Chapter 2: China’s sovereignty claims over the Nansha Islands: historical evidence – Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea


China’s sovereignty claims over the Nansha Islands: historical evidence


This chapter elaborates on China’s arguments in its claim to sovereignty over the Xisha and Nansha Islands by providing historical facts from different periods. From the perspective of history, China was the first country to discover and name the island groups in the SCS. In addition, its administration over the SCS region was continuously maintained until foreign infringement and colonial occupation. However, through protest and struggle against foreign invaders, China’s sovereignty over the Xisha and Nansha Islands was consolidated. It was further confirmed through the recovery of the four island groups from Japan after the Second World War in accordance with relevant international declarations and treaties.

Key words


South China Sea

historical evidence

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea contains no provisions dealing with the definition of historic rights and relevant regimes to determine the sovereignty of disputed territories. Nevertheless history cannot be overlooked and nation-states cannot be expected to abandon such rights upon ratifying UNCLOS. Precedence in cases such as Libya-Tunisia and Eritrea-Yemen indicates that even though the relevant regimes were immature historic rights should be respected and taken into account (Zou 2001: 152–6). From China’s perspective historical factors such as discovery naming and continued usage and practice of state authority all constitute its sovereignty and sovereign rights over the four island groups within the U-shaped line in the SCS. This chapter aims to present historical evidence that substantiates China’s claims and also discusses differences between pre-modern China and the West in concepts of territory

Discovery, naming and administration practices: from Spring and Autumn period to late Qing dynasty


Based on textual records and archaeological findings, Chinese scholars have reached a consensus that China was the first to discover the island features in the SCS, despite being unable to agree on the exact time of discovery (Han et al., 1988: 2; Shen, 2002: 102–4).

According to Jianmin Shen (ibid.: 104; 1997: 15–17), the time of discovery should not be later than the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC) of the Eastern Zhou dynasty1 (770–256 BC). Shen’s research findings may be divided into three categories.

First, records in the Scattered Books of the Zhou Dynasty (逸周书, Yi Zhou Shu) suggest that tropical sea produce such as pearl-carrying shellfish, turtles and hawksbill turtles had been submitted to the imperial court since the Xia dynasty (twenty-first to sixteenth century BC). Since communication between China and other ancient civilisations was limited 3,000–4,000 years ago, the sea produce could only have come from the SCS. This indicates a possibility that China was at least aware of the existence of a tropical sea in the far south.

Second, classical literature written during the Spring and Autumn period, such as poems in the Book of Songs2 (诗经, Shi Jing), the Commentaries of Zuo3 (左传, Zuo Zhuan) and the Discourses of the States4 (国语, Guo Yu), touched on the official activities of the rulers of the Chu state (楚国, Chu Guo).5 Rulers ordered and appeased the ‘barbarians’ of the ‘Southern Sea’ (南海, Nan Hai, or ‘sea in the south’, the current Chinese name for the SCS) region. Most importantly, the activities included expeditions to the sea (Shen, 2002: 104). Chinese historians disagree, however, over the actual location of Nan Hai during the Spring and Autumn period. In any case, since the Han dynasty Nan Hai has been used as a general reference to the SCS and its littoral states (Xiang, 1982: 281).

Third, stoneware and pottery relics made in China at various times, especially in the primitive era (pre-twenty-first century BC) and the Spring and Autumn period, were found on the Xisha Islands (Shen, 1997: 49). So far, archaeological findings have been the most convincing evidence.

Shen’s brief account of the advanced boat-building techniques of China during the Eastern Zhou dynasty provides a more compelling argument. His findings from The Account of Yue State6 (越绝书, Yue Jue Shu) show that by the mid-fifth century BC coastal states in southeastern China already owned boats of various sizes for different uses. The largest boat used for warfare could be more than 19.9 metres long and 3.0 metres wide (Shen, 2002: 109–10). This shows the Chinese of the Spring and Autumn period were able to embark on long expeditions, increasing the likelihood that they conducted navigational activities in the SCS region and (re-)encountered its features.

Shen’s article may not suffice if each piece of evidence is evaluated separately; however, each piece (perhaps not the second category) is part of a jigsaw puzzle, and if all the pieces are viewed as a whole they are more persuasive and illustrative. It should also be noted that as early as the eighth century BC, when other parts of East Asia were still very backward, Chinese civilisation was advanced in culture, techniques and political system, and the Yue people already had a long seafaring tradition; thus we can safely conclude that the southern Chinese would probably have a general idea of the SCS, even though they might not have defined its exact boundaries. Even if they did not land on the Nansha Islands, they should at least have landed on the island-atoll complex of the Xisha Islands.

Although Shen’s research lacks archaeological evidence pointing to Chinese presence on the Nansha Islands, the oldest relics found there were pottery shards made in China during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), unearthed on Taiping Island (Itu Aba) in 1992 (Wang, 2010: 139). Thus even if the SCS and its islands were not discovered during the Spring and Autumn period but in the later Han dynasty, China would still be the earliest SCS discoverer.

Early naming and understanding of geographical features

Naming, use and accumulating knowledge of the SCS were interconnected activities and integral in China’s maritime history. Without considering the ambiguous use of the words ‘Nan Hai’, surviving historical records suggest that more precise mentions of the SCS had entered Chinese literature by the third century AD. The records also indicate the existence of primitive knowledge about the SCS and the early naming of its features.

Before examining the records in detail, one should note the social context that facilitated accumulation of knowledge of the SCS. During the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) Chinese territory officially extended to the southern coastal region of modern China7 and a small part of current northeastern Vietnam where people of the Yue tribes resided. Three new prefectures8 were established in the region to strengthen the central government’s administration, with colonisation of the southern territory and mass immigration to the area (Xu and An, 2004: 80). To consolidate its empire, the Qin government initiated massive reform; one specific aspect especially relevant to our analysis was the unification of the written script (Brown, 2008: 12). These occurrences helped to promote cultural communication between the Han and Yue peoples.

After the demise of the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty was also a period during which there was significant development in maritime navigation via the SCS. By 110 BC Han Emperor Wu (汉武帝,141–87 BC) had reunified the southern coastal regions which broke free from Chinese rule during the late Qin years when the entire country was in a state of turmoil. Emperor Wu also moved the Chinese border further to include Hainan Island as well as the northern and east-central region of current Vietnam (Di Cosmo, 2009: 209). As soon as the southern water routes were secured, port cities along the SCS coast such as Fanyu (番禹, current Guangzhou of Guangdong province, China), Xuwen (徐闻, current Xuwen of Guangdong province, China, located at the tip of the Qiongzhou Strait), Hepu (合浦, current Hepu of Guangxi province, China) and Rinan (日南, current Ngee Ann of Vietnam) became key hubs for sea communication between China and the rest of the world (Liao and Zeng, 2005: 41–2). The cities also became important ‘bases’ for the famous marine Silk Road via the SCS, which reached the Indian peninsula by the first century BC and even further to the Arabic region by the eighth century AD (Chen, 1996: 30, 36). These were reasons why the SCS was used more frequently by Chinese merchants and seafarers. The Yue people’s knowledge of the SCS also began to find its way into Chinese literature.

More precise reference to the SCS and its features first appeared in the Records of Rarities of the Southern Territories9 (南州异物志, Nanzhou Yiwu Zhi), written by Wan Zhen (万震) during the period of the Three Kingdoms (三国, San Guo) (220–280 AD).

Magnetic rocks

There are island atolls in the Zhanghai, and the water there is shallow and filled with many magnetic rocks. Since the big boats used by foreigners are all wrapped by iron sheet, they can’t sail through because of the magnetic rocks. (Li and Hu, 1960: 4372)





Juzhi state

Travel about 800 li10 from Juzhi11 and you will arrive at Dianyou [Dianxun12]. To the southeast is a river mouth, from which if you sail northeast, you will encounter a huge geographic feature [qitou] before you enter the region of Zhanghai, where water is shallow and full of magnetic rocks. (Ibid.: 3501).


句稚国去典游 [逊] 八百里,有江口西南,向东北行极大崎头,出


The SCS was referred (though not entirely equivalent) to as ‘Zhanghai’ (涨海), which literally means ‘rising/expansive sea’. Features in Zhanghai were referred to as qitou (崎头), which was a generic term for reefs, atolls, banks and shoals. The records also described nautical hazards in the SCS, which was consistent with the reality. Records as such show that there was an accumulation of Chinese knowledge about the SCS.

