INTRODUCTION: CHINA AND THE EAST ASIA MARITIME REGION
In recent years scholars of maritime Asia have underlined the epistemological advantages of studying the region's history from the perspective of its frontiers, that is ‘frontier’ as a relational concept, and not necessarily as a fixed geographical space.Footnote 1 As such, they stress this zone's permeability, its fluidity, and hybridism rather than the fixed framework of rigid boundaries demarcating one state from another.Footnote 2 This view also conforms to the general trend in current historical writing to decentralize nation-state historical narratives and to pursue analyses that reveal the multilateral complex nature of cultural contact or commercial exchange in the area. Moreover, as historical scholarship turns away from East–West dichotomous comparison, and prioritizes global relations, interest in how specific locations interacted with each other, as well as how individual indigenous entities dealt with these forces, has heightened.Footnote 3
But what about China? How does its vast littoral fit into the legacies of Asian maritime history? As some authorities observe, it was China's continental frontier, and thus not its coastal zone that preoccupied dynastic governments through most of the imperial era,Footnote 4 with the result that events and changes integral to both domestic development along the sea frontiers and contacts abroad never received the same amount of attention in either official histories or private documentation.Footnote 5 This lacuna may lead one to ask what facet(s) of China's heritage did connect it to other locations? One answer to this query has stressed how the Confucian intellectual tradition was a common theme that tied China to its neighbors, which meant these countries had knowledge of Chinese institutional norms and hierarchical tools. Such information, supposedly, ultimately discouraged conflict and war in coastal regions.Footnote 6 But the Chinese maritime universe also stretched to large parts of Southeast Asia, including what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines—places where Confucianism did not make an impact. Other historians emphasize China's pivotal place from the sixteenth century in a continent-wide system of (land and) water crossroads linking Northeast and Inner Asia to South Asia, Europe, and the New World.Footnote 7 The problem with the ‘Re-Orient’ approach is that it obfuscates what political ties and economic relations were in place in East Asian maritime zones long before the Europeans entered the area to engage in trade. It also disregards what some specialists now consider an important framework for understanding East Asian relations from the early seventeenth century, when the Japanese Tokugawa government began to create a new Japan-centered model of its place in Asia.Footnote 8
Such questions, trends, and historiographical developments are the subject of this article, which focuses on China's maritime history during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (c. 1500–1630). This was a time of quickening and momentous social, economic, cultural, and political change in the region and in the country. We begin our study with an overview of how current research has transformed the traditional ‘tribute’ concept of Chinese foreign relations, and has contemplated the relevance of the French historian Fernand Braudel's ‘Mediterranean’ for the study of Asian maritime history. These topics, as we will show from an analysis of recent publications, signify a certain paradigm shift in which China's maritime history is no longer a case of ‘missed opportunity’ or ‘minor tradition’.Footnote 9 Moreover, this scholarship has come to abandon the view that the arrival of Western powers (Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch) in Asia marked a sharp disjuncture in the East Asian maritime world. Now it is more common for historians to identify ways in which these foreigners had to conform to local practices in an arena of intensifying regional interaction. As one Asia specialist noted, “much of the activity we have parochially thought of as ‘the expansion of Europe’ was the European participation in the expansion of East Asia.”Footnote 10 This observation brings us to the second major focus of our study: how historians now assess China's maritime trade and naval defense policies in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
TRIBUTARY TRADE, THE ‘NEW THALASSOLOGY’, AND THE ‘BRAUDELIAN EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN’
The maritime approach to Chinese history vies with the long-dominant state-centric and land-focused scholarship that prioritized China and its role in the tributary trade system, a paradigm also known as ‘the Chinese world order’.Footnote 11 In principle, the tribute system, a very early legacy of the Han dynasty (202 BCE–CE 220), required foreign rulers to send embassies to China to bear tribute (usually local products unavailable elsewhere) and to demonstrate their recognition of Chinese cultural superiority by their performing the ritual of koutou 磕頭, kneeling three times, each time bowing their head to the ground thrice. In turn, the emperor offered emissaries gifts of equal or greater value.Footnote 12 Moreover, this model dictates that China's trade relations were conducted almost exclusively within the confines of this system. In reality, the tributary system, as primary Chinese historical records clearly show, was not so stringent and comprehensive; for example, during the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) eras, tribute trade and diplomacy were deeply intertwined and extensive overseas commerce legitimized.Footnote 13 Such international contact also affected China's own development. In the Song era, the Fujian port of Quanzhou 泉州 gained the reputation of being one of the world's great cosmopolitan centers.Footnote 14 Modern investigations have turned up the remains of gravestones in Arabic, Persian, Syriac, and Latin and also the ruins of Hindu and Muslim religious sites.Footnote 15 The region prospered enormously as local elites gravitated toward commercial opportunities in Southeast Asia.Footnote 16
In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) a more restrictive trade system was in use, with tribute missions the principal form of contact between China and other polities, of which Korea, Japan, and the Ryūkyū Islands were the most important. The maritime tribute missions entered China either at Guangzhou 廣州 (Southeast Asian states), Quanzhou (the Ryūkyū Islands), or Ningbo 寜波 (Korea and Japan). There also existed a kind of informal arrangement whereby foreigners (whose home areas did have tribute relations with China) could anchor in Chinese ports through a licensing system, buy and sell goods, but not settle permanently. Thus, from the fourteenth century onward, ships from a number of Asian lands, including Java, Borneo, Sumatra, Malacca, Sri Lanka, Cochin, and Calicut enjoyed the privileges of such commerce.Footnote 17 In this same period, China also sent tribute missions to other realms “to grant investiture to foreign kings.”Footnote 18 On the other hand, maritime prohibitions (haijin 海禁), introduced in 1371 by the first Ming emperor who sought to ‘immobilize the realm’, forbade Chinese persons from traveling abroad without authorization, building ocean-going junks, trading with foreigners (in China), and colluding with smugglers. Those caught were liable to capital punishment and their families to banishment.Footnote 19 One modern scholar has suggested that the restrictive maritime trade policy aimed to contain the maritime economy and China's seagoing population in order to keep their dynamism from superseding the dynasty's other strategic and economic priorities.Footnote 20 In any case, one of the long-term effects of these bans was the consolidation of existing trade networks throughout the region, and the increasing importance of Chinese living outside China.Footnote 21 According to Wang Gungwu, the prohibitions insured those Chinese living in foreign locales had to prolong their stay indefinitely, with the result they began to form permanent communities outside China from where they continued to engage in overseas commerce.Footnote 22
