Transnational Heritage Along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR)


 Observations on a Transnational Heritage Along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR)

Round Table Discussion: OBOR in South Asia: Trade, Culture and Security

Ramla Wahab-Salman

Presentation at INSSSL : 15th November 2018


In the year 2013, President Xi Jinping announced that the historic Silk Road would be reborn as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At an anticipated cost of more than a trillion dollars, it is most ambitious infrastructure project the world has ever known. By China’s accounting, the Belt and Road will connect sixty-five per cent of the world’s population and thirty per cent of global G.D.P. Sixty-eight countries from Asia to Europe have signed on to this ambitious one state driven initiative. If bridges, pipelines, and railroads are the arteries of the modern world, then China is positioning itself as the beating heart[1].

The nostalgia of the Silk Road is vibrantly promoted by China. This vibrancy is not limited to economic routes centred around transnational China controlled cargo, cultural and capital flows, but also a movement of researchers, curators and conservators to display a pre-modern (or pre-industrial) cosmopolitanism with China at its core. Since 2012, beyond the present borders of nation state, sections of the over-land Silk Road have been nominated by member countries to UNESCO to be form a ‘transnational heritage corridor’[2]. Established during the Han dynasty, beginning around 130 B.C. ,it  is one of the oldest routes of international trade in the world.  However, is only as late as 1877 that the term ‘Silk Road’ was coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen who used the German word ‘Seidenstrasse’, which literally means ‘Silk Road’. The term has found its way to other languages, including, ‘La Route de Soie’ in French[3].

A sense of historical connection is essential to understanding the Chinese civilizational narrative of One Belt One Road  (OBOR) and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The core of 21st century Chinese connectivity is based on a nostalgia of a network or networks of the past. Along these networks, the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is positioned along its maritime belt. Apart from infrastructural and trade connections in the present OBOR, the nostalgia of the Silk Road of old actively features in the “civilizational” contacts being built through education, museum displays, language and cultural exchanges and research as part of the OBOR initiative.

The Deloitte Insights series, in an article titled Embracing the BRI ecosystem in 2018 reads “that Beijing’s view of BRI is not well understood abroad: It sees this initiative as comprising a different interpretation of globalisation, one that is about optimising returns, not about maximising them in solely financial or commercial terms. This is encapsulated in the principle underpinning BRI: 共商共建共享, which translates as, “Trade together, build together, enjoy together.”[4]


Shared Histories of the Silk Road of the Sea

Reviving the Silk Road in the 21st century has presented an ever growing Chinese ‘internationalism’ from the East. Rather than a single all-encompassing narrative, the history of the Silk Road of the Sea can be understood as multiple histories of diplomacy between imperial delegations, religious exchanges, and commercial interactions. A nuanced history of accord and disaccord, negotiation and disagreement and material entanglements through centuries of interactions remains to be studied in a period of ever-increasing Chinese presence in the region.

Emperor to the Devotee: Material Evidence to Chinese Presence in Sri Lanka

Using two cases of archaeological discoveries to the north and south of Sri Lanka respectively, this article will showcase the antiquity of Chinese relations with Lanka while understanding the politics of heritage displays within the wider scope of OBOR.

Several archaeological excavations that have revealed Chinese material culture along Sri Lankan harbor sites including Mantai, Trincomalee and Galle. I limit this article to two excavations including the discovery of the trilingual stone inscription of Zheng He, in British Ceylon in 1911 and the 2018 Chinese ceramic discoveries by the Shanghai Museum in Jaffna. 1911 was an accidental discovery by an engineer in the British period, while the Jaffna discoveries are connected to wider heritage efforts by China as part of OBOR. Antiquities and diplomatic gifts exchanged through history can be used as a vantage point for understanding the politics of a period. I borrow this framework from the work of Prof. Athanasio Papalexandrou, who studies Greek antiquities in the light of the role and politics of antiquities in diplomatic exchanges.

While commercial pursuits seemed to have first brought the Chinese and Sri Lankans together, the interest in Buddhism created a strong bond between the two countries. The spread of Buddhism into Central Asia further extended this relationship.