The SCS island features were also called shanhu zhou (珊瑚洲, literally ‘coral islands and reefs’) in another historical work, the Records of Funan13 (扶南传 Funan Zhuan), also written during the period of the Three Kingdoms. According to history, Kang Tai (康泰), the author of the work, and Zhu Ying (朱应) were dispatched by the king of the Wu state on a diplomatic mission to Funan via the SCS. The Records of Funan was a faithful account of their experience as envoys. In his book, Kang gave a remarkably accurate description of the island features in the SCS:

In ‘Zhanghai’, stood ‘shanhu zhou’ (literally ‘coral reefs and islands’), below which were rocks upon which corals grew. (Li and Hu, 1960: 327)


Indeed, all but a few of the island features in the SCS are formed by coral reefs. The name shanhu zhou reflected the geographic characteristics better than did qitou. In addition, the earliest information about the naming and accurate description of the SCS features as such was found in these historical records (Liu, 1996: 1).

Zhanghai and shanhu zhou also appeared in historical works, encyclopaedia annotations and poems in later centuries. Typical examples include the Book of the Later Han Dynasty14 (后汉书, Hou Han Shu) authored by Xie Cheng 15 (谢承), the Records of Wu Kingdom16 (吴录, Wu Lu) by Zhang Bo17 (张勃), the Records of Guangzhou18 (广州记, Guangzhou Ji) by Pei Yuan19 (裴渊), the annotation of Erya20 (尔雅) by Guo Pu 21 (郭璞), the Records of Nan Yue22 (南越志, Nan Yue Zhi) by Shen Huaiyuan23 (沈怀远), The Funeral Eulogy for Emperor Wu24 (武 帝诔, Wudi Lei) by Xie Lingyun25 (谢灵运) and the Ode on the Barren City26 (芜城赋, Wucheng Fu) by Bao Zhao27 (鲍照), to name just a few. The literature contains vivid records of how the Chinese used the SCS, and gained knowledge through such use. For instance, in the Records of Wu Kingdom, Zhang says that ‘in the Zhanghai off the Lubin county28 of the Ling’nan region,29 the hawksbill is as big as the turtle’ (岭南卢宾 县涨海中,玳瑁似龟大) (Le, 2007: 3587). In Zhang’s records on how corals were collected, he said, ‘In Zhanghai off Jiao Zhou30 there are corals which are collected by an iron net’ (交州涨海中有珊瑚,以铁网取 之) (ibid.: 3252). In the Records of Guangzhou, Pei described fishermen’s activities in the SCS: ‘there was a “Shanhu Zhou” 500-li away from the [Dongguan] county;31 people used to collect the coral when they were fishing there in the old days’ (珊瑚洲,在[东莞]县南五百里,昔有人 于海中捕鱼,得珊瑚) (ibid.: 3019). In the annotations of Erya, Guo discussed special big spiral seashells in the Zhanghai off Rinan that could be used as wine cups (Song, 1987: 881). In the Records of Nan Yue, Shen detailed the habits of seagulls in Zhanghai, saying experienced seafarers would know a storm was coming when they saw the seagulls flying in flocks (Zhang et al., 1985: 356).

There were also text records about navy patrols around the SCS and its use for economic production, communication and other purposes. Since the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD), Chinese people have also coined more elaborate names for the SCS and the Nansha and Xisha Islands (described later). The brevity of each record for the third to fifth centuries suggests that Chinese understanding of the SCS at that time was far from systematic or complete. Nonetheless, the abundant information indicates that the Chinese frequently used the SCS and encountered its island features, and that such uses and encounters are deep imprints in the Chinese cognitive map.

Administration practice

Despite interruptions due to changing dynasties and serious challenges on the continental frontiers that diverted its focus from the sea, China continued to exert considerable maritime influence, even dominance, over the SCS region. As Marwyn S. Samuels (1982: 22) acknowledged, the heydays of China’s marine power lasted from the eleventh to the late fifteenth century, when the SCS ‘became a veritable Chinese lake… though hardly the exclusive preserve of Chinese shipping’. As later Chinese rulers adopted a more continentalist bias, their navy lost its previous superiority. Nonetheless, China’s interest in the sea continued. For example, it became increasingly active in reconnoitring the SCS as a result of increased awareness of the need to do so, improved cartographical techniques and greater availability of resources. A navy force of reasonable size was maintained for defence purposes (ibid.: 33–4). In addition, the SCS remained a fishing ground for Chinese fishermen, as it was in the past. Despite control by the state, perhaps too rigorous at times, transnational trade in the SCS region and beyond never ceased. It was only in the nineteenth century that China was confronted with serious challenges from Western powers such as the Dutch, British, French and Americans, and a rising Japan.

Sea-lane opening and seaborne trade

Southern Chinese have a long tradition of seafaring and seaborne trade via the SCS, which can be traced all the way back to the eleventh to seventeenth centuries BC (Sun, 1989: 161). According to the Records of the Grand Historian32 (史记, Shi Ji), by the first century BC Guangzhou had become an important trade city for tropical and subtropical products such as pearls, rhino horn, hawksbill shells, longan fruit and hemp ramie cloth, which all came from either southern China or the Southeast Asian region (Xu and An, 2004: 1545).

The prosperity and stability of the Han dynasty motivated its emperor to communicate more with foreign states through the tributary system, of which trade was an essential component. As travelling on the land Silk Road was always filled with uncertainties presented by the states located along the route, the ‘marine Silk Road’ provided an important alternative. The earliest text record about the international sea-lane can be found in the Book of Han (汉书, Han Shu),33 which describes the marine Silk Road as an impressive trade route extending as far as the Indian subcontinent (Sun, 1989: 162–6).

It took about 5 months by sea from the fortress of Rinan, or Xuwen or Hepu to reach the State of Duyuan, another 4 months to reach the State of Yilumo, and still another 20 days to arrive at the State of Shenli. From the State of Shenli, it takes more than 10 days to reach the State of Fugandulu on foot. From the State of Fugandulu, one can arrive at the State of Huangzhi, where local customs bear a little resemblance with those of Zhuya. Huangzhi covers a big land area and has a big population. Its rarities were paid as tribute to the royal court [Han dynasty] since the reign of Emperor Wu. There were eunuch translation officers who served the royal court and who were responsible for employing seafarers for marine voyage. They brought with them gold and different kinds of silk to trade for pearls, cat’s eyes, and other unusual stones and rarities. The states they visited treated them well, and offered them food and even deployed people to travel with them. Some foreign commercial ships also escorted them to their destinations. Sometimes, people were killed when chasing profit. There were also risks of dying in a storm and being drowned at sea. Even a lucky one who could avoid the mishaps would take years to complete a round trip… During the Reign of Emperor Ping [Han dynasty], Wang Mang was head of political affairs. To show his authority and integrity, he sent valuable gifts to the King of Huangzhi, and ordered the King to send envoys back with live rhinos as tributes. It took eight months to travel from Huangzhi to Pizong, and another two months to reach the border of Xianglin County of Rinan Prefecture. The State of Yichengbu was to the south of Huangzhi. The translation envoys of the Han Dynasty ended their mission at Yichengbu and returned afterwards.34 (Ban et al., 1962: 1671)


The sea route in the record visited several important places of trade, including ancient Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka. Sea voyages enabled Chinese seafarers to know maritime features, especially in the SCS, and for such features eventually to enter the textual records of scholars. In ancient China, reading and writing were the privilege of only a few.

This record in the Book of Han is also a vivid description of tributary trade via the maritime route. Chinese courts sent envoys with gifts, and to return the friendly gesture the states visited were expected to reciprocate by sending their envoys and offering local specialities as tributes. Products of China such as gold, silk and tea were thus traded for foreign ‘rarities’ to be brought back and enjoyed by the imperial court. This method of trade was not only important in the Han dynasty but also a common feature in the entire history of ancient China. John K. Fairbank (1942: 137–9) even commented insightfully that the benefit of tributary trade was an important motivation for both China and foreign states to perpetuate the tributary system.

In almost every dynasty, especially during stable and prosperous times, the imperial courts would organise diplomatic missions to foreign states: their main purpose was to exert greater influence and demonstrate the grace of the Central Kingdom and the virtues of the Son of Heaven. According to Confucian teachings, this would appeal to foreigners, who would become a willing party to the suzerain-vassal relationship (Chen, 1996: 33; Fairbank, 1942: 132–3). Upon mutual consent, Chinese rulers would confer noble titles on the heads of the foreign states, and bestow them with an imperial seal and patent of appointment (Fairbank, ibid.: 133). Tributary ties were thus established or (re)confirmed with these states within the Sinocentric tributary system.

