Maritime China - From the Middle Ages to the Modern Era

maritime ship


Lots of money makes the heart light!

– Anonymous Chinese pirate captain

It was once generally held that the Chinese people, as with so many other "firsts" within the all-embracing field of human endeavor, "invented" the phenomenon of piracy. This would not be so surprising, and in fact paradoxically attests to the advanced state of Chinese culture at a time when most of the rest of us were still swinging from lianas while eating bananas, for the existence of Chinese piracy as far back as the 4th century BCE (this is the first mention of Chinese piracy, though historians conjecture that Chinese piracy likely started before recorded history, or as soon as barques large enough to transport goods were launched on China's major waterways) of the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty suggests that Chinese culture was already so far advanced that theirs was a society of traders, even if the medium of exchange at that early stage may have been barter (though the Chinese would later also be the first to "invent" paper money, i.e., in effect, a reserve-backed I.O.U. as a universal currency).

We have since learned better, i.e., we have learned that the first pirates, if the historical record is to be believed, were the so-called Sea Peoples who sailed the waters of the northeastern Mediterranean (the Aegean Sea) and who were apparently ethnically natives of the region, i.e., a dark-skinned people, not blonde-haired, blue-eyed Vikings, for example. Mention of an ethnic group believed to belong to the Sea Peoples can be found on an obelisk, written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, in the Obelisk Temple of the town of Byblos situated in present-day Lebanon (hieroglyphics experts are divided in their opinions as to whether the date recorded on the obelisk should be interpreted as BCE 2000 or BCE 1700, but either would put the Sea Peoples pirates at least a millenium ahead of the Chinese pirates).

Inventors of piracy or not, the Chinese pirates would soon see themselves bested in their own waters by the Japanese, though other challengers to the Japanese would follow, such as the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Spanish, the Prussians (forerunners of the German Empire, or the Kaiserlich Deutsches Reich, cobbled together by Otto von Bismarck – see the reference to Bismarck in the Note on the Anglo-Dutch Wars at the end of the article), the Russians, the French and even the Americans. The Chinese would have the last word, however, since their piracy lasted longer than anywhere else, though large-scale piracy has blossomed up again in other parts of the world in recent years, such as in the Gulf of Aden (the Somalia piracy problem), in the Straits of Malacca (in ancient times these pirates, called Lanuns, were believed to be principally of either Indonesian or Malaysian ethnic origin (in Malay, the language of Malaysia of course, they are called Orang laut, meaning literally "Sea people", and a reference to these pirates can be found in the Rudyard Kipling story, The Disturber of Traffic), though some writers hold that the Orang laut were of Philippine-Muslim origin).

There is little mention of domestic piracy (i.e., Chinese piracy) in China before the onslaught, as it were, of foreign piracy in Chinese waters. The reason for the absence of domestic piracy from the historical record is a bit incomprehensible, since so many other unflattering events in Chinese history do indeed form a part of China's historical record. This could suggest that piracy was not really much of a problem in Imperial China, or it might suggest that Imperial China did not wish to publicize the phenomenon for any number of reasons, ranging from national pride to a desire not to encourage the phenomenon if mention of it might have that effect.

On the other hand, domestic piracy might have been so commonplace in ancient China as to not merit mention (note that the historical records of ancient China make no mention of the rising and the setting of the sun, yet it presumably happened every day, no?). There is also the possibility that domestic piracy was viewed by the Chinese state as a Robin Hood like retaliation (or perhaps more of a Dick Turpin like retaliation, viz., the infamous 18th century English "highwayman", or practitioner of highway robbery (in the literal, not in the figurative, sense!)) on the part of the people for the endemic corruption of public officials if a culture of corruption was embedded into the ruling hierarchy of Imperial China. Absent the facts, one can only speculate.

The arrival of foreign pirates operating in Chinese waters, beginning with Japanese pirates, did indeed provoke mention in the annals of Chinese history, and with the arrival of European merchant craft in Chinese waters a few centuries later, the practice of piracy, which had skyrocketed most likely due to the increased presence of valuable "booty", both on land as well as at sea, was recorded not only in Chinese historical annals, but also in the historical annals of the European countries in question.

