The South China Sea Islands have been China's territory since ancient times.
— President Xi Jinping
So when exactly is "since ancient times"?
Hainan Island is China's second largest island after Taiwan. It is situated in the South China Sea facing Guangdong Province across the Qiongzhou Strait. Part of the Xiang Prefecture of China's Qin Dynasty, Hainan Island was also called Zhuya Prefecture and Dan'er Prefecture during the Western Han Dynasty. It also belonged to the Lingnan region. More than 2,000 years ago, Hainan produced priceless treasures including pearls, hawk bills and rhinoceros horns and was once a main source of luxury items for the imperial court of the Qin Dynasty.
(Note: Lingnan is a geographic area which refers to the lands in the south of China's Nan Mountains, including Dayu, Qitian, Dupang, Mengzhu and Yuecheng. The region covers the modern Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, and Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions.)
Due to the increasing administrative cost of managing Hainan Island, the Western Han Dynasty abandoned the Zhuya Prefecture in 46 B.C and nominally owned Hainan Island. Since then, Hainan Island was isolated from the central government of ancient China and no local government administered it.
However, things changed in the sixth century.
Since the 500s A.D., people of the Li ethnic group inhabited Lingnan which was uncivilized with less developed productivity and far from the developed Central Plains. In the Book of Sui by Wei Zheng in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it is recorded that Li people were "aggressive". It caused a great challenge for the administrator of Lingnan region at that time.
Then, a female leader of the Li people rose to power in West Guangdong. Born in a family which was the hereditary leader of their tribe, this lady was "bright and able since she was a child. When she was living at her parents' house, she was able to pacify the people and soldiers and was capable of using the troops in a strategic way," according to the Book of Sui. She also carried out reforms in her tribe, quieted down internal conflicts, and promoted education and technology from the Central Plains. She won people over by her virtue and her prestige spread far and wide to Dan'er across the Qiongzhou Strait. According to the Book of Sui, more than one thousand ethnic groups from Dan'er came and submitted to her rule.
Even to this day, people in Hainan Island still talk about this great lady who led an army to pacify Hainan Island and remain garrisoned there.
She expostulated and remedied grievances so that more than one thousand ethnic groups from Dan'er came and submitted to her.
— The 45th biography of the 80th Volume of the Book of Sui
Photo shows Junpo Festival celebrated in Wanquan Town, Qiongzhou County-level City, Hainan Province on April 3, 2015. [Photo: Xinhua/Meng Zhongde]
Around the years of 540-541 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Xiao Yan of the Liang Dynasty, this female leader pleaded in the imperial court to set up Yazhou in Hainan Island. Since then, Hainan returned to the motherland after being away from the central government for nearly 600 years. Every year after Spring Festival, the local people in Hainan keep the thousand-year-old custom of the Junpo Festival which is held to commemorate this female leader who safeguarded the country's territorial integrity and national unity.
This female leader was Lady Xian.
If the South China Sea is a sea shell, then Hainan Island is the pearl inside it.
After Hainan Island was pacified, Lady Xian visited the island more than once. According to historical records, notable families from Lingnan were involved in maritime trade on the South China Sea from the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) to the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907). Lady Xian and her family were one of the representatives.
Lady Xian lived in what is now Maoming in West Guangdong. Facing the South China Sea, Maoming enjoys geographical advantages for maritime trade, which brought prosperity to both Maoming and Lingnan area.
Through her participation in maritime trade on the South China Sea, Lady Xian amassed great sums of wealth. It is recorded that the rhinoceros horn-made Funan cane, which was produced by the ancient state of Funan, was given to Emperor Chen Shubao of the Chen Dynasty (557-589) by Lady Xian. So where was Funan located?
Funan (or Phù Nam) was once an ancient kingdom located in the ancient Indo-China Peninsula. Its jurisdictional region covered what is now Cambodia, southern Laos, southern Vietnam, and southeast Thailand. It was the first and frequently visited country from Southeast Asia recorded in the historical records of ancient China.
If the South China Sea is a sea shell, then Hainan Island is the pearl inside the shell. Lady Xian peacefully recaptured the pearl of Hainan, the biggest island in the South China Sea more than 1,500 years ago, which is of historical significance. She also took advantage of the geographical conditions of West Guangdong and Hainan Island and carried out maritime trade with Southeast Asian countries and regions. Therefore, she was one of the pioneers of China's Maritime Silk Road, and she safeguarded the South China Sea in ancient times.