Published by EH.Net (November 2017)

Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620-1720. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xii + 332 pp. $100 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-107-12184-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by François Gipouloux, CNRS, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

This book by Xing Hang (assistant professor of history at Brandeis University) follows the trends of recent scholarship on maritime history. (For example, Li Kangying on Ming maritime policy, Zhao Gang on Qing relations with the seas, David Dahpon Ho on the Qing maritime frontier and Tonio Andrade on Taiwan). It is also a brilliant addition to prior work by John Wills, Patrizia Carioti on Zheng Chenggong, as well as Paola Calanca on smugglers and pirates on the Fujian coast.

The book is a contribution to the economic history of an empire’s periphery (China’s south-eastern coast and Taiwan), but at the same time offers a thoughtful view of the diplomatic and military aspects of the Ming-Qing transition. The book also covers the background of the world’s first globalization: how China interacted with other polities, how the Zhengs were able to challenge the financial power of great actors like the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and how the East Asian region began to integrate into a nascent world system.

Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia is an enjoyable read. It covers four generations of the Zheng family, roughly from the early sixteenth century through to the fall of Taiwan to the Qing, in 1683. The book is divided into eight chapters. Three appendixes provide a wide range of quantitative data regarding the volume of the overseas trade managed by the Zheng clan. Appendix 3, in particular, includes very detailed figures of Zheng trade at Nagasaki, which surpassed VOC trade during the 1650-1662 period.

Hang has tapped into a large number of sources, ranging from memoirs, Zheng documents from private collections and Qing archives, along with Dutch, English, Japanese, Korean and Spanish historical records, and inscriptions collected during field work in Fujian. The merit of Hang’s work is that he gathers together a large number of previously disconnected elements in Chinese and Western scholarship, including intra-Asiatic economic changes, military issues, ideological frameworks and business techniques, and he has thus drawn a very complete picture of an autonomous polity, at the periphery of the Chinese empire during the Ming-Qing transition. This was an exuberant periphery, which grew swiftly within the context of the conflict between Ming loyalists and Qing conquerors.

In seventeenth century East Asia, there occurred simultaneously a great, structured expansion of foreign powers and a transition in China’s role in international trade. Hang guides us through a changing geopolitical environment in which the collapse of the southern Ming imposed a complete redirection of economic flows with the emergence of the Indian subcontinent as a prominent silk producer. The Zheng trading organization proved well adapted to the change China underwent in the 1650s, moving from a producer of luxury goods to an importer and processor of raw materials and setting up of a circuit involving Indian textiles and Southeast Asian raw materials in exchange for Japanese silver and Chinese gold.

For a readership focusing on economic history, Chapter 3, “Between Trade and Legitimacy,” is certainly the most thought provoking. The Zheng family amassed huge amounts of wealth that were managed by several firms operating deep in Qing controlled territory, They were able to procure silk, porcelain and other luxury products for the Xiamen warehouse, and reported to their headquarters in Hangzhou from their branches in Suzhou, Nanjing and even Beijing. These firms also served as centers for gathering intelligence on Qing military operations. The “five mountains firms” were also able to supervise the construction of commercial and military seagoing junks. Their operating area was divided, as it was during the Ming Dynasty, into Eastern and Western oceans. Official merchants (guan shang) worked under the Zheng family according to a sophisticated hierarchy consisting of, on the one hand, adopted sons of the clan’s relatives and military commanders and, on the other hand, independent merchants linked to the clan by long-term debts contracted by borrowing capital or ships to trade on behalf of the Zheng organization.

Hang claims that in the 1650s, the Zheng trading network bore all the characteristics of a maritime empire, within the limits of an intra-Asiatic area, stretching from the markets in Japan (Nagasaki), Dutch Taiwan (VOC) and Manila, with extensions to Vietnam and Ayuttaya (Siam), where they dealt with Muslim traders from Bengal and the Coromandel Coast. Within the framework of the limited autonomy of cities or territories in Asia and the impossibility for patrician communities to formalize their own legal arrangements, the patron-client relationship was the cornerstone of any successful and long-lasting business operation in China. The Zheng were no exception. Until his death in 1662, Koxinga adhered to this pattern and reshaped the framework of international relationships and rudimentary bureaucracy of the Ming Dynasty.

