Teochew through the eyes of its visitors: The captains of “Ship No. 47”

The doors of Japan were closed to the world during the Edo period (1603 and 1868). However, the Tokugawa shogunate kept a window open at the port of Nagasaki to receive trading vessels from Europe, China as well as the many kingdoms of Southeast Asia. With an eye on keeping tabs on developments in the outside world, the Japanese authorities made a ruling that the captain of every Chinese junk was interviewed by a translator. The information collected was then rewritten into Japanese and transmitted to Edo. These documents were classified as Tosen Fusetsu-gaki (唐船風說書), meaning "Reports and Tales from the Tang (i.e. Chinese) Ships".

Image 1: Japanese scroll painting of a Siam junk, dated circa 18th century, which is unmistakably.Chinese in appearance 

The same measure was taken for junks arriving from Southeast Asia, whose crew were more often than not also Chinese. On 17 June 1694 statements were taken from the captain and vice-captain of a vessel that came from Siam and was registered as “Ship No. 47”. Xu Xuanguan and Yang Lianguan had travelled to Nagasaki the year before last as purser and passenger on the same vessel respectively. They intended to repeat their voyage from Siam to Japan in June 1693, but adverse winds at sea forced them to divert to Teochew prefecture (or Chaozhou). 

Having spent winter there, their junk resumed its journey, reportedly carrying 119 Chinese from Teochew and one Siamese on board. By this, it was meant that the Chinese had embarked from Teochew, rather than they were Teochew people. That Xu Xuanguan and Yang Lianguan were not natives was apparent from their observations of the place, which read as below:

As far as we got to know in Chaozhou, which is a remote coastal place, all provinces in the Great Qing are peaceful and nothing unusual has happened though we have no details. We have had no news about Siam this year because we were staying in Chaozhou. In Chaozhou, a silver mine was found several years ago and has since been developed extensively. There is plenty of lead which contains as much as 40 to 60 or 70 me [3.75 to 6.6 grams] of silver to every 100 kin [600 grams] of lead. Nearly two million people have come to this silver mine to make a living. Not only local merchants have congregated here but also those from other places. The local officials in Chaozhou had been exploiting the silver mine for their own profit for a number of years without making a proper report to Beijing.

The Beijing authorities found out about these irregularities and sent an Emperor’s official from Beijing to investigate the situation. This may sound very strict but as is usual in the foreign way of doing things, and this case was no exception, there is a lot of bribery. In Chaozhou, the talk of the town was that a secret message must have been sent to the Imperial inspector. Should the latter have dared to examine the case as it was, then all of the profits accumulated by the Chaozhou officials for the past years would have been affected which would have meant that not only would the misappropriated properties have required confiscation but all the Chaozhou officials would have had to be dismissed. Should this have occurred then there might have been a disturbance or even a civil war in Chaozhou. Thus, things remained as they used to be, the people there told us. There is nothing else to report to you. The 25th day of the 5th month, intercalary Year of the Dog.

Seven decades separated Xu Xuanguan and Yang Lianguan’s brief stay in Teochew from Spanish friar Adriano de las Cortes’ detention in the prefecture after his ship ran aground in its waters. During this relatively short period, China was turned upside down after the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) collapsed and Manchu “barbarians” were allowed to break through the Great Wall to establish a new imperial power, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

The view of Xu Xuanguan and Yang Lianguan of Teochew as a “remote coastal place” is striking. Ever since the late Tang dynasty, the written accounts by Chinese officials posted to govern Teochew as well as of other visitors have consistently described its progress from an undeveloped backwater to a renowned centre of literary learning and having a capital city that Cortes exclaimed as having no equal in grandeur or beauty in China.

When Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661-1722) of Qing lifted a Ming maritime ban preventing the people in mainland China from sailing abroad to trade in 1684, the number of Chinese vessels that arrived at Nagasaki surged from 24 that year to 85 in 1685, 102 in 1686, 136 in 1687 and 194 in 1688. The trend was reversed only after Japan imposed a quota in the following. Tellingly, the Nagasaki port records show that merely eight of these vessels that came in these four years departed from Teochew. Xu Xuanguan and Yang Lianguan were not wrong. Their claim that they had no news about Siam from Teochew further tells us the famous Teochew shipping network that later facilitated the migration of millions to Southeast Asia was not yet formed. What could have reduced Teochew to a place of near irrelevance?

