When I told the Japanese woman with whom I’d struck up a conversation in central Tokyo’s very handy Haneda airport that I was flying to Lewchew, she looked puzzled.
The invading Japanese, struggling with the Chinese reading of the characters, pronounced the name of the islands — now known collectively as Okinawa — as Ryukyu. A quick etymological search reveals dozens of variant readings of the name, from Leung-Khieou to Likiwu, all hinting at the powerful sway once held by China over these islands.
The connection is incorporated into a poem that appears in the ancient Okinawan historical chronicle, the “Omoro Soshi,” which reads: “Son of the Sun in Shuri/Who built the Floating Island/Into the port of Naha/Where the Chinese and South Seas ships come and gather.”
The subject of this poem was King Sho Hashi, who united the islands in 1429, and oversaw the kingdom’s first great age of prosperity.
Naha was soaked in Chinese influences back then. The three-stringed Okinawan instrument called the san-shin came from China, where it was known as the sanxian. Chinese tastes and aesthetics in the arts and the construction of stone bridges and castles, were still evident even in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Sasamori Gisuke, a Japanese official, visited Naha, noting the influences with some surprise.
If you stood on the walled fortifications of Shuri Castle at this time, casting an eye over the bay, you would have seen Chinese junks anchored all over. In the city below the walls, you would have been able to pick out the forms of several Confucian temples.
The district of Shuri, its castle and royal palace, formed both the government and spiritual core of Naha — and by implication, the kingdom. The wellbeing of the islands was supernaturally linked to the castle. With the completion of its buildings, all reflecting Chinese tastes and concerns with geomancy, the island flourished; with its destruction or neglect, the kingdom languished. The Chinese model served for court protocols and rituals. The “Omoro Soshi,” describing the careful transmission of Chinese court practices originating in imperial ceremonies conducted in the Middle Kingdom, describes how, “blue stones have been carved to make the balustrades, which span the lower section of the palace.” Those have long vanished, but the fine masonry of the castle walls, tracing a sinuous course along the bluff where the fortress sits, remain.
The first Chinese envoys arrived in Okinawa in 1372. Awed by the splendor of the mission, the scholarship and sophistication they radiated, the Ryukyu court was prepared not only to send representatives to Nanking, but also to accept formal submission to Chinese suzerainty in exchange for opportunities to trade.
Gardens, ponds and parks were built in Naha following Chinese models. One of the finest examples of an Okinawan garden styled after the design principals of Chinese models is the Shikina-en, 2 or 3 km from Shuri. Chinese delegates gathered there in its wooden palace rooms for the coronation ceremonies of Ryukuan kings.
Its Rokkaku-do, a hexagonal design, closely emulates the waterside pavilions seen in Chinese landscapes. A limestone bridge over the main pond recalls similar structures in the gardens of Suzhou in southern China. The choice of stones, reflecting the Chinese love of pitted rocks with sharp surfaces, blowholes and hollows, is very different from those found in Japanese gardens.
Though Fukushu-en, a Chinese garden in the Naha district of Kume, is a recent construction, it pays tribute to the city’s connection with the Chinese province of Fukien, from where most of the materials used there came. Kume figures prominently in the history of Naha, the former village a site for Confucian worship and study.
In 1392, a number of Chinese clans settled in Kume, which soon became a key center for diplomacy and commerce. These immigrants played an important role in politics, education and the dissemination of Chinese culture, bringing a number of practical skills with them, such as ink, paper and writing-brush-making, that would be emulated by Okinawans.
Some of these Chinese residents were language instructors, clerks, navigators and shipwrights. Some of the customs they introduced, including dragon-boat racing — still a popular event in Naha — took place in the harbor and on the artificial Dragon Lake in Shuri.
Rituals and ceremonies are still performed by their descendants at the Kume-Shiseibyo, or Confucian Temple. Built in 1674, its main building, the Taiseiden, and an adjoining public school where pupils learnt Mandarin and Confucianism, a library and sundry statues, survived until 1944, when the entire complex was destroyed in an air raid.
I had visited the site during its construction stage and was keen to see how closely the finer details in the design resembled its model at the Confucian Temple of Qufu in Shangdong. The two main pillars at the front of the temple were a surprisingly faithful replication; the dragon design, with its five claws representing the Chinese emperor, and Confucius, both almost indistinguishable from the original. The adjacent building, known as the Mirindo, is a reconstruction of the original school, and classes and lectures in Confucianism, are now conducted there.
Instead of taking a taxi, I decided to walk from Shuri to the garden at Shikina-en. I took the back roads, passing between the great city of the dead that is the graveyard of Shikina. Avoiding the risks of being poleaxed by the heat, there were few people on the rising and dipping roads at noon. The traffic in the area was nonexistent, the surfaces of buildings scalding and brittle.
Clumps of bougainvillea alleviated the dark premonitions taking hold of me at the sight of the gray, rain-streaked mortar of the tombs, reminding me that this was Okinawa, where there was invariably something to lift the spirits. The cubic tombs looked familiar from visits to the Chinese cemetery in Manila, but the turtleback variety, known in Okinawa as kameko-baka, were another thing altogether. The configuration of these tombs is said to resemble the position taken by a pregnant woman when giving birth, the inner crypt forming the shape of a womb, the reassuring synergy of life and death offering the prospect of rebirth.
Part of the great Chinese legacy that soaks these islands, this style of tomb was introduced from Fujian province in southern China some 700 years ago.
A stroll around Naha’s great Makeshi Public Market reveals a wonderful sampling of Okinawan ingredients, from umi-budo, a sea plant resembling tiny grapes, to piles of shikuwasa citruses, vinegar-flavored mozoku seaweed, black sugar, sanpincha tea and beni-imo, a purple-colored sweet potato said to have been introduced to Okinawa from southern China. A staple food at one time, a lifesaver during famines, it is now mostly consumed in sweet tarts.
Okinawans acknowledge China as the source of their love for pork. In an example of the thrift born of former poverty, they waste nothing — putting to good use, as the Chinese do, every part of the animal, from the ears to the trotters. Pig’s cheek jerky is popular with locals; so too pig’s tongue flavored with awamori, Okinawa’s signature liquor. Rafute is slowly simmered pork belly, a preparation that seems to go down well with mainland Japanese visitors to the market, some of whom recoil from the sight of pigs’ heads openly displayed at stalls.
When in Naha, I always repair to Akasatana, an authentic Okinawan family-run establishment on the edge of the market, where you can sit outside on garden furniture and watch all the comings and goings. I invariably order soki-jiru, a soup with generous quantities of tender pork and vegetables, whose sweetness is a mark of their freshness.
It’s only a short stroll from there into quiet residential areas where small homes manage to make space for gardens accommodating tropical flowers like the brilliant yellow of aramanda, banana and papaya trees. A feature of older gardens seen in such residential areas are its Chinese screen walls. Traditionally made of coral, and placed just inside the main entrance to the garden, they are meant to deflect malign spirits from entering homes. Affording a degree of privacy to prying eyes, they also serve as typhoon barriers.
Chinese-derived geomancy, often only semi-visible to the outsider, pervades the city. During my walks around the back streets of Naha, at small T- or Y-shaped intersections I kept coming across large erect stones with the Chinese character reading ishiganto inscribed on them. Introduced to Okinawa from China, the stone markers help to confuse evil spirits, which can only travel in a straight line.
The owners of new homes built on corners do not feel comfortable unless they protect their properties in this way.
Getting there: There are countless flights to Naha every day from Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports, as well as from other cities in Japan.