Siamese Boxing and Karate – Fact check!

In the January 1965 edition of Black Belt, Karate has been technically compared with Muay Thai. Today there is no karate blogger or vlogger who didn’t touch this topic. There is usually a staccato logic underlined by pictorial comparisons. Of course, karate people should state their case, but when and how did Ryūkyū really had relations with Siam, and is it sufficient to establish a “theory of combative transmission”?

Fact check! (extended version)

The existence of the old Ryūkyū kingdom was largely centered on tributary trade with China. According to the Chinese perspective, all countries in the world were under its authority, and international order and stability was maintained through the tributary-trade system. Bringing tribute to China meant accepting its superiority, but at the same time it was the only gate for entering into legal trade. For this reason, basically all countries in Asia were part of this system. The frequency of the fixed tribute missions per country to Nanjing and later Beijing differed, and the fewer the tribute missions, the viewer the chances to trade. Java and Annam were allowed to enter China once every three years, Japan only once every ten years. Each of the three Ryūkyūan kings, on the other hand and indicating its preferred treatment, was initially allowed to trade annually, and in this way were able to further provide these much-sought products on the maritime trading routes across the China Sea. Furthermore, as each country had a designated trading port to enter, many Chinese merchants at these places suffered from infrequent trading possibilities dependent on the fixed tribute frequency of the respective country. So they filled their junks with goods and set sail for Java, Annam, Japan, and other countries (Takara 1996: 23, 47–48).

Meanwhile, the maritime region between Japan, Korea, China, and Ryūkyū still faced a threat which provided the opportunity for Ryūkyū to debut in international society. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards increasing piracy had resulted in extreme deterioration of law and order along the Chinese coast, and this situation continued under the Ming. At this time the so-called Japanese pirates (wakō) must be regarded as adventurous groups of armed merchants engaged in commercial activities who would exhibit violent behavior if trade was not granted (Yamamoto 2008: 9. Takara 1996: 46).

The crucial point is that this constituted private trade as opposed to China’s governmental tributary trade system, and thus it constituted an infringement of the Chinese World Order, i.e., international stability and peace with China at the core. Furthermore, the inhabitants of China’s coastal areas, as well as forces opposed to the Ming government, were likely to join forces in trade with those pirate-merchant bands (Acta Asiatica, Nr. 95, p. iv). Ming China’s answer was the implementation of maritime prohibitions to stabilize the internal situation as well as to prevent the intrusion of external forces (Möller 1991: 18–19. The maritime interdictions were called Haichin 海禁, Jp.  Kaikin).

According to the regulations, Chinese persons were prohibited from traveling overseas, and ships arriving from other countries had to carry official trade licenses or tallies (kanhe 勘合). If Chinese were already living abroad, they were prohibited from returning home. The Ming positioned Ryūkyū as its overseas trade intermediary and assisted it by bestowing it trading ships, by dispatching personnel to help in the conduct of trade (thirty-six families), by permitting Ryūkyūan ships to visit China at any time, and by exempting them from the tally system (Acta Asiatica, Nr. 95, p. iv. Takara 1996: 48). The above mentioned Chinese maritime trade prohibition ban lasted from 1371 to 1567 (Schottenhammer 2010: 101. Wang 2010: 173) and triggered the Great Age of Trade (dai kōeki jidai) of Ryūkyū, revolving around the network of East and Southeast Asian maritime trading routes, its markets, warehouses and the port city of Naha.

A Ryūkyū trading post generally known as the Ryūkyūkan was first situated in Quanzhou, and later transferred to Fuzhou. Official Ryūkyūan trade proper was a government-run business solely and not controlled and handled by private individuals. The ships belonged to the king, and the merchants and seamen were royal vassals (Matsuda 2001: 16).

In Fujian, the hulls of Ryūkyūan junks were filled with highly coveted Chinese ceramics, textiles, and so on, then supplied via the maritime trade routes to Japan, Korea, and to more than eight Southeast Asian countries where Ryūkyūan merchants conducted their sales. After refilling their emptied holds with the specialties procured in each of these countries, they headed back to Naha, added local products, and all, in turn, was sent to the Ming again as tribute articles. The Ryūkyū Kingdom thus assumed the position of a classic trade intermediary. The prosperity achieved through this maritime trade brought Ryūkyū on a par with Malacca in the west. This period, spanning the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is referred to as Ryūkyū’s Great Age of Trade (dai kōeki jidai).

For the rest of Asia, it was now tough to legally obtain Chinese goods, and many would ignore the maritime prohibition and resort to smuggling (Takara 1996: 48), i.e. illegal private commercial activities, and it is also likely that Japanese merchants dealt with Southeast Asia via Ryūkyū (Wang 2010: 184). Even Ryūkyū was part of this smuggling network, as can be seen in the large numbers of crudely made ceramics that still reached Okinawa from the fifteenth century and later (Yamamoto 2008: 6). Ryūkyūan seamen even sailed Chinese junks and operated on behalf of private Chinese merchants (Beillevaire 2000, I: 4). With all private trade being illegal, smuggling and piracy kept being on the fore.

The Great Age of Trade was immortalized with the casting of the Bridge-to-all-Nations Bell (bankoku shinryō no kane) in 1458, bearing the following inscription:

Situated in the picturesque southern seas between Korea, China and Japan, we, the Ryūkyū Kingdom, navigate our ships to build bridges for the world and thriving international trade.

The following table shows the number of official trade missions from Ryūkyū to Southeast Asia from 1425–1570. It is to be noted that the actual number of outgoing vessels, particularly in the case of Siam, was higher (Matsuda 2001: 16. Möller 1991: 25. Takara 1996: 49. The reason is that the RDHA, the primary source for the Southeast Asian trade relations, began only in 1425 and there are also significant gaps for the time following 1425).

