The port city of Hangzhou, the capital and most populous city of Zhejiang Province East China, has been a strategic hub along the Silk Roads since ancient times. Known as ‘the House of Silk’, the city was one of the seven ancient capitals of China with silk fabrics uncovered in the region dating back 4,700 years to the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (3400-2250 BC).
The history of Hangzhou's foreign trade in silk, tea, porcelain and other commodities dates back thousands of years. Its location on the East China Sea made Hangzhou a natural centre for trade, and, during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) it became one of the largest ports in China.
The arrival of people from other regions along the Silk Roads to Hangzhou precipitated great cultural, artistic, and religious exchange. For example, in 328 CE, Huili, a Buddhist monk from the Indian Subcontinent established the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, and, late in 330 CE, Fajing Temple. Hangzhou is also home to Phoenix Mosque one of the four great mosques of China, its origins dating back to the Tang (618-907 CE) or Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties. The structure of the main building of the mosque is heavily influenced by traditional Chinese architecture whilst at the same time retaining traditional Islamic features. Later, during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 CE) the mosque was repaired with the financial assistance of Ala al-Din, an Arab clergyman in China. As such, the Phoenix Mosque testifies to the exchange between Chinese and Arabic cultures. Furthermore, according to local histories, during the first half of the Tang dynasty (618-690 CE), there were merchants from Persia, Egypt, and other regions along the Silk Roads, exchanging jewellery inHangzhou's famous ‘Jewellery Lane’.
The cities trade activities were especially prosperous during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE), when Hangzhou became an important hub and port along the growing Silk Roads. Hangzhou became a distribution centre for many types of wares, with merchants from Fujian and Guangdong importing exotic goods to the city including spices from South East Asia. Foreign trade reached its peak during the Southern Song Dynasty, a time during which sericulture and silk production technology in Hangzhou made great progress with twill, brocade, satin, cut silk, yarn, and cotton products also manufactured in the city.
In addition, porcelain and tea were also exported from Hangzhou along the maritime Silk Roads. The Song Dynasty was a very prosperous period in the history of the development of traditional porcelain crafts and the official kiln had a very high level of craftsmanship. From comparisons of the ceramic products found on the Intan, Cirebon and Belitung shipwrecks, it is clear that after the 10th century CE, the porcelain produced by the Yue Kiln (Northern Zhejiang) surpassed others to become the most important mainstream ware. Of the more than 490,000 pieces that were discovered on the Cirebon, Chinese porcelain accounted for 75% (~367,000 pieces), with 300,000 of those celadon pieces coming from the Yue Kiln.
Other archaeological finds suggest the possibility of porcelain trade between Hangzhou and regions as far away as the Arabian Peninsula and Iranian Plateau. For example, Yue Kiln celadon from the early 10th century has been unearthed at sites in Sohar, Oman, and fragments of Yue kiln porcelain and white porcelain bowls from the 9th-10th centuries CE have also been found at Samara on the Tigris River in present day Iraq.
During the Yuan Dynasty, Italian merchant, traveller and writer Marco Polo visited Hangzhou describing the city as "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world…The number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, was so enormous that no man could form a just estimate thereof." At this time Hangzhou was home to the world’s largest artificial canal which was already over 600 years old and stretched almost 800 miles allowing for the transport of grain to Beijing.
Hangzhou is one of a number of excellent example cities that acted as ‘hubs’ along the Silk Roads. These were centres of intense exchange where different civilizations and their cultural elements moved from one place to another through trade across the land and maritime routes interacting with each other as they did so. As travellers would settle in other lands, living amongst local people the result would be great cultural exchange and synthesis.