[Viewpoint] Looking for a 21st-century Jang Bo-goA timely film has been playing in theatres across China since last month as three East Asian nations lock horns over sea sovereignty in a contentious manner unseen for decades. The movie titled “1894 Jiawu Da Hai Zhan” (“The Great Sea Battle of Jiawu”) is an epic drama about a Chinese navy officer during the Qing Dynasty fighting invaders from Meiji Japan.
The war in the year of 1894, or Jiawu under the ancient Chinese sexagenary calendar, was one of two sea battles during the nine-month Sino-Japanese War that ended in humiliating defeat for the Chinese and its centuries-old influence over Korea. The first was the Battle of Pungdo on July 25, 1894, that started with a skirmish between Japanese patrol ships and Chinese vessels in front of Korean western coastal Pungdo waters in the Yellow Sea.
The second battle which the movie is based on took place on Sept. 17. The Chinese Beiyang Fleet of 18 warships confronted an imperial Japanese navy armed with a fleet of 12 Western-style modern battleships with torpedo boats and powerful guns in the Yellow Sea near the mouth of the Yalu River.
Five of the Qing vessels sank and the Japanese Navy claimed its second sea victory with just five ships damaged. Defeated China nevertheless had a war hero - Deng Shichang - the navy commander who upon learning his ship ran out of gun powder, steered toward an enemy vessel for a suicide attack. His legacy was relived in the film.
The Beiyang Fleet sought refuge on the fortified Liugong Island off Weihai in Shandong Province. But in February, it was encircled and wiped out by Japanese naval and ground forces. The fall of Weihai led the Qing leadership to sign a treaty, recognizing complete independence of the Joseon Dynasty, in other words, relinquishing all its invested powers in Korea.
It had been what the Japanese was after all along - to end the suzerainty over Korea that could pave the way for its encroachment. It was an unfortunate and sad fate for a small country sandwiched between two major countries.
Earlier this month, I visited Liugong Island, just a 20-minute ferry ride from a port in Weihai. I wanted to see with my eyes how the once-mighty Beijyang Fleet, or China’s first modern navy, was so crushingly devastated. The war remnants at the island museum and residence of the fleet’s commander Ding Ruchang unabashedly exposed the scars of the defeated. The purpose was evident - to learn from the shameful past.
The Beiyang Feet was founded by influential elite Li Hongzhang in 1888. It became the largest in the Far East and fourth in the world, cementing China’s dominance at sea with 29 warships, including German-made flagships. But at the very beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, its flagship Dingyuan caught fire and the commanding admiral, Ding Ruchang, and the crew were injured.
It lost commanding control after Japanese fire damaged the Dinyuang’s flag to signal other ships. Although the ship was more powerful than any of the Japanese fleet, it hadn’t received repair work for seven years. Deng Sichang, who was commanding the cruiser Jiyuan, died during the battle because his ship ran out of ammunition. What incapacitated the Chinese fleet?
I could track the explanation from a story I heard while visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing, a summer resort for Chinese royals that became the spectacular lake-side palace under Empress Dowager Cixi, a powerful woman who controlled the Qing Dynasty for nearly a half-century. She embezzled funding from the Beiyang Fleet to lavish on her favorite summer destination.
The same year the war with the Japanese broke out, the nation was preparing an extravagant 60th birthday for the empress. The Beiyang Fleet had no funding for ammunition since 1891. In contrast, the Japanese royal court saved up to help raise funding for the navy. The winner had already been decided from the preparatory stage.
But China is determined not to make the same mistake. China is erecting monuments on the battle scenes of the disgraced naval base in Liugong Island and has made a film on the defeat. Former President Ziang Zemin has ordered compulsory school visits to the Ziawu War Museum to plant deep patriotism and vigilance in the hearts of young Chinese.
The film also has an unequivocal message, which underscores the need to strengthen naval power. China has never been a naval power, but is now out to create one in its modern renaissance era. It may have decided that its ascent on the global stage must be accompanied by powerful naval forces. China’s first aircraft carrier is expected to be deployed for a naval program possibly from September. The carrier has finished nine trial sails as of July.
Japan has been equally busy in maritime build-up. In its latest defense white paper, Japan cited the need for naval reinforcements to counter China’s advance to the Pacific. The centuries-old sea rivalry between China and Japan with the Korean Peninsula caught in the middle may be revived.
The waters around the three countries are roiling due to territorial disputes. Antagonism is at its peak due to the dispute over the Dokdo islets between Korea and Japan and the Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan. We may find a solution for our role amidst the strife at Weihai.
On Weihai’s Shidao stands a temple built by Jang Bo-go, an influential maritime figure of the Unified Silla Dynasty, as well as monuments that remember Jang, whose powerful army protected merchant activities in the Yellow Sea of his countrymen as well as the Chinese and Japanese.
He defeated coastal pirates and created a maritime commerce network for the three neighboring countries. Under his patronage, the Yellow Sea found peace and sea commerce flourished. This was all due to his naval power. We must uphold his sea legacy and wisdom to build naval and mediating leverage and power so that we do not once again become victimized by the power game between China and Japan.
* The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul