Imperial China has a long-standing, multifaceted, and interesting imperial maritime history. Of particular importance in this context are the commercial dimensions of China’s maritime contacts with the outside world. From approximately the 7th century until Yuan 元 times (1279–1367), China even developed as a commercial maritime power, although its maritime trade was, until the late 11th century, basically dominated by foreign merchants. During the Yuan and early Ming dynasties (1368–1644), China was also a naval power—the attempts of Qubilai Khan (r. 1260–1295) to subdue Japan are well known. But their maritime interests took the Mongols as far as Southeast and South Asia. The early Ming 明 period, under the third Ming Emperor, Yongle 永樂 (r. 1403–1424), is characterized by unforeseen political, military, and commercial maritime expansion. After 1435, following the instructions of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu 洪武 (r. 1368–1398), China officially retreated from the seas and prohibited all private maritime commerce, until internal socioeconomic and financial problems and the great demand of foreigners—after 1500 also including the Europeans—for Chinese products urged the government to “reopen” its borders for trade. The rulers of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing 清 (1644–1911), first concentrated on securing their maritime borders against competing commercial and political interests, then managed a flourishing trade, increasingly also with Europeans, but were finally confronted with the colonialist and imperialistic claims of the Europeans. After the Opium Wars (1839–1842), the maritime commerce and politics of China were more and more controlled by European powers, especially the British.
Sebastian R. Prange
Piracy has been an important and persistent feature of Asia’s maritime history. In fact, the largest pirate organizations in all of history were found in Asia. Although often regarded as the antithesis of trade, piracy is actually closely related to the world of commerce. Pirates were themselves often traders (or smugglers) and relied on merchants to outfit their ships and sell their plunder. Despite the obvious and primary economic dimension of piracy, pirates were also political actors. This observation is significant because piracy has traditionally been distinguished from other forms of maritime predation (especially privateering, but also naval warfare) by stressing its supposedly inherently private nature. In Asia, however, the history of piracy is very much defined by its political contexts. Pirates themselves formed polities, whether as part of established coastal communities or in their endeavors to build their own states. What is more, as was the case in Europe, pirates often colluded with territorial states that used them as an instrument of state power, in order to harass and weaken their rivals. The political dimension of Asian piracy has long been overlooked due to the preponderance of European concepts and sources, which tend to depict all Asians involved in maritime predation as mere criminals. More nuanced studies of Asian pirates, especially when based on non-European sources, promise fresh insights into the commercial, social, and political worlds of maritime Asia.
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.