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Chinese Principalities in the Borderlands of Southeast Asia: Historical Significance and Memory of Hà Tiên, Lanfang, and Kokang

Robert Y. Eng


     This study will apply James C. Scott’s concept of Zomia as a means of illuminating how littoral and upland Southeast Asia was shaped by Chinese pioneers, a process seen in the rise of the principalities of Hà Tiên, Lanfang, and Kokang, and also in the interpretation of the historical significance and memory of these once thriving borderland outposts, variously engaged in maritime commerce, mining, and caravan trade.

Pioneers in Zomia: Chinese Principalities on the Water Frontier and Borderlands of Southeast Asia

     Scholars of Southeast Asian Studies have over the last two decades or so promoted approaches to the region that present alternatives to the dominant historiography that has privileged a state-centered and national perspective. One such approach is the Water Frontier paradigm, proposed by collaborators for the pioneering volume of essays, Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Delta, 1750-1880, and applied to the analysis of the history of that region.1 A second example is James C. Scott’s stimulating and provocative book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia,2 which examines the historical relationships between the highlanders and the lowland/coastal peoples in a region he calls Zomia, a vast region containing minority populations of 80-100 million scattered over an area of 2.5 million square kilometers and straddling parts of the territories of six modern countries.3

     The Water Frontier paradigm characterizes the lower Mekong region in pre-colonial times as “a sparsely settled coastal and riverine frontier of mixed ethnicities and often uncertain settlements in which the waterborne trade and commerce, carried out in a long string of small ports, formed an essential component of local life.” It “was a single trading zone woven together by the regular itineraries of thousands of large and small junk traders, mostly Chinese but also Malay, Cham, and Vietnamese.” Accordingly, the lower Mekong region is designated as a “Water Frontier.”4 Thus, the Water Frontier paradigm recognizes the fluidity of boundaries and identities, the lack of clear national sovereignty over large undeveloped areas, and the importance of transnational commercial networks in creating and integrating trading zones. The concept of a water frontier can in fact be extended to the South China Sea maritime network including island Southeast Asia and the Malay peninsula.

     In contrast to the water frontier paradigm which foregrounds the littoral, James Scott’s Zomia is focused on the inland regions of continental Southeast Asia, particularly the upland’s “relatively free, stateless population of foragers and hill farmers” who “have actively resisted incorporation into the framework of the classical state, the colonial state, and the independent nation-state.”5 The highlands also constitute “a zone of cultural refusal,” with societies and cultures remaining systematically different from those of valley societies rather than culturally absorbed by the latter.6

     In addition to be a “region of resistance to valley states,” Zomia is also “a region of refuge,” where much of the population “for more than a millennium and a half, come there to evade the manifold afflictions of state-making projects in the valleys,”7 particularly from the southwest expansion of the Han Chinese state since at least the Ming Dynasty.8 As Shawn McHale points out, the Lower Mekong Delta may be considered a “wet, lowlands version of the highlands Zomia.”9

     State-centered and regional/global perspectives are not mutually exclusive and should be considered complementary approaches to a more comprehensive understanding of the history of Southeast Asia. This paper seeks to integrate both approaches by a comparative analysis of three Chinese principalities in Southeast Asia: Hà Tiên 河仙 (ca. 1700-1809), the Mạc (鄚) family’s satrapy in the Lower Mekong Delta; the Lanfang Republic 蘭芳共和國 (1777-1884) in West Borneo (now Kalimantan); Kokang 果敢 (ca. 1740-1962), located in the Shan Highlands of Burma (now Myanmar), and ruled by the Yang (楊) house.

Map 1. Three Chinese Principalities in Southeast Asia: Hà Tiên (c. 1700-1809), Mekong Delta, Vietnam; Lanfang Republic (1777-1884), founded at Mandor, West Borneo (now West Kalimantan, Indonesia); Kokang (c. 1740-1962), Shan Highlands, Burma. Map prepared by the author with Google Maps and Acorn image editing software. Used under permission from Google at

     As we shall see, despite great differences in physical environment, economic resources and political conditions, all three principalities were engaged in world historical forces. They were products of the broader economic and political forces that stimulated Chinese migration to Southeast Asia. At least two were linked to the flight of Ming loyalists to Southeast Asia during the Ming-Qing transition that culminated in Manchu rule over China. All three were integrated with maritime/riverine or overland trade networks. All three were occupied with state formation and expansion. They were able to maintain a high degree of local autonomy or even de facto independence over a substantial period of time through the creation and elaboration of political and military institutions, the promulgation of positive economic policies, and the pursuit of negotiations, resistance, and compromise in relations with larger and more powerful neighboring polities. In the case of Hà Tiên, it played a not insignificant role in the state formation of Vietnam.

     Since the late Qing, Chinese intellectuals have been engaging in rediscovering Chinese “colonizers” of Southeast Asia as pioneers in frontier regions. This Chinese version of the frontier thesis originated in the efforts of early twentieth century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries who sought to correct the historical imbalance between a dynamic and ocean-oriented West and a presumably passive and earthbound East. Among the first and certainly the most famous to do so was 1898 Reform Movement leader and liberal thinker Liang Qichao (梁啟超), who published one of the first histories of Chinese pioneers who founded polities abroad: “Eight Great Overseas Chinese Pioneers 中國殖民八大偉人,” which includes both Mạc Cửu of Hà Tiên and Luo Fangbo of the Lanfang Republic. Since Liang Qichao’s time, successive Chinese national governments have taken a strong interest in the overseas Chinese (Huaqiao 華僑), and Chinese scholars have undertaken extensive research in their history, including the achievements of those deemed to be pioneers and founders of overseas state formations. Before we turn to the analysis of individual polities, we will first provide some general background on the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Chinese Presence in Southeast Asia: Trade, Labor, and Politico-Military Mobilization

     An era of vigorous commercial growth from the mid-18th century to the 19th century picked up where an earlier Age of Commerce from about 1450 to 1680 in Southeast Asia had left off and contributed to demographic expansion and state formation. The boundaries of present-day Thailand and Vietnam were basically established through this dynamic trend.10

     A major external stimulus was the large increase in the China trade and Chinese junk traffic, as Chinese demand for consumer goods from the “South Seas” (Nanyang 南洋) rose with population growth in the 18th and 19th centuries. In turn this rising volume of trade added substantially to the treasuries of both the Siamese and the Vietnamese rulers, thereby promoting their capacity for pursuing vigorous state formation and expansion.11 Moreover, both the Nguyễn court of southern Vietnam and the Chakkri dynasty of Siam made excellent use of Chinese migrants for expanding their territories and their sources of revenues.12

     Chinese presence in Southeast Asian commerce was not new. From about 1100 to 1800 CE, the South China Sea maritime network was dominated by Chinese shipping on the foundation of “Chinese abilities in organization, negotiation, mining, ship-building, and commerce, and their easy access to the Chinese market and to Chinese exports of fine craft goods.” According to Jack Wills, this maritime network lacked a strong tradition of “competitive corporate solidarities” which characterized the Mediterranean World and contributed to the establishment of semi-autonomous Western colonies overseas. Moreover, the monsoons prevented a homeland to reinforce a colony under attack in fewer than six months.13

     The period from about 1740 to about 1840, when close to 1 million Chinese resettled in Southeast Asia, has been called “the Chinese century” by Anthony Reid and Léonard Blussé.14 More recently, Atsushi Ota has proposed a modified nomenclature: The age of China-oriented trade from roughly 1750 to about 1870. Ota is in general agreement with Reid and Blussé, but argues that “the age of China-oriented trade” may more accurately call attention to the Southeast Asians’ important contributions to trade that complemented the crucial role of Chinese merchants, “a total reorganization of trade patterns and state formation in Southeast Asia” in addition to “participation of new players and new trade items,” and the persistence of the China-oriented trade well past the fall of independent states to European colonialism.”15

     The Chinese presence in 18th century Southeast Asia was stimulated by a number of political and economic factors. Even earlier, during the late 17th century Ming-Qing transition, large numbers of Chinese sought refuge from the Manchu conquest in Taiwan, Japan, as well as Vietnam, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Opportunities from maritime and riverine trade and from mining were significant pull factors in the 18th century. As mentioned above, the South China Sea trade expanded with rising domestic demand in China. China’s booming economy and population accompanied by dwindling supplies of Japanese copper and silver stimulated mining in China’s southwest. Large numbers of miners migrated into Yunnan, and many ventured beyond into the uplands of present-day Burma, Laos and Vietnam, which contained extensive reserves of copper, lead, iron and silver. For example, the labor force that opened the large Bawdwin silver mine in the Shan hills was composed of mainly Chinese miners.16 Chinese merchants (huashang 華商) dominated the diasporic communities, and brought in workers from their native villages to develop agriculture and mining.17

