Chinese- Perfect Strangers of the Eastern Sea
Vu Huu San
Chinese are Purely Land Men
Ricci and his fellow priest, Michele Ruggieri, stayed for seven years
in Chao-ch'ing, a town west of Canton. They built a mission house, and despite popular
suspicion and occasional hails of rocks from the hostile populace, they were accepted as
men of learning. On the wall of the mission's reception room Ricci mounted his map of the
world. As Ricci himself reported:
Of all the great nations, the Chinese have had the least commerce,
indeed, one might say that they have had practically no contact whatever, with outside
nations, and consequently they are grossly ignorant of what the world in general is like.
True, they had charts somewhat similar to this one, that were supposed to represent the
whole world, but their universe was limited to their own fifteen provinces, and in the sea
painted around it they had placed a few islands to which they gave the names of different
kingdoms they had heard of. All of these islands put together would not be as large as the
smallest of the Chinese provinces. With such a limited knowledge, it is evident why they
boasted of their kingdom as being the whole world, and why they call it Thienhia, meaning,
everything under the heavens. When they learned that China was only a part of the great
east, they considered such an idea, so unlike their own, to be something utterly
impossible, and they wanted to be able to read about it, in order to form a better
Ricci also gave some notes about the Chinese nature as following:
We must mention here another discovery which helped to win the good
will of the Chinese. To them the heavens are round but the earth is flat and square, and
they firmly believe that their empire is right in the middle of it. They do not like the
idea of our geographies pushing their China into one corner of the Orient. They could not
comprehend the demonstrations proving that the earth is a globe, made up of land and
water, and that a globe of its nature has neither beginning nor end. The geographer was
therefore obliged to change his design and, by omitting the first meridian of the
Fortunate Islands, he left a margin on either side of the map, making the Kingdom of China
to appear right in the center. This was more in keeping with their ideas and it gave them
a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. Really, at that time and in the particular
circumstances, one could not have hit upon a discovery more appropriate for disposing this
people for the reception of the faith....
Because of their ignorance of the size of the earth and the exaggerated
opinion they have of themselves, the Chinese are of the opinion that only China among the
nations is deserving of admiration. Relative to the grandeur of empire, of public
administration and of reputation for learning, they look upon all other people not only as
barbarous but as unreasoning animals. To them there is no other place on earth that can
boast of a king, of a dynasty, or of culture. The more their pride is inflated by this
ignorance, the more humiliated they become when the truth is revealed.(See "The
Discoverers", Daniel J. Boorstin, Random House, New York, 1983, pp. 56-64)
Another Western scholar, James Fairgrieve, in his books "Geography
and World Power" (London, 1921), 242, has written: "China has never been a
sea-power because nothing has ever induced her people to be otherwise than landmen, and
landmen dependent on agriculture with the same habit and ways of thinking drilled into
them through forty centuries."
In a recent work, we find this statement in a very fine book: "Essentially
a land people, the Chinese cannot be considered as having possessed sea-power.... The
attention of the Chinese through the centuries have been turned inward towards Central
Asia rather than outward, and their knowledge of the seas which washed their coast was
extremely small." (F. B. Eldridge, The Background of Eastern Sea Power; Melbourne,
There are many reasons that The Chinese did not develop as a seafaring
nation. (since 2634 B.C.) The main reason was that the vast land-mass of China absorbed
their energies. Equally, the absence of neighbouring nations with whom to trade played a
large part in the development of the introspective conservatism of the Chinese. However,
Taiwan (Formosa) was noted for its fishing and an active local trade existed with the
In the legends of China, chronicled in the Shu Ching (Canon of
History), the first three emperors, Fu Hsi, Shen Nung and Huang Ti, are each credited with
a share in the invention of all the main activities of the people, including matrimony,
building houses and the introduction of a calendar, but no mention is made of the sea,
ships or of fishing (although hunting is mentioned). It is against this background that
the virtual absence of Chinese sea-legend and sea sagas has to be viewed. (See Duncan
Haws and Alex A.Hurst, "The Maritime History of the World, -A Chronological Survey of
Maritime Events From 5,000 B.C. until the Present Day, Supplemented by Commentaries",
Teredo Books Ltd., Brighton Sussex, 1985.)
In the Introduction Chapter of "The Nanhai Trade", Wang
Gungwu also writes: The Chinese civilisation rose from the land, from the Huang Ho
Plain far from the mouth of the river. When it rose, its world consisted of the fields in
which the people tilled and for which they often fought, the rivers they feared and tried
to control and the towns and fortresses where they hid from their enemies. The sea was
only known as a peaceful boundary to the east that yielded salt and fish and as a deep and
limitless boundary that divided prince, sage and common man from the saints and immortals.
(See "The Nanhai Trade", Kuala Lumpur, 1959, page 3.)
