you're reading...
Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Southern China, Women and the Martial Arts

The Boxing Master, the Pirate’s Wife and the Soldier: Three Scenes from Southern China’s Piracy Crisis, 1807-1810


Zhang Shun, the White Streak in the Waves (Rôrihakuchô Chôjun), from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes. 19th century Japanese Woodblock print.

Zhang Shun, the White Streak in the Waves (Rôrihakuchô Chôjun), from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes. 19th century Japanese Woodblock print.


Introduction: Foreign Language Sources on Southern Chinese Piracy


It is a dictum in the social sciences that data is never self-interpreting. Likewise historians have found that it is often impossible to judge the nature or significance of events while one is caught up in the middle of them. Time must pass before these episodes can be fitted into a wider framework of understanding.

Nor is this ever a fully neutral project. How we understand ourselves, as well what we take to be the “start” and “end point” of some chain of causality (always artificially constructed), will have a substantial impact on later discussions of what a given historical event “really means.”

This is the third post in our occasional series addressing the intersection between the worlds of piracy and the martial arts (click here to review the first and second entries). One of my long-term goals at Kung Fu Tea has been to bring period foreign language sources which address various aspects of China’s martial culture into our discussion. Such sources are useful to researchers for a number of reasons.

Given the distinctly lower class stature of many individuals involved in the martial arts, their stories tended to be excluded from China’s more elite driven record keeping system. While there are the occasional exceptions to this trend (court cases being a classic example), European and Japanese visitors to China were often more eager to relate mundane and every-day occurrences to their readers back home. These early travelogues, newspaper articles and even postcards can be an important source of information for those interested in the social history of the Chinese martial arts.

This post draws on two such sources, both bound in a single volume and first sold to the English speaking public in 1831.  The first of these is the History of the pirates who infested the China Sea from 1807-1810, translated by the important early German Sinologist, Charles Friedrich Neumann. The same volume (printed in London for the Oriental Translations Fund) then included A Brief narration of my captivity and treatment amongst the Ladrones by Richard Glasspoole (originally published in Wilkinson’s Travels to China, undated) in its first appendix.

Both of these works are important for students of martial arts history as they provide nearly contemporaneous accounts of the final years of southern China’s early 19th century piracy crisis. These critical events help to demonstrate how susceptible Guangdong had become to both economic and political disruptions in the broader global environment. The “demand” for piracy spiked due to political upheaval in Vietnam and the growing volume of coastal trade, while rising food prices, stark economic inequality and the drought of 1809 ensured a plentiful “supply” of desperate sailors.

The ensuing outbreak of violence in the Pearl River Delta foreshadowed a number of important later events. Perhaps the most critical of these was the central government’s growing inability to deal with serious security threats through the standing imperial military and its increased reliance on local gentry led militias to address serious threats to peace and security. In fact, the coastal militias that were activated during the piracy crisis can be thought of as an early precursor of the much more robust and better institutionalized militia network that would arise in the same area to defend against the British in the later Opium Wars.

These militias were a major mechanism by which the local residents of the Pearl River were introduced to systematic martial arts training, often overseen and subsidized by the local gentry and landlords. While militias could be seen everywhere in China during the troubled 19th century, the specific form that they took in Guangdong seems to have contributed to the unique flavor of the region’s evolving martial arts styles.

Unfortunately for the residents of the area, these militias were created on a smaller scale and lacked the horizontal networking capabilities that would characterize later regional efforts. As a result individual villages were often left to basically fend for themselves when faced with bands of pirate raiders that might measure in the thousands or even the tens of thousands.

The results of these encounters were sadly predictable. Increased government success in cutting the pirates off from their land-based supply lines, as well as the general spike in food prices following the 1809 famine, drove tens of thousands of pirate to attack communities up and down the Pearl River as they searched for both booty and provisions. Entire towns were slaughtered, burned to the ground or taken captive. Accounts of these events are useful to modern students of martial arts studies as they paint a vivid picture of the reality of social violence (and the place of hand combat) in southern China in the early 19th century.