     The 18th century also saw the emergence of an unprecedented number of Chinese polities and principalities in the frontier regions of Southeast Asia. Given their undeveloped or underdeveloped environments, the lack or weaknesses of political authorities, and actual and potential conflicts among various ethnic groups, including different Chinese dialect groups, there was a need for politico-military organizations to provide security and to mobilize economic resources. Yumio Sakurai and Takako Kitagawa have characterized the 18th century as the “period of florescence of Chinese port-polities in the region of the South China Sea.”18 The autonomy of such ports as Pontianak, Songkhla and Hà Tiên “was recognized by local kingdoms, in the sense of being governors-general of their respective port cities, exercising full independence and sending nominal tribute.”19 Among the Chinese maritime centers in Southeast Asia, Hà Tiên was the one most capable of sustaining almost total autonomy as well as maintaining an outpost of high Chinese culture during the 18th century.20

Hà Tiên (c. 1700-1809)

Map 2. Hà Tiên , located in the Mekong Delta near Vietnam’s border with Cambodia and facing the Gulf of Siam. Map prepared by the author with Google Maps. Used under permission from Google at

     The port polity of Hà Tiên 河仙 was founded by Mạc Cửu 鄚玖 (1655-1736).21 It is located on the Vietnamese side of its current border with Cambodia, overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. But back in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, the Mekong Delta was “nominally under Cambodian rule but in reality, a sparsely populated, ethnically mixed frontier” marked by swampy terrain, and a zone of contestation between the Cambodians, the Siamese and the Vietnamese. Vietnam itself had been divided since the early seventeenth century. The north, Đàng Ngoài (唐外) or Annam (安南), was dominated by the Trịnh (鄭) family. The south, Đàng Trong (唐冲), also known as Cochinchina or Quảng Nam (廣南) to foreigners, was governed by the Nguyễn (阮) family. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the southern polity Đàng Trong had established Vietnamese sovereignty over the Mekong Delta, called Nam Bộ or “southern region” by the Vietnamese.22 Chinese immigrants made important commercial, political, and military contributions in this process of Vietnamese expansion.23

Image 1. The Statue of Mạc Cửu, built in 2008 (photo by author).

     Details on the early life of Mạc Cửu are non-existent to sketchy. He was a Cantonese from Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong province, China, but otherwise nothing on his family background or socio-economic status was recorded. “Leizhou Peninsula lies along the northern littoral of the Gulf of Tonkin . . . and is connected to Vietnam via a highly fluid land boundary and sea routes crisscrossing the gulf.” Long serving as “China’s gateway to Southeast Asia, and a conduit of varying importance for the flow of goods and people,” Leizhou was a base for pirates or what Atshushi Ota calls “commercial-military groups.”24 During the Ming-Qing transition from Han Chinese to Manchu rule in the 17th century, Leizhou pirates became an important auxiliary force of Zheng Jing (鄭經 1642-1681), who was the leader of the Zheng organization on Taiwan that spearheaded the Ming loyalist resistance. Zheng dispatched a mission of Leizhou pirates to Cambodia in 1666 to explore the possibility of acquiring a base in the Mekong Delta. After the collapse of the resistance on the Chinese mainland in 1682 and the surrender of Taiwan by the Zheng regime in 1683, Yang Yandi (楊彥迪 d. 1688), Chen Shangchuan (陳上川 ca. 1626−1720) and other Leizhou commanders led a squadron of fifty junks and 3,000 men to Đà Nẵng. The Siamese and the Vietnamese competed fiercely for the Leizhou contingent’s services, as they might prove valuable allies with their possession of weapons, ships, and manpower. The Leizhou group opted to support the Nguyễn, and was granted rights to develop territories in the Mekong Delta.25 Their settlements at Biên Hòa and Gia Định “bore a mixed character of a military base and a commercial centre in which the population increased rapidly while commercial activities flourished.” They also contributed to the expansion of Nguyễn domains by conducting military campaigns against Cambodia.26

     We do not know if Mạc Cửu himself came from a pirate family or had connections with Leizhou pirates. But he reportedly fled in 1671 from Manchu rule of China to Cambodia, and would follow in the footsteps of Yang Yandi and Chen Shangchun in a career of land reclamation and economic development of the Lower Mekong Delta that helped the Nguyễn house consolidate its wealth and power in Cochinchina.

     According to some sources, the King of Cambodia appointed Mạc Cửu as Oknha (district commander) of Hà Tiên commandery (called Panteay Meas in Khmer) sometime between 1687 and 1695.27 However, Yumio Sakurai and Takako Kitagawa, on the basis of their examination of Cambodian documents, conclude that Mạc Cửu was just a leader of the Chinese community in the Hà Tiên area while a Cambodian governor remained in charge of Panteay Meas.28

     Be that as it may, Mạc Cửu fought for the Cambodians against the Siamese, was captured and taken to Bangkok, and later escaped back to Hà Tiên. He recruited refugees to develop its agricultural resources, providing the residents with agricultural tools and water control as well as tax relief. Vast tracts of jungle were converted into a rich agrarian zone inhabited by growing numbers of Chinese, Cambodians and others.29

     In 1708 Mạc Cửu visited the Nguyễn court to request permission for Hà Tiên to become a vassal of Quảng Nam.30 He was appointed Regional Commander of the Hà Tiên Commandery with the title of Tống Binh.31 Thus Mạc Cửu was able to secure some protection from Cambodia and Siam for his port-town, which would maintain a high level of autonomy and economic prosperity for the next seven decades during his reign and that of his son Mạc Thiên Tứ 鄚天賜 (1700-1780).

     For John D. Wong, Mạc Cửu exemplifies the frontier paradigm for those Chinese émigrés to Cochinchina who “relied more on their military prowess and enterprising spirit in the dynamic borderland, pragmatically changing their political allegiance to the Nguyễn court.” The frontier paradigm contrasts with the Minh Hương (明鄉 or 明香) paradigm, which applies to those émigrés “accentuating their cultural capital according to Sinitic standards while working closely with the Vietnamese court.”32

Image 2. Mạc Cửu’s Tomb, Hà Tiên , Vietnam (photo by author).

     Mạc Thiên Tứ, whose mother was Vietnamese, succeeded his father on the latter’s death in 1735, and was appointed Dô Đốc (都督 governor-general) in the next year by the Nguyễn court.33 His regime acquired the label of “Ming Dynasty Overseas (海上明朝),” 34 as it maintained a Ming-style government and promoted and retained Ming culture. Hà Tiên eschewed the use of Qing or Vietnamese era names. Since the Southern Ming had been extinguished by the Qing in 1662, its era name of Yongli (永曆) could not be used. Instead, Hà Tiên adopted the invented era name Longfei (龍飛), which was widely adopted by Chinese émigré communities in Vietnam to distance themselves from the ruling Qing Dynasty in China.35

     The Nguyễn court granted Mạc Thiên Tứ an exemption from the ship tax, as well as permission to mint coins, establish civil and military bureaucracies, and maintain an army.36 Mạc professionalized the army he inherited from his father, and added a naval force.37 His army included Cantonese, Vietnamese, Malay-Bugis, and other ethnicities.38 By the late 1750s, Mạc Thiên Tứ had expanded the territories under his control considerably, including not only port towns but also the hinterlands.39 “At its apex, the Mac governorship covered an area stretching an area stretching from the modern province of Kampot in Cambodia up to Cap St. Jacques in South Vietnam.”40

     He also built on the foundation of agricultural policies his father started, expanding the network of drainage and irrigation ditches, to the degree that Hà Tiên became “the granary of the south.”41 The population remained mixed, including Chinese, Khmers, Malays, Vietnamese and other ethnicities. However, Cantonese immigrants added to the population, and many took up pepper cultivation.42

     “Gum, pepper, lumber, lacquer, smoked beef, and fish, lobster, and various species of fish” were among the export commodities. Artisans were encouraged to emigrate to Hà Tiên to ply their skills, and various handicrafts were introduced, including processed tortoise shell objects and woven mats.43

     Mạc Thiên Tứ gathered a large coterie of scholars at his court, including literati from Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang, and from Vietnam itself, and also Buddhist monks and Daoist priests.44 According to Qing sources, the residents of Hà Tiên retained the clothes, home furnishings and other aspects of material culture of the Ming, and its political institutions and culture were based on Ming models. Despite the deviations from Qing practice, the Manchu Dynasty praised Hà Tiên for maintaining Confucian temples, charity schools, and Chinese rituals.45

