Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

Synopsis

This book explores the world of pirates and seafarers and the integral role they played in shaping maritime society in Fujian and Guangdong during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The study is an attempt to understand piracy for what it can tell us about the nature of socioeconomic change in maritime South China during the late imperial age. The approach, what has been called "history from the bottom up," seeks to look at ordinary seafarers and pirates on their own terms and to reconstruct their daily lives and aspirations. By reclaiming their social, economic, and cultural history, the book not only furthers our understanding of maritime society as a whole, but also demonstrates how dynamic economic growth, commercial change, and population explosion promoted dislocation, conflict, and violence on China's southern coast.

Excerpt

It was late September 1801, the sixth year of the Jiaqing emperor’s reign and the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The townspeople of Dianbai city, a county seat on the southwestern coast of Guangdong province, were busy preparing moon cakes and planning family outings to the hills beyond the city walls. Outside the south gate, at the market in Longchuan harbor, fishermen and sailors crowded the Empress of Heaven Temple to beseech the goddess for fair winds and good catches. Sea merchants and shopkeepers who worshipped alongside them at the temple prayed for wealth and protection from those who would deprive them of it. Further to the south, beyond the entrance to the harbor, lurking among the islands that dotted the coast, pirate junks were gathering like froth floating on the sea.

Dianbai was a strategically important but poor county. Nearly nine thousand li from Beijing and eight hundred li from Canton, Dianbai was still a remote frontier in the early nineteenth century. Its interior was hemmed with rugged mountains and infested with bandits and uncivilized aborigines, making overland passage to and from the county both difficult and hazardous. Water routes provided the chief access to the outside world; the sea was the lifeblood of the region. Rivers linked the walled farming villages of the hinterland to the market towns and fishing ports that lined the seacoast. Along the narrow coastline, where population was dense and arable land scarce, people “regarded the sea as fields” (yihai weitian). Most of the people earned their livings as fishermen or laborers working in the salt fields. By the late eighteenth century Dianbai had become an important supplier of marine products and salt for the entire province. Situated as it was along a major coasting route, merchant junks from Canton, Chaozhou, Hainan, and Fujian paid regular calls to Dianbai ports, and . . .

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