But some Chinese native traders did defy the Ming injunctions and engage in overseas commerce from China. As indicated by Roderich Ptak, Chinese merchants during the fifteenth century maintained an extensive regional water network which was comprised of two parts: a western route from the port of Guangzhou linking Champa to places on the Malay peninsula and northern Java (Surabya, Gresik, and Tuban); and an eastern route from Quanzhou connecting the Ryūkyū Islands, the Philippines, Sulu, and Borneo.Footnote 23 Most of the inter-island trade was in Indonesian vessels, but the China connection from Champa or Siam and the Ryūkyūs was sailed by Chinese from Fujian province. Trade goods came from as far away as the Sunda islands and Timor, including sandalwood, tortoise-shell, shark fins, pepper, and spices. These items reached China either illegally or as tribute trade accompanying official missions, including those from Vietnam and the Ryūkyūs. Chinese items imported into Southeast Asia included firearms and ceramics.Footnote 24 In the fifteenth century the number of Chinese involved in the trading networks supplying Java increased,Footnote 25 while the Chinese presence in Melaka (Malacca) intensified.Footnote 26 Also, the numbers of Chinese settlements in Cambodia, Siam, and the Philippines rose during the latter decades of the fifteenth century.Footnote 27
The China–Ryūkyū connection was especially significant for Fujian, and demonstrates how illegal trade could be camouflaged via the tribute system.Footnote 28 From 1385 to 1435, the Ming government provided ships and trained sailors to the Ryūkyūs to help maintain the island kingdom's regular yearly tribute mission. After 1435, the Chinese authorities no longer granted ships, but did allow the Ryūkyūans to build them at their own cost in Fujian and to continue to employ Chinese sailors. At this point the Ryūkyū kingdom traded far and wide in the East Asian seas, sailing to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Siam, Melaka, Sunda, and Palembang to distribute Chinese products which it had obtained via the tribute mission.Footnote 29 On their return to China, they brought horses and sulfur (used in traditional medicine and in making gunpowder), along with traded goods originating in Southeast Asia. It would seem that the China–Ryūkyū tribute trade became the most active network for Sino-foreign exchange before the sixteenth century. Moreover, the Ryūkyū kingdom emerged in the fifteenth century as a major transshipment center where international traders from all over East Asia congregated to exchange cargoes.Footnote 30 Although it is not entirely clear why by the 1470s the Ryūkyū ships calling on Fujian decreased while Ryūkyū activities around Guangzhou increased, the kingdom's transshipment function disappeared by the early sixteenth century, at which point smuggling along the Chinese littoral expanded to such intensity that it displaced ordinary tribute trade almost entirely.Footnote 31
The multifarious dimensions of the tribute system are also discussed by Hamashita Takeshi 濱下 武志, whose work in part is now published in English.Footnote 32 He has argued the extent to which tribute was in fact at once both a political and cultural tool and an economic and financial mechanism. In other words, the tribute system did not function in one single dimension.Footnote 33 According to his schema, a country may have paid tribute to China while it expected tribute from its neighbors. In this way, tributary practices acted as a loose system of political integration embracing maritime Asia, from the Northeast to the East, and from Southeast Asia to Oceania. Consequently, and as written records confirm, Vietnam demanded tribute from Laos, and Korea, while a tributary to China, also sent tribute missions to Japan.Footnote 34 This network of relationships also had an important economic side. Reviewing Asia's trade history since the sixteenth century, Hamashita noted that the entire complex tribute trade formation was determined by the price structure of China, and that the tribute trade zone formed an integrated ‘silver zone’ in which silver was used as the medium of trade settlement.Footnote 35 In other words, as he writes, one should envision “Asian history as the history of a unified system characterized by internal tribute/tribute trade relations, with China at the center.”Footnote 36
Hamashita's approach accentuates other recent scholarship that has prioritized the world's oceans and seas as important foci of historical inquiry.Footnote 37 Such analyses view ocean and sea basins no longer as barriers to communication or empty spaces on the way to legendary continents, but rather as configurations of interaction in which commercial, biological, and cultural exchange among peoples of different societies are paramount—a focus that other frameworks, and in particular national or diplomatic histories, often obscure.Footnote 38 While large-scale approaches to the maritime past are not entirely new—one thinks of Fernand Braudel's vision of the Mediterranean as a meeting point of integration—contemporary scholarship has recast the French historian's model into “the new thalassology” which emphasizes the systematic study of the relationships of wide-scale contacts and exchanges.Footnote 39 Thus, to date, some of the world's other great bodies of water, including the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Oceans, have become the subject of scholarly analyses aimed at gaining greater insight into the peculiarities of local and regional boundaries, as well as the related processes of social and economic assimilation and differentiation.Footnote 40 This new scholarship embraces well-known conceptual realms of historical globalization—diasporas, trade empires, commodity and currency flows, technology transmission, ideas and religion, and not least, war—and as such, merges the field of world history with that of maritime history.Footnote 41
However, conventional maritime history which encompasses a broad range of topics, including navigation techniques, ship design, deep sea exploration, mapping, international law, and even seaside resorts, originated in social analyses initially developed to comprehend land-based societies, while most of the world's oceans lie outside of nations and national histories.Footnote 42 Nevertheless, this dichotomy should not prevent one from appreciating how ocean and sea spaces have in history served multiple functions, such as resource areas, transportation surfaces, battlegrounds, buffer zones, and even as ‘heterotopia’, termed by Michel Foucault to mean a space for the creation of experimentation and alternate social models.Footnote 43 One may also consider seas and oceans as depositories of histories of the myriad events that entwined humankind with the sea,Footnote 44 both those of great renown and those that were never written down but only passed orally through generations, and which are now the subject of archaeological investigations that provide a wealth of data about China and its neighbors.Footnote 45 Thus, the historical significance of ocean and sea regions is their function as sites where local, regional, and global forces interact, either on a systematic or irregular basis.
