MING DYNASTY PERIOD PIRACY

Introduction

The Ming Dynasty's founder was a peasant monk by the name of Zhu Yuanzhang who had joined the Red Turban rebellion, a mid-14th century anti-Mongol rebellious movement that began in the Yellow River Delta but which quickly spread southward to include the Yangtze River Delta area. The Red Turbans eventually formed their own army. Slowly but surely Zhu gained control of the movement, mercilessly三 eliminating rivals within the movement and in the process making of it a tool for a racially-oriented, Han Chinese social, cultural and military resurgence. The Red Turbans under Zhu eventually prevailed against the Mongols, and in CE 1368, Zhu proclaimed himself the emperor of the Ming Dynasty, though it would take a year before Zhu – the Ming Dynasty's first emperor and known historically as the Hongwu Emperor – would seize Beijing.

The Hongwu Emperor was distrustful of intellectuals, surrounding himself with more ordinary people whom he could better control. Not surprisingly, Zhu centralized Imperial power under himself, instituting what historians would later refer to as authoritian rule. He set up a sort of secret police that was intensely loyal to him and which consisted exclusively of eunuchs. Detesting the Mongol rule of the Yuan Dynasty that he had toppled, Zhu harked back to China's ancient past, reinstituting a near-fanatical form of Confucianism, going so far as to treat all other countries as at best vassal states of overlord China, the practical result of which was the Ming Dynasty tributary system, whereby foreign legations arriving in Beijing were required to bring gifts (tributes) and to supplicate the ruler of the Middle Kingdom ("middle" as in "between heaven and earth") for permission to act as a representative for vassal state "X".

The Hongwu Emperor would, if the legation met with his approval (all did, since the Hongwu Emperor was keen to reaffirm his position as the Son of Heaven and his rule as being the Mandate of Heaven, with all other countries subservient to the Middle Kingdom and with the Hongwu Emperor as its supreme ruler), then confer upon the envoy an official, fancifully embellished document bearing the emperor's seal that would formalize the overlord-vassal relationship, whereafter the envoy would typically be accorded a rank, i.e., a Chinese title of nobility, and would be showered with numerous gifts whose value often far exceeded the value of the tribute that had been rendered. Subsequent Ming emperors largely followed this methodology, though assigning the powerful eunuchs to even higher offices as key officials of the state.

Since the eunuchs came from poor families from the north of China while the economic and cultural powerhouse of the country was the industrious south – i.e., the former homelands of the Bai Yue ("Hundred" Yue) people that had gradually been populated by northerners (principally by Han Chinese) fleeing from a milennium of warring in the north – this served to split Chinese society, ultimately weakening the country. The conservative, almost reactionary rule of the first Ming Dynasty emperor served to stifle free thought, innovation and interchange with the outside world, including trade with the outside world, the only exception being Southern China, which was highly successful and whose trade was therefore a prime target for pirates.

The Ming Dynasty tributary system (it would be adopted intact by the rulers of the subsequent Qing Dynasty, though the tributary system would gradually fade away as modernity – including a few wars – caught up with China) conferred trading rights between China and foreign countries to the official envoys that had made their way to Beijing to petition the emperor for this right, undercasting in the process their respective countries to Beijing as a vassal state to overlord China. While the official overlord-vassal relationship was a somewhat humiliating nuisance, with its, to a Westerner, embarrassing rituals of obeisance, where the envoy was required to kneel three times and to "prostrate" himself – i.e., bow his head to the floor – nine times (known in English as "kowtowing", and note that the number 9 is always associated with things Imperial), though materially the vassal state role consisted only of a single annual tribute, it was suffered for the sake of the lucrative and exclusive (a monopoly!) trading rights.

Under the tributary system of trade, horses from Tibet entered China and tea traversed in the opposite direction, while by sea, copper coins, porcelain, silk and tea traveled abroad, to the Middle East and to Europe, as well as to neigboring countries such as Japan and the East Indies, from whence exotic spices made their way to China (and, as well, to the Middle East and to Europe, which is what eventually attracted first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the rest of the European and North American merchant fleets to the East Indies, and from there, to China). 