Scholar Pin Ti Ho, who found out the backwardness in the Chinese
ability to adapt with the water environment, have clearly identified that: "...It
is sufficiently clear, therefore, that the rise of agriculture and civilization bore no
direct relation whatever to the flood plain of the Yellow River, and that, of all the
ancient peoples who developed higher civilizations in the Old and the New Worlds, the
Chinese were the last to know irrigation." (See Pin Ti Ho, "The Cradle of
the East", Chicago Press, 1975, page 48.)
Vietnamese are Naturally Seamen and Indigenous of the Easter Sea
On the contrary with the Chinese nature, Vietnamese have always been the experts in
the arts of naval warfare and maritime transportation since the very ancient time.
The Han Chinese wrote of southerners Viet people as follows "The Yủeh people by
nature a indolent and undisciplined. They travel to remote places by water and use boats
as we use carts and oars as we use horses. When they come (north - to attack) they float
along and when they leave (withdraw) they are hard to follow. They enjoy fighting and are
not afraid to die." (See "Eighth Voyage of the Dragon", Bruce Swanson,
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1982, page 11-12).
The vessels of the Yủeh in the Warring States period, however, were not all naval, and
we can be sure that there were trading expeditions at least along the coasts of Siberia,
Korea and Indochina. There were also some explorations of the Pacific itself. And of
course, as ever, inland water transport. (See Needham, Joseph; Wang Ling and Lu
Gwei-Djen, "Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 4: Physics and Physical
Technology, part III: Civil Engineering and Nautics" Cambridge University Press:
Cambridge, 1971, page 441.)
The off-shore ships of the Tonking (North Vietnam) Area were
surprisingly big and so technically advanced for the Chinese observations. A 3rd-century
text of capital importance does so, however. It occurs in the Nan Chou I Wu Chih (Strange
Things of the South), written by Wan Chen, and run as follows:
The people of foreign parts (wai yu jen) call chhuan (ships) po. The
large ones are more than 20 chang in length (up to 150 ft.), and stand out of the water 2
or 3 chang (about 15 to 23 ft.). At a distance they look like 'flying galleries'
(ko tao) and they can carry from 600 to 700 persons, with 10,000 bushels (hu) of cargo.
The people beyond the barriers (wai chiao jen), according to the sizes
of their ships, sometimes rig (as many as) four sails, which they carry in a row from bow
to stern. From the leaves of the lu-thou tree, which have the shape of 'yung', and are
more 1 chang (about 7.5 ft.) long, they weave the sails.
The four sails do not face directly forwards. but are set obliquely,
and so arranged that they can all be fixed in the same direction, to receive the wind and
to spill it (Chhi ssu fan pu cheng chhien hsiang, chieh shih hsieh i hsiang chu, i
chhufeng chhui feng ). Those (sails which are) behind (the most windward one) (receiving
the) pressure (of the wind), throw it from one to the other, so that they all profit from
its force (Hou che chi erh hsiang she, i ping te feng li). If it is violent, they (the
sailors) diminish or augment (the sails) to receive from one another the breath of the
wind, obviates the anxiety attendant upon having high masts. Thus (these ships) sail
without avoiding strong winds and dashing waves, by the aid of which they can make great
This indeed a striking passage. It establishes without any doubt that in
the +3rd century southerners, whether Cantonese or Annamese, were using four-masted ships
with matting sails in a fore-and-aft rig of some kind. The Indonesian canted
square-sail is not absolutely excluded, but it would be unwieldy on a vessel with several
masts, and some kind of tall balanced lug-sail seem much more probable. (See Needham,
Joseph, Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-Djen, "Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4:
Physics and Physical Technology, part III: Civil Engineering and Nautics" Cambridge
University Press: Cambridge, 1971, Page 600-601.)
Viet Nam is a maritime country. None of the plains on which the great
bulk of the population is concentrated lies very far from the coast.
"The sea therefore is constantly present in Vietnamese life. Its
products, salt and fish, play a vital role in the diet. The legendary emperors who founded
the Vietnamese monarchy are said to have had their thighs tattooed with sea monsters in
order to ensure a victorious return from their fishing expeditions. In the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries English agents sent to Viet Nam by the East India Company
acknowledged that the Vietnamese were the best sailors in the Far East. Even more than the
often narrow coastal corridor of Central Viet Nam, the sea represents the main line of
communication between north and south- it is therefore an essential element of Vietnamese
National unity in the economic sphere." (Jean Chesneaux "The Vietnamese
Nation - Contribution To A History, Translated by Malcolm Salmon, Current Book
Distributors Pty. Ltd. Sydney, 1966)
Western merchants also testified to the hospitality of the Vietnamese.