China’s tributary system served a myriad functions, such as boosting the economy, diplomacy, defence and Sinicisation. However, every aspect of the system is intrinsically influenced by a Confucian mentality. According to this teaching, rulers rule people, not space (Valero, 1994: 323); and people would only be willing subjects because of a ruler’s virtues. This mentality determined the concept of sovereignty in pre- modern China: if the people of a certain place subordinate themselves to a Chinese ruler, then the place would be included as part of the ruler’s property too (Ru and Gong, 2009: 51–2). China’s claim to the four island groups in the SCS was weak partly because of this concept of sovereignty, which leads to the fact that the Chinese government did not officially incorporate any of the island groups into the SCS until the late Qing dynasty.

Samuels (1982: 11) was correct in pointing out that for a long time sailing patterns in the ancient world favoured coastal routes in the SCS, not only to avoid the danger in the open seas but also to maximise the opportunities of establishing trading networks along the way. But based on this assumption, he was sceptical of the accuracy of textual records about Chinese seafarers’ knowledge of the Nansha Islands (ibid.: 11–40). What Samuels neglected to consider was other aspects that might cause experienced travellers to divert from their coastal route, such as adequate understanding of the monsoon, currents, geographic features, astronomy and, most of all, the purpose of travel. Another factor was that boat-building techniques during the Han dynasty were sufficiently advanced to enable long-distance voyages (Zhang, 1986: 21–3). China had tributary ties with many states; thus sea voyagers could embark with a fixed destination in mind without taking a coastal route. In addition, upon completion of a specific mission, the merchant or envoy may have chosen to travel directly from the destination to home via the open sea without visiting every port city or state along the Asian coast. A record in the Book of Han illustrates this perspective: ‘It took only two months from Pizong Island, which was located in the Straits of Malacca, to Rinan, the central region of Vietnam. Normally, the journey would have been much longer if the conventional coastal route were taken’ (Han, 1996: 62).

Official and unofficial seaborne trade between China and Southeast Asia continued to flourish after the Han dynasty. Records about China’s commercial, cultural and tributary ties with the littoral states of the SCS can be found in the historical works of almost all Chinese dynasties.35 The SCS had become an essential channel of communication between China and the rest of the world.

Given this account of China’s seafaring history, it is no surprise to see that Chinese knowledge about the SCS and its features had increased significantly. For example, in the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) the names Shitang (石塘, literally ‘the stone-edged pool’) and Changsha (长沙, literally ‘long sandy bank’) entered the lexicon of the SCS to denote the Nansha Islands and Xisha Islands. Although these two words were sometimes used interchangeably in different records, or even put together to refer to all the feature complexes in the SCS, they were concise and accurate in describing the characteristics of the atolls, reefs, cays, banks and shoals of the two island groups (Shen, 2002: 106). They were also variously used with adjectives such as qianli (千里, literally ‘1,000 li36) and wanli (万里, literally ‘10,000 li’) to indicate they were a long distance away from the mainland, and that the feature complex covered a large area. In addition to the generic name Zhanghai, there were other more elaborate names, such as ‘Jiaozhihai’ (交趾海, literally ‘Jiaozhi37 Sea’), which roughly referred to the current Gulf of Tonkin, and ‘Qizhouyang’ (七洲洋, literally ‘sea of seven islands’), which generally referred to the sea area of the Xisha Islands (Wu, 1939: 108; Xu et al., 2004: 3015). A famous refrain about the SCS first appeared in the literature of the Song dynasty: ‘Fear of Qizhou on the way out; fear of Kunlun on the way back’ (去怕七洲,回怕昆仑) (Wu, 1939: 108). The song suggests that Chinese sea travellers already had a good understanding of the hazardous features in the SCS, and exercised extreme caution and vigilance when navigating through the area.38 Although historians argue about the exact location of Kunlun, the general agreement is that it should be in the south of the SCS (Han et al., 1988: 48; Feng, 2005: 62). Similarly, the name ‘Kunlunyang’ (昆仑洋, literally ‘Sea of Kunlun’) frequently appeared in literature referring to the sea area around Kunlun.

Ancient Chinese knowledge about the hydrology of the SCS also showed remarkable depth. For example, the twelfth-century Written Reply from the Region beyond the Five Ridges39 (岭外代答, Ling Wai Dai Da) contained an impressively accurate record about the three currents of the SCS: the southern current flows south-southeast from the region of modern Hong Kong to Singapore; the northern current flows past the present-day provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang through the Taiwan Strait; and a third current flows eastwards to the ‘Great Eastern Ocean’ to join the Kuroshio current. This coheres with modern hydrological knowledge (Samuels, 1982: 15).

The flourishing seaborne trade led to the opening of new sea routes. Historical works of the Song dynasty such as the Written Reply from the Region beyond the Five Ridges and the Records of Foreign Nations40 (诸藩志, Zhu Fan Zhi) contain records of routes between the port cities of southern China and places on the Java and Kalimantan islands via the open sea (Sun, 1982: 405–7; Yang, 1999: 88; Yang, 1996: 54). Hsu’s (1978: 52) research suggests that the sea routes may be roughly grouped into two major sea-lanes: one that travels eastward, and another travelling westward. Each sea-lane may be further divided into major and minor routes: the major east route extended towards Java and south Borneo, and the minor east route led to north Borneo and the Philippines; the major west route travelled further to the Indian Ocean via the Straits of Malacca, and the minor route included ports on Sumatra island and the Malay peninsula. These routes were frequently used by Chinese mariners, merchants, envoys and official and unofficial fleets when travelling in the SCS, including the famous seven voyages made by Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 (Swanson, 1982: 36–8; Fairbank, 1942: 140–1).

Zheng He’s expeditions, ordered by the imperial court, were the highlight of China’s ancient maritime history. The fleets reached as far as the southern coast of India, the Somali coast of Africa and places in the Arab world such as Aden, Djofar and Hormuz (Fairbank, ibid.: 140). The sea routes via the SCS were essential for each of the seven expeditions. Though Zheng He’s voyages were grander in scale than those in the Han dynasty, they were taken with the same purpose (among others): to strengthen the Sinocentric tributary system. By the early fifteenth century the Ming dynasty’s tributary links had extended to Southeast Asia,41 including the Philippines, Java, Cambodia, Pahang on the Malay peninsula and Achi and Smudra on Sumatra (ibid.: 141). Zheng He added Kelantan, Malacca, Aru, Palembang, etc. to the tributary list.

The expansion of China’s maritime power came to an abrupt halt after Zheng He’s adventures. The reasons are complex and beyond the scope of this chapter. However, one should note that Chinese rulers’ interest in the sea remained unchanged, although in the history of ancient China the size of the national fleet in later eras never managed to surpass Zheng He’s. Also, Chinese envoys and merchants (whether or not officially sanctioned) continued to use the sea routes of the SCS, even during the intermittent enforcement of the infamous ban on maritime activities (海禁, haijin).42 As Fairbank (ibid.) suggested, though tributary states in Southeast Asia declined after Zheng He, trade did not.

Sea patrols

Sea patrol was quite common in ancient China. Surviving historical discourses on ‘patrol in the Zhanghai’ (行部涨海, xingbu Zhanghai) indicate that officials posted to the coastal regions began sea patrolling no later than the Eastern Han dynasty. The Book of the Later Han Dynasty records a dangerous but not unsuccessful sea patrol trip in Zhanghai by Zhou Chang (周敞) and Chen Mao (陈茂), top officials of the Jiao region43 (交州, Jiao Zhou) (Li and Hu, 1960: 287). However, the original book is lost and we can only find a few relevant sentences in reference books compiled later. The Book of Jin44 (晋书, Jin Shu) also briefly mentioned sea patrol in Zhanghai by Bao Jing (鲍靓), head of Nanhai prefecture during the Eastern Jin dynasty (Xu, 2004: 2129). However, as discussed, before the sixth century knowledge about the SCS was still fragmented and limited, and the exact area of Zhanghai was not clearly defined. According to early records, patrolling in Zhanghai appeared to be occasional activities carried out by local officials.

As China’s maritime capacity continued to grow, the SCS became more like a battleground in later literature. Sea patrolling, originally the responsibility of civil officials, became the navy’s duty. In The Funeral Eulogy for Emperor Wu, Xie wrote verses on how ‘naval fleets fought and patrolled in the Zhanghai’ (舟师涨海, zhou shi Zhanghai) to depict the war between the royal navy and domestic rebel forces in the fifth century (Gu, 1987: 268). More elaborate literature about Chinese navy sea patrols is found in the Collection of Military Classics and Techniques45 (武经总要, Wu Jing Zong Yao), the most famous military treatise of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127 AD).

