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The Mid-Qing Construction of the South China Sea

Wensheng Wang


Figure 1
  Figure 1: Used with permission,  


     Over the past several decades, maritime studies have become one of the most dynamic areas of research in world history. This maritime turn has been especially apparent in Asian studies, which is partly energized by China's recent aspirations to reclaim its historical importance as a great naval power (like the early Ming) and by its newly unveiled transcontinental project called "the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route." The South China Sea, in particular, has become "one of the most 'watched' spaces on the planet" due to its vital, growing role in global maritime commerce as well as its rich natural resources and renewed geopolitical significance.1 Altogether, they have contributed directly to China's simmering territorial disputes with the littoral countries in this area and indirectly to the growing tensions with the United States. To gain a better understanding of China's troubled relationship with the oceanic space, it is helpful to turn to a historical perspective by examining the contested construction of the South China Sea in the mid-Qing dynasty.

     By the turn of the nineteenth century, Western piracy had long declined from its heyday (1650s–1730s) and "all but disappeared in Asian waters."2 Meanwhile, local and regional piracy remained active along the China coast and in parts of Southeast Asia such as Borneo and the Philippines. From the 1790s to the 1800s, in particular, the Qing Empire was tormented by its final throes of large-scale piratical violence as huge, well-organized Chinese pirate fleets allied with the newly unified Vietnamese regime (that emerged from the Tay Son rebellion of the 1770s) and ravaged the coastal frontier of South China (mostly Guangdong and Fujian provinces).3Taking advantage of this chaotic situation, furthermore, the British launched two naval expeditions to invade Macao (a long-time Portuguese settlement under Chinese sovereignty) in 1802 and 1808. For over a decade, the Manchu regime had to deal with its most serious maritime threat since the conquest of Taiwan in 1683.4

     The aim of my article is not to study this dramatic upsurge of piratical violence per se. It proposes instead that transnational maritime crisis can be better understood when viewed in light of the different construction of the troubled waters by various sociopolitical actors. In particular, the conflicts between state laws and the seafarers' border-crossing activities (routine and ad hoc) exposed and exacerbated the mismatch between socio-geographic realities and government-defined borders. This mismatch not only amplified and perpetuated the problem of maritime violence but also raises the thorny issue of governability and sovereignty in the oceanic space.

     Let us turn to the South China Sea, a vast body of water (roughly 1,351,000 square miles) located between the southern coast of China and the northwestern part of Southeast Asia. As "one of the most geologically complex in the world," this semi-enclosed sea connects directly with the Pacific and Indian Ocean, with ninety percent of its total circumference taken up by land belonging to various political entities, including China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore. Up until the nineteenth century, the South China Sea had long been a patchwork of ill-defined sovereignty, rather than the "Chinese lake" as its name suggests.5 Traditional studies of maritime Asia tend to place each littoral country at the center of the story, thus turning the South China Sea into an empty center of Asia Pacific. Undoubtedly, however, this transnational water world has always been among the most intensively traversed of the Asian seas in pursuit of maritime commerce. It formed an interconnected trading zone woven together by the complex itineraries of Chinese and foreign vessels plying its coastline. As the mid-Qing official Yuan Yonglun 袁永綸 wrote: "here trading vessels from all the world meet together, wherefore this track is called 'the great meeting from the east and the south.'"6 Furthermore, the South China Sea served as the loci of a wider socio-cultural network that linked the Middle Kingdom to mainland and insular Southeast Asia as well as the West. Its inherent unity was thus based on the manifold networks of exchange, which continued to prevail despite the increasing interference of political borders. For this reason, some historians refer to the South China Sea as the "Maritime Silk Road" or "Asian Mediterranean."7 Its complicated interaction with the Middle Kingdom (what Jane Kate Leonard calls the "Sino-Nanyang connection" (China-South Ocean connection) profoundly affected how Chinese constructed the maritime world.8

     This is not the place for a full discussion of the whole body of water mentioned above. Instead, I shall focus mostly on the northwestern reach of the South China Sea as well as its complex interactions with surrounding ocean and land space. Largely under Chinese control, this subregion extended southwest from the maritime boundary of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces to the Gulf of Tonkin, a vast region buffering the waters between China and Annam (northern Vietnam). In between, it flowed across/around the Taiwan Strait, Guangdong's Pearl River estuary (including Macao and Hong Kong) and Leizhou Peninsula as well as China's largest island—Hainan. This relatively narrow realm of shallow waters and inshore islands, as will be explained later, belonged to what the Chinese called "inner ocean/sea." Lying at the periphery of provinces, macroregions and states, this manifold frontier zone had become the center of piracy operations by the early nineteenth century. Sea bandits built their headquarters on the periphery of the Chinese empire around the Hainan Island and across the border with Vietnam, the most important of which were Jiangping 江坪 (or Giang Binh in Vietnamese) and Bailongwei 白龍尾 (or Bach Long Vi in Vietnamese) located in the center of the Gulf of Tonkin.

