The 36 Clans of the Min-People

Shortly after the establishment of tributary trade relations with China, a group of Chinese from Fujian were granted to Ryūkyū by the Chinese Emperor and started to immigrate to Okinawa in 1392. They came to be known as the people from the ‘36 Clans of the Min-People’ (minren sanshiliu-xing 閩人三十六姓). Min 閩 refers to the lower valley of the Min River in Fujian 福建 Province, China. They settled in a small Chinese colony in Kume village 久米村. At that time, Kume village was situated on the ‘Floating Island’ (Ukishima 浮島) in the harbor of Naha. In official documents this small colony was also frequently referred to as the ‘Chinese encampment’ (tangying 唐營).

It is a fact that they established an overseas colony of Fujian people in Kume in the port city of Naha. In contemporary sources the 36 Clans are variously described as ship craftsmen serving the Ryūkyūan tributary missions to China, as good mariners for navigation, intercourse and tributary affairs, as serving in administration royal government organization, to propagate learning, to take charge of communication with China and to provide interpreters and emissaries, and to keep tributary records.

Entering "Kuninda." Original photo by the author.

Entering “Kuninda.” Original photo by the author.

There are different theories about the immigration of these 36 Clans. One theory says they were bestowed to Ryūkyū during the years of the Hongwu Emperor (rg. 1386–1398). Another theory says they were bestowed during both the years of the Hongwu Emperor and the Yongle Emperor (rg. 1403–1424). Another theory states that they came to Ryūkyū in a spontaneous fashion for trade and other reasons.

Let’s take a look at the sources.

The “Records of the Unity of the Great Ming” (Da Ming Yitong-zhi 大明一統志) notes that the 36 Clans had been dispatched in the year 1392:

“Then they [Ryūkyū] were specially presented with 36 Clans from Min [=Fujian], which were good in operating ships, to facilitate the sending of envoys at the time of their bringing tribute, and who also explained to them the manufacture and handling of the mechanical compass.”

The mentioned mechanical compass was called Zhinanche 指南車. It was a cart with a figure, which – by means of a mechanism – always pointed southward. It had been invented by Zu Chongzhi (429–500).

According to the “History of the Ming Dynasty” (Ming-shi 明史, 1739):

“In the year 1392, thirty-six ship craftsmen were given to Okinawa so that they might render service for the voyages of Ryūkyūan tributary missions to China.”

According to the Chinese investiture envoy Chen Kan (Shi Liuqiu Lu 使琉球錄, 1534),

“Some thirty-six good mariners from Fujian were given to Ryūkyū to facilitate the intercourse and the conduct of tributary affairs.”

The Chūzan Seikan中山世鑑 (1650) noted that,

“The Great Ming Emperor gave thirty-six people from Fujian to Ryūkyū to undertake the task of administration, and the present people of Kume village are their descendants.”

The Ryūkyū-koku Yuraiki 琉球国由来記  (1713), in Chapter IX states that,

“By imperial decree, thirty-six people were presented to propagate learning in Chūzan [=Ryūkyū], to take charge of communication with China, and to keep tributary records.”

And the Chūzan Seifu 中山世譜 (compiled 1697 to 1701) described their aim not as specifically a matter of tribute trade, but rather the as to generally increase cultural standards, or

“… to bring the music in harmony and organize the rites and laws.”

Their activities might best be summarized as assisting the Ryūkyūan kingdom in its development of a stable bureaucratic hierarchy.

Although the number thirty-six might be rhetorical, these people were sent by the Ming to serve the Ryūkyū kingdom as marine laborers (zhougong 舟工), merchants and ship craftsmen or to take charge of navigation in connection with the large seagoing vessels presented to Ryūkyū by the Ming. They were later joined by scholars and took over diplomatic duties within Ryūkyū’s official tribute trade with China. Their descendants, among whom are found many important families of government officials, cultivated Confucian learning and Chinese traditions down to the end of the nineteenth century.

However, the formation of the Chinese community of Kume village was not restricted to these 36 Clans alone. It had been pointed out that

“A Chinese community of people from Fujian formed naturally in Ryūkyū, too, as part of the southward migration and trading activities of seafaring people along the Chinese coast at the time.”