Both of the authors in this volume provide very detailed descriptions of exactly what this violence entailed and the different strategies that communities used to attempt to defend themselves. On occasion the two authors even give their own accounts of the exact same events, increasingly our general sense of confidence in the descriptive reliability of both sources.

Of course this is not to imply that both source are totally trustworthy or that they always agree with one another. In some respects the differences in perspective between the two authors is the most interesting aspect of their record. History of the Pirates was written by a Chinese author named Yung Lun Yuen and published in Guangzhou in November of 1830.

Little is known about the author (or the two individuals who contributed prefaces to his work). Yung is identified as a native of Shunde, a conservative farming region just south of the provincial capital that was known at the time for its strong landlord/gentry tradition and robust local militias.

Neumann comments that this work of popular history, written to preserve the memory of battles that were fought twenty years previously, contained a number of local aphorisms and abbreviated characters that made its translation difficulty. He concludes that while the work is the product of an educated hand, the author does not appear to have been a fully trained literary scholar. Neumann also notes the possibility that the name attached to this book is in fact spurious so as to avoid any possible complications with the censors.

Not much is known about the textual history of this document. I was unable to turn up any academic papers discussing it, nor does there appear to be a more recent translation. I find this to be a bit odd as this small work is cited in a number of current historical works on southern China.

The original Chinese language edition appears to be quite rare. The only two existing copies that I could find any mention of are both in the British Library. As such the text presents us with many puzzles, not the least of which is the reliability of Neumann’s translation and editorial judgments.

Richard Glasspoole is a somewhat more transparent figure. The circumstances surrounding his capture and release are basically well understood, and his account has received a fair amount of attention through the decades.

Neumann goes to lengths to point out that the account given by Yung Lun Yuen likely includes exaggerations or omissions designed to spare the government’s reputation. Cowardly officials and officers are few and far between within the pages of his volume. He notes that Yung’s naval commanders have a distinct tendency to “withdraw in order to regroup their forces” rather than “fleeing in the face of certain defeat.”

Interestingly he has no similar caveats to add to Glasspoole’s record of his captivity among the pirates. This is peculiar as the role that Glasspoole and his men played in actively assisting the pirates in violent raids on various coastal towns should certainly raise some questions as to what details he may have chosen to withhold from his published memoirs. Readers should also note that Glasspoole’s remarks appear to have been recorded much earlier than those of Yuen, who probably began to gather his sources in the late 1820s.

Despite all of this, it is remarkable that there is so much overlap between these two accounts. Both individuals focus on the pirate fleets under the command of Zhang Bao and Zheng Shi (or in Neumann’s translation Chang Paou and Ching Yih Sao-“the wife of Ching Yih”). Much of the material related by Yuen falls into predictable genres. He recounts the stirring speeches of doomed military officers, the efforts of righteous government officials to call bandit chiefs to repentance (usually while offering them pardons and titles) and he even catalogs the sacrifices of virtuous widows.

Obviously most of this material could never be verified and it probably existed only in local folklore before Yuen collected it to add to his accounts. Still, some of the more dramatic moments that he recounts, such as the Imperial Admiral who intentionally blew up his own flagship by tossing a match into the magazine just as it was being boarded by pirates, or the case of the “virtuous widow” Mei Ying who withstood multiple beatings and eventually drown herself rather than submit to life as a “pirate’s wife,” actually find firsthand confirmation in Glasspoole’s own recollections. He discusses the sack of Mei Ying’s village in some detail and confirms in fact that a number of women did manage to throw themselves overboard and drown rather than being sold as “wives” to the local pirates.

Still, these two authors differ in their fundamental assessment of the root causes of the piracy crisis and its relationship with events on the mainland. Both Neumann and Glasspoole state with no hesitation that the origins of Southern China’s maritime problems lay in economic inequality and chronic poverty.

