you're reading...
Chinese Martial Studies, Southern China

1849: Origins and Consequences of a Southern Chinese Piracy Crisis


A scene along a branch of the Pearl River near Gulian.  Source: Wikimedia.

A scene along a branch of the Pearl River near Guilin. Source: Wikimedia.




By the early 19th century much of Guangdong province existed in a perpetual state of simmering anarchy. The large clan structures that dominated the agricultural economy competed with each other for access to land and water. As often as not these unique organizations (combining both the gentry’s leadership and the peasant’s muscles) would circumvent the uncertain court system and pursue their demands through the private resort to arms. Fredrick Wakeman, the great chronicler of social disorder and violence in southern China, noted that by the last century of the Qing dynasty Guangdong’s landscape bore mute testimony to the increasingly perilous situation.  Single surname villages threw up packed earth walls, built weapons warehouses and trained village militias. It is little wonder that so many localities throughout Guangdong became known for their folk martial arts.

Competition between lineages shaped much of the political economy of Southern China. These local military institutions also became the backbone of the regional gentry led militia networks that the government would turn to in their middle 19th century conflicts with the British (the First and Second Opium Wars), secret societies (the Red Turban Revolt) and multiple bandit uprisings. Even in a good year the countryside of the Pearl River Delta was a tense place. 1849 was not a good year.

It would take a fair size essay to simply catalog all of the serious security threats that southern China faced during the final years of the 1840s. In retrospect the most alarming of these were the slow and steady steps being taken towards the launch of the Taiping Rebellion along Guangdong’s northern mountainous spine. Still, the full scope of what that catastrophe would become was not yet evident in 1848 and 1849.

By a unique quirk of fate British troops managed to seize much of Guangdong’s provincial archives during the final stages of the Arrow War. These records turned out to be of little immediate intelligence value and so they were promptly forgotten about. For years they sat in the attic of the chapel of the British embassy in Beijing. Eventually they were shipped to the Public Records Office in London only to be rediscovered (one imagines with Indiana Jones type excitement) by scholars attempting to understand southern China’s history during the 1960s.

While valuable records are preserved in many places in China (the most critical archives being those of the imperial government) it turns out that most provincial offices periodically destroyed old documents to make room for new ones. As a result this cache of texts provides a valuable, uncensored, glimpse into the inner workings of local government which cannot be seen in that many other places. Needless to say these records are also a critical resource for anyone attempting to understand violence and disorder during Guangdong’s troubled 19th century.

Recently I have been examining the index to this collection which contains over 2,000 surviving memorials, reports and private letters. Given our recent discussions about the role of piracy in shaping southern Chinese history, I was struck by something that I had not noticed before. 1807-1810 is usually thought of as the high-water mark of southern Chinese piracy.  Indeed, the scope of the problem in these years was impressive and it took on dimensions not seen since.

Nevertheless, as I combed through the records of the 1840s and 1850s I noticed another sharp increase in reports dealing with piracy. Most of these records involved communications between high level officials such as the Governor General, the Governor, various foreign diplomats, the commander of naval forces and the Manchu general in Guangzhou. As such one cannot expect to see discussions of every minor attack. This database only covers events that were considered “significant” enough to demand a political or broadly based military response. Such situations included things like attacks on European shipping, assaults on villages, particularly large trials or systematic obstructions to regional trade.

For much of the early part of the 19th century there is little discussion of piracy in the official archives. A general spike in banditry and piracy is evident after the tumult of the first Opium War (1839). This was probably due to the disruption of trade and the decommissioning of redundant military units following the end of hostilities. After that things calmed down for a few years. Then, starting in about 1845, there is another increase in piracy cases.

Between 1845 and 1855 an average of two or three serious incidents a year demanded attention from the highest levels of the provincial government. In 1849 the situation takes a serious turn for the worse with a flurry of increasingly desperate communications reporting on no fewer than 11 separate pirate situations across the region.