Ideology, State and Power: The Galle Stone Inscription Galle and Ming Imperial Ambition

The third emperor of the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368-1644) other countries to be aware of China's power. In the traditional tributary arrangement, countries on China's borders agreed to recognize China as their superior and its emperor as lord of "all under Heaven." These countries regularly gave gifts of tribute in exchange for certain benefits, like military posts and trade treaties. Lavish oceanic expeditions were   mounted because the emperor wanted to impress Ming power and China's resources and importance upon the world.  A description of the ships in an article titled “The Ming Voyages” published by Columbia University describe the “Treasure Ships" ships which Admiral Zheng He commanded as over 400 feet long, 160 feet wide, with nine masts, twelve sails, and four decks[5].

China-Sri Lanka relations in the 15th century may be read against the background of these grand imperial designs. The visits of the Grand Eunuch Zheng’s landing were deliberate and integral aspects to the Foreign Policy of the Ming Dynasty. The Galle Trilingual Inscription is dated to 15 February 1409 (the date in which it was inscribed in China) was erected on the Third Voyage of the Ming Fleet. The Imperial order early in 1409 directed the eunuchs Zheng He, Wang Ching-hung and Hou Hsien to visit the seas of the West. Ming Admiral Zheng He visited the island on three separate voyages. It was on the final voyage that the inscription was erected.

On his onward journey Zheng He touched at the harbour of Galle where he held a trade fair, displaying a variety of products from China including gold and silver, candlesticks, lacquer ware, silk embroideries, blue and white porcelain, textiles and Buddhist sutras and incense burners for the use of the Buddhist population. Setting up commemorative tablets, the Trilingual Inscription in Galle as well, were in order to highlight the majesty and benevolence of the Ming Emperor. Over the second voyage of Zheng He, a similar inscription was erected in Calicut to commemorate the intercourse between Calicut and China which had been flourishing since the Tang dynasty (7th century).

In 1911, the carved stone inscription was discovered covering a culvert near Cripps Road in Galle by a provincial engineer. The Chinese letters, which are the best preserved in the inscription, records the offerings made by Zheng He and others to a Buddhist temple on the mountains of Sri Lanka (which could possibly be Adam’s Peak). The Persian is largely defaced, but what is readable makes it clear that this too lists offerings to the light of Islam. The Tamil inscription follows the same pattern and the beneficiary is a Tamil God. The trilingual inscription is now in the National Museum in Colombo. A replica could be found in the Maritime Museum in Galle within a chamber dedicated to Chinese maritime contacts within the Galle Maritime Museum.

In the 2006 Journals of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Prof. Lorna Devaraja dis-connects an unbroken narrative of diplomatic harmony. In Sri Lanka, inscriptions are traditionally set up dated in the regnal reigning monarch, by one of his highest officials. In this case a Chinese installed the inscription on Lankan soil and dating it in the regnal years of the Ming Emperor.

The comments made by Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman in the Zheng He oration of 2012, one century after its archaeological discovery in Galle, connects the threads of interpreting archaeology and diplomatic history to popular history and museum displays. Dr. Godahewa expressed the view that, “We are hoping to build a Zheng He Memorial Chamber inside the Maritime Museum in Galle in near future. Given that Galle is only one hour away from Colombo now due to the Sothern Highway, it is expected to become a key tourist attraction.”


 Chinese Ceramic found in Lankan Ruins

In a discovery announced on the 29th of September 2018, in their first overseas mission, Archaeologists from Shanghai Museum have unearthed a large number of ceramic pieces, most of which appear to be have been made in China, from the Allaippidy ruins in Sri Lanka, the China Daily reported.  shows the links that existed between China and other countries through the ancient maritime Silk Road.

As part of a wider five-year archaeological plan with Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Fund, the Shanghai Museum has embarked on a “transnational archaeology”, quoting curator of the Shanghai Museum Yang Zhigang. This archaeological dig comes as part of an initiative to conduct research on harbor cities along the route of the Belt and Road initiative. It is an attempt, in the words of Zhigang to “deepen research and fill gaps” in existing knowledge on the ancient maritime Silk Road.