They perceived in this banditry a certain revolutionary impulse and proto-class consciousness. While neither believed that the pirates understood the sociological laws that drove their actions, both saw the crisis as a manifestation of fundamental unresolved tensions within Chinese society. Their analysis of these events is somewhat similar to those offered by Marxist historians close to 100 years later.

Yuen, either because of his own solidly conservative background or through a desire to avoid problems with the censors, had no such misgivings about the culpability of his own society in enabling the piracy crisis. Rather than seeing these bandits as an extension of the commercial world that sustained the local economy, his rhetoric always draws a clear distinction between “our” government and “our” citizens, and the forces of chaos that float on the water. One suspects that this world view is not entirely rhetorical, but rather it reflects deep misgivings about the Tanka boat people who made up much of the pirate fleet and the world of seafarers in general.

It is almost as though by the 1830s a sense of “Chinese national identity” has started to form in the mind of European observers. Yet this concept is notably absent from the work of the local historian who instead perceives only the monolithic imperial state and various social divisions that make up local life. These differences in perspective impact how both parties understand and report the violence surrounding the piracy crisis.

Obviously there is more material in these accounts than we can discuss here. In the remainder of these work I would like to highlight three excerpts, all drawn from Yung’s account of the climatic 1809 raid on the Bocca Tigris area by the Red and Black fleets controlled by the pirate navies under the command of Zheng Shi and Zhang Bao. Each of these excerpts has been selected as it focuses on a socially significant moment of hand-to-hand combat which helps to frame to the social meaning of this conflict as it was remembered in the 1830s.

While these accounts suggest something about the nature of civil violence in the 1810s, they are even more interesting as they open a window onto the social meaning of hand combat during periods of acute local crisis. Readers should take care to note the diversity of actors discuss. Here we see the actions of military officers and local boxing masters engaging in no-quarters combat with multiple assailants. We are also presented with historically plausible accounts of active female participation in violence on both sides of these struggles. The post then concludes with a few notes about the implications of these stories and the role of hand combat as a form of “tragic theater” in southern Chinese popular culture.


A small section of the 18 meter long scroll "Pacifying the South China Sea."  This work was commissioned to commemorate the end of the early 19th century piracy crisis.  Source: Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

A small section of the 18 meter long scroll “Pacifying the South China Sea.” This work was commissioned to commemorate the end of the early 19th century piracy crisis. Source: Hong Kong Maritime Museum.



A “Pirate’s Wife” with Hudiedao

“On the second moon of the fourteenth year, the admiral Tsuen Mow Sun went on board his flag vessel, called Mih Teng, and proceeded with about one hundred other vessels to attack the pirates. They were acquainted with his design by their spies, and gathered together round Wan shan; the admiral following them in four divisions. The pirates, confident in their numbers, did not withdraw, but on the contrary spread out their line, and made a strong attack.

Our commander looked very lightly on them, yet a very fierce battle followed, in which many were killed and wounded. The ropes and sails having been set on fire by the guns, the pirates became exceedingly afraid and took them away. The commander directed his fire against the steerage, that they might not be able to steer their vessels. Being very close one to the other, the pirates were exposed to the fire of all of the four lines at once. The pirates opened their eyes in astonishment and fell down; our commander advanced courageously, laid hold of their vessels, killed an immense number of men, and took about two hundred prisoners.

There was a pirate’s wife in one of the boats, holding so fast by the helm that she could scarcely be taken away. Having two cutlasses, she desperately defended herself, and wounded some soldiers; but on being wounded by a musket ball, she fell back into the vessel and was taken prisoner.” (Neumann, 23-24)


Perhaps no image has evoked more enthusiasm within martial arts mythology, fiction and folklore than the lone female warrior fending off waves of opponents through her superior resolve and mastery of the butterfly swords. One could argue that much of the emotional energy behind Wing Chun’s identity as a fighting system comes from this very symbol as it is mediated through the dual figures of the Shaolin nun Ng Moy and her student Yim Wing Chun.