     With its own government, army, and coinage, Hà Tiên under Mạc Thiên Tứ had a high degree of autonomy. He paid tribute to the Nguyễn court only irregularly. In addition to maintaining diplomatic relations with China, Mạc Thiên Tứ also sent official missions to promote international trade to Japan, to the shogun of which he represented himself as the “King of Cambodia.”46

     The Burmese sacking of the Thai capital of Ayuttaya in 1767 provided opportunities to Mạc Thiên Tứ to expand into the eastern shores of the Siam Gulf.47 But what proved to be the decisive development that undermined the Mạcs, ironically, was the emerging power of the Teochiu (Chaozhou) émigrés at Chantaburi under Taksin, who was the progeny of a Teochiu father and a Siamese mother. Instead of forming alliances, the Chinese were split along linguistic/regional lines and competed against each other.48

     After King Taksin had consolidated his power in Siam, he sought to reassert Siamese hegemony over neighboring states. His ambitions were opposed by Mạc Thiên Tứ, who offered asylum to Taksin’s enemies (including two Ayutthayan princes), made an attempt to capture Taksin by a ruse in 1768, and attacked Chantaburi and Trat by sea unsuccessfully in 1769. Mạc Thiên Tứ even tried to convince the Chinese court not to recognize Taksin as the ruler of Siam, again unsuccessfully. He banned trade between Siam and Hà Tiên. Despite Mạc’s lack of military success against Taksin, his diplomatic and economic policies threatened Taksin’s program to rebuild the Siamese economy following its devastation by the Burmese in 1767, since Taksin needed to revive the Sino-Siamese tribute trade and commercial connections with the Water Frontier coast.49

     Taksin was further embroiled in a struggle with Mạc Thiên Tứ over the succession of the Cambodian king. Taksin invaded and captured Hà Tiên in 1771 and razed it to the ground, a blow from which the Mạcs never recovered.50 The throne of Cambodia passed on to the pro-Siamese king Ang Non (also known as Vinh). Although Taksin’s forces were forced by the Vietnamese to retreat from Hà Tiên in 1773, Mạc Thiên Tứ never returned to Hà Tiên.51 Instead he transferred his capital to Cần Thơ.52

     The heyday of Hà Tiên as a “prosperous and sophisticated Chinese kingdom”53 was essentially over by 1771.54 Due to the confused political conditions in Vietnam (where the Tây Sơn wars began in 1771), Siam and Cambodia, the Gulf of Siam trade suffered a severe decline in the 1770s. “By the end of the eighteenth century, the historical role of Hà Tiên , as an emporium for trade between the South China Sea and the Gulf, had disappeared completely.”55

     As the Nguyễn court came under increasingly severe military pressure by the Tây Sơn, Mạc Thiên Tứ continued to provide military support and political refuge to surviving members of the royal family. In 1776, the Tây Sơn exterminated the Quảng Nam Nguyễn house, with Nguyễn Phúc Ánh as the only survivor. They went on the defeat the Trịnh in the North, unifying Vietnam in 1786 for the first time in two centuries. The Mạc family had to abandon Hà Tiên and took refuge in Siam. Unfortunately, in 1780 King Taksin was deceived into thinking that Mạc Thiên Tứ and other Vietnamese representatives were plotting against him. He arrested the entire Mạc family and Vietnamese notables in Bangkok. Mạc Thiên Tứ committed suicide, while his family was put to the sword.56

     Fortunately, a Siamese minister took pity on three infant children of the Mạc family and hid them for safekeeping. After King Taksin was killed in a revolt in 1782, the new Siamese king Phat Vuong or Rama I offered support to the last surviving prince of the Nguyễn royal family, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, in 1784. Nguyễn returned from Siam with his supporters to Vietnam in 1787, when he would begin his amazing political comeback with many reversals of fortune and eventually reunified Vietnam in 1802 as Emperor Gia Long.57

Image 3. Mạc Cửu Temple & Mausoleum, Hà Tiên , Vietnam (photo by author).

     Mạc Tử Thiêm (鄚子添), son of Mạc Thiên Tứ, was restored to the hereditary governorship of Hà Tiên by Nguyễn Phúc Ánh in 1788. When he died in 1809, the court take direct administrative control of Hà Tiên. Mạc Thiên Tứ’s grandsons Mạc Công Du (鄚公榆) and Mạc Công Tài (鄚公材) were implicated in a revolt against Emperor Minh Mạng in 1833, arrested and died in prison, thereby ending the Mạc family’s political eminence in Vietnam.58

The Lanfang Republic (1777-1884)

     West Borneo (now Kalimantan), where the Lanfang Republic was located, was called “Little China in the Tropics” by Mary Somers Heidhues for its history of Chinese gold-mining kongsis (公司) that came into conflict with the Dutch from 1820 to 1856 and for its substantial Chinese population which has retained its language and culture up to the present day.59

Map 3. Mandor, where the Lanfang Republic was founded in 1777, is located near Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Map prepared by the author with Google Maps. Used under permission from Google at

     The history of Chinese emigration to Borneo dated back to the mid-18th century, when some local chiefs recruited Chinese miners to develop gold mines.60 The Malay rulers forbade the miners to engage in agriculture, so that they could sell rice and other imported necessities to them at highly inflated prices. In exchange, the Chinese would pay tribute in gold. They were also charged entry and exit taxes upon entry into and departure from Borneo. However, farming prohibitions were ineffective, as land was abundant, and the Chinese and the Dayaks had different land preferences, the Chinese for wet lowland and the Dayaks for dry land on hilly terrain. The Chinese also evaded buying from the sultans by circumventing their ports and using parallel rivers to bring in men, supplies and weapons, and to export gold.61

     The region was rife with conflicts among and between Malay chiefs, the indigenous Dayaks, and Chinese dialect groups. For protection and expansion, Chinese formed numerous kongsis, usually based on regional ties or dialect groups. The early mining kongsi in West Borneo was typically “a group of a few to as many as several dozen members, who agree to contribute capital or labor, each member having a share (hun, Mandarin fen), and to divide profits among themselves.” Unlike kongsi in China or other overseas regions, the mining kongsi in West Borneo could also be an association or federation of mining kongsis: the first such kongsi federation was Heshun (Fosjoen 和順十四公司), an alliance of 14 kongsis in the Monterado area, formed in 1776.62

     While it was neither the largest nor the most influential of the gold kongsis, Lanfang kongsi (蘭芳公司) was by far the most well-known.63 The reason for its fame and continued fascination lies in its designation as a “republic” (蘭芳共和國) by contemporary Dutch observers and a surviving history by the son-in-law of its last leader, which provided considerable historical and institutional details. Historian Luo Xianglin (Lo Hsiang Lin 羅香林) has described Lanfang’s political system as a “presidential regime” based on democracy or direct election of the “president” by plebiscite, though not representative government.64 Luo and many others have proclaimed the Lanfang Republic to be Asia’s first republic (or even the world’s first republic) and compared it favorably with the American republic that was founded at roughly the same time. They argued that founder Luo Fangbo’s achievement was all the more remarkable since he did not have the help of “philosopher-statesmen or learned legalists, like Hamilton and Jefferson of America.”65

     In 1772 Luo Fangbo (Lo Fong Pak 羅芳伯 1738-1795), a Hakka from Jiaying Prefecture (later Meixian), Guangdong, migrated to Pontianak in West Kalimantan (Borneo), working first as a teacher and then in gold mining.66 With his administrative skills, Confucian education and knowledge of martial arts, Luo Fangbo soon emerged as a leader of Chinese miners in Mandor. Inspired by the success of Heshun kongsi in negotiations with the local sultan through unified organization, Luo Fangbo formed Lanfang kongsi, an alliance of 14 kongsis at Mandor in 1777. It was second in scale only to Heshun kongsi. 67 Luo set up a government headed by a president (datang zongzhang 大唐總長), which he held from 1777 till his death in 1795. The president and other official posts, however, were to be elected by the people, though for unspecified lengths of office. Under Luo’s rule, the government set up arsenals, ran gold mining, stimulated economic growth through the promotion of agriculture and markets and through the building of roads. Scholars were recruited from China to promote schooling. Eleven elected presidents would succeed Luo.68

Image 4. Luo Fangbo’s Portrait, Lo Fang Pak Temple, Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia (photo by author).

