When pirates ruled Asia's waves
Pirates didn’t only spread chaos in Caribbean and Atlantic waters. Adam Clulow reveals how east Asian raiders, including a female commander ignored by historians, terrorised China’s shores from the 16th century
Spring 1553 brought terror to large swathes of the coast. Settlements along the shore were hit with successive assaults from the sea as, in “the third month... [pirates launched] a large campaign to attack [the coast]. The combined fleet consisted of several hundred warships that covered the sea.”
This account, which goes on to list the towns and cities that fell to the marauders’ depredations, gives a sense of the scale of these raids, describing a vast armada of pirate vessels carrying thousands of men.
These large-scale series of raids weren’t launched on the Spanish Main by Caribbean buccaneers or by Barbary corsairs in the Mediterranean.
In fact, the description comes from the Mingshi, a history of the Ming dynasty in China. It recounts an attack by so-called wakō, or Japanese pirates, under the command of their leader Wang Zhi, who assembled huge fleets for raids on the coast.
Piracy has always been a global phenomenon. For millennia, pirates have preyed on rich shipping lanes and vulnerable coastal settlements. Although European pirates dominate the popular imagination, east Asia – particularly China and Japan – was one of the great centres of historical piracy.
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East Asian piracy was vast in scale and reach. It was also stunningly persistent with successive waves of large-scale piracy. And it was strikingly cosmopolitan, with multi-ethnic crews straddling national boundaries.
In the 16th century, huge pirate fleets consisting of hundreds of vessels ransacked the Chinese coast. Although dressed as ferocious Japanese warriors, most of these pirates were in fact Chinese, and they were led by Chinese entrepreneurs based in Japan.
Then, in the 17th century, a new pirate king created a maritime organisation that would come to challenge the Dutch East India Company, eventually invading Taiwan and ejecting the Dutch from their prized east Asian colony.
And in the 19th century, a Chinese female leader emerged from the Cantonese sex trade to command tens of thousands of pirates.
Cycle of crime
For most people today, the default image of a historical pirate is based on notorious European outlaws such as Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
Such figures, who were active primarily in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, became so well-known because writers like Captain Charles Johnson, author of the bestselling 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, created a larger-than-life image that penetrated deep into the popular imagination.
But these mariners who operated during what’s now called the Golden Age of Piracy – spanning the later 17th and early 18th centuries – were generally not very successful. Their careers were short and violent, marked by the occasional seizure of rich vessels but usually ending in capture or execution.
By contrast, east Asian pirates developed organisations that, at their zenith, looked a lot like actual states with huge resources and reach. Historians who work on pirates talk about a piracy cycle – applicable globally, but key to understanding east Asian pirates.
According to this model, pirates transitioned through four stages as they became more successful.
In the first stage, small, fragmented groups emerged, usually drawing support from impoverished coastal populations. They engaged in low-level piracy using one or two vessels, attacking vulnerable ships or settlements but with little organisation or staying power. In this phase, pirates were little more than small-scale parasites, preying on commerce but with limited capacity to inflict serious damage.
Although most east Asian pirates never escaped this phase, the more successful ones transitioned to stage two of the cycle, which saw significant organisation and growth. Fuelled by plunder, pirate leaders amassed small fleets, allowing them to target richer targets. This in turn gave them access to more resources, enabling further growth.
Once they reached stage three, pirate fleets could consist of hundreds of vessels and tens of thousands of pirates. Such groups required clear rules, structures and even fully formed bureaucracies to manage income and resources.
Contrary to popular ideas, most pirates were not political revolutionaries seeking to create alternative orders or maritime utopias. Rather, they developed strict hierarchies that funnelled plunder upwards to key leaders, while ensuring their crews remained well fed and armed.
At this stage, pirates faced a crucial test. Established states recognised that such groups, with their powerful fleets and tens of thousands of fighters, posed a dangerous threat that must be co-opted or defeated.
In stage four of the piracy cycle, then, pirates could form their own de facto states – and indeed some successful east Asian pirates did precisely this. Or they could seek recognition by, or integration into, powerful Asian states.
If they could successfully navigate this difficult transition, pirate leaders could morph from outlaws into admirals, and their fleets into state navies. But making this final leap proved perilous, even for the most successful.
