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The International Role of the Overseas Chinese in Hirado (Nagasaki), during the First Decades of the XVII Century

During the first decades of the seventeenth century, Japan, and in particular the coasts of Ky?sh_fb, housed – as we know – several European settlements. Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England had all reached the archipelago and Hirado (Nagasaki) revealed itself to be one of the most important bases in the international sea-trade network in the Far East. Yet, the role played by the local Chinese community as well as the maritime activities of the overseas Chinese in Japan – in particular in Hirado – have been somewhat neglected by historians.

Long before the arrival of the Europeans, many Overseas Chinese from Fujian province had already journeyed to Japan, in particular to the tiny, remote islet of Hirado, situated northwest of Nagasaki, right on the periphery of the archipelago. In actual fact it was precisely this rather peculiar geographical location which proved itself to be strategically important in the context of merchantile sea trade, given that for centuries Hirado had acted as bridgehead in the lawful and unlawful trading between China and Japan. Favoured as a base for piracy, on several occasions Hirado had provided refuge to wokou and haikou on their return from raids on the Chinese mainland, with thanks also to – and equally importantly – the help of the daimy? dynasty of Matsuura, gentlemen of Hirado were deeply involved, either through direct participation, or through capital investment, in merchantile trading throughout the Far East. For a number of years, the island, which did not differ greatly from what was happening on the coastline situated northwest of Ky?sh?, had witnessed the settling of small groups of adventurers, pirates, and merchants who provided the foundation of the local Chinese communities. During the first decades of the seventeent century, the overseas Chinese who settled on Hirado acted as interpreters and commercial mediators for the Europeans and they attended to official functions for the Japanese government.

In the present paper, after a brief historical survey on the official maritime policy pursued by the Ming government and Sino-Japanese commercial relations and maritime trade, I shall attempt to focus on the international role played by the Chinese community on Hirado, giving some examples of the multifarious activities realized by Li Dan – better known as ‘Captain China’ – and his group of ‘pirates,’ as they were considered by the Ming authorities in mainland China.

With the birth of the Ming Empire in 1368, in the wake of the harsh centralizing and authoritarian pressures exerted by the first Ming emperor, Hongwu, the maritime policy of the central authorities had heavily penalized the overseas mercantile trading activities of the people of the southern seaboard. In 1372 only three ports were allowed to open up, exclusively for official embassies send out to levy duties. Even this concession was accompanied by a series of limitations on the number of vessels, crews, members of missions, and length of stay: Chinese merchants themselves were not permitted to travel overseas. Ningbo (Zhejiang) housed the Japanese embassies; Quanzhou, later to be replaced by Fuzhou (Fujian) in 1472, accommodated the missions from Liuqiu; Canton (Guangdong) received tax duties from Southeast Asian countries (Chang 1990, p. 66). The consequences of this policy were not long in making themselves felt and piracy became widespread along the coasts of China during the Ming Empire. In the section relating to Japan, the Mingshi reports frequent attacks and incursions by the wokou, notorious Japanese pirates (Mingshi 1974, :8341-60). This phenomenon could unquestionably be ascribed simply to the archipelago, but it was even more conveniently a pretext for the authorities rather than to recognize the very powerful presence of the Chinese: in the fifteenth century this presence was already on a par with that of the Japanese, but in the sixteenth century it was far more widespread (Lin 1987; Zhang 1989; Chen 1991; Zhuang 1996; Blussé 1989; So 1975; Ts’ao 1980:429-58).

The suicide of Governor Zhu Wan (1494-1550), who had often complained in his reports and memorials about the intense involvement of coastal regions, particularly those of Fujian province, in these unlawful activities (involving a wide social range of individuals on the fringes of society, merchants, public servants of the yamen, the gentry, even right up to high-ranking officials), demonstrates the considerable degree of interests at stake and the deliberate turning of a blind eye by the central power (So 1975:40-72). Some years before, the well-known Ningbo incident of 1523 had heralded the definitive collapse in official relations with Japan (1549), which had already been seriously invalidated for some time (Wang 1953:60-88). A century and a half of official relations between China and Japan, from 1404 – the date of the controversial letter from Yoshimitsu to the Ming emperor, signalling the reopening of official relations (Wang 1953:22-37; Kuno 1937:89-100; Tsuji 1942:313-16) – to 1549 were characterized by a series of fits and starts depending on the circumstances, by official missions which were regulated by the kanhe system (kanhe maoyi, kang? b?eki: the ‘Seals’ trade’) and considered a vehicle for legitimate trade, or alternatively at the other end of the scale were characterized by invasions and raids from fleets of pirates engaged in sacking and smuggling (Y?ya 1983; Kimiya 1989).