     By the end of the 18th century, there were reportedly about ten thousand Chinese miners in West Borneo.69 Over time, the kongsis did more than running the mines; they “governed extensive territories with all the trappings of independent states, including a kind of democratic governance that gave much of the community its say in political decisions.”70 Early in the nineteenth century, the larger federations, including Lanfang, broke the sultans’ monopoly over goods and port controls and become virtually independent of them. They accomplished these by smuggling goods through rivers outside the control of the sultans, by organizing their own food production, and by building up their military capacity.71 Their control of territory contrasted with Malay sultanates which “were not territorial realms; they controlled not land, but people and revenue.”72 The period from 1777-1839 is characterized by Yuan Bingling (袁冰陵) as an era of almost unchecked development of the kongsis, a golden age when the Chinese communities were free of their Malay overlords and external threat from the Western powers (at least until the return of the Dutch in 1818), and strengthened their ties with the indigenous Dayaks through intermarriages and the division of labor. However, internecine warfare between the kongsis and internal conflicts strengthened the power of the stronger federations including Heshun and Lanfang, but eliminated or put to flight some of the smaller kongsis. The decade of the 1840s would mark a time of decline due to constant warfare and mine exhaustion.73

     The Dutch East India Company had withdrawn from West Borneo in 1781, and had gone bankrupt in 1800. The British occupied Java and other Dutch outposts in the Indies during the Napoleonic Wars, but withdrew thereafter. When the Dutch returned in 1818, they discovered that much of the territory that they had claimed through agreements with the sultans were now controlled by the kongsis. Between around 1820 to 1884 the Dutch East Indies Company fought a series of wars to subdue the Chinese kongsis.74 However, it was not uninterrupted conflicts between the Dutch and the Chinese. Rather, it was uneasy peace punctuated by three periods of warfare (1822-24, 1850-54, and 1884-85).75

Image 5. Luo Fangbo’s Altar, Lo Fang Pak Temple, Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia (photo by author).

     Lanfang made a peace agreement with the Dutch in 1823, and paid a regular tribute to the Dutch thereafter, but remained otherwise autonomous for another six decades. The kongsi collected taxes, and maintained external relations as if it were a sovereign statelet. Its officers exercised considerable judicial authority, and few Dutch colonial officials visited it. The economy was diversified. Lanfang’s culture was a replica of that of Southeastern China, for the majority of the Chinese were Meixian or Dapu Hakkas from Guangdong Province.76

     Between 1850 and 1854, the Dutch warred against and destroyed all the other kongsis in West Kalimantan, leaving Lanfang as the only surviving kongsi until it was dissolved by the Dutch in 1884. The last decades of the Lanfang Republic was a period of population loss and economic decline due to the exhaustion of the gold mines. In its heyday, the Lanfang kongsi governed over 20,000 people, the majority miners with a non-mining population engaged in farming, handicrafts and commerce.77 Lanfang’s population was around 7,500 in the first half of the century. In the 1860s, just over 4,000 inhabitants remained in Mandor. In 1880, the aging Kapthai Liu Asheng (Lioe A Sin 劉阿生) made an agreement with the Dutch that Lanfang would be dissolved upon his death. Liu died on September 22, 1884. However, in dissolving the kongsi, Resident Cornelis Kater desecrated Lanfang’s deities by removing the effigy of the kongsi’s patron god Guan Di and the tablets of Luo Fangbo from the kongsi headquarters, thereby provoking an uprising that ended only in September 1885.78

Image 6. Interior of Lo Fang Pak Temple, Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia (photo by author).

Kokang (c. 1740-1962)

     Kokang is a mountainous region located in the northeastern sector of the Shan State, bounded on the West by the Salween River and from the East by the Burmese border with Yunnan Province in China. Kokang’s population is estimated to be about 200,000 in 2010, 90% of whom are ethnic Chinese while the rest belong to various ethnic groups including the Lisu, Miaozi, Kachin, Palaung, Shan and Wa.79 However, the Chinese from Kokang are to be distinguished from the ethnic Chinese from other regions of Burma. They constitute an officially recognized ethnic minority in Burma and are classified in official records by the name of Kokang since 1947, when Kokang was elevated to full statehood by the newly independent Burmese government as one of the Shan states.

Map 4. The former Yang satrapy of Kokang is now Kokang Self-Administered Zone, located near the border with China in the north of Shan State, Myanmar. Map prepared by the author with Google Maps. Used under permission from Google at

     In 1958, the Burmese government dispatched officials to the remote regions of the Shan State to register the population and issue national identity cards to them. But even today only 60% of Kokang residents have a national identity card; many did not receive one until the national elections in 2010.80 The language spoken there is the Yunnan dialect of Chinese. Since China’s deepening of relations with Burma from 1988, Chinese from China have been hired as teachers in Kokang, Chinese is the language of instruction in schools, China Mobile provides the phone services, and the Chinese reminbi is used as the official currency.81

     The Kokang may appear to be an atypical minority living in the uplands of James Scott’s Zomia. But Scott reminds us that “colonizers of the highlands included not just “aboriginal peoples,” but also valley peoples fleeing taxation, corvée conscription, wars, rebellions, and raids by slavers and bandits.”82 Indeed, many Kokang families state that, according to family tradition, their ancestors “arrived in Burma four centuries back fleeing their country in catastrophic economic situation,” and constituted the first wave of Chinese immigration at the end of the 17th century.83 Kokang culture today remains more similar to Chinese culture than to Burmese culture or Shan culture, and some re-sinization is occurring as there has been an influx of Chinese immigrants particularly from neighboring Yunnan Province since 1989, when the Burmese government signed a ceasefire with the Kokang-led National Democratic Alliance Army (which had split from the Communist Party of Burma): some Kokang are re-emphasizing Chinese identity and language in order to do business or trade with the Chinese.84

     Nonetheless, despite a long-standing family tradition of many Kokang claiming Ming loyalist ancestry, preservation of Chinese language and customs, and re-sinicization as a response to China, many of James Scott’s generalizations about highlanders in Zomia still hold, given centuries of the Kokang living and interacting with Shan neighbors and other ethnic groups in Burma, and the impact of the highland environment. For example, while some Kokang emphasize their Chinese cultural identity, other Kokang “speak different languages, such as Shan, Kachin, Palaung and Burmese, have changed their names to the Burmese style, attend Burmese schools and have switched from their traditional ancestor worship beliefs to Buddhism, as they tried to integrate into the host country.” Assimilation into mainstream can also have economic benefits. This have given rise to multiple identities for the Kokang, with social relations dynamically adapting to which of the multiple ethnic groups who live along the Sino-Burmese border they are interacting with.85 As James Scott observes, hill peoples maintained oral cultures and fluid ethnic identities so that they could have the cultural flexibility and maneuverability to reinvent themselves, their histories and their traditions as changing circumstances might dictate as advantageous.86

     Generations of the Yang family ruled Kokang as a hierarchical feudatory, at times paying tribute to both China and to a more powerful local Shan state.87 The Yang family traced its roots back to 1642, when their ancestor Yang Gaoxue (楊高學) was a 22-year old military juren at Nanjing. As a “fierce Ming loyalist” in 1644 when the Ming fell, Yang Guoxue followed the Southern Ming entourage from Nanjing to Zhejiang to Guangxi and Guangzhou, and finally settled in Yunnan. Yang arrived in Dali in 1657 and married a tea merchant’s daughter there.88

     In 1662, the Burmese turned over the Yongli Emperor of the Southern Ming to Qing general Wu Sangui who had him strangled in Kunming, thereby ending the Southern Ming resistance to Manchu rule. Yang Gaoxue’s eldest son Yang Ying (楊映) had prospered in the tea trade in Yunnan, but was forced to flee when he was denounced to the authorities as a descendent of Ming loyalists in 1682. The refugee Yang family ended up in Kokang.

