A Reconstructed Ryūkyūan Tribute Journey to China

Only one country was allowed to travel to China once or twice a year–the Kingdom of Ryūkyū. Its tribute ships were built in Naha based on the construction of Fujian-style junks. The keel was made of solid pine and shaped like a rib cage. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century these ships not only sailed to China but also to Japan and Southeast Asia.

Its hull was divided into small, separated partitions. Thus, in the event of water ingress, the affected partition could be shut off and isolated from the rest of the ship. The ships were enormous; more than 40 meters long, with a 30 meters high main mast, and they counted among the largest ships with a performance matched by no other vessel at the time. Ryūkyū is considered to have possessed about fifteen such vessels.

A Ryūkyūan tribute ship (Sekkōsen 接貢船) departs from Naha to Fujian (Beechey 1831).

A Ryūkyūan tribute ship (Sekkōsen 接貢船) departs from Naha to Fujian (Beechey 1831).

In spring, around March, or early autumn, when northeasterly winds prevailed, a fleet of usually two tribute ships are prepared to put to sea. Taking in the cargo the days prior to the leave and with several hundred men on board, the ships are finally towed out by an immense number of small boats and grounded off the entrance of the Naha harbor, the shores echoing with their deep-toned gongs. Soon afterward they are placed outside the reefs.

The vessels have three masts decorated with flags of all sorts and sizes. The front mast hoists the white flag of the Chinese emperor, the main mast a triangular flag, red and yellow, with a white ball in it, denoting Ryūkyū’s status as a tributary state. There were numerous others flags and along the stern were arranged ceremonial weapons sporting the flags of many “mandarins”. The prow of the hull sports a stylized lion, and on both sides, huge dragon eyes are painted, watching over a safe journey.

Finally, they set out from Naha onto their ten-day voyage across the East China Sea. Reaching Kume Island they wait for favorable winds, with which they reach Wuhumen Port in Fujian within seven to eight days. Wuhumen 五虎門, or Five Tigers Gate, was named after five rocks situated within the reefs. It was also the starting point for the maritime sea route of Chinese investiture missions (sappōshi) from Fujian to Naha harbor.

In Wuhumen they receive their official trading certificates (liuqiuguo jingong-chuan 琉球國進貢船) from the inspection authority for incoming vessels, and after about five miles upstream the river, they reach the Maritime Customs Office in Min’anzhen 閩安鎭. Chinese pilots embark and navigate the ships up to dock, where the large ships are left to remain until the departure for the return journey in the following year. On small boats, the tribute envoy, crew, cargo, and luggage continue to the Ryūkyūkan, the official trading consulate in Fuzhou and living quarter of the Ryūkyūans for the time of their stay. Here they unload and store their precious cargo.

In Chinese, this Ryūkyūkan is called Rouyuanyi 柔遠駅. It is the designated place of contact and stay for persons traveling from Ryūkyū to China within the tributary system and is regarded a sort of consulate. It is located to the south of the Jingong-chang 進貢廠, i.e. the official depot for temporarily storing tribute items in Fuzhou’s inner port city called Hekou 河口. A Ryūkyūan residence attaché (zonryū-tsūji 存留通事) is responsible for all kinds of official business. Normally, these residence attachés come in December or January and leave one and a half years later in summer.

On the black lacquered gate roof of the main entrance of the Rouyuanyi, a large inscribed board reads “No Waves Scatter on the Ocean” (haibu yangbo 海不揚波), expressing the wish for uneventful, peaceful and secure sea journeys. Another board on the main gate reads Rouyuanyi 柔遠駅, i.e. “Soothing Station for Those Coming from Afar”.

The facilities of the Rouyuanyi are guarded by Chinese military officers called Bamenguan 把門官. Both civil and military Chinese officials move around there, all in all about fifty-six persons, and the military officials wear swords and other weapons. Between the large front gate and the second gate are the official residences. At daytime the gates are open and the Ryūkyūans are free to walk about. At nighttime, the gates are closed and guarded.

The Ryūkyūan tribute envoy visits the local top officials and presents gifts. In late September or early October, he sets out on his way to Beijing, accompanied by an entourage of about twenty people under the protection of a Chinese military escort.

The others, several hundred Ryūkyūans, stay at the Rouyuanyi until the envoy’s return in the following year. During that time, the Rouyuanyi is opened for trade, which is called kaiguan maoyi 開舘貿易. In order to do so, the resident attaché first presents a trade application to the Fujian government. Once approved, the so-called Qiu merchants (Qiushang 球商) are allowed to enter the Rouyuanyi for trade. These Qiu-merchants had acted as official intermediary merchants for the China-Ryūkyū trade already since the early Ming dynasty. Their main task is selling the tribute commodities brought by the Ryūkyūan tribute ships, and in turn to purchase Chinese goods according to the Ryūkyūan wishes. This merchant guild consists of members of ten from among the thirty-six families that had emigrated to Ryūkyū since the late fourteenth century.

