Chinese and British ships engaged in battle.  Source: Wikimedia.
Chinese and British ships engaged in battle. Source: Wikimedia.



Robert J. Antony. 2003. Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China. China Research Monograph 56. Berkeley, University of California: Institute of East Asian Studies. 198 pages.



Introduction: Piracy and Chinese Martial Studies


This is the second entry in our occasional series on the intersection of Chinese martial culture and the world of merchants, pirates and seafarers in the Late Imperial and Republican periods. Our first essay looked at the historic voyage of the Junk Keying from southern China to the United Kingdom, where its crew introduced London to the first public displays of the Chinese martial arts to occur in Europe in 1851.  In the current essay we will turn our focus back to the east and look at the role of piracy in shaping life and commerce in southern China during the 18th and the 19th centuries.

To introduce us to this subject we will be discussing Professor Robert J. Antony’s excellent monograph Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafares in Late Imperial China (University of California, 2003). Many of the essays posted here at Kung Fu Tea attempt to understand the evolution and development of the traditional martial arts of southern China. For students of this subject the world of pirates, merchant traders and impoverished fishermen is actually a critical topic.

Life in southern China was dominated by the sea. This was especially true for residents of Guangdong’s craggy coastline and the densely populated Pearl River delta. This same nautical primacy extended up through the coastal areas of Fujian province and Taiwan.

Much of southern China is cut off from the interior by high chains of mountains and deep river valleys. Few roads were constructed in the region, and those that existed tended to be harassed by bandits throughout the later parts of the Qing dynasty. As a result both agricultural and manufactured goods moved along oceanic, river and coastal trade routes.

One cannot underestimate the importance and size of this trade. Guangdong province handled up to 75% of all of China’s foreign trade in the early 19th century. Nor could the province feed itself. Due to movement towards sericulture and other cash-crops in the 18th century, the area’s population was forced to rely of frequent shipments of rice and other staple crops from South East Asia for its basic sustenance. A vast network of Junk merchants and local ports split these goods and distributed them to markets throughout the region.

Given the scarcity of high quality farm land in the coastal areas, large numbers of people also depended on fishing for their livelihood. While some well-funded outfits fished the waters of Indonesia and the Philippines, most ships worked the local waters. Individuals of modest means might fish during one season, and then find work as sailors on merchant or pirate vessels when the trade winds picked up later in the year.

Whether we are discussing trans-oceanic trade, river transport between villages or coastal fishing communities, much of life in southern China happened on boats. The world of merchants and pirates was not confined to a few large ports. In some way shape or form it reached out to touch practically everyone.

Nor was this an idyllic seascape. While vital economic arteries, the water ways of southern China could also be very dangerous. Pirates not only disrupted shipping, but they went out of their way to kidnap and hold vast numbers of individuals who were either ransomed or (more commonly) kept as a forced labor reserve on their ships. Merchant vessels carried large numbers of guns and professional guards, and still found it necessary to pay protection fees to the local pirate fleets. Indeed, the history and folklore of the region is replete with stories of individuals who took up the study of the martial arts, or founded schools, following an encounter with a pirate vessel.

Still, piracy does not seem to receive much attention in our discussions of the development of the southern Chinese martial arts. In some ways this is surprising as rural banditry, gentry militias, urban secret societies and tax rebellions have all become relatively common topics of discussion. Further, a number of local boxing styles contain references to the necessity of fighting on ships, or the invention of special techniques meant to be applied in confined spaces, in their creation mythology. Yet there has not been much actual engagement with the academic sources on local piracy and its impact on the development of southern Chinese popular culture.

Anyone wishing to learn more about this topic would be well advised to locate a copy of Like Froth Floating on the Sea. Written by Robert J. Antony, a professor of history at the University of Macao, this book offers a compelling review and reappraisal of the extent documentary sources on piracy in the South China Sea.  Engaging with the historical literature on marginal and criminal groups produced by scholars like Perry, Kuhn, Ownby and Murray, Antony creates a compelling account of the rise and fall of Southern China’s golden age of piracy while painting a vivid picture of these individual’s difficult and often desperate lives. His background in naval history allows him to discuss both parallels and contradictions with the evolution of western piracy. Further, his study moves beyond the usual large scale geo-political discussions of the causes of piracy to offer a much more detailed view which frames these predatory practices within the context of local market trends and social practices.


An image of Chinese sailors (often labeled as "pirates") taken from an early 20th century postcard sold in the United States.
An image of Chinese sailors (often labeled as “pirates”) taken from an early 20th century postcard sold to tourists at a nautical attraction in the United States.  Note the matching uniforms.


A Review of Piracy in Southern China: 1780-1810


Antony’s monograph starts off with an extended discussion of three distinct eras in Southern Chinese piracy. These are the periods of the Wokou raids of the Ming dynasty, the merchant and rebel “sea-lords” of the Ming-Qing transition, and finally the more plebeian criminal networks that dominated coastal piracy in the late 18th and early 19th century. It is this last period that his monograph will explore, yet a better understanding of the previous eras of piracy (and what drove them) throws the theoretical questions that motivate his study into sharper relief.