After that the number of unique incidents drops, down to a couple of notable events a year. Yet there seems to have been a distinct change in the nature of piracy in the province. Rather than the open water attacks of the early 1800s, or the coastal raids of 1807-1810, much of the violence was now concentrated in the high reaches of the eastern, western and northern branches of the Pearl River system.

Whereas earlier pirate attacks had been “hit and run” affairs, the province now found itself faced with large groups of “stationary” bandits (one group of pirates had up to 10,000 sailors in its ranks) who were attempting to control strategic waterways. Whereas Robert Antony had found no evidence of the gentry’s involvement with the earlier 1809 piracy crisis, the 1849 event took on a very different character.

A report in 1850 noted that two gentry members had been arrested as part of a group of over 100 pirates. In 1851 the Governor General received reports of imperial Chinese naval troops going pirate. Then in 1852 a series of highly confidential letters was received outlining the failure to control a large pirate organization that was strangling river trade out of Guangxi province. Ominously a local official had decided to cut a deal with a pirates leader, using these criminal forces for his own ends. In effect the pirates had won official backing.

While the piracy crisis of the first decade of the 19th century tends to receive a lion’s share of the discussion, these later events are in many ways more interesting and potentially far more dangerous. What exactly happened in 1848 and 1849 to trigger this sudden outbreak of bandit and pirate activity? How did these events differ from the earlier crisis? Lastly, what was their impact on southern Chinese society?

Since the piracy crisis of 1849 erupted in the midst of a maelstrom of more general chaos, it tends to receive little detailed study. This post will attempt to provide brief answers for the previous questions. These turn out to be critical as they help us to understand events such as the spread of secret societies, the growth of proto-class consciousness and the broader forces that set the stage for the development of the regional martial arts that exist today.

In fact, these events seem to have been critical in moving the martial arts out of the tightly controlled realm of the clan based militias, and into other areas of civil society. Once there they could move, adapt and prosper, taking on many of their now recognizable characteristics. This migration into the land of “Rivers and Lakes” helped to situate them for their eventual success in the current global era.

Globalization, meaning the rapid integration of Guangdong’s economy into international trade and exchange networks, is critical to this entire story. Indeed, shocks in the international trade system were directly responsible for laying the foundation for the 1849 piracy event, as well as much of the social violence that followed in the 1850s and 1860s.

This post augments, or provides a counterpoint to, my earlier discussion of 1809 piracy crisis. There I showed how certain critical elements of social meaning within the modern Chinese martial arts predated the radical expansion of trade and direct imperialism in the region. All of that remains true. However I hope that this post will suggest some of the ways in which the forces of globalization led to the expansion of these practices throughout society, and facilitated their relocation from rural clan structures to loose urban networks.


Another image of the Pearl River near Guilin.  Source: Wikimedia.

A tourist boat the Pearl River near Guilin. Source: Wikimedia.


Free Trade and the International Roots of the 1849 Piracy Crisis


In his important 1996 work on the origins of the Taiji Classics, Douglas Wile argued at length that in order to understand the development of this seemingly quintessential form of boxing we must begin by focusing on China’s rapidly evolving position in the international system.  Such a claim seems almost calculated to raise protests. After all, no other fighting style appears to be more closely tied to sophisticated strains of traditional Chinese culture than Taijiquan. Its dynamic synthesis of Confucian thought, Daoist medical practice and martial training has set the standard by which all other Chinese martial arts are judged.

It is the very idea that a sophisticated synthesis of these three separate pursuits is possible, that each of these areas can be conceived of as a sign pointing to a single transcendent truth, which has provided the emotional energy behind much of the modern history of the traditional Chinese martial arts. This idea continues to enthrall many of the students who set out to experience these fighting systems today. Still, as a number of historians (including Henning, Lorge, Kennedy and even Wile) have warned us, there is very little about the current synthesis of ideas that can truly be characterized as “traditional.”

