WEIHAI, Shandong Province, July 25 -- One hundred and twenty years ago, China's sailors set forth from the port of Weihai in east China's Shandong Province to take on the invading Japanese fleet, only to be completely defeated in about six months. The remains of many a once mighty ship lie in the depth of the sea even today.
As anniversary of the First Sino-Japanese War approaches, Xinhua reporters took to the waves aboard a coastguard vessel to visit the relics of battle.
TRACING THE WAR
The war which started in 1894 is commonly known in China as the Jiawu War. China's traditional calendar follows a sixty-year cycle and sixtieth anniversaries are considered very important. Both 1894 and 2014 are jiawu years: the year of the wood horse.
On July 25, 1894, the Japanese fleet attacked two Chinese vessels off the Korean port of Asan. At the time, Korea was a tributary of Qing Empire (1644-1911). By March 1895, the Chinese land army and navy were routed; the first time China had lost to Japan in a military conflict.
The Shimonoseki Treaty, signed to conclude the war, ceded the Liaodong Peninsula in northeast China, Taiwan and its annex the nearby Penghu Islands, to Japan. China also paid Japan 200 million taels of silver (5.2 billion U.S. dollars today).
On Liugong Island, the base of China's Beiyang Fleet, the dock is still there, 120 years later, with about 300 meters of railway tracks once used to carry coal and cannonballs to the cruisers. There are ruins of six gun emplacements, one facing Ri Island, two kilometers away.
Ri is a little larger than a football field, but the Chinese defended it from the Japanese for 11 days. The emplacement, two storeys tall, remains mostly intact along with tunnels and an ammunition depot.
FROM MEMORIES TO LEGEND
Qi Junjie, 65, former curator of the Jiawu War Museum, has spent nearly 30 years piecing together the events of the war.
"The Qing government was very corrupt," he said. "They spent a fortune on a spectacular birthday celebration for the Empress Dowager Cixi, but only added one new cruiser to the fleet in six years."
When the coal for battleships was running out, Chief Commander Ding Ruchang wrote several letters, begging or threatening, to ask for more.
"What he got finally was just cinders because the high-quality coal was sold by greedy officials for profit," Qi said. This was in stark comparison to the determination and courage shown by the officers in battle.
Deng Shichang was captain of cruiser Zhiyuan at the Yellow Sea Battle in September 1894. When the ammunition was used up, he ordered a seemingly suicidal attempt to ram a Japanese battleship.
"Unfortunately, a torpedo hit Zhiyuan and Deng fell into the sea," Qi said. "He decided to go down with his ship and refused to be rescued. When his dog seized him by his robe, he still plunged into the water. The dog died with him."
The last battle was fought in Weihai Bay, where Japanese ground forces worked together with the battleships to besiege the Chinese navy base.
"It was a cold winter. Ding Ruchang was in his late 50s and faced enormous pressure from the Qing government, but he held off several attacks over two weeks," Qi said.
Chinese forces were heavily outnumbered and when Ding lost the battle, disgraced, he took his own life, but many Chinese sailors survived.
Zhou Weiping, 27 at the time, was on Ding's flagship Dingyuan, an ironclad battleship bought from Germany. "He was among the sailors sent to study in Britain before the war," his granddaughter Zhou Liangping told Xinhua.
During the battle, Zhou fell into the water. "He and another sailor clung to a piece of broken deck that drifted to the coast," said his granddaughter. Penniless Zhou died in his hometown Tianjin in 1936.
For years after the war, veterans shared stories in public bath houses, the place where people gathered in the old days to catch up, and the stories of Beiyang Fleet spread far and wide. Qi grew up hearing these stories and, as a little boy, he longed to visit the islands, but Liugong Island became a base for the Chinese navy after 1949 and was closed to visitors.