Fluid Realms: Chinese Conceptions of Maritime Space and Territory in the South China Sea from the 18th to the 20th Century

AHA Session 268
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago, Second Floor)
Chris P.C. Chung, University of Toronto
Chris P.C. Chung, University of Toronto

Session Abstract

In 1783, shipwrecked yet aching for adventure, Xie Qinggao climbed aboard the Portuguese trading vessel that rescued him. Thus began a ten-year odyssey that brought the sailor to the principal Asian and European trading ports of his time. His observations would become the foundation of the early-nineteenth century gazetteer Maritime Records, or Hailu, one of the most important windows into late-imperial Chinese perceptions of the world.

It is unknown whether Xie personally visited the now passionately disputed South China Sea Islands. His own warnings of the area, likely a regurgitation of centuries-old common knowledge amongst experienced sailors, makes it doubtful that he did. It was to be avoided, full of “terrible and furious waves. Ships that stray into here will be smashed to pieces.”

Nearly two centuries later, nothing could be further from Xie’s imagination. China’s “intrinsic” ownership of the South China Sea islands as having existed “since ancient times” is naturalized in China’s collective memory. Where there were once dangerous shallows, there now exist patriotic tourist cruises to the “beautiful blue motherland.” Where there were once roiling waves, there now lies a sea of opportunity, to be tamed by semi-militarized Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels. And where there were once minuscule rocks and barren cays, there now sit reclaimed islands, concrete harbours, and anti-air missiles, all in defence of these visualizations.

Using case studies in China that span the eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, the panel will interrogate the processes that constructed, attached, and demanded such loyalty to maritime spaces long thought to be remote, dangerous, and ungovernable. The papers focus not so much on the coasts, waters, and islands themselves, but rather, their territorialization — its sources, mechanisms, and consequences. All presentations explore how and why sea frontiers were imbued with particular meanings that increasingly demanded political attention and allegiance.

The panel further assesses the character and workings of the state in the production of spatially-based loyalty. Chris Chung and Wang Wensheng will deconstruct images of the Chinese state as a top-down monolithic actor that exclusively created and neatly imposed maritime territorial narratives onto its populace. Instead, they demonstrate how semi-official, non-official, and transnational actors heavily propelled perceptions of the sea. This includes Wang’s evaluation of Sino-Vietnamese pirates’ impact on Qing maritime consciousness, and Chung’s examination of community associations’ contributions towards Chinese knowledge-making efforts in the Spratly islands in 1933.

Ulises Granados and Ronald Po, meanwhile, will dissect notions of timelessness that Chinese national narratives applied to remote areas to instill devotion towards them. Granados highlights the contingent and modern nature of China’s territorial incorporation of Scarborough Shoal, while Po illustrates the dynamic complexities of Qing-era maritime spatial concepts contained within yingxun tu, or coastal garrison diagrams, and contemplates their ramifications.

Ultimately, this panel seeks to revisit the discourses and events that historically underpin much of China’s maritime sovereignty issues today. Xie’s warning — to forego vigilance at one’s own peril in the South China Sea — continues to resonate, whether we navigate it literally or critically.

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