     It must be noted that Guangdong and Fujian had long been the most violence-prone provinces in the Qing Empire. Together they also constituted the most important part of China's coastal frontier due to their critical location (as its south gate and richest trading area) and their large maritime territory (with the longest seaboard). Between 1735 and 1812, for example, these two provinces handled as much as seventy-five percent of the empire's foreign and domestic seaborne trade. In 1757 the monopolistic Canton system centered on the provincial capital of Guangdong replaced the multiport structure (1685–1757) as the only form of Western trade in China.9 Consequently, the Pearl River estuary became one of the busiest harbors in the world and also the prime target of the piratical raids mentioned in the outset.

Social Construction of the Sea

     The development of a maritime zone, as Philip E. Steinberg asserts, involves a complex process of "social construction" based on three interacting mechanisms: external utilization, internal perception and regulatory representation.10 An in-depth analysis of the South China Sea, therefore, must include a history of how it was used, conceptualized and controlled from multiple perspectives. More specifically, one should study how various sociopolitical forces attempted to have their interests represented through different constructions of this maritime world as well as how those constructions contributed to the contentious politics within that space. In particular, it is imperative to understand the following dialectic within the two-fold construction of the South China Sea: on the one hand, it was a nebulous maritime frontier subject to artificial administrative division and tenuous sociopolitical control; on the other hand, this transnational water world constituted an open system of social ecology and political economy that supported both daily life activities and extraordinary contentious struggles across multiple boundaries. By the turn of the nineteenth century, as a result, much of the South China Sea had become a largely uncontrollable space where the vision and reach of the authorities was limited. Nonstate and antistate actors flourished in such unruly ocean space, utilizing its ambiguous jurisdiction and hostile environment to reproduce their own autonomy.

     This article will investigate how bottom-up social construction of the South China Sea differed from or even conflicted with top-down state perception and regulation of this maritime frontier. Such tensions, along with the piracy crisis they precipitated, can be better understood when viewed in light of the contradictions rooted in G. William Skinner's spatial frameworks of market formation and state control. Specifically, he portrays the social geography of late imperial China as the intersection of two sets of central place system: one was the bottom-up development of regional trade and manufacturing networks dictated by the logic of natural typography and social ecology; the other was the top-down imposition of politico-military hierarchies based upon the need of coercive state control.11 Notwithstanding its land-based orientation, the Skinnerian spatial structure foregrounds a crucial dilemma that was also apparent in the multifaceted construction of the oceans: whereas such natural frontier space provided convenient political boundaries separating the Middle Kingdom from the outside maritime world, regions linked by such geographic determinants as well as the transnational networks they supported showed an economic, social, and cultural integration often lacking in administratively defined units like counties, provinces and states.

     Instead of fitting our analysis into strict political demarcation, one thus should recognize that events and processes often move fluidly across regional or even national boundaries, driven by considerations of military security, economic survival or socio-political advancement among others. This epitomizes the approach of maritime zones that, in Jerry Bentley's words, "has strong potential to dissolve artificial and sometimes absurd distinctions among supposedly coherent and ostensibly distinct regions (Europe or Asia) by drawing attention to systematic and long-term interactions conducted across bodies of water… Attention to maritime regions is a welcome development because it helps bring focus to historical processes of commercial, biological, and cultural exchange that other geographical [and political constructs often obscure."12 Those tensions between the top-down and bottom-up constructions thus capture the essence of the contradictions within both the maritime space and the land-based systems of the Skinnerian central place hierarchies noted earlier. Let us start from the official construction of the South China Sea.

Top-down perspective of the state

     As is well known, traditional China had always defined its territory as the Middle Kingdom—the center of "All under Heaven" (tianxia 天下). This Sino-centric vision of world order, along with its land-oriented notion of sovereignty, pushed the seafaring world to the margins of Chinese cognitive frame. The gigantic ocean, dictated by unfathomable rhythms and swarmed with pestering smugglers, illicit traders, and elusive pirates, had always been an unpredictable element and untamable space in the imperial political thinking. Its intrinsic instability, great mobility and near-incomprehensible scope, according to the statecraft writings of mid-Qing official Yan Ruyi (嚴如熤, 1759–1826), engendered a deep-rooted fear of the South China Sea as a mysterious and hostile space.13 Crossing the ocean space was often deemed a trepid venture haunted by vengeful ghosts, which called for heavenly blessings and necessitated appropriate rituals of thanksgiving, as the state patronage of the Mazu goddess (媽祖,or Empress of Heaven, 天后) suggests.

