I was looking at collection of maps called Sketched Maps of the Southern and Northern Regions (Nam Bắc kỳ hội đồ 南北圻繪圖) that I’m guessing dates from the late nineteenth century.
The first map in the collection is one called the “Complete Map of Unified Đại Nam” (Dại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ 大南一統全圖).
Some people will be happy to see that it contains the Hoàng Sa islands. Out in the sea off of the coast of what is today central Vietnam are small islands that have a circle drawn around them. To the right, the two characters “Hoàng Sa” (黃沙) are written. Unfortunately the quality of the microfilm that I found this collection of maps on is not very good, but I think those four characters to the left are “Vạn Lý Trường Sa” (萬里長沙).
In any case, what interested me more about this map is that it labels Hainan Island as “Cù Lao Hải Nam.”
“Cù lao” is the Vietnamese version of an Austronesian word meaning “island.” In Malay/Indonesian, for instance, it is “pulau.” I have no idea why the person who made this map labeled Hainan as “cù lao” instead of “đảo,” the term that I usually see on Vietnamese maps in reference to Hainan, but it got me thinking. . .
Today Vietnamese and Chinese are arguing with each other over who has “sovereignty” over certain islands in the East Sea/South China Sea. In some instances they are trying to demonstrate “who was there first,” but in reality, neither were.
For many centuries before any Vietnamese or Chinese entered those waters, that region was the home of various Austronesian speakers, people who referred to islands by, among other terms, the word “pulau.”
Indeed, a better name for that body of water than the East Sea or the South China Sea would be the “Austronesian Sea.”
Or perhaps it should be called the “Nusantao Sea” after William Solheim’s idea of the “Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network.” Solhiem created the term “Nusantao” from another Austronesian word for island, “nusa,” and he uses it to refer to the interconnected maritime region of what is today southern China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific which he argues started to form as early as the Neolithic, and which he argues was dominated by speakers of Austronesian languages.
Today, Chinese expansion and assimilation has all but eliminated Austronesian speakers from the Chinese world. There are some Cham on Hainan, and various Austronesian groups in the mountains of Taiwan, but that’s about it.
Meanwhile in Vietnam, there are still a good number of Austronesian speakers, but they have been marginalized by Vietnamese expansion and assimilation.
So the result of these historical developments is that nowadays Vietnamese and Chinese argue and argue and argue over who has sovereignty over islands in. . . the Nusantao Sea. . .