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Southeast China Rediscovers Its Marine Culture

Down the ages China's sons and daughters have embarked to the far corners of the world from the coastal province of Fujian.

With mountains ringing it inland, the natural focus of its people has been out towards the seas.

From there in long-gone centuries its ships sailed forth and traders flocked its coastline.

Less well-known is the fact that it was here that China's modern navy was born in the late 19th and early 20th century. Invasions and civil war interrupted its progress, but its legacy is indisputable.

Today it is this past local historians and the provincial authorities are now working to publicize.

But it was not only maritime exploits which flourished in Fujian. Modern science and technology were also embraced there.

"The general public actually have a vague idea that the Chinese modern navy grew out of the Qing (1644-1911) government's Marine Affairs Bureau in 1876, which marked the first step of the country opening its doors to the outside world in the 19th century. We feel it's necessary to boost that part of our culture and long closed historical chapter so as to keep it alive and not forgotten," says an official from Fuzhou city government.

Comprising the Navigational Administration School and shipbuilding factory, the Marine Affairs Bureau was established in 1876 at Mawei Harbor, close to today's Fuzhou, the seat of the provincial government.

It was also where China's first generation naval talent, prominent scientists and educators came to the fore, including Huang Zhongying (1868-1912), the first minister of the navy, Yan Fu (1854-1921) an influential philosopher and Zhan Tianyou (1861-1919), who built the country's first railway from Beijing to Zhangjiakou in 1905.

Historically, "the bureau had done a great deal to advance the modernization of the country's navy, society and culture. It's hard to say where we would be today without it," says Lin Qingyuan, professor of history at Fujian Normal University.

Following China's disastrous defeat to Britain in the First Opium War between 1840-1842, a select group of educated Chinese determined to build up the country and its military might. "They decided to learn from the Western powers in order to defend against them," says Professor Lin.

First naval school

Driven by the idea of modernizing the country's backward military by equipping and training them with the technology of the industrialized world, the Westernization Movement, also known as China's self-improvement movement, started to spread in China.

In 1866, Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885), a high-ranking official and an advocator of this movement, submitted a plan to the Qing court, calling for the powers-that-be to address the problems of China's navy.

As a result, China's first naval academy, the Navigational Administration School (NAS) was opened in 1867 in Mawei Harbor.

A comprehensive examination and internship system, which included strict requirements for foreign languages, was introduced. And those with the skills and know-how to command a modern navy were recruited as instructors.

"It was the first institution of higher education ever in modern China. It, in a way, set up a teaching mode for our higher education today," says Pan Maoyuan, a professor from the Higher Education and Science Research Institute at Xiamen University.

The school opened French and English language departments and invited foreign experts in to teach. Instruction in modern shipbuilding and design was given by French experts, while the British faculty lectured on theoretical navigation, and coached students in practical navigation.

"Such teaching methods combining theory and practical training together really allowed students to learn fast and master the knowledge very quickly," recalls Chen Daozhang, 84, a retired chemistry teacher in Fuzhou, who studied at the school in the 1940s.

Mawei Harbor’s No 1 dock was the world's second largest after Britain's Liverpool at the time. It covered an area of about 400,000 square meters, with 45 buildings for administrative, educational, and production purposes. It was in this plant, acknowledged as the biggest shipbuilding base in the Far East in the 1880s, that students put their classroom knowledge into a good practice.

Archaic practices

The shipbuilding plant made it possible for China to build steam powered ships. Until then, their ships Shuishi, or water-borne forces had been reliant on wind or even manpower.

"The improvement in driving power marked the emergence of China's modern navy in its true sense on December 23, 1866, and also began the country's modern shipbuilding industry," says Lin.

The transformation was rapid, just 20 years, and took a third of the time most Western countries had taken to shift from wooden-hulled vessels to steel ones. The Fujian Fleet of 11 ships, China's first modern one, emerged in 1869.

In 1883 when France invaded Viet Nam, the Chinese dispatched an army to reinforce Viet Nam, thereby sparking the Sino-French war.

A series of forays by the vastly more experienced French navy occurred around Mawei in July 1884. The following month French warships attacked the Chinese fleet at anchor in the Majiang River.

Seizing the opportunity of a low tide the French made their move. The Chinese vessels were all at anchor, turned upriver by the force of the out-flowing tide a position that prevented them from bringing their heavy, bow-mounted guns to bear on the French fleet. Before they could raise anchor and get about to face the enemy, every ship was either sunk or badly damaged.

Within half an hour, the French had destroyed the recently launched Fujian fleet in its entirety.

Despite the catastrophic defeat, graduates from the school would later go on to become the mainstay of those Chinese navy in the wars to follow.

During the Sino-Japanese War, which broke out in 1894, the Beiyang fleet, despite being far outclassed, took on and was eventually destroyed by the Japanese at the mouth of the Yalu River. Of the 12 captains commanding the Chinese ships, 11 had passed through the school.

In spite of these setbacks the Marine Affairs Bureau pressed ahead with its vision of moving China into the modern age.

"Having strong aspirations to make the country prosperous and strong, they stressed the importance of science as an answer to China's backwardness.

The thoughts of developing China by relying on science and technology came into practice, and its benefits are with us to this day," says Lin Jialai, deputy director of the Provincial Science and Technology Department.

Things become of historic value because people value, treasure and preserve them. And if we do not recognize their worth, says Lin, "we will wind up without a history."

A member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Lin presented a proposal on exploring the Marine Affairs Bureau to the annual session of the National Committee of CPPCC in 2004.

Lessons of history

In response to Lin's proposal, the provincial government allocated 30 million yuan (US$3.57 million) to set up the China Modern Naval Museum and a memorial to the Majiang River incident during the Sino-French war.

"The museum and the memorial can serve as places for people to review the Chinese navy's glory and disgrace in the past, and rediscover their country's history, which is part of themselves," says Lin.

A graduate student from Xiamen University remarked how by visiting the museum he learnt that it had been "the Marine Affairs Bureau which actually initiated some of the first exchange programs to send students overseas and invite foreign experts to teach in China."

In this regard, the bureau, besides fostering naval talent, played an important role in "advancing China's economy, education and modernization, which benefit us even today," says Chen Zhenshou, professor of history at Fujian Normal University.

Among the first group of students to go abroad under the auspices of the Marine Affairs Bureau were Ba Yuzao and Wang Zhu. In 1919, they finished their studies and returned to China where they later launched the first dual-joist, dual-winged aquatic trainer aircraft.

As a result of their contribution, the Marine Affairs Bureau is also considered the birthplace of modern Chinese aviation.

To mark its contribution to Chinese history, Fujian provincial government in early 2004 opened the China Ship Administration Culture Museum and the Mawei Ship Culture Theme Park in the Mawei Harbor.

As for the restoration of the Navigational Administration School (NAS), Fujian Communication Technology College will incorporate it as a part of their college.

For various reasons, it has not been possible to rebuild the NAS on either its original site at Mawei Harbor or elsewhere, says the college president Shen Feimin. "So instead of duplicating any already existing naval academy we will open a navigation school based on the NAS's tradition of focusing on training and bringing up senior naval administrators in navigation and shipbuilding."

Expected to open early next year, the new school will also help keep abreast of developments in the area of international maritime affairs, and help students acquire a better understanding of marine issues.

So it seems the legacy of NAS and the Marine Affairs Bureau will long be remembered.

(China Daily May 25, 2005)

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