The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Who Needs Fiction: Pirates

It’s been really hard to read or listen to the news for the last month or so. I can barely stomach getting through the headlines. We have all the insane things happening to the economy and what else pops up in the news with some frequency? Pirates. Friggin’ pirates.

You can’t make this up. What’s next? An invasion of space aliens? Who needs fiction?

Alright. If the topic of the day is going to be pirates, so be it. You’ll find below excerpts from an article on Chinese pirates in history. If you click on the title of this post, you’ll be directed to the full article.

I wonder how you say “Ahoy Matey!” in Cantonese?

Pirates are not only interesting but significant for what they can tell us about Chinese history.
Between 1520 and 1810, China witnessed an upsurge in piracy all along the southern coastfrom Zhejiang province to Hainan Island. This was China’s golden age of piracy. During that time there were three great pirate cycles: first, the merchant pirates of the mid-Ming dynasty from1520 to 1575; second, the rebel-pirates of the Ming-Qing transition between 1620 and 1684; and third, the commoner pirates of the mid-Qing dynasty from 1780 to 1810.

For no less than half of those 290 years pirates dominated the seas around South China. Never beforein history had piracy been so strong and enduring. While in the West the heyday of piracy was in decline by the early eighteenth century – the pirate population at its peak never exceeded 5,500 men – thenumber of pirates in China at its height was no less than 70,000.

On the one hand, pirates brought havoc to many local communities and disrupted the economy; on the other, they contributed to the economic, social, and cultural development of early modern China.

Although many scholars agree that early modern China was becoming more culturally homogeneous, this was not the case among some segments of the laboring poor, whose culture was in many respects the antithesis of Confucian orthodoxy. Pirates, and seafarers in general, existed uneasily on the fringes of respectable society. They were social and cultural transgressors, who stood in marked defiance of orthodox values and standards of behavior.

Forged out of hardship, prejudice and poverty, pirates created a culture of survival based on violence, crime and vice, characterized by excessive profanity, intoxication, gambling, brawling, and sexual promiscuity.

Mobile seamen carried their ideas and values from port to port and between ships. The mobility of crews helped to ensure social uniformity and a common culture among pirates and other seamen. The culture of pirates and seafarers did not share the dominant Confucian values of honesty, frugality, self-restraint,and hard work, but rather espoused deception, ambition, recklessness, and getting ahead by any means.

In a society that was becoming increasingly polarized, restless and contentious, poor sailors and fishermen had to devise their own lifestyles, habits, and standards of behavior to survive. For many sailors, piracy was a normal, rational, and even legitimate means of maintaining minimal standards of living, perhaps a wayout of poverty. Their socio-cultural world was significant because it challenged the mainstream Confucian model and offered a viable alternative for China’s poor and discriminated.

Female pirates represented the most radical departure from dominant society and customs, defying acceptednotions of womanhood, breaking with established codes of female propriety, virtue, and passivity. Unlike their counterparts on Western ships, Chinese women pirates did not have to disguise themselves as men. They lived and worked openly as women aboard ships.

From the perspective of the Chinese state, such women who behaved like men perverted the social order and normalgender relationships, turning Confucian orthodoxy on its head. Indeed, they challenged the patriarchal hierarchyupon which both the state and society rested. For seafaring women, piracy presented opportunities to escape frompoverty and the rigid restraints placed on females. It gave them the chance for adventure and freedom unheard of formost women on land.

Large-scale piracy acted as a state within the state. Pirates established their own regime of military power, taxbureaus, and bureaucracy, which existed side-by-side with, but independently of, the Chinese imperial state and localelites. Pirates and seafarers created their own underworld culture of violence, crime, and vice. It was a survival culturesignificant because it was distinguishable from that of the dominant Confucian culture. For men and especially for women, piracy offered an important alternative way of life.


Zen said...

I wonder if there was some type of Pirate style Kung Fu these people developed or just used the standard Southern styles eg: Wing Chun, Hung Gar, since the Northern styles with all the footwork is out on a ship.

Rick said...

I understand that Wing Chun and Hung Gar were practiced by traveling opera people in the Red Boats. I was told that the low stances of Hung Gar got that way because they would practice beneath the main deck. One Wing Chun weapon is a long pole; a pole that would be used to propel a boat.

I bet the pirates had their own special flourishes.

Ikigai said...

On okinawa its said that the mitsu domoe symbol was once used by a very famous pirate, which helped launch its popularity on the island.

Great post, very entertaining.

Steven Smith said...

The immensity is what struck me. No less than 70,000! Somehow, that seems massive.

'Rrr ya held me rapt for a spell, thar.

Rick said...


Thanks for stopping by. You have an interesting site about Taijiquan. I'm putting a link up for it.

JT said...

The Cantonese are more likely to insult your mother as an "affectionate" greeting - that's what Shanlung says anyway. Personally I've never heard the Cantonese be all that insulting, but that was in Hong Kong.

Rick said...

JT, but on the other hand, how many pirates do you know?

Dadi said...

Rick, if you have trouble stomaching the news... try

Rick said...


What a great idea. Thanks.