Quanzhou (泉州; Choâⁿ-chiu in Minnan, Quánzhōu in Mandarin) is a coastal city in Fujian Province in China, located north of Xiamen and south of Fuzhou. Older romanisations, no longer in use, include Ch’üan-chou, Chuanchow and Chinchew.
Marco Polo sailed home from here around 1292; he called the city by its Arabic and Persian name, Zaiton, and described it as one of the world’s two busiest ports (the other was Alexandria) and stunningly rich. Since then it has come down in the world somewhat, but is still a major port and still quite prosperous. For travellers, much of the history is still quite visible; the town is positively overrun with interesting old buildings.
Likely many readers in Western countries will never have heard of the place, but they have been somewhat affected by it nonetheless. The English word “satin” comes from “Zaiton”, the port from which that fabric first reached the Middle East and thence Europe. The tea that American colonists threw overboard to protest British taxes at the Boston Tea Party was shipped from Quanzhou and grown in nearby Anxi.
Quanzhou urban area consists of four districts:
- Fengze District (丰泽区; Fēngzéqū)
- Licheng District (鲤城区; Lǐchéngqū)
- Luojiang District (洛江区; Luòjiāngqū)
- Quangang District (泉港区; Quángǎngqū)
Nearby Xiamen was administered as a district of Quanzhou for centuries, but it grew very rapidly due to foreign trade after it became a treaty post in the 1840s. Today it is a separate city, at least as important as Quanzhou.
About a millenium ago, the city was the main eastern terminus of the Maritime Silk Road and home to a large (over 100,000 by some estimates) international community, mostly Arabs but also including Persians, Indians and others. At one time, the city had seven mosques; the only one surviving today is the Great Mosque, built in 1009 CE.
Quanzhou was one of the main bases for the great Chinese treasure ships that routinely traded in Southeast Asia and India and sometimes reached at least as far as Persia and Aden. When Vasco da Gama — sailing the Cape Route to become the first European to reach India by sea — reached East Africa in 1498, he found Chinese trade goods such as blue & white pottery already in the market. The Chinese ships were far larger, longer range, and more advanced technically than European vessels of the period.
One writer says that the treasure ships did much more in the early 1400s. He claims they circumnavigated the globe, discovered both Americas decades before Columbus (who used some of their maps, obtained through trade with Egypt), and explored Australia centuries before Europeans arrived. However, his theories are not accepted by most historians.
There is a Maritime Museum in Quanzhou with many relics of this period.
Marco Polo sailed home from Quanzhou about 1292. He described it as the world’s busiest port, with Alexandria a distant second. At about that time, Kublai Khan’s fleet for the invasion of Japan sailed from Quanzhou. It was wiped out by a storm, the kami kaze or “spirit wind”. This is the origin of the name for kamikaze (suicide) pilots during the Second World War; it was hoped they would save Japan in a similar way.
In the 1420s, there was a shift in power in Beijing; the Confucian scholars won out over the eunuchs, and many of the admirals and captains were eunuchs. The emperor cut off all foreign expeditions, destroyed the records of previous voyages, and let the great ships rot. After this, Quanzhou declined considerably. Also, over the centuries the harbour became partly clogged with silt. Today, Quanzhou is less well-known than the provincial capital Fuzhou or booming Special Economic Zone Xiamen, and certainly gets fewer tourists than either. However, it has more historic buildings than either, some interesting modern architecture, and some good shopping.
Like most Chinese cities, Quanzhou has some of the standard ugly 8-storey concrete apartment blocks. However, there are far fewer of those than elsewhere and whole districts are much prettier. The city government has regulations that require new buildings in some areas to follow certain architectural conventions. Downtown, there are many new 4 to 6 floor buildings with the traditional Chinese tile roofs with points on the corners. Near the old mosque there are new buildings with Islamic themes, such as arched windows, in the architecture. The rebuilding of the Zhongshan Road shopping area got a UNESCO award for heritage preservation, and Quanzhou got an international award in a contest for most livable cities in 2003; neighboring Xiamen had won the previous year.