
Next, let’s have a closer look at the many beads that have been found at Hepu. For instance, in one tomb, called Fengmenling, over 1500 beads have been found, among which there were several necklaces made of gold, agate, crystal, jade, carnelian, and glass beads (Zhang 1995). The same way as today diamond rings and precious gemstones clearly show off a person’s high position in society, these beads were worn as a status symbol. You can imagine how stunning somebody would look covered in several necklaces made of these colorful, shiny materials. Archaeologists belief that the tombs that contained a large number of rare beads and other luxury items belonged to members of an elite class. They probably belonged to a wealthy group of people, such as merchants and Han government officials stationed in Hepu. Most of the raw materials of these beads could not be found locally and must have come from overseas. So, where did these beads come from and how did they reach coastal China?

Strings of Beads
(Hepu Museum)
Two-thousand years ago, a flourishing bead trade existed and beads were important trade commodities exchanged on maritime routes between India and Southeast Asia. Visually attractive and easy to transport they might have been some of the first objects that were exchanged between India and Southeast Asia. Some of the beads found at Hepu were made of precious stones, such as garnet, crystal and etched carnelian, whose sources can be traced back to India and Sri Lanka. Other beads have very distinctive shapes that can also give us some hints about their origin. An interesting category is that of small animal-shaped beads, such as lions, tigers, and birds. These are thought to be of Indian origin and might be related to early Buddhist beliefs. Nowadays when we think of Buddha, the laughing Buddha statue often seen in Chinese stores or the serene Buddha sculptures of early Buddhist cultures might come to mind. But before the first century AD, human representations of Buddha were rare, and he was often shown by one of his symbols, such as the footprint, lotus, bull, or elephant. Another common representation was of Buddha as a lion, a reference to him as Shakysimha, or Lion of the Shakya Clan (Elisseeff 2000, 107). Carnelian beads carved in the form of a leaping lions have also been found in Buddhist reliquaries of the Ghandhara civilization, now in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. The discovery of lion-shaped beads in coastal regions of Thailand, Vietnam, and Southern China, shows how not only objects, but also religious ideas had started to spread over maritime routes. Finally, glass beads are a rich source of information. Glass workshops, depending on their location and production methods, used different raw materials to make beads. Therefore, when we look at the chemical composition of some beads, its source area can sometimes be reconstructed. For instance, one type of dark blue beads, belonged to the category of soda-lime glass (Na2O-CaO-SiO2), and might have come from as far as the Mediterranean (Xiong 2015). Other types of glass were imported from regions in Southeast Asia and India. These beads represent different cultural and technical traditions and indicate the existence of maritime trade networks that reached coastal Southern China as early as the last two centuries BCE.

Some Final Thoughts 
A final remark about the maritime bead trade should be made, because how fascinating the circulation of these beads may be, their trade did not originate in Han-period China or in the coastal waters of Southeast Asia. On the contrary, their roots are quite complicated and can be traced back to western Asia. Peter Francis Jr. (2002, 8) has said: “Asian maritime bead trade was opened before 2000 BC with the Harappans bringing lapis lazuli and carnelian to Mesopotamia and the Sea Arabs trading between them”. But this might be a story for another time. Furthermore, we should be cautious in assigning a too prominent role to traders from the Han Empire. As far as we know today, artifacts that originated from regions under control of the Han Empire, have only been found within the coastal regions of the South China Sea, and none have been recovered in regions further west, such as at the coasts of the Bay of Bengal or India. A scenario in which beads produced in the Mediterranean or Northern India reached China through indirect channels and possibly through Indian middlemen seems more likely.

References and Further Reading
  • Ban Gu. 1962. Hanshu [Book of Han]. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.
  • Elisseef Vadime. 2000. The Silk Roads: Highways of Culture and Commerce. Berghahn Books.
  • Francis Peter Jr. 2002. Asia’s Maritime Bead Trade: 300 BC to the Present. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Ji Xianlin. 2008. Zhongyin wenhua jiaoliu shi [History of Sino-Indian Cultural Exchange] Beijing: China Social Sciences Publishing House.
  • Xiong Zhaoming. 2015. Archaeological Discovery: The Hepu Port on the Maritime Silk Road of the Han Dynasty. Beijing: Cultural Relics Press.
  • Zhang Juying. 1995. Guangxi Hepu xian Fengmenling 10 hao Hanmu fajue jianbao [Short Excavation Report of the Fengmenling Han-period Tomb 10 in Hepu District]. Kaogu 3.


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