In Search of the Northern Silk Road: From China to Japan Through the Russian Far East

Society Culture

In the Edo period (1603–1868), a major trade route stretched around 5,000 kilometers from Nanjing in China to what is now Hokkaidō in Japan, passing along the Amur River for part of its distance. I traveled to the Russian Far East to discover traces of the bygone route, sustained by Japanese, Chinese, and a variety of northern peoples.

In Japan, the commerce conducted via this route was known as the Santan trade, “Santan” referring collectively to the people living along the Amur, such as the ethnic groups now known as the Ulch and Nivkh. The most prominent item in this trade was what the Japanese called Yezo nishiki, or Yezo brocade, luxurious silk fabric, colored yellow or dark blue and embroidered with dragons or other patterns in gold or silver thread. Traders from Sakhalin and Hokkaidō exchanged such goods as sable and fox furs, in demand among the Chinese nobility, for the fabric. During the Edo period, Hokkaidō was known as Yezo and was still an exotic place to most Japanese. Though the fabric was made in China, it was associated in people’s minds with this island to the north, which was its proximate source, and it added to the island’s allure. Yezo nishiki became a widely circulated brand, used in priests’ robes, wrapping cloths, and other items. Even today, 250-year-old Yezo nishiki is used to decorate the floats that are a symbol of the Gion Festival in Kyoto.

On the Trail of Explorer Mamiya Rinzō

I traveled first to the Tatar Strait between continental Russia and Sakhalin. In Japanese it is known as Mamiya Kaikyō, Mamiya Strait, taking its name from the explorer Mamiya Rinzō (1780–1844), who learned of the strait’s existence when he surveyed the area in 1808–9. I journeyed to the area, going by way of Khabarovsk, an important center in the Russian Far East, to Nikolayevsk-on-Amur at the mouth of the river. From there, it was a full day along unpaved roads; the whole trip takes at least three days. The narrowest section of the strait is now called the Nevelskoy Strait after czarist Russian naval officer Gennady Nevelskoy.

A view of Sakhalin around 7 km across the strait from Lazarev.

I climbed “The Seat,” a 130-meter rock in Lazarev, a village facing the strait. From the summit, I looked out across the 7.4 km of water, glinting in the dawn sun, to Sakhalin. The water freezes over from January to March, making it possible to cross by snowmobile. Two centuries ago, in August 1809, Mamiya joined a trading party traveling from Sakhalin to the Amur River, battling through thick fog and strong currents before completing the crossing.

Taba Bay, where Mamiya landed in August 1809.

Around 80 km south of the narrowest part of the strait, there is a small bay on the continental side called Taba Bay. This is the nearest point on the coast of the strait to the Amur River. When Mamiya came ashore here 200 years ago, it was called Mushibo, and it was an important trading place for the local people. Mamiya made it the starting point for his exploration of the continent.

Portrait of Mamiya Rinzō (left) and an old path, matching the description in his records, near Taba Bay (right).

To my surprise, a clearly old path led from the bay to a hillside stream. The path was around 120 meters long and 5–8 meters wide, the earth firmly trodden down. Mamiya wrote of dragging the boat from the beach to the top of the hill and over the pass into Lake Kizi, from which the party reached the Amur River. An image of Mamiya pulling the boat together with the area’s indigenous people flitted across my mind.

The Vanished Trading Post of Deleng

At that time, Qing China had established a trading post called Deleng in the middle reaches of the Amur River, and the Chinese had expelled the Russians from the surrounding area. Qing officials received sable and other furs from local traders as tribute, giving such goods as silk fabric, cotton, and needles as presents in exchange. The silk fabric was particularly valued in Japan, where it made its way from Yezo to buyers in the shogunal capital of Edo (now Tokyo) and the imperial capital of Kyoto.

Mamiya’s sketch of Deleng (left) shows the huts of indigenous people around the fences of the trading post. The hills in the sketch of the view across the river from Deleng (right) are very similar to current scenery. Sketches from Mamiya Rinzō, Tōdatsu chihō kikō (Travels in Eastern Tartary) (held by the Cabinet Library in the National Archives of Japan).

According to Mamiya’s records, Deleng occupied a square site around 25 meters on each side, surrounded by a double palisade. Inside the enclosure were huts where Qing officials collected furs. Around the site there were always about 500 indigenous traders who lodged in temporary shelters while they carried on a bustling trade in furs, food, and other items.

Deleng later vanished from history, becoming a phantom trading post. However, research by Professor Sasaki Shirō of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka has uncovered its likely location as Novoilinovka, a fishing village on the right bank of the river, some 120 km east of the industrial city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. There is an island called Deleng in the middle of the river and the topography closely matches Mamiya’s sketches. Chinese-made pottery shards have also been discovered in the area.

The Oral History of the Northern Silk Road

In Novoilnovka, which I visited next, the 110 villagers in 40 households make their living from fishing. Under rain clouds, the broad Amur River, here about 2 km wide, flowed gently in front of me. Thick deposits of silt had accumulated on the banks. Standing on one side of the river and comparing the outline of the hills with those sketched by Mamiya, I could see a strong resemblance.

Novoilnovka, the probable site of the Deleng trading post.

Valery Lado, a 63-year-old Nanai man from a neighboring village, looked on with deep interest. He had heard about the trading post from his father, who died 35 years before and who had in turn been told about it by his uncle. “A long time ago, there was a great trading post near here. I don’t know the name, but in summer people would gather from far around to trade sable, fox, and badger furs, as well as rice, tea, salt, tobacco, and noodles.” Lado told us that the word deleng meant “table” in the Ulchi language.

The hills across the Amur River as seen from Novoilnovka.

Standing here on the bank of the placid Amur River, 800 km north of Cape Sōya (Sōyamisaki), the northernmost tip of Hokkaidō, I thought of this as the possible site of the trading post that Mamiya Rinzō visited, and I seemed to hear the clamor of people’s voices on the wind blowing across the river.

Ainu Descendants in Russia

There are many reminders of the northern trade in the area, including samples of Yezo nishiki. A museum in the village of Bulava, where many Ulchi and Nanai people live, displays one such sample, an old piece of blue silk with an embroidered dragon pattern, as well as lacquerware from Japan that is believed to have been used in rituals. There are also Ainu vessels for making alcoholic beverages, found in houses within the village. (The Ainu are a people native to Hokkaidō.)

Samples of Yezo nishiki featuring gold dragons, from the collection at Khabarovsk Regional Museum.

A family named Kuisali who live in the village are of Ainu origin (“Kui” means “Ainu”). In the late nineteenth century, three generations ago, an Ainu man called Sekin moved to the continent from Hokkaidō. His son Suirutsu was a skilled sable hunter, exchanging furs for robes for his five children. The family has carefully preserved one of these handed-down Yezo nishiki robes, made of blue cloth with embroidered dancing gold dragons. When a member of the family dies, they cut a piece of cloth and put it into the coffin with the wish that the deceased will not need to worry about money in the next world. 

This remaining sample of Yezo nishiki is in remarkable condition, such that one would not think it had been made a century before. Yuri Kuisali, head of the village art school, says, “This is our family treasure. We are proud of our ancestor, who was respected by the people of the village for his hunting skills, and of the fact that Ainu blood runs in our veins.”

The Yezo nishiki robe preserved by the Kuisali family in the village of Bulava.

A mysterious doll with small black eyes, dressed in Yezo nishiki is on display in the local history museum in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. It was found in a Nanai village, where there was a custom to use the dolls in funeral rituals, with one being placed in a house where someone had died and then burned one year later. For whatever reason, this doll was not burned and also somehow escaped destruction in later conflagrations to survive to this day. According to local legend, disaster strikes each time the doll is moved.

A Cultural Corridor

There are also Yezo nishiki robes for officials and ritual use in Khabarovsk Regional Museum and Nikolayevsk-on-Amur Museum. According to Professor Nakamura Kazuyuki, a Northeast Asian history specialist at Hakodate National College of Technology who is knowledgeable about Yezo nishiki, there are around 30 examples of the fabric in Hakodate, Matsumae, and elsewhere in Hokkaidō, and around 40 in the village of Sai and other sites in Aomori Prefecture.

The Amur River was then a kind of cultural corridor linking China and Japan. And the Yezo nishiki and other valuable cultural artifacts remaining in the area are a testament to the active trade and interaction of the peoples of the time.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 25, 2014; all photographs provided by the author. Banner photo: After five months of being frozen over, the Amur River begins to flow again in late May. From a hill in Mago, around 70 km from the mouth, it is possible to see across the river, which is 10 km wide at this point. Pink ezomurasaki tsutsuji rhododendrons blossom on the slope.)

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