By the old tradition of the sailors, they have especially expressed the genuine kindness
towards other mariners, as described in a memo on trade with this region written probably
between 1690 and 1700:
When a vessel is shipwrecked, it get a better welcome (in Cochinchina)
than anywhere else.. Ships come out from shore to salvage the equipment; nets are used to
recover merchandise which has fallen overboard. In fact, no effort is spared to put the
ship back into good condition. (See Taboulet, "La geste franẫaise en
Indochine." Paris, 1955, Vol. 1, p. 87.)
Like his fellow Jesuits Ricci and de Nobili in China and India, de
Rhodes never looked on the oriental Vietnamese as "underdeveloped" or even as
just plain hungry, benightedly awaiting the benefits of Western technocracy and superior
social structures. (See Rhodes Of Vietnam, The Travels and Missions of Father Alexander de
Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient, Translated by Solange Hertz, The Newman
Press - Westminster, Maryland, 1966.)
Two years before the "Mayflower" put ashore at Massachusetts,
a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Cristoforo Borri (the same Father Borri, have mentioned
above), landed with brother missionaries in Faifo, a Vietnamese port located near the
present city of Danang in Central Vietnam. (The Portuguese called all of Vietnam below the
18th parallel Cochinchina; they called the people Cochinchinese, to distinguish them from
the Chinese of China proper.)
Father Borri came as a friend and was so received by Vietnamese. This
delightful mathematician expressed great enthusiasm for the local inhabitants, even
commenting on the women’s feminine charms! Extolling their attire, he wrote that
"though decent, it is so becoming that one believes one is witnessing a gracious
flowering springtime." (See Georges Taboulet, "La geste Franẫaise en
Indochine," Paris, 1955, p. 59.)
The record he left compares the people with those of China, where
his journeys for the faith had also taken him. To his evident delight, he found the
Cochinchinese truly hospitable and "superior to the Chinese in their wit and
courage" (See Helen B. Lamb, "Vietnam’s Will to Live - Resistance to
Foreign Aggression from Early Times Through the Nineteenth Century", Monthly
Review Press, New York and London, 1972.)
The "South China Sea" has never been Chinese.
The Vietnamese Eastern Sea (Chinese South China Sea) probably did not
enter the Chinese geographical lexicon any earlier than the Han dynasty with the
absorption of southern China. During that era, Ma Yuan led a fleet of approximately 2,000
vessels to carry out the conquest of Northern Vietnam. As a result of this successful
military venture, the South China Sea might become an area of interest to Chinese
historians and geographers, but they made no specific references to its islands and
atolls - since then - for several centuries.
Though recent announcement of Chinese archaeological findings in the
Paracel Islands confirm some contact with the islands as early as the Wang Mang
interregnum, there is no proof that such contact was exclusively Chinese. On the contrary,
the sea route connecting T'ien-chu (India) and Fu-nan (Cambodia) with Canton (known as
Nan-hai chun or commandary of the Southern Sea) was well established by the first century,
but was dominated by non-Chinese seamen for many centuries thereafter. Even as the
importance of the Southern Sea trade grew in the third and fourth centuries, there is not
any textual evidence to suggest any official Chinese cognizance of the island atolls.
Indeed, not even the otherwise well chronicled voyages of the monks Fa Hsien and I Ching,
offers indirect, let alone unequivocal mention of the islands of the South China
Sea". (See Jon M. Van Dyke & Dale L. Bennett, "Islands and the Delimitation
of Ocean Space in the South China" Yearbook 1993, The University of Chicago.
Fa Hsien was surely a traveling Buddhist Monk. Like any other Chinese
at that time, they all rode non-Chinese ship as the common passengers.
Chinese shipping on the South China coast was usually insignificant;
and the passage makes it clear that some 'transfer'' must have taken place. The fact is
that the chief ships sailing along the China coast were those of the Yủeh. Since the
majority of the people of the southern coasts were not "sinicized" till much
later one, in some cases not until the T'ang dynasty (618-907) would be wrong to call the
Yủeh sailors and shipbuilders of this early period "Chinese" just because their
territories were under Chinese rule. Theirs could well have been the ships which first
took the imperial agents out to some Nanhai mart where a transfer was made to
''barbarian'' vessels for the rest of the journey. But as the Yủehs had now become the
subjects of the Han empire (-206 to 219), the author of the passage might have thought of
them as Chinese. In this text, however, it is still necessary to make the distinction
between the Yủehs and the Chinese... (See "Nanhai trade," Wang Gungwu, Kuala
Lumpur, 1959, page 23.)
South Sea, the places so stranger and so far-away with the Chinese
Since the third century B.C., when Chinese armies invaded the
South, the settlers from the north first came to the region, they occupied the land and
displaced the indigenous Yueh peoples. Slowly and steady migrations of Chinese had made
their way to the water world.
But, because their high plateau originality, the Chinese did not know
much about the vast sea located right next to their southern borders until very recently.
The Viet bronze vessels were described so vaguely in Chinese books and even the river
water in the Nam Nam Areas was completely out of the natural matter!
Attention was drawn by Julien (Stanislas, Notes sur l'Emploi Militaire
de Cerfs-Volants, et sur les Bateaux et Vaisseaux en Fer et en Cuivre, Tire'e
des Livres Chinois, Comptes Rendus hebdomadaires de l'Acad. des Sciences, Paris, 1847, no.
21, p. 1070.) to the fact that Chinese writings of the early + 4th century refer to the
covering of junk bottoms with copper. Thus the Shih I Chi, by Wang Chia, referring
to an embassy from the Jan-Chhiu I kingdom in the legendary reign of Chheng Wang, says: a
'Floating on the seething seas, the ambassadors came on a boat which had copper (or bronze
plates) attached to its bottom, so that the crocodiles and dragons could not come near
it.' (Among the Chinese texts which mention boats of bronze or copper are the Lin-I
Chi, Shui Ching Chu, Nan Yủeh Chih, Thai-Phing Huan Yủ Chi, Fang Yủ Chi, and
the Yuan-Ho Chủn Hsien Thu Chih (+814.)
It has now been shown that stories of metal boats occur abundantly in
the early Chinese literature of folklore and legend. They are particularly common in South
China and Annam, where they often form part of the epic exploits of the Han general, Ma
Yủan, who restored the far south to Chinese allegiance in the campaign of + 42 to + 44.
The bronze or copper boats of which people see the vestiges are thus associated with the
setting up of bronze columns to mark the southern limits of the empire, the casting of
bronze oxen as landmarks, and the building of canals to shorten sea voyages or make them
more safe. (See Hou Han Shu, also in the late +7th-century encyclopaedia Chhu
Hsủeh Chi, and Thai-Phing Huan Yủ Chi.)
The evidential texts date from all periods between the + 3rd and the +
9th centuries, but the only one which specifically mentions the bottom of a ship is the
early + 4th century Shih I Chi. Although it is quite possible, as
sinologists tend to think, that the idea of using metal in the construction of boats
was purely magical and imaginary in origin, it is at any rate equally possible that
some southern group of shipwrights in those ages had the services of smiths who beat metal
into plates fit for nailing to the hulls of their craft to protect the timbers … But
iron armour for (Viet) warships was no legend, as we shall see … (See Needham,
Joseph; Wang Ling and Lu Gwei-Djen, "Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 4:
Physics and Physical Technology, part III: Civil Engineering and Nautics" Cambridge
University Press: Cambridge, 1971, page 665.)
Further more, in one of Chinese tall stories about the south; the early
+6th-century Shu I Chi describes a river in Tshang-chou the water of which is so dense
that metal and stone will not sink in it - the opposite of the 'weak water' - , and
conceivably an echo of the Dead Sea ... So the (South Barbarian) people make boats of
stoneware and iron when they want to cross it. (See Needham, Joseph; Note f, page
Chinese Junk in History, Art and Literature
Among the meager arts and crafts practiced by primitive man, the
knowledge of how to propel himself in or on some form of floating vessel was so certainly
acquired from the very earliest time that this fact has been taken for granted by all
ethnologists and antiquaries.
According to Chinese legendary history, all useful inventions, together
with the philosophy of the sages, were said to be mentioned in the earliest of the
classics, the " I Ching ", or " Book of Changes," and its
appendices. The art of boatbuilding is also claimed by some (although this is difficult
to believe) to be represented in the system of symbols of which the "I Ching"
consists. One of these appendices, written after the time of Confucius, describes how
Fu Hsi, the first of the five great rulers, traditionally dated 2852 B.C., taught the
people many useful arts, including that of fishing with nets and how to make the first
boats. These were built by "hewing planks and shaping and planing wood."
Tradition makes a lot of Fu Hsi, who was credited with being the
offspring of a nymph and a rainbow. One of the most outstanding of the legends describes
how celestial aid was sent him in his efforts for the enlightenment of his people by the
sudden appearance of a " dragon " horse bearing a scroll on which were inscribed
the eight mystic trigrams known as the pa-kua, which play so important a part in
Chinese divination and philosophy. Little more is told us of this interesting personality
except that he "dwelt in a hall, wore robes, introduced rafts and carts,"
and fittingly terminated his picturesque career by ascending to heaven on a dragon's back.
(The Junks & Sampans of the Yangtze, G. R. G. Worcester, US Naval Institute Press,
Annapolis, Maryland 1971, pp. 7.)
More or less authentic descriptions and paintings, dating back to 2600
B.C., exist of the ships of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and even of India and Persia.
