Why Did China Keep This 800-Year-Old Shipwreck a Secret for Decades?

A Chinese shipwreck.

The wreck of the 'Nanhai No. 1' is illustrated on the seabed before salvage.(Image: via Maritime Silk Road Museum)

The remains of a 12th-century vessel found in the deaths of the South China Sea reveal China’s maritime past. The shipwreck was kept hidden by the Chinese government for a long time. Finally, it was located in 1987, and the Chinese government resorted to a long and tedious excavation plan to preserve the ancient vessel. 

A 12-century Chinese junk

The 12th-century China shipwreck was found by chance. Maritime Exploration, a British firm, searched for the wreckage belonging to the Dutch East India Company. That is when they saw the merchant vessel’s remains. They were assisted by a Chinese company named Guangzhou Salvage. They found the 12th-century Chinese junk remains beneath the sea between Hailing Island and Hong Kong.

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It was in 1125 when the Song Dynasty lost hold of northern China. Then the Chinese monarch retreated south and established his new capital in modern-day Hangzhou. It was called the Southern Song. However, the enemy forces thwarted the Southern Song from accessing the lucrative Silk Trade routes leading to Central Asia and Europe. This made the Southern Song resort to shipbuilding and exploring new naval routes to expand trading activities.

A model of the Nanhai No. 1 Chinese junk.
A model of the Nanhai No. 1 Chinese junk in Song City, Hangzhou, China. (Image: via Wikipedia)

Sometime in the late 12th century, a Song merchant ship packed with valuable cargo started a voyage. The ill-fated ship, however, sank after leaving the port. It was discovered some eight centuries later.

The Nanhai No. 1

Upon discovering the merchant ship, divers fathomed that the ship sank soon after leaving the port. However, a considerable cargo was still in the vessel’s hold. The ship was named Nanhai No. 1. Miraculously, its cargo and the wooden hull were not ravaged. Instead, it was kept intact by a thick layer of silt.

At that time, there was a lack of advanced technology to survey the wreck better. So Nanhai No. 1 remained there for two decades after the unexpected discovery. However, the area was monitored by the Chinese Navy. They ensured local fishermen did not explore the region. In addition, the Navy spread the rumor of WWII-era explosives being buried in that region to deter others from coming across the shipwreck.

In 2002, a solid and detailed plan was created to lift the remains of Nanhai No. 1. A custom-made steel cage weighing 3,000 tons was set up for that purpose. Special care was taken to ensure the ancient-era ship remains were not damaged during the rescue process.

In late 2007, the ancient shipwreck and its valuable contents were taken to Hailing Island’s Maritime Silk Road Museum. It was designed to accommodate the wreck. The authorities put Nanhai No. 1 in a saltwater tank. The archaeologists studied the impact under carefully monitored conditions.

The 'Crystal Palace' contains the Nanhai No. 1 in the Maritime Silk Road Museum.
The ‘Crystal Palace’ contains the Nanhai No. 1 in the Maritime Silk Road Museum. (Image: via Wikipedia)

Since then, archaeologists have recovered many precious artifacts from the ancient shipwreck. These include thousands of coins and over 100 gold artifacts; however, most cargo content consists of Southern Song ceramics.

In 2018, archaeologists located a ceramic jar with a black-ink inscription. This made them understand the approximate timing of the voyage. Chicago’s Field Museum associate Lisa Niziolek said: “Initial investigations in the 1990s dated the shipwreck to the mid to late 13th century, but we’ve found evidence that it’s probably a century older. Eight hundred years ago, someone put a label on these ceramics that essentially says ‘Made in China’ — because of the particular place mentioned, we’re able to date this shipwreck better.”

The discovery of Nanhai No. 1 is culturally and politically significant. The remains indicate China’s flourishing trading past and the ambitions the Chinese emperors harbored.

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