Shahar points out that the possibility of a “grand cultural synthesis” focusing on the martial arts as a route to some sort of self-actualization may have developed during the final century of the Ming dynasty. Still, this was mostly an elite driven movement and it appears to have been badly disrupted by the Ming-Qing cataclysm. While similar in basic outline (and perhaps sharing a handful of textual references) the late Qing reforms appears to have been an independent project. The Wu brothers, or even Sun Lutang, carried out their work without the benefit of access to the complete martial traditions of the late Ming era.

While the idea that martial arts might become a road to self-improvement may have its origins in Ming popular culture, for most of the Qing these pursuits had been distinctly plebeian in nature and oriented towards the more mundane concerns of community defense and earning a living. In that sense it might be better to think of the reforms at the end of Qing as an example of “parallel evolution” rather than the continuation of a single unbroken line of transmission.

So what drove intellectual reformers like the Wu brothers to look for a vast cultural synthesis within the martial arts during the late 19th century? Wile argues that individuals in the 1870s and 1880s were left shaken by the mid-century rebellions which had swept across central China, killing tens of millions. Worse yet was the empire’s repeated defeats at the hands of the western powers. Together these two calamities caused individuals to begin to question the innate superiority of Chinese civilization or the inevitability of its triumph.

During the late 19th century these impulses found expression in the “self-strengthening movement.” Wile has argued that the development and propagation of the Taiji Classics, transforming what was once a local village boxing style into a potent synthesis of cultural knowledge, is best understood as one part of this larger process. The great work of the early Taiji reformers was to sort through China’s vast cultural archives, and to create a new tradition, one that would strengthen the people and help to preserve the state.

In short, the distinct turn of certain late-Qing developments within the realm of the martial arts can be understood as at least partially a reaction against the pressures of globalization and imperialism. This is a critical insight as it tells us that while they may have drawn on much older source materials, the traditional martial arts which exist today (including Taijiquan) are essentially products of, and reactions too, the modern world. “Traditional” is as much an aspirational as a descriptive label.

Wile’s research focuses on events at the end of the 19th century when China was coming under renewed imperialist pressure (meaning the seizing of territory and “spheres of influence”). Further, his research tends to focus on the intellectual history and substantive content of this new cultural synthesis.

China’s international problems did not start at the end of the 19th century, nor were they confined to the north. Frederic Wakeman has argued persuasively that southern China suffered very negative and socially destabilizing effects from its earlier brush with the international system. Both military conflict and growing trade dependence would shape the development of Guangdong province during the early and middle years of the 19th century. Nor did anyone, including the British, realize exactly how far reaching and destructive the ultimate effects of the First Opium War would be.

The relatively light loss of life (measured by the standards of 19th century great power war) in the 1839 conflict may have helped to obscure the actual source of the social chaos that arrived in its wake. As any basic history of the period will attest, from the British perspective the war was basically a commercial conflict. China had become a major player in the global trade system, yet it followed the mercantilist principle of promoting exports while banning (or strictly limiting) legal imports.

The situation allowed the Qing to amass huge amounts of western silver. This was desperately needed to offset declining tax revenues from the increasingly decayed empire, which in turn allowed the government to continue to finance its very expensive standing military. Yet this came at the cost of inducing a possible balance of payments crisis in Europe.

Opium, while not the only dispute between the two powers, became the flashpoint for the conflict as Western merchants had discovered that it was one of the few items that they could successfully sell in southern China. While this helped to offset the balance of payments crisis in the UK, the social consequences of this practice for the Chinese were predictable.

British victories from 1839-1842 resulted in the imposition of a number of demands, most of which actually revolved around the trade situation. Simply put, British merchants wanted to be able to engage in the (highly profitable) sort of free trade that existed in other parts of the western world. Hong Kong was developed to be a better deep water port. Additional treaty ports were opened to British shipping, including Shanghai, where as previously only Guangzhou had been allowed to handle trade with the “southern barbarians.” Most importantly (for our current story), the Chinese agreed that all merchants should be able to do business with foreign traders, rather than restricting such transactions to the “Cohong.” This was an import-export guild of merchants who had previously been granted a monopoly on foreign trade.