That is to say, the data available can be safely assumed to be so tolerably accurate in
general that these ships can be reasonably reconstructed, and many old pictures of them
are to be found which would not offend the historian or the sailor; but there is
nothing of the kind relating to ancient Chinese junks'. No chapter in the history of
China is so incomplete - as that concerning ships and sailors. There is no general
collection of pictures, nor can literary sources be regarded as satisfactory. (The Junks
& Sampans of the Yangtze, G. R. G. Worcester, US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis,
Maryland 1971, pp. 9.)
The Shang people lived by agriculture, herding flocks and cattle, and
by hunting. They were by no means a nautical people.
Excavations carried out at Anyang show that the Shang people buried
with their dead a great variety of objects, some of exquisite workmanship. Moreover, their
royal tombs were most elaborately constructed and decorated. It is infinitely to be
regretted that nothing nautical, apparently, has come down to us. The inclusion of
but one model boat would have been of inestimable assistance to nautical research. So
cultured were these people, unlike some of the dynasties which followed them, that great
reliance could have been placed on any contribution they made.
The Shangs were conquered by the Chous, who founded the dynasty of that
name. At first they were vastly inferior in their culture and quite unimportant from a
nautical point of view except that they produced that great man the Duke Chou, who is
credited by some with the invention of the compass, and this dynasty provided much
literary material, notably the "I Ching", or " Book of Changes "; the
" Shang Shu ", or "'Book of History "; the "Shih Ching", or
"Book of Poetry," and others which will be referred to later.
Interesting as all this may be, it casts no real light on the
subject of nautical research in China. In default, therefore, of any reliable records
of Chinese craft, the would-be historian, in trying to trace their evolution, is naturally
led to make researches into the craft of contemporary or more ancient civilizations in
that cradle of all civilizations, the Near East, and then to endeavor to link up with, or
in some way explain, the Chinese types. The more this method is pursued, the more
similarities come to light, so that it would seem that so many licenses could not be due
to mere coincidence. Yet, unhappily, the exact opposite is equally easy to prove.
In seeking to trace the origins of the various types of craft it is
natural to study not only the sculpture, literature, drawing, and painting of a country,
but also its ceramic art, together with coins and seals, which have all, in the West,
proved such a fruitful field for nautical research.
Very little can be gleaned from the earliest known representations
of Chinese craft. Probably the oldest are three sampans on a sculptured slab of stone
from a rock tomb of the Later Han dynasty, A.D. 25-221, situated fairly close to the tomb
of Confucius at Hsiao T'ang Shan. These are depicted as assisting in the operation
entitled " the Urn of Chou being brought out of the river." The seated occupants
of the boats use a paddle, while in one boat a man stands with a pole, which he may be
using either as a quant or as a sounding-pole.
Probably the second oldest portrayal of sampans is similarly sculptured
on the walls of a stone tomb of a family named Wu, at Tzủ Yủn Shan, also in Shantung,
dated about A.D. 147. These craft are heavier in type and have a more characteristic
shape. The method of propulsion seems to be more in the nature of an oar than a paddle and
is still operated from the stern.
As sculptors in stone the Chinese have produced very little else
that is of interest to the nautically-minded. It is notable that in their stone or
earthenware tomb figures and articles junks play no part at all. Except for those
described above and the much-quoted fresco at Ajunta, in India, to be described later,
which, even if it represents a- Chinese junk, was probably not executed by a Chinese
artist, there are no other murals of note showing junks, and the only examples of junks
carved in stone are the fanciful jade or soapstone objets d'art from the curio shops or,
last and worst of all, the Dowager Empress's marble boat in the Summer Palace in Peking.
This stone atrocity of dreadful design was built from funds which had been ear-marked for
As regards drawing and painting, junks and sampans frequently appear as
motifs in early Chinese paintings of all dynasties after the Han dynasty, of which no
authentic drawing or painting has come down to us. Some of the early representations
clearly incorporate many features and fittings still in use to-day; but these are
accidents reflecting more credit on the artist's powers of observation than his knowledge
of rigging and seamanship. It is noteworthy that the Chinese artists confine themselves to
painting the craft of river and lake, never do they attempt the sea-going type of junk. They
never drew a boat for the sake of the boat, but only as an accessory because a sage,
philosopher, or high official happened to be meditating in the vicinity.
Landscapes, in particular those depicting mountains and streams, rank
highest in Chinese paintings, after which come studies of birds and flowers, dragons, and
mythical creatures and animals. Chinese art is so stylistic that everything is cast in a
stereotype mould. The rules require that any large sheet of water portrayed should be
studded with sails, and a recognized technique was developed. (The Junks & Sampans of
the Yangtze, G. R. G. Worcester, US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 1971, pp.