The team took 40 days making a comprehensive survey of the harbor city of Jaffna and its surroundings, as well as the excavation sites in the Allaippidy and Kayts Fort ruins, according to Chen Jie, head of the team. Chen and his colleagues excavated in an area of 92.4 square meters at the Allaippidy ruins, where 650 pieces of ceramic were found, more than 600 of which were made in China. Majority of the Chinese ceramic pieces date to the late half of the 11th century or the early 12th century, according to Lu Minghua, a researcher on Chinese ceramic with Shanghai Museum.

“The archaeological achievement will play an important role in the studies of the trading route of the ancient maritime Silk Road, transportation networks as well as cultural communication between China and Sri Lanka,” Zhigang says. The five-year plan includes research on the history of the ancient maritime Silk Road, perform excavations in some of the important ruins and sites in Sri Lanka, present joint exhibitions and initiate staff exchanges.


Connecting Findings

In search of a connect of the two archaeological excavations in Galle and Jaffna respectively, placing them in the political and socio-cultural moment of MSR in 2018, at its fifth year, I quote the world renowned ancient Indian historian on Reading Alternative Histories. Prof. Romila Tharpar explains, “History is not information that is handed down unchanged from generation to generation. Historical situations need to be explained and explanations draw on analyses of the evidence; interpretations have to conform to the basic requirements of using reliable evidence. Historiography therefore becomes a prelude to understanding history as a form of knowledge”[6].


The 1999 publication of ‘the Politics of Archaeology in the Global Context’ by the Archaeological Institute of America discusses the role of monuments and heritage in the construction of identity. Antiquities can represent vehicles for ‘imagining the nation’ or in our case- imagining a transnational overland and maritime corridor. History and the humanities, social sciences and archaeology tie together as one part of China’s co-operation network and an instrument of diplomacy. Research fostered through OBOR and 21st century MSR focuses on spaces rather than borders and taking the example of recent archaeological links illustrates the symbolic political and material encounters and entanglements along a transnational network. It is taking into consideration overall movements and linkages with China as a crucial node in understanding the world through the lens of the Silk Road.

Freighted with diplomacy and symbolism are the discovered inscriptions, political gift exchanges and popular history of Zheng He. Discoveries along the OBOR transnational heritage initiative, while representing connections from antiquity, also involve complex relationships between givers, receivers and objects[7].




Devaraja, Lorna : Cheng Ho's Visits to Sri Lanka and the Galle Trilingual Inscription in the National Museum in Colombo , Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, Vol. 52 (2006), pp.59-74

Deloitte Insights: Embracing the BRI ecosystem in 2018 (2018)

Commemorating Zheng He, the greatest navigator to visit Sri Lanka from China (Daily FT Feb, 2012)

Chinese ceramic found in Lankan ruins: Shanghai Museum (Daily Mirror, 23 Oct 2018)

 Seneviratne, Sudharshan; Reading Alternative Histories: Ideology, Modes Of Production, And Social Formation In Early South-Central Asia* (Social Affairs. Vol.1 No.9, 25-37, Fall 2018)

Material Entanglements in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond (Website Project)

Hicks, Dan Review of Susan Kane "The Politics of Archaeology and Identity in a Global Context" (2006)

Jiayang Fan & Moteleone,David “A New Silk Road” The New Yorker (2018) 

[1] For a full photo essay on the New Silk Road see:

[2] Recommendations for transnational heritage corridors of Silk Roads site nomination(2012): 

[3] For a detailed etymology of the term Silk Road see :

[4] Deloitte Insight Series (2018):

[5] The Ming Voyages :

[6] Romila Tharpar quoted in Seneviratne, Sudharshan;  Reading Alternative Histories: Ideology, Modes of production, and Social Formation in early south-central Asia* (Social Affairs. vol.1 no.9, 25-37, fall 2018) 

[7] For further theoretical frameworks in studying oceanic exchanges see :