Contact Between the Dutch and the Wōkòu: Maritime East Asia in the 17th Century
Updated: Aug 6
Maritime trade has played a pivotal role in the economic, social, and cultural development for much of the world. East Asia is no anomaly – China, Japan, and the Korean peninsula have been a part of networks of human contact from medieval times, exchanging material goods and ideas with each other and beyond. The Maritime Silk Road, though a relatively new and contested concept for describing premodern maritime globalization, linked the East China Sea and its activities to the South China Sea and, subsequently, the rest of the world. This process accelerated with the advent of the so-called “Age of Exploration”, and by the 17th Century, East Asia was an important location for European trade. Items such as ceramics and tea from China and Japan had a huge demand in Europe, and the Ming and the Qing economies relied heavily on imported silver from neighbouring states, but also from Latin American mines. But despite this, maritime issues were often not the primary concern for the courts of Imperial China, Japan, or Korea, frustrating European actors in the region. Obtaining goods from this region was not easy due to trade restrictions called “Sea Bans” (haijin) which attempted, in vain, to decrease the rampant piracy problem in the region.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, piracy was not an uncommon occupation for coastal dwellers in Southeast China and West Japan. Known as the Wōkòu, pirate groups competed to establish their dominance over smuggling routes between the coasts of Ming China, Choson Korea, Muromachi and Tokugawa Japan. Ironically, the policies implemented by the various courts of the region to restrict pirate activities only increased the number of pirates and acts of piracy. The Ming, for example, escalated restrictions to a total ban on activities with the exception of limited tribute missions in the early 16th century, but since many citizens’ livelihoods who lived in coastal towns relied on the seas and trade for their living, such policies pushed thousands into the realm of illegal work and cooperation with Wōkòu groups. The Choson courts took a more proactive approach to the Wōkòu problem by expelling their presence through force, but this did not alleviate the issue in the East China Sea as the Wōkòu merely moved their bases of operation from the Korean straits to islands around the Ryukyu Kingdom or Southeast China. By the time the first Portuguese arrived in these territories, they alongside land-based elites of China and Japan acknowledged and validated this pirate suzerainty. Luis Frois, a Portuguese missionary affirmed the Wōkòu’s dominant presence that foreigners encountered in his reference to the Murakami clan, one of the most powerful pirate families of Japan during the 16th century: (Takeyoshi, a member of the clan) “is the greatest pirate… He lives in a grand fortress and possesses many retainers, holdings and ships… He is so powerful that on these coasts as well as coastal regions of other kingdoms, all pay him annual tribute out of fear that he will destroy them.”
Though some Wōkòu organisations and leaders were suppressed by a few competent Ming officials by the time the Dutch arrived, the seas were still controlled by Wōkòu, and the various courts were not willing to open direct trade relations. This was despite reforms – albeit limited – to the stringent bans on maritime activities which reopened shipping routes with Southeast Asia where the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch all had important colonies. The Dutch especially were willing to use any means necessary to gain access to the Chinese markets. The Vereenigde Nederlandsche Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) – the Dutch East India Company – brought a level of centralized political and commercial decision making and bureaucratisation of violence unseen before in East Asia. After failing to establish formal relations with the Ming court, the VOC reacted with force, attacking Chinese junks, coastal towns and cities, but to no avail. In 1624, they settled across the Taiwan Straits, establishing a colony in present-day Tainan called Fort Zeelandia. This was, however, only after a strenuous struggle around the Penghu islands, and the involvement of two Wōkòu lords settling disputes involving the Japanese in the region. This set a trend of cooperation between the VOC and the Wōkòu when interests aligned.
One of these Wōkòu who became a key partner of the VOC was Zheng Zhilong and his Zheng Organisation. Zheng Zhilong himself illustrates the vibrant cross-cultural connections of the region during the 16th and 17th centuries despite official policies attempting to restrict regional commerce and travel. Details of his early years are not known, but during his teens, he left Fujian for Macau where he learned Portuguese and converted to Catholicism. He then married a Japanese woman and had a son but left them to serve as an interpreter for the VOC in Taiwan and as a pirate raiding the Southeastern coast. Eventually, he and his organisation submitted to the Ming court in return for pseudo-legitimate recognition as lords of the Southeast, aiding the Ming in its troubles with other Wōkòu. Zheng himself, when working for the VOC, astutely observed how the Dutch came to cooperate with the Wōkòu by employing them as privateers for the VOC. This was one method adopted by the VOC to gain further access to Chinese markets. As the VOC continued to develop its operations in Taiwan, Zheng and his organisation increased their hold on piracy activities by eliminating rivals. The Dutch, perhaps in appreciation for Zheng’s translation services, but more likely motivated by their own interests, went to the extent of aiding Zheng when he faced dire problems. In 1626, Zheng’s ship was on the verge of sinking. The Dutch came to his help by letting Zheng and his crew dock in Dutch territory, and even contributed manpower in fixing the damages. In return, Zheng delivered nine captured junks and their cargo with a total value of more than 20,000 Chinese taels – worth five million US dollars today. Cooperation continued once Zheng Chenggong – better known as Koxinga – took the helm of the organisation. Koxinga continued to engage the VOC to maintain mutually beneficial trade partnerships in Dutch Batavia. Furthermore, Koxinga maintained personal correspondence with Dutch governors of Taiwan. In return for his efforts, the Dutch-selected merchants and ship owners who were responsible for managing routine affairs on the island continued to cooperate with Koxinga.