The idea of viewing oceans and seas as major channels promoting communication also has relevance to the study of East Asian maritime history. One may already trace the appeal of such a ‘Mediterranean’ to Southeast Asian specialists long before Braudel's publication La Méditerranée appeared in print. In the mid-twentieth century historians were beginning to write about the significance of Southeast Asia not in terms of its colonial encounter, but with regard to its own self-generated dynamism in which the seas around it were the key to its prosperity.Footnote 46 Georges Coedès (1886–1969), Director of the École Française d'Extrême-Orient from 1929 to 1947, conveyed in a 1944 publication that Southeast Asia was “a veritable Mediterranean, formed by the China Sea, the Gulf of Siam and the Java Sea …” and stressed the unity of this enclosed space.Footnote 47 Coedès's ideas became the framework of an influential essay by another well-known Southeast Asia specialist, Oliver Wolters, who envisioned the many seas of this locale as a mediator of historical experiences shared between disparate places.Footnote 48 Since the 1990s, a number of scholars have extended the Mediterranean analogy to include the seas between China and Southeast Asia, which they consider ‘Braudelian zones’ of busy and regular maritime interaction, linking regions of separate cultures and traditions into a common space. During that decade the Southeast Asia historian Denys S. Lombard, author of the magisterial three-volume ‘Annalist’ study Le carrefour javanais: Essai d'histoire globale,Footnote 49 and Roderich Ptak began a collaboration to create a large-scale project that would compare the European Mediterranean and maritime Southeast Asia on both conceptual and factional levels.Footnote 50
After Lombard's untimely death in 1998, Ptak pursued this enterprise in other directions, and extended the Frenchman's ‘Southeast Mediterranean’ further afield to include the entire South China Sea, with the coasts of Guangdong and Fujian, Hainan Island, and Taiwan.Footnote 51 He proposed that these regions formed part of one and the same system that extended to Sumatra, the Gulf of Siam, as well as the many seas and islands of what is now modern Indonesia.Footnote 52 As a sinologist, Ptak was well aware that China historians looked predominantly from the land to the sea, but for him the alternative focus, that is to regard the coast from the sea, juxtaposed the significance of littoral. Thus, he suggested the important port city of Quanzhou might be viewed in at least three different ways. First, according to the mainstream view, it was a critical connection to the mountainous Jiangxi hinterland and the interior of China during the Song–Yuan era (960–1368) and that its sea-bound trade was an exterior factor to its well-being. The second vision presumes Quanzhou was integral to greater maritime Asia and that the locale's contacts to Luzon, Batuan, and Srivijaya were essential to both its own prosperity and that of South China.Footnote 53 The third perspective, Ptak noted, underlined Quanzhou's location between two worlds, or ‘systems’, a vital part of both China and ‘Greater Southeast Asia’. Ptak's quest to create an integrated East Asian Mediterranean project saw fruition in 2002, when he gained funding to organize a series of conferences on various dimensions of this theme, and in 2005, the first conference volume was published.Footnote 54 The published compilations have attempted to demonstrate how an ‘East Asia Mediterranean’ in which the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, the southern section of the Japanese Sea, and parts of the South China Sea, may be viewed as one zone that serves as a focal point for determining connections between them.Footnote 55
But the Mediterranean analogy also has its skeptics, and specialists from both China and Southeast Asia have contributed critiques about the extent of its usefulness. Significantly, the doyen of Nanyang 南洋 (South China Sea) studies, Wang Gungwu, raises doubts about the unity of this Eastern Mediterranean concept.Footnote 56 He points out that in Asia until the tenth century, there were really in effect two ‘Mediterraneans’: first, the space of the southern seas which was strongly linked to the Indian Ocean but also too fragmented to transform itself into a territorial power; and second, the Donghai 東海 (East China sea region) of China, Korea, and Japan.Footnote 57 Here Confucian thought and Mahayana Buddhism as well as similar agricultural and manufacturing techniques bonded these locations into one cultural zone. Wang also points out that, in contrast, Indian Ocean cultures in the South China Sea prevailed and influenced the art and architecture, languages and scripts, gods, rituals, music and dance of the region.Footnote 58 He also argues that despite Kubilai Khan's full-scale naval operations, and the voyages of Zheng He 鄭和 (1371–c. 1433) in the early fifteenth century, it was China's power on land that mattered most in inter-state relations.Footnote 59 Similarly, R. Bin Wong doubts the efficacy of the ‘Eastern Mediterranean’ model: he suggests that the seas along China's littoral were much more open and at the same time firmly linked to China's continental empire, which in the long run meant that “it was less likely for the connections between power and profit that most strongly emerged in the Mediterranean to emerge for the Chinese and their trading partners.”Footnote 60
Finally, it is of interest to mention Braudel's own misinterpretation of China's economic advancement, including that derived from maritime commerce from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Because he did not utilize scholarship available to him during the 1970s when he wrote his tri-part study Civilisation matérielle, there are major gaps and misinformation in his discussions of China in these volumes. As Mark Elvin points out in a scintillating evaluation of this work, Braudel dismisses the extent to which coastal trade impacted the Chinese economy and attributes the ‘overbearing state’ responsible for hindering the development of capitalism there.Footnote 61
From the perspective of Southeast Asia, a number of historians have also expressed their doubts about the analogy. Heather Sutherland, while acknowledging how fellow area specialists might appreciate the conceptual possibilities of the ‘Mediterranean approach’ to this region of multiple independent states and numerous ethnicities, also questions its viability. She stresses that “knowledge of early modern Southeast Asia is fragmentary, and little consensus exists regarding the fundamentals of social structure, economic organization and political change.”Footnote 62 Sutherland is also troubled about the problem of casting “an essentialised China” into “a multi-webbed Braudelian Southeast Asia,” which will not lead to proper understanding of China in that location.Footnote 63 Another scholar, Jennifer Gaynor, argues that Braudel's Mediterranean model encompasses an enclosed basin which does not apply to the much more open-ended waters of Southeast Asia.Footnote 64
Such concerns over the feasibility of the Mediterranean analogy should not present theoretical barriers to our study here as we hope to demonstrate how the Braudelian ‘world economy’ does have relevance to sixteenth-century China, a time of both increasing economic growth and military innovation in the country. The findings of recent publications about Ming overseas trade policy and defense strategies indicate how the Chinese state functioned as a sea power (in terms of human and material resources as well as technological acumen), although the coastal frontiers were never a consistent government priority. What also emerges from these studies is an interest in how the two foci of economy and military security become intertwined in Chinese maritime history during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
