YUAN DYNASTY PERIOD PIRACY

Introduction

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty, curiously enough, given that this was what many Han Chinese at the time felt was a backward culture compared tos their highly advanced – in every respect, or so they believed – Confucian-Chinese culture, was very open toward outside influences. This is one of the most complimentary legacies of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Though they were Lamaists (Tibetan Buddhists), the Mongol rulers of China were open toward people of other faiths, including Nestorian Christians and Muslims – in fact, promoting many Muslims to high-ranking positions within the civil administration, and giving Muslims as well as Nestorian Christians free reign to recruit followers, as best they could, among the otherwise rather steadfast Chinese Buddhists, as Buddhism was by far the majority religion in China at the time (it still is, of course!).

The Mongols were also open to the many foreign trade legations that arrived in Dadu, the city built by the Mongols on the ruins of the former capital, Zhongdu, that had been razed to the ground – partly during the fighting and partly after the fighting – in order to clear away the debris of the ruined old capital, so as to start afresh. It is no accident that the famous Italian traveler and explorer, Marco Polo, during the last quarter of the 13th century, could traverse the length and breadth of the Chinese empire without fear for his life, for he made his journeys through the Chinese empire during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.

Soon after Marco Polo's return to Europe, trade legations arrived in China, and many European trade representatives settled there in order to better conduct their trade, even though the transporation of the goods in question was handled by non-Europeans (by Central Asian Muslims over land and by Chinese and East Indian (including Mughal Indian... for the definition of Mughal India, see The Spanish subsection much farther below) shipping merchants by sea). Besides domestic Chinese pirates, of which little is recorded by Chinese historians, the Yuan Dynasty rulers faced piracy from a near neighbor, Japan, but it was not always so...

Japanese Piracy in China

The prelude – Japanese merchant sailors may have been conducting low-level piracy raids on Chinese shipping and on Chinese port cities long before the first Mongol Invasion of Japan in CE 1274 by mixed Mongol, Chinese and Korean forces under the command of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, though, had they been doing so, little to nothing was written about it, but after the failed Mongol invasions of Japan – the first one in CE 1274, as indicated, then another one in CE 1281 – the Japanese retaliated (or at least certain elements of Japanese society retaliated) by harrassing Chinese shipping along the coast of China and by invading and pillaging cities, towns and villages along the Chinese coast, and even cities, towns and villages far inland along China's major waterways.

Moreover, the Japanese pirates, known as the Wokou (wo-kou = "Japanese-bandit"), murdered wherever they went – even when plundering towns and villages far inland – in a manner that was a harbinger of things to come some 600 years later, namely, the gruesome 1937 Nanking Massacre.

However, during the latter period of Korea's Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) and immediately prior to the Mongol invasion of Japan, the Wokou pirates regularly raided Korea, which suggests that the only reason why the Wokou pirates had not earlier raided Mongol-ruled China was that they feared that they would be crushed by the Mongols. In contrast, after the failed Mongol invasion of Japan, the Wokou did indeed begin to launch bold pirate attacks on China. But we are getting ahead of ourselves...

Kublai Khan, anno CE 1274, was on something of a roll. The Mongols had launched their first attack on Korea decades earlier, in CE 1231, but because the Koreans refused to surrender without an honorable fight (one can only admire the tenacity with which the Korean people tried to hang onto their independence!), the Mongols had to repeat their invasion of Korea numerous times. In fact, the complete subjugation of Korea did not occur until decades later, in CE 1270, when Kublai, Genghis Khan's grandson, had been nominated as Khan, or named as the supreme Mongol leader.

After having finally subjugated Korea in CE 1270, Kublai Khan, who had not yet subjugated all of China (this would first happen in CE 1279), attempted to repeat a shorter version of the Korean success on the Japanese, but the latter, being islanders surrounded by a sea that was hostile to all but the most hardy of sea craft, proved to be a tougher foe than had been the Koreans. Or, perhaps the Japanese success in rebuffing the Mongol invasion was simply owing to the good fortune of the Japanese – or to the ill fortune of the Mongols. However it may be, Kublai Khan had a pretty hard time of subduing the Japanese.

Of course, Kublai Khan never succeeded in subduing the Japanese, but this was perhaps owing more to his bad luck than to the military prowess of the enemy, since it was the sea – in particular, violent storms at sea – that decimated the Mongol forces, both in 1274 and again in 1281 (to the student of history, this 'defense of the homeland' story bears a passing resemblance to first Napoleon's, then Hitler's, failed attempt to invade Russia, where, in the case of Russia, it was also Mother Nature, though not in the form of violent storms but in the form of freezing winters, who saved the day). In fact, it would appear that the Japanese themselves acknowledge that their victory was owing not to their military prowess but rather, to just plain good luck, which, to a 13th century Japanese believer in fate, or destiny, could only have been an act of divine intervention.

The fortuitous – or divinely blessed – Japanese, who had successfully repelled two attempted invasions by the most feared military force known to man at the time, the Mongol Horde (okay, this was not the awe-inspiring Mongol Horde on horseback, and it was in fact watered down with Chinese and Korean foot soldiers), referred thereafter to the fortuitous storms that had decimated the Mongol armies as "divine winds', or kamikaze, a term that would make its appearance centuries later in a strictly manmade form, as opposed to a Mother Nature form. Perhaps bolstered by this divine blessing, the Japanese would soon arrive in waves on Chinese shores as Wokou. The Wokou plague, in contrast to the short-lived Mongol threat, would last nearly three centuries.

The arrival of the Wokou in Chinese waters – The Wokou commenced their raids on China almost immediately after a formerly much-feared Mongol-ruled China was shown to be anything but invincible. China at the time included Korea, or the Korea that had been ruled by the Goryeo Kingdom. Due to its close proximity to Japan, Chinese-controlled Korea was therefore one of the first victims of the Wokou.

The Wokou raids on China can be divided into two main periods: the late-13th century through the mid-14th century period; and the mid-14th century to the beginning of the 17th century period. Whereas the Wokou raids of the early period (late 13th – mid-14th century) were carried out by actual Japanese pirates, the late period Wokou raids were only nominally carried out by Japanese pirates, i.e., many of the "foot soldier" pirates of the late period Wokou piracy were in fact a motley crew of Koreans, Chinese and various East Indians, especially Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians.

The early period – late period Wokou piracy distinction lies in the fact that the early period Wokou piracy consisted of shorter- to medium-duration jaunts, where the pirates regularly returned to their bases in Japan, most notably bases on the island of Tsushima – located in the Korea Straits roughly midway between the present-day cities of Nagasaki, Japan and Busan, South Korea – and on the island of Iki, situated just off the coast of Nagasaki.

The early period Wokou raids that had begun on Korea spread almost immediately to China proper after the failed Mongol invasions of Japan, in particular to the East China Sea coastal area, from present-day lower Jiangsu Province southward to Fujian Province and the island of Formosa across from Fujian Province.

In the meantime, the Korean Goryeo Kingdom finally shook off Mongol Yuan Dynasty (i.e., Chinese) domination in CE 1350, but the kingdom was very weakened by the Wokou piracy raids, while one of the Goryeo king's rivals – in fact, a subordinate, General Yi Seong-gye – had been very successful (had indeed become a Korean hero) against both the Mongols and the Wokou. Unhappy with the weakness of the Goryeo king's rule, the general rebelled, toppling the weakened Goryeo Kingdom and establishing the Joseon (1392-1897) Dynasty, though Yi Seong-gye continued to style himself as "general" (Yi Seong-gye was posthumously elevated to the rank of the Joseon Dynasty's first emperor). Soon after the Korean Goryeo Kingdom shook off Chinese domination, the Yuan Dynasty fell to the Ming Dynasty.

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