The sea where Chinese fishermen live and die

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Lu Jiabing does not understand how the sea where his family has fished for generations could be claimed by another country.

Talking about the South China Sea, the 66-year-old fisherman from Tanmen, Hainan Province, had his voice filled with emotion: "We live there and we die there. We earn our living and build our temples there. We inherited this sea from our ancestors."

Tanmen is a small township in the east of Hainan Island, with nothing like enough arable land. Where Lu lives, more than 4,200 villagers have to share 120 hectares. The land is also too sandy to grow vegetables and fruit. Villagers have to turn their eyes to the sea.

"All the grain produced in the village would only feed us for a month," said Zheng Zaiyong, another villager. "For the other eleven months, we have to buy rice from elsewhere."

While women and children go to the beach as tide recedes to gather shellfish, fishermen dive for fish and sea cucumber.

Lu's grandfather's grandfather started fishing in the South China Sea during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908). Voyages could last up to six months, landing on islands like Taiping, Zhongye and Ganquan where fresh water was available. Wells can still be found today that were dug by long-forgotten Chinese fishermen. They found their way thanks to a compass and "Geng Lu Bu": the book of routes.

"With the book, they reached the Nansha, Xisha and Huangyan islands," said Zheng Qingzhi, vice mayor of Qionghai city, whose great grandfather was a captain during the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912).

Handwritten copies of the book of routes have been handed down since the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368). Some old fishermen still keep copies, yellowed by age, although new navigational aids have rendered it obsolete and fishing is now a much safer lifestyle.

Of course this does not mean our voyages are not dangerous. "Many fishermen die on the sea," Lu said.

He can still recall when, 41 years ago, a fishing boat was flipped over in a storm and all 30 on board lost their lives.

"People erected a monument," he said. On it is inscribed, "the old and young alike were deep in grief, with their wailing still to be heard even after a month."

On 17th of July, 1996, Captain Xu Shengwen sent out a distress signal. "We have met gales and the waves are tall," he said, then his final words, "Dangerous... I cannot report anymore." The ship was lost and the eighteen souls on board never came home.

"Each time we go to sea, we pray for safety," Lu said. "We pray in our boats and we pray on the islands, where we build little shrines."

Apart from gales and waves, fishermen from Tanmen fear foreign coast guards who can seize their vessels and confiscate their catch.

"Before the 1950s, only Chinese fishermen were seen on the Nansha Islands," said Su Chengfen, 82. "Fishing in the area stopped between 1956 and 1985. When we resumed, dozens of islands and reefs were occupied by other countries."

Almost all Tanmen villagers know which islands are involved in the disputes. Since the 1970s, the Nansha Islands have been invaded, illegally occupied by force and military facilities built.

Wang Shumao, 58, another Tanmen fisherman knows the exact location of every island in the Sea. "But we cannot go near many islands and reefs today because they are occupied by other countries," he said. "If we approach, we are warned or expelled. Sometimes, they even shoot at us."

Mai Yunxiu, 79, still recalls his detention in 1995 when he was fishing at Nansha.

"Our crew were taken by policemen from the Philippines and detained for up to 10 months," he said.

As captain of the ship, Mai was told to sign a piece of paper admitting that he had crossed a boundary. "They said if I signed, they would let me go."

He refused. "This is the sea left to us by our ancestors. Had I signed, I would have sinned against our ancestors."

Mai paid a high price for his obduracy. He stayed in jail for 10 months and lost his ship. He had to sell everything he had to his debts. Unable to accept their misfortune, his wife took her own life.

Chen Zebo had been detained three times and was beaten by police. "The only [foreign] word I know is China, which I repeated again and again," he said.

According to the government of Tanmen in 2013, since the 1990s more than 170 fishermen have been detained, fired upon or abused by foreign forces on the sea, but not one signed anything or admitted to any "transgression."

Fishermen from Tanmen are rightly concerned by a situation which threatens their very livelihood. On January 22, 2013, the Philippines unilaterally initiated arbitration on the disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. The tribunal will issue its ruling on July 12.

Lu Jiabing does not know what to expect. "No matter what, the result won't change anything," he said.

"The South China Sea is where our ancestors made their living," he continued. "There we fished, and there we fish still."


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