Number of official trading missions from Ryūkyū to Southeast Asia (According to Takara 1996: 49, compiled from the Rekidai Hōan and other sources)

The illustration of trading routes shown below, based on the Rekidai Hōan and other official works, shows the status of the official trade routes of the kingdom. Their range along the East China Sea and the South China Sea coasts region, that is, the circles of the China Sea world, reveals its vast scope. The number of Ryūkyūans that crossed the seas to China during this period is roughly estimated to around 100,000 persons in total, and the sum of travelers to Southeast Asia is calculated to about 32,000 persons. From that it is easy to understand that the Ryūkyū kingdom was the leading trading power in the whole sphere of the China Sea world. To establish such a magnificent foreign trade, naturally, some conditions were prerequisite, summarized by Takara as follows (Takara 1993, I: 23–26).

First of all, with the founding of the Ming Dynasty and as a measure to strengthen its investiture and tributary trade system, a maritime ban was issued restricting overseas travel for the Chinese people.

Another point to bear in mind is that Confucian forces at the imperial court sought to curtail the influence of the powerful eunuchs, which traditionally were military people and previously had conquered the waters up to Africa under Zheng He with the largest fleet the world had seen until that time. The gradual destruction of all things connected to shipbuilding of ocean-going vessels was related to the curtailment of the eunuchs at the imperial court.

Ryūkyūan trade routes
Ryūkyūan trade routes (end of fourteenth to middle sixteenth century).

Without having had established an investiture and tributary relationship, official entry to China was not granted, and at the same time no trade of any sort with China was allowed. The maritime ban was a kind of self-imposed national isolation, and by this measure the overseas trade of Chinese merchants retracted significantly. As a result, taking advantage of the investiture and tributary policy, the gap provided by the recession of Chinese merchants created room for the emergence of Ryūkyū’s trading power by supplying a wealth of excellent Chinese products to various overseas countries. Since King Satto of Chūzan in 1372 joined the tributary trade relation, year after year Ryūkyūan ships traveled the East China Sea, forming a bold trading route between Naha and their designated port in Fujian (From 1372 in Quanzhou, and from 1472 in Fuzhou) with a large number of Chinese products on board. That is, Ryūkyū had achieved a position of being able to purchase the most excellent goods on a frequent, continuous, and partly exclusive basis.

The second condition for the establishment of a stereotypical method of transit trade is that the only locally produced export goods of Ryūkyū were horses, sulfur, spiral shell, summer clothes, cow skin, etc., which couldn’t generate enough purchasing power for the large number of goods available in China. Therefore, Ryūkyū sent ships with the products obtained in China to Japan and Korea in the north, and to Southeast Asia in the south, returning with their hulls fully loaded with exclusive products from these areas. Together with the local Ryūkyūan products, those foreign country products were then exported to China again. The trading routes with Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia had the character of a network market where Chinese products were sold off, and at the same time they served as markets for the procurement of goods for export to China.

Third, the Ryūkyū foreign trade was an official (governmental) trade under the management of the kingdom. The trade ships were owned by the king, and all personnel were also government officials serving the king; in Ryūkyū, there was not even one private merchant vessel or private merchant involved in this sort of tribute trade with China and the related traffic with Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Therefore, as is clearly shown in the diplomatic documents included in the Rekidai Hōan, Ryūkyū foreign trade was always subject to diplomacy and accompanied by official negotiations with the country concerned, for example the Southeast Asian states or principalities of Siam, Java, Malacca, Atjeh, Patani, Annam, Sunda and Palembang (Beillevaire 2000, I: 4). Needless to say, this governmental trading system, the cornerstone of Ryūkyū foreign trade, was formed by the investiture and tributary relation with China, that is, the so-called tributary trade.

Fourth, the employment of immigrated Chinese (binjin sanjūroku-sei) from the Chinese encampment in Kumemura for navigation, shipbuilding, interpretation, drafting of documents, and other foreign businesses, and at the same time the adoption of similar functions in promotion of trade and diplomatic relations with Japan by Japanese monks resident in Ryūkyū.

Underpinned by the above four basic conditions, the kingdom’s foreign trade progressed, constituted its economic foundation, and entailed a cultural creation through the consumption of various overseas cultures. In this way, foreign relations indeed had a massive impact on the economic and cultural replenishment of the kingdom. Ryūkyū’s golden age of trade was thus a result of China’s maritime trade prohibition ban (haikin) of the early Ming, lasting from 1371 to 1567. After China lifted the ban on maritime trade, as a result of the wave of the Age of Discovery represented by Portugal and Spain, who 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 (Wang 2010: 173, 187. Schottenhammer 2010: 101. Takara 1993, I: 26. Matsuda 2001: 16). It appears that the circle of the China Sea world at this time transformed into a massive market for illegal trade, and accordingly the Ryūkyūan foreign trade supported by diplomacy and tribute trade relaxed, and with the exception of Ryūkyū ships to China, official maritime trading voyages of the kingdom’s fleet surrendered to a rapid decline. Finally, in 1570, official Ryūkyūan ship voyages to Southeast Asia stopped, and only China, Japan, and Korea remained in the maritime relations of the kingdom (Takara 1993, I: 26–27. Matsuda 2001: 16).

It should be noted that this official end of the Ryūkyūan Southeast Asia trade applies only to trade performed within the official China trade, whereas trade on a private level continued within a different constellation, that is, within the Japanese trade activities in Southeast Asia.

Looking at the above, and while there is no doubt that Siamese boxing existed, I wonder when and how exactly it is supposed to have entered modern karate.

© 2019, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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