It is difficult to arrive at any conclusion from many of these drawings
owing to the obviously inadequate knowledge some of the artists had of the craft they
illustrated. The Chinese practice of repeating famous pictures, with variations
sometimes, and their habit of copying earlier masters is a great help to the student of
the periods and styles of ancient artists but it is unfortunately no help to nautical
research. In the study of Chinese art due allowance must always be made for the
conventionality of the drawing, and this applies with equal force in the matter of Chinese
In Chinese literature there is much more material upon which to draw,
although the allusions are not very specific or instructive. There are always references
to junks and sampans in the classics and the old dictionaries. Vague mention is made to
the tribute brought by various tribes to the Emperor Yủ, which are described as
"floating along down the rivers Huai, Ssủ, and Huang ." The semi-barbarous
kingdom of Yủeh, comprising what is now Chekiang, about 472 B.C. had the largest navy of
any of the feudal states and fought always on water, never using war chariots. There was a
21-years' war between this tribe and the state of Wu. The state of Yủeh became a maritime
power, and it is probable that, when it is said that the Chinese reached the Yangtze cape
in 1200 B.C., this was the occasion of the foundation of this maritime tribe.
Although the date of 1200 B.C. has been asserted with some confidence
as being the time that the sea coast in the vicinity of the Yangtze was first reached, it
seems far more probable that the Chinese had started their maritime adventures at a very
much earlier date, although their excursions would have doubtless been at first confined
to fishing, fighting, and other purely local activities.
Sea fights are specifically mentioned as early as 473 B.C., and it is
stated in the "Shih Chi", the first general history of China, dating back to
about 90 B.C., that:
The King of the Wu kingdom made an attack upon the Ch'i kingdom from
the sea, but was defeated and turned home.
Two years later, in a contest between these two marine kingdoms, the
ruler of the Yủeh ordered his general to proceed along the coast and carry out an attack
up the Huai River, which at that time entered the sea by its own estuary.
Among the many voluminous Chinese dictionaries, there is the " Shuo Wen by Hsu
Shen, who died in A.D. 120. It comprises some 10,000 characters, but, despite numerous
references to ships, there is nothing really descriptive of any craft that can be used as
evidence of the existence of any definite type at any particular time.
In respect of one of the earliest mentioned voyages to the East,
researches into the "Book of History " and the " Book of Odes " reveal
how it is recorded that in 219 B.C. the Emperor Shih Huang, of the Ch'in dynasty, ordered
Hsu Shih to go on an expedition with "several tens of thousands of youths and maidens
to search for the three fairy Isles of the Blest." Other authorities have described
how they started off from Shantung, and it is confirmed by various sources that they
actually reached Japan. Unhappily, history does not appear to relate what success
attended their mission. (The Junks & Sampans of the Yangtze, G. R. G. Worcester,
US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 1971, pp. 16.)
In Europe, coins and, later, seals form a useful source of our
knowledge of the craft of the ancients. From seals especially the evolution of the sailing
ship can be followed. By their aid the development of the rudder, the growth of the
forecastle and poop, rigging, the bowsprit, and even fenders can be accurately traced and,
which is so important, dated. Unhappily there is nothing of the kind in China.
The Ku Pu spade coins, so called on account of their shape, are said to
originate from the middle of the Chou dynasty, 1122-255 B.C., but it was not until some
2,000 years later, in 1931 to be exact, that anything nautical made its appearance.
This was on the Sun Yat Sen 1 yuan. The very fine representation of a junk thereon is said
to typify the ship of state, with Sun Yat Sen's Three Principles depicted by the three
birds overhead, the Kuo-min-tang, being the sun's rays. This was issued at a time when
Japan took the Three Eastern Provinces. The issue was recalled and the dies changed as it
was thought that the three birds were the three provinces flying away from China under the
influence of the sun rays of Japan. This coin is now very valuable and is extremely
artistic. (The Junks & Sampans of the Yangtze, G. R. G. Worcester, US Naval Institute
Press, Annapolis, Maryland 1971, pp. 14.)
Finally, Worcestor went to an conclusion like this: "And so we
leave our researches with a final regret that Chinese painting, literature, and culture in
all its many forms and with its amazing and continuous tradition of 2,000 years should
contain so little about her ships and sailors."
Acquisition by Discovery ?
"Discover" is defined in "Webster's Dictionary" as
1. to be the first to find out, see, or know about.
2. to find out; learn of the existence of, realize.
3. (a) to reveal; disclose; expose; (b) to uncover. [Archaic.)
Syn.- invent, manifest, declare, disclose, reveal, divulge, uncover.
China claims: China discovered the Nansha and Xisha Islands over 2,100
years ago, during the Han Dynasty. The discoverers, Admiral Yang Pu and his subordinates,
were sent by the Emperor of the Han Dynasty".
People realized that the Chinese has just known Southeast Asia,
especially Bien Dong very late, supposedly 2,100 years ago. Long time before, as least
4,000 years ago, the local people Southeast Asian, including Vietnamese had adventure to
go out the Sea to reach the most remote shores of Siberia, India, Africa…. In more
ancient time, the first "Boat People" of Bien Dong certainly reached Australia
after long raft journey. Such 60,000 years old expeditions for sea discoveries was already
certified by Scientists.
