Villains or Heroes - the Teochews Who Ruled The High Seas

Located on the periphery of imperial China, the Teochew prefecture was seldom the subject of interest of the ancient Chinese scribes who recorded the histories of the different dynasties. And even though the region produced more than its fair share of imperial officials and scholars, virtually none of these persons received more than a passing mention in the royal records. It is thus ironic that when the Ming Shi-lu 明實錄 (also known as the Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty) finally made reference to a native of Teochew in more than a few lines, it was not to a meritorious subject, but a man condemned as a criminal and rebel.

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) is in the view of some historians one of the greatest era of China. Such an assessment however completely overlooks the disastrous consequences of its emperors' obsession in re-creating in their dominion a Confucian society based on obsolete ideas of centralised authoritarian rule and a purely agrarian economy. It rolled back centuries of progress achieved through openness and foreign trade from the Tang (618 to 907) to the Yuan dynasty (1271 –1368), and particularly for the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian brought economic ruin as a blanket prohibition on private maritime trade severed their most important source of wealth through the export of fine ceramic wares to the world through Southeast Asia. It was in this context of a bitter struggle between the imperial centre and the southern Chinese that the renowned eunuch admiral Zheng He found during his maiden expeditionary voyage in 1405 a Chinese merchant-smuggler haven in Palembang, Sumatra, led by a Teochew Tan Tsou’ngi 陳祖義 (Mandarin: Chen Zuyi).

Conceivably the Ming imperial court already knew of this settlement in Palembang, which was known at the time to Chinese seafarers as the "Old Harbour" (舊港). According the Veritable Records of the Ming, Zheng He in line with his mission to bring the foreign lands into submission of the Ming Empire persuaded Tan Tsou’ngi to yield to the authority of the throne, and the latter was conciliatory at first, agreeing even to send his son Tan Seuliang 陳士良 back with the Treasure Fleet to present a tribute to the Emperor Yongle. However relations turned drastically sour after Zheng He returned from India and came to believe, as the result of the incitements of a Cantonese rival of Tan Tsou’ngi, that the Teochew's acceptance of amnesty was in fact a ploy to hide his real plans to escape.

An artist impression of the sea battle between Zheng He and Tan Tsou'ngi (image source: Internet)


When alerted to Zheng He's changed demeanour, Tan Tsou’ngi - now labelled a “sea villain” (海賊) in the corresponding passage of the chronicles, mobilised the multitude under his command to plunder the Ming ships. The fighting saw over 5,000 of Tan Tsou’ngi’s men killed, ten of his ships burnt and seven more seized. The chieftain himself was captured alive and brought back in fetters to China. While the man who betrayed him received investiture to serve as Ming’s representative in Palembang, Tan Tsou’ngi never cleared his name and was publicly executed in the capital Nanjing in 1407.

The real "crime" of Tan Tsou’ngi was of course his refusal to do business with the Ming imperial court. However the later-dated History of Ming (明史) would escalate his vilification, spinning a tale of him being the head of pirates who plundered indiscriminately all merchant ships that passed the Sumatra waters. Even so, Tan Tsou’ngi would be overshadowed in infamy by another Teochew Lim Hong 林風 (a.k.a. Lim Ah Hong 林亞風)(Mandarin: Lin Feng) - a true pirate in every sense of the word and the feature character of Spanish Augustinian priest Juan González de Mendoza’s 1568 book Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China (The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China and the Situation Thereof).

As successful as Zheng He’s legendary voyages were in spreading the glory of the Ming dynasty, they actually brought little real returns for the imperial coffers. By the mid-15th century the Ming dynasty itself was on the verge financial ruin, and helpless to halt the revival of smuggling between southern China and Southeast Asia that became rife again, often with the complicit involvement of local officials. With the appearance of Portuguese trading ships during the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1521 to 1567), the illicit trading activities began to take place even on the edge of the Chinese shores. A showdown between Ming and its subjects who opposed the maritime ban became inevitable, and this was finally triggered after an overzealous provincial official ordered in 1548 the destruction of an offshore smuggling mart in Zhejiang controlled by powerful Japan-based Chinese merchant-smuggler syndicates.

Even though the scholar-bureaucrat responsible subsequently took his own life as the result of intense public criticisms, the rebels were not appeased and they began attacks of military garrisons stationed in cities and towns on the coast of Zhejiang and neighbouring Fujian. When it was became clear that the underpaid and poorly-fed Ming soldiers were flee at the approach of any enemy, groups of impoverished souls from all over also banded themselves together to raid settlements along the rest of the southern Chinese coast. Blighted by a disinterested monarch, a state of anarchy was allowed to prevail in the region and control of its seas soon fell under the hand of pirate gangs. 

Sketches of a mid-Ming era Guangdong-style war-junk (image source: Chou Hai Tu Bian (筹海图篇) or “Compendium of Naval Security” from the 16th century) 


Isolated by distance from the provincial capitals of Guangdong and Fujian in Guangzhou and Fuzhou respectively, the Teochew coastline was chosen by a succession of corsairs to set up their lairs. Each leader was more notorious than the one before, and none was more feared than Lim Hong, whom Mendoza identified in his book as Limahon. Described as one born into “mean parentage” and “by nature warlike and evil inclined”, the native of the restless Jaopheng 饒平 district earned his stripes by rising through the piratical ranks to command a fleet of forty ships. The size of this he more than doubled in size, after he defeated a rival Teochew pirate head Lim To Khiam 林道乾 (in Mendoza's writings: Vintoquian, Mandarin: Lin Daoqian).

Just as Lim Hong was writing himself into Chinese history through his endless raids of the Teochew and Fujian coast, Spanish colonists were firming their grip on the Philippines by the conquest of Manila in 1571. Ultimately their interest was in forging trade with China that led Mendoza's work. Based on the observations of several Spanish travellers to China, it was significant as the first full length Western account of China since the famous 13th century Travels of Marco Polo. But while it contained lengthy descriptions of the government and people of Ming China, no individual was devoted more pages than Lim Hong – by then the chief target of a Ming military force consisting of 130 war junks and 40,000 men that a new Emperor Longqing had dispatched to eradicate piracy in the south.

A monument of Lim Hong in Alaminos City in Pangasinan, the Philippines (image source: Internet)

No doubt what stirred the imagination of Mendoza’s sources was the bravado of the undisputed king of the Chinese seas. Having decided to avoid direct confrontation with the Ming navy, he sailed to Luzon with 3,000 followers in tail, and there mounted a brazen, but eventually ill-fated attempt to seize Manila in 1574. The attack shocked the European colonists, and even though Lim Hong retreated to the Lingayen Gulf, they were determined to remove him from the island. They eventually located him and succeeded in destroying his base camp and entire fleet. However Lim Hong himself was not one to be defeated. In almost miraculous manner he sealed his place in pirate lore by slipping through enemy encirclement and leapt into a final end of which no one knows about.

History has remembered Tan Tsou’ngi and Lim Hong for their villainy and crimes. But right till their downfall they were each followed by thousands, which tells that they were not without good virtue. True to say they were no saints, but neither were others portrayed as heroes in many books. To a large extent both men were products of the times they lived in, for the lives they chose to live were determined by tumultuous circumstances that were not of their creation. If there is something about these two bigger than life Teochews that we can look up to, it is perhaps their courage in opposing tyranny and refusing to accept the cards dealt to them in life.


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