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Sea change

Peng Yining reports in Weihai, Shandong
Updated: Sep 24,2014 12:40 PM     

Sailors on a PLA navy cruiser take an oath on Aug 27 off the coast of Weihai, Shandong province. That day marked the 120th year of the start of the First Sino-Japanese War (also called the Jiawu War) in 1894.The PLA navy, for the first time in its history, held a maritime memorial ceremony.[Photo by Cha Chunming/XInhua]

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of special reports in which our reporters will travel the length of China’s 18,000-km-long coastline to detail the lives of the people whose existence is dominated, and often facilitated, by the waters that stretch from Bohai Bay in the north to the Zengmu Shoal in the south.

At the sound of a steam whistle, the troops on the People’s Liberation Army navy cruiser spread white chrysanthemums and red Chinese roses on the waters, where China was defeated during the Jiawu War, or the First Sino-Japanese War, in 1894.

To mark the 120th year of the start of the war, the PLA navy held an unprecedented maritime memorial ceremony off the coast of Weihai in East China’s Shandong province.

In the fresh August morning breeze, guns thundered a salute to Chinese troops who died in the war. Naval officers and sailors, including chief commander Wu Shengli, stood in silent tribute.

“The importance of maritime power has long been underestimated, which directly caused us to fail in the Jiawu War,” Wu said. “Having the ceremony in the old battle waters is a way to remember this tragic part of history.”

Today’s China has entered a new era and is unprecedentedly close to the center of the international stage, but still faces a complicated global situation and increasing tension in its maritime territory, Wu said during the ceremony.

“The rise of great nations is also the rise of great maritime powers,” Wu said. “History reminds us that a country will not prosper without maritime power.

“China has been exploring oceans, caring about maritime issues and developing the understanding of maritime rights.”

Liugongdao history

Not far from the memorial site is the island of Liugongdao. Once the most powerful fleet in Asia, with battleships and cruisers bought from Europe and sailors trained there, the Beiyang Fleet, a major royal naval force of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was headquartered in Liugongdao, where it came to an end when Japanese landed in 1895.

Located in Weihai Bay, the 3-square kilometer island has been a military fortress for centuries. The dock used during the war is still there, with 300 meters of railway tracks that were used to carry coal and cannonballs to the battleships.

Opened to the public in 1985, the island has been a national forest park and Weihai’s most popular tourist spot, attracting more than 10,000 visitors a day during holidays.

The remains of many once-mighty ships still lie in the depth of the waters around Liugongdao. Parts of the Jiyuan battleship, including its front guns, have been salvaged and displayed at the site of the Beiyang Fleet headquarters.

Polished and rubbed over countless times by visitors, a used cannon is still set on the island’s highest spot facing the East, where the Japanese navy invaded.

“Actually China had one of the best naval forces in Asia before the war, but at that time, China traditionally focused on land defense, neglecting the importance of maritime power, which caused its failure,” said Du Jingchen, vice-commander of the PLA navy.

The Beiyang Fleet had more than 4,000 officers and sailors and 25 battleships, Du said. With a displacement of 7,000 tons, ironclad battleships Dingyuan and Zhenyuan were brought from Germany and considered the largest battleships in the world at that time.

Du said the 5,000 years of Chinese history are based on an agrarian civilization. Although China developed the maritime Silk Road in the Han Dynasty and Zheng He, the famed navigator of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), helmed seven voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Africa, its maritime civilization has never been in the mainstream of Chinese culture.

During the 18th Communist Party of China Congress in late 2012, building a country with strong maritime power, including the capabilities of controlling, developing and protecting the ocean, was for the first time written in the Party’s report. It became the top item in the agenda of China’s development.

State oceanic administration figures showed that the gross value of maritime production hit 5.43 trillion yuan (885 billion) in 2013, accounting for 9.5 percent of China’s GDP. More than 35 million people were involved in maritime-related industries.

The oceanic administration has completed 31 voyages covering the search for maritime mining areas. Since the 1980s, China has conducted 30 scientific investigation projects in the South Pole and five in the North Pole. In February 2014, Taishan station, China’s fourth research station in the South Pole, was built.

By 2020, China’s gross value of maritime production is expected to double and 2.6 million more people will be involved in maritime industries, Liu Cigui, head of the State Oceanic Administration, said in a speech in June.

China will be one of the major countries with strong maritime power around 2049, Liu said.

Protecting territory

A missile frigate and helicopter join in the maritime memorial ceremony on Aug 27.[Photo by Cha Chunming/XInhua]

“Oceans are not just seaways, they also have economic and military value,” Wu Shengli said. “We are not just exploring the coastal waters, but will also develop the deep and far seas.”

China has been protecting its maritime territory and will look to larger influence over international maritime issues, Wu said.

In July 2012, China established Sansha city, with its government seat on Yongxing Island, to administer the Xisha, Zongsha and Nansha islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea.

Two month later, China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, was launched.

Peace Ark, the PLA navy’s hospital ship, has completed five humanitarian missions in more than 20 countries in South Asia, Africa and South America in the past four years.

The 17th escort fleet sailed in March and participated in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, before heading to the Gulf of Aden.

China has been fully involved in international maritime affairs and will be participating in a larger and wider scale, Wu said.

“But to some extent, China still needs to improve the awareness of maritime power,” said Jin Hang, military expert from the PLA navy’s East Sea Fleet.

Jin took the Millennium Monument, a landmark located in Beijing, as an example. He said the monument has only laid out yellow tiles to symbolize China’s 9.6 million square kilometer land territory, neglecting the coastal areas. Many elementary and middle school geography textbooks also have no maps of China’s maritime territory, he said.

Most Chinese know the size of China’s land territory but few know the country also has 80,000 square kilometers of blue territory and 3 million square kilometers of waters on the continental shelf, Jin said.

“As it builds a strong navy, China should also keep exploring and developing its maritime territory,” Jin said. “And people should know more about maritime power through textbooks, maps and museums.”

The museum of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 on Liugongdao is shaped like a battleship. On the entrance at the head of the ship, there is a statue of an admiral of the Qing Dynasty looking east through a telescope.

In front of the statue, there is a sculpture of a half-sunk cruiser representing a battleship destroyed by the Japanese and China’s defeat.

“It takes courage to rethink about the shame of the Jiawu War,” said Li Qiucheng, 47-year-old tourist from Hebei province.

“China has learned the lesson from the war and we won’t let history repeat itself.”

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