The Zheng Organization in 17th-Century East Asia


A review of Between Trade and Legitimacy, Maritime and Continent: The Zheng Organization in Seventeenth-Century East Asia, by XING HANG.

Like a skilled chef, Xing Hang has combined good ingredients and craftsmanship, and he serves them up in a dish (diss.) that is a pleasure to read and food for thought. Not so very long ago, maritime history was something of an oddity in Chinese or East Asian History circles. The odd paper or two might appear at a conference or workshop, but it was hard to break into the mainstream debates from this ‘minor tradition’. Maritime developments impinged little on the dominant conceptions of the field; they occupied footnotes or paragraphs but were deemed largely peripheral to the overwhelmingly continental concerns of the agrarian states of China, Japan, and Korea.

Even flare-ups like the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274 and 1281), the Ming Treasure Ship voyages to India and Africa (1405-1433), or the Wako Pirate Wars of the 1500s could be explained away as pinpricks and anomalies of little lasting significance at the fringes of landed states. The teleology of the old impact-response paradigm was simple: although precociously advanced before European expansion, the countries of East Asia never used that prowess to build overseas empires. Far from exploiting the sea as the highway to expansion, East Asia hermetically sealed herself from the world just at the time when the West was steaming toward modernity with guns, germs, and steel. The immobile empire awaited opium balls and cannonballs.

Our perspective today is different. The study of the ocean and its role in human history has grown over the past two decades, due to growing ecological concerns as well as the scholarly search for the historical roots of globalization. As the latter search pushes the origins of our global connections further back in time, maritime history has become a vital link, for it was in Asian shores and waterways from at least 1500 onward that there began the trades, raids, deals and misunderstandings that Jack Wills has called “the interactive emergence of European domination.” (“Maritime Asia, 1500–1800: The Interactive Emergence of European Domination.” American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (Feb. 1993): 83–105.)  Interactive, because this process was far from one-sided; and certainly more than just inter-state, for much of the growth involved non-state or quasi-state powers that challenged the existing forms of sovereignty and legitimacy in Asia and even challenged interlopers like the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The most important of these mercantile-military powers was the Zheng Organization that flourished in the East Asian corridor from 1625-1683—the subject of this dissertation.

Hang’s work plunges us into the turmoil and contingency of the 17th century. The Ming-Qing transition, the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the VOC colonization of Taiwan provide a rich source base to study the saga of Zheng Zhilong (1604-1661), the original master of the seas who dominated the China seas; his famous half-Japanese son Zheng Chenggong (a.k.a. Koxinga, 1624-1662), who warred against Qing China for 15 years and then conquered Taiwan; and grandson Zheng Jing (1641-1681), who virtually created a Taiwan-based alternative “China” but was lured back for an abortive attack on the mainland. When the autonomous Zheng state was crushed by Qing invasion in 1684, Taiwan officially entered the fold of a reconfigured China.

The study consists of six chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1 presents a snapshot of the salient features of Fujian, Ming-Qing China, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and the trading conditions that assisted the rise of Zheng Zhilong and the VOC in the lucrative silver-silk-spice routes. Chapter 2 is a detailed study of the organization and expansion of the Zheng commercial state. Hang’s analysis shows that the Zheng “quasi-governmental multinational family monopoly corporation” (p. 110) consistently outcompeted its main competitor, the VOC, in profitability, supply, and spread within the Japan-China trading world.

Next, Chapters 3 and 4 describe the maneuverings of Zheng Chenggong between the unsatisfying alternatives of a weak Ming loyalist movement and Qing offers of compromise. Zheng played one option against the other throughout the 1650s, until military reverses led him to seek a new form of legitimacy by the conquest of Taiwan, where he died and set off a near-disastrous succession struggle. Chapter 5 details the material basis of his heir Zheng Jing’s self-sufficient Taiwan state. The sixth and final chapter examines the protracted negotiations between the Qing and the Zheng state, a last attempt to institutionalize Zheng maritime autonomy that came to naught over seeming trivialities, and which ended finally in a war of conquest.

Hang argues that the sometimes contradictory behavior of the Zheng leaders was a product of the hybridity of their organization. It was not simply a trading company, pirate group, loyalist army, or government apparatus, but an experiment in merging continental and maritime methods to form new ways of conceiving Chineseness outside of the traditional territorial or intellectual bounds of China. The Zhengs, substantially lacking “native” maritime sources of legitimacy, had to cobble them ad hoc or negotiate them with continental centers of power. Unable to fit into the Qing-centered tributary system, the Zheng state tried to forge a competing variant of tianxia: an autonomous, maritime-oriented “China.” Like its nemesis and brother, the Dutch VOC, the Zheng organization manipulated the affairs of Chinese peoples abroad, engaged in armed trade, and promoted overseas expansion. Unlike the VOC, the Zhengs had to carve for themselves a hybrid path that had little to do with Grotius or Westphalia and more to do with pushing the limits of the Chinese world order. This is what Hang means by his title of “between trade and legitimacy, maritime and continent.” To resort to romantic tropes of Ming loyalism or nationalist/revanchist narratives (as in past studies of the Zheng organization), is to miss the essential creativity of the Zhengs as the makers of an internally generated and interactive East Asian modernity.

Hang thus joins scholars like Hamashita Takeshi, Tonio Andrade, and others in historicizing the organic world region of East Asia and maritime China’s place within it. He ends this fine thesis with a call for historical wisdom to avert a future catastrophic conflict between China and Taiwan—a place where today’s impasse over identity and political status despite economic interdependency demands creative solutions, just as it did three centuries ago in the heyday of the Zhengs. May such lessons not go unheard.

Dahpon D. Ho
Department of History
University of Rochester

Primary Sources

Taiwan wenxian congkan (Taiwan Historical Documentary Collectanea [Taiwan])
Taiwan wenxian huikan (Collectanea of Taiwan Historical Documents [Mainland])
Zheng Chenggong dang’an shiliao xuanji (Selected Archival Material on Koxinga)
Kangxi tongyi Taiwan dang’an shiliao xuanji (Selected Archives on Kangxi’s Unification of Taiwan)
Zeelandia dagregisters (Daily Registers of Zeelandia Castle, Taiwan)

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley. 2010. 307 pp. Primary Advisor: Wen-Hsin Yeh.

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