The Song Dynasty in China | Asia for Educators

China in 1000 CE

The Most Advanced Society in the World

Song Engagement with the Outside World


Camels, loaded with goods, about to exit the city through the gate, Beijing qingming scroll

Get a closer look at the street life around the city gate, on left third of scroll, find camels at left of gate


International Trade, Overland

The camels in the Beijing qingming scroll may well have been bringing wares from beyond China’s borders.

Trade between the Song dynasty and its northern neighbors was stimulated by the payments Song made to them. The Song set up supervised markets along the border to encourage this trade. Chinese goods that flowed north in large quantities included tea, silk, copper coins (widely used as a currency outside of China), paper and printed books, porcelain, lacquerware, jewelry, rice and other grains, ginger and other spices. The return flow included some of the silver that had originated with the Song and the horses that Song desperately needed for its armies, but also other animals such as camel and sheep, as well as goods that had traveled across the Silk Road, including fine Indian and Persian cotton cloth, precious gems, incense, and perfumes.

Map Showing Overland International Trade

Art of the Silk Road: Silk Road Trade Routes [University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities]
Select the map at the top of the page to see the flow of goods along the silk road trade routes.


International Trade, Maritime

There was also vigorous sea trade with Korea, Japan, and lands to the south and southwest. From great coastal cities such as Quanzhou boats carrying Chinese goods plied the oceans from Japan to east Africa. (The major port of Quanzhou that dominated trade in the Song dynasty is not to be confused with Guangzhou. Guangzhou, located further south on the Chinese coast, did not become an important port until the Qing dynasty, when it was known to European traders as “Canton.” Note the location of both cities on the map in the CITIES section.)

During Song times maritime trade for the first time exceeded overland foreign trade. The Song government sent missions to Southeast Asian countries to encourage their traders to come to China. Chinese ships were seen all throughout the Indian Ocean and began to displace Indian and Arab merchants in the South Seas. Shards of Song Chinese porcelain have been found as far away as eastern Africa.

Chinese ships were larger than the ships of most of their competitors, such as the Indians or Arabs, and in many ways were technologically quite advanced. In 1225 the superintendent of customs at Quanzhou, named Zhao Rukua (Zhao Rugua or Chao Ju-kua, 1170-1231), wrote an account of the countries with which Chinese merchants traded and the goods they offered for sale. Zhao's book, Zhufan Zhi (commonly translated as "Description of the Barbarians"), includes sketches of major trading cities from Srivijaya (modern Indonesia) to Malabar, Cairo, and Baghdad. Pearls were said to come from the Persian Gulf, ivory from Aden, myrrh from Somalia, pepper from Java and Sumatra, cotton from the various kingdoms of India, and so on.

Much money could be made from the sea trade, but there were also great risks, so investors usually divided their investment among many ships, and each ship had many investors behind it. In 1973 a Song-era ship was excavated off the south China coast. It had been shipwrecked in 1277. Seventy-eight feet long and 29 feet wide, the ship had twelve bulkheads and still held the evidence of some of the luxury objects that these Song merchants were importing: more than 5,000 pounds of fragrant wood from Southeast Asia, pepper, betel nut, cowries, tortoiseshell, cinnabar, and ambergris from Somalia.


According to Marco Polo

Marco Polo a few decades later wrote glowingly of the Chinese pepper trade, saying that for each load of pepper sent to Christendom, a hundred were sent to China. On his own travels home via the sea route, he reported seeing many merchants from southern China plying a thriving trade:

Now when you quit Fuju and cross the River, you travel for five days south-east through a fine country, meeting with a constant succession of flourishing cities, towns, and villages, rich in every product. ... When you have accomplished those five days' journey you arrive at the very great and noble city of ZAYTON [or Zaitun, now Quanzhou], which is also subject to Fuju.

At this city you must know is the Haven of Zayton, frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [southern China], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi. And I assure you that for one shipload of pepper that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere, destined for Christendom, there come a hundred such, aye and more too, to this haven of Zayton; for it is one of the two greatest havens in the world for commerce.


When you sail from Chamba [Champa, Vietnam], 1500 miles in a course between south and south-east, you come to a great Island called Java. And the experienced mariners of those Islands who know the matter well, say that it is the greatest Island in the world, and has a compass of more than 3000 miles. ... The Island is of surpassing wealth, producing black pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, cloves, and all other kinds of spices.

This Island is also frequented by a vast amount of shipping, and by merchants who buy and sell costly goods from which they reap great profit. Indeed the treasure of this Island is so great as to be past telling. ... The merchants of Zayton and Manzi draw annually great returns from this country. (1)


(1) Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, “Book Second, Part III, Chapter LXXXII: Of the City and Great Haven of Zayton” and “Book Third, Part I, Chapter VI: Concerning the Great Island of Java,” in The Book of Ser Marco Polo: The Venetian Concerning Kingdoms and Marvels of the East, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, Volume 2 (London: John Murray, 1903). This book is in the public domain and can be read online at Internet Archive. The excerpted text is from pages 256 and 295 of this online text.

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