Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.07.04

Empress Dowager Cixi's Imperial Edict: Can It Be a Basis for the Chinese to Claim Ownership of the Senkaku Islands?

As one basis for its asserting its claim of ownership of the Senkaku Islands, China relies on a document that states that, "In 1893 (the nineteenth year of Emperor Guangxu), Empress Dowager Cixi awarded the Diaoyutai Islands to her doctor Sheng Xuanhuai so that he can collect medicinal herbs." This is the so-called "Empress Dowager Cixi's Imperial edict."

Just a few days ago, on June 12, the Chinese website (Democratic site "") posted a photo of this edict. Since the announcement by the Tokyo Metropolitan Governor to purchase the Senkaku Islands, Chinese internet sites have been rife with debate regarding the plan; many of these sites are critical of Japan. At the end of last year, however, some postings stated that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territories. (I was not aware of this until recently.) For the anti-Japan hardliners, such statements, coming from within China, are problematic, even in small numbers. Thus, posting the photo of the so-called Empress Dowager Cixi's Imperial edict, must have been done to support the argument that China's claim is well-grounded.

The edict is said to have been made public for the first time in 1947 by Sheng Xuanhuai's granddaughter, who was then living in the United States. Since then, both Japanese and Chinese scholars have studied this edict and they have concluded that it is highly likely to be fake. Notably, this is the conclusion of both Japanese and Chinese researchers.

The reasons for their conclusion are, briefly, as follows: (1) The document does not follow the regular format for an edict and it has no date. (It only states "The tenth month of the nineteenth year of Emperor Guangxu."). In 1893, Japan had already surveyed the Senkaku Islands and had effectively controlled them (2) years before they became a part of the Okinawa Prefecture. (3) If Empress Dowager Cixi had issued such an edict, the Japanese government would not have ignored it. (4) If medicinal herbs had been collected, Japanese would have been aware of that, but there is no evidence of such. (5) No such edict can be found in the national archives of the Qing Dynasty.

The results of this research did not accompany the recent posting of this so-called edict on the internet. The following day, however, a new posting pointed out that the edict was a fake. This is interesting. In addition to the posting on the Chinese internet site, which had stated that the Senkaku Islands belong to Japan, another post disseminates information that contradicts one of the bases for China's claim. The person who made this posting appears to have placed more importance on objectively conveying a fact than on going along with the prevailing criticism of Japan.

This posting made me think as follows.
First, some people in China believe that it is important to pursue the truth and to observe facts objectively rather than focusing on differences of nationalities. This observation applies equally to Japan: some are fanatical while others are level-headed. What is important is that both sides remain calm.

Second, it can be difficult for the results of already-completed research to be disseminated widely. The case of the Empress Dowager Cixi's edict is the case in point.

Third, the Japanese government adheres to its position that the ownership of the Senkaku Islands is not in dispute. In this respect, it concretely explains the grounds for asserting Japan's own claim of territorial sovereignty. As to the Chinese claim, however, Japan only states that, "none of the points raised by the Government of China as 'historic, geographic or geological' evidence provide valid grounds, in light of international law, to support China's arguments regarding the Senkaku Islands." Japan just rejects the Chinese claim outright but it does not rebut each basis for that claim, such as the Empress Dowager Cixi's edict. As a result, the Japanese government explains in detail the reasons for Japan's position, but it does not provide a detailed rebuttal to the Chinese claim. I wonder if this is an effective way to make one's point.

Fourth, most of the 1.3 billion Chinese believe the Chinese government's repeated claim that the Senkaku Islands belong to China. In the face of both this belief and China's claim, the Japanese side should remain level-headed. Rather than being unspecific with respect to the bases for its own claim, Japan should proffer its positions regarding the basis for China's claim in a precise and straightforward manner. If we can succeed in doing so, we will be more persuasive.

Given this perspective, the Japanese government ought to lay out its views on the following historical documents - apart from the Empress Dowager Cixi's edict - that are often raised in connection with these claims.

(1) Records of the Imperial Chinese missions (Records of the Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties missions to Ryukyu Kingdom state that the Senkaku Islands were on their navigational routes.)

(2) Records of the coastal defense area for the Fujian Province by the governments of the Ming Dynasty (Records indicating the territory at sea established by the Ming Dynasty government for its defense against Japanese pirates.)

Finally, there is one issue regarding the Senkaku Islands that has not been studied by either government. That is, the question of "what is China?" China currently claims that the territories of the Qing or Ming Dynasties are all Chinese territories today, but this argument does not hold. Historically, "China" has become larger and smaller over the years. It is arbitrary for China to bring to the table a map that was created when China was large, rather than when it was small. This question deserves further study.