Image 7. Myanmar-China Border Yanlonkyine Gate, near Laukkai, Kokang, Myanmar (photo by Paingpeace). Source used under Creative Commons License at

     In 1739 Yang Xiancai (楊獻才), Yang Ying’s second son, demonstrated leadership qualities in an area wracked with tribal rivalries and banditry by saving several villages along the Salween River threatened by bandits. He was then acknowledged as local leader of Xingdahu, starting a line of hereditary rulers in Kokang who reigned until 1959.89 Yang Xiancai “introduced organized administration and set the standards of government which were to be followed by successive rulers of the House of Yang.90

     The Yang house expanded its territory through military action and offering of security. As their power and territories expanded, the Yang rulers took increasingly grander titles, and legitimized their rule through tributary connections to Chinese and Burmese authorities. When Yang Yougen (楊有根) became chief of Xingdahu in 1795, he self-styled himself as Heng (district official) and renamed the region Kokang. In 1840, Heng Yang Guohua (楊國華) was designated as magistrate by the Chinese government, and allowed to use a copper seal for the exercise of his authority.91 Officially Kokang was under the jurisdiction of Yongchang Prefecture (present-day Baoshan, Yunnan). Kokang paid tribute to China annually and was liable for military levies.92 At the same time, Kokang also paid annual tribute to the Shan state of Hseinwi, though the two were often in military conflict during the 19th century.93

     After the British annexed Upper Burma in 1886, the Yang house built relations with the government of British India. By then Kokang had expanded to its maximum size. Although officially designated by the British as 1 of the 49 mongs (districts) of Hseinwi, Kokang often ignored Hseinwi’s authority and dealt directly with the British authorities.94 Kokang provided mules to the British for their campaigns against the Kachins who resisted British authority. Kokang also helped to maintain border peace, demarcate the boundary between Burma and China with border posts, and adjudicate civil and trade disputes.95

     In 1894, the Beijing Convention assigned Kokang to China, but in 1897 Kokang was reassigned to British India, and shortly thereafter placed under the jurisdiction of the Shan state of North Hseinwi.96 In 1916 Yang Chunrong (楊春榮) took the title of Myosa (duke or chief of town).

     Kokang was involved in the anti-Japanese resistance during World War II. Kokang was under the operational command of Kuomintang (KMT) forces, as China and Britain were allies. Myosa Yang Wenbin (楊文炳) was appointed the Kokang Self-Defense Force by the KMT.97 In 1947, for its services during the war, Kokang was elevated to the status of a state (no longer a sub-state under North Hseinwi) and its ruler a Saopha (king for a Shan state).98 Kokang participated in the Panglong Agreement of 1947 made by independence hero Aung San and the rulers of various ethnic minorities. The promise of autonomy for the minorities however was not kept by the Burmese government after the assassination of Aung San in 1947, thereby provoking armed resistance by various ethnic minorities. The situation in Kokang was complicated by the incursions of the remnants of the KMT forces that were driven from China after Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, and that took control of large areas of the Shan states.99

     In 1959, Yang Zhencai (楊振財) and other Saophas surrendered their hereditary power.100 However, his half-sister Yang Jinxiu (Olive Yang 楊金秀) became the de facto ruler of Kokang from 1960 to 1962.101 After the military coup of 1962, Yang Jinxiu was arrested,102 thus ending almost 170 years of rule over Kokang by the Yang House.

     Despite Kokang’s geographical isolation, it was connected to trading networks. As Bin Yang has demonstrated, in addition to the overland Silk Road and the maritime Silk Road that served as the communication routes for Eurasia, a third and lesser-known route, the Southwest Silk Road, extended from Southwest China via Burma to India.103 Yang further argues that the three Silk Roads not only functioned for over two thousand years, but also constituted together a network or web of connections that promoted interactions between East and West.104

     Even a small locale such as Kokang in mainland Southeast Asia was plugged into this Southwest Silk Road network. As Jean Michaud observes,

For centuries, trade in [the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia] has been conducted on all scales: from one valley to the next, from one fiefdom to others around it, and at the macro scale through long-haul trade including intercontinental exchanges such as those popularly associated with the idea of the Silk Road. Though never really central to the trade linking the Far East to South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, these highlands have been an integral part of trading patterns, because of the caravan trails crossing them, and the provision of prized and rare items.105

     Liu Zhi of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of Yunnan adds:

. . . the first half of the 19th century saw tens of thousands of horse caravans (reaching eighty or ninety thousand at its height) carrying goods of Yunnan, Sichuan and inland China into the markets of Southeast Asia, South and even further to the West . . . In 1826 China imported as much as 12.4 million pounds of cotton from Burma. At the same time gem traders of Yunnan set up more than 100 firms in Burma, transporting jade to Tengchong for processing, and sold it to inland China or Southeast or South Asia . . . In the 20th century, by 1924-25, the value of land trade between China and Burma exceeded 26 million rouble or 15 times that of 1890-91.106

     James Scott further notes that the highlanders gained comparative advantages for smuggling, contraband, and opium production from their relative autonomy from lowland state centers, and from the location of the highlands “athwart state borders where multiple competing sovereignties abut one another.”107 The British and the French secured opium supplies in China’s southwest through Burma and Indochina, and shipped them through Saigon and Calcutta to the China coast and to ports around the world.108 Although Yunnan and Sichuan in Southwest China had become large producers of opium by the late 19th century, demand outstripped supply, and Yunnanese traders looked for alternative sources of opium.109 In Burma the opium poppy plant had for centuries been cultivated by farmers in the northern highlands for medicine and as a cash crop.110 Kokang quickly became a leading producer of opium that was purchased by Yunnanese merchants for the Chinese market before World War II.111 After Burma gained independence in 1948, Burmese minorities became wholesalers who sold the bulk of their poppy crops to ethnic Chinese merchants and international syndicates located in Thailand, and more recently, in China.112

Conclusion: Historical Paradigms and Historical Memory

     This paper has demonstrated the relevance of applying the Water Frontier and Zomia paradigms to Chinese pioneer societies in littoral and highland Southeast Asia respectively. The Mạc family of Hà Tiên and the Yang family of Kokang first found their way to Southeast Asia as Ming loyalists fleeing from Manchu rule. They, along with the founders of the Lanfang Republic, started as pioneers in frontier environments and succeeded to take advantage of economic opportunities offered through maritime/riverine or overland trade networks and the local, regional and international markets during the age of China-oriented trade. All three also succeeded in establishing and expanding territorial control and exercising considerable political autonomy through the exercise of violence and negotiations.

     How are these Chinese principalities remembered today? Kokang natives continue to celebrate their linkages to the Ming loyalist tradition and Yunnan culture. The oral traditions of many Chinese of Burma, including the Yang house of Kokang, state that their ancestors “arrived in Burma four centuries back fleeing their country in catastrophic economic situation,” and constituted the first wave of Chinese immigration at the end of the 17th century.113 Some Kokang families are able to document their presence in the region for over fifteen generations.114 Many Kokang natives insist that their ancestors were Nanjing natives who had followed the Yongli Emperor of the Southern Ming in his flight from Nanjing westward, ending eventually in Burma. Probably many of those Ming loyalists had come from other regions of China, but because the Southern Ming first established its capital at Nanjing, their purported descendants claimed Nanjing ancestry.115

     Kokang was little known to the world and indeed to most Chinese until August of 2009, when armed conflict between the forces of Burma’s ruling junta and the militia of the Kokang Special Region resulted in the flight of tens of thousands of refugees into neighboring China and a temporary crisis in Sino-Burmese relations. Kokang became a hot topic of conversation on Chinese cyberspace for some time thereafter, with Kokang’s people being lauded as Chinese compatriots for their past roles in fighting foreign invaders from the Manchus to the Japanese.

     As for Hà Tiên, its contributions to Vietnam’s state formation were celebrated by Vietnamese poet Đông Hồ (1906-1969), who was from Hà Tiên and wrote profusely about the Mạcs and the town’s ten sights eulogized two centuries earlier by Mạc Thiên Tứ in his collection of poems, The Ten Songs of Hà Tiên. As Đông Hồ put it, although Mạc Cửu was Chinese, “ … his history is connected with the history of our Southern Country. His undertakings were executed in our Southern Country, his work strengthened our Southern Country, and the Mạcs became a family of our Southern Country.”116

     The significance of Hà Tiên is debated in Vietnamese historiography in the context of interpretations of Vietnam’s southern advance (nam tiến), or the spread of the Việt people from the Red River Delta heartland to the Lower Mekong Delta. For historians in the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam, the nam tiến narrative can serve either the notion of a shared historical destiny as a reaction to the threat of Chinese domination dating back to the time before China’s incorporation of Vietnam in 111 BCE, or the idea that nam tiến really began in the seventeenth century with the end of the Trịnh-Nguyễn conflict (1627–1672) when the Vietnamese people must move southwards to a region of “plentiful lands and few people” in order to recover from the ravages of civil war, first by conquering Cham territories, and then by annexing Khmer lands. The second view promotes the idea of a distinct Việt historical experience in the south that culminates in the reunification of Vietnam under Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, thereby proclaiming the political legitimacy of the Republic of Vietnam over the Democratic Republic of Vietnam or North Vietnam.117

     The role of Hà Tiên comes up over the question whether ethnic groups other than the Việt could be agents of the nam tiến. Hãn Nguyên argues that the Chinese made a positive contribution to the nam tiến, as Mạc Cửu, by making Hà Tiên into a port-city, and by submitting to the Nguyễn lords at a critical moment in the competition over the Lower Mekong Delta between the Vietnamese, the Siamese and the Cambodians, helped secure the Delta for Ðàng Trong. Sơn Nam, however, argued against the Mạc, claiming that while they might have promoted agriculture and the export economy, they did not “break fresh ground” or reclaim new land.118