     Therefore in Chinese political philosophy the high seas were often associated with a separate, terror-filled world of unknown and disorder. Like an unbridgeable wall of isolation, moreover, they rendered great hindrances to administrative control, military maneuvering and economic extraction. Such segregating and destabilizing effect was undoubtedly real to the coastal officials. Following the eunuch admiral Zheng He's (鄭和, 1371–1433) seven enormous excursions into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean between 1401 and 1433, Ming China suddenly turned inward and shut its door toward the maritime world. It not only imposed stringent prohibition on overseas trade until 1567 but also shrank its powerful navy and reduced its role to merely that of coastal defense. In the eyes of the Ming officials, the ocean served the similar function as the Great Wall: both should be "effective" barriers to keep foreign barbarians out of the Middle Kingdom.14 By total closure, they reasoned, the maritime borders would be even easier to defend than the overland routes into China. But this hegemonic policy of sea ban backfired disastrously, leading to rapid upsurge of transnational piracy and smuggling in the Chinese coastal areas. It was further instigated by an international confederation of Wokou pirates composing of Chinese, Japanese, and other foreign interlopers who searched for new trading routes and commercial goods in defiance of the Ming's maritime prohibition. This period of Wokou crisis can be taken as the take-off stage for large-scale and long-lasting piratical raiding in Chinese waters that hastened the fall of the Ming dynasty and tormented the subsequent Qing regime.15

     Set up by the semi-nomadic Manchus from the northeast, the Qing Empire largely inherited the mid- and late Ming negligence toward the sea. This deeply ingrained attitude was reinforced by its spectacular success in overland expansion in inner Asia (Xinjiang, Tibet, and Mongolia) during the eighteenth century, which was one of the biggest territorial gains in world history.16 That being said, as Chung-yam Po asserts, the high Qing power did try to maintain some sort of balance between western expansion and maritime control. According to Gang Zhao, it opened more room for maritime commerce than its Ming counterparts, as the open trade reform of 1684 demonstrates. In November of that year, the Kangxi emperor (康熙 r. 1661–1722) lifted the time-honored ban on private ocean trade and opened up Chinese ports to foreign merchants. Furthermore, he established an expansive system of customs house to manage this growing business. Consequently, private trade replaced its official tribute counterpart (exclusively conducted via the tributary system) to be China's dominant avenue of overseas commerce. As Zhao argues, this was a "historic and revolutionary change" that inaugurated a new era in the history of maritime China. It also promoted the dominant influence of Fujian and Guangdong private traders in Asia waters until the 1820s.17 It was within this context that the Cohong (公行 gonghang)-Canton system emerged. In 1720 a conglomeration of Chinese merchants in Canton established a trade guild system called the Cohong. This preliminary corporate body did not last long, but it was revived in various forms over the eighteenth century. The Qing state gave licensed Cohong members—Hong merchants—the exclusive rights to trade with Westerners and, furthermore, to collect tariff revenue on behalf of the government. This monopolistic model of state supervision and merchant management culminated in the establishment of the Canton system in 1757 which confined all Western trade to a commercial district in the provincial capital of Guangdong. Partly as a measure of cultural protection and social control, direct contact between foreigners and Chinese was strictly forbidden, except for the government-designated go-betweens—Hong merchants. In so doing, the Qing court largely skirted responsibility for day-to-day relations with Western powers and for ordering the unknown seafaring world. As R. Bin Wong notes, a clear "political priority on social control and security took precedence over strategies for fiscal expansion…" So in general Qing policies on seaborne trade were more strategic than economic. Maritime revenue did not become critical to the Qing until the late eighteenth century.18

     From a cultural perspective, in addition, the sea seemed also far away from the magnetic center of the Confucian world order. As a continental agrarian empire, imperial China had always taken land cultivation as the foundation of its economy and social order. Physical attributes of the sea, to be sure, deter permanent, sedentary habitation. It is not surprising that the Qing state regarded the inhospitable and unclaimable sea as a wild antithesis to agricultural society, in a way similar to how they perceived high plateaus and endless deserts in the northwest. The water world of the south China coast, as Yan Ruyi suggested, represented a different set of socio-cultural values that threatened to undermine the Confucian agenda of local order.19