The existence of the tributary system meant that Chinese merchants wishing to trade with, for example, Japan, were forbidden to do so, since there was an official envoy on which this monopolistic trade had been conferred. This naturally had a dampening effect on free enterprise in Ming China, since monopolistic trade translated to exorbitant consumer prices on Japanese goods sold in China and on Chinese goods sold in Japan.

The authoritarian rule of Ming China also extended to control over travel abroad, since the Ming emperors wished to prevent the Chinese people from the "contaminating" influence of cultural contact with foreigners, whom Ming emperors considered barbarians, since China, as the Middle Kingdom, was of course the pinnacle of cultural accomplishment. Not only that, Ming rulers regulated the movements of foreigners on its soil out of the same concern for cultural "contamination". To the Europeans who would soon arrive, this was a bit like Gulliver's treatment (cf. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels) at the hands of the Liliputians!

Yet, mother of all paradoxes, Ming Dynasty governments permitted Christian missions into the country, albeit initially reluctantly. It was during this period that the famous Italian Jesuit priest and missionary, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) from the Italian city of Macerata, which, in CE 1445, was made a part of the Papal States, i.e., the territory that was under the earthly dominion of the Catholic Church (the whole world is, of course : ), under the spiritual dominion of the Catholic Church!), arrived in China and was permitted to commence what would later be known as the Jesuit China Mission, and among the Ming court's close advisers, some even became Catholic converts, with the blessings of the emperor.

In fact, to nuance this issue a bit more than the impression given here, the result of the European influence upon China – and indeed, upon Japan – beginning with the Portuguese influence, was that a reluctant appreciation of the scientific accomplishments of the West slowly emerged in China (and ditto for Japan), but where this appreciation extended only to the West's scientific accomplishments. This recognition was promoted under the dual-message banner of "Eastern ethics, Western science", a slogan later coined in mid-19th century Japan but which also corresponded to Chinese sentiments, albeit, only in embryonic form during the Ming Dynasty period.

In every way imaginable, the Ming rulers regulated the life of the Chinese people, and naturally, a corollary of the regulation was taxation, since the state required a fee for its services. Most of the trade inside China and between China and the outside world was highly regulated and heavily taxed. It was almost as if the rulers of Ming China did not trust the natural profit motive of the private sector to benefit Chinese society and the Chinese state. (Ming rulers would have looked with deep skepticism upon the views that would later be expressed in The Wealth of Nations, the socio-economic work written by the Scottish social philosopher and political economist, Adam Smith (CE 1723-90), who held that much public good, paradoxically, flowed from the self-centered profit motive of the individual – i.e., the so-called invisible hand effect.)

Even monks during this period had to take examinations, and upon the successful completion of the examination and subsequent ordination, were required to pay a fee. Taxation continued to rise as the expense of the military increased, while government agencies – even the military – were subjected to a regimen of self-sufficiency, with even soldiers at the front spending a large portion of their time growing the foodstuffs they would need while their fighting capabilities declined accordingly, and the private sector, as indicated, thanks to the tightly controlled tributary system with its resulting excessive taxation, was slowly being strangled, or at least did not expand as rapidly as did China's population growth, and with Ming rulers favoring the backward but loyal north and punishing the progressive and rebellious south, who, in their turn, responded by evading the long tax arm of Beijing as much as they could, even to the extent of engaging in smuggling.

At the same time, Ming governments pushed into former Mongol lands, it invaded and occupied Annam (i.e., Vietnam) for at time (a very expensive campaign that the Ming government wisely terminated quickly), and it conquered and occupied Manchuria, enlisting the Mancus to help keep the Japanese from overrunning Korea, which, though independent, was effectively a buffer state between China and Japan that the Chinese wished to preserve, while the Japanese, with a covetous eye on China, wished to use Korea as a bridgehead for incursions into mainland China. As tax collection became increasingly difficult, the fiercely loyal but undiplomatic eunuchs were sent out into the countryside as the new tax collectors, increasing resentment against the Ming rulers.

