Ryukyu Networks in Maritime Asia

Hamashita Takeshi

An Introduction to the Rekidai Hoan

The Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa) was located at the intersection of the South China Sea and East China Sea facing South China and Kyushu. Long before the Ryukyu Kingdom period (1429-1879), it was already alert to the advantages and opportunities offered by the sea and put them to use in its trade with East and Southeast Asia. Under the Ryukyu Kingdom, missions were sent to Southeast Asia to obtain goods for its tributary trade with China. Even after it was invaded by the Satsuma domain in 1609 of Tokugawa-period Japan, Ryukyu continued to dispatch tribute envoys to Qing China. At the same time, it sent envoys to Tokugawa shoguns in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and maintained relations with Korea.

Maritime Society: Zones of Trade, Migration, and Belief

To understand the principles under which the maritime world operated and was organized, it is necessary to examine political, economic, and cultural factors. The major historical principle that loosely unified the maritime world was the idea of “middle kingdom versus barbarian states” that governed tribute relations from the Tang through Qing dynasties of China. This principle was not necessarily China-centered; Korea, Japan, and Vietnam also asserted themselves as “centers” vis-à-vis smaller neighboring states under their sway . The principle was sustained by a hierarchical order led by the Confucian “rule of virtue.”

Tributary states regularly sent tribute missions to the Chinese capital, and each time a ruler of one of those states changed, the Chinese emperor dispatched an envoy to officially recognize the new ruler. Tributary status was not only political, but involved economic and trade relations as well. In exchange for gifts carried to the Chinese court, tribute bearers received silk textiles and other goods from the Chinese emperor. In addition, specially licensed traders accompanying the envoy engaged in commercial transactions at designated places in the capital. And over ten times as many traders exchanged commodities with local merchants at the country’s borders and at ports. The sea routes and major ports of call of the tribute missions were clearly documented through navigational charts based on seasonal winds and on the points and lines established by coastal surveys and observations of the movements of the stars. Not only overseas Chinese merchants based in East and Southeast Asia, but Indian, Muslim, and European merchants participated in the tribute trade, testifying to linkages between maritime zones.

A maritime zone thus contained tribute, trade, and, more generally, human migration. In Japan, stories about castaways were often told to stress the absence of order on the seas, to inspire fear, and to discourage people from attempting to leave land. In fact, however, there was a rule that if castaways were discovered, they were to be taken along the tribute route back to their home country at that country’s expense. Along the coast of Kyushu, private Chinese trade ships often took advantage of this rule, intentionally drifting up along the coast and engaging in a brisk trade before the officials arrived to do their duty.

Maritime zones in which the movement of people and goods was organized were societies conforming to the workings of nature. They did not try to control nature itself, but sought the mediation of various guardian deities, such as the sea goddess Mazu. Worship of Mazu originated in Meizhou in China’s Fujian province and was widespread in the seas of Asia. The name of Macao is derived from the word magao, which were shrines dedicated to Mazu.

The genesis of the Mazu deity is the story of the rescue at sea of a local Meizhou woman. Interestingly, when China tried to exert political power in the maritime zone, it granted Mazu court rank, giving the deity the title “Heavenly Empress Tianhou,” thus incorporating the sea goddess into the emperor’s “virtuous rule.” By placing sea deities that were worshipped by people in the maritime areas, such as Tianhou and Sanpao, under the rule of emperor and king, a harmony of interests was achieved between the dynasty that governed the seas and the peoples who lived there. In this way, maritime areas became a society in which people’s daily lives were loosely controlled. A maritime zone was therefore a tribute and trade zone, a zone of human migration, and a religious zone, a world distinct from the land.

Tribute Trade and Ryukyu Network

To see what a trade zone was like, let us look at the history of Ryukyu. The first compilation of Rekidai Hoan – the documentary record of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s tributary missions and trade from 1414 to 1867 – tells us that when the Ming dynasty ruled China, Ryukyu engaged in commercial transactions with various parts of Southeast Asia, such as Siam, Srivijaya, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Annam, and Patani. It can be assumed that Japan, Korea, and China were added to these Southeast Asian countries, thereby linking Ryukyu in an extensive trade network.

These trade relations, which can be called the Ryukyu network, were founded upon the Ryukyu tribute trade with China. Its trade with Southeast Asia aimed to obtain the pepper and sappanwood it could not produce locally, which were included in its list of tribute gifts to China. The trade network had two distinctive features. One was that trade with Siam and other Southeast Asian countries was vigorous between the early fifteenth century and the mid-sixteenth century. The other was that, as far as we know from the records of Rekidai Hoan, the trade with Southeast Asia seemed to decline while the trade with Korea and Japan increased .

This phenomenon prompts us to ask what happened to the trade with Southeast Asia after the mid-sixteenth century. We can assume that Ryukyu was involved in two trade routes between South China and Southeast Asia, one route running along the island chains on the eastern side of the South China Sea from Luzon to Sulu and the other stretching along the coast of the continent on the western side of South China Sea from Siam to Malacca.

The eastern route started from Quanzhou (or Fuzhou) and stretched between Ryukyu, Taiwan, and Sulu. This route not only carried the trade with Southeast Asian tributary states but also, from the sixteenth and seventeen centuries onward, the transit trade with Spain (for silk) centered at Manila and with the Dutch East India Company centered on Taiwan. At the same time, the route ran north from Fuzhou connecting to the soybean and soybean meal trade of North China and thereby meditating trade between the North and South of China’s eastern regions.

The western route, starting from Guangzhou, linked various parts of Southeast Asia by coastal routes. It represented trade with major Southeast Asian tributary states such as Siam, Malacca, and Sumatra. Considering that rice, marine products, and spices were major trade articles, we can assume that this route was closely related to food products produced in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, and other parts of South China and, notably, that rice and sugar imports from Southeast Asia and South China’s rice and sugar production complemented one another.

In this connection, in 1666, ninety-six years after the records of official trade with Southeast Asia stopped appearing in 1570, the Ryukyu king Sho Shitsu asked that spices, which were not produced locally, be excluded from the list of tribute goods and that approval was granted. This means that by then, without relying on official trade, Ryukyu was able to obtain pepper, which had been among tribute goods for nearly one hundred years. The backdrop to this development was an increase in the rice trade with Siam, which in turn expanded Chinese merchants’ trade routes, bringing more merchants from the Chinese coast to Southeast Asia. As a result, Ryukyu obtained pepper and sappanwood either by joining up with the Chinese merchant trade in Southeast Asia or by direct purchase from Chinese merchants.

Hamashita Takeshi
Hamashita Takeshi is professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 3:  Nations and Other Stories. March 2003 



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