     It should be noted that imperial Chinese officials did not deem the vast sea an undistinguishable watery whole. Instead they had a vague understanding of it as a separate, divisible maritime space in its own right, different from the land in its movements, rhythms and dynamics. Like their Tokugawa Japanese counterparts, these officials sought to make sense of the water world not through conquest but by cartographic production: dividing this space into discrete places and partitioning its threat.20 The Chinese state had long conceptualized the maritime zone as a continuum of discrete spheres that should be governed and utilized in different ways. Specifically, it consisted of two different and vaguely separated parts: the inner ocean/sea (neiyang內洋, or neihai 内海) and the outer ocean/sea (waiyang外洋, or waihai 外海). As Dian Murray writes: "Offshore, as the open expanse of the South China Sea stretched from the border of Guangdong and Fujian provinces, around Hainan island and the Leizhou peninsular to the gulf of Tonkin, the saltwater realm of shallow seas and inshore islands was referred to in Chinese sources as the inner sea, or inner ocean. Once the shallows deepened, the inshore islands gave way to offshore islands farther from the land, and the South China Sea became the southern oceans. This region of deep seas, offshore islands and coral reefs constituted the outer sea or outer ocean."21

     This inner-outer construction from the official perspective had long been the dominant geographical and political discourse on the South China Sea. As will be seen later, it entailed different state power and administrative responsibilities across the ocean space. This far-fetched differentiation exerted profound impact on the Chinese coastal strategy that was decisively land-centered and defense-oriented. Contiguous to the littoral communities, the relatively narrow and shallow zone of the inner sea blended with the inland waterways of surrounding deltas and with numerous coastal islands, which required varying degree of social, economic and coercive controls. Due largely to the limitation of administrative and military resources, local officials tended to perceive the immediate coastal waters as the farthest seaward extent of their authority. Akin to the land space, the inner sea was thus deemed a legitimate and predictable arena subject to sustainable governance, economic extraction and state possession. This uncompromising territorial right and imperial sovereignty, for instance, was asserted forcefully in the robust Qing protests against the two British naval invasions of Macao in 1802 and 1808.22 However, they became indefensible after the first Opium War (1839–1842) due to the Qing's weak naval power under the full onslaught of Western aggression. 

     Because Guangdong had the largest inner ocean/sea that required an active state presence, government resources were often overstretched to a dangerous level. Consequently, local seafarers could easily adapt to piracy and exit to the outer ocean when that became their best option, making this province the hardest-hit in the piracy disturbance from the 1790s to the 1800s. As the relatively calm coastal waters deepened into the faraway outer ocean, it became a capricious and ungovernable domain increasingly beyond human comprehension, politico-military control and economic exploitation. This seemingly "endless" blue water region was thus perceived as more distance than territory, which should be insulated from the power struggles of land-based societies and remain outside state governance.23

     Notwithstanding their pivotal impacts on Chinese political thinking, there was no clear-cut boundary to demarcate the two imagined zones of inner and outer ocean/sea. The dissection of a continuum of natural and cohesive realm into two artificial discrete parts, in other words, was a matter of political construction rather than the natural result of topographical or ecological distinction. Moreover, it functioned to set limits on the reach and responsibilities of the state, thus further restraining government operations across the ocean space. As the Qing emperor Jiaqing (嘉慶,r. 1796–1820) lamented, his coastal officials, afraid of venturing into the outer sea, repeatedly wrote off incidents in the faraway waters as beyond their jurisdiction and thus were of little concern.24 Whereas the outer sea became the place where Qing maritime governance ceased, as will be seen later, it was also the area wherein marginalized social forces like pirates, smugglers and traders sought to maximize their autonomy whenever possible.

     A brief comparison between early modern Europe and late imperial China is in order. As the rise of interstate competition and mercantilism drove the Europeans into armed exploration and maritime trade on a global scale, the states and their merchants began to share a common interest in exploiting economic opportunities during the process of oversea expansion. By the mid-fifteenth century, much of Western Europe had embraced the concept of sea power as part of the state-ideal. Piracy and privateering, in particular, accompanied the rise of the European states and empires, which reflected an earnest effort by political leaders to overcome their structural constraints in building up national power. Therefore, they legalized piracy and kept it alive by providing various state infrastructures to support it. Consequently, European states and empires were "better able to project a lethal combination of maritime force and economic enterprise than were most of their Asian counterparts." Only in the course of the nineteenth century was such market allocation of nonstate violence delegitimated and eliminated in the West.25

     Europe-like competition for global power and wealth, however, did not exist in traditional China because its unified and centralized state did not encourage oversea exploration and merchant adventure as a means of war making and empire building. Neither did the government support piracy or privateering as lawful strategies. Because of its long-standing fixation with the land-based agricultural order, the Middle Kingdom did not put a high premium on exercising power, social or military, at sea. It generally shied away from asserting state authority within the outer ocean/sea. In terms of maritime strategy, the Chinese empire explicitly made "sea defense" (haifang海防) its cornerstone and largely rejected "sea war" (haizhan海戰) as a viable option.26 This persistent lack of interest in achieving political domination through the projection of naval power is most clear in the Ming's abrupt decision to downsize its navy after Zheng He's seven expeditions when a strong maritime empire was within its grasp. Such overlook, due largely to the inner-outer spatial framework, also reveals the general disinclination of the Chinese state towards conceptualizing the ocean as a powerbase, a field of armed conflict and a springboard for oversea aggression.