Although the Qing dynasty was formally proclaimed on Chinese soil in 1644, its armies, consisting of both Manchus and Chinese regiments, only reached the borders of the southernmost provinces of Guangdong (which Teochew falls within) and Fujian in late 1646. They were fiercely resisted by Ming loyalists headed by Zheng Chenggong. The powerful Xiamen-based pirate-merchant sought to capture Teochew for its fertile river plains. However, he was repelled by not only the Qing forces but also local Teochew militias who regarded his followers as evil as the Manchus. To complicate matters, the loyalty of the commanders of the prefecture’s former Ming military units swung like a pendulum between Ming and Qing.

By the estimates of historian Robert Marks in Tigers, Rice, Silk and Silt, Teochew had 35 per cent of its cultivated land laid waste by 1650 and a combination of war, famine and epidemics reduced Guangdong’s population of 9 million by some 2 million between 1640 and 1661. A hundred thousand of the dead were inhabitants of the Teochew Prefectural City massacred after it fell to the Manchus in 1653.

In 1661 Zheng Chenggong withdrew to Taiwan and the Qing court, hoping to isolate him, issued a coastal evacuation order (遷界令) that forced the relocation of all coastal populations in China 50 li (approximately 27 kilometres) inland. In Teochew, this resulted in the depopulation of numerous towns and villages and widespread starvation after the loss of extensive farmlands and fishing grounds. Called “the greatest conflagration and havoc that the world has seen” by Casimiro Díaz, another Spanish friar in the Philippines, the coastal evacuation order was rescinded only in 1683.

Given the length and extent of the upheaval and destruction, the silver mine mentioned by Xu Xuanguan and Yang Lianguan naturally sparked a rush, although the number of two million was obviously either a mistranslation or an exaggeration. The revelation that the mine was exploited by officials in Teochew with local merchants and people from other places seems to suggest that the men who provided the physical labour were not Teochews. This is not altogether surprising. The history of the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia tells us that tens of thousands of Chinese worked as gold miners in Kalimantan and as tin miners in the Malay Peninsula, but this was an occupation that the Teochew migrants largely shunned.

One of the largest Chinese mining communities formed in Kalimantan’s Monterado district in the mid-18th century consisted primarily of “half-Hakkas”—denoted in Chinese either as Pan-san-hok (半山福, literally "half mountain Hokkien") or Pan-san-hak (半山客, "half mountain Hakka"). They were so-called because the language they spoke was a form of Hakka heavily influenced by Hokkien, a speech closely related to Teochew. This suggests that the “half-Hakkas” had lived among the Hokkien or Teochew people for a long time. Interestingly, these “half-Hakkas” came from the contiguous districts of Hepo (河婆,in Gek-yor [Jieyang 揭陽] county), Huilai (惠來) and Hongsun (Fengshun 豐順) in the western half of Teochew and Lufeng, Haifeng and Guishan (now called Huiyang) in Huizhou prefecture.

The port that served the mining industry in Monterado was Pontianak, where Teochew merchants from Gek-yor were dominant. Coincidentally, the earliest written reference to Hakka presence in Teochew is a mention of clashes between “Ke bandits” (客賊) and natives in Gek-yor between 1644 and 1646 found in the Jieyang Gazette (揭陽縣志) of 1779. Joining the dots together, it seems that the wealthy elites in Gek-yor had a relationship with the “half-Hakkas”, which could well have been forged through the secret silver mine.

Image 2: Map of the 8 historical counties of Teochew Prefecture showing locations of Jieyang (and Hepo), Huilai, Fengshun.

Emperor Kangxi is popularly portrayed as one of China’s greatest monarchs. However, the testimony of the captains of “Ship No. 47” shows all is not as it seems and amply demonstrates the old Chinese proverb, “The mountain is high, the emperor is far away” (山高皇帝遠).

For many more decades, the local merchants and gentry families would entrench their power in Teochew, working hand in glove to consolidate their grip over its economy and all the opportunities it afforded. For the families that were poor, they got poorer. However, this also made their desire to break out of the cycle of poverty grow stronger and ultimately change the course of the history of our people.

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