The Ming Dynasty Sends Envoys to Okinawa
In 1368 the Mongol dynasty in China was finally overthrown and the Ming Dynasty took its place. Suffering from several years of civil war and interrupted international trade activity, the new Emperor sought to repair the damage to his country quickly.
In 1372 the Ming Emperor sent envoys to Okinawa to make an offer of favored trade status and protection in return for submitting to China’s superiority. This was to be an historic event for Okinawa.
King Satto of Chuzan realized the significant power this would bring to him and immediately sent a tribute ship to China to accept the offer. He sent his brother Taiki, who brought with him gifts of horses, sulfur and shells. The Ming dynasty was pleased, and in 1374 they sent a tribute ship to Chuzan declaring Satto the official King of Ryukyu.
Trade Flourishes in Okinawa
Trade with China began and was very profitable for Chuzan. Seeing the benefits of the Ming Dynasty trade arrangement, both Nanzan and Hokuzan also sent tribute ships to China asking that they be recognized as well, and given the same favored trading status. China gave them what they asked for. In 1380 Nanzan was recognized. Hokuzan was likewise recognized in 1383.
So Okinawa was in the situation where China recognized three different kings of Okinawa at the same time, all of them sending tribute ships. From China’s point of view, Okinawa was a small country of not much concern. But to Okinawa, trading with the world’s greatest power was extremely important.
In reality Chuzan was still the number one influence in Okinawa. In the 1300’s Chuzan sent 52 tribute ships to China. In the same period, only 19 came from Nanzan, and 9 from Hokuzan. Chuzan had well over two-thirds of the trade business with China.
Satto used his wealth to expand his power. Trade relations grew. Cultural exchange expanded greatly. Satto moved the capital from Urasoe to Shuri castle and used his increase in power to exert further pressure on the rest of Okinawa.
By 1390, the lords of Miyako and Yaeyama were sending tributes to Chuzan and trading with them.
The “36 families” Arrive from China
A very significant event happened in 1393, when the Ming Dynasty sent over a large group of people called the “36 families” to make a permanent Chinese settlement in Naha, in what is now called Kume village. The term “36 families” is not literal. It simply means a great number and variety of people. King Satto was very happy to receive these people into his kingdom and to absorb the advanced knowledge they brought with them. He gave them tax free land, a stipend, and social privileges at Shuri castle.
The group included skilled craftsmen in a variety of areas, and the purpose was to pass along Chinese technology and skills to Okinawa. A multitude of experts arrived in such areas such as shipbuilding, written language, navigation, arts and crafts, and paper making and ink making. They also brought with them the custom of the Dragon Boat races, which is still celebrated in Okinawa today.
The Okinawans saw this as a tremendous opportunity to learn modern technology from the greatest superpower in the region, China. They were eager to learn from the Chinese and adapted many Chinese ways to fit Okinawan life. The Chinese lunar calendar was adopted, as were clothing styles, systems of government, and Confucian style schooling. Chinese unarmed fighting styles, the forerunners of Okinawan Karate, were probably also introduced during this time.
China meanwhile did not interfere with Okinawa’s internal governing policies. They were content to leave things alone so long as the Okinawans did not go against Chinese supremacy.
It is interesting to note that even though there were three kings of Okinawa, as recognized by the Chinese themselves, the Chinese government sent the 36 families to Chuzan. This was no doubt an acknowledgement from the Ming Dynasty that Chuzan was the most dominant of the three Okinawan kingdoms.