The Ming Dynasty's high taxation and general over-regulation began to weigh heavily on the Chinese people, who began to rebel, some more openly than others. Farmers in Southern China, which the Ming rulers looked suspiciously upon anyway, as indicated, were so heavily taxed that many farmers from Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong Provinces simply gave up farming and took to the sea in junks as Chinese pirates alongside the Japanese Wokou pirates, with whom they colluded, forming veritable pirate fleets and making the Chinese-Japanese pirate raids much more effective and thus much more threatening to the Chinese state. In fact, so threatening were they to Ming China that entire coastal garrisons, unwilling to face the pirates, joined them instead!

It was perhaps thanks to the repressive, authoritarian, over-regulated Ming rule that many Chinese people, chafing at the bit, as it were, fled their homeland and settled in neighboring countries – where their descendants live to this day, by the way, especially in Vietnam and in the East Indies – from whence they could conduct trade with their relatives back home, either through Chinese smugglers or Wokou pirates, who, by this time, were as often as not smugglers rather than pirates.

Despite the almost control-freak like – to use a modern expression – stance of the Ming Dynasty, Ming China grew phenomenally, thanks mainly to the explosion in trade that took place during the Ming Dynasty period between China and its immediate neighbors and between China and the West, thanks, in both cases, to the arrival of the Europeans who were eager to sell exotic – and very high quality – Chinese wares both to China's neighbors and to the rest of the world.

In fact, China's growth during the Ming Dynasty period represents one of the country's fastest ever growth periods, even if China's modern era of economic growth dwarfs all of the country's previous growth periods combined. Still, given the relative backwardness of China at the outset of the Ming Dynasty, it is impressive what was achieved by the end of that dynasty. Of course, any adherent of free market economics, i.e., any adherent of the notion of largely allowing the forces of supply and demand to determine prices and quantities – meaning less, nor more, government regulation – would be quick to point out how much more Ming China could have grown had its development not been fettered by such excessive interference in the private sphere.

The Europeans Arrive

European sea traders would arrive in China at the dawn of the 16th century, represented by an advance party, as it were: the Portuguese, who arrived in CE 1514. There would go almost another century before the next Europeans, the Dutch, arrived. Thereafter the British, Spanish, French, Germans (as Prussians, initially), Russians and Americans would quickly follow. Of course the Europeans had long been trading with China (viz., the Silk Road trade), but this trade was largely conducted over land, and in any case via intermediary, Muhammedan traders. Rome, in the 2nd century BC, decided to initiate direct trade with China by sea. The effect on the silk trade was to lower the price of this otherwise luxury commodity to a level where even ordinary households could afford a few items made of silk.

Unfortunately, the Rome-China direct sea trade, which never managed to gain much traction, petered out rather quickly, as Rome was itself dealing with many internal and external problems. On the foreign front, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (CE 117-38) was busy erecting his equivalent of China's Great Wall, i.e., Hadrian's Wall in northern England, in order to keep out the "barbarian" equivalent to the Chinese problem of "barbarians" that had prompted the construction of China's Great Wall.

After Hadrian followed Emperor Antoninus Pius (CE 138-61) and then Emperor Marcus Aurelius (CE 161-80), who found himself busily engaged in military campaigns first in Parthia (ancient Parthia was a large swath of land lying just north of the Arabian Peninsula, stretching, in the west, from present-day eastern Syria (bordered to the north by present-day Turkey, i.e., by the ancient lands of Cappadocia, Armenia, etc.) to, in the east, present-day Pakistan, and including some or all of the present-day countries of Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan), then in Dacia, corresponding to the geographical area comprising the present-day countries of Romania and Moldova as well as parts of present-day Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and the Ukraine.

After the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, in CE 180, Rome descended into a long period of extreme instability, where new campaigns in Parthia and Caledonia (i.e., Scotland) were launched, followed by an all-out war against Parthia, the latter of which war dragged on and on with eventual Roman defeats which, in turn, led to internal conflicts within the empire, with revolts becoming commonplace and with one emperor after the other being assassinated (Rome at the time was essentially under military rule, for the emperor invariably came from the ranks of the army).