      As noted earlier, the Chinese valorize Mạc Cửu as a colonizing pioneer, one of the Chinese counterparts to Western explorers and colonizers. Perhaps no Chinese scholar has done more to recover and reinterpret the historical memory of Mạc Cửu than Chen Jinghe 陳荊和 (1917-1995),119 a Taiwanese scholar educated in Japan, Vietnam and France. Chen saw the Mạcs as “part of a larger world of overseas Chinese” who “were not just living in Southeast Asia but were actually governing autonomous realms there” during the 18th century.120 Chen Jinghe’s observation about Mạc Cửu as a pioneer who founded an overseas polity can also be extended to the Yang family of Kokang and to Luo Fangbo. In West Kalimantan today, the historical memory of Luo Fangbo and the Lanfang Republic remains strong. Temples memorializing Luo Fangbo are common in the Pontianak region, while in Mandor there is a school named after him, and public celebrations of his birth and death anniversaries are held.121 When historian Xing Hang visited Kalimantan for field work and went to a temple dedicated to Luo Fangbo, he met a descendant of Luo who claimed to be a psychic who could connect with Luo’s spirit. After the descendant was possessed, he spoke in Luo’s voice expressing regret about having blood on his hands for all the wars that Lanfang inflicted on other Chinese groups.122

     Was Lanfang kongsi a true democracy? Dutch Sinologist J. J. M. de Groot (高延) thought so. So did Chinese intellectuals such as Liang Qichao and Luo Xianglin. Mary Somers Heidhues disagrees. She argues instead that its kapthay ruled the kongsi in an authoritarian fashion and in addition was a major investor in the gold mines. The kapitans or lower officials served in their posts because of their status as wealthy merchants and investors in the mines. While the mine bosses were elected for four-month terms, they lacked true political authority.123 Similarly, Ying-kit Chan is critical of de Groot for his exaggeration of the “republican” aspects of the kongsis, overlooking the fact that “kongsis were first and foremost economic enterprises and farmers were second-class members, as were indigenes.” Moreover, political leadership was restricted to a few families, often held for long periods, and passed to sons or sons-in-law.124 After a careful examination of available sources, Zhang Wei’an and Zhang Rongjia concludes that there is insufficient primary evidence to determine whether Langfang Kongsi constituted a country or a true republic comparable to the United States.125

     More important is the fact that the Lanfang Republic continues to be a source of fascination for the Chinese in China and overseas, since its myth is an affirmation of not only the pioneering spirit but also the capacity for democracy of the Chinese people, and, in particular, the Hakkas who constituted the majority in the mining populations of West Borneo. Luo Fangbo and Lanfang Republic/kongsi continue to be hot topics on the Chinese Internet, and while some netizens have expressed doubts on Lanfang’s existence as a country or as a democratic republic, many more praised Luo Fangbo’s invention of the “presidential system” and the democratic nature of Lanfang’s government.126

     In recent years the Lanfang Republic has been reimagined as a utopia in several works of popular culture in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Chinese Indonesian author Zhang Yonghe (張永和) did field research and interviews with local elders in Mandor in 2001 before co-authoring a fictional biography of Luo Fangbo with Zhang Kaiyuan (張開源). This 2003 reimagining of Luo’s establishment of the Lanfang Republic was a sensation in Indonesia,127 with former president Abdurrahman Wahid contributing a preface in which he praised Luo Fangbo for establishing the presidential system for Lanfang in 1777, ten years before George Washington was elected the first president of the United States.128 Significantly, this novel emphasizes Luo Fangbo not only disseminating Chinese culture among the Chinese and the Dayaks at Mandor, but also identifying with local society and culture and learning the Malay language from the natives. Intermarriage between the Chinese and the Dayaks was celebrated as emblematic of the friendship and unity among the various ethnic groups in Kalimantan.129

     In 2007, the Hakka Affairs Council (客家委員會) of the Republic of China on Taiwan produced a Hakka opera about Luo Fangbo, which enjoyed many public performances and a DVD release. Similar to the fictional biography of Luo Fangbo by Zhang Yonghe and Zhang Kaiyuan, this production juxtaposes the preservation and propagation of Hakka language and culture with Chinese commingling with the Dayaks, learning the Malay language and participating in local celebrations.130

     In 2010, Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai initiated research in Indonesia, China and the Netherlands for a multi-disciplinary project based on the history of the Lanfang Republic. Disappointed with his meager findings—“a temple, a descendant and a handful of documents”—Choy filled in the blanks and created artifacts in putting together his “Lang Fang Chronicles 2012,” a set of installations and performances for the Singapore Art Festival. In reconstructing and recovering the lost history of Lanfang, Choy noted the similarities between the Lanfang Republic and the Republic of Singapore: “Not only were they alike in size, government structure and an active citizenry, but they were both also home to a mix of cultures and races . . . [which] collaborated together [and] made use of each other.”131 Significantly, “Lang Fang Chronicles 2012” was mounted in Ying Fo Hui Kun Ancestral Temple, founded by Hakka who had escaped from Lanfang after Dutch annexation in 1884.132 Thus, Singaporeans’ fascination with Lanfang may have something to do with the fact that many of them were descendants of refugees and migrants from West Kalimantan after the decline of the gold kongsis in the first half of the nineteenth century, and especially after the extermination of the kongsis by the Dutch in the kongsi wars. There may also be an awareness of the close economic connections between West Kalimantan and the entrepȏt of Singapore that was founded in 1819. Kongsis in Sambas, Mampawa and Pontianak in the nineteenth traded gold dust, camphor and rice with Singapore for opium, weapons and salt. Imported weapons including heavy Arab cannons enabled the kongsis to continue their resistance against the Dutch, whose salt and opium monopolies were also badly hurt. More broadly, Singapore also profited economically from the growing appetite of the Chinese for Southeast Asian forest and marine products and spice, which the Borneo Chinese became successful traders of.133

     While the primary sources indicate a history of violent confrontations between the Chinese and the local peoples of Southeast Asia and between different Chinese dialect groups, popular culture in Southeast Asia today emphasizes racial harmony and cooperation, as countries from Taiwan to Indonesia to Singapore have to manage potential conflicts among multi-ethnic and/or multilingual constituencies.

     Robert Y. Eng is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Redlands, where he taught courses on East Asian history and world history. He is the author of Economic Imperialism in China: Silk Production and Exports, 1861-1932 (Berkeley, 1986). His recent publications focus on Sino-Japanese relations, China-Korea culture wars, cinematic representations of Chinggis Khan, China historians’ contributions to world history, and reframing Confucianism for a global Singapore. His essay on views of world history in Chinese television documentaries is published in World History Connected’s Forum on Film and World History at


1 Nola Cooke and Li Tana, eds., Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, World Social Change (Singapore: Lanham, MD: Singapore University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

2James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009). Scott’s book has sparked a great deal of interest, discussions and controversies. For a detailed critical review, see Victor Lieberman, “A Zone of Refuge in Southeast Asia? Reconceptualizing Interior Spaces,” Journal of Global History 5, issue 2 (July 2010): 333-346. See also Harold Brookfield, “Scott and Others on History in the Southeast Asian Uplands: A Review Essay,” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 12, issue 5 (November 2011): 489-494; Ruth Hammond, “The Battle Over Zomia,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 September 2011,

3Scott, 14.

4“Preface,” in Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, xi.

5Scott, 19.

6Scott, 20-21.

7Scott, 22.

8Scott, 23.

9 Shawn McHale, “Ethnicity, Violence, and Khmer-Vietnamese Relations: The Significance of the Lower Mekong Delta, 1757-1954,” The Journal of Asian Studies 72, no. 2 (May 2013): 369,

10Li Tana, “The Water Frontier: An Introduction,” in Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, World Social Change (Singapore: Lanham, MD: Singapore University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 3.

11Li Tana.

12Anthony Reid, “Chinese Trade and Southeast Asian Economic Expansion in the Later Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: An Overview,” in Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, World Social Change (Singapore: Lanham, MD: Singapore University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 21–34.

13Jack Wills, “Hansan Island and Bay (1592), Penghu (1683), Ha Tien (1771): Distant Battles and the Transformation of Maritime East Asia,” in Canton and Nagasaki Compared, 1730-1830: Dutch, Chinese, Japanese Relations: Transactions, Intercontinenta 26 (Leiden: Institute for the History of European Expansion, Leiden University, 2009), 258.