How exactly did the VOC and the Zheng Organisation navigate the maritime bans? Their cooperation is observable in the VOC’s acquisition of porcelain from the Mainland. The VOC placed orders with Chinese merchants and seafarers who were either direct employees of or had commercial rights given by the Zheng Organisation. Contracts were signed to bring shipments to Taiwan which would then be transported back to Europe. On the Mainland, the Zheng Organisation forged relationships with private merchants who directed the Dutch orders to porcelain producing towns such as Jingdezhen. Similar lines of contacts were used for other commodities to limit the risk of alerting hostile officials. It would be, however, inaccurate to present such cordial relations between the Zheng Organisation and the VOC as the complete norm. The Wōkòu were quick to learn that exploiting the Dutch for a quick profit was not difficult. Sometimes, they merely promised the Dutch one thing only to do something else. The Wōkòu and middle men on the Mainland often embezzled a large number of investments and trade goods for their own gain. One must also note that despite the reliance of the Dutch on the Wōkòu, the development of both the VOC and the Zheng Organisation during the first half of the 17th century spurred on a competitive relationship, the former doing its utmost to prevent the latter’s monopolisation of regional trade. The VOC, despite establishing a formidably useful colony in Taiwan, began to struggle to continue its commercial success as Koxinga repeatedly outmaneuvered his competitors, establishing a hegemonic dominance in maritime East Asia.
The final chapter in the VOC-Wōkòu relationship came in 1662, when Koxinga successfully expelled the Dutch from Zeelandia. The Ming had collapsed in 1644, but unlike his father who surrendered to the invading Qing, giving up his control of Fujian, entering the realm of Manchu politics in Beijing, and eventually being executed, Koxinga remained loyal to the ousted Ming dynasty and the Longwu Emperor whom he had a close relationship with. Further prompted by personal vengeance after hearing the news of the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of Qing troops, he continuously waged campaigns against the Manchus. However, by 1660, his significant territorial gains had been reversed by the Qing army, leaving Koxinga with the options to surrender or to cross the straits and invade Taiwan for survival. To the consternation of his advisors, he chose the latter. The invasion demonstrated Koxinga’s military might, who initially defeated the Dutch on sea and land with little trouble. And though the Dutch managed to halt the Zheng for close to a year, they eventually, “to the shame of our nation… one of the most beautiful pearls in the crown” of the Dutch Empire was taken (back).
Despite the Dutch expulsion, the Zheng Organisation and their Kingdom of Tungning was invaded by the Qing only two decades later, ending the Zheng’s already-weakening presence. In contrast, the VOC which was the primary benefactor of the Portuguese decline during the early 17th Century maintained their hold on their colonies in the rest of Southeast Asia. Batavia – the centre of VOC operations in the region – continued to develop as a trade hub with not just the West, but also with the “New World.” The Dutch also held onto its quarters in Tokugawa Japan. Furthermore, Emperor Kangxi – the second ruler of the Qing – remarkably broke the centuries old dynastic policy of restricting private maritime trade. In 1684, the court approved a policy to: (1) Allow Chinese private traders to travel abroad. (2) Legalise non-tribute merchants from countries to enter coastal ports for commerce. (3) Distinguish “trade” from “tribute,” enabling countries without a tributary status to have legitimate commercial ties with the Qing. They also established a customs system to manage tariffs.
Such a drastic shift in regional trade policies was because of the steady consolidation of globalised trade networks in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Although the Zheng Organisation was ultimately defeated and the general presence of Wōkòu diminished by the end of the 17th century, their dominance of the region’s seas for many decades played a decisive role in premodern globalisation and “opening” of trade. Their interaction with the VOC connected markets of East Asia to a rapidly commercialising global network stretching westward across the Indian Ocean, but also eastward across the Pacific – a trajectory which continued into the modern era. Aside from these economic effects, Koxinga as a historical figure has left a significant mark on the region’s history and modern politics. His depiction and memory reflect, chiefly, the rise of modern nationalism in China beginning in the late-Qing with Anti-Manchu and anti-imperialist activists. This has been continued in a similar manner by the Communists in the Mainland and the Nationalists in Taiwan, both labelling Koxinga as a “national hero” for his resistance against the Dutch. On the contrary, the independence camp of Taiwan have crafted a historical narrative emphasising Koxinga’s state-building on the island for their political agenda.Either way, these events and individuals of this period continue to play a role in present-day East Asia.
 For an example of contention for the “Maritime Silk Road” as a concept, see Medieval Indonesia, “Please Don’t Say “Maritime Silk Road,” Medium, November 6, 2019, https://indomedieval.medium.com/please-dont-say-maritime-silk-road-d304ce040dbf.
 Gang Zhao. Shaping the Asian Trade Network: The Conception and Implementation of the Chinese Open Trade Policy, 1684–1840 (The Johns Hopkins University, 2007), 9.