This degenerated to the point where some parts of the Roman Empire were being ruled by different (self-appointed!) emperors, and finally to a complete, for a time, east-west split in the empire that was perhaps a harbinger of things to come (viz., the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire, the latter with its seat in Constantinople and the former with its seat in Rome, and each with its separate version of the Catholic church). For over a century, from CE 180 to CE 312, Roman emperors were replaced as frequently as are European football coaches today, with a new emperor being crowned at a dizzying pace, almost once a year! (One wonders why anyone would want the job, given its rather predictable outcome, but maybe this attests to the indomitable spirit of the Italians!) It was not until the reign of Constantine, the Roman emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, that a semblance of stability was at last restored to Rome.

To balance out their new maritime China trade, the Romans attempted to sell some of their wares in China, mainly glasswares and textiles, but the demand for these products was largely absent, and perhaps therefore, and given that Rome had plenty on its plate closer to home, Rome neglected more and more the sea link to China, allowing it to quietly expire. There would go a millenium before the Europeans would make a comeback – in the form of the Portuguese, as indicated.

The Arrival Of The Portuguese Sounds The Death Knell For Wokou Piracy

The resourceful Chinese merchant naturally sought a way around the monopolistic China-Japan trade with its exorbitant tariffs, and since the Wokou pirates were based in Japan, what better alliance? Thus the individual Chinese merchant, faced with the choice of paying exorbitant prices for goods handled through the tributary system or of paying cheaper prices for black-market and/or pirated, goods, chose the latter. Since the Wokou pirates were strictly focused on delivering the requisitioned goods as cheaply as possible, they would steal them where they could, i.e., piracy continued to flourish. Thus the net effect of the Ming Dynasty tributary system, at least initially, was that it drove its own merchants to make alliances with the very pirates that Beijing wished to be rid of!

Subsequent Ming governments did not learn from this seemingly counterproductive experiment, and only tightened their control over the tributary system when the first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived. The Portuguese had already arrived in India and from there spread to the Malay peninsula, where they learned about the lucrative trade in spices between China and the East Indies. The Portuguese had come to the East Indies precisely in search of spices, which they paid exorbitant prices for back home in Europe, useful spices such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and pepper which had theretofore been shipped via the same overland routes that had shipped China's silkwares to Europe, i.e., the ancient overland Silk Road routes.

The Portuguese believed that they could fetch these exotic and highly prized spices themselves, at a savings, therefore they were willing to sail all the way around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of South Africa in order to do so. Once in the East Indies, the Portuguese traders realized that there was money to be had in shipping some of those same spices to Chinese ports and then shipping Chinese silk, tea and other commodities back to the East Indies, the same commodities that were sought after also in Europe.

Initially, the Chinese were skeptical of the Portuguese, since the Chinese considered all foreign peoples inferior to the inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom. Eventually, Ming governments accepted the Portuguese, who were allowed to establish a trading port at Macau, where they landed spices from the East Indies destined for the Chinese market and from whence they shipped tea, salt, silk and other wares in the reverse direction.

Hoping to be rid of Wokou piracy once and for all, the Ming government revoked its tributary system trade with Japan, channelling it instead through the Portuguese, which, to the Chinese merchant who continued to try to find a way around the more expensive tributary system by employing black-market carriers – with whom the Chinese merchants had become ever more in cahoots, in fact, even to the extent of providing them with Chinese "foot soldier" sailor-pirates – was like assigning wolves to protect one's sheep, for the Portuguese were as prone to pillaging black-market ships – ships which, for the most part, were now no longer engaged in piracy, but were simply engaged in illegal China-Japan trade, aka smuggling – as the earlier-period Wokou pirates had been prone to pillaging Chinese ships!

At the same time, Wokou piracy had extended all the way to Malaysia, thanks to the spice trade between China and the East Indies, and for this reason, the typical Wokou pirate ship was now bemanded by a truly motley crew consisting of a Japanese pirate-captain who presided over a "navy" of pirates from Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, and the East Indies, some of whom were undoubtedly very capable coolies who had originally been blackbirded (i.e., kidnapped for sale into slavery, as indicated) but who had earned their freedom by becoming able deck hands on a pirate ship.