Following this introduction Antony offers two chapters that look at the economic and social structures of life in coastal China. This is explored from both the perspective of individuals who worked in the mercantile and the fishing sectors. The evidence presented in these chapters strengthens the author’s main theoretical arguments that piracy was an essentially economic response to desperation and changes in local market conditions.

Rather than their being a special class of “professional pirates,” Antony argues that essentially any of the impoverished individuals that comprised southern China’s water world might be driven to opportunistically take up criminal behavior. Further, it was not uncommon to encounter individuals who might turn to piracy during a specific crisis (or a slack season) only to return to their normal civilian life once the situation settled.

While a handful of individuals took advantage of favorable geo-political conditions to build vast criminal fleets, it seems that most pirates of were basically amateurs. Even more interesting is his discussion of the fact that the majority of sailors in the larger gangs were actually “reluctant pirates,” or prisoners being held for forced labor. This unpaid work was actually the key ingredient in making piracy pay.

Antony next turns to a detailed investigation of the role of violence in piracy. Many accounts of such encounters paint pictures of almost indiscriminate murder, rape and torture, whereas others show pirates conducting trade with local populations, inducing sailors to join their ranks through the promise of treasure and offering protection to local shipping that agreed to sail under their flag. One of the author’s strengths is his ability to wade through the various popular and official accounts of pirate behavior and paint a more comprehensive picture of the social, economic and psychological logic behind their actions.

While it is easy to fixate on accounts of human sacrifice or torture, Antony reminds us that the Chinese state itself was a violent institution that attempted to enforce social order through public displays of terror. Many of the excesses of these rouge seamen are best thought of as conscious imitations or appropriations of this “official terror” which became useful as these groups sought to establish their own hegemony over local society. Other more heterodox behaviors (such as the performance of human sacrifices or unorthodox patterns of sexual relationships) can be thought of as a more or less conscious inversion of the dominant Confucian order.

This pattern of dual appropriation and inversion of orthodox social norms calls for some careful consideration. How should we think of these subaltern social groups? Do they represent a nascent revolutionary urge, as small scale democracy among western pirates is often portrayed? Or is something else going on here?

When looking at a related set of issues among contemporary petty criminals in southern China and Taiwan, Avron Boretz has argued that we should resist the temptation to see this socially constructed subaltern world (the so called land of “Rivers and Lakes”) as a genuine threat to the dominant social order. Boretz notes that while these gangsters contest who should sit at the top of the social hierarchy, they do not ask more fundamental questions about its existence. Likewise, while their own thoughts on “martial virtue” are often used to justify their anti-social behaviors, the more fundamental motivations that lay behind these specific expressions serve to strengthen, rather than undermine, the basic norms of Chinese society.

One suspects a similar argument might be made about the social realm of southern Chinese pirates. In one sense this was a true community that cut across linguistic, ethnic and provincial boundaries. It was ruled by its own economic and social logic. It even tended to develop its own highly colorful and criminal vocabulary.

Still, Antony’s discussion suggests that pirate communities continued to rely very strongly on more general cultural norms and institutions. The leadership of crews often followed pseudo-Confucian patterns of fathers and son, masters and disciples. While they may have contested who had the right to collect taxes in certain ports, we should probably resist the temptation to think of Southern China’s pirates as a “revolutionary force” in either a Liberal or Marxist sense.

I personally found chapters six and seven to be the most interesting aspect of the study. They may also contain some of the most useful material in the volume for students of martial arts studies who are attempting to construct a more detailed understanding of the underside of Chinese society in the 19th century.

Chapter six moves beyond the basic descriptions provided in the first half of the book, providing a more detailed discussion of how large numbers of pirates integrated themselves into the maritime society and markets of the early 19th century. This includes discussions of how pirates interacted with communities on the land. Some of these were the targets of extortion, but in many other cases the interactions were commercial in nature and highly favorable to those who were able to sell the seamen food, water, nautical supplies or weapons. Other communities became safe havens for pirate ships who needed to put in for repairs, recruit crews, exchange information or to sell their stolen goods.

As Chinese officials have noted throughout the centuries, pirates would be unable to operate except for the constant support that they receive from individuals and communities on the land. Indeed, as piracy became a major avenue for capital accumulation (even compensating for insufficient legal markets in some areas), all sorts of individuals discovered that they could prosper by actively or passively aiding these criminal groups.

As helpful as this chapter was, it was one area of the book where I personally wanted to see more. At various times Antony mentions fascinating tidbits, such as the occasional collusion between pirates and urban secret societies, or the participation of petty merchants (and even whole markets) in the disposal of stolen goods. These are subjects that deserve a more detailed investigation.

How exactly did pirates and secret society members relate to each other? Did pirates join the Triads or otherwise adopt elements of their lore? Likewise, what happened to the social structure of coastal villages whose economic fortunes came to be dominated by occasional (or even more frequent) piratical encounters?