14Léonard Blussé, “Chinese Century. The Eighteenth Century in the China Sea Region,” Archipel 58, no. 3 (1999): 107–29,

15Atsushi Ota, “Role of State and Non-State Networks in Early-Modern Southeast Asian Trade,” in Paths to the Emerging State in Asia and Africa, ed. Keijiro Otsuka and Kaoru Sugihara, Emerging-Economy State and International Policy Studies (Singapore: Springer, 2019), 80,

16 Anthony Reid, “Chinese Trade and Southeast Asian Economic Expansion in the Later Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: An Overview,” in Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, World Social Change (Singapore: Lanham, MD: Singapore University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 24.

17Mary F. Somers Heidhues, Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders in the “Chinese Districts” of West Kalimantan, Indonesia, Studies on Southeast Asia, no. 34 (Ithaca, N.Y: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2003), 61.

18Yumio Sakurai and Takako Kitagawa, “Ha Tien or Banteay Meas in the Time of the Fall of Ayutthaya,” in From Japan to Arabia: Ayutthaya’s Maritime Relations with Asia (Bangkok: The Foundation for the Promotion of Social Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project, 1999), 206.

19Sakurai and Kitagawa, 206.

20Wills, 258.

21Vietnamese and Chinese sources generally agree that Mạc Cửu (Mo Jiu in Mandarin pronunciation) was a Ming loyalist who fled China under Qing rule for the Mekong Delta in the late 17th century and founded the principality of Hà Tiên. Brian Zottoli, however, mentions 18th century European visitors who reported that both Hà Tiên and Saigon were “ruled by a mestizo merchant, apparently of mixed descent.” Though Zottoli appears not to take stock in these European accounts, he speculates that the Mạc who ruled Hà Tiên might have been connected to the Mạc royalty who ruled the whole or part of Đại Việt from 1527 to 1677 when the survivors fled across the border to China to a new life as political refugees and rebels. Zottoli points out that although Vietnamese sources and 19th century tombs of Mạc descendants rendered the family name as the unusual Chinese character 鄚, the earliest tombstones of the Mạc clan, such as those of Mạc Cửu and his wife, used the far more common Chinese character 莫 which is identical in writing to the surname of the Mạc royal house and has the same pronunciation as 鄚. Zottoli states: “This change in surname is difficult to interpret, but suggests at least the possibility of a connection between Mạc dynasty princes, some of whom resided in China since Ming times, and the Mạc in Hà Tiên. Further study is needed, …” It is probable that the Hà Tiên Mạc family might have changed its name in the 19th century so as not to be associated with the Mạc royal clan, given that (1) traditional Vietnamese historiography condemned the Mạc Dynasty as illegitimate usurpers who kowtowed to the Ming; and (2) the Nguyễn Dynasty’s official histories in the 19th century censored mention of “powerful Mạc princes and queens resident in Quảng Nam” so as to obscure their political roles and to amplify the contributions of ancestral founder Nguyễn Hoàng to Vietnam’s southward expansion. However, the Hà Tiên Mạcs’ motivation was probably concern about false association than fear of discovery of actual connections. As detailed in the next section, while there were no hints of any actions taken toward Mạc restoration, the Hà Tiên Mạc house administered its domain as a miniature Ming state and supported the maintenance of Ming culture. Brian A. Zottoli, “Reconceptualizing Southern Vietnamese History from the 15th to 18th Centuries: Competition along the Coasts from Guangdong to Cambodia” (PhD Dissertation, Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan, 2011), 12–3, 43–44, 162,; Kathlene Baldanzä, “Perspectives on the 1540 Mac Surrender to the Ming,” Asia Major 27, no. 2 (2014): 143; Vu Duong Luan, “Royal Descendants and Rebels: A Study of the Relations between China and Vietnam’s Mac Clan,” Harvard-Yenching Institute (blog), accessed August 22, 2020,

22Xing Hang, “Leizhou Pirates and the Making of the Mekong Delta,” in Beyond the Silk Roads: New Discourses on China’s Role in East Asian Maritime History, ed. Robert J. Antony and Angela Schottenhammer, East Asian Economic and Socio-Cultural Studies. East Asian Maritime History 14 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017), 115, 120.

23K. W. Taylor, “Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region,” The Journal of Asian Studies 57, no. 4 (November 1998): 959, 965–66; John D. Wong, “Improvising Protocols: Two Enterprising Chinese Migrant Families and the Resourceful Nguyễn Court,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 50, no. 2 (May 2019): 246–47,

24Hang, “Leizhou Pirates and the Making of the Mekong Delta,” 117; Ota, “Role of State and Non-State Networks in Early-Modern Southeast Asian Trade,” 74.

25Hang, “Leizhou Pirates and the Making of the Mekong Delta,” 116, 123–28.

26Claudine Salmon, “The Contribution of the Chinese to the Development of Southeast Asia: A New Appraisal,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12, no. 1 (March 1981): 141,

27Liam C. Kelley, “Thoughts on a Chinese Diaspora: The Case of the Mạcs of Hà Tiên,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Stuides 14, no. 1 (2000): 78.

28Sakurai and Kitagawa, “Ha Tien or Banteay Meas in the Time of the Fall of Ayutthaya,” 155-159.

29Kelley, “Thoughts on a Chinese Diaspora: The Case of the Mạcs of Hà Tiên,” 78.

30Kelley, “Thoughts on a Chinese Diaspora: The Case of the Mạcs of Hà Tiên,” 78.

31Yumio Sakurai, “Eighteenth-Century Chinese Pioneers in the Water Frontier of Indochina,” in Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, World Social Change (Singapore: Lanham, MD: Singapore University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 43.

32 Wong, “Improvising Protocols,” 146.

33Sakurai, “Eighteenth-Century Chinese Pioneers in the Water Frontier of Indochina,” 44.

34Li Qingxin 李庆新, “‘Haishang Mingchao’: Moshi Hexian zhengquan de Zhonghua dese ‘海上明朝’: 鄚氏河仙政权的中华特色,” Xueshu yuekan 学术月刊 40, no. 10 (October 2008): 133–38.

35Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung did a field survey in Vietnam and found 45 historical relics from 11 locales in which the Longfei era name appeared. The earliest relic dated back to 1663, one year after the end of the Southern Ming. The most recent relic dated as late as 1936! Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung 蔣為文, “Yuenan Mingxiangren de wenhua rentong yu chayi 越南明鄉人的文化認同差異,” in Yuenan wenhua: cong Hong He dao Jiulong Jiang liuyu = Dòng chảy Văn hóa Việt Nam: Từ sông Hò̂ng đé̂n Sông Cửu Long 越南文化:從紅河到九龍江流域, ed. Wi-vun Taiffalo Chiung 蔣為文 (Taipei: Wunan tushu chuban gongsi 五南圖書出版公司, 2019), 208.

36 Sakurai, 44.

37Nicholas Sellers, The Princes of Hà-Tiên (1682-1867) (Bruxelles, Belgique: Thanh-Long, 1983), 42.

38Sakurai, “Eighteenth-Century Chinese Pioneers in the Water Frontier of Indochina.”, 45.

39 Sakurai, 44.

40Salmon, “The Contribution of the Chinese to the Development of Southeast Asia,” 270.

41Sellers, The Princes of Hà-Tiên (1682-1867), 41.

42Reid, “Chinese Trade and Southeast Asian Economic Expansion in the Later Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: An Overview,” 23.

43Sellers, The Princes of Hà-Tiên (1682-1867), 41.

44 Li Qingxin (2008), 135.

45Li Qingxin (2008), 135-136.

46Sakurai and Kitagawa, “Ha Tien or Banteay Meas in the Time of the Fall of Ayutthaya,” 159-160.

47 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 173-176.

48Wills, “Hansan Island and Bay (1592), Penghu (1683), Ha Tien (1771): Distant Battles and the Transformation of Maritime East Asia,” 259.

49 Puangthong Rungswasdisab, “Siam and the Contest for Control of the Trans-Mekong Trading Networks from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid-Nineteeth Centuries,” in Water Frontier: Commerce and the Chinese in the Lower Mekong Region, 1750-1880, World Social Change (Singapore: Lanham, MD: Singapore University Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 104.

50 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 185-192.

51 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 199-201.

52 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 202.

53 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 202.

54 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 185-192.

55 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 201.

56 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 203-205.

57 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 205-206.

58 Sakurai and Kitagawa, 205-206.

59Mary Somers Heidhues, “Little China in the Tropics: The Chinese in West Kalimantan to 1942,” in South China: State. Culture and Social Change during the 20th Century, ed. L.M. Douw and Post, P., Verhandelingen Der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie Van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks, D. 169 (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1996), 131–38.