The end of the monopoly system was disastrous for the clans that made up the Cohong, but it vastly increased the profit margins of British merchants in China. Nor did the movement towards a western style free trade system initially appear to be all that bad for the Chinese themselves. Yes, trade in Guangzhou declined as competing treaty ports were opened up in other locations along the coast. This was only to be expected. However the total volume and value of trade goods entering and leaving southern China increased steeply in the years following the end of the Opium War. New Chinese firms entered the international market for the first time, and the British were able to expand the consumer base for manufactured goods (including both cotton and wool textiles).


Preparing lunch on a tourist boat on the Pearl River.  Source: Wikimedia.

Preparing lunch on a tourist boat on the Pearl River. Source: Wikimedia.


It is a mathematical truth that an expansion of trade leads to GDP growth. That doesn’t mean that every player will benefit from the change. Every economic shift creates both winners (the new independent merchants) and losers (members of the cohong). Yet the increased efficiency gains from trade make the overall size of the economic pie bigger.

What one does with these new found profits, and how they are distributed throughout society, is a critical question. It is the stuff that political-economic nightmares are made of. While potentially beneficial, periods of rapidly increasing trade need to be carefully managed as these sorts of economic changes can lead to both social and financial dislocation. This is true even in relatively calm periods when everything is going well in the global trade system.

Unfortunately the middle of the 1840s was not a particularly placid era. As more of the economy is exposed to international markets through an expansion of trade, society becomes more vulnerable to the contagious effects of economic shocks in other states. Since the UK dominated much of the trade in southern China, the residents of Guangdong would soon discover just how close the spinning mills of Manchester and the factories of Guangzhou had become.

Wakeman reports that in 1845 the UK suffered from a short, but sharp, recession. This event was a result of excessive railroad speculation (a popular investment in the 19th century) and it led banks to curtail their lending. The following year the autumn harvest in the UK failed, and the year after that there was a serious correction in the corn speculation market. The end result of all of this was a short liquidity crisis.

At the same time the rapid expansion of the import market in southern China had led to the overbuying of British cloth. Basically commercial capacity was coming on-line more rapidly than consumers could adjust their economic behavior to absorb the new sources of supply. Given a few years this sort of situation would have worked itself out. But with a credit crunch at home, the Manchester factory owners were unhappy to see their products sitting dormant in Guangzhou where they were amassing warehousing fees rather than sales.

Not surprisingly, they began to refuse to sell their wares to the China trade houses on speculation and instead demanded cash up front. As these British export firms paid the unexpected costs to the suppliers, their Chinese offices in Guangzhou suddenly discovered that they were cash strapped. All of their financing was tied up in paying for the cloth, which left little to pay Chinese merchants for the tea, silk, sugar, porcelain and other goods which the area exported.

The sort of bridge financing that normally would have covered these transactions was not available because of the on-going credit crunch. The end result was that many of the new Guangzhou merchant firms that had only recently been created defaulted on their loans and went bankrupt. Thousands of low-skilled Chinese dock workers suddenly found themselves out of work.

The tea trade was the most valuable aspect of the east-west exchange, and that was the first sector that saw a restoration of normalcy once the financial institutions in the UK and China started to get themselves back on their feet. Unfortunately now the expansion of the treaty port system became a real problem. Unemployed urban workers from Guangzhou increasingly turned to secret societies and banditry to make ends meet.

Like many bandits they followed the northern and eastern branches of the Pearl River high into the mountains. Much of China’s trade between the interior and the south passed through these natural choke-points. As a result the region’s domestic markets were very vulnerable to supply disruptions.

At the same time that the Guangzhou tea trade was being choked off by bandit activity, Chinese merchants decided to avoid the troubled region by rerouting supplies (especially those grown in more northern areas) to the new treaty port of Shanghai. River boats in that area were soon doing a brisk business, but the tea trade on the Pearl River utterly collapsed.