Around the middle of the sixteenth century, therefore, all the southern coastal regions of China suffered ‘years of fire’ afflicted by piracy and continuous, unstoppable raids and plunder. Emblematic symbol of those ‘fifty years’ is the notorious pirate Wang Zhi, known in Japan by the corresponding reading of his name ?choku, or by the even more pregnant name of ‘the King of Huizhou.’ Wang Zhi headed a piratical organization of sizeable dimensions and also had bases on the coasts of Ky?sh?, among which Hirado was the most important. Wang Zhi was in a position to conduct international trade that also interested and involved the Europeans. The Ming authorities, after having attempted in vain to capture him, agreed to negotiate Wang Zhi’s surrender, promising to pardon him. Breaking the promise, they finally executed him in 1559 (Wills 1979:210-13; Lin 1987:87-92; Yobuko 1965:160-81). And it was precisely around 1560 that ‘private’ overseas trade, illegal though it was, had become so widespread that its sheer dimensions forced the central authorities to loosen, at least in part, the rigid veto imposed on Chinese merchants. It was the general superintendent of Fujian himself, Tu Zemin (?-1569), who proposed that Haicheng be opened up to maritime trade, in this way legalizing smuggling activities and illegal trading, with the purpose of controlling them and, by so doing, taxing them (Lin 1990:173). To a certain degree this would also have reduced the brutal attacks by the wokou and haikou (Z. Zhang 1989:314-44).

The year 1567 thus marked the official entry of Haicheng into the international maritime trading activities of China, the only port from which Chinese mercantilism could finally be launched freely into the waters of the Indian Ocean, even though the veto on trade with Japan remained rigidly binding. Accordingly, the final decades of the sixteenth century witnessed a constant migratory flow from the coastal areas of southern China – especially from Fujian province – and involved the whole of Southeast Asia. It was a time of great Chinese expansionism which saw Overseas communities (huaqiao) spring up everywhere; the t?jinmachi (‘Chinese districts’) and nihonmachi (‘Japanese districts’) together linked the whole of Southeast Asia, serving as essential ports of call for European seafarers and merchants. Although the ostracism imposed on Japan prevented direct two-way shipping, the Chinese and Japanese interwove links and commercial trade activities, united in a paradoxical sort of spirit of co-operation-competition, and proceeded to set up their own ‘Far Eastern mercantilism’ to oppose hardened European fleets. It was no coincidence that the European stopping-off points were located along the routes traditionally used by ‘merchants-pirates’ from South Asia and the Far East. The small island of Hirado was no exception. As a traditional base of Sino-Japanese piracy in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries Hirado became one of the most important ports of call in the international maritime trade of the Far East.

Portugal had in fact already reached China by the early years of the sixteenth century (1514) and some decades later Portuguese seafarers arrived in Japan as well (1543), establishing bases in Malacca, Macao, and on the northwestern coasts of Ky?sh?.. Spain had founded Manila in 1571 and had even installed itself in Ky?sh?, while in the next century, from 1626 to 1642, it briefly occupied part of northern Taiwan, at its base called S. Trinidad. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Far Eastern maritime panorama was enriched by the presence of two other European countries: Holland and England joined Portugal and Spain. Holland first made landfall on the shores of Ky?sh? in 1600, with De Liefde under its pilot William Adams. In 1619 the United East India Company (VOC) had founded Batavia (Jakarta) and then in 1624 Fort Zeeland was built in the southern part of Taiwan. Holland later took Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641 and the base of Taiwan from the Spanish in 1642. England occupied a position in Japan, at Hirado, for one short-lived decade from 1613 to 1623 but then pulled out.

