China on the Seas

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A long, long time ago, long before the Internet and e-mail, even before the fax, when Telex was king, I had a pen pal.

Emile was a Chinese boy living with his father who ran a small grocery in the foothills outside Antananarivo. Antananarivo? That isn’t in China. Well, I wasn’t in China either.

So you had these two Chinese writing each other, one from the Philippines and one from Madagascar in Africa. Even if we decided to spend on a long distance call, we wouldn’t have understood each other’s Chinese dialects.

Emile was Cantonese, my ancestors came from Fujian. Emile’s English wasn’t very good either. So, I would write him in English and he would reply in French. Then, during this correspondence, we discovered that we had some words in common. Not English-French or Cantonese-Fookien, but rather Filipino-Malagasy.

You see, the natives of Madagascar are more closely related to Filipinos, Indonesians, and Malaysians than they are to their neighbors on the African continent.

How did this come about?

Well, an even longer time ago, a people roamed the oceans from Madagascar off the coast of Africa to Easter Island off the coast of Chile. Spanning the Pacific and Indian Oceans, they didn’t need any pins stuck in corks to navigate, but rather were expert seafarers who found their way by the stars and currents.

They were not the Europeans and they certainly weren’t Chinese. They were the Malayo-Polynesian people, whose system of government has been described as a thalassocracy, a maritime realm ruled by sea-kings.

No surprise here. After all, you’d have to have a longstanding culture of seamanship and much expertise to spread across innumerable islands spanning two oceans and many centuries. Vide, to this day, Filipinos are still the sailors of the world.

Nor were these merely voyages of tentative exploration sent out every few hundred years or so. The Malays brought their language and culture, as well as their crops and domestic animals. After all, no self-respecting Malay could really enjoy his tuba (coconut liquor) without the requisite pulutan (finger food).

The Malays along with their rice and pigs, came to stay. They made their homes, lived, farmed, fished, and traded from generation to generation on countless islands, all the way to Madagascar. How were they able to spread across half the world? Likely because others had neither the interest, skill, nor sheer chutzpah to venture into unknown seas.

To many, the ocean was a barrier, often to be used like a huge moat, to keep strangers away. But the Malays embraced the seas. For them, the ocean was as natural as the wind, a vast highway that they could explore, traverse, and live on.

What about us Chinese? Well, we’ve always been more concerned with land. When it comes to water, we consider our great rivers both a blessing and a curse. For most of us, the ocean is the end of the world.

On the other hand, there are the infamous pirates of Fujian. Also known as Fookien or Hokkien province, Fujian on the mainland across from Taiwan has a relatively narrow strip of arable land along the coast, backed by hills and mountains. With the poor living on land, it’s no surprise that some would turn to the sea, to the many coves and islets as well as the big island across the straits.

While some of my ancestors were gentry (and many were simple peasants, pig-farmers or, perhaps, fishermen), it is also likely that some were pirates.

Fisherman and smugglers would have stayed within sight of the coast. Pirates ventured further abroad, even founding short-lived kingdoms on Formosa. From those times, many like Yutivo left to seek their fortunes abroad. But the point is that they still considered Emeng (Amoy) their home, never quite settling in foreign lands until very recently. The overseas Chinese were traders—OFWs, yes, but not colonizers.

What did China have to do with the seas? Not much, over the millennia. For most of its history, much of China’s waterborne trade was along its rivers, plus a bit of coastal shipping. Chinese governments have always had problems exerting control, even over their own coastal waters. Thus any central government’s perennial strategy has been to co-opt pirates and smugglers rather than attempt to eradicate them, which they didn’t have a navy capable of doing.

China rarely ventured over the water. Great expeditions to suppress the pygmy pirates of Nippon met with disaster; an ill-wind for the Chinese and a divine one for the Japanese.

Formosa (Taiwan) came under Chinese sway only relatively recently, a century after Spain had established itself in the Philippines. Even in modern times with iron ships, the Chinese southern navy was sent to the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin (a good thing for Vietnam, else they’d be in the same situation as Tibet today).

Then, the northern Chinese navy and its coastal fortresses were eliminated by the Japanese—at which time China also lost its temporary hold on Formosa. Put plainly, China has never been a sea power, until now.

It is somewhat sad to think that perhaps all this historical lack of progress at sea, not to mention the humiliation of repeated, outright defeat, may now have helped turn the People’s Republic onto a course of imperialist expansion.

But perhaps even more frightening is that China, after having ravaged its own territory, now seeks to extend its hegemony in order to exploit and extract natural resources further abroad.

Print ed: 06/12


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