This led to the unemployment of practically an entire industry which had once been a vital part of the area’s economic well-being. At least 100,000 workers and 10,000 boatmen found themselves without steady employment. The dock workers and laborers turned to either urban secret societies or rural bandit gangs for support. The boatmen, who had deep knowledge of the province’s water ways, went pirate.

Some of these individuals joined crews working the coastal shipping lanes. The provincial archives even mentions a number of pirate attacks on the open ocean during this period. Yet most of these individuals seem to have formed themselves into pirate fleets further up the vulnerable Pearl River.

Other local industries that did business with foreign markets also suffered similar setbacks. Textile merchants were particularly hard hit. Both those selling Chinese silks and buying European textiles experienced bankruptcies which helped to swell the desperate ranks of unemployed workers. Even the once reliable junk merchant fleet which carried the coastal trade began to falter.

By the middle of the 1840s merchants from Thailand to Southern China had decided to move away from traditional junk construction towards European style square rigging. The greater efficiency of European style sails allowed these ships to move faster in an area of the world where the ability to outrun pirates (almost all of whom used traditional junks) was considered the most important insurance a merchant could carry. Shipyards that specialized in traditional vessels saw their orders reduced. The owners and crews of merchant junks saw the profit margins on their trade collapse.

Prior to the Opium War a merchant carrying valuable cargo in a junk might expect a return of 200-400%. This is critical as Antony points out that it was the growing profitability of legitimate trade that kept the local gentry, officials and ship owners from backing pirate groups as they had previously done in the Ming dynasty. This lack of gentry involvement was one of the reasons why the state was ultimately able to put down the 1809 piracy uprising.

Yet by the middle of the 1840s Wakeman reports that the expected profits from an identical cargo had fallen almost 90%. Legitimate trade looked much less enticing with profit margins of only 20%-40%, especially when one considers the risks that were involved in these missions. Once again, entire sectors of the local economy turned to piracy in an attempt to make ends meet.



The Pearl River in Guangxi, China. Source: Wikimedia.



Domestic Factors Contributing to the 1841 Piracy Crisis


Southern China’s exposure to the global trade system, which in turn left its poorly institutionalized economy vulnerable to international shocks, set the stage for the 1849 piracy crisis. Still, as I examined the dispatches in the Guangdong provincial archives it was clear that this was not a problem that emerged gradually over time. Starting in 1845 the office of the Governor General began to receive more reports on piracy, but only at the rate of a few serious incidents a year.

All of this changed in 1849. In that year reports on no fewer than 11 distinct pirate related events crossed the Governor General’s desk. In addition to these there was a flurry of documents relating to the appropriation of funds to deal with the crisis, rewards for officers who showed valor in fighting the pirates (as well as indictments of those who did not), and the disbursement of funds to repair war junks after a number of battles. The years following 1849 saw a rapid decline in the total number of reports, but not necessarily in the severity of the events they discussed. It seems that the provincial government was able to contain and stabilize the new piracy epidemic, but not totally eradicate it.

What changed? Given that the preconditions for this outburst had been present in 1847 and 1848, why did the crisis erupt in 1849? Perhaps the most telling clue to the timing of these events can be found in the records of Chinese immigration to the United States of America.

Most of the early Chinese settlers who headed to California were from either Fujian or Guangdong province. Some of these individuals were Cantonese speakers from the Pearl River Delta region. In 1849 large numbers of Chinese citizens from Guangdong began to leave their homeland for jobs created by the discovery of gold at Sutters Mill the previous year.

Yet even at the best of times mining is a notoriously risky way of making a living. Traveling across the pacific to engage in it is even more so. What inspired so many individuals to make this trip? Was it solely the result of “gold fever?”

Probably not. One of the persistent ironies of Chinese history is the cruel interplay between the forces of drought and flood. Southern China managed to be wracked by both of these tragedies, in quick succession, between 1848 and 1850. The result was three years of almost continual crop failure throughout large parts of Guangdong and Fujian province.