CHINA AND THE SOUTH SEA WORLD ECONOMY
One of the first problems encountered in published writing about Chinese maritime history during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is the relative lack of attention paid to this period in comparison with that focused on the relatively short episode of Zheng He's voyages (1405–1433) under the Yongle 永樂 emperor.Footnote 65 Although it may be true that the scale and the audacity of these expeditions dwarf all subsequent manifestations of Chinese maritime power, nevertheless in the long run, it was China's integration into the ‘South Sea world economy’ that would prove more significant.Footnote 66 As Timothy Brook argues, the Zheng He voyages did not bring an end to Chinese trading in the South China Sea—but, rather, became a turning point in the tribute trade system. “If the tribute system provides the framework for understanding these voyages…, it also helps to explain their cancellation, for once it was fully functioning, the system did not require the extravagant return missions that Yongle had been sending.”Footnote 67 But for many other scholars, the early Ming naval exploits under the eunuch official who led “great armadas of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men as far as the coast of East Africa in the early fifteenth century” was an aberration of a regime that “turned its back on the sea.”Footnote 68 Even Joseph Needham, as the late Frederic Wakeman observed, subscribed to this standpoint—Needham wrote that with the end of Zheng He's voyages, “[China's] great naval possibilities had been done to death.”Footnote 69 Furthermore, in their view the series of stringent maritime bans in effect until 1567 seem to epitomize the Ming disdain for the sea and foreign trade.Footnote 70 John Wills, Jr. in an influential essay published in 1979, claimed that the oceans remained peripheral during the Ming because of the vast and dangerous seas around China and the few significant trade opportunities to be had prior to the sixteenth century.Footnote 71
Aside from underestimating the impact of flourishing trading networks supervised by Chinese in the East Asia diaspora, the difficulty of these latter perceptions is that they write off the political and economic strengths of the Ming state. In rebuttal to those who would dismiss Ming maritime power, Brook has provided an entirely different scenario. According to him, as long as the Ming authorities were able to deny foreigners access to China's domestic market, and the economy flourished, producing “goods of sufficient quality and reasonable price,”Footnote 72 the tribute trade system served its purpose. Also, he writes, as China's commercial economy expanded in the sixteenth century, “the border closure policy” guaranteed China's continuing centrality in a network of regular exchange linking it to more distant zones and the growing value of the goods circulated, while “an autonomous division of labor [within China] assured resilience in the face of alterations.”Footnote 73 What developed in the South China Sea then was a network of multilateral exchange, among merchants whose states submitted tribute trade to the Ming, “that was sufficiently robust to constitute what may be called a ‘world economy’.”Footnote 74 This ‘world economy’, according to Brook, does not mean the economy of the entire world, but
a large region which, through regular networks of exchange, has achieved a high level of economic integration and sustains a relatively autonomous division of labor internally. This relative autonomy enables a world-economy to constitute its own ‘world’, self-sustaining and resilient in the face of alterations, but capable of linking to more distant zones as the value of the goods it circulates grows.Footnote 75
Thus, we see here how Brook invokes Braudel's vision of ‘world economy’ without drawing upon European involvement in China's maritime economic history. The irony of this historiography is that Braudel's conceptualization proves useful, although the French historian's own understanding of the dynamics of the Chinese maritime economy during the Ming was rather limited.
The fifteenth century was a time of ever-growing affluence in China.Footnote 76 It was then that the ‘bucolic dream’ of the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (r. 1368–1398), to create a self-sustaining economy in which closed communities of farmers grew their own food and crafted for themselves all the goods (such as clothing) that they needed, came to an end.Footnote 77 As economic surpluses led to commodity production, inter-provincial trading, and a widespread money economy, there was a fundamental shift in the economic geography of China. The silk and porcelain produced in locations far away from the ports in Fujian or Guangdong had to be transported (overland) and the state provided the infrastructure by which these commodities and others (such as salt) circulated. Thus, the role of the government was to insure that the canals and roads by which trade flowed remained functional: “the Ming state provided a push to movements of people and goods.”Footnote 78
The fundamental flaw in the system at this point was that, for financing this service, the Ming authorities continued to rely on the revenue collected from the agricultural sector, which ultimately proved insufficient. What funds the state could collect from this source were committed to the upkeep of the imperial family as well as bureaucratic expenses and military ground troop costs. And thus with limited financial resources, as Andrew Wilson argues, the state did not have the wherewithal to become more involved in maritime affairs: “the Ming chose to try to keep overseas trade at a low enough level that would neither strain government spending nor present a serious security problem.”Footnote 79 Perdue contends that like the Ming dynasty's ‘defensive’ border policies in the northwest, the government pursued a maritime equivalent of the Great Wall: the maritime bans were designed to segregate mobile seafarers from sedentary coastal communities.Footnote 80 In any event, despite the growing wealth both domestic and foreign commerce created during the fifteenth century, it would seem that the economy remained fundamentally parochial and the state averse to rescinding the maritime prohibitions.Footnote 81
But by the sixteenth century, the tensions between those who relied on overseas commerce for their livelihood and the Ming authorities, bent on upholding the maritime bans, reached an all-time high. As the commercialization and monetization of China's economy intensified, the thrust to engage in illegal trade and thus defy the prohibitions became ever more appealing. The result was endemic smuggling along the coast, and eventually plundering and the destruction of local property. A wave of piracy hit the Chinese coast from 1504 to 1524, but it was the later storm of predations beginning in 1548 which made the greatest impact on East Asian maritime relations.Footnote 82 In between these two outbreaks, violence along the littoral continued while attempts by local people and some administrators to create an infrastructure for maritime trade floundered.Footnote 83 For example, efforts to elevate the administrative status of Yuegang 月港 (Moon Harbor), the seaport of Fujian's Zhangzhou 漳州 that now handled the bulk of the ‘unofficial’ maritime trade between China and Southeast Asia, failed due to struggles at court over who would control coastal revenues.Footnote 84 These disagreements reflect yet another major weakness in the Ming governmental system: those officials who had influence and power at court were also those who originated from the southeast coastal regions, and thus they had the most to lose from an interventionist and rapacious state.Footnote 85 It may be surmised that it was their influence that secured the imposition by the Ministry of Justice in 1525 of an injunction against two-masted ships and even a ban on fishing boats in 1551.Footnote 86
