Evidence shows merchants flouted imperial trade ban

Updated: 2010-05-02 18:12
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GUANGZHOU - Archaeologists working on the wreck of a 400-year-old merchant vessel off south China have found evidence that Chinese merchants probably flouted bans on foreign trade at the time.

The salvage team has recovered more than 800 pieces of antique porcelain and copper coins from the ancient ship off the coast of Guangdong province, said the provincial cultural relics bureau Sunday.

Archaeologists believe the ship, which sank in the Sandianjin waters off Nan'ao county, Shantou city, may have been carrying 10,000 pieces of blue-and-white porcelain, mostly made during Emperor Wanli's reign (1573-1620) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Some big porcelain bowls found in the vessel, dubbed "Nan'ao-1, " were probably made for foreign trade as they were not commonly used in Chinese daily life at that time, they believe.

The find is particularly interesting as the administration of Wanli had imposed a ban on sea trade.

Guangdong was a major center for the sea trade in ancient China.

Sheet copper and coins found during the salvage operation indicated the ship might have been smuggling copper too, as the export of copper was also banned at the time, said Sun Jian, head of the salvage team.

The Ming Dynasty restricted private sea trade to deter piracy, which had imposed huge hardships on legitimate sea traders, and ensure maritime security along Chinese coastal areas.

Many ancient Chinese dynasties, including the Ming Dynasty, banned the export of copper as the metal was precious and mainly used to manufacture coins, a major currency, in ancient China.

The team also recovered equipment that looked like cannon, but it was not unusual for ancient merchants to arm their ships against pirates, said Sun.

More than 20 experts started the salvage operation April 9 and would finish in another 90 days if weather conditions permitted, he said.

The excavation was scheduled to begin on September 26, 2009, but was postponed due to severe weather conditions, including typhoons and cold snaps.

Archaeologists have been saying they believe the wreck will shed new light on China's foreign trade at the time.

Local fishermen found the wreck, estimated to be about 25 meters long and seven meters wide, in May 2007 buried in silt 27 meters underwater and about 5.6 nautical miles from Shantou city.