Slipping Through the Net: Pirates in the South China Sea During the Reign of Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820)

Conference: The Asian Undergraduate Research Symposium (AURS2021)
Title: Slipping Through the Net: Pirates in the South China Sea During the Reign of Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820)
Stream: History, Anthropology and Archaeology
Presentation Type: Virtual Poster Presentation
Pui Yin Sze, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong


The presentation will start with the introduction of a famous Qing official scroll, entitled “Pacifying the South China Sea(靖海全圖)”, portraying the pirates and Qing naval force in the South China Sea during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820). Zheng Yi Sao鄭一嫂(1775-1844) and Zhang Bao張保(1786-1822), the Bonnie and Clyde of the South China Sea, were the leaders of these pirates. This scroll provides us with some glimpses of the relations between pirates and the Qing state. The pirates were the free-floating elements who slipped through the net of the state. Unlike their compatriots in the heartland, the pirates did not stick to the land permanently – they were mobile, flexible, and uncontrollable – they could move by boats freely and hide in different islands. As such, they were de jure living in the shadow of the Qing state but not de facto governed by it. As they were hardly incorporated as a stable part of the empire, which posed a potential menace to the sociopolitical stability along the coast, the Qing state desired to oversee them, although in vain. Meanwhile, they were not always the opposites of the state; there were co-operations and bargains. These negotiations manifested that not only were their positions kept on an equal footing, but the pirates were also open resources that could be utilized and exploited by the state for its own sake. In this way, this presentation attempts to examine their relations.

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