Mainland academics say China discovered the disputed Diaoyu Islands and suggest this should be taught in schools, days after Tokyo promised to teach in its education textbooks that the chain is part of Japan.
Chinese scholars said literary evidence from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) showed Chinese officials took a trip to the Diaoyus in 1808 - 76 years earlier than when Japan claimed it discovered the East China Sea chain, Xinhua reported.
During the reign of Jiaqing, the seventh emperor of the Qing dynasty, a writer named Qian Yong wrote about a trip that painter Shen Fu and officials made to the islands that year, the academics said.
"Qian Yong's writing proves to the world that, at least in 1808, the Diaoyu Islands were located in China's territorial sea, about a day's sea voyage to the then-Japanese boundary," Fu Xuancong, director of Tsinghua University's classic literature research centre, told Xinhua.
Japan announced on Friday that all elementary school textbooks would call the Senkakus, the Japanese name for the islands, part of Japanese territory.
The same applies to the Takeshima islands, which are claimed by South Korea and called the Dokdos by Seoul.
Peng Ling, a historic book specialist at the China Association of Collectors, said: "The Japanese government ignores facts. And even tends to impose false facts on their future generations."
But Ryoko Nakano, a professor of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore, said China's earliest visit to the Diaoyus did not equal ownership of the islands. "The Chinese may have visited those islands, but they didn't claim sovereignty," Nakano said.
"Only after the 1970s did they start to claim sovereignty, but Japan claimed sovereignty way before that, when it was considered no-man's land, and that's legitimate and legal from a Japanese point of view."
The debate marks an attempt by China and Japan to wage a battle through historical research to justify their claims to the islands. But Nakano said teaching only one side of history in textbooks was a "very scary thing" because it "closes the opportunity for the next generation to have reconciliation over this territorial issue".
"They both think they are trying to teach the correct information, but they should be teaching both voices," she said. "There is danger in nationalism."
Students on the mainland only received the chance of hearing a more balanced view of politically sensitive issues during their higher education, as younger pupils followed a curriculum set by the Communist Party, said Leo Liu, an international politics major at Renmin University.
"In elementary school and high school we are taught the Diaoyus are ours. Not much explanation is given," he said.
"In college, we specifically look at all sides of the dispute, and our teachers are more rational, less emotional about it."
He said his allegiance to his country made him more inclined to believe in China's sovereignty over the islands, but he understood that the dispute was complex.
"Personally, I find China's evidence more persuasive, but logically speaking I think neither country has enough evidence to prove ownership," Liu said.