2016/02/17

Chinese initiative revives ancient Silk Road

In Iran, the small northern town of Ardebil may not have the allure of top tourist attractions like Isfahan or Shiraz, but year after year visitors still flock there to see a famed collection of ancient Chinese blue-and-white porcelain.

Displayed at the mausoleum of Sheikh Safi-din, a world cultural heritage site, the dozens of porcelain pieces dating back to the 13th century mesmerize visitors with their vivid blue glaze against white porcelain.

"All these treasures came from ancient China," a local tour guide known as Fardin repeats these words cheerfully every day as he shows visitors around the place.

"When I was small, it was something to be proud of to have a piece of genuine Chinese porcelain in one's home."

But what Fardin might not know is that these porcelain pieces were actually the joint work of ancient Iran and China that sat on the two ends of the thriving ancient Silk Road. New research found that the blue paint applied on the wares was probably imported from Persia to ancient China, giving the objects a distinct look that Chinese workshops never successfully duplicated at the time.

According to Persian annals, part of the Chinese porcelain collection at the mausoleum was imported from China via the Silk Road, while other pieces were gifts to Persian dignitaries from Chinese emperors.

Some pieces in the collection were made during China's Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which is a key period for the development of the firing techniques of the blue-and-white porcelain. The raw material, smalt, was imported from Persia. The smalt with pure white porcelain and clear glazes together form the famed blue-and-white porcelain.

Blue-and-white porcelain wares of the Yuan are precious. In 2005, a Yuan-era blue-and-white porcelain jar painted with scenes depicting the story of "Guiguzi going downhill" sold in London for US$27.7 million, setting a world auction record for an Asian artifact.

"Bestowing such valuable gifts on us shows that China and Iran have long been friends," Fardin said, noting such exchanges enriched both the Chinese and Persian cultures.

Silk road legacy lives on

Like his ancestors, Hussein Hosseiny travels regularly to China to sell Persian carpets, but the difference is he doesn't have to trek there.

For him, the centuries-old route is still as vibrant and profitable as before, as prized Persian silk carpets have never failed to satisfy Chinese customers generation after generation.

Sadeq Zibakalam, a professor at Tehran University, said everybody in Iran knows about the Silk Road and that ancient Persia and China were two hubs of the trade route.

Now, China and Iran aspire to revive the camel-trodden, garrison-guarded dirt trails of the Silk Road that vanished long ago in a modern context, and have promised to deepen cooperation.

The sprawling subway network underneath the Iranian capital Tehran is a vivid example of increased bilateral infrastructure collaboration between the two sides.

First built in 1999, the subway system now operates five lines and will have two new lines added.

The subway system, for which the Iranians built the infrastructure and the Chinese supplied the trains and the operation system, has benefited millions of Iranians in a city notorious for its traffic congestions.

With a one-way ticket costing as little as 5,000 rial (17 US cents), the subway is a major means of transportation for low-income citizens.

Linking the world

Today, Tehran is just one of many places along the ancient Silk Road where the Chinese are installing rail. The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative has spawned an infrastructure boom in the region.

In Turkey, an ambitious high-speed railway project is underway to connect Asia and Europe through the Bosporus Strait.

Mustafa Babal, a senior engineer overseeing the high-speed railway project, said that five railway lines are being built, four of which will connect the Turkish capital Ankara to other Turkish cities. The other will link Ankara with neighboring Georgia.

The railways, which are designed to allow trains to travel at 350 kilometers per hour, are part of a joint project by the Chinese and Turkish railway administrations.

Babal notes the line between Ankara and Istanbul will be extended to the border with Bulgaria to help connect Beijing and London.

Babal estimates the line will have a transportation value of US$75 billion dollars, replacing the current intercontinental railway as the top choice for cargos moving between the two continents.