While popular in all sorts of fictional stories, such individuals were likely much rarer in real life. Few women participated in formal martial arts training as this violated a number of taboos regarding mixed-sex contact. Further, the practice of foot-binding made the question moot for a large percentage of the population.

Still, the episode above is a valuable reminder that there has always been a socially significant tradition of female warriors in Chinese culture. While rare, these figures seem to be most likely to emerge in accounts of rebellions and bandit incursions, much as we see here.  Intriguingly, a number of these more historical figures are actually associated with the use of dual swords, perhaps giving rise to the images that still circulate in realm of popular fiction today.

The woman in this account was likely a member of the Tanka ethnic minority. The “Boat People” of southern China did not practice female foot-biding and violence was a sad reality of daily life in these communities. The Tanka themselves tended to be overrepresented as both perpetrators and victims of pirate related crime.

Given the nature of Yung’s account and Neuman’s translation it is impossible to say with certainty what sort of weapons this woman wielded. Still, we have already seen that hudiedao were a standard sidearm issued to naval vessels in southern China.  These short swords with their heavy brass hand guards would seem to be a likely candidate for her “cutlasses.”


Shaou Yuen, a military officer

“Shaou Yuen was commanding officer in the citadel of Lan Shih; he was of an active spirit, and erected strong fences. Before the pirates arrived, this was his daily discourse when he spoke to the people: “I know that I shall be glorified in this year by my death.” Half the year being already passed, it could not be seen how this prophecy was to be fulfilled.

When the pirates came, he encouraged the citizens to oppose them vigorously; he himself girded on his sword and brandished his spear, and was the most forward in the battle. He killed many persons; but his strength failed him at last, and he was himself killed by the pirates.

The villagers were greatly moved by his excellent behavior; they erected him a temple, and said prayers before his effigy. It was then known what he meant, that “he would be glorified in the course of the year.” Now twenty years have passed, they even honor him by exhibiting fire-works. I thought it proper to sub-join this remark to my history.” (Neumann, 43-44).


There are a number of interesting elements within the story of Shaou Yuen. Here we have an account of a regular military officer leading a village militia against the pirates. His weapons, the spear and sword, were the standard arms of the day. A charismatic leader and deadly fighter, Shaou Yuen fits the stereotype of the loyal warrior.

This story is unique within Yung’s account because of its religious or supernatural elements. Apparently the local historian first encountered Shaou as a heterodox protective deity who was still being worshiped in the area where he had fought and died. His veneration had been established relatively recently and Yung provides us with an interesting example of how new martial cults formed within southern China’s rapidly evolving popular culture.

Yung’s treatment of the story is also interesting. He notes the existence of a heterodox local religious tradition, but does not denounce it, as one might expect a conservative Confucian scholar to do. At the same time he says nothing about the efficacy of this god or any of the miracles that are attributed to it. He mentions the existence of the prophecy but does not comment on it. Instead we are left with a guarded discussion of how the piracy crisis has shaped not just the area’s military history, but its religious character as well.


The Boxing Master of Kan shin

On the twenty ninth they returned to plunder Kan shin; they went into the river with small vessels, and the inhabitants opposing them, wounded two pirates, which all the pirates resented. They next came with large vessels, surrounded the village, and made preparations to mount the narrow passes. The inhabitants remained within the entrenchments, and dared not come forward.

The inhabitants prepared themselves to make a strong resistance near the entrance from the sea on the east side of the fence; but the pirates stormed the fence, planted their flag on the shore, and then the whole squadron followed. The inhabitants fought bravely, and made a dreadful slaughter when the pirates crossed the entrance at Lin tow.

The boxing-master, Wei tang chow, made a vigorous resistance, and killed about ten pirates. The pirates then began to withdraw, but Chang paou himself headed the battle, which lasted very long. The inhabitants were not strong enough. Wei tang was surrounded by the pirates; nevertheless his wife fought valiantly by his side. On seeing that they were surrounded and exhausted, the father [presumably Wei’s] rushed forward and killed some pirates.