Dawn of the ‘dwarf raiders’
East Asian pirates have a long history; scattered references stretch back thousands of years. But something changed in the 14th century, when huge fleets of pirates attacked Korea, ranging far inland and challenging the state.
These pirates were known by two Chinese characters, 倭 寇, which can be pronounced as wokou in Chinese, waegu in Korean or wakō in Japanese. It’s a derogatory term for Japanese people that is sometimes translated as ‘dwarf raiders’.
These wakō raids, to use the Japanese pronunciation, started small and were easily resisted. But they swiftly grew as pirate leaders transitioned to stages two and three of the piracy cycle.
In c1370, wakō pirates attacked a Korean province, destroying 30 warships and taking the tax grain accumulated by the state. And in 1374, a massive fleet of 350 wakō ships struck the Korean coast, burning down an army barracks and killing thousands of soldiers.
Who were these so-called ‘dwarf raiders’? Their bases were in western Japan, which was convulsed by successive natural disasters including famines and pandemics.
But Murai Shōsuke, a leading historian of medieval Japan, suggests that we should rethink what he calls a “nationality-oriented approach” to the wakō.
Instead, Murai argues that we should think of these pirates as members of marginal maritime communities that straddled different national boundaries and cannot be easily fitted into modern categories.
By the 16th century, Japan was famous as a global centre for piracy. Indeed, Japan and Korea appear on some European maps of this period as Ilhas dos Ladrones – in Portuguese, the ‘Isles of Pirates’.
From the 1520s, pirate chiefs based in Japan assembled large fleets with the aim of launching attacks against targets located primarily in China. Raids peaked between 1550 and 1560, when 467 were recorded – including the massive coastal assault under Wang Zhi described at the start of this article – before gradually declining over the following three decades.
Despite the size of their fleets, the wakō were essentially bandits operating on shore, using their ships primarily for transportation. Having landed, fighters fanned out to attack vulnerable settlements before return- ing to their vessels with plunder.
The Ming dynasty Wakō zukan – the most famous pictorial representation of such pirates – provides a compelling illustration of the progress of one raid.
This long hand scroll depicts a small pirate fleet arriving in ships equipped with bamboo sails.
Landing, the pirates fold their sails and spring ashore, carrying lances. Two pirates climb a rocky outcrop where one, perched precariously on the shoulders of the other, scans the horizon for potential targets.
Having sighted a distant settlement, they signal their confederates and prepare for the attack.
Burning and looting, the wakō carry away a rich haul from a defenceless village before they are interrupted by Chinese forces that arrive to confront them in a pitched battle at the centre of the scroll.
This depiction suggests a relatively equal fight, but the highly motivated wakō often fought with such ferocity that they were able to overcome even well-entrenched garrisons.
Although described collectively as Japanese pirates, the wakō were essentially multi-ethnic, though their leaders were generally Chinese.
The Mingshi explains that, “because famous traitors such as Wang Zhi, Xu Hai, Chen Dong and Ma Ye... were not able to succeed in the mainland, they escaped to the islands [of Japan] to become ringleaders.
The Japanese listened to their commands, and they enticed them into attacking. The great pirates of the seas used Japanese dress and insignia, and attacked the mainland in separate expeditions. There was no one who did not gain huge riches, and for this reason the troubles from Japan increased.”
Powerful pirate lords
Wang Zhi, frequently identified as a key ringleader, was born in Anhui province in China, around the early 16th century. For a time he was a smuggler tapping into the rich Japanese market.
According to the Chouhai tubian, a detailed account of wakō piracy, Wang Zhi began to organise voyages to Japan in 1540, and quickly established a presence in the port of Hirado, where “the barbarians trusted and followed him, calling him Captain Wu Feng”.
By the 1550s, piracy clearly presented greater opportunities than smuggling, and Wang Zhi recruited fighters for large-scale raids on Chinese targets.
He proved remarkably successful in his new role, swiftly moving through the stages of the piracy cycle, amassing large fleets and forging powerful connections with local lords.
He was also instrumental in the introduction of European firearms into Japan. When Portuguese traders arrived there in the 1540s carrying matchlock firearms, they were accompanied by a “Confucian scholar from the Great Ming called Gohō [Wu Feng]”.
This was in fact Wang Zhi, in one of his many guises. Over the following decades, firearms revolutionised Japanese warfare, heralding a new era in which long rows of foot soldiers fired devastating musket volleys.
For all his riches and power, Wang Zhi stumbled in the final stage of the piracy cycle as he attempted to secure recognition from the Chinese state.
After organising a series of devastating attacks, he was eventually lured back to China in 1557 with promises of amnesty. Once there, though, he was arrested and subsequently executed.
In the early 17th century, Zheng Zhilong – another remarkably cosmopolitan figure – picked up where Wang Zhi had left off. Born in Fujian, he worked in the Portuguese trading post of Macao before moving to Hirado, the same port in western Japan where Wang Zhi had been based.
There he befriended Dutch East India Company merchants and married a local Japanese woman. By the 1620s, Zheng Zhilong had moved his operations to the seas around Fujian, where he emerged as one of many pirate captains who prospered in the busy shipping lanes off China’s traditional maritime hub.
He became so powerful that the Ming government decided to co-opt him, offering a position as admiral – and giving Zheng Zhilong, once the most formidable pirate in the region, the task of suppressing piracy.
Armed with this official endorsement, he soon dispensed with his rivals and emerged as the head of the powerful Zheng maritime network, which successfully fused maritime violence with long-distance trade.
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It was later taken over by his famous son Koxinga, who used it to challenge the Dutch East India Company. The contest between these two formidable maritime organisations reached a climax in 1662 when Koxinga successfully invaded Taiwan, ejecting the Dutch from their profitable colony.
Wang Zhi and Zheng Zhilong had remarkable careers, building maritime empires from scratch. They are also relatively well known, the subjects of many books and articles.
But their careers are arguably eclipsed by a female pirate who has, until recently, been largely ignored by historians. This was Zheng Yi Sao, who rose from the humblest of origins to command a vast pirate fleet.
Successive wakō pirates were helped immeasurably by the fact that they could retreat to a sheltered base in Japan. In the 19th century, Chinese pirates found a safe haven in the rebel Tây Sơn state in Vietnam.
When Tây Sơn power started to fade, Chinese pirates forged a new confederation, drawing together thousands of maritime marauders.
A key leader in this process was one Zheng Yi, who controlled a formidable force of some 70,000 fighters and 400 vessels. When he died in 1807, his wife – known to us simply as ‘the wife of Zheng Yi’, or Zheng Yi Sao – took over.
Zheng Yi Sao was born around 1774 and, like many other young girls in China in that period, was probably sold into prostitution by her family; certainly, she worked in the sex trade in Guangzhou (Canton).
In 1801, she married pirate leader Zheng Yi. After he died, she took their adopted son, Zhang Bao, as first her lover and later her husband, and assumed full control of the family business.
Like other successful pirate leaders, Zheng Yi Sao developed robust internal structures to bring order to a sprawling coalition of maritime marauders. Under the command of Zheng Yi Sao and Zhang Bao, an expansive code of laws was issued, with transgressors subject to harsh penalties.
Anyone not obeying orders or attempting to seize command were put to death. Sexual assault of female prisoners was punished, though pirates could take individual women as wives or concubines. The code also strictly regulated the sharing of plunder.
At the height of her power, Zheng Yi Sao controlled a pirate operation that extended influence over both land and sea. Like many successful pirates, she made money less from the violent capture of rich vessels than from selling protection, ensuring safe passage for merchants – if they paid up.
Her fleets not only challenged the Chinese state but also became a significant threat to international traders. In a short space of time, pirates attached to Zheng Yi Sao forced five American schooners to retreat to a nearby port, seized a vessel belonging to a Portuguese colonial governor, and prevented a Siamese (Thai) tribute mission from reaching its destination.
Faced with a mounting crisis, Qing officials recognised that they could not defeat Zheng Yi Sao’s pirate organisation by force; instead, they had to negotiate.
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Zheng Yi Sao travelled to Guangzhou to meet the governor-general there. When she surrendered alongside Zhang Bao in April 1810, her fleet boasted 226 ships, 1,315 cannon and 17,318 pirates. Zhang Bao would go on to lead Qing navy ships into action against other pirates.
Remember Blackbeard? That scourge of the Caribbean coast was killed in action while probably still in his thirties. Other pirates were hanged for their crimes.
Yet, rather than being hunted to her death, Zheng Yi Sao was able to negotiate her own surrender, and died a wealthy woman at the age of 69 – a true measure of pirate success.
This article was first published in the October 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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