Bottom-up Perspective of the Local Society

     After sketching out the top-down vantage point, we shall turn to the grassroots perception and utilization of the South China Sea. Unlike the officials, seafarers in Guangdong and Fujian took the sea as the center of their world and as the core of their self-identity. Physically separated from China proper by towering mountain ranges, their littoral communities had always been deeply attached to and oriented toward the ocean. Naturally these coastal dwellers were familiar with the rhythms, dynamics and movements of the sea that surrounded them, dictated by its own peculiar logic of monsoon, currents and wind. Such localized knowledge was crucial for their survival in the harsh ecological and sociopolitical environments. Most of the time they constructed the South China Sea through such routine action as fishing and trading that became increasingly important due to overpopulation and land shortage over the eighteenth century. In addition, seaborne people also used the vast, diffused maritime borders to evade taxes, to engage profitable yet illegal activities and to escape punishment from the authorities.27 For instance, they looked upon piracy and smuggling as normal, rational and even legitimate sideline activities whereby to maintain a minimal standard of living. As "weapons of the weak," these tactics were among the most efficient strategies of social resistance used by the seafarers to adapt to a world that they found increasingly hostile. Thanks to their ability to detect and exploit the weak points of the ruling system embodied in their social ecology, these maritime frontiersmen could turn marginalization around and use their subaltern status as social capital.28

     For those living along the shoreline, the sea was their resource provider, their substance and their living space. Going out to the ocean had always been the logical choice since the confines of high mountains and narrow coasts made it impossible for them to live by agriculture. In the mid-Qing period, for instance, the sea furnished a large part of the coastal population with jobs that supported their poor families. As the commander of Guangdong naval forces Li Changgeng (李長庚, 1751–1807) remarked: "Eastern Guangdong lives off the sea, thirty percent of its people till the land, forty percent rely on fishing" (yuedong yi hai wei sheng, geng san yu si 粵東以海為生, 耕三漁四). In some parts of eastern Fujian, like Fuqing 福清 county, fishing provided a living for almost eighty percent of the local populace.29 The hundreds of thousands of coastal dwellers who became fishermen "took boats as their homes and made fields from the sea" (yi chuan wei jia, yi hai wei tian 以船為家, 以海為田). Those on the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder became "boat people" (danhu蛋戶) who were not even allowed to live on shore. While the poor relied predominantly on the maritime space for survival, those who were better off took the sea as a trading route and a money pond (lisou利藪). Merchants and ship owners went out to sea and returned home rich, reaping great profits in the arduous voyage.30

     The seafarers' mobile lifestyle and constant pressure to survive had a profound impact on their construction of maritime space and on the development of ocean-going communities. Like fish, wind and currents, to be sure, merchandise and profit do not recognize political boundaries. From very early times the Chinese established firm sea routes and enduring patterns of exchange in the South China Sea. Depending on the yardstick, trade with Southeast Asia countries (what the Chinese called Nanyang[南洋 Southern Ocean] trade) could be viewed as pretty well developed by the early Ming. Due to the aforementioned maritime prohibition, however, it went into decline from the 1470s to the 1560s, after which both the formal Canton and Fujian trade revived. The mid-Qing period in the long eighteenth century saw the full development of this Nanyang trade, thanks largely to the expansion of Chinese junk trade that gradually dominated both the Qing coastal trade as well as that of maritime Asia. This commercial system, as Guosheng Huang describes, "fell under the general rubrics of official tribute trade or private native commerce carried out domestically and in Southeast Asia through the agency of Chinese junks manned by Chinese sailors, or internationally through the agency of foreigners, whose presence on Chinese shores after 1757 was restricted to Canton."31 This development enabled the fishermen, seaborne traders and oversea migrants to construct resilient transnational networks that crisscrossed political boundaries. These seafarers also built their floating communities based on licit or illicit connections, covering large expanses of ocean space with no definable borders, like maritime Southeast Asia and the Sino-Vietnamese water world. Such grassroots network building and transnational trading activities were largely beyond the control of the littoral states.32

     The seafaring people of coastal China, in various ways, ignored or rejected the officials' imposition of the sea as a divisible political or psychological space. For them, the sea was never a separate world in its own right, but an integrated "middle ground" which linked people, goods and communities across the maritime, littoral and inland areas.33 The ambiguous bounds that differentiated the inner sea/ocean from its outer counterpart as well as the asymmetrical relationship between them had little effects on the seafarers whose livelihood depended on their routine traversing of such a manufactured demarcation. With more fish in the deep outer ocean than in the shallow inner sea, the fishermen's survival depended on their freedom and abilities to range back and forth across the imagined boundary, which undercut the Chinese state's attempts at spatial hegemony and maritime control.34