Moreover, the Wokou pirates no longer operated only as solo ships, but often formed fleets of pirate ships, making them a formidable force, especially since they murdered and mutilated their victims with the greatest relish (it is said that Ming period Chinese navies eventually so feared a direct encounter with a Wokou pirate fleet that they would fire warning shots whenever a Wokou fleet was spotted, in the hope that the pirates might flee, thus sparing them a direct engagement).

The British explorer and navigator, John Davis (ca.1550-1605) was murdered under despicable circumstances by stranded Japanese Wokou pirates in the waters off the Malay Peninsula in December of 1605. Davis was serving as ship's pilot to Sir Edward Michelborne on a voyage on board the Tigre, a 240-ton sailing ship (by comparison, the HMS Beagle that would transport Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands some 200 years later was of the exact same size) that was towing a so-called pinasse, or flat-bottomed boat that was used to reach shore when the Tigre was anchored up in deep coastal water, or when a party was sent into shallower coastal waters to inspect an object or circumstance of interest.

The Tigre had departed the Isle of Wight, situated about 125 kilometers, as the crow flies, southwest of London at the mouth of the Southampton Estuary and just off the coast from the famous and aptly named port city, Portsmouth, almost a year earlier, sailing down the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. The crew had faced some awful privations underways; they suffered all manner of illnesses, treacherous natives, treacherous sea storms, food poisoning, near-mutiny, and finally piracy in the East Indies. There, they had taken up battle with three lesser pirate "junks" (actually, East Indian proa – roughly (very roughly!) equivalent to the Chinese junk – see below) anchored up near an island, destroying the first one within half an hour, whereafter its crew ran ashore and disappeared into the forests.

Malay Proa

Figure 2: Malay Proa

the Coast of Java

Figure 3: The Busy Waters Off the Coast of Java

The British fought the other two boats all night long, and while they were concentrating their efforts on the one of the boats toward the end of the sea battle so as to quickly finish it off, the other boat took advantage of the situation and escaped. At first light, the remaining proa was so badly damaged that its crew, all Javanese pirates, surrendered. They were left to be collected by other ships, but in the meantime, they surely joined their mates on the island, and were quite possibly themselves rejoined by their mates who had just escaped with their boat.

A few days later, near the Kingdom of Patane (Kingdom of Patani, also written as Pattani) on the border of Peninsular Malaysia and Peninsular Thailand (i.e., the same peninsula), on the Gulf of Thailand side (i.e., just across the peninsula from the Straits of Malacca), the Tigre encountered a Chinese junk that had run aground, splitting the ship's hull. Though not a large junk, it had a whoppingly large crew of some 90 Japanese "sailors" (they were obviously not sailors but pirates, since their exaggerated numbers did not suggest that they were legitimate sailors and there was little hierarchy to be spotted among the crew's members, except that there was someone who was referred to as "the captain").

Eventually, 25 or so of the shipwrecked Japanese "sailors" were allowed on board the Tigre to exchange gifts and pleasantries, while a half-dozen or so of the Tigre's crew went aboard the beached junk to be with the remaining 65 Japanese pirates there. The captain had instructed his pilot, Davis, to not permit more that half a dozen of the Japanese, whom the captain suspected of being (knew them to be by their manner and their circumstances!) pirates, to bear weapons. Alas, Davis allowed the entire lot of 25-plus pirates on board, armed. This is strange! It is as if Davis knows that the Japanese "sailors" (pirates!) will ultimately kill him and as many of the Tigre's crew as they possibly can in order to seize the Tigre, yet it is as if Davis is paralyzed.

This reminds one of the eerie episode in Blade Runner where Roy and Zhora, the renegade Nexus-6 bio-robotic human look-alikes who were created at Tyrell Corporation's laboratories, confront the rather freaky guy (a genetic designer who himself suffers from a genetic disorder: a disease that causes advanced ageing), J.F. Sebastian, who in fact helped to create Roy and Zhora, when the latter two break into the corporation's laboratories in search of a means by which to extend their lives, since they are otherwise programmed to terminate soon, and J.F. gets chatty with the couple, knowing all along that they intend to kill him, and yet remaining transfixed while chatting mindlessly, as if powerless to take action to defend himself. Weird!

