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FASS Newsletter

The South China Sea in History

On Thursday, 28th March, 2019, Johannes Kurz gave a FASS seminar titled 'The South China Sea and how it turned into “Historically” Chinese Territory in 1975', describing his research into the background behind China's territorial claim over the South China Sea.

All recent research on China's claim to the South China Sea makes reference to the same article:

Shi Dizu 史棣祖. 1975. “Nanhai zhudao zigu jiushi woguo lingtu” 南海诸岛自古就是我国领土, Renmin Ribao November 25, 2.

This article was based on research conducted by a team from the Guangdong Provincial Museum and claims “The South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory since antiquity”.

The claim was based on official histories, nautical guides, local gazetteers, diaries, and charts dating as far back as the Han Dynasty; but further investigation shows that the Han records are limited to this 3rd century statement: "Sailing from the southwest to the northeast (one encounters) huge boulders that are emerging from the rising ocean. Among them the water is shallow and there are many lode stones.” It is hard to be confident about what this refers to.

Shi Dizu also offers evidence that, in the 18th century, the Chinese government controlled maritime regions around Hainan Island including the Paracel Islands. The original text is: Wu Sheng 吳陹 "left from Qiongya 瓊崖 (Hainan) on a personal inspection tour for 3,000 li, passing by Tonggu 銅鼓, and sailing past the Qizhouyang 七洲洋 and the Sigeng sha 四更沙".

The problem is: where exactly did he go? Did he travel 3,000 li south, reaching the Paracel Islands (as in the map on the right?) Or did he just take a journey around Hainan Island?

Nevertheless, Chinese people have taken a keen interest in visiting these islands for seaside vacations, even draping themselves in the national flag for their holiday pictures.