The pervasive role that Confucian orthodoxy and filial piety played in this arduous attempt to restore Ming legitimacy is aptly emphasized in this book. What is also striking is the economic contribution of “ideological purity” combined with hard economic realities. However, outright loyalty to the Ming Dynasty did not prevent the Zhengs from protecting their own interests. Hang also carefully analyses the merchants’ double allegiance to the Zheng clan and to European traders and the way they served as channels for communication between them. In the late 1660s, rivalry with the Dutch over silk escalated in Japan and, although merchants could trade freely in the areas under his control, Zheng Jing maintained a strict monopoly on strategic goods (silk, deerskins and sugar).

How should we interpret the integration of the first global network of trade, which brought together the demand for China’s silk and high quality goods with an insatiable thirst for silver? From Zheng Zhilong to Zheng Chenggong, the activities of the trading network evolved from a centralized piratical organization to an informal state. At the time he was consolidating his power (1650), Koxinga possessed several hundred war junks and was able to mobilize 40,000 soldiers. At the same time, he envisioned the highest possible autonomy and sought to establish control over the three south-eastern provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, as well as a 13,000 km long coastline in exchange for his support of Ming restoration. Xing Hang vividly describes the long process of negotiations between the Zheng clan and the Qing, which started as early as 1653 and continued, with interspersed episodes of war, diplomacy and neutrality, until the final conquest of Taiwan in 1683.

Xing Hang’s book documents in detail the extent of Zheng Chenggong’s power at sea. He was able to set up an efficient maritime blockade on Luzon and Dutch Taiwan until the Governor General of Manila gave in and submitted. The Dutch in Taiwan were pressured to soften their position. On the mainland, Koxinga was also able to launch a military expedition (although ultimately defeated), with over a thousand junks and 100,000 soldiers, into the Yangzi River delta. Even after his unsuccessful attack on Nanjing in 1659, Koxinga still maintained control over China’s coastline, from Zhejiang to Fujian.

On the diplomatic front, Zheng Chenggong made several attempts to convince the bakufu to support his military efforts against the Qing. Koxinga’s grand military strategy was two-fold. First of all, he sought to seize the resource rich Yangzi River delta in order to solve his organization’s needs for food and supplies and, at the same time, to take control of primary production of silk and other luxuries. Secondly, he planned an invasion of Dutch Taiwan and Spanish controlled Manila (in 1670 and 1672). The invasion of Taiwan was a consequence of Koxinga’s defeat at Nanking. The takeover of Manila, although poorly defended, never occurred. This overseas expansion, if it had been successful, would have led to the foundation of a maritime China encompassing a huge trading network stretching from Japan to Southeast Asia and able to defy the continental Qing Empire.

Another merit of this book is that it sheds new light on Koxinga’s son, Zheng Jing and on how he achieved, within two decades, the Zheng organization’s transformation into a viable territorial state, with the creation of a sophisticated administration, the rationalization of the kinship networks of southern Fujian and a greater economic diversification. This efficient policy attracted refugees reduced to starvation by the Qing coastal evacuation policy. Xing Hang meticulously describes the power game which led to the ascendancy of Zheng Jing and the diplomatic and military interaction between the VOC, Shi Lang (the former commander who defected to the Qing in 1651 and head of the Qing naval command), and Japan, whose neutral stance adopted in the 1660s complicated the consolidation of the position of Ming loyalists.

The final reason for the Zheng’s failure lies more in the growing competitiveness from the Bengal and Indonesian-based Dutch, a rising East India Company and Southeast Asian trading networks to which the Zheng organisation began to lose market shares, rather than in Qing military offensives and blockades against the island of Taiwan.

François Gipouloux, Emeritus Research Director, National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), China, Korea, Japan Research Centre, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, is the coordinator of the International Research Network The Globalisation’s Origins and the Great Divergence: Trading Networks and the Trajectory of Economic Institutions — Europe-Asia, 1500-2000. He is the author of The Asian Mediterranean: Port Cities and Trading Networks in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, 13th-21st century, Edward Elgar, 2011.

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