Quanzhou, a prefecture-level city in southeastern Fujian Province, lies on the coast in a south-southwesterly direction from Fuzhou, the province's capital and the place where the province's largest - and longest (577 kilometers) - river, the Min Jiang, empties into the East Sea. In terms of measureable distance, Quanzhou lies about 120 kilometers in a straight line from Fuzhou. Quanzhou the ancient prefecture is also known as Min Nan ("Southern" Min of the Minyue, one of the many tribes of the "Hundred Yue" peoples who resided on the southern fringes of pre-Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty China). Min Nan is another name for the former Kingdom of Min (CE 909-945), established in the region of present-day Fujian Province after the fall of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. Not unlike nearby Fuzhou, Quanzhou also has a remarkable past – indeed, when one takes note of the city's history of religious tolerance, even a glorious past.
A Brief History
The city was founded in CE 718 during the Tang Dynasty, later changing its name to Min Nan as part of the Kingdom of Min. During the Tang Dynasty, Quanzhou became a budding seaport city, but was overshadowed by the port city of Guangzhou (aka Canton), Guangdong Province, located at the upper, navigable reaches of the Pearl River estuary, or about 70 kilometers inland. However, during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, Quanzhou became China's largest seaport – in fact, one of the largest seaports in the world after the port city of Guangzhou was destroyed in the 9th century. According to the Moroccan Berber, Ibn Battuta (CE 1304-ca.1368) from the city of Tangiers, the port of Quanzhou rivalled at the time even the port of Alexandria in Egypt, while Marco Polo described Quanzhou as "one of the largest and most commodious ports in the world".
Given its international status, Quanzhou served as a cultural crossroads, not just as a seaport for Silk Road trade (Quanzhou served as the Chinese point-of-origin for the Maritime Silk Road); having become host to large communities of immigrant merchants from around the world – and from Eurasia in particular – Quanzhou became a city known for its religious tolerance, with churches, temples and mosques representing diversely different religions such as Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism, one of the major Persian Gnostic religions.* Indeed, ancient Quanzhou has been referred to as "China's Open-Air Museum of Faiths". For example, a statue of the "founding father" of Taoism (alternatively, Daoism), Lao-tzu, is located in the city, just as many religious relics from Quanzhou's multidenominational past have been preserved. They not only have a religious significance, they also have an historical and artistic significance.
The port city of Quanzhou, alternately referred to in medieval Western sources as Zayton, Zaytun or Zaitun, from the Arabic name for the port, also figured prominently in the travel accounts of Marco Polo, as hinted at above. In even older English texts, the city's name alternately appeared as Chinchew or Chinchu, surely an Anglo-Saxon bastardization of the Chinese pronunciation of "Quanzhou".**
Quanzhou was the port city from which Marco Polo sailed when he returned to Europe. On his return journey, Marco Polo took with him – at least a goodly part of the way – a very precious cargo, since the intrepid traveller had promised to deliver a 17-year-old Mongol princess (this was during the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty) by the name of Kököchin to her wealthy, Persian merchant husband, a promise that Marco Polo kept. But the traffic in brides was two-way, for at least one prominent Chinese merchant from Quanzhou, a certain Li Nu, who was a member of the prestigious Li family of Quanzhou, married a Persian bride and brought her back to Quanzhou with him. Li Nu himself eventually converted to Islam.
In 1973 an ancient Chinese junk that had sunk off the coast of Quanzhou was discovered and brought to the surface during the period 1973-74. The ship, now referred to as the Quanzhou Ship, sank in CE 1272, according to official documents. The restored junk now forms a part of the Quanzhou Maritime History Museum.
During this period, Quanzhou was, as indicated, home to a large number of Silk Road merchants, especially Eurasian merchants. The Chinese state extended these merchants broad priviliges, including permitting them to maintain their own private militias, viewing them as valuable facilitators of trade. Unfortunately, the guests eventually began to abuse their status as guests, the most alarming development being a decade long revolt beginning in CE 1357 among a group of Persians who served as a private militia, a revolt that resulted in many civilian casualties in and around the city of Quanzhou. The revolt was eventually brutally suppressed by the Chinese government, and a corrollary to the revolt was that Quanzhou lost its status as China's preeminent harbor.