On a prearranged signal, the Wokou pirates struck, killing all of the Tigre's crew on board the beached junk, and killing Davis on board the Tigre itself (they ran Davis through with swords from all directions) and then retreating to the cabin from whence it was not easy to dislodge them, though the British tried to smoke the pirates out by setting fire to furniture, mattresses and the like, but the pirates managed to put out the fires each time.

Finally, Captain Michelborne ordered that a special ordnance consisting of small items such as bullets, case-shot (aka canister shot, or shot corresponding to a hefty ball bearing of the size of today's glass marble) and the like be made up, the cannon was then swung round and aimed at the cabin, then the ordnance – which in its effect can be compared to the blast of a sawed-off shotgun, loaded with buckshot (i.e., the medium-sized pellets that are packed into a shotgun shell designed to take down large game (a "buck" in this instance is a male deer), except that in the case of a sawed-off shotgun, the "game" is always a human) and fired at close range, though here we are of course speaking of a cannon-sized buckshot fired at close range – was fired, blasting the cabin's wooden walls to splinters and leaving the remains of the Wokou pirates looking like a very messy version of Picasso's Guernica!

Earlier, the explorer (as opposed to the navigator, or ship's pilot), John Davis, had sailed through the waters of Greenland and nearby Inuit Canada in search of the fabled Northwest Passage (we now know that it exists!). Posthumously, the strait that is located off the west coast of Greenland, between the Baffin Sea to the northwest and the Labrador Sea to the southeast, was named in honor of Davis (see the map immediately below).

Davis Strait

Figure 4: Davis Strait

One of the most famous Portuguese pirates, if not THE most famous Portuguese pirate, to visit Chinese waters was Fernão Mendes Pinto, who was born in Portugal in 1509 and whose life, based at least on his own memoirs, has been characterized by some as being a cross between a swashbuckling Henry Morgan – the orginal Buccaneer 'Pirate of the Carribean' (Morgan pirated first Spanish ships along the coast of Spain, then Spanish and Dutch ships in the Carribean, but all along with the blessings of British government officials, albeit, in contravention to official government policy, though when the moment of truth arrived, i.e., when Morgan was sent to England to be executed, he was instead knighted and made governor of Jamaica!) – and a supernatural Baron von Münchhausen, whose full and utterly pompous title was Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen, the German nobleman and military adventurer (the French Foreign Legion can roll over and die, and ditto for Superman, if you want real adventure, albeit, most of it most likely 99% fictional, here comes Baron von Münchhausen!) renowned for his preposterously tall tales...  according to his own dubious but highly entertaining accounts, Münchhausen could ride cannonballs and once extricated himself from a quicksand-like bog simply by pulling upward on the hair of his head! The next-best thing to a Münchhausen was Fernão Mendes Pinto.

Fernão Mendes Pinto

Fernão Mendes Pinto was a larger than life person, a "self-educated", self-made man who was of poor, Portuguese counryside descent. He was at the same time a cogent, almost scholarly chronicler of the events that occurred around him and their settings, and for this reason many of Pinto's travel accounts – while some of the details, and most notably, Pinto's link to them, are considered suspect – are judged to be largely accurate, in that they capture the overall essence of the life and times that characterized the places Pinto described. Pinto spent only a brief part of his colorful life in "Chinese waters", though it is this part only that interests us here.

Pinto's first encounter with China was on a theretofore uneventful pirate voyage in 1540, circa, from the Gulf of Tonkin (situated between Vietnam and Hainan Island) northward along the Chinese coast, passing through the South China Sea to the East China Sea and on northwestward into the Yellow Sea that separates China and Korea. Here Pinto raided the tomb of a Chinese emperor but was soon caught, as his ship ran aground in a storm. Pinto was sentenced to a year of hard labor on the construction of the Beijing Great Wall. While serving this sentence, the work party was overrun by Tatars and Pinto was taken prisoner. Being a resourceful, self-confident man and a highly experienced quasi-military pirate, Pinto cut a deal with his captors whereby he taught them how to successfully storm a fortress, in exchange for his freedom.

