Why did Fujian become the center of the silver trade, and not some other place in China? One answer is that it was the region in China most experienced with exchange across the ocean. The fabled city of Zaytun, one bay north of Yuegang, was the eastern terminus of the maritime Silk Road.
A glittering, congested metropolis, Zaytun occupied a key place in what might be called a first pass at globalization, a system of exchange across Eurasia that reached its apogee in the fourteenth century. One trade route went overland, across western China to the Middle East and Black Sea before reaching, through many middlemen, the Mediterranean. The other went by sea, touching down at Indochina and India before going up the Red Sea; it, too, finished at the Mediterranean. The overland route was dominant until the Mongol empire began falling violently apart, at which point the nautical route became safer. From Zaytun’s wharfs sailed Chinese junks low in the water with chests of silk and porcelain; into them came Chinese junks laden, according to an impressed Marco Polo, with “rich assortments of jewels and pearls, upon the sale of which they obtain a considerable profit.” Polo’s descriptions of Fujianese trade focused obsessively on the Asian luxury goods—precious stones, silk, porcelain, spices—that fascinated Europeans. In fact, though, Fujian’s traders made most of their money from items that Polo would have found mundane, such as bulk copper and iron, which temples across Southeast Asia needed for ritual objects. Zaytun was a full-service emporium, not a boutique.
The city was ringed by a twenty-foot-high wall, faced with glazed tile and brick. Outside the wall, trading prosperity paid for massive marsh-drainage projects, a network of irrigation canals and waterworks to prevent the harbor from filling up with the sediment from the Jin River. Inside the wall, shaded by the tiger’s-claw trees that lined the streets, walked people of every ethnicity: Malays, Persians, Indians, Vietnamese, even a few Europeans, each group with its own neighborhood. Rising into Zaytun’s coal-smoke-filled sky were seven great mosques, three churches (Eastern Orthodox and Nestorian) and a cathedral (Roman Catholic), and countless Buddhist institutions—one visitor claimed that a single monastery had three thousand monks. The Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited in the 1340s, marveled at the scores of huge junks in the harbor; around them, he said, swarmed small vessels “past counting,” buying and selling. Ibn Battuta called the port “one of the biggest in the world—I’m wrong, it is the biggest.” The traveler was not simply exaggerating to make a good tale; Zaytun, with several hundred thousand people crammed into the littoral beneath the hills, was one of humankind’s richest, most populous cities. Little wonder that Polo’s account inspired people like Colón to dream of going there!
After the Song dynasty fell to the Mongol invasion in the 1270s, the last embers of resistance burned in Fujian. An opposition movement there installed a Song prince as emperor. The Mongols quickly attacked in great force, and the Song prince took refuge in Zaytun with his courtiers and troops. A well-connected Muslim Arab merchant named Pu Shougeng had long been the local superintendent of trade ships, which placed him in charge of both the local militia and the local navy. The Song prince asked Pu to give him control of Zaytun’s hundreds of ships—an instant navy. The prince’s sudden acquisition of naval power would pose a threat to the Mongols, who had no navy.
A Mongol general sent emissaries to Pu, asking him not to back the Song emperor. After consulting with local scholars and landlords and other foreign trading families, Pu presented Zaytun and all its ships to the Mongols in 1276. To seal the deal, he ordered the murder of some of the prince’s family, who happened to live in town. The Song forces had been camped outside the city. Angered, they besieged Zaytun for three months before fleeing the advance of the Mongols.
The Mongols—who had now formed the Yuan dynasty—lavishly rewarded the conspirators, effectively giving control of the port to the Pu family and their allies in the Muslim trading families.1 So powerful did Zaytun’s Muslim minority become that some Fujianese converted to Islam, which allowed them to register as foreigners and enjoy foreigners’ privileges. Eventually most government positions throughout Fujian were held by Chinese converts.
