• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 7:16pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

How a non-existent island became China's southernmost territory

Bill Hayton says records show that a translation error some 80 years ago may be to blame

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 6:37am

Where is the "southernmost point of Chinese territory"? It's a controversial question and the least controversial answer might be Hainan Island . More controversial options would be the Paracel (Xisha) islands or the Spratlys (Nansha). But officially the southernmost point is even further south - as far south as the James Shoal, about 100 kilometres from the coast of Borneo. What's more surprising is that this piece of the motherland is actually invisible. There's nothing there to see, unless you have diving equipment.

The James Shoal lies 22 metres below sea. Yet this inconvenience doesn't prevent PLA Navy ships visiting the shoal from time to time to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty over it. This ritual involves heaving a large piece of engraved stone over the side of the ship. There is now a small collection of Chinese stelae gathering organic encrustations on the sea floor, more than 1,000 kilometres from Hainan.

How did the Chinese state come to regard this obscure feature, so far from home, as its southernmost point? I've been researching the question for some time while writing a book on the South China Sea. The most likely answer seems to be that it was probably the result of a translation error.

In the 1930s, China was engulfed in waves of nationalist anxiety. The predation of the Western powers and imperial Japan, and the inability of the Republic of China to do anything meaningful to stop them, caused anger both in the streets and the corridors of power. In 1933, the republic created the "Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps" to formally list, describe and map every part of Chinese territory. It was an attempt to assert sovereignty over the republic's vast territory.

The major problem facing the committee, at least in the South China Sea, was that it had no means of actually surveying any of the features it wanted to claim. Instead, the committee simply copied the existing British charts and changed the names of the islands to make them sound Chinese. We know they did this because the committee's map included about 20 mistakes that appeared on the British map - features that in later, better surveys were found not to actually exist.

The committee gave some of the Spratly islands Chinese names. North Danger Reef became Beixian (the Chinese translation of "north danger"), Antelope Reef became Lingyang (the Chinese word for antelope). Other names were just transliterated so, for example, Spratly Island became Sipulateli and James Shoal became Zengmu. And this seems to be where the mistakes crept in.

But how to translate "shoal"? It's a nautical word meaning an area of shallow sea where waves "shoal" up. Sailors would see a strange area of choppy water in the middle of the ocean and know the area was shallow and therefore dangerous. James Shoal is one of many similar features in the Spratlys.

But the committee didn't seem to understand this obscure English term because they translated "shoal" as " tan" - the Chinese word for beach or sandbank - a feature which is usually above water. The committee, never having visited the area, seems to have declared James Shoal/Zengmu Tan to be a piece of land and therefore a piece of China.

In 1947, the republic's cartographers revisited the question of China's ocean frontier, drawing up what would become known as the "U-shaped line". It seems that they looked at the list of Chinese names, assumed that Zengmu Tan was above water and included it within the line. A non-existent island became the country's southernmost territory.

But in a parallel process around the same time, the republic government gave new names to many of the sea features. Spratly Islands became Nanwei (the noble south), for example, and James Shoal was changed from a sandbank ( tan) into a reef ( ansha). Perhaps, by this time, the authorities had realised their mistake. Nonetheless Zengmu Ansha retained its official southernmost status.

By now, the translation error had become a fact, setting the region on course for conflict 80 years later.

This is more than a piece of historical trivia; James Shoal is a test of whether Beijing really is committed to the rule of international law in the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state can claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it lies within 12 nautical miles of its land. James Shoal is over 1,000 kilometres from undisputed Chinese territory.

Last month, the Philippines government announced it would seek a ruling from an international tribunal about whether China's claims in the sea were compatible with the UN convention. James Shoal would be a clear example of a claim that is not compatible. Perhaps this might be a good moment for Beijing to review how it came to claim this obscure piece of submarine territory in the first place.