     As far as pirates are concerned, they had learned how to survive and prosper not only by crossing back and forth across the patchwork of overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions but also by exploiting the state's dichotomous construction of the inner and outer sea/ocean. These unlawful people deliberately took advantage of this artificial demarcation to carry out maritime raiding and to flee justice. They often vanished without a trace by exiting to the outer ocean where the government forces refused to go. The vast expanses of the ocean, together with its rugged coasts, elongated peninsula and scattered islands, made it extremely difficult for the Qing naval forces to locate and pursue pirates who were highly mobile and well connected. Thus it was almost impossible to carry out offensive strategies like search-and-destroy missions on high seas, as the Fujian and Zhejiang governor-general (1800–1806) Yude 玉德 complained.35

     To make the matters worse for the authorities, some sea bandits could even garner support from the supra-national powers and became embroiled in regional power struggle, as the piracy crisis at the turn of the nineteenth century suggests. Due to heightened Qing suppression, desperate Guangdong and Fujian pirates sought refuge in neighboring Vietnam and joined the Tay Son navy which not only offered them protection and training but also weapons, official titles and ranks. Most strikingly, these naval mercenaries were dispatched back to coastal China to pillage local villages and shipping in order to procure revenue that helped support the Vietnamese war-making and state-building. As I argued elsewhere, it is worth highlighting the regional, national and transnational significances of this maritime crisis: firstly, the Vietnamese sponsorship of Chinese pirates demonstrates how outside forces affected the role played by domestic social groups in maintaining a particular local order and autonomy; secondly, it underscores the growing Vietnamese identity, autonomy and agency in the China-centered tributary system while presenting an unprecedented challenge to the Qing overlordship; last but not least, this crisis forced the Manchu court to readjust its diplomatic policy toward the rising southern neighbor and to reevaluate its power, influence and responsibility as the supreme patron of the tributary network. All in all, this piracy disturbance of unprecedented nature not only foregrounded the growing tensions within the Sino-centric tributary system but also facilitated renegotiations between the Qing and its vassal states well before the full onslaught of Western power in the first Opium War.36

     In their opportunistic collaboration with the outside power, transnational pirates acted as a sort of "free floating resource" that helped generate a growing receptivity to large-scale economic interaction and sociopolitical coordination surpassing rigid state boundaries.37 A good case in point is the water bridge of Jiangping and Bailongwei in the center of the Gulf of Tonkin. Standing not only at the intersections of the Sino-Vietnamese borders but also at a topographical choke point, both of them had become important hideouts and smuggling bases for the Sino-Vietnamese pirates by the end of the eighteenth century. While Jiangping was a port town under nominal Vietnamese jurisdiction, the nearby Bailongwei was a mountainous island incorporated into the Qing territory of Lianzhou prefecture of Guangdong province.38 Due to their inaccessible geographical location, tough terrain and hostile social ecology, both of them were beyond the reach of Qing and Vietnamese politico-military control. For the sake of coordinating action and clarifying responsibilities, the two governments had agreed that the hostile, uncontrollable water bridge between Jiangping and Bailongwei marked a traditional maritime boundary zone or a recognizable natural barrier between the two countries.39

     While its complex and impenetrable geography conveniently delineated a political map, this water bridge made a mockery of the weak government control on both sides as it easily yielded to the penetrating force of transnational piracy, smuggling and migration. Local coastal dwellers had little identification with the aforementioned political arrangement. In their eyes, as Murray puts it, "Along a littoral of mountains and water, islands and peninsulas, Kwangtung [Guangdong] flowed imperceptibly into Vietnam." It was thus difficult to ascertain where the Gulf of Tonkin started and where it ended. For centuries, an incessant circulation of people and goods across the water bridge of Jiangping and Bailongwei had rendered this ambiguous demarcation even more porous and ill guarded. It also made the South China Sea "an integrative social space" linked by local patterns of livelihood and affinities.40

     Therefore the intractable problem of oceanic sovereignty and governability was greatly compounded by transnational factors. For many years, scholars have looked to see whether the Qing had developed (or adopted from the West) modern ideas about sovereignty, which included the idea of fixed, absolute borders rather than vague zones where the center's influence faded out gradually. Yet in the absence of a strong blue-water navy, such modern ideas were no more useful for framing the challenges of coastal/maritime security than traditional ones. The time-honored problem of governability was mostly affected by the contradictory utilizations, representations and regulations of the ocean space by the central state and littoral society. Such conflicts epitomized the ambivalence at the heart of China's maritime spatiality and thus profoundly affected its maritime history as a whole.


