The Dawn of Global Trade — Part I
How did Asia shape international trade more than a millennium ago?
August 5, 2008
The Asian world, 500-1500 CE, was a place of great empires and large capital cities. In Southeast Asia were the kingdoms of Srivajaya, Pagan, Angkor, Champa and Dai Viet.
China went through dynastic changes but was strongly linked to the rest of Asia. India had empires as well — the Kushans, the sultanates and the Mughals based at Delhi — as well as the Cholas and Vijayanagara in the south.
The Middle East had the Abbasid caliphate. Central Asia had Genghis Khan’s empire, the largest the world has ever known, and it had the empire of Timur. The populations of these realms were, in many cases, larger than the whole of Western Europe.
Asia was a vast world of contrast, from deserts to mountains, from monsoon rain forest to dry plains. It held a bewildering variety of cultures and languages — many local religions and varieties of Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism that spread across wide regions.
But it was its networks that made the great Asian world unique. Bureaucrats, scholars, slaves, ideas, religions and plants moved along its intersecting routes. Family ties stretched across thousands of miles. Traders found markets for products ranging from heavy recycled bronze to the most diaphanous silks.
Asian empires tended to promote linkages and connections to other kingdoms in several ways. Often their own territories crossed “natural” ecological boundaries and brought together regions and societies in unexpected ways.
The Kushans, the Afghans and the Mughals established empires that successfully ruled both sides of the formidable Himalayas. The South Indian Chola kingdom built a navy and conquered the islands of Sri Lanka, Java, and Sumatra, politically tying together India and Southeast Asia. Genghis Khan ruled both the steppe and large areas of agricultural China.
Administrative continuities generally promoted trade between ecologically different regions: the trade in horses from the steppe to the plains of India, in rice from south to north China, in steel from Damascus to Afghanistan.
The big states also produced widely used currencies, such as Chinese cash and silver dirhams, and established standards for normalizing local weights and measures.
They also frequently organized postal systems for reliable communication. One could send a letter from Mangalore and have it arrive in Cairo in slightly over a month. A letter of introduction went from the far western border of India to Delhi and back in less than two months.
Although the big capital cities — Delhi, Beijing, Baghdad, Vijayanagara — were impressive (and often many times the size of any European city of the time), the importance of medium-sized cities cannot be overemphasized.
These empires, by and large, rose by the expansion of power of a regional family based in a medium-sized city their regional capital.
When empires fell, they generally devolved into regional successor states. The regional capitals usually not only survived — they thrived. Medium-sized cities thus remained long-term sources of demand, learning, and patronage, and in addition, they produced the bureaucrats necessary to run an empire.
Cities — large and small — needed basic food, fabric, fuel and building materials. The elite of these cities attracted the more sophisticated trade goods of the Asian world.
The Chinese urban elite generated an almost insatiable demand for ivory — both African and Southeast Asian — which found its way into religious statues, pens, fans, boxes and the decoration of furniture.
Their demand for the most aromatic incense in the world was filled by incense logs and bushes from Southeast Asia and India. The demand for elegant clothes and beautiful colors in population centers of the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia pushed discovery of and trade in new plant dyes.
The urban centers were also places of specialized manufacture that created trade opportunities and employment for these skills. Cities produced books, artwork, fine fabrics, sophisticated musical instruments, jewelry and scientific instruments — all of which were in demand throughout the Asian world.
Damascus developed steelmaking to such a high art and in such quantity that traders brought its products to all parts of the Asian world. Damascus blades were just as ubiquitous in Indonesia as they were in Central Asia. China produced prodigious quantities of ceramics that were traded across the Asian world — from the Philippines and Japan to the west coast of Africa.
Trade mattered. The volume and variety of trade affected much of the population of the great Asian world.
Tropical spices and medicines moved north to the plains of India, west into the Middle East and east into China. These medicinal plants were not “discovered” by doctors in cities — much less by the traders who brought them. These spices and medicines were first discovered by the forest dwellers who experimented with their local profusion of plants.
The great Asian world included not just traders and courts but reached deep into the forests of Southeast Asia, the hills above the Malabar Coast, and the pearl beds of Sri Lanka.
Trade served the spread of the universalizing religions. Ritual objects and books of both Buddhism and Islam came from specialized centers and moved along both water routes and caravan routes to Tibet, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China.
Trade in the great Asian world included the exotic, the prosaic — and everything in between. At one extreme, a giraffe was somehow transported from Africa to the imperial court of China.
At the other extreme, fish paste produced on the coast of Thailand and ordinary Chinese iron cooking pots were regular, profitable items traded to the islands of Southeast Asia.
Rice — the most prosaic of foods in India, China and Southeast Asia — became a high-status food across the steppe world. Every ship and every caravan carried a range of goods from the precious to the mundane.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from “When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors and Monks Who Created the ‘Riches of the East'” by Stewart Gordon, which is based on the memoirs, stories and insights of indigenous travelers in ancient Asia — as well as current scholarship. Published by Da Capo Press, 2008.
China produced prodigious quantities of ceramics that were traded across the Asian world — from the Philippines and Japan to the west coast of Africa.
At one point, a giraffe was somehow transported from Africa to the imperial court of China.
Networks made the great Asian world unique. Bureaucrats, scholars, slaves, ideas, religions and plants moved along its intersecting routes.
The big states also produced widely used currencies, such as Chinese cash and silver dirhams, and established standards for weights and measures.
Ritual objects of Buddhism and Islam came from specialized centers and moved along water and land to Tibet, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China.
Senior Research Scholar, University of Michigan Stewart Gordon is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan — and the author of three books on Asia. He earned his BA, MA. and PhD at the University of Michigan. He received a Woodrow Wilson scholarship in graduate school […]