Work! What's that? I'm blogging! I've long wanted to take a moment and review a very specific and bogus claim that Chinese expansionist scholars typically use to argue that the Senkakus are Chinese: that a black ditch/trough formed the boundary between China and the Rykyus (Okinawa) which would put the boundary north of the Senkakus, which would thus have been Chinese in the 17th century.
Han-yi Shaw's thesis on how China owns the Senkakus appears to be the origin of the claim. He makes the claim as follows on page 48 and subsequent pages. I reproduced it as an image:
This passage appears to say that there is a ditch that demarcates the Ryukyus from China. In the next paragraph on p 49, he writes:
Note how he specifically says "Viewed together" these constitute proof that the ancient Chinese (who were actually Manchus by this point) saw the Senkakus as part of China. In the first section, he states that the boundary is a trough, while in the second he refers to the Black Water Trough which demarcates Fujian waters. He then goes on to claim that the Okinawa Trench is the Black Water Trough/Ditch.
The only problem with this claim is that it is absolute nonsense.
To understand where the Black Water Ditch was in ancient Chinese texts, there are several good works that mention it. Macabe Keleher's Out of China, on Yu Yonghe's diary of his visit to Taiwan in 1697, is a must. Emma Teng's Taiwan's Imagined Geography is another gem. But both of those were written after Shaw's masterpiece here, so any truly raving nationalist could claim that they are lying to harm the True Nationalist Faith under which China owns the Senkakus and Taiwan, along with the sun, moon, and stars.
Fortunately, Lawrence Thompson has a piece in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies from 1968, three years before China formally announced its invented claim to that island: The Junk Passage Across the Taiwan Strait: Two Early Chinese Accounts (link), that can easily lay this whole affair to rest.
Thompson's first account is that of Yu Yonghe. Yu crossed over to Taiwan in 1697, one of the earliest accounts of the passage, a dangerous and unpredictable one. Yu writes:
22nd. At dawn we crossed the Black-water Ditch. In the passage to Taiwan it is the Black-water Ditch that is most dangerous. [The current] flows from north to south; its source is unknown. The ocean water is a true green, while the ditch water is as black as ink. Its condition is also rather filthy,20 and that is why it is called a "ditch." It is about a hundred 1i wide. The swirling waters flow swiftly, and sometimes a foul odor assails one. There are also snakes with red and black mixed patterns and two-headed serpents that swim around ships. The helmsman will cast paper ingots [into the ditch], holding his breath in fear lest [the vessel be swept] southward by the current to one knows not where.21 The Red-water Ditch is not very dangerous and people regard it as nothing serious. But the two ditches being entirely in the middle of the ocean, it is difficulto understand why, with the agitation of wind and waves, they never become intermingled with the green water.Yup. The Black Water Ditch lies does indeed mark the boundary between Fujian/Xiamen, except that boundary, an informal one, is between the Penghu/Taiwan and Xiamen, nowhere near Okinawa or the Senkakus. It has nothing to with either set of those islands. Yu actually reaches the Penghu in the very next diary entry, the next day.
It is clear what Shaw has done -- by conflating the odd reference to a Ditch in front of the Ryukyus with the actual Black Water Ditch in the Taiwan Strait that did indeed mark the end of Xiamen waters and which you might well cross on your way out to Okinawa, and then conflating that with the Okinawa Trench on the other side of Taiwan, he has moved the actual boundary out a couple hundred kilometers to swallow the Senkakus. Either this is a truly epic error, or Shaw is lying.
But wait! The Black Ditch issue is even more interesting. Because in the second account, in June of 1763 the traveler leaves Xiamen, goes over to Penghu, and then hits the Black Water Ditch:
According to the navigator-quartermaster, when the night is quiet and the waves are still, one may be able to hear the sounds of dogs and chickens on Taiwan. I did not [have the opportunity to] test this . ...What? They crossed the Black Ditch on the other side of the Penghu, between Taiwan and the Penghu? This is explained in a fascinating footnote, which takes its explanation from a text written in 1807:
After the noon meal a north wind suddenly began to blow. In crossing the sea, Experience has shown that the north wind in the sixth and seventh months soon brings typhoons. The navigator-quartermaster wanted to return and moor at P'eng-hu [harbor] to wait until the typhoon was over, but after talking it over with the captains (of the other ships), our captain felt that we had already been held up too long. Moreover, they relied upon the fact that a typhoon had not immediately begun, and so in the afternoon we crossed the Black-water Ditch. The water of the sea [in this place] flows contrary to the prevailing current, And it is the most dangerous place in the passage to Taiwan. The water was a more intense black. One must trust to the wind to get across.... When the ship crossed the ditch, the water was stinking with a noxious vapor that rose (because of poisonous snakes in it). I was afraid to come out and look at it. The navigator-quartermaster said that they had often lowered the lead-tube coir rope to the limit of a hundred and several tens of hsiun (8oo-goo feet), but they had never found bottom and did not know how deep it was4.... At evening the wind grew stronger and the waves were like hills. I suddenly heard a clamor under the ship, a sound like ten thousand horns blown at once in the middle of the earth, and I was even more frightened. When I questioned the navigator-quartermaster, he said that when the wind rises croakers hurry under the ship and blow all evening; when they gasp at the surface they produce this sound ....
"The Black-water Ditch is the place which forms the boundary dividing P'eng-hu and Hsia-men. It is about sixty or seventy li wide and the most dangerous place in all the ocean. Its depth is unfathomed, and the water is as black as ink. The current is violent; in form it is a slight depression (see note 20 above). If a vessel is lucky enough to have a favoring wind and sail quickly, she will cross [the ditch], being tossed this way and that. If she is delayed, then the waves will buffet her, and she may easily lose her bearings. "[Note that there are two black-water ditches: the one to the west of P'eng-hu is perhaps eighty-odd 1i wide and forms the boundary between P'eng-hu and Hsia-men. The water there is as black as ink, and it is called the Big Sea. The one to the east of P'eng-hu is also eighty-some 1i wide, and it forms the boundary between Taiwan and P'eng-hu. Its name is the Small Sea. The water of the Small Sea is even blacker than that of the Big Sea, and its depth is unfathomed. When the wind is calm in the Big Sea (a ship) can still anchor; but it cannot anchor in the Small Sea, which is more dangerous than the Big Sea. This is a distinction that has never been made in previous accounts.]"In fact, not only were there two Black Water Ditches, one each in the Big and Little Seas, Chinese sailors operating between Taiwan and Xiamen referred to several bands of colored water, including red, white, and greenish-blue, which they used to identify their progress across the Strait (the footnotes are the most interesting part of Thompson's paper). Even more misleadingly, in some confused modern descriptions, the Strait itself is sometimes called the Black Ditch.
But let's return to the text Shaw quotes. After the emphasized comment on p 48 that the trough marked the boundary between China and the Ryukyus, the ancient writer recorded:
"...upon inquiring how the boundary was differentiated, I was told through estimation."If the boundary was marked by a clear color change in the water, why did it have to be estimated?
Clearly that text was not referring to any marked change in the water, and no color change is present in the text. Deliberately or not, Shaw has simply seized on a stray word and invented a bogus past.
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