On the one hand Guangdong was well situated to ride out the storm. Much of the delta’s agricultural land had been shifted over to the production of exportable cash crops (such as silk) earlier in the 19th century. As a result the province already imported about half of the grain it consumed in a year from a number of sources in South East Asia and China. Still, the widespread failure of local crops led to a spike in rice prices, and even food riots, in 1849 and 1850.

Antony has already demonstrated that rising food prices are a reliable indicator of increased pirate activity in 19th century Guangdong. As more sailors in the river and coastal areas were pushed past the breaking point they turned to crime as a survival strategy. Likewise poor peasants began to demand tax relief and joined the ranks of the ever growing bandit armies located in the province’s more remote regions.




Conclusion: Globalization and the Reshaping of Southern China’s Market for Violence.


One might think that the mobilization and expansion of Guangdong’s militia network would be the single bright spot in this story. These gentry led institutions originally received (reluctant) official permission to assist in the struggle against the British in 1839, and then during the later “Entry Crisis.” By the late 1840s and 1850s they were used to defend against both bandit and pirate incursions.

While the high capital requirements of buying and outfitting war junks ensured that most naval engagement with pirate fleets would be spearheaded by the province’s official water forces, these militia units did prove to be an effective check against disorder on the land. Given that most groups operated close to their home villages, militia members tended to be better motivated and more disciplined that some of the imperial troops.

The raising of militia units was one of the major ways in which both traditional boxing and weapons training was spread throughout the countryside in the 1830s and 1840s. In fact, many of the skills that are still most commonly associated with the southern Chinese martial arts, including the single-tailed long pole, rattan shields and the hudiedao or “butterfly swords,” were actually standard issue militia arms during the middle of the 19th century.

Militias were also major employers of martial arts masters. Some of these individuals were hired to act as “military trainers.” In other instances groups of young martial artists were brought in to stiffen the ranks of part-time “citizen-soldiers.” In effect the competing demands of bandit gangs and local militias created something of a market for mercenaries which supported local martial arts training.

While these self-defense organizations provided an incubator that helped to cultivate and spread hand combat training throughout society, Wakeman argues that their actual effectiveness is difficult to judge. The critical issue goes beyond their military reliability. The empire reluctantly allowed the creation of these gentry led local militias in order to preserve social order, first by opposing the British, then by fighting the pirates and bandits that arose in the wake of the complex 1848-1849 crisis.

Did these organizations actually accomplish their official political and social goals? Wakeman suggests that they did not. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the need to coordinate multiple militias to deal with large scale problems (whether the British or the pirates who were choking the local trade) actually further destabilized southern Chinese society. The increased reliance on these broader militia networks helped to bring about a new force, a sort of proto-class consciousness, which would have far reaching consequences.

Prior to the 1840s clan associations had been the dominant institutions that structured village life for most of Guangdong’s rural residents. Nor were there any clear alternatives that disaffected peasants could turn to.

As we mentioned at the start of this essay, powerful lineage associations vied for resources with one another. This tended to lead to conflict between villages. The end result was that life in the countryside was highly insular. Even though the senior members of the local clan also tended to be the landlords who were responsible for economically exploiting their own less fortunate kinsmen/tenants, no one was willing to go without the very real protection that the lineage association offered in a volatile environment.

The sudden appearance of secret societies spreading out of core urban areas provided an alternative model for social organization. Further, the failure of crops in 1848, 1849 and 1850 made that model, and even simple banditry, look relatively more attractive. This was especially the case when landlords began to turn the local militia loose on villagers who could not pay their rents or taxes.

Yet even when they functioned properly, the militias were far from problematic. As units from across entire regions were brought together to deal with pirate navies and bandit armies that numbered in the thousands, the citizen-soldiers quickly began to discover exactly how much they had in common with each other.