Guangzhou of Guangnan Dong Lu used to be [part of] the Nanhai Prefecture [during the Han dynasty]. It was called Baiyue in ancient times where uncivilised and seafaring people resided, and has been a county/prefecture [of China] since the Han Dynasty.46 After Liu Chang47 surrendered to the Song Dynasty, Guangzhou was re-established as a local administrative unit, and became a capital of the south. The royal navy was deployed and stationed there. The sea patrol fleet is also established, and camps are set up on both the east and west flanks of the estuary… Commencing at the Tuen Mun Mountain,48 and sailing in the east wind towards the southwest, it takes seven days [for the fleet] to reach the Jiuruluozhou,49 and another three days to reach the Zhanbulao Mountain50 (which is within the territory of Huanzhou51), and still another three days to reach the east of Lingshan52 (where there is sweet fresh water)… During the Taiping Xingguo Era,53 three Generals were sent [by the imperial court] to attack Jiaozhou.54 [Going to war,] the navy took the sea route [starting at Guangzhou]. Now, military officer ‘Bingma Qianxia’55 is designated for the Guangnan Dong Lu. [Usually] the office [of bingma qianxia for a lu] is located at the ‘zhou’ level. The office of the Bingma Qianxia for Guangnan Dong Lu is located at present-day Guangzhou. (Liu and Peng, 1995: 464)

广南东路广州南海郡,古百粤也,皆蛮蜒所居,自汉以后,入为郡县… 宋平刘鋹,复建方镇,为一都会… 命王师出戍,置巡海水师,营垒在海东西二口… 从屯门山,用东风西南行,七日至九乳螺州,又三日至不劳山 (在环州国界),又南三日至陵山东 (有甜水)… 太平兴国中,遣三将兵伐交州,由此州水路进师。今置广南东路兵马钤辖,以州为治所。今之广州府是也。

This passage indicates that the SCS, at least the northern half, was controlled by the Chinese navy during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127 AD). Sea patrolling was a common practice of the navy fleet based in Guangzhou. As China was again unified during the Song dynasty by conquering other kingdoms, including the Southern Han kingdom located along the southernmost coastal area, maintaining a powerful navy in the region was essential for consolidating administration power.

Also, as Samuels (1982: 13) succinctly summarised, from the mid- twelfth century China entered another era of rapid expansion of maritime and naval power over the next 400 years. With the capital moved from Kaifeng (开封) in central China to Hangzhou (杭州) in the south, naval power continued to expand in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279 AD). Maritime trade with Southeast Asian states also rose to an unprecedented level during the same period. However, it was during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368 AD) that the sea routes in the SCS were dominated by the Chinese navy and merchant fleets (ibid.: 19). Unlike previous dynasties, which had maintained relatively peaceful communications with Southeast Asia, Yuan practised a militant policy, waging wars against Vietnam and Java in the late thirteenth century and sweeping across the seas of the Xisha Islands, Java and Malaya. Though the Yuan empire did not win any of the wars (Zhang and Gao, 1993: 132–7), its navy fleets definitely had a strong presence in the SCS.

The subsequent Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD) surpassed the shortlived Yuan in terms of naval supremacy, at least until the end of the fifteenth century, by controlling the sea routes. Unfortunately, as noted, China’s prowess at sea was not sustained. Fleet size, ship-building techniques, nautical engineering and the like did not continue to flourish because of the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) governments’ anti-maritime policy. Sea patrols were maintained to control coastal regions and clamp down on domestic upheavals, piracy and smuggling (to a great extent, piracy and smuggling became rampant because of the anti-maritime policy). Patrolling in the SCS extended from the southern coastlines to the sea area of the Xisha Islands. Textual records relating to sea patrols can be found in local chronicles and official documents such as the Records of Qionshan County56 (琼山县志, Qiongshan Xianzhi), the General Records of Guangdong57 (广东通志, Guangdong Tongzhi), the Records of Qiongzhou Prefecture58 (琼州府志, Qiongzhou Fuzhi) and the Chronicle of Emperor Gaozong59 of the Qing Dynasty (清高宗实录, Qing Gaozong Shilu) (Shen, 2002: 125; Han et al., 1988: 52; Fu, 2003: 492–8).

Surveying and mapping

Paradoxically, as China shifted focus from the sea to the land, mapping of the SCS increased. It should be noted that China had in fact begun mapping the SCS much earlier. Historians generally recognise that the first map touching on the SCS features was the Map of Foreign Nations (诸藩图, Zhu Fan Tu), mentioned in the preface of the Records of Foreign Nations:60

After I was assigned here [Quanzhou],61 I read the Map of Foreign Nations in my spare time. The map showed Shichuang and Changsha,62 which people often referred to as hazards (in the sea), and Jiaoyang and Zhuyu,63 regarded as (sea) boundaries. I was asking for records about the foreign nations; yet, I got close to nothing. (Yang, 1996: 1)


The original map mentioned in the book, which was said to have been finished in 1225 AD, is lost; however, mapping of the SCS continued in subsequent dynasties. Apart from the famous Zheng Hes Nautical Charter (郑和航海图, Zheng He Hang Hai Tu), said to be the record of the great voyages embarked upon by the seafarer until 1433 (Zhu et al., 1988: 6), various maps such as the Consolidated Map of Territories and Geography and Capitals of Past Dynasties64 (混一疆理历代国都之图, Hunyi Jiangli Lidai Guodu Zhi Tu) (Ge, 2008; Han, 1996: 12–13) and the Geographical Map Annexed to the Secret Manual on Defence Preparations (武备秘书地利附图, Wu Bei Mi Shu Di Li Fu Tu) included all the SCS island groups (Han et al., 1988: 87). As cartographical techniques improved, Zhu Siben (朱思本)65 provided an elaborate illustration of ‘Shitang’ and ‘Changsha’ in his far-reaching work Map of the Territory [of Yuan] (舆地图, Yu Di Tu). Though Zhu admitted in the preface of his work that he was unable to identify the exact location of foreign states to the southeast of Zhanghai due to limited information, and his mapping of those places could contain errors (which was true), the relative positions of ‘Shitang’, ‘Boni’ (渤泥), ‘Pinggaolun’ (平高仑), ‘Puer’ (蒲耳) and ‘Zhimen’ (知闷)66 clearly indicated that Shitang referred to the Nansha Islands. Also in his preface, Zhu (1988: 19) noted that ‘the tributary system [of China] has reached [foreign countries that lie to] the south and east of Zhanghai’ 朝贡时至[诸蕃异域]…[在]涨海之东南). The commentary and content of Zhu’s map reflected the concept of territory in ancient China: countries that submitted to a tributary relationship with China were subjects of the Chinese ruler. Zhu’s maps were further developed by Luo Hongxian (罗洪先, 1504–1564), a scholar official of the Ming dynasty during the mid-sixteenth century who produced an influential work called Maps of the Extensive Territory [of Ming] (广舆图, Guang Yu Tu). Although Luo’s map was not too

accurate for areas outside China’s continental territory, consistency in its implicit definition of the sovereignty of Shitang, Changsha and Zhanghai indicated that the SCS and its features were considered as part of the Chinese empire.

Another important event that took place during the Yuan dynasty was a scientific survey in the SCS undertaken by Guo Shoujing (郭守敬, 1231–1316), one of the most important astronomers and mathematicians in Chinese history. The survey within Yuan territory was approved and sponsored by the imperial court so as to make a more accurate calendar. According to the History of Yuan, Guo travelled ‘further south to Hainan Island’ (南逾朱崖 Nan Yu Zhuya) (Xu et al., 2004: 3060). Guo also found the latitude of the place where he conducted his survey, which was the same as that of the Nansha Islands if converted to the modern measuring system (Han et al., 1988: 46–7).

Although the Qing rulers were somewhat opposed to developing maritime capabilities because of their nomadic background, their interest in the sea was revived after they consolidated control over the coastal region in the southeast. One direct result was increased reconnaissance and mapping of the seas. Unlike the limited reports and resources pertaining to Zheng He’s voyages during the late Ming dynasty, as a result of the government’s anti-maritime policy (Samuels, 1982: 21), many maps of the sea were published during the Qing dynasty. Some clearly included features in the SCS as part of Chinese territory, such as the Qing-Charted General Maps of the Capital Cities, Prefectures, Counties and Tings67 (清绘府州县厅总图, Qing Hui Fu Zhou Xian Ting Zong Tu). Other works designated features in the SCS to territories of Qing vassal states, such as the individual Maps of the Provinces Directly under the Administration of the Qing Empire (清直省分图, Qing Zhi Sheng Fen Tu); and still others did not define the sovereignty of the features at all, such as a map in the Essentials of Maritime Defence (洋防辑要, Yang Fang Ji Yao) (Han et al., 1988: 84–99). Such offhand and inconsistent definition of China’s sovereignty over the SCS features further reflected the Chinese concept of sovereignty, based on a Sinocentric tributary system.