The “Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty” (Ming-shilu 明實錄) reports on a petition by King Satto in 1392, praising the merits of Xe Xiyin and Cheng Fu程復, the latter a Chinese person who had served King Satto for more than 40 years within the tribute trade. King Satto asked the Emperor to impart official offices and robes to them, which the Emperor approved. Two years later the king requested to promote both of them to “commanders of battalion” (grade 5a), which was also granted. In 1411 King Shishō 思紹 sent the following petition:

“Cheng Fu comes from Raozhou 饒州 [a place in in Hebei, China]. He had served my ancestor King Satto for more than forty years, industrious and reliable. Now he is eighty-one years old. I request to retire him and let him return to his home.”

This petition was also granted. According to the above, Cheng Fu from Raozhou in Hebei province immigrated to Ryūkyū in about 1370, and there is no doubt that an unofficial trade with China existed prior to the establishment of the tributary trade relationship with the Ming in 1372.

Front and back view of the monument of the 36 Clans at Matsuyama park. 36 family names are insribed, so this is what "Clans" actually refers to. Original photo by the author.

Front and back view of the monument of the 36 Clans at Matsuyama park. 36 family names are insribed, so this is what “Clans” actually refers to. Original photo by the author.

There were other persons mentioned in official documents, of which it is not clear whether they belonged to the 36 Clans or to other Chinese groups. In 1410 a certain Lin You, “who is originally Chinese,” was sent as a tribute envoy from the Kingdom of Chūzan 中山 to the imperial court of China and received “robes of office” as gifts. In 1416, on behalf of the King of Nanzan 南山, the envoy Zheng Yicai was sent to China and who was, according to his name, apparently ethnic Chinese. In 1431 King Shō Hashi turned towards the Ministry of Rites in the matter of a person named Pan Zhongsun. Pan was eighty-one years old at this time. He is described as having originated from the district of Changle near Fuzhou. In 1390, on imperial order, he took part as the helmsman of a Ryūkyūan tribute mission to China and in 1405 was promoted to captain. King Shō Hashi petitioned for Pan to return to his home country of China and settle there.

When the investiture envoy Pan Rong came to Ryūkyū in the summer of 1463, he was visited by two dignitaries in his lodging; one of them, called Cheng Jun, asked for an inscription for a newly built temple. On this occasion Pan Rong came to know Cheng Jun better and was quite impressed:

“Master Cheng is Chinese. To alter the barbarians with the customs of the Chinese people – this is the task of Cheng Jun. He is indeed able to spread the ways of the Chinese among the barbarians of the South and the East, to gradually stain, shape, teach and awaken the barbarians. […] And Ryūkyū became a civilized country.”

1469 Cai Jing, who served several times as a Ryūkyū tribute envoy, reported in a request for awarding office to his parents that his ancestors originated in the district of Nan’an in Fujian. At the beginning of the Hongwu era (1368–1398) he received the order to go to Ryūkyū and to participate in the tribute traffic. Some years earlier the same Cai Jing was sent as vice envoy to Korea by the Ryūkyū King, where he provided comprehensive information about the conditions in Ryūkyū.

According to the above, there were not only those who settled in Kume village by official order of the Chinese emperor, but also those who left China in an illegal manner and found a new home in Ryūkyū. Or those who, like Cheng Fu, already had migrated prior to the introduction of the Chinese maritime ban (1371–1567). This is also evidenced by the sporadic hints appearing in the historical sources, namely that Ryūkyū missions to China partly included “criminals” from the Chinese coastal areas.