Turning now specifically to Hirado from the first half of the seventeenth century, Europeans had already reached the island several times with the intention of trading, albeit their settlements were established later on. The first Europeans were the Portuguese, who landed on the shores of Hirado in 1550; then, in 1580, an English ship appeared on the coast of the island. The first Spanish ship arrived from the Philippines in 1584 and the Dutch commercial envoys reached Hirado in 1597 (Matsuura 1988:1-28). The Chinese presence on the island, as can be imaged, was greatly stimulated by the increase of international sea-trades, and the reinforcement of the local Chinese community was partly due to the arrival of the Europeans.

Li Dan, (?-1625), the notorious ‘pirate chief,’ well known to European sources under the descriptive name of ‘Captain China,’ was one of the many Chinese who had landed on the shores of the archipelago at the beginning of the seventeenth Century. Having gradually become involved in maritime trade, Li Dan began his ‘career’ as an adventurer on the high seas, as well as that of commercial intermediary with the Europeans.

There are numerous names of ‘sea bandits,’ especially natives of Fujian province, to be found in both Chinese and Japanese chronicles and official reports, and several are also mentioned in European documentation. There is frequent mention of ‘Captain China,’ that is Li Dan, in contemporary English and Dutch documents. This balances information obtained by comparing Chinese and Japanese sources and studies which is often controversial (Iwao 1958:27-83). Li Dan and Yan Siqi were both leaders of pirate groups who moved between Taiwan and Ky?sh?, and Zheng Zhilong took orders from both of them. As peaceful cohabitation of two organizations of this kind operating in the same area, complicated yet further by common associates, seems unlikely, we should not dismiss Blussé’s explanation of this phenomenon which identifies Yan Siqi as one of Li Dan’s trusty men. It was also undoubtedly through the strength of Li Dan’s organization that as his successor, Zheng Zhilong was able to gain practically full control of Chinese mercantile activities (Blussé 1990).

Virtually nothing is known of Li Dan’s early years: his birthdate is unknown, but he was, in fact, a native of Quanzhou. There are some fragmentary pieces of information which show – albeit rather vaguely – that he was head of the Chinese community in Manila between the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century (Blair-Robertson 1903-9); perhaps a more valid hypothesis is that he was one of the many merchant-pirates plying the Far Eastern seas, trading with the Spanish. It was as a result of serious disputes of an economic nature with them that he was forced to leave Manila, after which he settled in Hirado. It was in these years that he made a name for himself, and set himself up as the leader of a group of adventurers who appear in Japanese texts under the name mitsub?eki shudan (‘group of smugglers’) (S. Yobuko 1965:229-32). When the first Englishmen arrived on the island in 1613, Li Dan was already head of the local Chinese community, and boasted a personal and reciprocally ‘advantageous’ frienship with the powerful daimy?, Matsuura. He was also on excellent terms with the bugy? of Nagasaki, Hasegawa Gonrokur? Morinao, one of the governor’s principal officals. John Saris, whose task it was to set up English branch offices in Japan, rented premises from Li Dan for his house as well as for the headquarters of the English Company:

‘The 16th (June 1613) I concluded with Captain Andace (Li Dan), Captain of the China quarter heare, for his howse, to pay 95 rials of 8 for the monsone of 6 monethes, he to repare it at present and we to repare it heare after, and after what we pleased, he to furnish all convenyent roomes with matts according to the fashion of the Counterye.’ (Saris:88)

Li Dan was unquestionably one of the ‘eminent’ figures of the place, notwithstanding, or better still, by virtue of his faults. One of his brothers, Li Huayu, known as Captain Whow, acted as his agent in Nagasaki, while another brother who was still living in China acted as the final link in the commercial trading; a third brother, known as Niquan, lived on Hirado and helped Li Dan directly. Li Guozhu, Li Dan’s son, known in European sources as Augustin Iquan, worked alongside his father in all his activities (Iwao 1958:27-83).