In a penetrating investigation of these Ming seafaring policies and pirate incursions, Robert J. Antony argues in his 2003 book Like Froth Floating on the Sea that it was the contradictions within China's maritime society which engendered conditions of conflict, violence, and predation.Footnote 87 Thus, according to his view, Ming commercialization created not only prosperity but also havoc for those persons without easy access to more legitimate forms of trade. Moreover, South China's geography with its infinite coves, inlets, and islands provided ideal physical conditions for piracy. Consequently, poor fisher folk who lived there could rely on pirate ships whenever trading, fishing, or farming might not sustain them. Antony's thesis, that piracy arose not so much as the result of the widespread immiseration of Chinese society but, rather, as the consequence of the stresses that overall prosperity had placed on the more marginal elements of the seafaring society, has relevance to other developments occurring around this time. The pirate attacks, according to the study of Zheng Zhenman, weakened the territorial control southern Fujianese local lineages might have once held over their members and their property.Footnote 88 But at the same time, he suggests, the incursions also strengthened the initiatives by individuals there to construct forts and organize local defensive militia, which in the long term “encouraged a social atmosphere in which bravery and ferocity were highly esteemed.”Footnote 89 Violence between feuding lineages also increased. In general, the combined and linked roles of lineage organizations, which were particularly pervasive in both Fujian and Guangdong, in trade networks, overseas Chinese residential communities, and local defense institutions, are not well understood—for example how did powerful lineage organizations circumvent trade prohibitions?—and warrant further investigation.Footnote 90
This second wave of piracy, starting in 1548 and lasting through the 1550s and 1560s, was transnational. It would seem, as Antony posits, that the maritime bans instead of curbing illegal activities actually encouraged them, and thus criminalized large segments of the coastal population.Footnote 91 Local people banded together with foreigners, including Japanese, Malaccan, Siamese, and later Portuguese, Spanish, and even African adventurers—who collectively became known as wokou 倭寇 (Japanese pirates)—and disturbed the peace by robbing travelers and looting houses and tombs all along the littoral from Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces to the seas and coasts of Fujian and Guangdong. Despite the international membership of these groups, Chinese writings of the time invariably focus on the Japanese participants who, as the modern scholar Wang Yong shows, had become very undesirable persons.Footnote 92 The leading brigands mixed trade with smuggling and pillaging, organized large fleets, and established bases for attack on islands along China's sea coast.Footnote 93 The wokou were also known to take captives and sell them as slaves either in Japan or among international traders.Footnote 94 Many of these ‘pirate chiefs’ had powerful patrons and safe bases in Kyushu (Japan) where they lived like ‘kings’ surrounded in luxury with ‘trains of Japanese myrmidons’.Footnote 95 One of the striking features of this surge of piracy was that several of its most powerful leaders had once been legitimate Chinese merchants. This situation begs the question: why did the Ming government not acquiesce at this point and give up the maritime prohibitions? Again, the answer may lie in the fact that many pirate groups sought protection with influential families and local administrators, and thus it would not have been in the interest of these officials to have their affiliations made known.Footnote 96 Also, it may be the case, as Wilson suggests, that Ming literati who documented events of this period, in both private and official histories, were themselves hostile to military expenditure, overseas adventurism, and state involvement in the maritime economy, and thus, their writings “… downplay or deride the scale and nature of the Ming state's interest in overseas trade and naval issues.”Footnote 97
By the 1570s the wokou crisis subsided. When a new emperor came to the throne in 1567, the maritime prohibitions (except for Japan) were lifted. “Overnight, pirates became merchants, contraband goods became export commodities, and clandestine operations became a business network” linking other locations to Fujian's two major commercial cities, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou.Footnote 98 With the initiation of an ‘open seas’ policy that allowed Chinese merchants to sail abroad for trade on the basis of a permit system, smuggling and piracy decreased.Footnote 99 Foreigners, however, were still banned from setting foot on Chinese soil unless they came for tributary missions.Footnote 100 Now the multilateral inter-regional trade, in which Chinese manufactures (silk, porcelain) along with tea and grain were the leading trade goods, inflated. As Brook writes:
The trade was organized along two main routes, both starting at Moon Harbor and Quanzhou. The Eastern Sea (Dongyang) route headed for the lee of Taiwan; there one spur ran north to Japan, but the main flow of trade went south to the Philippines, down through the Moluccas (the Spice Islands to the Europeans) and west to Java. The Western Sea (Xiyang) route hugged the coast of the mainland past Vietnam, across the Gulf of Thailand, and on to Malacca.Footnote 101
Brook's description here originates in Ming contemporary writings, including Zhang Xie's 張燮 (1574–1640) survey of maritime trade in the early seventeenth century, the Dongxi yang kao 東西洋考 (Study of the Eastern and Western Seas),Footnote 102 which along with other volumes authored around the same time provide information about the extent to which China was involved in the South China Sea world economy.Footnote 103 Brook has also written about another singularly important source that shows how information about seafaring outside China's borders did not get lost after the fifteenth-century voyages of Zheng He. The ‘Laud rutter’, or Shunfeng xiangsong 順風相送 (Dispatched on favorable winds), is a navigator's guide (in words, not in maps) giving compass bearings for sea routes that connected China to Japan, the Philippines, other locations in Southeast Asia, ports in the Indian Ocean, and westwards to the mouth of the Persian Gulf.Footnote 104 This work, presented in 1639 to Oxford University's Bodleian Library by Archbishop Laud who had received it from a visiting Jesuit, probably has its origins in another rutter, Duhai fangcheng 渡海方程 (Mileage of ocean crossings), printed in 1537.Footnote 105 Brook argues that the existence of the Laud rutter demonstrates Chinese people “actively engaged in weaving the commercial threads that were tying the Ming to the rest of the world and by so doing, creating the conditions for the rise of capitalistic enterprise in Europe.”Footnote 106 The Laud rutter is complemented by another Chinese source also located in the Bodleian Library, ‘Mr. Selden's Map’.Footnote 107 This map was originally made for a Chinese merchant who lived in Java around 1607 but was seized by a foreign ‘merchant-pirate’ and fell eventually into the possession of Selden, an English lawyer interested in Anglo-Dutch naval rivalries and who bequeathed it, among his other scholarly possessions, to the Bodleian Library. What makes the map so valuable for understanding Ming maritime China is the web of lines connecting points from the Fujian coast to all places around the South China Sea—in other words, evidence of Ming traders weaving their commercial webs to connect to the rest of the world.Footnote 108