 海禁, literally “sea bans”
 倭寇Wōkòu, Wakō, 왜구Waegu
 Qing Han. “Mingchao Shixing Haijin Zhengcede Yuanyin Tanjiu.” Dalian Haishi Daxue Xuebao 10, no. 5 (2011): 89. Note that the haijin policies varied in its strictness depending on the maritime situation the Imperial Court faced.
 Cameron Parker Ikaika Scott. Opportune Climbers: The Wōkòu Surge during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (California State University, Fresno, 2018), 19.
 Peter D Shapinsky. Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan (Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2014), 22.
 Frois, Luis, Historia de Japam. Edited by Jose Wicki, S.J.Lisbon: Presidencia do Conselho de Ministros, Secretaria de Estado da Cultura, Direccao-Geral do Patrimonio cultural, Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa, 1984. Vol 4, 248-49.
 For example Wang Zhi in 1557, a Wōkòu who was involved with the introduction of Portuguese firearms to Japan.
 Isao Koshimura. "The Wako’s Economic Warfare and the Making of the East Asian Seas’ Order." Ekonomska i Ekohistorija 14, no. 1 (2018): 234.
 John E Willis, Jr. “Maritime Europe and the Ming.” In China and Maritime Europe, 1500–1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions, by John E. Wills, Jr et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 67.
 John E Willis, Jr, Maritime Europe and the Ming, 69-70.
 Xing Hang. Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, C.1620–1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 2.
 Tonio Andrade. Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory Over the West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 27.
 Andrade, Lost Colony, 28.
 Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia, 109.
 Chan, Yuan-Yuan. Late Ming-Early Qing Transitional Wares (1620-1683), their Production, and their Relation to the Dutch China Trade, with a Catalogue of the Wares Specially made for the European Market (Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, 1998), 80.
 Andrade, Lost Colony, 35-6.
 Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia, 2.
 Struve, Lynn A. “The Southern Ming, 1644–1662.” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of China, edited by Frederick W. Mote. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 667.
 Quoting Philip Meiji in Andrade, Lost Colony, 297.
 Zhao, Shaping the Asian Trade Network, 9.
 Crozier, Roger. Koxinga and Chinese Nationalism (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020), 50.
 Note that there are important divergences observable between the CPC and the KMT’s depiction of Koxinga: the former stressing an anti-imperialist interpretation whilst the latter highlighting his exploits “Sinicizing” Taiwan. Peter Kang. "Koxinga and His Maritime Regime in the Popular Historical Writings of Post–Cold War Taiwan." In Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in Global History, 1550-1700, edited by Tonio Andrade (University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. Hawaii Scholarship Online, 2016), 336.
 Kang, Koxinga and His Maritime Regime, 342.
Andrade, Tonio. Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory Over the West. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011
Chan, Yuan-Yuan. "Late Ming-Early Qing Transitional Wares (1620-1683), their Production, and their Relation to the Dutch China Trade, with a Catalogue of the Wares Specially made for the European Market." Order No. EP72036, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, 1998 https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2090/dissertations-theses/late-ming-early-qing-transitional-wares-1620-1683/docview/1684588523/se-2?accountid=13042
Crozier, Roger. Koxinga and Chinese Nationalism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020
Frois, Luis, Historia de Japam. Edited by Jose Wicki, S.J.Lisbon: Presidencia do Conselho de Ministros, Secretaria de Estado da Cultura, Direccao-Geral do Patrimonio cultural, Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa, 1984. Vol 4
Han, Qing. “Mingchao Shixing Haijin Zhengcede Yuanyin Tanjiu.” Dalian Haishi Daxue Xuebao 10, no. 5 (2011): 87-91
Hang, Xing. Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, C.1620–1720. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016
Kang, Peter. "Koxinga and His Maritime Regime in the Popular Historical Writings of Post–Cold War Taiwan." In Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai, Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai, Chapter 016. University of Hawaii Press, 2016
Koshimura, Isao. "The Wako’s Economic Warfare and the Making of the East Asian Seas’ Order." Ekonomska i Ekohistorija 14, no. 1 (2018): 225-249
Scott, Cameron Parker Ikaika. Opportune Climbers: The Wōkòu Surge during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Order No. 10982488, California State University, Fresno, 2018 https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:2090/dissertations-theses/opportune-climbers-Wōkòu-surge-during-sixteenth/docview/2164781262/se-2?accountid=13042
Shapinsky, Peter D. Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan. Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2014
Struve, Lynn A. “The Southern Ming, 1644–1662.” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of China, edited by Frederick W. Mote and Denis Twitchett, 7:641–725. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988
Wills, Jr., John E., John E. Wills, Jr, John Cranmer-Byng, Willard J. Peterson, Jr, and John W. Witek. “Maritime Europe and the Ming.” Chapter. In China and Maritime Europe, 1500–1800: Trade, Settlement, Diplomacy, and Missions, 24–77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010
Zhao, Gang. Shaping the Asian Trade Network: The Conception and Implementation of the Chinese Open Trade Policy, 1684–1840. Order No. 3240819, The Johns Hopkins University, 2007