60Zhang Wei’an 張維安 and Zhang Rongjia 張容嘉, “Kejia ren de dabogong: Lanfang gongsi de Luo Fangbo yu qi shiye 客家人的大伯公:蘭芳公司的羅芳伯與其事業,” Kejia yanjiu 客家研究 3, no. 1 (2011): 63.

61Heidhues, Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders in the “Chinese Districts” of West Kalimantan, Indonesia, 33, 53.

62 Heidhues, 55; Zhang Wei’an and Zhang Rongjia, “Kejia ren de dabogong,” 71.

63 Heidhues, “Little China in the Tropics,” 131.

64 Lo Hsiang Lin, “A Chinese Presidential System in Kalimantan,” The Sarawak Museum Journal 9, no. 15-16 (New Series) (December 1960): 670–74.

65 Lo Hsiang Lin, 672.

66LLo Hsiang Lin 羅香林, A Historical Survey of the Lan-Fang Presidential System in Western Borneo, Established by Lo Fang-Pai and Other Overseas Chinese西婆羅洲羅芳伯等所建共和國 (Hong Kong: 中國學社, 1961), 33.

67 Zhang Wei’an and Zhang Rongjia, “Kejia ren de dabogong,” 71.

68 Luo (1960), 672-674. Luo’s account says nine, but a table of the leaders of Lanfang Republic in de Groot’s book lists a total of twelve leaders (one of whom served two non-consecutive terms).

69 Mak Lau-Fong, “The kongsis and the Triad,” Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 3, no. 2 (1975): 48.

70 Heidhues, Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders, 12.

71 Mary Somers Heidhues, “Chinese Organizations in West Borneo and Bangka: Kongsi and Hui,” in “Secret Societies” Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Social History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia, ed. David Ownby and Mary Somers Heidhues, Studies on Modern China (Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), 71.

72 Heidhues, Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders, 55.

73 Yuan Bingling, Chinese Democracies: A Study of the kongsis of West Borneo (1776-1884) (Leiden: Research School of Asian, African, and Amerindian Studies, Universiteit Leiden, 2000), “Introduction”: “The Borneo kongsis Revisited.”

74 Heidhues, “Chinese Organizations in West Borneo and Bangka,” 71; Heidhues, Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders, 47.

75 Heidhues, Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders, 80.

76 Heidhues, “Little China in the Tropics,” 132–33.

77 Yuan Bingling, Chinese Democracies, Chapter 2, “The Golden Age of the Federations of Montrado and Mandor (1777-1839)’’:“The Townships of Montrado and Mandor. ’’

78 Heidhues, Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders, 105–12, 123.

79 Myint Myint Kyu, “Kokang: The Rise of the Chinese Minority—the New Neo-Liberal State?,” in Politics of Autonomy and Sustainability in Myanmar, ed. Walaiporn Tantikanangkul and Ashley Pritchard (New York, NY: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2016), 14.

80 Kyu, 21.

81 It should be mentioned that Kokang is not the only border town in Burma that seems to be more like a Chinese than a Burmese locale. In Mong La in the South Shan Special Region No. 4 , Chinese currency rather than Burmese currency is accepted (Joan Williams, “Mong La: Burma’s City of Lights,” The Irrawady 11, no. 1 (January 2003), However, Kokang is unique in that its native born ethnic Chinese residents are officially recognized by the Burmese government as a separate ethnic group called the Kokang since 1947, and also distinct from ethnic Chinese elsewhere in Burma, as stated above.

82 Scott, chapter 5.

83 U Thet Tun, “Harmony and Conflict of Ethnic Groups in Southeast Asia: A Brief Survey and Prospect,” East Asian Review 10, no. 1: 65.

84 Kyu, “Kokang: The Rise of the Chinese Minority—the New Neo-Liberal State?,” 15.

85 Kyu, 15.

86 Scott, chapter 6½ .

87 Two fascinating if incomplete views of Kokang history are: Yang Li (Jackie Yang), The House of Yang: Guardians of an Unknown Frontier (Sydney: Bookpress, 1997); Sai Kham Mong, Kokang and Kachin in the Shan State (1945-1960) (Bangkok: Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 2005). The former is a history of Kokang by a descendant of the Chinese feudal house that ruled Kokang from the late 18th century to 1959. The latter is an academic monograph based on the “careful use of Burma Government files and documents, material which is beyond the reach of ordinary researchers” (Sai Kham Mong, 3).

88 Yang, 6.

89 Yang, 7.

90 Yang, 8.

91 Yang, 16.

92 Yang, 9.

93 Yang, 14.

94 Yang, 18.

95 Yang, 26.

96 Yang, 25.

97 Yang, 51.

98 Yang, 69.

99 Yang, 70-71.

100 Yang, 74-75.

101 Yang, 71.

102 Yang, 89.

103 Bin Yang, “Horses, Silver, and Cowries: Yunnan in Global Perspective,” Journal of World History 15, no. 1 (September 2004): 282.

104 Yang, Between the Winds and Clouds, 315-321.

105 Jean Michaud, “Editorial—Zomia and Beyond,” Journal of Global History 5, issue 2 (July 2010), 194-195.

106 Quoted in Thet Tun, 64-65.

107 Scott, 19.

108 Michaud, 196.

109 Yang, 26.

110 Sarno, 223.

111 Yang, 27

112 Paul Sarno, 223.

113 Thet Tun, 65.

114 Kyu, “Kokang: The Rise of the Chinese Minority—the New Neo-Liberal State?,” 16.

115 “The Kokang: Ming Loyalist Chinese Who Had Sought Refuge in Burma 果敢族:流落缅甸的明朝汉人遗民,” 凤凰网, 27 August 2009, reprinted from 时代周报,

116 Kelley, “Thoughts on a Chinese Diaspora: The Case of the Mạcs of Hà Tiên ,” 92–93.

117Claudine Ang, “Regionalism in Southern Narratives of Vietnamese History: The Case of the ‘Southern Advance’ [Nam Tiến],” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 8, no. 3 (November 2013): 12, 15,

118 Ang, 14.

119 Chen Jinghe's many important works include his annotated version of the Mạc family genealogy: Chen Jinghe 陳荊和, “Hexian zhen Ye zhen Moshi jiapu zhushi 河僊鎮叶鎮鄚氏家譜注釋,” Guoli Taiwan daxue wenshizhe xuebao 國立台灣大學文史哲學報 (1956): 77¨–39.

120 Kelley, “Thoughts on a Chinese Diaspora: The Case of the Mạcs of Hà Tiên,” 91.

121Zhang Wei’an 張維安 and Zhang Rongjia 張容嘉, “Kejia ren de dabogong: Lanfang gongsi de Luo Fangbo yu qi shiye 客家人的大伯公:蘭芳公司的羅芳伯與其事業,” 84.

122 Fangchao Ji, “The Chinese kongsis in West Borneo: The Rise of the Chinese in Global Trade in the Early and Mid-19th Century” (Master’s Thesis, Brandeis University, 2018), 37, &isAllowed=y.

123 Heidhues, 132.

124 Chan, 107.

125 Zhang Wei’an and Zhang Rongjia (2009), 86.

126Zhang Wei’an 张维安 and Zhang Rongjia 张容嘉, “Lanfang gongheguo de chuangjian yu jingying Huaren wutuobang de xiangxiang 兰芳共和国的创建于经营:华人乌托邦的想象,” in Zuqun, lishi yu wenhua: Kuayu yanjiu he Dongya: Qingzhu Wang Gengwu jiaoshou bazhijin—Huadan zhuanji 族群、历史与文化: 跨域研究东南亚和东亚 : 庆祝王赓武教授八秩晋一华诞专集, ed. Wong Sin Kiong 黄贤强, vol. 2 (Singapore: Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore, & Global Publshing Ltd, 2011), 326-327.

127 Zhang Wei’an and Zhang Rongjia (2011), 331.

128 Zhang Wei’an and Zhang Rongjia (2009), 74.

129 Zhang and Zhang (2011), 335.

130 Ibid., 338.

131 “The Art of History: Singaporean Artist Choy Ka Fai Rediscovers Lost Republic,” Art Radar Asia (blog), June 6, 2012,

132 “The Eurozone as a Lan Fang Republic | Manifesta Journal,” Manifesta Journal, 2012,

133Ying-kit Chan, “The Founding of Singapore and the Chinese Kongsis of West Borneo (ca. 1819–1840),” Journal of Cultural Interaction in East Asia 7 (2016): 111–14.

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