Scholars tracing Chinese trading routes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries have shown that the most popular port was Luzon (Manila), for which the government issued sixteen permits per year. Other favorite destinations included Banten, Palembang, Siam, Tongking, Cambodia, Sunda, Melaka, Hue (Vietnam), and northern Taiwan.Footnote 109 But this was probably only the tip of an iceberg—Spanish records indicate many more Chinese ships arrived in Manila than the official numbers allowed, and Japanese documents also show that scores of Chinese vessels went to Nagasaki even though no licenses were issued for trade there.Footnote 110
The continuation of the maritime prohibition against trade with Japan originated out of the violence that ensued in 1523 when two rival noble Japanese families (daimyō 大名) sent ‘official’ tribute delegations to Ningbo at the same time.Footnote 111 Thereafter, the Ming authorities, who had been vigilant over the situation of Japan's civil war (1467–1573) for years, allowed two more missions, but by mid-century refused Japanese attempts at tribute altogether.Footnote 112 The opening of silver mines in Japan during the 1530s and 1540s put extra pressure on China to allow less regulated and more multi-dimensional trade.Footnote 113 That China refused to do so meant that the daimyo, in need of funding for their armies, had to find other means by which to enrich themselves. The sale of precious Chinese silk (obtained via tribute trade) at ten times its original price was no longer an option. The mid-century smuggling and piracy along the Chinese coast helped, but as Tonio Andrade explains, it was the Japanese traders in Southeast Asia that proved most effective. Once (c. 1500) the Japanese adapted their flat-bottomed ships with inadequate sails to Chinese designs that made them faster and more seaworthy,Footnote 114 they began to venture to Southeast Asia. Japanese communities sprouted in Vietnam, Cambodia, Siam, and the Philippines.Footnote 115 It was in these locations that Chinese and Japanese traders met each other and exchanged porcelains and silks for silver. Also both groups did their exchanges via European intermediaries.Footnote 116
The first Europeans to gain a foothold in the South Sea world economy were the Portuguese, who wormed their way into tributary status by bribing a Guangzhou official and attracting the Chinese authorities’ attention by helping them to expel pirates. In recognition for their efforts, the Ming government in 1557 granted the Portuguese the right of abode on Macao, sufficiently nearby the silk markets of South China.Footnote 117 The Portuguese started a three-way operation between Macao, Japan, and other Asian countries. Sailing each summer from Macao and arriving in Japan twelve to thirty days later, they took the silk in carracks or naos and exchanged the commodity for Japanese silver, and then returned in November or December to southern China. By 1571, the Portuguese also acquired a trade station in Nagasaki. While the Portuguese had made their way to Asia via Africa and through the Indian Ocean, the Spanish approached East Asia from the opposite direction. From South and Middle America where they exported the silver they had mined there, they made their way to the Philippines. In 1559 they conquered these islands and in 1571 established the city of Manila on Luzon island, which hitherto had been dominated by Muslim merchants who actively traded with Chinese and Japanese dealers there. Thereafter, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spaniards vied with each other for control of Macao, Taiwan, and the Philippines.Footnote 118 The third major European force to arrive in East Asia were the Dutch, whose government granted the Dutch East Asian Company the legal rights to wage war and make treaties with foreign powers.Footnote 119 They first attempted a stronghold in East Asia by building a fort (Casteel Zeelandia) outside Anping 安平 (Tainan) on the western coast of Taiwan, which they used as a base for trade in the region. The Dutch were a formidable enemy of both the Portuguese and Spanish in Asia, and elsewhere.Footnote 120 Soon thereafter the Spanish also built forts on Taiwan, which only exacerbated the tensions between the two powers.Footnote 121
The silver that Chinese merchants shipped to the South China coast from Manila had become a necessity in the Chinese economy. With the collapse of China's paper money system and the growth of its commercial economy in the sixteenth century, there was ever greater demand for the metal as the basis for exchange.Footnote 122 From the European point of view silver was also the perfect exchange commodity—it could be traded for gold (at three times the rate in China) and arbitrage profits were high.Footnote 123 The higher value of silver in the Chinese market allowed foreign traders to make profits on selling Chinese goods in their home markets.Footnote 124 About “‘half the silver production accounted for in the world between 1500 and 1800’ ended up in China, where it supported, even if it did not cause, the silver monetarization of the Ming economy.”Footnote 125 It should be emphasized that it was the lure of Chinese goods that attracted foreign traders in the first place. As Brook remarks: “Attributing the explosion of [Ming] wealth to the arrival of … South American silver reverses cause and effect.”Footnote 126 In 1597 it was estimated that nearly thirty-five metric tons of silver (more than 8.5 million taels) entered China via Manila.Footnote 127 This sum, it is likely, amounted to more than twice the entire Ming tax revenue for that same year.Footnote 128
The foreign trade catalyzed commercial expansion along the southeast coast, and via domestic trade networks, suppliers scrambled to provide Fujian and Guangdong merchants with exports.Footnote 129 Demand raised prices in China, created fortunes, and led to significant changes in Chinese culture and society. The dichotomy of extravagance and frugality, of luxury and poverty, which had ever been present in Chinese society now sharpened to a greater degree.Footnote 130 Entrance into elite social circles required even greater knowledge of refinement,Footnote 131 while penury for those not lucky enough to partake of the new riches intensified. The sixteenth-century China saw writings by literati of the miseries and despair of the poor; Huang Jishui 黃姬水 (1509–1574) wrote in his Pinshi zhuan 貧士傳 (Biographical sketches of poverty-stricken scholars) not only about the suffering by the literati elite but also of the common people whose fight against hunger, sickness, and homeless destitution was depicted by the great painter Zhou Chen 周臣 (1460–1536) in his series of portraits ‘The Vagrants’ (Liumin 流民).Footnote 132
In conclusion, the Ming ‘open seas’ policy may be viewed as a “reluctant recognition” of the status quo rather than a reversion to Song and Yuan government policies toward maritime trade.Footnote 133 Chinese who engaged in overseas commerce were still the object of suspicion, and rarely received recognition or support. So, when in 1603 Spanish officials massacred 20,000 residents in Manila, the Ming government did not retaliate. And the same occurred in 1639 when another group of Chinese in the Philippines revolted against their Spanish overlords.Footnote 134 As Tonio Andrade concludes, the Ming authorities may have tolerated overseas trade but they did not foster it. Moreover, despite the great wealth the imported silver bolstered within China, the Ming government did not transform its political economy and create new fiscal institutions to exploit overseas commerce.Footnote 135 The state was not prepared to penetrate the maritime commercial sector.Footnote 136 Where the Ming government did exert its power and influence, however, was in the realm of maritime defense which, as recent scholarship shows, prompted a number of Ming authorities to consider capitalizing on the imported silver to pay for rising military expenditures.