The final substantive chapter of this book provides a brief glimpse into the “cultural world” of southern China’s pirates. Again, these pages make a major contribution to our understanding of this material. Antony’s description of the popular religions and cults that dominated the lives of both sailors and pirates is fascinating. His reconstruction of this cultural milieu is all the more impressive when we remember that the main sources that he drew from (official reports, court documents and gazetteers) tend to avoid any detailed discussions of local (heterodox) religious practices.

Here we have another area where Antony whetted my appetite and left me wanting more. How much more one can actually expect to find in the relatively thin historical record is another matter. Certainly this is an issue that students of martial arts history can sympathize with.

Nevertheless, I suspect that there are a few avenues of investigation that might be fruitful, especially if one is considering expanding the study to look at the interaction between piratical and coastal communities in greater detail. Martial artists would probably be very interested in learning more about the relationship between these gangs and the various opera companies that plied the waters of southern China. Given that operas were staged at coastal temples that pirates were known to frequent, these groups must have come into at least occasional contact. Did traveling opera singers fit into the environment of wandering (sometimes violent) seamen that Antony describes, or did their own guilds and social structures prevent them from fully integrating into the world of sailors that surrounded them?

Also interesting would be a fuller account of how pirates were perceived and portrayed in the popular literature of the period. Obviously their occasional occurrence in martial arts novels is fascinating. Researchers might also want to look for evidence that they may ever have appeared as figures in Cantonese military operas or in the tales of traveling story tellers.

Ironically actual martial artists were often among the most enthusiastic consumers of the various genera of Kung Fu fiction. The literary and cultural discourse on the martial arts has probably been impacting their perception and practice from time immemorial.

Boretz has also noted that petty gangsters in contemporary southern China consume huge amounts of clearly fictional media glamorizing the world of “River and Lakes.” What about the pirates? To what extent was their behavior a response to, or an extension of, social scripts that were being propagated throughout popular culture?

In the final chapter Antony reviews some of the larger theoretical issues that arise throughout the monograph. What is the value of doing “bottom up” historical research when attempting to understand the development of popular society? The points that he raises will no doubt sound familiar to students of martial arts studies.


Captured pirates in the 1930s.  Source:
Captured pirates in the 1930s. Source:


Conclusion: A Critical Study of Social Violence in 19th Century Southern China


Our understanding of the history and nature of the martial arts can grow no faster than our overall grasp of the development of popular culture in China’s many regions. The martial arts (as we understand them today) are a byproduct of the development of certain trends in Chinese popular culture during the Late Imperial and Republic periods. Unfortunately our understanding of this subject is still incomplete and subject to continual refinement.

This is precisely what makes Like Froth Floating on the Sea an essential book for any student of the development of the southern Chinese martial arts. This may seem like an odd assertion as Professor Antony never mentions boxing or any other sort of hand combat training within the text. He is totally preoccupied with his own subject matter.

Still, rampant piracy on the sea (and banditry on land) defined the environment in which the Chinese martial arts would develop. This is especially true for those styles that originated in the coastal regions of both Guangdong and Fujian province. Understanding the environment in which these arts arose is critical to grasping their actual goals and essential nature.

While reviewing Antony’s manuscript I was struck with another thought. The socio-economic profile of those individuals who were most likely to be caught up in a life of piracy (“bare branches” or young unmarried men with few family connections or economic prospects) closely matches the contours of individuals who tended to become boxers, “braves” or members of “big sword” societies. By introducing their life stories (usually culled from court documents) Antony confirms many of the root factors that drew individuals towards a life of wandering and violence.

For these reasons I have always been happy to recommend this book to anyone trying to get a handle on the basic nature of social violence and human security in Late Imperial southern China. This volume is compact (170 pages of text) and a determined reader can probably make their way through it in a day. It provides enough information (all culled from important historical sources) to give academic students a comprehensive introduction to the subject without getting bogged down in any one theoretical debate.

In short, we need to see more books like this one in the field of Chinese martial arts history. It had been a few years since my last review of this text, and as I made my way through the book earlier this week I was once again struck by its handy layout and fast pace. Similar studies on armed escort companies, the recruitment of “braves” during mid-19th century uprisings, salt smuggling, the traditional weapons manufacturing industry or even the imperial military examination system, would go a long way towards improving our understanding of the environment in which the martial arts appeared.

Professor Antony deftly illustrates how highly focused studies such as these, examining a single subject in one region over the course of a decade or two, can generate finely grained historical observations that are critical to all sorts of debates ranging from the construction of gender norms to the importance of geo-political factors in stimulating local outbreaks of community violence. Not only does he provide us with valuable data, but this work is also a template that anyone considering a historical volume on the development of some aspect of the Chinese martial arts may wish to consider.

Clearly this monograph has succeeded in its central goal of explaining who in China became pirates and why. It has also been successful in generating a whole host of new questions that I would now like to know more about. Chapters from this text would be wonderful as supporting material in an undergraduate course on martial arts studies, and I would have no reservations about using this book in a graduate seminar. Antony’s work deserves a place on the bookshelf of any serious student of Chinese martial arts history.




If you were enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Nick Hurst Talks to Kung Fu Tea about Writing, Research, and Curating the Memory of a Shaolin Grandmaster.