According to the “Book of Fujian” (Minshu 閩書), trade articles during the Ming and Qing dynasties included products of gold, silver, copper and tin as well as agate, ivory, spices, traditional Chinese medicinal materials, knife sharpeners, sulphur, swords, different kinds of dried seafood and articles for daily use. No doubt, these articles are not all from Ryūkyū. Most of them are from Siam, Java, Malacca, and Japan, with swords and spears from Japanese production. This indicates Ryūkyūs role as an intermediary trader. In other words, this kind of trade can also be described as a trade between China and other countries with Ryūkyū as an intermediary. As noted in the “Dynastic Record of the Ming Dynasty” (Ming-shilu 明實録), Ryūkyū earned great profits through buying and selling under the umbrella of being a tributary of China.

The Rouyuanyi in Fuzhou (Nishizato 2006).

The Rouyuanyi in Fuzhou (Nishizato 2006).

Besides selling imported Ryūkyūan commodities, the activities of the Qiu-merchants also include the purchase of Chinese articles according to Ryūkyūan instructions. Either they accomplish it themselves or they consign common merchants to go to other provinces to purchase products such as wood, silk floss, fine woven silk, iron wares, porcelain, satin, medicinal materials, tea, lacquer works, refined white sugar, tobacco, tin wares, ink sticks and so on. Large quantities of Chinese medicines and iron wares are what the Ryūkyūans usually desire. The case of a ship with twenty-five people found on the Ryūkyūs in 1701, having come from Fuzhou prefecture in Fujian with commodities acquired in Shandong and blown off course by a storm, is considered a possible example of such consignment trade under the order of the Qiushang merchants. The Ryūkyū trade is almost entirely in the hands of Fujian merchants and greatly promotes the local economy in Fujian.

In terms of the products purchased by the Ryūkyūans, most of them come from the south of Fujian. For instance, cotton yarn of Quanzhou is of excellent quality; velvet from Zhangzhou was already very popular during Ming times. In addition, grass cloth from Yongchun (!!!), porcelains of Dehua, and ramie of Hui’an are all famous trading articles. Furthermore, due to its mountainous areas, the south of Fujian is a good place for medicinal products and plants. All of the abundant natural resources make Fujian an active and interesting trading partner for Ryūkyū, and no doubt this provides the Qiushang merchants with great advantages for successful trade. And it also provides a logistical pathway for connections and items related to Fujian martial arts.

Meanwhile, the entourage to Beijing follows the land route through the provinces of Yanping, Jianning, Quzhou, Yanzhou, Kangzhou, Jiaxing, Suzhou, Zhenjiang, Yangzhou, Shandong etc. From Jianning to Quzhou they travel by land; from Yanzhou to Yangzhou by water. In Shandong, where the roads are flat and the wind is strong, they stretch out sails by which they drive their carts forward. Each time they reach a border town they beat gongs and fire firecrackers and the like to announce their arrival.

In November or December, they reach Beijing. During the audience at the Imperial Palace the chief envoy hands over documents as well as presents from the Ryūkyūan king, consisting of large amounts of sulfur, copper, tin, and other items. In return, the chief envoy receives silk, brocades, and the like. After about forty days in Beijing and with the audiences finished, they set out and return to the Rouyuanyi. Loading large amounts of purchased goods onto their junks, they commence on their way home, using the southerly winds in the summer from the “Five Tigers Gate” of Wuhumen towards Naha harbor.

These journeys took place uninterruptedly from 1372 until the final days of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.

Biblio (excerpt)

  • Akazaki Kaimon: Ryūkyaku Danki (Record of Conversations with Ryukyū Visitors) (赤崎海門: 琉客談記), 1797. In: Binkenstein 1941, Vol. 4 (1): 266-67.
  • Beechey  1831: 171-72.
  • Beillevaire, Patrick 2000, I: 3.
  • Guidebook to the Shurijo Castle Park. 2000: 73.
  • Nishizato 2006.
  • Okinawa Daihyakka Jiten, Vol. 1, 1983: 365.
  • Quast 2013.
  • Takara Kurayoshi 1996: 47-48.
  • Tsūko Ichiran-Ryūkyū-kuni 23, which collected data from Arai Hakuseki’s Ryūkyū-koku Jiryaku琉球国事略
  • Tsūko Ichiran-Ryūkyū-kuni Bu 1. Heikin Shimatsu.
  • Wang 2010: 162, 165, 170–173.

© 2017, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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