The Chinese civilization has an intriguing relationship with oceans vis-à-vis the Maritime Silk Road—beginning in ancient times with the Han dynasty, and into the modern age as part of Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The modern Maritime Silk Road has captured global headlines because of its monumental implications, including the prospect of shifting the world’s economic centre of gravity to Beijing. It could deepen the economic integration of the countries of Southeast Asia, along the rim of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean Sea with China—in other words, it is a massive vision. However, that vision is rather blurred, because the Chinese state propagates a narrative about the ancient Maritime Silk Road that is rife with historical falsities, including the erasure of faith as a critical component. In so doing it brushes over the flaws of the modern plan and legitimizes it without accounting for anachronistic assumptions. To fully understand the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, one must understand how it diverges from its historical predecessor in relation to both fortune and faith.
The historical narrative that most believe about the ancient Silk Road—which had a maritime and an overland component—is that of a self-confident, burgeoning dynastic Chinese civilization whose splendour was spread benevolently across the world through wise diplomacy and peaceful trading. The Chinese state is thought to have projected its power across the seas magnanimously, as exemplified by Zheng He’s famous Ming-era ‘treasure voyages.’ This narrative is a source of pride and inspiration for 21st century China—hence the 21st century Maritime Silk Road plan. In pursuit of Zhongguo Fuqiang (中国富强: Chinese strength and prosperity), the Chinese state aspires to reinvigorate ties with historic trading partners to stimulate widespread economic growth. More than that, this strategy is a reassertion of China’s place in the world; motivated by a complex mix of recent humiliation and ancient pride, it is returning to the throne it once mounted in this maritime sphere.
This narrative assumes that modern China is simply re-applying the same benevolent trade initiative that enabled everyone to prosper under its historical ambit. But this initiative is simply not the same as its glorified ancient predecessor. First, there is a critical difference in which actors participated in the venture and to what extent. The ancient Maritime Silk Road was not really directed by the Chinese state; it first sprung from private interest and small-scale cooperation amongst seafaring communities. The bulk of trade was not due to state-to-state interactions or hegemonic Chinese state coordinating industries and their exports; the well-known ‘treasure voyages’ were the exception rather than the rule. In contrast, the 21st century Maritime Silk Road is state-heavy, meaning that innovation and small enterprises often suffer, and is further weakened by corruption and bureaucratism.
Second, there is a difference in the geopolitical environment that this initiative is intended to operate within. The modern re-embodiment of the Silk Road is centred on Beijing—whose neighbors are suspicious and distrustful. Arguably, today’s Chinese ambitions are manifest in more frightening ways than in the past. For instance, territorial disputes and aggression in the South China Sea lead to other states perceiving all Chinese action as unjust. More frigid diplomatic ties contribute to fears of pursuing further integration with China. Disproportionate Chinese leverage can leave states vulnerable to China’s will as well as the potential disparagement of their own domestic populace, whose anti-Chinese sentiments sometimes surge in response.
Therefore, the combination of private initiatives and friendlier diplomatic relations than those that exist today mean that the trading process used to be more pluralistic. The participation of small private traders and non-Chinese actors, who were on equally ground, ensured that businesses were not just the passive beneficiaries of Chinese prosperity. This could explain why the ancient Silk Road continued for so long, and forewarn us about its modern manifestation’s possible problems. The Silk Road has been re-hashed in its modern form to draw legitimacy and popular support from a common cultural memory—but differs quite significantly from that memory.
We see the same divergence between impressions and reality in the realm of faith. Faith has been a prominent cultural factor—which is overlooked by popular economic-centric coverage of the Maritime Silk Road—but is also a salient political tool.
Culturally, oceans help shape the concept of the Zhonghua Minzu (中华民族: ‘Chineseness’) which encompasses ideas of ethnicity, ethos, and culture. This manifest itself in places like Xiamen, in Southern China. There, the ocean-dependent communities living by the coast share a deep reverence for the ocean as a source of life and death, and tend to worship deities associated with the sea or good health. This is shared with the Chinese in Taiwan; hence the ocean is both a geographical barrier and a cultural bridge between the two communities. Mazu (妈祖: ‘goddess of the seas’) and Baosheng Dadi: (保生大帝: ‘lord of health’) are two such deities worshiped by both sides. The abundance of temples in Fujian province in Mainland China honoring Mazu underscores her importance to the people of Fujian—but importantly, to the Taiwanese Chinese as well, who frequently cross the Straits for pilgrimage to her temples. In Xiamen too, at the temple of Baosheng Dani, I spoke with caretakers who mentioned the large number of Taiwanese visitors. The centrality of oceans in these people’s lives leads indirectly to their interaction in these sea-related worship sites. These common spaces facilitate cultural exchange and inadvertent self-identification with particular interpretations of Zhonghua Minzu (‘Chineseness’). These religious sites provide a space in which mainland China can exert a sociocultural pull on their hearts. Indeed, my guide in mainland China expressed his feelings of youshan (友善: familiar friendliness) towards the Taiwanese Chinese, and spoke of cross-Straits reunification as if it were the most natural thing in the world, whole-heartedly believing in their oneness.
His opinion is shared by the other key patron of the Baosheng Dadi temple: the Chinese government, whose interests arguably go beyond cultural exchange into the realm of realpolitik. This temple is part of a village of people surnamed Wang (王), with a family tree that has been meticulously mapped for centuries and an ancestral village that still holds great sway over its modern descendants. Interestingly, one of its 11th generation descendants is a prominent Kuomintang (KMT) official in Taiwan. In Taiwanese politics, the KMT is seen as a pro-unification party in contrast to pro-Taiwanese independence parties. In the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), the KMT fought the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for control of mainland China. In 1949, they fled to Taiwan, intending it to be a temporary retreat before retaking the whole of mainland China. The KMT never officially gave up this claim to be the ruling government of ‘China.’ Thus the Chinese government’s upkeep of the Baosheng Dadi temple in this context suggests that they may be hoping to induce goodwill from these particular descendants and evoke and sustain pro-unification sentiments in Taiwan. The aspect of faith engendered so long ago is still relevant today. Sociocultural phenomena can never be divorced from politics, as people inadvertently identify with each other through shared experiences, creating communities in the process. Like the ocean itself, in high politics, calm surface waters often mask powerful undercurrents. When analysing the new Maritime Silk Road, it is crucial to understand its so-called historical predecessor and the implications of this narrative on both fortune and faith.