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Chûzan was one of three kingdoms which controlled Okinawa in the 14th century. Based at Urasoe, between Hokuzan to the north and Nanzan to the south, it was the wealthiest and most powerful of the three kingdoms on the island. Okinawa, previously controlled by a number of local chieftains or lords, loosely bound by a paramount chieftain or king of the entire island, split into these three more solidly defined kingdoms within a few years after 1314; the Sanzan period thus began, and would end roughly one hundred years later, when Chûzan's King Shô Hashi[1] conquered Hokuzan in 1419 and Nanzan in 1429.

The united Okinawan state was called the Kingdom of Ryûkyû, but would continue to be referred to as "Chûzan" in various official documents of the Ryukyuan royal government, and those of many other states in the region, until the kingdom was formally dissolved in 1879 and annexed to Japan as Okinawa Prefecture.


Tamagusuku succeeded his father Eiji as head chieftain of Okinawa at the age of nineteen, in 1314. However, he lacked the charisma or leadership abilities to command the respect and loyalty of the various territorial lords (anji), and many rebelled soon afterwards. The Lord of Ozato fled south and, along with his followers, formed the kingdom of Nanzan (南山, Southern Mountain), while the Lord of Nakijin, based some distance to the north, declared himself king of Hokuzan (北山, Northern Mountain). Thus, Tamagusuku, in Urasoe, became king of Chûzan.

Tamagusuku died in 1336, and was succeeded by his son Seii, then ten years of age. Seii's reign was relatively short, and defined by the interference and political abuses of his mother which led to an erosion of what little support the young king may have had from the territorial lords. It is important to note that the three "kingdoms" were little different from the loosely unified chiefdoms which came before, and the "kings" did not wield considerably greater power, nor were their administrations more organized or more politically stable than what came before. However, this became gradually less true over the generations; the king's power and organization advanced considerably by the time all three kingdoms were unified as the Kingdom of Ryûkyû.

Seii was overthrown by the lord of Urasoe around 1349-55; the reign of the new king, Satto, marked the emergence of Chûzan as a small but not insignificant player in regional trade and politics. A number of domestic policies and foreign relations begun at this time would continue until the end of the kingdom five hundred years later. Satto established diplomatic and trade relations with a number of states in the region, including the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya and Joseon Dynasty Korea, and saw the beginnings of Ryûkyû's role in a flourishing system of regional trade. Rice would remain Ryûkyû's chief import from Ayutthaya well into the period of the united Kingdom,[2] and Okinawan awamori, the Okinawan distilled rice liquor, remains today distinctive from its Japanese and Korean cousins (shôchû and soju) in its use of Thai rather than East Asian rice.

The first Ming Dynasty envoys arrived in Okinawa in 1372, marking the beginning of tributary relations with China.[3] From then on, Chûzan (and unified Ryûkyû later) would send frequent tribute missions, and would rely upon the Chinese court to officially recognize each successive Ryukyuan king with a formal statement of investiture. China would have an incredibly strong influence on Ryûkyû for the next five hundred years, politically, economically, and culturally, as it did with its numerous other tributary states. The earliest records of Chûzan's tributary status appear in either the Official History of Ming, or the Korean Official History of Goryeo, completed in 1451.[4] Initially, amidst a severe pirate problem, the Ming placed no restrictions on the number of ships the three Ryukyuan kingdoms could send, nor on the size of the ships, and further provided ships to the Ryukyuan kingdoms, designating them official "carriers of [Ming] goods," a series of privileges extended to no other polity. This lasted only briefly, however.[5] Chûzan also entered into direct relations with the Korean kingdom of Goryeo, albeit in 1389, only a few years before the fall of that dynasty, when Chûzan repatriated a number of Korean subjects who had been captives of wakô pirates, sending them back to Korea along with gifts of pepper and sappanwood. Ryûkyû's relations with Korea continued into the Joseon Dynasty, albeit largely aboard chartered Japanese ships (and not Ryukyuan ones), but declined by 1480 after a significant number of Japanese traders began masquerading as official representatives of Ryûkyû, damaging the relationship.[6]

This period also saw the beginnings of a bureaucracy in the royal government which would later grow to rule in the king's place and in his name, replacing direct monarchical rule. Kumemura, a community for Chinese immigrants was established; the Chinese living here, and their Ryukyuan descendants, would serve Chûzan (and later the unified kingdom) as diplomats, interpreters, and government officials. Kumemura quickly grew into Ryûkyû's cultural capital, something of a complement to the political capital at Shuri and the commercial center at the port of Naha. A community for Ryukyuan envoys and scholars was similarly established in Fujian province in China, and the first Ryukyuans to study in China's capital did so at this time as well, again establishing precedents for developments which would continue for centuries.