As one might expect, the Islam practiced by these newcomers was far from the pure faith of Arabia. Rather than making the pilgrimage to distant Mecca, Fujianese believers traveled to the hills outside the city to walk seven times around the tombs of two early Sufi missionaries. Others adopted the Chinese custom of venerating their ancestors’ graves. Few learned the precepts of the Qu’ran—the book was not fully translated into Chinese until 1927. Fujianese imams, most of whom did not speak Arabic, memorized the original text, declaiming it phonetically in the mosques. As memories faded, the services descended into gibberish, meaningless recitations before uncomprehending audiences. In one way, though, this remote outpost of Islam preserved tradition most faithfully: Zaytun’s Muslim families, old and new alike, were split into quarrelsome factions, Sunni, Shi’ite, and Sufi.
Each faction dominated part of the government, controlled a section of the harbor, and had its own private militias. Pu’s lineage and its associates, who were apparently Sunni, had the Mongols’ favor and thus the most political power. The bulk of Zaytun’s foreign population, though, was Persian, and therefore Shi’ite. The Shi’ites had the biggest militias—enough to stop the Sunnis from grinding them under their heels. (Little is known about Sufis in Fujian.)
The balance of power held until the 1350s, when peasants throughout the nation rebelled against their Mongol masters. One of these revolts would eventually topple the Yuan and establish the Ming dynasty. To safeguard Fujian against the insurgencies, the Yuan emperor authorized Zaytun merchants to build up their private militias even more by recruiting and training thousands of foreign Muslim soldiers (or, perhaps more accurately, “foreign” Muslim soldiers—many were not from the Middle East but were converted Chinese). The emperor asked two Sunni militia leaders to suppress an insurrection by Chinese around Zaytun in 1357. The next year they stopped revolts in Xinghua and Fuzhou, the next two port cities to the north. Nonetheless, the Yuan were not entirely pleased. Overcome by enthusiasm, one Sunni militia had plundered Xinghua for days; the other had occupied Fuzhou, turning it into a private satrapy. The leader of the first militia was slain by a rival Sunni—a Pu family confederate who was superintendent of marine affairs in Zaytun. The second was killed by the Yuan, who didn’t like it when their creatures acted too boldly.
Proclaiming his loyalty to the Mongols, the Pu confederate took over the dead man’s militia and used it to stamp out peasant uprisings. But he also took advantage of the chaos to turn Zaytun into an independent fiefdom and “exterminate” the city’s remaining Shi’ites (the verb comes from an account in an official city gazetteer). After three years of sporadic conflict the local Yuan commanders allied with the Shi’ite militias they had previously fought against, persuaded one of the few surviving Shi’ites in Zaytun to open the city gates secretly, and wiped out the Sunni. Then the commanders switched to the side of the incoming Ming.
It was too late to save Zaytun. Years of conflict had reduced all but one of the city’s seven great mosques to rubble. (Wealthy Arabs are supposedly about to restore the surviving building, now a park, to its former glory.) Most of the foreign population was dead. The survivors fled into the hills and became farmers. They stopped identifying themselves as Muslim. The Ming were loath to restore a city that had been, in its way, a center of pro-Yuan sentiment. They allowed its waterworks to break down and fill the harbor with silt. Foreign trade did not openly resume for two centuries. The center of its revival was not Zaytun, but Yuegang, the harbor to the south. But that didn’t stop many of the old Zaytun trading families from leaving the hills to participate in the birth of globalization.
Many of the Chinese merchants who filled the junks at Yuegang thus were descendants of families that had prospered from its first pass at globalization. They were doing the work of the centuries. They were agents of humankind’s unending quest to enlace its most far-flung members in a single skein, a journey whose endpoints the travelers have rarely been able to anticipate.
1 The Mongols eagerly absorbed Han Chinese culture but were leery of granting too much power to the Han themselves. (The Han, one recalls, are China’s dominant ethnic group—the group Westerners refer to as “Chinese.”) As a result, the Yuan often installed non-Han leaders as local rulers. Giving Arabs and Persians control over Zaytun was an extension of this stratagem.