On a trip thereafter to what was later called Cochinchina (present-day Vietnam plus the southern extremity of present-day Cambodia), which became a French colony from 1862 to 1954, Pinto, according to his writings, encountered a "Pope-like" figure who, it is now believed, was none other than the 2nd Dalai Lama, who would die soon thereafter, in 1542. Capturing a Chinese pirate junk, Pinto sailed north, again toward the Yellow Sea (in search of yet more tomb booty?), but the junk was blown off course in a violent storm and Pinto ended up on the Japanese island of Tanegashima on the southeastern tip of Japan, where the East China Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. Thus Pinto claimed to have been the very first Westerner to have set foot on Japanese soil (again, it is said that Pinto's description of events and places there are largely accurate, lending some credence to his claim).

The story does not go on to say whether Pinto became a Wokou pirate, but one suspects that this would have been too lowly an ambition for the likes of Fernão Mendes Pinto.

The scourge of Wokou piracy eventually ended as the result of a combination of factors:

1) The piracy had spurred innovation in the Chinese junk, or rather, it inspired the creation of a hybrid boat, referred to as the lorcha, a special boat with the long, sleek, high-riding hull of a Portuguese ship but with the sails of a typical Chinese junk – the lorcha was a very fast ship, requiring a minimal crew, that could easily outdistance the more conventional Chinese junk used by pirates (see farther below);

2) The rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate (CE 1603-1868) in Japan which created a strong centralized government that could effectively respond to Chinese demands for an end to the piracy (Shogun is the Japanese title that designates a hereditary military commander who was the actual ruler of Japan, even as the emperor (the Mikado, in Japanese) was the figurehead, or nominal, ruler of Japan); and lasty,

3) The arrival of the Portuguese to whom the Chinese assigned all China-Japan trade, though eventually, due to the other two factors above that reduced the threat of piracy, the Ming government, trusting not only in the efficacy of the Portuguese traders to rout the Wokou pirates (who had essentially become smugglers, not pirates, at least as regards the China-Japan trade, and, paradoxically, with the Portuguese in the role of pirates who plundered the ships of Wokou smugglers – yet, however odious it may seem, this tack proved to be a highly effective strategy, ultimately completely eliminating, together with the other two aforementioned factors, Wokou piracy cum smuggling!) but also in the superior speed of Portuguese sailing vessels, finally lifted the restrictions on China-Japan trade, such that Wokou piracy cum smuggling no longer needed to operate in the shadows, though the bulk of the trade thereafter was conducted by the Portuguese, who had a very well-developed shipping network in the region.

A fourth factor that contributed to the demise of Wokou piracy was that Portuguese maritime trade extended all the way to India, where many exotic – and considerably cheaper – products, including exotic fruits, helped to edge out the trade in similar products between China and Japan, with the Portuguese becoming the preferred purveyor of these types of commodities both to the Japanese as well as to the Chinese market.

an Ancient Lorcha

Figure 5: Artistic Rendering of an Ancient Lorcha

The tragedy for China of the oppressive, anti-intellectual rule of the Ming emperors was that the country's pretended superiority – essentially a gross state of denial – meant that China was stuck in the past and experienced increasing difficulty in navigating the ship of state, given that the winds of change that had begun to blow blew so powerfully that they eventually blew European ships all the way to China, as it were.

Ming China's self-sufficiency economic policies proved an utter failure, the Ming armies could no longer defend the empire (Mongol incursions resumed), and the Ming court became increasingly corrupt, and focused inwardly on itself (the outlay on the emperor's harem alone could have financed a small army, and this ostentatious abuse of state funds was as salt on the wounds of an already strugging Chinese people).

In the end, Ming China imploded more than it was overrun by the Manchus; the epochal event that spelled the end of the Ming Dynasty – the massive invasion of Manchus (who, by the way, as vassal state allies, had theretofore helped Ming governments to defend Korea from Japanese incursions, but who, in the end, themselves tired of Beijing's ineptness, inflexibility and corruption) – was accomplished without firing a shot, it is said, but instead was accomplished by bribing the gatekeeper, as it were. That is how far the Ming Dynasty had sunk! Indeed, Beijing itself was taken over by outraged anti-Ming Chinese rebels who gleefully opened the gates of the city to the arriving Manchus!

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