     This article gives new impetus to the "margin" by highlighting the multiple constructions placed upon the South China Sea as well as the active role of different seafarers in shaping contentious protests, frontier making and state building. Frontiers of various kinds, to be sure, are not merely distinguished by their topographical patterns or other slow-to-change ecological features. They also denote a discursive, multiple and fluid arena in which the state-society relationship is contested, negotiated and reconfigured. This multifaceted process of social construction, conditioned by a particular combination of geographic traits, give particular character and historical agency to different frontier regions and their indigenous forces. Hence borderlands constitute the arenas, dynamics and outcomes of historical changes at various spatiotemporal levels.

     The South China Sea, in particular, precipitates the creations of events, processes and structures that span the land-sea divide and transcend national boundaries. It was by no means a simple demarcation zone between "settled" and "unsettled" in traditional China. Neither were the local seafarers passive recipients of land-based civilizing projects while being incorporated into the unified agrarian empire. Instead, as the crisis of south China piracy suggests, these seemingly marginal spaces and groups became "fruitful locuses for social contestation" which brought about a wide range of historical changes.41

Wensheng Wang is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He is a historian of late imperial China with main research interests in empire building, cultural politics, maritime interactions and cross-cultural encounters. He can be reached at


1 Eric Tagliacozzo, "Smuggling in the South China Sea: Alternate Histories of a Nonstate Space in the Late Nineteenth and Late Twentieth Centuries," in Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas, Ed. by Robert J. Antony (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 143. For general understanding of maritime history and the Asian experiences, see Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013); Rainer Buschmann, Oceans in World History (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2007); Peter Boomgaard, ed., A World of Water: Rain, Rivers and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories (Leiden: KITLV, 2007).

2 Robert J. Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2003), 165–167.

3 For detailed information about the Vietnamese Tay Son regime, see George Edson Dutton, The Tay Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006).

4 Wensheng Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2014).

5 Dongdong Huang, "Delimitation of Maritime Boundary between Vietnam and China in the Gulf of Tonkin" (LL. D. diss., University of Ottawa, 1992), 14; Ulises Granados, "The South China Sea and Its Coral Reefs during the Ming and Qing: Levels of Geographical Knowledge and Political Control," East Asian History 32/33 (2006/2007): 109–128.

6 Yuan Yonglun, Jing Haifen Ji 靖海氛記 (Record of the Pacification of Pirates), 10–11; The English version, "The Pirates Who Infested the China Sea, from 1807–1810," translated by Charles Fried Neumann, London: J.L. Cox, 1831.

7 Gungwu Wang, "The Nanhai Trade: A Study of the Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea," "The China Seas: Becoming an Enlarged Mediterranean," in Angela Schottenhammer ed., The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008), 9–22; John N. Miksic, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea 13001800 (Singapore:  NUS Press/National Museum of Singapore, 2013). It should also be noted that not all historians accept the "Mediterranean analogy." See Craig A. Lockard, "'The Sea Common to All': Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, ca. 1400–1750," Journal of World History 21(2010): 220; Roy Bin Wong, "Entre monde et nation: les regions Braudeliennes en Asia," Annales: Histoire, Sciences, Sociales 66 (2001): 9–16; Chung-Yam Po, "Conceptualizing the Blue Frontier the Great Qing and the maritime world in the long eighteenth century" (Ph.D. diss., Universität Heidelberg, 2013).

8 Jane Kate Leonard, Wei Yuan and China's Rediscovery of the Maritime World (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1984), 35.

9 Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea, 56; Paul A. Van Dyke, The Canton Trade: Life and Enterprise on the China Coast, 17001845 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); Angela Schottenhammer, ed., The Emporium of the World: Maritime Quanzhou, 10001400 (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Ng Chin-Keong, Trade and Society: The Amoy Network on the China Coast (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1983).

10 Philip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 21.

11 G. William Skinner, "Cities and the Hierarchy of Local Systems," in The City in Late Imperial China, ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977), 275–352.

12 Jerry H. Bentley, "Sea and Ocean Basins as Frameworks of Historical Analysis," Geographical Review 89 (1999): 215–224.

13 Yan Ruyi, Yangfang Jiyao 洋防輯要 (Essential of the Coastal Defense), 17.20b; in Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, 100.

14 Ibid., 100; Tonio Andrade, "The Company's Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621– 1662," Journal of World History 15(2004): 417.

15 Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea, 165–167. It should be noted that the Zheng family dominated the East Asian sea lanes for over half of a century during the Ming-Qing transition. See

Xing  Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 16201720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

16 The Qing conquest of Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia brought all three inner Asian regions under the sovereignty of one central government for the first time in Chinese history. Nicola Di Cosmo, "Qing Colonial Administration in Inner Asia," The International History Review, 20 (1998): 288.