MING NAVAL POWER AND THE SIXTEENTH/SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY CRISES
Just as many historians view Ming China's maritime history as one of glory and then stagnation beginning with the end of Zheng He's voyages, they also underestimate the changing circumstances of Ming naval military power.Footnote 137 Andrew Wilson's recent study persuasively argues that conventional historiography, both by East Asian and Western scholars, has overstated later Ming neglect of the military maritime domain. Long after the fifteenth-century expeditions, the state maintained large numbers of naval vessels for counter-piracy and coastal defense missions—in other words, maritime security remained a government priority.Footnote 138 One need only glance at the late Ming writings that make obvious the size and capabilities of both merchant and naval fleets for this to be apparent. As Wilson notes, Ming contemporaries such as Li Zhaoxiang 李昭祥 (1537–1553), who served as executive director of the imperial shipyards at Nanjing and compiled the Longjiang chuanchang zhi 龍江船廠志 (Records of the shipbuilding yards on the Dragon River) which contains descriptions and dimensions of the large vessels built there,Footnote 139 or Mao Yuanyi 茅元儀 (1594–1641), who wrote the Wubeizhi 武備志 (Treatise on armament technology, 1621),Footnote 140 exemplify the drive behind Ming military defense efforts in the latter part of the dynasty. Also relevant here is Zheng Ruozeng's 鄭若曾 (1505–1580) Chouhai tubian 籌海圖編 (Gazetteer of coastal defense, 1562), which was a compilation of technical accounts of the development and application of military technologies, illustrations, and maps, along with extensive descriptions of actual battles and campaigns.Footnote 141 These works and others attest to the fact that the Ming military establishment in the late sixteenth century was a dynamic and vital component of the government. Too often, modern historians have followed the Jesuit Matteo Ricci's (1552–1610) exhortation to idealize Confucian passivity, and thereby they ignore or even denigrate the importance of war in Ming history.Footnote 142
Both Wilson and Kenneth Swope consider the two major problems that confronted the Ming authorities during the second half of the sixteenth century: coastal piracy and the Japanese invasion of Korea, known as the Imjin Waeran 壬辰倭亂 (1592–1598).Footnote 143 With regard to the first difficulty, whatever advantages the maritime prohibitions had fostered in terms of prudence and economy, by the mid-sixteenth century security crises compelled both a reappraisal of that policy (which was accomplished in 1567) and also a new means of dealing with defense along the littoral. Moreover, as Swope relates in his important study of the Imjin Waeran, these military innovations in the suppression of piracy became the basis of Ming strategy in the Korea conflict.Footnote 144 For example, the tactics of the man-in-charge of coastal security at the time of the second piracy upsurge, Qi Jiguang 戚繼光 (1528–1588), were integral to both Chinese and Korean resistance in that war.Footnote 145 Qi realized that the best response to pirate raiding parties, which were often led and trained by Japanese warriors who emphasized cohesive small unit actions and close combat, was to do the same. Thus, he revamped the Ming hereditary military wei-suo 衛所 (brigades and battalions) system first put in place by Zhu Yuanzhang in the 1370s.Footnote 146 This coastal defense command structure, which was spread out all along the littoral but staffed and equipped according to terrain and population density, had been largely preventative—designed to deny key areas to pirate infestation. During the relatively quiet period of the fifteenth century, this framework proved sufficient.Footnote 147
But the wokou predations of the sixteenth century required inventive solutions. Qi Jiguang recruited private soldiers who were often locals with a vested interest in regional defense, instructed them how to use weapons, combined arms formations to counter landing parties, and eventually deployed large numbers of naval vessels of which almost all were armed with cannon.Footnote 148 Contemporary observers agreed that what made his military accomplishment so unique was the way Qi trained his soldiers and employed them in new kinds of tactical formations. He compiled training manuals that gave detailed instructions in the use of small-group tactics, psychological warfare, and repetitive drilling; when the war broke out, these handbooks were widely disseminated in Korea.Footnote 149 Qi Jiguang is also credited with learning to use amphibious warfare to expel pirates from their offshore bases and to intercept raiding parties at sea.Footnote 150 Even after the wokou crises died down, the Ming government remained vigilant, and encouraged administrators to spread information about how ordinary people could resist attack. The eminent scholar official Lü Kun 吕坤 (1536–1618) compiled a handbook Shoucheng jiuming 守城救命 (Saving lives while defending a city; 1607 preface) that informed a general readership not only about how to protect themselves against pirates and bandits, but also included descriptions of small arms.Footnote 151
Such advancements in military strategy and local security by the close of the sixteenth century meant that China was not “a moribund state tottering toward an inevitable demise,” as Ray Huang in his influential book 1587: The Year of No Significance aimed to show.Footnote 152 The portrait of the Wanli 萬曆 Emperor (r. 1573–1620) that Huang created more than thirty years ago is also at variance with the facts. By the last decade of the sixteenth century, this emperor was waging ‘three punitive campaigns’: a crusade to eradicate an aboriginal chieftain in southwest China; an offensive to quash a mutiny of Sino-Mongolian troops in the northwest; and on the Korean peninsula, the Imjin Waeran. This invasion of Korea was led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣 秀吉 (1536–1598), who became Japan's hegemon around 1590 after uniting all of Japan under his rulership.Footnote 153 Swope attributes Chinese success in this conflict to Emperor Wanli himself, who “was very interested in and devoted to maintaining Ming military supremacy in Asia.”Footnote 154
In May 1592, over 160,000 Japanese troops landed at Pusan (Korea) and fought the Koreans, whose king immediately asked China for help.Footnote 155 Eventually, Hideyoshi would mobilize half a million troops and 700 ships, which meant in terms of men and material that this conflict was five to ten times the scale of the Spanish Armada of 1588.Footnote 156 Since Hideyoshi's intention was to use Korea as a springboard for the eventual conquest of Ming China, the Chinese intervention was motivated both by the desire to defend its tribute client Korea and to save the dynasty. Hideyoshi's overall goal may have been to solve Japan's economic problems by linking trade in Asia through Japanese ports, including Osaka.Footnote 157 This incentive is also confirmed by his attempts during the war to enlist the support of surrounding states, and even that of Spanish and Portuguese officials, for his cause.Footnote 158 Over 100,000 Chinese troops came to fight on Korea's side; after six years of war, the Japanese retreated, Hideyoshi died, and peace returned to East Asia. Although the small contingent of 3,000 soldiers the Ming first sent to Korea in summer of 1592 was almost entirely annihilated,Footnote 159 the Chinese government quickly sprang into action and organized an all-out defense that successfully routed the enemy.
Swope's ground-breaking examination attributes Ming victory in the campaigns against Japan to a combination of excellent leadership, mobilization, and innovation that included the adoption of firearms and artillery. He has traced the “multi-directional” flows of military technology before, during, and after the war.Footnote 160 He notes that the Chinese had been adopting Portuguese military technology already in the 1520s—the folangji 佛郎機, a type of culverin (long-range cannon), was used on Ming ships. According to Swope, “a typical Fujianese warship of the late sixteenth century carried one heavy cannon, one mortar, six culverins, three falconets, and sixty fire lances, easily outclassing anything the Japanese put to sea.”Footnote 161 Also, Kenneth Chase's study of Ming firearms underscores how the Chinese government encouraged the import of superior foreign armory, including a variety of muskets.Footnote 162 Wilson's investigation shows that Ming commanders early in the war realized they held the advantage in naval warfare, and that the Japanese, with their knowledge of hand-held weapons and light artillery, were more proficient at land warfare.Footnote 163 This is an ironic observation, given that Japan is an island nation and China a continental power. Moreover, Japanese naval weakness was crucial for China's funding this war. That Hideyoshi was unable to deploy naval forces to expand the confrontation to include attacks on China's northern and southern ports, or harass Chinese maritime trade, meant that the flow of silver to China from Southeast Asia was not disrupted.