Traditional fishing grounds

Historically, the Chinese used the SCS for both public purposes, such as trade and defence, and private, such as economic production. The earliest archaeological evidence of private use discovered so far is the remains of a living site from the Tang and Song dynasties, found on Robert Island (甘泉岛, Ganquan Dao) of the Xisha group. Temples made from bricks and coral, ceramics, cooking utensils such as iron knives and woks made in the style of those used during the two dynasties, remains of spiral shells and bird bones were excavated at the site. Other residuals of Chinese fishermen of the Ming (1368–1644 AD) and Qing dynasties such as freshwater wells, tombs and temples could be widely seen on both the Xisha and the Nansha Islands (ibid.: 103–22).

The best textual indication of Chinese fishery activities could be the Road Map (更路簿, Geng Lu Bu), a navigation guide compiled by Hainan fishermen based on experience accumulated over many generations, completed no later than the early eighteenth century (ibid.: 367). The book designates specific names to most features in the Xisha and Nansha Islands, and provides detailed narratives on the direction (see Figure 2.1) and distance (expressed in length of travel time) of the navigational routes (ibid.: 366). For example:

Figure 2.1 The compass used by Chinese fishermen
Note: The outermost grid with pronunciation of each character is an addition by the author.

From Wuidoabe [Itu Aba Island] to Suivi [Subi Reef], take the [compass] course between Ren-Bing and Si-Hai,68 and about 3 gengs69 to the northwest [to reach the destination]. From Wuidoabe to Wgu’e [Whitsum Reef], take the course Qian-Xun,70 and about 3 gengs to the southeast [to reach the destination]. From Wuidoabe to Laowgulao [Discovery Great Reef], take the course of Yan-Shen,71 and about 3 gengs to the southwest [to reach the destination]. From Wuidoabe to Namyit Du [Namyit Island], take the course of Ren-Bing,72 and about 1 geng to the southeast [to reach the destination]. From Namyit Du to Sinkao [Sin Cowe Island], take the course of Zi-Wu,73 and about 2 gengs to the south [to reach the destination].74 (Ibid.: 373)


The paragraph above describes the way in which Chinese fishermen acquired expert knowledge on the features of the Nansha Islands and the navigation routes within the island group. The book also reveals remarkable regularity in the naming of the Nansha and Xisha Islands by these fishermen. For example, the names of islands and cays usually contain the suffixes du (峙, zhi, literally ‘island or islet’ in Mandarin) or dugia(峙仔, zhizai, literally ‘small island’ or ‘islet’ in Mandarin); reefs tend to contain the suffixes dua (线, xian, literally ‘slim sandy banks’ in Mandarin) or duua (沙, sha in Mandarin, which literally means ‘sandy banks’); and atolls generally are named with the prefix or suffix huang (匡, kuang in Mandarin). There are also variations, such as 筐 and 圹 which are pronounced the same way, and huan (圈, quan in Mandarin). Each Chinese character is a metaphorical description of the ring-shaped feature of atolls. Names for shoals usually contain suffixes like duuabai (沙排, shapai in Mandarin) or duabai (线排, xianpai in Mandarin), which literally mean ‘sandy fields’ (ibid.: 369–99).75

There are also apparent similarities between the feature names used by Chinese fishermen and the English names given by the British in the mid-nineteenth century. When British ships arrived at the Nansha Islands between 1844 and 1868 to survey the area, the crew consulted local Chinese fishermen for the names of island features and navigational directions. For example, the British HMS Rifleman arrived at Itu Aba in 1867 to obtain fresh water and survey. The crew, who did not know the name of the island, asked the Hainanese fishermen there for its name, and indicated on the sea-chart ‘Itu Aba’, based on the sounds ‘Wuidoabe’ (Situ, 1996: 131–2). The China Sea Pilot, first published in 1868 by the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty, also contains a record of fishermen providing directions for an island called Sin Cowe located about 30 miles to the south of Namyit (Liu, 1995: 38).76 The record clearly indicated that the names of the two islands were designated according to local pronunciation as rendered by the fishermen of Hainan Island. Similar examples include the islands of Thitu and Subi, derived from Hitu and Sinbue, the lexicon of Hainanese fishermen.

Another volume of China Sea guidance published by the British Admiralty, the China Sea Directory, described the life of Hainanese fishermen on the Nansha Islands. For example, there was mention of fishermen who were found upon most islands of the Tizard Bank (郑和群礁, Zhenghe Qunjiao), subsisting by collecting trepang and tortoiseshell. Some had stayed on the reefs for many years. Every year small ships came from Hainan to exchange trepang and tortoiseshell for rice, food and other daily necessities; fishermen from Hainan would usually leave for the islands in December and January, and return as soon as the first southwest monsoon blew (Hydrographic Office, British Admiralty, 1899: 104). In a description of the North Danger Reefs (双子群礁, Shuangzi Qunjiao), the book recorded that Hainanese fishermen often came to the reef to collect sea cucumber and shells, and fetched water from a well in the centre of the northeastern part of the formation (Wu, 1999: 15). These records, among many French and Japanese publications such as the novel Stormy Islands by Ogura Unosuke (1940), a Japanese report called ‘A survey of the new south islands’ (cited in Shen, 2002: 131) and the article ‘French new islands’ (cited in Lu, 1992: 110), which describes the productive livelihood of Chinese fishermen on the Nansha Islands, indicate that the SCS has historically been a fishing ground for the Chinese.

Consolidation of Chinese sovereignty: from late Qing dynasty to post-Second World War

The decline of China’s maritime presence in the SCS coincided with the eastward expansion of the European naval powers to Asia. Advanced foreign maritime techniques, ships and weapons had breached China’s continental defence frontier – the sea; instead, it had become a gateway through which Western maritime powers could enter and encroach upon Chinese territory unimpeded. After the 1884–1885 Sino-French war, China officially relinquished Vietnam, which was fully incorporated in the second century and had been China’s vassal state since 968 AD (Xu et al., 2009: 110–11). Ten years later, in the Sino-Japanese War, not only did the elite navy of China – the Beiyang Fleet (北洋舰队, Beiyang Jiandui) – suffer a humiliating defeat by the rapidly modernising Japanese navy, but also Taiwan had to be formally ceded to a once-subordinate neighbour (Zhang and Gao, 1993: 402). By the end of the nineteenth century Great Britain had obtained control of India, Malaya, Borneo and Hong Kong; France had occupied much of the Indochina peninsula; and the United States had acquired the Philippines from Spain (Wang et al., 1995: 134–5, 189–91). The SCS had become an object of contention among foreign states. Of particular relevance are France, which ruled Vietnam, and Japan, which wanted to use Taiwan as a base to expand southward.

China began to acquire a greater awareness of the legal notion of territorial sovereignty when it was subdued and forced to accept an international order dominated by Western concepts and rules. As Samuels (1982: 47) pointed out, ‘the outcome of China’s maritime decline was not further contraction, but rather a movement toward assertion of China’s historical legitimate claims to power in and ownership over the waters and the islands of the SCS’.

Assertion of sovereign claim by the late Qing government

China began to adopt the Western practice of exercising sovereign claims starting from the mid-nineteenth century. In 1876 Guo Songtao (郭嵩焘), the first Chinese ambassador to Britain and France, made it explicit during his mission that the Xisha Islands belonged to China (Zhang, 1994: 6). The first official claim to the Nansha Islands, although implicit, could have been the protest raised by the Qing government against German-sponsored survey activities in the region in 1883 (Guo, 2007: 131). The 1887 Convention Respecting the Delimitation of the Frontier between China and Tonkin that was signed after the 1884–1885 Sino-French war provided the delimitation:

The islands which are east of the Paris meridian of 105°43′ east longitude [i.e. 108°3′ east of Greenwich], which is to say that north–south line that passes through the eastern part of Tch’a-Kou or Quan-chan [Tra-co] and which forms the boundary, are also allocated to China. The island of Go-tho [Kao Tao] and other islands that are west of this meridian belong to Annam. (Samuels, 1988: 66)

From China’s perspective, this provision suggests that the Xisha and Nansha Islands are part of Chinese territory (Guo, 2007: 131). As Stein Tonnesson (2006: 3) noted, by the 1920s France had generally recognised that the Xisha Islands were under Chinese sovereignty. As for the French colonial government of South Vietnam, it had no interest in the Nansha Islands until the early twentieth century (ibid.: 4).

When the Chinese government became aware of the possibility that foreign naval powers might further encroach upon its territory in the SCS, it organised an expedition to the Xisha Islands in 1909 to demonstrate China’s sovereign right. The expedition was led by Li Zhun (李准), admiral of the Guangdong navy (广东水师), and consisted of three warships. The fleet not only conducted surveys but also erected imperial flags on both Xisha and Nansha island groups (Han et al., 1988: 128–30). A stone tablet was erected on Drummond Island (晋卿岛, Jinqing Dao) (Li, 1975: 3; Shao, 2012). A similar expedition was sent to the Dongsha Islands in the same year (Granados, 2005: 447).