The pirates then retired in opposite directions, in order to surround their opponents in such a manner that they might not escape, and could be killed without being able to make any resistance; and thus it happened, the wife of Wei tang being slain with the others.” (Neumann pp. 46-47).


In my view this third story is perhaps the most interesting account of hand combat that we see in Yung’s work. In it he describes the sacking of a village named “Kan Shin.” The most notable aspect of this attack seems to have been the spirited defense mounted by a local boxing master and his family.

This is one of the few instances that we have in which a specific martial arts master from this region is named in a period source emerging from the first decade of the 19th century. Unfortunately the historian provides no details about the life and career of Wei Tang Chow. Nor have I been able to pin down the exact location of the “Kan Shin” village. Both Yung and Glasspoole appear to mention this incident (which was notable because a large number of female prisoners were later taken), yet their description suggests only a general location.

The text of this account again presents us with a few puzzles. It is not clear to me whether Yung is claiming that Chang Paou led the attack on the village, or whether he was actually one of the individuals who fought with the boxing master. The text also gives no indication of whose “father” intervened in the late stages of the fight.

For reasons that are not made clear Neumann decided that it was the wife’s father. I must admit that this reading does not make much sense to me. Unless the text explicitly stated otherwise, I suspect it would be far safer assume that Wei Tang Chow’s family was following the more standard patrilocal living arrangement, in which case the account was referring to Wei’s father. The fact that the older gentleman was still capable of dispatching a few opponents opens the possibility that Wei may have been following a family style.

It is also interesting to note that this account specifically states that Wei’s wife fought alongside him. Once again we see that women were not immune from the effects of community violence in southern China. Nor does the author seem to find it odd (or worthy of extra comment) that the wife of boxing master would be willing to fight against the pirates. One of the aspects of this local historian’s account that I find most interesting is his repeated emphasis on women’s participation in violence through the medium of hand combat.


Shi Jin, the Nine Dragoned (Kyûmonryû Shishin), from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Shuihuzhuan (Suikoden hyakuhachinin no uchi).  19th century Japanese Woodblock print.

Shi Jin, the Nine Dragoned (Kyûmonryû Shishin), from the series One Hundred and Eight Heroes of the Shuihuzhuan (Suikoden hyakuhachinin no uchi). 19th century Japanese Woodblock print.  HT to Steel & Cotton for posting this image.



Conclusion: The Martial Arts as “Tragic Theater”


It should not surprise us that the accounts of hand combat offered in Yung’s work rarely end well. Each of the three instances discussed above resulted in the defeat or death of the protagonist. Nor do I recall a single instance of “heroic victory” emerging out of a contest between individual combatants in his entire history of the conflict. For the local historian battles are won with superior numbers, better leadership and higher rates of musket and cannon fire. They are lost with swords.

On purely logical grounds this makes sense. The Black and Red fleets had a combined strength of tens of thousands of men. Some of the naval battles described by Yung involved literally hundreds of ships. Individual hand combat was rarely sought out (except by those attempting to board an enemy vessel). Rather its occurrence was usually an indication that something had gone catastrophically wrong. Given the size and sophistication of the forces involved in this struggle, it would stretch credulity to believe that such desperate defenses would ever amount to much.

Given the almost mathematical futility of individual hand combat in the face of overwhelming odds, what was the purpose of these engagements? More specifically, why did Yung go to such lengths to record the “last stands” (real or imagined) of so many minor actors in this retelling of this regional drama?

It is hard to escape the feeling that in Yung’s account hand combat has become a type of “tragic theater.” Most of the officers and villages that he profiles were doomed from the outset of the piracy crisis for both tactical and structural reasons. The local historian appears to have focused on the role of hand combat in their deaths as a way of illustrating something important about their supposed character and the nature of the sacrifices which they made (or more accurately, were later “remembered” to have made) on behalf of their respective communities.

