I found something kind of neat today. Continuing my investigations into the Ryukyuan tribute missions to China, I started reading a short article by Maehira Fusaaki 真栄平房昭, entitled Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken1, and discovered a mention of George Lord Macartney coming across Ryukyuan ambassadors on their way to Beijing.
Right: Image of Lord George Macartney. Quite the fashionable looker. Source unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikipedia.
For those unfamiliar, George Lord Macartney was the head of the first official British mission to China, in 1793. This has become a particularly famous event in Chinese history, a meeting in which British and Chinese notions of diplomacy, and cultures of court ritual, clashed and resulted in misunderstandings and a general failure to achieve good relations. This was also the occasion of the Qianlong Emperor’s famous saying, that China had all the things it could want in the world, and that China had no need of such nonsense trinkets as some petty small country such as Britain might have to offer.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Ryukyu became a tributary to the Ming Court in 1372, and continued to send tributary missions to Beijing quite regularly from that time, all the way up until the 1870s. For much of the 17th-19th centuries, Ryukyu was sending missions to Beijing once every two years, as Korea did as well. The Ryukyuans and Koreans presented gifts of local goods (i.e. Ryukyuan or Korean products) as tribute, as a show of their king’s gratitude and deference to the Emperor of China, and in return the Emperor bestowed lavish gifts upon them, as a show of his grace and generosity. Unlike what Lord Macartney had in mind, there were no policy discussions involved in these meetings. Rather, they were ritual performances, enactments, of the maintenance or reaffirmation of the relationship between the two countries. The Emperor of China invested the kings of Korea and Ryukyu in their thrones, officially recognizing them as King, and serving as the source of their legitimacy, and in return those kings dispatched tribute missions.
Given how frequent these tribute missions were, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Ryukyuans would have crossed paths with Macartney. Still, it was a neat find. Coming across this mention in Maehira’s article, who quotes it in Japanese translation, I decided to go try to find the original English. Unsurprisingly, Macartney’s diary, An Embassy to China: Being the journal kept by Lord Macartney during his embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung 1793-1794, has been reprinted in modern publication, and can be easily found in a 1963 volume edited by J.L. Cranmer-Byng. Turning to November 18, 1793, when Macartney & the Ryukyuans crossed paths on the Grand Canal just south of Hangzhou, on pp182-183, it reads:
Monday, November 18. The river spreads here a good deal, and is very shallow. The banks rich, pleasant and generally level, but we see the mountains at a distance before us, and approach them very fast. I suppose we shall be amongst them to-morrow.
This evening Wang brought two genteel young men with him on board my yacht, and presented them to me as the ambassadors from the King of the Liuchiu islands, now on their way to Pekin. Regularly once in two years this prince sends such ambassadors to Amoy, in the province of Fukien (no other port being open to these strangers), from whence they proceed by this route to carry their master’s homage and tribute to the Emperor. They speak Chinese well, but have a proper language of their own, whether approaching to the Japanese or Korea I could not well comprehend. They told me that no European vessel had ever touched their islands, but if they should come they would be well received. There is no prohibition against foreign intercourse; they have a fine harbor capable of admitting the largest vessels not far from their capital, which is considerable in extent and population. They raise a coarse kind of tea, but far inferior to the Chinese, and have many mines of copper and iron. No gold or silver mines have as yet been discovered among them, which may in some measure account for these islands being so little known.
The dress which these ambassadors wore I particularly remarked. It is a very fine sort of shawl made in their own country, dyed of a beautiful brown colour and lined with a squirrel skin, or petit-gros. They wore turbans very neatly folded round their heads; one was of yellow silk and the other of purple. They had neither linen nor cotton in any part of their dress that I could perceive. The fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese. They were well-looking, tolerably fair complexioned, well-bred, conversable, and communicative. From the geographical position of these islands they should naturally belong either to the Chinese or the Japanese. They have chosen the protection of the former, and when their Sovereign dies his successor receives a sort of investiture or confirmation from Pekin. It would seem that the Japanese give themselves no sort of concern about their neighbours. Concentrated and contented in their own Empire, they seldom make excursions beyond their own coasts, and are equally averse that their coasts should be visited by others. If circumstances permit, I think it may be worth while to explore these Liuchiu islands. The climate is temperate, rather cold in winter, but not very hot in summer.
As Maehira explains, “Wang” refers to Wang Wenxiong 王文雄, a Tongzhou military official. Macartney says Ryukyuans are limited to Amoy (Xiamen), when in fact it was the port of Fuzhou, but otherwise gets the basic notion of tribute missions once every two years correct. He is also right that the Ryukyuans have their own language and culture, close to that of Japanese, but distinct; and I would not be surprised if these ambassadors were well-educated in both Chinese language and Chinese customs, though at the same time, we must always be wary that when a foreigner, even a Japanese, says things like “the fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese,” they could be speaking from Orientalist stereotypes and fantasies, and not from accurate judgement. In any case, I am not sure whether any European ships had ever been to Ryukyu yet, but of course they were not truly open to foreign intercourse. I am also not sure of any iron or copper mines; seems unlikely, given the extremely flat terrain and coral limestone makeup of the islands.
