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date: 24 March 2023

Silver, Piracy, Conspicuous Consumption, and the Transformation of Ming China in the 16th Centurylocked

Silver, Piracy, Conspicuous Consumption, and the Transformation of Ming China in the 16th Centurylocked

  • Harriet ZurndorferHarriet ZurndorferLeiden Institute for Area Studies, Leiden University


China historians have long recognized that the 16th century marked a significant shift in the economic, social, and cultural development of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). By then the program of the Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang (also known as Emperor Hongwu, r. 1368–1398) to recreate the autarkic village economy envisioned by early Confucian thinkers, had crumbled. During the first decades of the 16th century, China experienced a flourishing commercialized economy of urban and rural markets, cash-cropping, specialized handicraft industries, and extensive interregional and illegal overseas trade that also allowed merchants easier access to wealth and status. Nevertheless, two major problems originating in Emperor Hongwu’s governing strategies continued to affect the well-being of the empire at this point. Both his policies, that is, to promote the use of paper money and thereby exclude silver as a medium of viable exchange, and to prohibit maritime commerce, meant that the economy operated under severe monetary constraints and that illicit trade along China’s littoral thrived. The Emperor himself had exacerbated the latter situation by utilizing the ship-building and nautical skills of southern Fujianese, known as Hokkien, to help streamline the Ryukyu islands into the Chinese tribute system for his own benefit, with the result that by the end of the 15th century, a complex trade system that stretched to both Southeast and Northeast Asia became the backdrop to 16th-century maritime disorder and mayhem.

Piracy up and down the coasts of Guangdong, Fujian, and Zhejiang provinces, was endemic in the 16th century, and drew all strata of coastal society, from fishermen and sailors to merchants and gentry, into a web of smuggling, trafficking, and illegal protection rackets. With the discovery of silver in Japan during the 1530s piracy intensified, and the littoral’s illicit trade expanded into stealthy commerce centered on the island Shuangyu (near Ningbo, Zhejiang) where merchants covertly exchanged large amounts of Jiangnan-made high-quality silks and other textiles for Japan’s precious ore, while Portuguese venturers supplied arms and goods from Southeast Asia to multiethnic (but mainly of Chinese origin) pirate gangs, known as wokou. The silver, however much wanted and needed in China, could not enter the country legally because the Ming government had suspended all trade with Japan in 1523. Attempts by the Ming authorities in the following decades to wipe out the wokou failed until 1566 when fighting ended, the maritime ban was lifted, and China became “flooded with money.”

With more silver available than ever before, the fortunes of the landed gentry elite as well as merchants steadily increased, leading them to engage in heightened levels of conspicuous consumption of goods and services. Commerce and connoisseurship fed off each other, as more and more rich people were able to acquire “things” and thereby distinguish themselves socially from others less well-off. While a small percentage of the literati elite engaged in discourses highlighting the market’s erosion of traditional mores, most people, including scholar-officials and the landed gentry, enjoyed their riches and pleasures. Their exuberant lifestyle would endure beyond the end of the 16th century.


  • China
  • Economic/Business

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