Around the middle of the 15th century, Kume village consisted of more than one hundred houses painted in red and blue and inhabited by not only Chinese, but also by Koreans. The settlement was surrounded by earthen walls (dojō 土城) and the inhabitants initially retained their Chinese lifestyle, using tables and chairs and Chinese hairdo. Like that, Kume village was a distinguished habitation era within Naha. Compared to other Chinese overseas merchant communities in Southeast Asia, which were more successful in economics, the Kume people were successful in culture and administration. This is considered to be due to the state stipends and privileges provided to them by the Ryūkyū royal government, which provided them similar benefits as the Shuri nobility. For this reason both the Ryūkyūan royal government and the Chinese immigrants themselves had reason to regulate and limit additional influx of people. Besides, due to the maritime ban Chinese coastal inhabitants were prohibited to travel overseas. In light of this, the term ‘36 Clans’ might probably be considered an euphemism for a legal exception for this maritime ban, granted by the Chinese government for the specific case of Ryūkyū.

Ryūkyūan trade routes (end of fourteenth to middle sixteenth century). After China lifted her maritime trade prohibition (haikin), which lasted from 1371 to 1567. Portugal and Spain rushed into Asia. Ryūkyū’s role as an intermediary weakened. As a result overseas travels of Chinese and Japanese seamen and merchants increased in the waters once engrossed by Ryūkyūan ships.

Ryūkyūan trade routes (end of fourteenth to middle sixteenth century). After China lifted her maritime trade prohibition (haikin), which lasted from 1371 to 1567. Portugal and Spain rushed into Asia. Ryūkyū’s role as an intermediary weakened. As a result overseas travels of Chinese and Japanese seamen and merchants increased in the waters once engrossed by Ryūkyūan ships.

In the “Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty” (Ming-shilu 明實錄) the term ‘36 Clans’ appears for the first time only for the year 1608. So its usage is actually not that old when looking at the primary sources. From this perspective, the term ‘36 Clans’ appears to be a retrospective attribution and an euphemistic expression. In any case, according to that source, in the year 1608 King Shō Nei – unsuccessfully – applied to the Chinese Emperor to “once again” send ‘36 Clans’ from Fujian to serve as tribute envoys, interpreters, seamen etc. Maybe he was also looking for military specialists?

Why was that? We thought Kume village thrived uninterruptedly since its inception?

Ryūkyū’s South-East-Asian overseas trade was in decline since the latter part of the 15th century. Together with this, Kume village declined and its population was drastically reduced. In 1606, Xia Xiyang 夏子陽 visited Ryūkyū as an investiture envoy for King Shō Nei 尚寧王. In his “Records of the Investiture Envoy to Ryūkyū” (Shi Liuqiu Lu 使琉球錄), Xia reported:

“I have heard that in ancient time various subjects of China were dispatched to Ryūkyū to serve as supervisors. Altogether they were 36 clans. But the number of these clans withered and today only six of them survived, namely the clans of Sai 蔡, Tei 鄭, Rin 林, Tei 程, Ryō 梁, and Kin 金. […] Today the ‘Chinese Encampment’ is cut half and the houses lie in ruins!”

Kume village wasted away. Meanwhile, from the end of the 16th to the early 17th centuries, new people from China immigrated. At least eight persons immigrated to Kume village during the years of the Wanli Emperor (1573–1619) and more followed through the years of the Chongzhen, Shunzi, and Kangxi Emperors (1628–1722).

There was a reason for the small but continuous influx: Following the Shimazu invasion of 1609, and while maintaining its tributary relations with China, Ryūkyū had been included into the political sphere of the Japanese shōgunate. From around the middle of the 17th century, the royal government of Ryūkyū took various measures to strengthen Kume village as a part of their promotion policy towards the China trade:

  1. Kume officials were guaranteed official posts.
  2. New human resources were integrated in Kume village. This included Chinese people who drifted ashore, Ryūkyūans who were familiar with the Chinese language and with navigation, and even descendants of Japanese persons.
  3. They were provided economic benefits.

It was exactly by these measures that Kume village regained its importance and prosperity of bygone days. Like this, and unlike the earlier spontaneous settlements, Kume village in the early modern era can be said to have been purposefully created by the political measures implemented by the Ryūkyū royal government. And these measures were nudged by the necessities of the Satsuma rule. Think about it.

Finally, another peculiarity is that – other than the shizoku members of Shuri, Naha, and Tomari – Kume village shizoku did not have a nanorigashira 名乗頭, or specified initial character of a male person’s given name.

© 2016 – 2020, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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