Upon returning from the expedition, Li Zhun submitted to the imperial court through his superior Zhang Renjun (张人骏) eight recommendations about the administration and economic development of the Xisha Islands. These were approved by the Qing court. However, except for official incorporation of the islands into the administrative system, most of Li’s recommendations were never implemented for various reasons (Shen, 1975: 24). Instead of establishing a special board to develop the islands as Li had proposed, before the end of the Qing dynasty the Xisha Islands were designated for governance under Guangdong province and administered through Hainan prefecture (ibid.: 24–5; Granados, 2005: 447).

The fight against foreign encroachment during the ROC era

Before France took the nine Nansha Islands in 1930–1933 (Li, 1992: 164), the Republic of China (ROC) government exercised its sovereign rights over the SCS through different activities, mainly administering licences for phosphate exploration and survey of island features. However, beneath the activities flows an undercurrent against foreign encroachment. A typical example was the ‘He Ruinian (何瑞年) incident’. He owned a company registered in Guangdong province, and obtained a permit from the Guangdong Bureau of Mines that allowed him to monopolise all land reclamation, mining and fishing activities in the Xisha Islands. The permit was issued based on the approval of the Interior Ministry (Shen, 1975: 26–7). However, He turned out to be a puppet of Japan. Shen’s report later suggested that Japan’s focus was to use the Xisha Islands’ mineral resources and extend its influence from Taiwan to further south in the SCS (ibid.: 64–5).

He’s financial connection with Japan and the complicity behind the connection were always under suspicion. The magistrate of Ya county (崖县) in Hainan refused to grant the final development permits to He, and petitioned Guangdong for investigations into He’s background and cancellation of his permit. Upon his request, several investigations were conducted, although the Japanese-owned Southern Prosperity Industries quietly continued its operations on Xisha. As the controversy became increasingly prominent and anti-Japanese sentiments increased, Guangdong finally transferred He’s permit to another merchant. In the same year, the Japanese also withdrew their activities from the Xisha Islands (ibid.: 27–34).

The He Ruinian incident triggered another survey of the Xisha group in 1928 to investigate Japan’s activities on the islands and reaffirm China’s sovereignty. Unfortunately, China’s SCS cartography was pitifully outdated despite its history of many thousands of years of contact, mapping and use of the islands. The wealth of knowledge and experience of Chinese fishermen was also not grasped by academia. One scholar who participated in the 1928 Xisha expedition, Shen Pengfei (沈鹏飞), misunderstood the islands so much that he even indicated in his report that they were China’s ‘southernmost territory’ (ibid.: 5).

Outdated maritime cartography and the lack of even a map that accurately showed territory delimitation frustrated the ROC government’s efforts to protect China’s sovereignty in the SCS (Li, 1992: 168). This was made worse by the increasing threat of foreign invasion. To cope with the problems, the government founded the Committee of Examining the Water and Land Maps (水陆地图审查委员会, Shuilu Ditu Shencha Weiyuan Hui) to name and map China’s SCS territory. In 1935 the committee published the names of 132 features in the four island groups, including an annexed map marking James Shoal (曾母暗沙, Zengmu Ansha) that lay at the southernmost end. The committee’s territorial demarcation was finally confirmed by the ROC government in 1947 (Zou, 1999a: 33).

The 1930s was a period when new threats from foreign contenders for the Xisha and Nansha Islands emerged. In 1930 France took formal possession of Spratly Island (南威岛, Nanwei Dao) (Tønnesson, 2006: 4–5). It also took advantage of Japan’s full-fledged invasion of China and occupied eight more islands and cays in the Nansha group – Itu Aba Island (太平岛, Taiping Dao), Thitu Island (中业岛, Zhongye Dao), Namyit Island (洪庥岛, Hongxiu Dao), Loaita Island (南钥岛, Nanyue Dao), West York Island (西月岛, Xiyue Dao), Amboyna Cay (安波沙洲, Anbo Shazhou), Northeast Cay (北子岛, Beizi Dao) and Southwest Cay (南子礁, Nanzi Jiao) – in April 1933 (Li, 1992: 165), but the information was not released until July that year. When France declared possession of these features, China issued a formal protest early the following day (Han et al., 1988: 261–2). Unfortunately, as available information was limited, China’s relatively cautious response demanded that France provide the specific position of the nine islands while China conducted relevant investigations in the SCS. Compared to the Chinese government, civil society responded with greater vehemence. Non-governmental organisations such as the Association of Fellow Hainanese in Nanjing (琼崖旅京同乡会), the Chamber of Commerce of Shanghai (上海市商会), the Chamber of Commerce of Ningbo (宁波商会), the Union of the Filature Industry in the Fourth District of Shanghai (上海市第四区缫丝业产业工会), the Farmers’ Association of Gaolan County of Gansu Province (甘肃省皋兰县农会), various local sections of the Kuomintang Party and patriotic individuals sent telegrams to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs urging the government to defend China’s sovereign right over the SCS islands (Li, 1992: 166). The French occupation was strongly resisted by Chinese fishermen, who destroyed French emblems and flags on the islands. When the fishermen saw the French ship try to retaliate, they fired home-made cannons from their fishing boats to defend themselves (Han et al., 1988: 402, 408, 417–29).

The ROC government took no further action, however, except continuing its diplomatic protests. There are several reasons for its passive reaction. First, China was busy fighting the Japanese war on the mainland. Second, the Nansha Islands were nearer to French-occupied Vietnam, the US-colonised Philippines and British-ruled Malaya, but far from China itself. The geographical position of the islands made them easier to lose than to defend. As the SCS was once the object of contention between France and Japan, and as China’s naval power could match neither, the best strategy for China would be to wait for better timing. In 1938 the ROC government even acquiesced in the absorption of the Xisha Islands by France, when the French gave the assurance that absorption would prevent the Japanese from using the islands and France had no intention of obtaining sovereignty (Tønnesson, 2006: 11).

In 1939 Japan claimed the Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands (Li, 1992: 169), and French Indochina accepted with little resistance (Tønnesson, 2006: 12–16). By then, Japan controlled almost the entire SCS and China’s coast, and China was in the midst of a tough war against the Japanese. After Japan surrendered in 1945, China recovered the four SCS island groups in 1946 in accordance with the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Declaration (Wu, 1999: 24). The San Francisco peace treaty and the Sino-Japanese Treaty further confirmed China’s sovereignty (Li, 1992: 170–1).


China’s sovereignty claim over the four island groups of the SCS is derived from its historical rights based on discovery, naming and a history of continued use and demonstration of authority over 2,000 years. No other SCS littoral country can provide more evidence to support its claim of sovereignty over the islands. Nevertheless, we should not expect to find the same quantity of textual records or archaeological findings for the SCS as for China’s continental regions. The SCS has always been one of the most remote and uninhabited regions in the Chinese sovereign map.

China’s ancient records were criticised for not being sufficiently persuasive in supporting its claims of ‘routine occupation, effective administration or assertion of sovereign control’ over the Nansha Islands (Cordner, 1994: 64). However, one should note that the most important cause of such weakness of evidence was China’s ancient territorial concept. Sovereignty was based on the loyalty of the people being ruled rather than a clearly delineated national boundary as exemplified by the Westphalia system. The concept is intrinsically related to the political dimension of China’s ancient tributary system, which was established with the consent, or even free will, of the tributary state. The system was expanded to the shores of the SCS when the imperial court of China bestowed a title on the rulers of tributary states and these states submitted to China’s authority. Given that a Sinocentric tributary system was the dominant international order in ancient East Asia, China did not need to practise sovereignty based on the criteria of a modern international legal system.

In addition, a weakness of China’s argument lies in the role of the sea under its ancient territorial concept. During stronger years, rulers believed they were the only owners of all the seas and territories. The SCS and the vassal states beyond were all under the rule of the Son of Heaven. When an empire became weak or unstable, tributary ties would be severed and the SCS would become the frontier of the state’s territory. The dangers in the SCS, such as choppy waves and hazardous reefs and shoals, would safeguard the country from the external threat. Consequently, ancient China did not realise the need to assert dominant control over the SCS; this has been even more the case since the mid- nineteenth century, as China continued to decline and conflicts with the Western powers flared.

As of the late Qing dynasty, when China had to enter the international system and the modern legal system was adopted, it became increasingly aware of the modern sovereign concept. Since then, China has consistently protested against the encroachment of the SCS features by Britain, Germany, France and Japan. The post-Second World War treaty that China signed with Japan and other countries further consolidated China’s sovereignty over the four island groups in the SCS.

1The Eastern Zhou (770–256 BC) was the second half of the Zhou dynasty (eleventh century-256 BC). It may be further divided into two periods: the Spring and Autumn period (Chun Qiu, 770–476 BC) and the Warring States period (Zhan Guo, 476–221 BC). The first half of the Zhou dynasty is commonly referred to as the Western Zhou (eleventh century–770 BC).

2Also translated as the Classic of Poetry or the Book of Odes.

3Also translated as the Classic of Poetry or the Book of Odes.

4Also translated as the Classic of Poetry or the Book of Odes.

5Also translated as the Classic of Poetry or the Book of Odes.

6The Account of Yue State is the first existing local chronicle in Chinese literature. It is a comprehensive account of the history of the Wu and Yue states, which covered mainly the region of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces of modern China. There were wars between the two states. Yue was swallowed by Wu. However, the Yue state was finally conquered by the neighbouring Chu state during the Warring States period.

7Refers to Guangdong province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Fujian province of modern China.

8The three prefectures are Nanhai (南海), Guilin (桂林) and Xiang (象). In administrative level, a prefecture during the Qin dynasty was approximately the same as a present-day province.

9Also translated as Records of Strange Things of the South (Samuels, 1982: 10). The original book is lost; however, two paragraphs that are relevant to the SCS could still be found in the Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era (太平御览, Taiping Yulan), a massive encyclopaedia compiled in the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD). The full name of Taiping was Taiping Xingguo (太平兴国), a reign title for Emperor Taizong (宋太宗) of the Northern Song dynasty. The Taiping Xingguo era was 976–983 AD. Other scholars attributed the earliest textual record to the Records of Rarities (异物志 Yiwu Zhi), authored by Yang Fu (杨孚) during the second century AD. Just like the Records of Rarities of the Southern Territories, the Records of Rarities is lost. A relevant quotation can be found in a local chronicle, the General Records of Guangdong (广东通志, Guangdong Tong Zhi). This author agrees with the views of scholars such as Wu Yongzhang (2010: 212) that the royal commissioned encyclopaedias tend to be more reliable than local chronicles. Thus the earliest textual reference to Zhanghai should be attributed to Wan Zhen.

10Li is an ancient Chinese unit for distance. In the period of the Three Kingdoms, one li equals 415.8 metres (Liang, 2008: 540).

11Both Juzhi and Dianxun were important ports of the kingdom of Funan during the third century AD. Juzhi was generally believed to be located in the northeast part of the Malay peninsula (Shi, 2007: 439–40). Funan was an influential kingdom in Southeast Asia from the first to the seventh centuries. In the third century it was located around the Mekong Delta, roughly covering the southern part of Vietnam, modern Cambodia, the northern part of the Malay peninsula and extending as far north as the northern part of modern Myanmar (ibid.: 46–7).

12The author’s study indicates that Dianyou is a copy error. The correct name should be Dianxun, which should be Tenasserim (Xiong, 2000: 58), located to the northwest of the isthmus of Kra.

13The original book of the Records of Funan is lost. Relevant quotations can be found in the Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era.

14The Book of the Later Han Dynasty is a historical record of the Eastern Han dynasty. There are also other historical works under the same name written by different authors. The original book is lost, but relevant quotations can be found in the Reference for Beginners (初学记, Chu Xue Ji) a reference book compiled by Xu Jian (徐坚, 659–729 AD) in the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD).

15Xie Cheng was a historian of the Wu kingdom during the period of the Three Kingdoms, although his exact dates are unknown.

16The original book is lost, but relevant quotations can be found in The Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era and the Universal Geography of the Taiping Era ((太平寰宇记, Taiping Huanyu Ji), written by Le Shi (乐史, 930–1007 AD), a geographer and scholar official during the Taiping era of the Song dynasty (976–983 AD).

17Zhang Bo was a scholar of the Jin dynasty (265–420 AD). His exact dates are unknown.

18The original book has been lost, but relevant quotations can be found in the Universal Geography of the Taiping Era.

19Pei Yuan was a scholar who lived during the period of the Eastern Jin (317–420 AD) and Liu Song (420–479 AD) dynasties, although his exact dates are unknown.

20The Erya is the earliest known Chinese dictionary or encyclopaedia of China, written no earlier than the Warring States period (476–221 BC). The original book of Guo’s annotation is lost. Relevant quotations can be found in the General Record (通志, Tong Zhi), a historical work and encyclopaedia completed by Zheng Qiao (郑樵) in 1161 AD.

21Guo Pu (279–324 AD) was a famous scholar who lived during the Western Jin (265–316 AD) and Eastern Jin (317–420 AD) dynasties.

22The original book is lost, but relevant quotations can be found in Categories for In-depth Reference (渊鉴类函, Yuan Jian Lei Han), a reference book written by Zhang Ying (张英), Wang Shizhen (王士祯) and Wang Tan (王惔) in the nineteenth century. Nan Yue was approximately the same region as the modern Guangdong province.

23Shen Huaiyuan was a famous scholar of the Liu Song dynasty, though his exact dates are unknown.

24The Funeral Eulogy for Emperor Wu resembles a poem written in memory of Liu Yu (刘裕, 363–422 AD), the founding emperor of the Liu Song dynasty. Wu was the posthumous name of Liu Yu.

25Xie Lingyun (385–433 AD) was the most famous scholar and poet of the Liu Song dynasty.

26The Ode on the Barren City resembles a poem that describes the war- destroyed city of Guangling, which was located at the site of the current city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.

27Bao Zhao (416–466 AD) was a famous scholar during the Liu Song dynasty.

28According to literature, Lubin county was located in the Lingnan region, exact location unknown.

29Lingnan literally means the region in the south of the Five Ridges of the Yuecheng (越城岭), Dupang (都庞岭), Mengzhu (萌渚岭), Qitian (骑田岭) and Dayu (大庾岭). In the Jin dynasty it referred to regions that mainly covered Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, and the southern part of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces of modern China, as well as the northern part of current Vietnam.

30During the period of the Three Kingdoms the administrative area of Jiao Zhou shifted many times over the decades because of war among these kingdoms. However, the southernmost area of modern China and the northeast and middle parts of modern Vietnam were always included.

31Dongguan county was roughly the same place as the current Dongguan city of Guangzhou. It was established as a county in 331 AD during the Eastern Jin dynasty, and got its current name in 757 AD during the Tang dynasty. According to this piece of text, the Shanhuzhou should be located in the area of the current Pratas.

32The Records of the Grand Historian is one of the most important historical works of Chinese literature, written by Sima Qian (司马迁) between 109 and 91 BC. Sima is generally regarded as one of the greatest Chinese historians, the father of Chinese historiography.

33The Book of Han, also called the History of the Former Han Dynasty (前汉书, Qian Han Shu), written and compiled by Ban Biao (班彪), Ban Gu (班固) and Ban Zhao (班昭), is another important historical work after the Records of the Grand Historian. It covers the history of the period 206 BC–23 AD, from the first emperor of the Western Han dynasty to the last year of the Wang Mang (王莽) interregnum.

34The passage contains many ancient Chinese names for different places. Besides Rinan, Xuwen, Hepu and Xianglin, historians disagree over the places to which these names refer. Taking into account the directions of monsoons, days for voyage and the local history, recent research suggests that Duyuan was located at the southeast part of the Malay peninsula near the Singapore Strait (Sun, 1982: 164), or near the Pasei River in the northwest of Sumatra (Zhang, 1986: 18–19) or the Oc Eo in the south part of current Vietnam (Jiang, 2006). Yilumo should refer to Bago (Pegu) of Myanmar near the estuary of the Sittang River (Liao and Zeng, 2005: 42). Shenli should be modern Syriam of Myanmar located at the delta of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River (Xiong, 2000: 58–9). Fuduganlu either refers to the old city of Pagan (Feng, 2005: 2) or somewhere near the current city of Prome in Myanmar (Liao and Zeng, 2005: 42). Huangzhi was approximately located at Kanchipuram in modern India. Pizong referred to the current Banana Island (Palau Pisang). Yichengbu was either Sri Lanka (Zhang, 1986: 19) or Chengalpattu (formerly Chingleput) in India (Xiong, 2000: 58–9).

35The Jin dynasty (265–420 AD) was an exception, since there are barely any records of commercial ties between China and Southeast Asian states via the sea. The reason might be attributed to its domestic instability.

36As in note 10, li was a unit of distance in ancient China, but the exact distance it referred to could vary in different dynasties. Moreover, the adjectives qianli and wanli could both be used for either specific quantification or symbolic description. However, the indication of the Nansha Islands and Xisha Islands could still be detected based on days of voyage in the literature.

37Jiaozhi of the Song dynasty referred to the northern part of present-day Vietnam, with Hanoi in the centre. It was also called Jiaozhou in ancient history (Yang, 1996: 1–2). Jiaozhihai was also called Jiaoyang (交洋).

38This version was translated by Marwyn S. Samuels. There are other versions of the refrain: ‘In the north one dreads Qizhou, In the south one fears Kunlun (上怕七洲,下怕昆仑)’ (Feng, 1954: 8) and ‘[For hazards in the sea], in the north there is Qizhou; in the south there is Kunlun (上有七洲, 下有昆仑)’ (Su, 1981: 218). The different versions basically express the same meaning.

39The Written Reply from the Region beyond the Five Ridges was both a local record of the geography, culture, humanity etc. of the Lingnan region and a historical work about the international communication of China during the Song dynasty. It was written by Zhou Qufei (周去非, 1135–1189 AD) after he returned from his posting in Guangxi. The original book is lost; the existing version is a collected record from the Yongle Encyclopaedias (永乐大典 Yongle Dadian), a canon compiled during the early fifteenth century under the commission of the imperial court. The book’s name was translated by the author.

40The Records of Foreign Nations is an important document about marine transportation, foreign trade and international communication in China during the Song dynasty. It was written by Zhao Rushi (赵汝适, 1170–1231 AD), a scholar official of the Southern Song dynasty, during his posting in the port city of Quanzhou (泉州) as the inspector of foreign trade in Fujian (福建) province. The original book is lost; the existing version is a collection of relevant records from the Yongle Encyclopaedias. The book was partly translated and annotated by Friedrich Hirth and W.W. Rockhill, and renamed Chao Ju-kua: His Work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, entitled Chu-fan-chi. Chao Ju-kua and Chu-fan-chi are transliterations of Zhao Rushi and Zhu Fan Zhi respectively.

41Vietnam was occupied by the Ming for 20 years from 1406 to 1427.

42Also translated as ‘maritime prohibition’ or ‘maritime interdiction’, the policy was first enacted in the early 1370 s by Ming Emperor Hongwu (洪武, reigning 1368–1398) and lifted in 1568. It was also adopted intermittently by rulers of the Qing dynasty. The policy was designed to prohibit private contact with foreigners (i.e. the Japanese) or anti-government forces (i.e. the Ming loyalist movement led by Zheng Chenggong in Taiwan in the early Qing) from the sea, as well as private maritime trade which was disfavoured due to the then anti-commercial attitude of the Confucius doctrine. Under the ban, tributary trade became the only legal form of maritime commerce. However, the Chinese, especially coastal people, circumvented the ban in every way possible, such as through smuggling and piracy, which became rampant during the ban.

43During the Eastern Han dynasty the entire country was divided into 13 regions (州, zhou) plus the Protectorate of the Western Area (西域都护府, Xiyu Duhufu). The Jiao was the southernmost region, covering most of current Guangdong and Guangxi provinces of China, and the north and central parts of modern Vietnam. The Jiao region in the Eastern Han dynasty was bigger than the Jiao region during the period of the Three Kingdoms.

44The Book of Jin is a historical work about the Jin dynasty written by scholars of the Tang dynasty.

45The Collection of Military Classics and Techniques is an important military treatise on military techniques, theories and strategies written by Zeng Gongliang (曾公亮) and Ding Du (丁度), and finished in 1044 AD. The book’s name was translated by this author.

46In fact, Guangzhou became part of China earlier than the Han dynasty. It was first established as the county of Fanyu (番禹县, Fanyu Xian) in the Qin dynasty. Fanyu, along with the three counties of Longchuan (龙川), Sihui (四会) and Boluo (博罗), was under the jurisdiction of Nanhai prefecture, which was established in 214 BC. However, in 207 BC the kingdom of Nanyue (南越国) was founded by Zhao Tuo (赵佗), the rebellious head of Longchuan who took advantage of the instability of the Qin empire. The kingdom spanned all the three southernmost prefectures of the Qin dynasty (see notes 7 and 8), and later pushed its territory further to the middle of current Vietnam. It became a vassal state of the Western Han dynasty after the latter was established, and finally was conquered in 111 BC during the reign of Emperor Wu. It remained part of China until 968 AD, and then again became a vassal state of China until the late nineteenth century except for a brief occupation by the Ming dynasty in the early fifteenth century. The author of the Collection of Military Classics and Techniques ignored the time when Fanyu was governed by Nanhai prefecture during the Qin dynasty due to the briefness of the period.

47Liu Chang (刘鋹) was the last ‘emperor’ of the Southern Han kingdom (SK, Nan Han, 917–971 AD), which was one of the kingdoms during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907–960 AD). It covered the southernmost region of modern China, including present-day Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan, and the north part of modern Vietnam. Guangzhou used to be the capital of the Southern Han kingdom and was called Xingwangfu (兴王府). After the Southern Han kingdom submitted to the Song dynasty, Xingwangfu was renamed Guangzhou.

48Tuen Mun Mountain is located in the southwest of present-day Kowloon in Hong Kong.

49Most historians agree that Jiuruluozhou referred to the Xisha Islands.

50Zhanbulao Mountain refers to CulaoCham Island, which is located in the middle of modern Vietnam.

51Huanzhou was an ancient state located in the middle part of modern Vietnam.

52Lingshan was the name of a cape near the present Quy Nhan of Vietnam.

53For the Taiping Xingguo era see note 9.

54Approximately the present-day Hanoi.

55Bingma Qianxia was a military post, responsible for military affairs for different military zones, such as lu (more or less equivalent to present-day provincial level), zhou (approximately the present-day municipal level), etc. Guangzhou was a zhou-level administrative unit during the Northern Song dynasty.

56Qiongshan county was located in the north part of Hainan Island. It was included in the city of Haikou in 2002.

57Hainan Island was under the governance of Guangdong province during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

58Qiongzhou prefecture referred to Hainan Island during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

59More commonly known as Emperor Qianlong (乾隆), reigning 1735–1796 AD. The chronicle’s name was translated by the author.

60See note 40.

61The literal translation should be ‘after Rushi was assigned here’, which is the given name of the author. In Chinese literature, it is acceptable to use ‘oneself’ instead of ‘I’.

62Shichuang literally means ‘stone bed’. It is a generic word denoting the features of the four island groups of the South China Sea, like Changsha and Shitang.

63Zhuyu referred to Pulau Aor of Malaysia (Feng, 2005: 48). For Jiaoyang see note 37.

64The Consolidated Map of Territories and Geography and Capitals of Past Dynasties was drawn in 1602 based on the Map of Territories Covered by Voices and Teachings [of the Yuan Dynasty](声教广被图, Sheng Jiao Guangbei Tu) by Li Zemin in 1330, and Consolidated Maps of the Territory [of Each Dynasty] (混一疆理图, Hunyi Jiangli Tu) by Qing Jun in 1370 (Ge, 2008).

65Zhu Siben (1273–1333 AD) was the greatest geographer and cartographer of the Yuan dynasty. Travelling extensively, he conducted much research and many interviews before drawing the Map of the Territory [of Yuan]. The original map is lost, but its accuracy was recognised by later cartographers such as Luo Hongxian (罗洪先, 1504–1564), who drew new maps based on the sources of Zhu’s map, adding corrections and new information. He also divided his work into smaller quarters for different regions, so that each map would be easier to keep and maintain. It proved to be a better idea, since Zhu’s map was too big to be practical (Chinese Encyclopedia Online, 2006).

66Boni, Pinggaolun, Puer and Zhimen were all ancient names of different places. Boni referred to Kalimantan Island, which was also named Borneo in the old days; Pinggaolun referred to Natuna Island; and Zhimen was Tioma Island along the east coast of the Malay peninsula. Puer is still uncertain.

67Ting was an administrative locale created in the Qing dynasty. It could be the same level as either a prefecture or a county, depending on the situation in a given place.

68About 22.5° to the northwest/southeast on the compass.

69Before the clock became commonly used, fishermen used burning incense to count time. It took one geng to finish one piece of incense, during which the fishing boat could travel about ten nautical miles. Three gengs equals approximately 30 nautical miles.

70About 30° to the northwest/southeast on the compass.

71About 60° to the northeast/southwest on the compass.

72About 15° to the northwest/southeast on the compass.

73North/south on the compass.

74All the names in italics were spelled in Latin letters based on the pronunciation of Hainan dialect.

75Feature names in this paragraph are spelled by Latin letters based on the pronunciation of Hainan dialect; Mandarin versions are indicated in the brackets.

76The book was referred to as Introduction to the China Sea.