17 In his recent book Gang Zhao goes so far to argue that "imperial Qing trade policy was the most open in Chinese history." See The Qing Opening to the Ocean: Chinese Maritime Policies, 16841757 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2013), 18, 115; Po, "Conceptualizing the Blue Frontier the Great Qing and the maritime world in the long eighteenth century," 20.

18 R. Bin Wong, "Political Economies of Maritime and Agrarian China, 1750–1850," in Maritime China in Transition, 1750– 1850, eds. Gungwu Wang and Chin-keong Ng (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2004), 27; Frederic Wakeman, Jr. "The Canton System and the Opium War," in The Cambridge History of China, vol.10, Late Ch'ing 1800–1911, Part I, 163–212; Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, 101, 54; Zhongxun Zhang, "Qing jiaqing nian jian minzhe haidao zuzhi yanjiu," (Studies on the Piracy Organizations of Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces during the Jiaqing Reign of the Qing Dynasty) in Zhongguo haiyang fazhan shi lunwen ji (Studies on the History of China's Maritime Development) (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1990), vol. 2.

19 Yan Ruyi, Yangfang Jiyao, 17.20b; Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, 101.

20 Marcia Yonemoto, "Maps and Metaphors of the 'Small Eastern Sea' in Tokugawa Japan (1603–1868)," Geographical Review 89 (1999): 177.

21 Dian Murray, "Piracy and China's Maritime Transition, 1750–1850," in Maritime China in Transition, 17501850, eds. Gungwu Wang and Chin-keong Ng (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2004), 55.

22 Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, 102.

23 Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean, 52.

24 Jiaqing daoguang liangchao shangyudang 嘉慶道光两朝上諭檔 (Imperial Edicts of the Jiaqing-Daoguang Reigns) JQSYD, vol.1, 8.

25 Janice E. Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 21, 54.152; Andrade, "The Company's Chinese Pirates," 416.

26 JQSYD, vol.9, 247–48, vol.13, 21.

27 Cited in Jennifer Cushman, Fields from the Sea: Chinese Junk Trade with Siam During the Late. Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1993); Granados, "The South China Sea and Its Coral Reefs during the Ming and Qing," 127.

28 James Scott, Weapons of the weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985); Daniel Little, "Rational-Choice Models and Asian Studies," Journal of Asian Studies 50 (1991): 35–52.

29 Junjichu lufu zouzhe nongmin yundonglei 軍機處錄副奏摺農民運動類 (Grand Council Draft Memorials in the type of Peasant Rebellions) JQJJCLFZZ/NM, 3250, 3261; Antony, Like Froth, 68.

30 Jiaqing gongzhong zhupi zouzhe  嘉慶宮中朱批奏摺 (Imperially Rescripted Palace Memorials, Jiaqing Emperor) JQGZZP, 04-01-03-0037-024.

31 Guosheng Huang, "The Chinese Maritime Customs in Transition, 1750–1830," in Gungwu Wang and Chin-keong Ng, eds., Maritime China in Transition 17501850, 43–44; Jane Kate Leonard, Wei Yuan and China's Rediscovery of the Maritime World, 33–62;

32 Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, 104; Gungwu Wang, A Short History of the Nanyang Chinese (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1979); Gungwu Wang, The Nanhai Trade: The Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998); Jane Kate Leonard, Wei Yuan and China's Rediscovery of the Maritime World; Po, "Conceptualizing the Blue Frontier the Great Qing and the maritime world in the long eighteenth century," 241.

33 Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 16501815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

34 Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, 104.

35 JQSYD, vol.10, p.298, 304.

36 Wang, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, 209–252.

37 Jiaqing junjichu lufu zouzhe軍機處錄副奏摺 (Grand Council Draft Memorials, Jiaqing Emperor) JQJJCLFZZ, 03-1684-020.

38 Jiaqing junjichu suishoudang 嘉慶軍機處隨手檔 (Register of documents as they came to hand the Grand Council logbook) JQJJCSSD, the imperial edict of Jiaqing, January 9th, 1797; JQJJCLFZZ, 03-1686-013.

39 This maritime boundary was basically demarcated by the Sino-French Treaty of 1887 as a result of Sino-French War of 1884–1885. See Keyuan Zou, "Maritime Boundary Delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin," Ocean Development and International Law 30(1999): 236.

40 Dian H. Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790– 1810 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 9; Charles Wheeler, "A Maritime Logic to Vietnamese History? Littoral Society in Hoi An's Trading World c.1550–1830, in Conference Proceedings: "Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges," 2003; Charles Wheeler, "Re-thinking the Sea in Vietnamese History: Littoral Society in the Integration of Thuan-Quang, Seventeenth-Eighteenth Centuries," in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (2006): 123–153.

41 Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean, 190.

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