Symposium Around and About the South China Sea

Symposium „Around and About the South China Sea“



Date: 09. Nov. – 11. Nov. 2022

Location: Macau Scientific and Cultural Centre Museum (The Macau Museum)

R. da Junqueira 30, 1300-601 Lisboa, Portugal


And Online via Zoom:

Zoom Link:

ID: 857 595 2236
Password: cccm2022


A cooperation between the Department of Sinology (University of Bonn), Macau Scientific and Cultural Centre Museum, Confucius Institute Bonn


Consult the program here:




Roderich Ptak and Ralph Kauz

Hundreds of scholarly works on the history of the South China Sea, or Nanhai/Nanyang, reveal
the importance of this maritime space for cultural and commercial exchange between the Far
East, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean world in medieval and early modern times. Recent
research, especially in China, has brought to light new sources related to this fascinating and
multi-layered subject. European and other sources also provide a wealth of related information.
Put differently, various kinds of texts, maps and material objects tell us that the South China Sea
constituted a key element in a chain of maritime spaces linked to each other by the so-called
Maritime Silk Route and its many branches. One may investigate this setting from a Braudelian
point of view, or individually, through the eyes of those ports, states and ethnicities who
partook in material and other forms of exchange along established sailing routes located in the
The principal idea of the conference is to review essential elements of this exchange history in
the period c. 1200 to 1750. We shall focus on three aspects: (1) Ports and polities, commercial,
religious and other groups maintained all kinds of networks. This is one area of research. One
can identify different kinds of ports and classify them according to established categories; that is
a further point one may address. How can we explain the rise and decline of individual
locations, what kind of substitution effects were at work in particular periods? (2) The
production, uses and flow of certain commodities such as silk, silver, copper, ceramics, pepper
and cloves have gone through detailed analysis. Other products – for example, precious woods
and stones, exotic animals, manufactured items, substances used in local medicines, etc. – have
not attracted the same kind of attention; how important were they in terms of commercial value,
demand and supply, as cultural items, for everyday life, or as contributing to the formation of
local identities? These questions address the issue of “rarities” in the title of the planned
meeting. (3) Finally, when historians discuss exchange, both on the local level and
internationally, they usually do not care too much about sailing routes. Winds, currents, reefs,
seasonal limitations and other “technical” factors were crucial elements in the history of
maritime exchange, but we often relegate them to inferior positions in our analysis of these
exchanges. There is a large body of nautical texts in different languages and these texts awaits
scholarly investigation. That includes a number of Chinese documents from later periods, based
on oral traditions of early periods. It would be wonderful, if some of the invited participants
could try to look at the nautical material.
Clearly, we sincerely hope that contributors to this meeting can find out something new, mainly
based on Asian and Iberian texts and maps, and on particular objects dating from the period in
question. Simply redrawing general pictures related to larger constellations, from an established
bird’s-eye view, may not be as interesting, unless such contributions follow new models or bring
to light hitherto unknown aspects. We may add, in terms of geography, the idea is not to look at
an isolated area adjacent to the South China Sea, but to find out how a particular port or coast
was in touch with other areas via the sea. Put differently, the focus should be on the links
between individual locations. Moreover, while we can easily define the northern limits of the
South China Sea (the coasts of Fujian, Guangdong, Taiwan, West Luzon, etc.), scholars may not
agree with its southwestern, southern and eastern extension. Therefore, we shall leave that point
open. Hence, the Gulf of Siam, the area south of the Natuna Islands down to Java, and the Sulu
Sea may or may not form part of a particular topic. Nevertheless, it is certainly advisable not to
focus on the area of modern East Indonesia and the regions to the west of Singapore.