The Wanli Emperor financed China's participation in this war through fiscal expedients aimed to tax those persons in possession of silver, which signified in the long run that he was tapping into the riches of foreign trade. In 1596 he ordered court eunuchs, under the guise of mining intendants, to demand silver bullion directly from local landed elites and merchants.Footnote 164 This emergency measure was extremely unpopular and underlined the tensions between the Emperor and elite scholar-officials. During the Imjin Waeren, the monarch's efforts to access specie for war finance put him up against these persons who manned the imperial bureaucracy and opposed any increase in the state's extraction capabilities.Footnote 165 In 1599, the Emperor widened the scale of the eunuchs’ power to include their supervision of major ports where they were expected to work with local civil officials to collect commercial taxes.Footnote 166 Wanli's efforts to “insinuate the state into the maritime sector” were opposed by elites living in coastal zones, who had the most to lose by government penetration into the commercial or maritime economies.Footnote 167 In the first decade of the seventeenth century, Wanli's adversaries, namely members of the Donglin 東林 faction, made near impossible any innovations in fiscal policy or a forward-looking military program. Wilson identifies Donglin's southern membership “who wanted to keep the state out of the southern economy” as the greatest impediment to the upkeep of the military advances that the Ming had achieved during the 1590s.Footnote 168
THE END OF AN ERA
By the 1630s the Ming government had become revenue-poor and militarily weak, while ruling over a domestic economy that was both huge and directly tied to the immense global movement of wealth. Consequently, as the court came to turn more and more of its attention to defense along the northern borders in the struggle against the Manchus and their allies, regional forces began to gain the upper hand. Security all along the coast began to lapse as military elites shifted their political allegiance—for example, the 1631–1633 mutiny led by Kong Youde 孔有德 (d. 1657) against the Ming on the Shandong peninsula signified that locale's increasing integration into the large regional space of the Bohai 渤海 littoral.Footnote 169 Already in the 1620s, the response of the government was to invest regional officials with ever more authority over maritime affairs, which allowed the emergence of one of the most powerful commercial/military families to gain power over the Ming state, i.e. the Zheng family.
The founder of the family, Zheng Zhilong 鄭芝龍 (1604?–1661?), one-time pirate, merchant, and official, was a native Fujianese raised in the Portuguese enclave of Macao where he was baptized a Catholic.Footnote 170 He began his pirate/merchant career in southern Japan under the tutelage of the Chinese headman at the Japanese port of Hirado 平戸, Li Dan 李旦 (d. 1625), who led the illicit Hirado–Xiamen trade. After Li's death, Zheng struggled to take over Li's business interests and enlisted Dutch traders who had settled in Taiwan to help him destroy the hold that the Portuguese and Spanish had on regional trade. At this point, Zheng Zhilong served as both a privateer attacking Iberian shipping with Dutch support and as a trader and diplomat serving the Ming government. By the late 1620s, Zheng dominated the trade between Taiwan and Fujian, and the Ming government rewarded him with an official title, that of ‘Patrolling Admiral’. According to Andrade, Zheng Zhilong was something of a ‘noble robber’, a seaborne Robin Hood who was careful to avoid violence against common people,Footnote 171 but it was Zheng Zhilong's role as a commander of counter-piracy in the Taiwan straits area that made him most remarkable. As Wilson writes, Zhang Zhilong was emblematic of the ambivalent place of China's maritime culture by the early decades of the seventeenth century. He summarizes:
In a sense, the Ming was outsourcing its maritime security. The trading post that the Dutch established in southern Taiwan as well as the cession of Macau to the Portuguese are also clear indicators that the Ming was perfectly content to outsource the management of trade entrepôts to non-Chinese, who then attracted Chinese merchants, sailors, and craftsmen to make these entrepôts economically viable. This was the case not only in Taiwan and Macau but also farther offshore in Manila, Malacca, Batavia, and Japan. The arrival of the Europeans in Asian waters had empowered the Chinese seagoing population, not displaced it. Zheng Zhilong is therefore indicative of the kind of economic and military power that one man was able to gather in this ungoverned space beyond China's shores, which explains the Ming's desire to co-opt him.Footnote 172
In 1628, Zheng established himself in the port of Yuegang with the aim of clearing the coast of pirates while he made a deal with the Dutch to enter a three-year trade agreement.Footnote 173 Zheng would supply them with silks, sugar, ginger, and other goods in exchange for silver and spices at a fixed rate.Footnote 174 It was through such ‘wheeling and dealing’ that Zheng Zhilong by the late 1630s became the most powerful Chinese individual operating in Asian waters, a ‘maritime prince’. On the eve of the Ming collapse he symbolized all that was wrong with what the maritime sector and naval defense had become. On the other hand, as Wilson argues, Zheng Zhilong and his descendants were also the last remnants of Ming maritime power.Footnote 175 When everything else of the Ming state succumbed to the combination of peasant rebellions in the 1630s and 1640s and the Manchu invasion of 1644, the last Ming loyalist remnants fought on from the sea and even got Taiwan rid of the Dutch. It would take the massive Qing naval and amphibious campaign against the island nearly forty years later, in 1683, finally to extinguish the Ming and the maritime might of this dynasty.
The closely intertwined relationship of Ming China's diplomatic, economic, and military history, as this article has demonstrated, manifests the significance of Chinese maritime borders as fluid and fluctuating sites of international exchange of money and material goods, technology transfer, military innovation, and not least, martial confrontation. Thus, the regime's maritime universe was far more significant than what the Braudelian Eastern Mediterranean concept of local commercial integration predicates. The dynamism of Chinese maritime history lay in the far-reaching extent to which the power and influence of the Ming state could be brought to bear upon other regional forces, though coastal frontiers were never a consistent government priority. The success of the tribute trade system, even after Zheng He's voyages, rested in the continuing desirability of Chinese wares, such as silk and porcelain, which only increased over time. The tribute trade system also encompassed those countries around China that fostered a South Sea ‘world system’ in which the exchange of both goods and money flourished, but which the Ming government did not exploit in the form of taxes. In the course of the sixteenth century, as the conflict between persons supporting Chinese maritime restrictions and those favoring free trade heightened, and violence along the coast increased with illegal exchange and a growing belligerency among those living in the littoral, Ming maritime history entered a new phase. As militancy and discord along the sea borders continued to fester, regional officials gained ever more authority to regulate maritime affairs, which ultimately gave command to independent sub-contractors like Zheng Zhilong to exhort power. And thus, thanks to a century of naval and military innovation, it would take nearly forty years before the Qing dynasty could finally destroy the last vestiges of the Ming.