Satto's son Bunei suceeded him in 1395, and oversaw the continuation of the policies and developments of his father's reign. Relations with China grew stronger, and a number of institutions were established to cater to Chinese envoys to Chûzan. Trade boomed, and relations with other countries likewise continued to be expanded. Though China accepted tributary missions from Hokuzan and Nanzan as well at this time, they officially recognized only the King of Chûzan as a head of state in Ryukyu. Chûzan continued to enjoy formal diplomatic relations with Ayutthaya and Korea, and trade relations with Java, Sumatra, and other states, as did the other two Ryukyuan kingdoms. However, only Chûzan managed to establish formal relations with Japan's Ashikaga shogunate, having sent a mission in 1403. The Ryûkyû trade, which consisted chiefly of aromatic woods imported from Southeast Asia, was of such importance to the Ashikaga that they established a new office, the Ryûkyû bugyô, to oversee the trade.[7] Trade with Ryûkyû became all the more important for Japan after Ashikaga Yoshimochi severed Japan's tributary relations with China in 1408; Japanese Zen monks played a key role in facilitating trade & formal relations between Japan and Ryûkyû in this period, especially after the chaos of the Ônin War (1467-1477) and the onset of the Sengoku period forced much Ryûkyû trade to limit itself to Kyushu, for fear of getting caught up in the violence.[8]

These political advantages, coupled with control of Naha, the most active port on Okinawa, allowed Chûzan to gain significant political and economic superiority over its two neighbors. It also benefited greatly culturally; trade always brings cultural exchange along with it, and many of the states in the region were experiencing great cultural surges as a result. In particular, it is believed that Buddhism from Korea and Shinto from Japan were first introduced to Okinawa to a significant extent at this time. Students and other travelers to Korea brought back texts, statues, rituals, and other Buddhist objects and ideas, and in exchange, King Bunei promised to send shipwrecked Koreans, and those who were the victims of Japanese pirates (wakô), back home safely.

Domestically, Bunei's reign saw significant development in the organization and formalization of the royal administration, and increased literacy and education among the administrative officials. Government documents, particularly those concerning trade and diplomacy, were first compiled in 1403. This compilation, the "Treasury of Royal Succession," is called Rekidai Hôan in the Japanese pronunciation, and continued to be compiled fairly regularly until 1619. However, this increased organization was not accompanied by political stability; the kings of Nanzan and Hokuzan, along with the emperor of China, all died within the span of just a few years (1395-1398). These events heightened tensions between the three kingdoms, all of which sought the favor of the Ming court, which was largely unresponsive; Bunei only received his formal investiture in 1406, ten years after succeeding his father, and less than a year before his own death.

As a result of these political instabilities, the anji (local territorial lords) began to seize more power for themselves within their tiny local domains. One anji, by the name of Hashi, deposed his neighboring lord of Azato in 1402 and seized his territory. Five years later, he led a rebellion and overthrew Bunei, establishing his own father, Shishô, as King of Chûzan. Hashi effectively ruled from the behind the scenes, and led Chûzan's army against the neighboring kingdoms, conquering Hokuzan in 1419 and Nanzan in 1429. In the intervening years, he formally succeeded his father to the throne and received investiture and the dynastic family name "Shang" (尚, Shô in Japanese or Okinawan) from the Ming court. Thus, the three kingdoms were united into the Ryûkyû Kingdom; "Chûzan" was not truly abolished, and the term "Chûzan" continued to be used to refer to the unified kingdom, or its king, up until the late 19th century.

Kings of Chûzan
Name Kanji Reign Line or Dynasty Notes
Shunten 舜天 1187-1237 Shunten Line  
Shun Bajunki 舜馬順熈 1237-1248 Shunten Line  
Gihon 義本 1249-1259 Shunten Line  
Eiso 英祖 1260-1299 Eiso Line  
Taisei 大成 1300-1308 Eiso Line  
Eiji 英慈 1309-1313 Eiso Line  
Tamagusuku 玉城 1314-1336 Eiso Line  
Seii 西威 1337-1354 Eiso Line  
Satto 察度 1355-1395 -  
Bunei 武寧 1398-1407 -  
Shô Shishô 尚思紹 1407-1421 First Shô Dynasty  
Shô Hashi 尚巴志 1422-1429 First Shô Dynasty Continued to rule united Ryukyu until 1439.


  • Kerr, George H. (2000). Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (revised ed.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing.
  1. Technically, Hashi's father Shô Shishô was king of Chûzan in 1419, and neither was called "Shô" until that name was granted them by the Ming court in 1421.
  2. Chan, Ying Kit. “A Bridge between Myriad Lands: The Ryukyu Kingdom and Ming China (1372-1526).” Thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010, 33n85.
  3. Prior to unification, this was accomplished through the Ôsôfu, a quasi-independent office located in Chûzan and run by people from China. See: Smits, Gregory. "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism." The Asia-Pacific Journal 37-3-10 (September 13, 2010).
  4. Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 1.
  5. Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 6.
  6. Mark McNally, "A King's Legitimacy and a Kingdom's Exceptionality: Ryûkyû's Bankoku Shinryô no Kane of 1458," International Journal of Okinawan Studies 6 (2015), 91-92.
  7. Yokoyama, 36.
  8. McNally, 94.