On the basis of the very valuable information to be gleaned from English writings and diaries, we learn of various significant episodes of daily life which, without a shadow of a doubt, illustrate the type of character Li Dan was and his social role. Here we would like to quote some of the more representative of these. In the autumn of 1613, forced to do so by illness, Li Dan was obliged to take a rest from his usual activities. On this occasion, John Saris and Sagawa Nobutoshi, Matsuura Hoin’s son-in-law, paid him a visit at his lodgings to enquire after his health (Saris 1900:167). In the summer of 1617 Li Dan was, along with members of the English East Indies Company, a lunch guest of the daimy?, Matsuura Takanobu, returning the invitation at a later date (Cocks 1980/I:153). In the autumn of the same year, on the occasion of the birthday of one of his daughters on 23 November, more than fifty Chinese people went to Li Dan’s residence to pay their respects by offering gifts and exquisite delicacies (Cocks 1980/I:153). It must be understood that this would not have happened to any t?jin (Tang person) living in Japan, but only to an individual who enjoyed the position and privileges of Captain China.

In the previous years, right up to Hideyoshi’s failed expeditions to Korea in 1592 and 1597-8, Japanese fleets had still been very active because the eternally unstable internal political situation favoured the mercantile endeavours of the powerful daimy? who held fiefs on the coasts (especially those of Ky?sh?). Chinese and Japanese merchant-pirates collaborated and competed in running Sino-Japanese and international sea trade. Even though it had left the Ming veto on the archipelago unchanged, in practice the opening of Haicheng in 1567 had facilitated commercial trade between the two countries. And, it is interesting to note here how the partial liberalization of Chinese maritime activities also signalled a change in the groups of adventurer-pirates sailing the Far Eastern seas; from that moment they became more specifically oriented towards smuggling than to acts of true piracy (at least along the Chinese coasts, since the merchant vessels at sea, above all the foreign ones, were much sought-after). The flow of Japanese maritime trade came about to a large extent through the ‘illicit’ – insofar as China was concerned – movement of these hetero-geneous groupings.

With the rise to power of Hideyoshi, however, Japanese merchant ships came under more rigid control, the purpose of which was to concentrate private mercantile initiatives in the hands of the government, a policy that was later pursued by Tokugawa (Berry 1989). Consequently, individual mercantile activities conducted by the daimy? were greatly curbed and channelled into a sort of ‘centralized’ mercantilism, the origin of the famous shuinsen – ‘the vermillion seal ships’ -, that sailed the waters of the Indian Ocean on the official orders of the bakufu under the Tokugawa shogunate (Iwao 1960; Iwao 1958). This policy still had to be prepared and was devised to respond to dangerous European expansionism but the result was, in part, counter-productive. The powerful coastal daimy? did not welcome any interference whatsoever from central powers in their lucrative overseas ‘business’; they undoubtedly suffered a noticeable cut in income and tried to regain their autonomy in another way. They financed Chinese shipments and fleets since they were not allowed to participate directly in overseas trade with their own, and so they delegated the task of running those mercantile activities which until then had been carried out by Japanese fleets to precisely those groups of smugglers mentioned earlier, consisting predominantly of the Chinese. Moreover, the bakufu of the Tokugawa shogunate entrusted Chinese merchant vessels with a considerable amount of Japanese international trade. Many of them were granted the ‘vermillion seal’ (shuinjo) of the bakufu . Hence, in the early years of the seventeenth century Chinese mercantilism in Japan, which had already assumed an ‘unofficial’ role of great value in the service of the daimy?, went on to receive official recognition and sailed the Indian Ocean at the request and in the name of the Japanese government (Carioti 1989:51-66).

In the years between 1614 (nineteenth Keich? year) and 1624 (first Kan’ei year), covering the whole of the Genwa period (1615-23), nearly all the shogunal licences (shuinjo), which the Tokugawa bakufu assigned from time to time to Chinese merchants, were awarded to Li Dan, Li Huayu, and to Niquan; there were only three other t?jin who were the recipients of the mandate of the bakufu.. There is no question that Li Dan had almost complete control of commercial shipments run by the Chinese under the protection of the shoguns of the Tokugawa period. Li Dan personally obtained shogunal licences in the years 1617, 1618, 1621, 1622, 1623, 1624; Li Huayu in 1614, 1615, 1616, 1617, 1618; Niquan in 1617, 1618, 1620 (Iwao 1958:184-5). There is no mention of Zheng Zhilong.