Elite landlords and members of the gentry already had institutions that cut across clan lines. But for the peasants, discovering that residents of other local villages faced the same sorts of routine economic and physical exploitation at the hands of their own lineage networks tended to have a transformative effect. Wakeman argues that following the Opium Wars, the countryside’s vertical clan-based organization came to be weakened by the progressive spread of more horizontal, class based, sympathies. Increasingly poor or landless individuals simply opted out of the lineage organizations, and turned instead to the rapidly growing secret societies for support.

These groups offered the poor and disaffected a new, more equitable (if artificial), kinship system. Nor were they strangers to the problem of violence in local society. When these impoverished clansmen defected they took their martial arts skills (the results of the gentry funded militia training) with them.

The spread of the of the 1849 piracy crisis helped to ensure that large numbers of individuals would be introduced to the martial arts as part of their military training. The experience of militia membership and the growing economic inequality of life within the clan associations further ensured that these skills, once confined to “righteous” organizations in the countryside that were closely supervised by the gentry, would quickly spread throughout other locations in society.

This migration was both geographic and social in nature. Newly class conscious peasants took their skills out of the vertically stratified countryside and applied them to the horizontally organized world of “Rivers and Lakes.” Likewise the flows of unemployed peasants into the cities, as well as the flight of bandits and secret society members to the mountains, ensured that these skills would move and mix geographically as well.

After reviewing the history of the 1849 piracy crisis it is not hard to understand why Guangdong province became a hotbed of martial arts development, or why (given their long history) these technical and social practices underwent such radical changes in the middle of the 19th century. Most of the regional martial arts that are practiced today emerge after the time period that we have discussed in this post. Historians of hand combat have a very difficult time reconstructing a complete picture of what things looked like prior to this tumultuous era.

The traditional southern martial arts exist today as an element of the area’s popular culture. Guangdong’s society underwent far reaching changes during the 19th century. The social chaos of this period created the initial recruiting grounds that swelled the ranks of the Taiping armies who ravaged central China in the coming decade.

The society that emerged from the ashes of these domestic conflicts was in many ways notably different from what had previously existed in the region. Given that society was undergoing radical change, it is no surprise that the martial arts themselves went through a period of intense transformation.

What kind of transformation was it? Readers should recall that it was the unexpected consequences of the introduction of free trade that set the stage for the collapse of Guangdong’s traditional economic and social life. The violent conflicts that we see outlined in the provincial archives are the birthing pangs of southern China’s introduction to modernity. The pace of the reforms begun here would only accelerate in the coming decades.  Nor is it a coincidence that many of China’s great reformers and revolutionaries would hail from the south.

This is critical as it suggests that the traditional martial arts as they now exist are also a product of modernity. More specifically, to understand their emergence we must study the political economy of China’s transformation from an insular empire, to a modern nation state. Wile was fundamentally correct in his assertion that the rise of imperialist pressures in the late 19th century helped to shape the content of these martial systems.

Still, a closer examination of Guangdong’s 1849 piracy crisis indicates that the spreading pressures of globalization and modernity might also explain the migration of these practices throughout society. Specifically they help us to understand why these practices were taken up by a growing number of individuals in the first half of the 19th century, as well as their movement out of the vertically organized countryside, into the evolving civil society of China’s rapidly expanding urban areas.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Reforming the Chinese Martial Arts in the 1920s-1930s: The Role of Rapid Urbanization.



5 thoughts on “1849: Origins and Consequences of a Southern Chinese Piracy Crisis

  1. Hi Ben. Thanks for another great post. Have been reading your blog for over a year now.

    I’ve been more and more convinced of the ‘Southern Theory’ of Wing Chun’s origins thanks to this blog and am quite frankly becoming more and more skeptical of the ‘Anti-Qing opera rebel’ stories.

    The questions that I want to ask are in relation to both this post and the one below:


    1) I’ve come across something called the Baojia system, which is explained here:


    What is your opinion on this system? Do you think that such a system would have contributed to stopping piracy/banditry along the Pearl River Delta? Also, since the Leung family clan was a wealthy, influential clan, do you think that they would have been linked to such a system and possibly may have established institutions and martial arts schools for such civilian use (alongside the military school that they also established)?

