IT HAS been dubbed maritime’s Holy Grail, a handwritten book supposedly written more than 600 years ago and handed down through generations of Chinese fishermen.
According to China, the book, an exceptionally detailed edition of a traditional navigational log known as genglubu or“road book”, contains “iron-clad proof” of China’s sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea.
It is said to record the precise sailing routes to the disputed Spratlys — which Beijing calls the Nansha islands — and Huangyan Island, known in the Philippines as the Scarborough Shoal and claimed by Taiwan.
“The book is not easy to understand or decipher, as it uses archaic words and ancient expressions for directions. But once the “code” is cracked, its accuracy is unquestionable,” the China Daily wrote of the ancient guide.
Its owner, an 81-year-old retired fisherman called Su Chengfen, told state-run media that he inherited the book from his father when he became a boat captain at the age of 23. Mr Su said his father was given the book by his grandfather.
“I relied on it for many years until I got a modern map of the South China Sea in 1985,” he said.
In their glory days, there were about 1000 genglubu in circulation but academics estimate only about a dozen still exist. Of them, Mr Su’s is regarded as the most detailed and important.
Gao Zhiguo, director of the China Institute for Marine Development Strategy, who used to serve as a judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, called the book “iron-clad proof”.
“We can deduce China’s historic fishing and sailing rights in the South China Sea, as well as ownership. One book on genglubu beats a thousand words.”
Zhou Weimin, a former Hainan University professor and author of a book on genglubu entitled An Arcane Book About The South China Sea, says Mr Su’s book is “undeniable proof of China’s sovereignty over Huangyan Island”.
“Unlike other versions (of genglubu), it depicts the exact route to Huangyan Island. It clearly proves that generations of Chinese fishermen have worked on the island.”
Mr Zhou said Chinese fishermen in ancient times named 136 islands and reefs in various genglubu, many of which are still used today.
He cited the example of the Paracel Islands, which were named after a Portuguese word meaning “stone reef”.
Mr Su claimed he did not realise its significance until last month, when authorities declared it “evidence” of China’s territorial claims.
Ever since, the Chinese media has been awash with tales of Mr Su’s seafaring adventures, which began with a trip to the Spratlys at the tender age of 13.
“I never heard my grandfather or father talking about seeing foreign fishermen when they came home from the Xisha and Nansha islands,” he told the China Daily.
“When I first went to the Nansha Islands in 1948, I also did not see any foreigners from countries claiming the islands today, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.”
It wasn’t long before news of the book went global and last week BBC Beijing correspondent John Sudworth decided to pay Mr Su a visit at his home in Tanmen village in the island province of Hainan.
The old fisherman repeated his story about the book having been passed “from my grandfather’s generation, to my father’s generation, then to me”.
“It mainly taught us how to go somewhere and come back, how to go to the Paracels and the Spratlys, and how to come back to Hainan Island,” Mr Su said.
But when the journalist asked to see the book, “the existence of which was, just a few weeks ago, being so widely reported in China and beyond — there’s a surprising development”.
“Mr Su tells me it doesn’t exist,” Sudworth wrote in the June 19 article.
“Although the book was important, I threw it away because it was broken,” he says.
“It was flipped through too many times. The salty seawater on the hands had corroded it … In the end it was no longer readable so I threw it away.”
Sudworth concluded: “Whatever it was, Mr Su’s book is not, it seems, any longer iron-clad proof of anything. Except perhaps China’s Communist Party-controlled media’s willingness not to let a few facts get in the way of the official narrative.”
After the interview, the BBC crew were “followed everywhere by a number of blacked-out government cars; from the port where we try to interview fishermen, to the fish market where we speak to traders, and all the way back to our hotel.”
In yet another twist, a reporter for the state-run Central China Television (CCTV) claims to have been shown the book during an interview with Mr Su published only yesterday.
“Su Chengfen showed me the secret of his voyages. It’s a navigation log of the South China Sea,” CCTV reporter Han Bin writes.
“Tanmen people call it “Genglubu”, which means the “Road Book”. There are numerous versions, centuries of hard-won experience. Every island and its surrounding conditions are clearly described. Chinese experts believe they are clear evidence that Chinese fishermen were the first explorers in the South China Sea.”
The report makes no mention of Mr Su having tossed his precious book away.
Meanwhile, tensions continue to escalate as Beijing continues its frenzy of reclamation and construction in the South China Sea, conducting massive dredging operations, turning sandbars into islands equipped with airfields, ports and lighthouses.
The US has deployed two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to patrol the fringes of this potential war zone ahead of an impending high court ruling on the disputed region.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all dispute ownership of several island chains and nearby waters in the South China Sea, through which some US$5 trillion in trade is shipped annually.
The Paracel Islands have been controlled by China since 1974 but they are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Tensions flared in 2014 when China installed exploratory oil rigs in the vicinity.
The situation is more complicated in the Spratlys, an archipelago consisting of 100 small islands and reefs, 45 of which are occupied by China, Malaysia, Vietnam or the Philippines.