According to international law and custom at the time, "who
discovers the territory, holds its sovereignty." Since Southeast Asians, the
local inhabitants; clearly maritime oriented, discovered the Nansha and Xisha Islands;
Chinese, originally land people from a far away country, can not hold the sovereignty over
Before the eighteenth century, discovery and symbolic occupation were
enough for a claim of sovereignty, and China's claim of sovereignty over Truong-Sa and
Hoang-Sa (Chinese Nansha and Xisha Islands) could have been sufficient to be recognized as
valid. However, since the eighteenth century, claims of sovereignty by discovery need to
be followed by effective occupation and acts of authority. All these facts was never
qualified for the Chinese verifications.
Because there was not Vietnamese writing 2,100 year ago, the Chinese
Han history books must be considered as the best evidence and we invite a joint study.
Even the best investigation can not reveal any clues about Paracels/ Spratleys
discovering. No any trace relating the "knowing" or "seeing" was
mentioned in there!
After reading Han Shu, Vietnamese or anybody else believed that Chinese
Admirals as Yang Pu or Ma Yuen, in most of their war-times, walked. Yang Pu walked to
P'an-yu (the modern city of Canton) then stopped there. Ma Yuen marched with his armies
thousand miles more. Both of them seldom rode Nam-phuong Lau-thuyen (Viet's boats)
hundred miles the most, they did not go South very far, and nothing in History can prove
that they went offshore!
It is necessary to give a short comment here. These were the first two
Chinese wars invading the South (Nan Yủeh then, Viet Nam now), Commanding Generals
betitled Admirals but Chinese Admirals had no Chinese-build ship. All their vessels were
"nan fang lou hsiang" -nam phuong lau thuyen in Vietnamese. Nan fang was, at
that time, named for the People of State in the South, Nan Man or Nan Yủeh People. The
ship crew may be South People too! Chinese could build ship but in much later time...
The cases of Paracel and Spratly Archipelagoes
Chinese officials, long preoccupied with their continental empire and
more specifically with the northwest, had an equally vague sense of the sea as a separate
world in its own right, different from the land in its movements, rhythms, and
dynamics. Although they implicitly recognized the zones of the water world—coastal
strip, inshore waters (nan-hai), and creep sea (nan-yang)—they diet not conceive of
them as an integrated whole.
It is not surprising, then, that the vocabulary they used to describe
their maritime environment is at best imprecise and unclear. Whereas in the West the terms
sea and ocean are roughly differentiated to the extent that a sea is thought of as being
bounded in some way, for the Chinese hai (sea) and yang (ocean) were completely
interchangeable." Although a few cartographers did make a vague distinction between
hai as the shallow waters lying immediately off the coast and yang as the deep waters
farther out, it is impossible to find a Chinese map showing where one gave way to the
other. Most Chinese maps label all expanses of water as one or the other. The only
important distinction for the Chinese was between the "inner" (net) sea or ocean
and the "outer" (wai) sea or oceans. In the study of Dian H. Murray (1987), the
waters referred to as the ''inshore seas of the Nan-hai'' usually appear on Chinese maps
as either nei-hai or nei-yang; and those referred to as the "deep seas of the
Nan-yang" usually appear as wai-hai or wai-yang.
Map shows the "inner" and " outer" oceans off
Kwangtung province's south coast. Note how close to land the Chinese of the day thought
the outer (largely unknown) ocean lay. Officials tended to perceive the "inner"
ocean as the farthest extent of their authority. From Kuang-tung hai-fang hui-lan, Comp.
Lu K'un and Ch'eng Hung-ch'ih, n.d.. Vol.
Although the (above) Map has no scale. it shows where Chinese
cartographers and officials believed the outer- ocean lay. Places no farther from shore
than the Ladrone Islands at the mouth of the Pearl River were placed in the- wai-yang. For
all practice purposes, that is to say, the outer- ocean began just beyond where the eye
could see. In effect this meant that all outlying areas were virtually unknown.
They were also of little concern (about offshore lands). For example,
although the Chinese made sweeping claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands, they made
little attempt to incorporate them into their empires As late as the nineteenth century
cartographers still disagreed about their exact location, and Confucian literati regarded
them as little more than "a series of navigation hazards [at] the eastern edge of
China's maritime gateway."
Accordingly, the narrow zone of the inner sea marked the farthest
seaward extent of active Chinese governance. In choosing not to make coastal control a
high priority, Chinese officials forfeited the opportunity to seize the military
initiative in maritime China. As a result, theirs was a weak and passive presence in the
heart of the water world. (See more arguments in Pirates of the South China Coast
1790-1810, Dian H. Murray, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1987.)
