The “Silk Road” served the ancient China trade with the west from a
very early time. Caravans carried their wares to West Asia and Eastern
Europe more than two thousand years ago, and silk was already an
important export to Europe in Roman times.
When the Europeans and their trading interests started arriving in Asia, the main trade routes changed to the sea. Ships allowed for faster transport of larger quantities. The old China trade flourished for three centuries.
Subsequently, the majority of pottery and porcelain was shipped by sea,
although it is known that some ceramics were also transported by land
via the silk road.
It is known that ceramics were exported as early as the 9th century. During the Tang dynasty China already had maritime trade contacts with South Asia and the Middle East.
At that time much of the wares were shipped to Southeast Asian ports, and from there they would be taken along the South Asian coast. Theses coastal trade routes were used long before Zheng He's fleet ventured into the Indian Ocean.
During the Song dynasty the porcelain exported to the Middle East became
a commodity of high value throughout the region and was particularly
favored by the Ottoman Court.
In the Song (960-1279) and subsequent Yuan (1206-1367) dynasties the majority of
ceramics were produced for export. This may be one of the main causes that
today relatively few of the blue and white porcelain items produced
during the Yuan dynasty remain in China itself.
It was not until the late Ming dynasty that production for domestic use increased considerably; in the Qing dynasty it had shifted to fill mainly domestic demand.
One of the less known trading partners in the ancient China trade was
Tondo. This pre-colonial kingdom in the Philippines was a major link in
the ancient China trade long before the arrival of the European
seafarers. Tondo was allowed to trade with China via the port of Fuzhou
since the early Ming dynasty.
Even during the Ming sea prohibition when all other trading contacts were broken off, Tondo was excepted and allowed to continue trading with Ming China under the pretense of "tribute". Tondo became a major trading point for transshipments to Southeast Asia in the old China trade.
However, today it is known that there were trade contacts in existence between China and the Philippines already at a much earlier time, in the 10th century, during the Song dynasty.
The Portuguese were the first to reach China via the Cape of Good Hope, in the early 16th century, and they carried the first consignment of china wares via the cape to Europe.
Around 20 years after their arrival, in 1535, they obtained permission to carry out trading activities in the area of Macao.
In the early 17th century the Portuguese shipped from current Macao to the port of Malacca, on the Malayan peninsula. The port of Malacca now became a major transshipment port to Europe and the Near East, as well as to other trading destinations in South East Asia. In 1641 the Dutch captured Malacca.
The Spanish entered the China trade only after establishing a colony in the Philippines. They traded mainly from their base in Manila with China but at one time they had forts in the northern part of Taiwan to protect their interests. Their sea trading route was leading over the Pacific and linked the Philippines and Mexico.
When the Dutch arrived, they proved to be the most ambitious player in the ancient China trade. They established their center of operation in Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia). From here they started aggressively monopolizing all European and regional trade with China.
The Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) dominated China trade for almost two centuries. The Dutch were also able to obtain a trade monopoly from the shogunate in Edo (Japan), effectively becoming the only western people allowed to trade with Japan during its seclusion. Regional trade with Japan, Southeast Asia and South Asia became soon as important as the trade with Europe itself. See VOC Trading Routes in Asia.
After driving the Portuguese from Malacca they started to virtually
dominate all trade, actively hindering the trade of others, including
that of the Portuguese and the Spanish in Manila.
The British East India Company:
In the 18th century the British presence in region grew stronger, their main trading port was Guangzhou (old British name: Canton).
The Swedish (SOIC) East India Company:
During the 80 years of its existence, the Swedish East India Company based in Göteborg made more than 120 highly successful voyages to Guangzhou to import porcelain and other goods from the port of Guangzhou.
Main port used for exporting in late Ming dynasty:
In the Qing dynasty European traders used mainly:
The ancient China trade mostly followed one of two main shipping routes through the South China Sea. The western route followed the coast of Vietnam, whole the eastern route followed the island chain of the Philippines and then along the islands westward. Shipping from both routes would the pass through the Malacca straits west.
Only the Spanish sailed on an eastern route. After the Chinese merchandise arrived in Manila from Macao, they would be shipped east over the Pacific Ocean to the Mexican port of Acapulco. From there the goods were transported over land to the Atlantic coast. There they where then loaded on ships sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.
More about ancient China Trade and shipwreck ceramics ...
Chinese porcelain - development influenced by economy and trends
From Ancient China Trade to Porcelain Collections
Chinese Export Porcelain and Its Decorations