In the following, the phenomenon of maritime China trade and the piracy it spawned – the latter to include pirate attacks on shipping vessels at sea, attacks on shipping vessels operating on the waters of the major Chinese estuaries such as the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Pearl River Estuaries, and even piracy attacks (pillaging raids!) far inland on the cities, towns and villages along navigable waterways – will be examined. As indicated, the arrival of Europeans to the mix only aggravated the already existing piracy problem since it multiplied the available "booty" a hundred-fold, and this was perhaps multiplied a thousand-fold when the British began smuggling opium into China from British Raj (the British Indian Empire, i.e., Colonial Era India – see the map borrowed from Wikipedia immediately below).

British Raj

Figure 1: British Raj

However, many if not most of the "foot soldier" pirates in Chinese waters, up until the arrival of the Europeans and the resulting increase in China-related shipping that attracted vermin and pirates in roughly equal measure (not to worry, though, the pirates dined on the rats when more conventional provisions were at low ebb!), were Chinese, and most of these were from impovished, marginalized parts of the empire such as the Zhoushan Archipelago and the Chinese island of Formosa (present-day Taiwan). With the arrival of European shipping in Asian (not just in Chinese) waters, many of the new "foot soldier" pirates were recruited on the islands of Southeast Asia (broadly known as the East Indies, or the islands located in between the Southeast Asian mainland and Australia), such as the present-day island countries of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Still, as often as not, the "foot soldier" pirate who served on a pirate ship operating in Chinese waters was a Chinaman, either from one of the aforementioned impoverished island areas (eventually also from Hainan Island as the piracy extended southward into the South China Sea area) or from one of the major Chinese trading ports that attracted a lively coolie (see the footnote immediately below) trade, but where there may not have been enough employment at any given time for all idle hands, or where some "idle hands" had perhaps committed crimes on land that encouraged them to take up the life of a pirate as a means of escaping justice.*(1)

*(1) Coolies, or manual laborers (in some cases, outright slaves) – who might be from China, Vietnam, India or the East Indies, though the overwhelming majority of them stemmed from China – were initially contracted to serve on ocean-going vessels bound for America and Europe, but in time coolies were shipped to the four corners of the earth to serve as cheap laborers, with "Chinatowns" springing up wherever they settled.

The great American railway project of the latter half of the 19th century that would span the USA from coast to coast, linking the Central Pacific Railway line that originated in California with the Union Pacific Railway line that originated in Nebraska (the US railway system prior to this initiative extended from the east coast westward to the city of Omaha in Nebraska), was built – at least proceeding eastward from California – with the help of coolies. Indeed, given the harsh privations and the extreme temperature swings (from snow-covered, ice-encrusted mountains to scorching, desert-like valley floors), it is doubtful that the Central Pacific Railway could have attracted any other laborer willing to do the job! The coolie was of course little more than an indentured slave.

Indeed, it is said that many of the pirate captains themselves fell into the category of individuals with a reason to flee justice, including both American and European pirate captains, as will be seen in the following. Even the coolie eventually became booty in the piracy that plagued the coastal waters from the Bohai Sea in the north to the Straits of Malacca in the south (the Straits of Malacca is the narrow, treacherous body of water located at the bottom of the Andaman Sea and situated in between the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the west and Peninsular Malaysia to the east) during the period in question (the kidnapping of coolies as well as islanders – especially East Indians – to be sold as slaves is known as blackbirding), and, not surprisingly, some of the more adaptable coolies no doubt ended up as free men in the role of newly recruited "foot soldier" pirates.

There was without a doubt a major sociological aspect to the incidence of piracy in China, especially in the period spanning the 16th to the 20th century, just as today there is a major sociological aspect to the incidence of piracy off the coast of Somalia (i.e., a lack of employment opportunities for a large segment of society in both cases). In its essence, piracy is of course only a form of robbery that happens to be carried out either at sea or by on-land plunderers who arrive by sea, but piracy can be inhibited or exacerbated by the various actions and policies of the state, as will be seen in the following.

Each of the three last Imperial Chinese dynasties, the Yuan (CE 1279-1368), the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and the Qing (CE1644-1911) Dynasties, faced piracy problems that had a lot to do either with the given dynasty's trade policies (which might also be linked to the dynasty's overarching "political ideology"), with its friendly versus hostile actions toward its neighbors, or with external, changing-world factors beyond the given dynasty's control, such as famine or social turmoil in neighboring countries and the unexpected arrival of members of an alien culture whose arrival was facilitated by advances in cartography and in shipbuilding. In reality, trade policy and foreign policy, as well as a dynasty's political outlook, determined to a large extent the given dynasty's response to even the unexpected, such as the arrival of members of an alien culture.

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