Thanks to its rich cultural and historical past, the city of Quanzhou abounds in noteworthy sites of interest to the tourist, both the foreign as well as the domestic tourist, and thanks to its unique physical setting, Quanzhou is also rich in natural scenic sites. Of the former sites, Kaiyuan Temple, Chengtian Temple, Qingshui Yan Temple, the East and West Pagodas, Qingjing Mosque (which also houses He Zuo's Tomb), the Ruins of Quanzhou Manichaean Church, Tianhou Palace, Number One Scholar Street, Chongwu Ancient Town, Zhangjiao Village, the Mausoleum of Zheng Chenggong (1624-1662, aka Koxinga, the national hero and native Quanzhouer (he was born in nearby in Nan'an city) who helped reclaim Taiwan from Holland during the 17th century), the Ancient Stone Saint statue, Five-Mile Bridge, Anping Bridge, Luoyang Bridge (click here) and the Quanzhou Maritime History Museum rank highest, while some of the most noteworthy natural scenic sites include Mount Qingyuan, Mount Zimao, Mount Xiangong, Mount Lingxiu and Mount Penglai, where Qingshui Yan Temple is located. In addition, there are recreational parks that border the sea and comprise rolling hills, such as Qingshui Rock Scenic Area.
But perhaps most of all, Quanzhou is renowned for its many sons and daughters who, down through the ages, have travelled to other cities in China, or abroad, and have made a name for themselves in their new homes-away-from-home. Many of them chose to keep alive the connections to their natal city, and these cultural ties between Quanzhou and other cities, both foreign and domestic, have strengthened Quanzhou in countless ways. Quanzhou is also the birthplace of large numbers of currently living Chinese citizens who have emigrated to other parts of China in pursuit of even greater goals, having profited from the city of Quanzhou as a springboard to success. For example, many distinguished sons and daughters of Quanzhou who have excelled in the fields of art, economics, science and technology have moved on to greater challenges elsewhere.
Accordingly, there are over 6 million Quanzhou expats living in Hong Kong and some 800 thousand Quanzhou expats living in Maccao, as well as sizable numbers of Quanzhou expats living in Taiwan. Many of the sons and daughters of Quanzhou continue to make direct contributions in one form or another to their natal city, while others "do Quanzhou proud" either by their example alone, or by actively promoting intercommunal dialogue in their new, adopted cities. Quanzhou is itself a home-away-from-home to a thriving community of international expats – from artists to entrepreneurs – as the city is famous for its limitless entrepreneurial opportunities.
According to the latest published census data, the prefecture of Quanzhou – which comprises, besides the city of Quanzhou itself, 3 smaller cities, 3 rural counties and 4 districts – has a total population of roughly 7 million, predominantly of Han ethnic origin, of which total population some 300 thousand live in urban areas. The universal languages are the Mandarin and Minnan dialects, of which the latter is more common among local citizens, especially those living in rural areas.
Quanzhou is one of 24 international cities of worldwide historical and cultural importance, as recognized by the U.S. State Department. Quanzhou has earned its place in this esteemed company due to its many cultural relics and historical sites. The state government of China has also recognized Quanzhou's significance to the country's historical and cultural development by offering state protection to 12 scenic sites in the city, while the provincial government has offered protection to an additional 37 of the city's preservation-worthy sites. As earlier indicated, Quanzhou is internationally recognized as "the Orient's preeminent major harbor of ancient times", after it replaced Guangzhou in that role, though it forfeited that role after the Chinese government was forced to restrict merchant priviliges in the city following the decade long Persian militia revolt beginning in CE 1357.
The city of Quanzhou is renowned for its Gaojia Opera and Liyuan Opera as well as its Min Nan music tradition. Both the opera and the music of Quanzhou hark back to the ancient dialects of the Tang Dynasty period. Quanzhou is also known for its Tieguanyin Tea and Dehua Porcelain as well as its Huian Stone Carvings that are much sought after for their superb style and quality of workmanship.
With its mild, coastal, South China Sea climate and its multitude of cultural and historical scenic sites as well as its priceless physical setting, wedged between mountains and the sea, Quanzhou is a paradise for the active tourist.
* Manichaeism was founded by the Syrian prophet, Mani, and was quite widespread in its heyday between the 3rd and 7th centuries, but is no longer an active world religion, as Manichaeists were the subject especially of Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, and Zoroastrian persecution in areas where these religions dominated.
** The origin of the city's ancient foreign name – the name by which Marco Polo referred to it, including its many permutations: Zayton, Zaytun, Zaitun and the Latinized variant, Cayton – is owing to a mixture of confusing, if not outright contradicting, semantic sources. One such source is the transliterated-from-the-Chinese name for the Paulownia tree, Citong, that once adorned the city’s walls during the Middle Ages. The other source is slightly bizarre, being an example of linguistic inversion, for it is akin to the practice of calling, for example, a fat person for "tiny", a tall person for "shorty", etc. Here is how it came about: the aforementioned famous traveller, Ibn Battuta, a native of the city of Tangiers, once visited Quanzhou and lamented the fact that olives could not be had there. The transliterated-from-the-Arabic word for "olive" is Zayton. Semantic disconnect complete!