Conclusion: Chinese are Landmand and Perfect Strangers of the Easter Sea
The "have boat, will travel" argument, of course may not
enough to convince China, but people also have many more critical arguments about the
Chinese anti-maritime nature. So, this paperwork is long enough to go to the firm
"Chinese are Purely Land Men and Perfect Strangers in the Eastern
Vu Huu San
South China Sea dispute: The
inconvenient truth that Han Chinese sailors are latecomers
conflict between the Philippines and China over the
Scarborough Shoal may appear
at first sight a minor dispute over an uninhabitable
rock and surrounding shallow
it is hugely important because it encapsulates China’s
assumption that the histories of the non-Han peoples
whose lands border two-thirds of the waters known in
English as the
South China Sea
Malays are the greatest sailors of the ancient world
The Philippine case over
Scarborough has been mostly presented as one of
geography. The feature is 135 nautical miles from Luzon,
the main Philippine island, and roughly 350 miles from
the mainland of China and 300 miles from the tip of
Taiwan. It is thus also well within the Philippines’
Exclusive Economic Zone.
China leapfrogs these
geographical truths to come up with
justifications of its claims which can be applied to the
whole South China Sea and thus
dotted line on map
which vaguely defines them.
This line has never
been precisely delineated but comes well within the
200-mile limits of all the other countries, and close to
Indonesia’s gas-rich Natuna islands.
In the case of the
its historical justification is that this rock and
water is mentioned in a Chinese map of the 13th
century when China itself was under alien – Mongol –
rule. The fact that a vessel from China had
visited the shoal and recorded its existence has thus
become one basis for its claim. Very similar pieces of
history are trotted out to justify claims to other
islands visited by ships from China. Likewise,
China’s assumption of hegemony is often based on the
fact that foreign merchant ships had to pay taxes to
trade with China.
History, however, shows
Chinese sailors were latecomers to the South China Sea,
let alone to onward trade to the Indian Ocean.
history of the region, at least for the first millennium
of the current era, was dominated by the
today’s Indonesians, Malays, Filipinos and (less
directly) Vietnamese. Thus, as China’s own
when the 4th century Buddhist
pilgrim Fa Hsien, went to Sri Lanka, he travelled
from China to Sumatra and then on to Sri Lanka in Malay
This was not the least
surprising given that during this era of sea-going
prowess, people from
Indonesia were the
first colonisers of the world’s third largest island,
Madagascar, some 4,000 miles away. (The
Madagascan language and 50% of its human gene
pool are of Malay
origin.) This was a thousand years before the
much-vaunted voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He in the
Malay seagoing prowess
was to be overtaken by south Indians and Arabs, but they
remained the premier sea-farers in
Southeast Asia until well into the era of European
dominance of the region.
Malay-speaking Hindu (like much of Southeast Asia at
that time) mercantile state of central
dominated South China Sea trade until the 15th century.
The 10th century
Arab traveller and geographer al-Masudi made
reference to the
“Cham Sea”, and trade between Champa and Luzon was well
established long before the Chinese drew their 13th
century map. As Scarborough Shoal not only lies
close to the Luzon coast but is on the direct route from
Manila bay to the ancient Cham ports of Hoi An and Qui
Nhon, it was known to the Malay sailors long ago.
All in all, the Chinese
claim to have ‘been there first’ is like arguing that
Europeans got to Australia before its aboriginal
inhabitants. But given China’s reluctance to acknowledge
that Taiwan was
Malay territory until the arrival of European
conquerors, and then of a surge of settlers from
the mainland, such refusal to acknowledge the rights of
other peoples is not surprising.
At times, China itself
seems to recognise the flimsy basis of some of its
historical claims. In the case of the Scarborough Shoal,
it backs up its position by reference to the Treaty of
Paris 1898 concluding the Spanish-American war and
yielding Spanish sovereignty over the Philippine
archipelago to the US. This did not mention the shoal
but described a series of straight lines drawn on the
map which left the shoal a few miles outside the 116E
longitude defined by the treaty.
Given that China rejects
“unequal treaties” imposed by western colonialists, it
is remarkable to find it relying on one between two
foreign powers conducted without any reference to the
inhabitants of the Philippines. Vietnam can equally well
claim all the Spratly Islands as inheritor of French
claims over them.
For sure, China has the
power to impose its will. But
stance towards the Philippines, so often seen as
an especially weak state, has alerted others, including
Japan, Russia and India as well as the US,
to its long-term
goal which is not ownership of a few rocks but strategic
control of the whole sea, a vital waterway
between northeast Asia and the
Indian Ocean, the Gulf and Europe. The Scarborough
Shoal is not just a petty dispute over some rocks.
It is a wake-up call for many countries.
Bowring is former editor of the Far Eastern