The emergence of organized water transport in early China: Its social and geographical contexts

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Abstract

The basic assumption of this paper is that organized forms of inland water transport in early China paved the way for the development of maritime activities in Chinese history. However, in researching the origin of organized water transport in early China, previous scholarship has failed to represent the huge diversity in the social and geographical contexts in which water transport took place, thus coming up with an overgeneralized theory of the development of water-based transport in Chinese history.
The purpose of this research is to analyze historically the social and geographical contexts in which water transport took place in early China. By analyzing the records pertaining to water transport in oracle bones, bronze inscriptions, classical texts, regional historical texts, as well as archaeological sources and visual depictions of water transport in bronze art, it demonstrates that water transport was limited to ceremonial, river-crossing, and entertainment purposes in North China during the Shang and the Western Zhou periods. It was the States of Chu, Wu, and Yue in the south that exploited the potentials of water transport militarily during the late Spring and Autumn period in multiple ways. With the intensification of military competition between the north and the south, canals were constructed to improve the geographical coverage of watercourses in China, resulting in the development of water transport on a sophisticated scale and the emergence of sea routes in Chinese history.
It is argued that the recognition of the huge disparity in the roles played by water transport respectively in the North and the South during the founding stage of Chinese civilization may not only clarify the origin of maritime transport in Chinese history but also help explain the ambivalent attitudes toward maritime activities adopted by the largely land-based Chinese empires in the subsequent eras. Copyright © 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVoyages, migration, and the maritime world: On China's global historical role
EditorsClara Wing-chung HO, Ricardo K. S. MAK, Yue-him TAM
Place of PublicationBerlin
PublisherWalter de Gruyter GmbH
Pages45-90
ISBN (Print)9783110587685
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2018

Citation

Lei, C. (2018). The emergence of organized water transport in early China: Its social and geographical contexts. In C. W.-C. Ho, R. K. S. Mak, & Y.-H. Tam (Eds.), Voyages, migration, and the maritime world: On China's global historical role (pp. 45-90). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH.

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