As Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) of the Qin Dynasty and later Emperor Han Wu (漢武帝) of the Han Dynasty extended the Chinese Empire southwards to the coast of the South China Sea, wars were waged incessantly in the north, producing a steady stream of immigrants to the southern coast. One good piece of evidence of such mass migration is the discovery in 1955 of a Han Dynasty tomb believed to belong to a high official in Kowloon, which also bears testimony to the rapid development along China’s southern coast.
Upon the collapse of the Han, more intense warfare was waged in the north, pushing more new migrants southwards. In the Hong Kong region, such immigration was marked by tombs that date back to the Six Dynasties period. What is unusual about these tombs is their location, since many of these tombs were not found on Kowloon Peninsula or in the New Territories, but in Pak Mong (白芒), Lantau Island, and in Sha Po (沙埔) on Lamma Island. When the Jin Dynasty fell, a large number of its citizens fled south. Some must have taken the sea routes to settle along the coast of Fujian and others, as these tombs in the outlying islands of Hong Kong may suggest, might have sailed farther south to end up at the Pearl River delta.
During Tang times, foreign seafarers did sail to Guangzhou in sizable numbers from places such as India, the Persian Gulf, and South-East Asia, to trade with China. Arriving vessels would normally heave up the river, using the deeper eastern channel near Tuen Mun, a district that therefore rose in prominence.
One of the first-ever records in China of long-distance maritime travel, found in Xin Tang Shu (《新唐書》), listed Tuen Mun in Hong Kong as the second port of embarkation and the last point of outfitting and provision supply in the shipping route from Guangzhou to the Persian Gulf. After being adequately provisioned and observing the advantageous northeast monsoon, the vessels would set sail from Tuen Mun, passing the last outlying islands in the area and proceeding to the open sea, and heading southeast in the direction of south Hainan Island, from where the vessels would hug the coast of Vietnam, before setting a course towards the Singapore Strait, from where ships would turn west towards the Indian Ocean.
The significance of Tuen Mun as the final outfitting station for long-distance sailing could perhaps explain the discovery of many lime kilns in that area. These kilns were strategically located in places on the Pearl River estuary such as Yi Long (二浪), Sham Wan Tsuen (深灣村), Chek Lap Kok (赤鱲角), Tung Wan (東灣), Shek Pik (石壁), Tai Kwai Wan (大貴灣), and Lung Kwu Sheung Tan (龍鼓上灘). According to archaeologists, most of these kilns can be dated to the Tang period. Some of the lime produced by burning sea shells in these kilns could have been used as building materials, but it is believed that most of the lime products were mixed with tung oil, producing putty as a caulking material to be plastered onto the wooden hulls of the vessels to prevent the ingress of sea water.
- William Meacham, ‘Report on Salvage Excavation at Lung Kwu Sheung Tan’, Journal of the Hong Kong Archaeological Society (JHKAS), 13 (1993), p. 18.
- Hugh Cameron, ‘Tang Dynasty Lime Kilns’, JHKAS, 13 (1993), pp. 102-108.
Part 1 Chapter 1.3 - Early Chinese history