Through violent resistance widows could demonstrate their virtue, boxers their bravery and soldiers their dedication to duty. Some of these actions might even lead to the literal deification of the combatants. When describing the nature of the Confucian orthodoxy that dominated rural villages, the historian Victoria Cass has characterized local residents as active participation in a “fanatical cult” that focused on the continuity of the family, community and state.

At times the prevailing social norms required individuals to make dangerous sacrifices on behalf of these primary social units. Cass further points out that this was true for both women and men. In the violence surrounding the southern piracy crisis we see individuals fighting not just for their personal welfare, but also as active participants in the enactment certain critical social norms.

Yung wanted to memorialize these sacrifices, and that is the reason why so much of his account seems to be dedicated to instances of individual combat, while often remaining curiously quiet on the larger tactical questions that determined the ultimate fate of a village or fleet. Like Cass, Yung wants us not to remember these individuals as victims so much as active (one might even say “fanatical”) participants in the veneration and perpetuation of the community.

This realization should begin to shed some light on the subtext behind the stories that the local historian chose to emphasize. Through the sacrifices of loyal army and naval officers he hoped to hold up an example of proper dedication and professionalism. Likewise his discussion of the boxing master’s family in Kan Shin serves to situate these otherwise problematic practices within a socially acceptable framework. One suspects that his frequent observations about female warriors and virtuous widows are meant as a mechanism to subtly shame men who would run in the face of danger.

While the piracy crisis was effectively resolved by 1810, banditry on land (including the spread of secret societies in urban areas) became a more serious problem throughout Guangdong in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. This was the environment that framed most Chinese language readers’ encounter with Yung’s text.

At least one reading of these accounts would be that if these women were capable acting bravely or sacrificing for a cause, other individuals should be willing to enact their superior masculinity by remembering to do likewise. While these are probably real accounts, I suspect that they are being related for their instructive, rather than their purely historical, value.

It is now common for modern students of the traditional Chinese martial arts to see their practices as a pathway to self-cultivation. Discipline, repetition and self-sacrifice are understood as a means of achieving a certain type of spiritual maturity. It does not require too much imagination to see within the promised self-actualization of the martial arts a subtle reinforcement and glorification of certain key social norms.

Much of the current historical discussion on the TCMA focuses on the extent to which this understanding is a relatively recent development. We are told that in earlier eras the martial arts were “purely practical.” They were seen as ways of making a living (perhaps through opera performance or by getting a job as a security guard). We also know that they were often taught as a form of preparation for war. Most martial artists in the middle Qing probably served as soldiers or militia members.

It is thought that the emphasis on a more abstract understanding of “personal development” in the Chinese martial arts probably began to come to the fore during the period of “self-strengthening” in the late 19th century.  It then accelerated under the hands of reformers in the Jingwu and Guoshu movements which hoped to make these hand combat systems a vehicle for modern nationalism. The globalization of these fighting systems, and their encounter with western New Age thought, further transformed and individualized their focus, resulting in the current emphasis on self-cultivation that we see today.

Certainly there is much truth in this account, and the general trajectory of this evolution seems sounds. Still, Yung’s account of hand combat as “tragic theater” reminds us that important elements of this process may predate the shock of 19th century imperialism and Republic era modernization. Long before the Opium Wars the residents of southern China saw in the bloody sacrifices of hand combat a means of cultivating, advertising and expressing their commitment to core social norms.

While local militias were created for purely practical purposes, the memory of their actions served to reinforce the vision that the martial arts were a pathway towards self-cultivation and community building. Yung’s account of the martial excellence exhibited by a boxing master, a soldier and a pirate’s wife may have been designed to emphasize and reinforce this tendency. As such they are an important witness to the place of hand combat in southern China’s early 19th century popular culture.





If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: The Soldier, the Marketplace Boxer and the Recluse: Mapping the Social Location of the Martial Arts in Late Imperial China.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,016 other followers

%d bloggers like this: