Sarah Ward
Visiting Professor of Maritime Archaeology, Centre for Maritime History and Culture Research, Dalian Maritime University

Founded in 1909, Dalian Maritime University (DMU) is a Project 211 National Key University and an International Maritime Organization (IMO) Centre of Excellence.1 Known affectionally as the “cradle of navigators,” DMU has, since its inception, produced more navigators than any other Chinese institution. DMU is, without doubt, the beating heart of China’s maritime industry.

Following China’s ratification of the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2004, and in recognition of the critical need to preserve China’s navigation culture in the face of globalization and social transformation, DMU established the Centre for Maritime History and Culture Research (CMHCR) in 2008. Charged with safeguarding China’s navigation culture, CMHCR has, over the past twelve years, grown to become home to more than twenty-one associated experts, drawn from disciplines as diverse as history, archaeology, heritage, languages and linguistics, translation and interpretation, marine engineering, navigation science, and technology. This short article will highlight the vital work of this safeguarding pioneer.

Navigation culture encapsulates the navigation practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and know-how inherited from our ancestors and transmitted from one generation to the next. Navigation culture is both created and adapted by communities and provides them with a sense of identity, belonging, and continuity. The importance of navigation culture lies not in the tangible manifestation of that culture—the ships, shipwrecks, locks, or weirs, for example—but in the wealth of knowledge and skills transmitted through it.

Unfortunately, the threats to China’s navigation culture are many—aging practitioners, diminishing youth interest, material shortage, and industrialization, to name but a few. Its safeguarding is, therefore, about the transfer of knowledge, skills, and meaning. Per the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of achieving quality education (SDG4), CMHCR works with DMU’s Navigation College to strengthen and reinforce the diverse and varied processes
necessary for the continuous evolution, interpretation, and transmission of navigation culture to future generations. Its Navigation Science and Technology undergraduate program, for example, balances the retention of past practices, such as celestial navigation, with the transmission of the modern practices that are needed to adapt to the present, such as the use of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). Why? Because the past is the key to the future and fundamental to the DMU’s approach is the understanding that communities and knowledge-bearers are key actors for safeguarding and transmission. Engaging them is crucial for the survival of the customs and traditions of navigation culture.

In establishing CMHCR, DMU had the following aims and objectives:
1. safeguard navigation culture through the establishment of an inventory of navigation culture, developed in conjunction with the communities concerned;
2. monitor, propose, and, where appropriate, adopt policies to protect China’s navigation culture and raise awareness of its importance both within China and abroad;
3. research all aspects of navigation culture, both inland and seafaring;
4. disseminate research results through publication, presentation, outreach, and public activities including at academic conferences, public lectures, and in the popular media;
5. encourage international cooperation, cross-discipline dialogue, and knowledge-sharing to build China’s capacity to safeguard its navigation culture, in part through the visiting scholar program;
6. participate in the delivery of education, outreach, and awareness-raising activities to promote the importance of China’s navigation culture and the need to preserve it; and
7. pursue other appropriate safeguarding activities, such as maritime and ethnoarchaeological field research, always with the communities’ full consent and participation.

Research is at the center of CMHCR’s activities, and two significant safeguarding projects are currently underway. The first, “Inland Water Transport,” led by CMHCR Director Han Qing, is a two-year project funded by China’s Ministry of Transport. The project aims to inventory, investigate, and document inland navigation culture and its tangible expressions.It will result in a significant co-authored publication due out later this year.

The second project, which will be the first of its kind in China, is “Globalisation of Sino-Foreign Maritime Cultural Exchange (Ocean Cultures).” This three-year project is funded by China’s Ministry of Education, and aims to document, protect, preserve, and promote China’s seafaring navigation culture and the long history and tradition of China’s international maritime exchange, which commenced, to the best of our knowledge, in 111 BCE. The outcome will be a 400,000-word monograph, ten journal articles, eight policy papers, and a unique edited volume prepared in collaboration with the University of Helsinki. There are also plans to launch the edited volume with an international conference intended to promote cross-cultural dialogue on the safeguarding of navigation culture. To learn more, visit

1. Project 211 is a National Key Universities project initiated in 1995 by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China to raise research standards at
high-level universities. The name for the project comes from an abbreviation of the 21st century and 100 participating universities.