Bill Hayton is writing a book on the South China Sea for publication later this year


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

Continuing on from my previous post ...
Why would it be so surprising that small islands may submerge into the sea 600 years after Zeng He's voyages?
Does the author not think the Japanese "island" (actually rock) of Okinotorishima could potentially be under water 600 years from today?
Both points of yours are very good. Let me add some more. The British unilaterally drew the McMahon Line between China and the India subcontinent. But they never got around to naming border towns in the territory. For example, Aksai Chin, one of the contested areas in 1962 Indo-Chinese conflict, never had an English name.
The Brits have this incurable habit of anglicizing every city in the world as if they own them. Muenchen is Munich, Vienna Wie. Anglos know only Florence but not Firenze. Guangzhou became Canton, until China could stand on her feet and demanded the world to call our cities by their proper names.
Why is it that if the Chinese names on Chinese maps match the English names on British maps, then it is China that copied Britain?
Why not the British copied China?
China had maps of SE Asia LONG before Britain had maps of SE Asia. Wouldn't it be logical that Britain was the one that copied other people's maps?
whymak is a learned gentleman who ignores stooges’ self-reflective sarcasms
As charity for spring festival, I’d try the impossible
to ignite some rotten candle wicks
Cactus is right about Britain’s “NEED to protect and expand its trade”
Trade is not charity; its sole purpose is to advance self-interest
What if one loses trade due to diminished competitive edge
and trade strengthens competitors at one’s own expense?
In Britain’s case, it abolished trading individual slaves and turned to colonization,
the worst form of conquest, the enslavement of an entire nation; e.g., India
For China that it wasn’t capable to colonize,
Britain pushed drug, first opium for the body
then indoctrination packaged as education to poison the mind - eg Cactus'
When dollar replaced pound sterling, Britain developed the parasitic Eurodollar
that in hard times found the “need” to profiteer thru LIBOR manipulation
and laundering drug money.
All these cactus and likes ignore, chanting blindly hypocritical slogans
Cactus represents a host of xenophobic expatriates that HK somehow attracts
If scholarism is serious in fighting brainwashing, it should target these bigots
who are more chauvinistic than the hawks at the peak of Cold War.
Cowardice and ignorance have turned dimwits paranoid
Their groundlessly thematic comments are based on prejudice
For empires, they refer to Rome, China and Britain
Where is the empire of Chomsky, Charlmers Johnson, John Perkins … ?
"Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state can claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it lies within 12 nautical miles of its land."
I am wondering who wrote this law. Why 12 ? What about above water ?
Who wrote it? I assume the United Nations. As to your other questions, I have no clue.
Who wrote it? The Brits and Americans. They count on their superior gunboats to beat the living daylight out of you if you demur at their demand to open the ports for their electronic games -- used to be opium -- and rap music. With 12 nautical miles off your coast, it gives you no time to defend against them establishing a beachhead for a full scale invasion.
Their blue water navy is everywhere. This law gives the aggressors but not the defenders an overwhelming advantage.
jetfighter.jetf hits the nail on the head.
As for Tiger J (and no prizes for guessing his ethnicity), there was no International Tribunal when Rome and Britain built their empires. There is a fundamental difference between Rome's empire and Britain's. Rome's empire was built by ambitious generals who stood to gain vast wealth from the sale of booty, particularly war captives - often entire populations who were sold as slaves. Britain's empire was not created from a desire to conquer, it was built upon the need to expand and protect its trade, and it was the first European power to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself.
China has no altruistic aims or motives and absolutely no scruples. It is bent on serving its own interests and would destroy all the planets resources in its selfish and ethno-centric greed. It is the emerging master race dictatorship threatening the free world.
Did Rome or the British ever consult with the international tribunal before building their large Empires?
And this attitude pretty much sums up why the rest of the world feels the need to contain China. Hard to be friends with a country that feels it has the right to emulate every selfish wrong deed ever done over the course of world history.



SCMP.com Account