I don’t know quite enough about the Ryukyuan garments to say what sort of “squirrel skin” or other lining they might have been using, but given that it’s November, and the mission is spending New Year’s in Beijing, I should hope that these Ryukyuans – coming from a rather warm climate – would have some kind of lining in their clothes to keep them warm in the North China winter. The “turbans” Macartney refers to are hachimaki – court caps indicative of the two men’s rank. The Lead Envoy, in a purple cap, held the title ueekata 親方, and must have been of the First or Second Rank, while the Deputy Envoy, holding the title of peechin 親雲上, would have been somewhere in the Third to Seventh ranks. It is interesting to see Macartney relate the notion of Japan’s isolation from the world, and his understanding that Ryukyu has “chosen” China, and has no relation with Japan – even with the Qing Court being aware of the connections between Japan and Ryukyu, I guess they were still able to fool some people. Finally, there is Macartney’s note about Ryukyu’s climate being temperate. I suppose that all depends, and is relative, depending on just how “cold” someone considers “cold” to be. I’ll be in Okinawa in winter for the first time this coming year; I guess I’ll find out what it’s like.
Right: A lithograph depicting Sōrikan Shō Kōkun, also known as Prince Yonashiro Chōki 総理官・尚宏勲こと、与那城王子朝紀, the chief Ryukyuan official who met with Commodore Perry in 1853. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Though Macartney doesn’t give their names, it is easy to deduce that the two Ryukyuans he met were the two heads of that year’s tribute mission, Lead Envoy Misato ueekata Mô Kokutô 美里親方毛国棟 and Vice Envoy Kanemoto peechin Mô Teichû 兼本親雲上毛廷柱. I don’t know much about Mô Kokutô yet, except that he would return to Beijing in 1801 as the head of a special mission, dispatched in gratitude for the investiture of Ryukyu’s King Shô On 尚温王. Mô Teichû, meanwhile, is a somewhat more familiar figure for me – not that he’s the most influential, significant figure in Ryukyuan history, not by a longshot. But, still. This was not Mô Teichû’s first rodeo – he had previously served as gieisei 儀衛生 (head of street musicians) on the 1790 mission to Edo, during which time he produced a number of notable works of calligraphy which remain in private Japanese collections (e.g. at Buddhist temples) today. Maehira gives his title as Gusukuda peechin 城田親雲上, though I’ve always seen him referred to as Kanemoto peechin. Perhaps he was promoted in between 1790 and 1793. If one were so inclined, one could check the Mô family genealogies, which if we’re lucky might be reproduced within the volumes of the Naha shishi (那覇市史, “City History of Naha”).
I love this sort of thing. It doesn’t add anything to my dissertation, I don’t think, as I’m really looking to better understand the Ryukyu tribute missions to Beijing themselves, and elements of formal ritual and performance in the execution of those missions. So, in that respect, maybe it was a little bit of a waste of time for me to pursue it today. And, while I suppose this does reveal something about British conceptions & misconceptions about Ryukyu at that time, in the grander scheme of things, I don’t think we actually learn that much from this passage. This likely won’t make it into my dissertation, and if I were writing a study of the Macartney mission, I don’t think it would make it into that paper either.
But! I do think it’s interesting, and fun, and of value to know that these people crossed paths in this way. Adds just one more instance, one more example, to a broader notion of the incredible complexity and vibrancy of historic interactions – a vision of the world of centuries past as vibrantly, busily, actively full of people crisscrossing back and forth, a world of interaction and interconnection… Macartney is of course a rather significant figure himself, and the Ryukyuans he ran into aren’t exactly nobodies either. Adds just a little more to our knowledge of the biographies of Mô Kokutô and Mô Teichû, and while I admittedly don’t really plan to be writing full-on biographies at any point, I do feel passionate about recovering the memory, the story, of figures like these – far too many historians treat historical figures (as individuals) as merely pawns, or footnotes, in their pursuit of some broader interpretive argument. But these were real people who populated the stories we are telling; history should be about stories, about people, about recovering and retelling the narratives of their lives and of the events they were caught up in; it should not be only about the broader interpretive analyses.
Even if we have no record of any particularly extensive or impactful exchange between Macartney and these two, even so, there is something interesting and meaningful about knowing that there was at least one occasion when Ryukyuan ambassadors to China crossed paths with a European embassy, and that that embassy was none other than the famous 1793 mission of George Lord Macartney; and further that the British mission encountered not only Chinese people and sights and culture during their trip, but Ryukyuans as well. And as a result, that Ryukyuans and Brits both had at least some notion of one another, at this early stage. I don’t know if it’s a result of my many years poking around as an editor on Wikipedia, but I’ve long had a real interest in the chance interconnections between people, places, events – as much as I do enjoy reading history scholarship that brings up new understandings, new interpretations, new insights, I enjoy in a different way reading works that introduce me to new people, places, events, or to new interconnections between them, or information about them, expanding my concrete knowledge of History, bit by bit. The kinds of works where I can feel that having read them, I’ve not only been exposed to one author’s opinion or interpretation, some hopefully possibly potentially thought-provoking ideas, but the kinds of works where I’ve really learned something I didn’t know before, however small or obscure.
1. Maehira Fusaaki, Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken 琉球使節の異国体験 (“The Ryukyu Envoys’ Experiences of Foreign Countries”), Kokusai kôryû 国際交流 59 (1992), 60-67.)