    2) You mentioned in this post that “… Prior to the 1840s clan associations had been the dominant institutions that structured village life for most of Guangdong’s rural residents.”

    Since these clan associations may have opened up martial arts/military schools/institutions in order to teach militia/law enforcers/soldiers/etc. weapons training and boxing, how would the knowledge be likely transmitted? Is it lineage-based (i.e. Person A passes X style to Person B, Person B passes it to Person C, etc. generation after generation)? Or do you think it is more ‘immediate’ (i.e. just hire whomever is good at fighting)?

    3) Could you please give me some links to information about the Leung clan? I was wondering how you were able to find out about their medical roots, military institutions, etc. and am interested in checking out what else they did.

    Thank you very much for your time. Can’t wait to take a look at your book when it comes out.


    Posted by Leon | August 9, 2014, 10:43 am
  2. Hi Leon,

    Thanks for the questions.

    With regard to #1: Yeah, you do see a number of references to the Baojia system in the Pearl River delta, more so after about 1780. As the page you linked to points out, it was used for a number of things, including tax collection. After the tax system was reformed in the 1700s that seems to have faded out. The Baojia were then used mostly for local “law and order purposes” (making sure your neighbors didn’t steal stuff from each other) rather than large scale bandit defense. Recall that the Pearl River was really pretty peaceful from about 1700-1790. In the first decade of the 19th century things start to go down hill, and then by mid century they are getting very bad very fast. By that point the Baojia does not seem to have been particularly effective. That was always in practice a pretty small scale form of social organization and something much larger, more disciplined and with better command and control infrastructure was needed to stand up to roving bandit and pirate armies that literally numbered in the tens of thousands of soldiers.

    However, there were a lot of other sorts of voluntary organizations that were in the “law and order” business. As I mentioned above southern clans often maintained militias, as did wealthy landlords (who tended to organize “big sword societies” and stuff like that). Then in the 19th century you get the rise of the institutionally larger and more complex “gentry led” militia system. One would suspect that the Leung clan, relatively wealthy and having their own temples and schools, was more dependent on these sorts of institutions to protect their investments.

    #2) It seems that there was a wide range of approaches to this. That should not surprise us as the countryside was a very fragmented place. Some areas seem to have relied on local boxing traditions, but in other areas they hired former soldiers to act as mercenaries and “military drill instructors.” Individuals boxing masters like Wong Fei Hung could also be hired to come in as “outside experts” and train a local militia unit. I personally suspect that most of what got taught was a mixture of things that were easy to learn and were relatively effective. I doubt that most of it had a name. While some individuals may have been teaching complete boxing styles to local militias from the ground up, that may have been rarer. Then again, boxing was a popular form of entertainment in the countryside and without TV you have to make your own fun. So once again I suspect that this would have varied from village to village.

    #3) Ma Zineng. 2001. Foshan Wu Shu Wen Hua (Foshan Martial Arts Culture). Foshan: No Publisher. That is where I was first introduced to this subject. There is a chapter in there that talks about this that is written by a couple of local historians. In my own research (long term project) I am currently trying to get my hands on copies of some of the area gazetteers and to look a little more deeply into the subject myself.

    I hope that answered all of your questions.

    Posted by benjudkins | August 10, 2014, 1:31 pm


  1. Pingback: War Junks, Pirates and the Commercialization of Chinese Martial Culture | Kung Fu Tea - August 25, 2014

  2. Pingback: Death, Taxes and the Inevitability of Change in the Chinese Martial Arts: A Historical Case | Kung Fu Tea - August 30, 2014

  3. Pingback: Historical Fact vs. Social Discourse in the World of China’s 19th Century Martial Artists | Kung Fu Tea - February 20, 2015

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 4,004 other followers

%d bloggers like this: