China’s fishermen explain why they thinkthe sea is theirs
TANMEN, China — Little boats withnoisy engines puttered purposefully down the river and out toward the SouthChina Sea. Big vessels — ships, really, with three or four decks, and heavyequipment — lay tied up close to the crowded town, looming over the lowbuildings along the bank. Then a workhorse of the sea — high-bowed, about 40feet long, wheelhouse astern — slipped by. It was heading out for a week, ormore likely a couple of weeks, on the open water. Crewmen, stripped to thewaist, lathered up and washed from a barrel of water on deck as their tripbegan. The boat cleared the last bulkhead and then let loose with dozens offirecrackers that hung in strings over the sides.
We had arrived by bus: fifteen reportersfrom a dozen countries, on a tour arranged by the East-West Center of Hawaii.We were in Tanmen, on the island of Hainan, at the northern approaches to theSouth China Sea, to talk with fishermen. We were not going from boat to boatlooking for someone with tales to tell. Our local escorts had arranged ameeting on the paved walkway along the south bank of the river. A delegation ofretired fishermen was there to receive us and tell us about their livelihoods.
China and its neighbors are quarreling overthe South China Sea, and fishermen play a role in that. Chinese coast guardboats have been drivingPhilippine and Vietnamese fishing boats away from reefs and fishinggrounds that China now claims control of. We were here to get the Chinesewater-level perspective.
Su Cheng Feng is 80, retired now for 11years. At first, after the firecracker display died down, he was the mosttalkative. He said he didn’t meet fishermen from other countries very often inthe old days when he was out at sea, before the surrounding countries’territorial claims began to be taken seriously, because their boats weresmaller than the Chinese boats, and, frankly, their skills weren’t as high. Thesea, he said, was China’s traditional fishing ground.
Chinese “fishermen have been fishingin the South China Sea for many, many generations,” hesaid. “These are our own waters, just as natural as a farmer going tohis field.”
We asked him about the past. What was itlike before the Communists came to power in 1949, or even during the war, whenhe was a boy and his father was a fisherman? He didn’t have much to say;nothing special, nobody talked about it.
Wu Shujin, 79, Mai Yunxiu, 79, and HuangQinghe, 82, listened in, added a word here and there. They had all beencaptains. They had fished for wrasse, grouper and mackerel. They dried theircatch on board or sold it to a buyer’s boat that would take it back to shore.They didn’t get much help from the government. (Younger men standing nearbydisputed that.)
Then Lu Yuyong suddenly appeared. He’s 51,still active on a boat. He took over the conversation. “The life on a boatis very tough,” he said.
He brought out a pink plastic bag andunwrapped from it a traditional Chinese compass. It’s one of the four greatChinese inventions, he said (along with gunpowder, paper-making and printing).
Suddenly he was on his knees on theblacktop, unrolling a nautical chart of the sea. He was showing us how to usethe compass on the chart, and having a little trouble, most likely because ithad traditional markings on it and not the 360 degrees of a modern one. Su gotdown with him, and all the reporters and local hangers-on crowded around.
Lu said he was glad the Chinese governmentis building up some of the islands in the sea; he has lost three family membersin storms who had nowhere to go to and no one to help them. Permanentoccupation on some of the islands could save lives, he said.
But when fishermen from other countriesdare to fish the South China Sea, he said, “they’re invading ourwaters.”
“We could go all the way to Australiaif we wanted to,” he said. “But we don’t. That’s not our ground. It’snot about loving or not loving your country. It’s about fishing your ownwaters.”
Chinese fisherman, he said, were the firstto discover the islands of the South China Sea. “And as opposed to othercountries, we are civilized,” he said, again mentioning the compass as oneof the four great inventions. He rolled up the chart, then got out a piece ofpaper and drew his own map of the sea, which he labeled the “AncestorSea.” He talked about the annual celebrations in Tanmen for theBrotherhood of the 108 (also known as the 108 Stars of Destiny, or the Outlawsof the Marsh), demonic overlords from a 700-year-old novel who werebanished, repented and were reborn as heroes. What upstart nation, he seemed tobe asking, could lay claim to history here the way China can?
1:28 PM GMT+0800
Meet Lu Yuyong, Chinese government shill.
1:20 PM GMT+0800
idiot people should stay off othernieghbors backyard or they got shot out.
1:18 PM GMT+0800
Human beings seem to think they own theplanet but we don’t. The sea isn’t your China and neither are the fish.
12:56 PM GMT+0800
Welcome to manifest destiny Chinese style.
King of Aces
12:49 PM GMT+0800
They are very dismissive of other races…
12:46 PM GMT+0800
I have always farted in the State buildingI work in. My father used to work there also (and I’m certain he let a few ripthere as well). So, does that make the State building mine?
Border Town USA
12:09 PM GMT+0800
When Chinese fishermen get hungry,any fishin any lake look good so the land sea reclamation starts at their mouths.
Lee Heng Soon
11:53 AM GMT+0800
Too bad! When aeroplane was invented alllands have been claimed.