By the 1620s, Zheng Zhilong had already become part of Li Dan’s group, and the range of its maritime-commercial activities had also extended to Taiwan. One by one, the many little groups of Chinese adventurers were absorbed into Li Dan’s organization, which was thereby continually reinforced. These were the golden years of ‘Captain China.’ A section from a letter from Cocks, dated 10th March 1620 perhaps better describes in a few incisive words how things were:

‘This Andrea Dittis (Li Dan) is now chosen captain cheefe comander of all the Chinese in Japan, both at Nangasaque (Nagasaki), Firando (Hirado) and elsewheare.’ (Cocks 1980/II:309)

Richard Cocks, the last governor of the English Company based in Hirado, placed his complete confidence in him, appreciating his services as interpreter and mediator of English trade: when the Company left in 1623 there was a very high credit never collected from Captain China by Cocks, for which he was at first severely reprimanded by his superiors.

Once again we find Li Dan – and Zheng Zhilong – settling difficult diplomatic negotiations of an international nature.

The Dutch occupation of the Pescadores (Penghu) in 1622, had forced the Ming government to intervene in defence of its sovereignty over the islands: this sovereignty had not been extended to Taiwan. When the negotiations opened, the diplomatic route was chosen, but this proved fruitless; the Chinese authorities therefore had prepared a military expedition to expel the Dutch from the Penghu. Faced with the most concrete and dangerous initiative so far undertaken by the Ming, the United East India Company, which had been in contact through trade missions with several of the Chinese pirate-adventurers, among them Li Dan and Zheng Zhilong for some time, finally decided to negotiate ‘privately’ with Li Dan, and probably Zheng Zhilong, the transfer of its bases from the Pescadores to Taiwan, in order to avoid direct military confrontation with China. Certainly such a close collaboration with the United East India Company came at a very advantageous moment for the pirate organization run by Li Dan. Therefore, Li Dan temporarily abandoned the Japanese base of Hirado and settled on the island of Formosa in the years 1623-4, in order to conduct the necessary negotiations. He also managed to make the Dutch Company take on Zheng Zhilong as Portuguese interpreter so that he would have a trusted informer of the plans and movements of the Dutch (Blussé 1990:254). 1624 saw the beginning of the construction of Fort Zeeland in the bay known today as Tainan (Blussé 1981:93).

Then, in August 1625, Li Dan died.

Within the space of a month, in September, the not so easily indentifiable Yan Siqi also died. He was considered by some to be Li Dan’s right-hand man, and therefore his legitimate successor. Zheng Zhilong was presented with an unprecedented opportunity: to take the place of Li Dan as leader of the organization. He did not let it slip away. In the inevitable splitting- up process that followed Li Dan’s death, he took immediate possession of the base of Zhule (present-day Jiayi) in the south of Taiwan, succeeding in bringing under his command a group of sizeable dimensions.

Yet, the base at Hirado had to be abandoned. It was not only a compulsory decision forced upon Zheng Zhilong in order to keep the control of the organization: in fact, Japanese policy toward the Chinese communities in Japan was becoming stricter, and that was also a reflection of the severer attitude of the Tokugawa bakufu towards the Europeans in general, with a particular aversion to the Roman Catholic countries. The Roman Catholic religion had been prohibited, and in 1624 the Spaniards had been expelled from Japan. This was the prelude to the so-called sakoku (‘Closed Country’) policy. Many among the overseas Chinese who had been converted to Christianity were compelled to leave the archipelago, as that was the case of Augustin Iquan, the son of Li Dan, who was finally obliged to go back to China. England, as we have seen, retired in 1623; that was followed by the expulsion of Spain in 1624 and Portugal in 1639. In 1641, the Dutch United East India Company was ordered to move from Hirado to Deshima in Nagasaki, where, according to the Tokugawa policy of rigid control on foreigners, the overseas Chinese of Ky?sh? were also concentrated, to give birth toward the end of the century to the T?jin Yashiki (‘The Residence of the Tang people’) of Nagasaki.

Hirado was cut off from the international sea-trades routes, its place taken by Nagasaki. Nevertheless, the international role played by the overseas Chinese in Japan, as well as in South and Far East Asia, had not ended at all.


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by Patrizia Carioti