TANMEN, China — Little boats with noisy engines puttered purposefully down the river and out toward the South China Sea. Big vessels — ships, really, with three or four decks, and heavy equipment — lay tied up close to the crowded town, looming over the low buildings along the bank. Then a workhorse of the sea — high-bowed, about 40 feet long, wheelhouse astern — slipped by. It was heading out for a week, or more likely a couple of weeks, on the open water. Crewmen, stripped to the waist, lathered up and washed from a barrel of water on deck as their trip began. The boat cleared the last bulkhead and then let loose with dozens of firecrackers that hung in strings over the sides.
We had arrived by bus: 15 reporters from a dozen countries, on a tour arranged by the East-West Center of Hawaii. We were in Tanmen, on the island of Hainan, at the northern approaches to the South China Sea, to talk with fishermen. We were not going from boat to boat looking for someone with tales to tell. Our local escorts had arranged a meeting on the paved walkway along the south bank of the river. A delegation of retired fishermen was there to receive us and tell us about their livelihoods.
China and its neighbors are quarreling over the South China Sea, and fishermen play a role in that. Chinese coast guard boats have been driving Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats away from reefs and fishing grounds that China now claims control of. We were here to get the Chinese water-level perspective.
Su Cheng Feng is 80, retired now for 11 years. At first, after the firecracker display died down, he was the most talkative. He said he didn't meet fishermen from other countries very often in the old days when he was out at sea, before the surrounding countries' territorial claims began to be taken seriously, because their boats were smaller than the Chinese boats, and, frankly, their skills weren't as high. The sea, he said, was China's traditional fishing ground.
Chinese "fishermen have been fishing in the South China Sea for many, many generations," he said. "These are our own waters, just as natural as a farmer going to his field."
We asked him about the past. What was it like before the Communists came to power in 1949, or even during the war, when he was a boy and his father was a fisherman? He didn't have much to say; nothing special, nobody talked about it.
Wu Shujin, 79, Mai Yunxiu, 79, and Huang Qinghe, 82, listened in, added a word here and there. They had all been captains. They had fished for wrasse, grouper and mackerel. They dried their catch on board or sold it to a buyer's boat that would take it back to shore. They didn't get much help from the government. (Younger men standing nearby disputed that.)
Then Lu Yuyong suddenly appeared. He's 51, still active on a boat. He took over the conversation. "The life on a boat is very tough," he said.
He brought out a pink plastic bag and unwrapped from it a traditional Chinese compass. It's one of the four great Chinese inventions, he said (along with gunpowder, paper-making and printing). Suddenly he was on his knees on the blacktop, unrolling a nautical chart of the sea. He was showing us how to use the compass on the chart, and having a little trouble, most likely because it had traditional markings on it and not the 360 degrees of a modern one. Su got down with him, and all the reporters and local hangers-on crowded around.
Lu said he was glad the Chinese government is building up some of the islands in the sea; he has lost three family members in storms who had nowhere to go to and no one to help them. Permanent occupation on some of the islands could save lives, he said.
But when fishermen from other countries dare to fish the South China Sea, he said, "they're invading our waters."
"We could go all the way to Australia if we wanted to," he said. "But we don't. That's not our ground. It's not about loving or not loving your country. It's about fishing your own waters."
Chinese fisherman, he said, were the first to discover the islands of the South China Sea. "And as opposed to other countries, we are civilized," he said, again mentioning the compass as one of the four great inventions. He rolled up the chart, then got out a piece of paper and drew his own map of the sea, which he labeled the "Ancestor Sea." He talked about the annual celebrations in Tanmen for the Brotherhood of the 108 (also known as the 108 Stars of Destiny, or the Outlaws of the Marsh), demonic overlords from a 700-year-old novel who were banished, repented and were reborn as heroes. What upstart nation, he seemed to be asking, could lay claim to history here the way China can?