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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Merchant, Pirate, Smuggler, Sea Lord

As students of history, we like facts: birth year, birthplace, specific events, et cetera. The past is rarely so accommodating, especially for those of humble beginnings. Our searches of historical annals reveal early lives are steeped in mystery or conflict and raise more questions than they answer. This is particularly true the further back in time a person lives and when those records are destroyed, either accidentally or to eradicate the past. In the case of Zheng Zhilong and his descendants, it is the latter reason for the paucity because of destruction wrought by authorities of the Qing dynasty. Still, some traces of his youth exist.

The first dilemma we face concerns his name. Zheng Zhilong is how we refer to him today, Zheng being his surname and Zhilong his given name. (The name has also been spelled Cheng Chi-lung in the past.) He is also referred to as Yi-Guan, which means “First Son,” a word that the Portuguese wrote as Iquan. Japanese records list him as Tei Shiryû or Tei Shiryū. Those written by Europeans refer to him as Nicholas Iquan, Nicolas Icoan, Nicholas Gaspard or Jaspar, and Chinchillón.

                                  (Mandarin Chinese) (Source:
                                  https://www.mandarin-names.com/en/name/Zheng)Zhilong (Mandarin Chinese)

His formal name was Zheng Zhilong, but no record provides the name he used as a child or young adult. When he reached the age of twenty, he participated in a rite of passage to mark his entry into adulthood. In Imperial China it was rude to call an adult by his given name unless the speaker was of higher rank or an elder. Instead, he would be addressed by a courtesy (or style) name, which was deemed a sign of respect. According to Shao Tingcai (Shao T’ing-ts’ai), a historian and philosopher who lived during the seventeenth century, Zheng Zhilong’s courtesy name was Fei Huang (Flying Yellow), which came “from the Chinese proverb feihuang tengda, “to make rapid advances in one’s career.” (Antony, Pirates, 113). Or his courtesy name might have been Feihong (Flying Rainbow), a name still associated with Zheng Zhilong in 1640.

Within the pages of Taiwan Wai zhi (also spelled Taiwan waiji and written in the late 1660s), Jiang Risheng included the exact date and time of Zheng Zhilong’s birth. He was born between the hours of seven and nine on the morning of 16 April 1604. While many events included in this book have been verified in other Chinese and European documents, the writing is often a mix of fact and fiction, much like what Captain Johnson did in his General History of the Pyrates in 1724. While 1604 might be Zheng Zhilong’s true birth year, a more probable time span would be 1590-1610, and this might be narrowed down further to 1592-1595.
His father was Zheng Shaozu (or Ziangyu or Shibiao). He worked as a clerk at a grain storehouse in the Quanzhou prefecture (district). Ji Liuqi, who was born in 1622 and wrote about the Ming dynasty, believed that Zheng men had worked as yamen (government) clerks for several generations.

Zheng Zhilong’s mother was Theyma (also known as Lady Huang). She had two brothers, one of whom was Huang Cheng, a Macau trader who would play a significant role in Zheng Zhilong’s later teenage years.

He had three younger brothers (Bao the Panther, Feng the Phoenix, and Hu the Tiger) and three younger half-brothers (Peng the Roc, Hú the Swan, and Guan the Stork). It’s also possible that he had some sisters as well.

Although Zheng Zhilong learned to read and write before his seventh birthday, he was never keen on his studies. He was “good-looking, a skillful poet, a musician of taste, a dancer of merit, and withal of pleasing manners.” (Day, 27) He also liked to box and practice martial arts. He possessed charisma, charm, courage, and guile. Instead of attending lessons, he often prowled the streets, getting into mischief or fighting, much to his father’s chagrin. The pair had a contentious relationship and, according to one account, the elder Zheng harried his son through the streets with a stick. Zheng Zhilong’s only option was to board a ship and sail to Macau around 1610.

The voyage took a week, but Zheng Zhilong was not alone. Two of his brothers, Bao and Hu, accompanied him. At the time, Macau was one of the few places where the Portuguese were permitted to trade with China.
Macau was an exotic place, a piece of Portugal on the Chinese coast, with plazas and priests and tolling bells. An immense cathedral dominated the hill in the middle of town, and Japanese artisans were engraving its stone façade, carving out ships, lions, figures in long robes, winged people playing horns. In one panel a woman floats above a many-headed serpent next to a caption that reads, in Chinese, “Holy Mother stomps the dragon head.” (Andrade, Lost, 22)
Ruins of St. Paul Cathedral,
Ruins of Saint Paul's Cathedral, built by the Jesuits from 1602 to 1640
(Source: Wikimedia Commons, by No1lovesu)

The port was also the home of his maternal uncle, Huang Cheng. He owned a trading company and put his nephews to work. He deemed education important, but felt success and wealth were of greater value than academic achievements. Zheng Zhilong apparently agreed because he found his skills more useful here than they had been back home and he excelled at whatever he set his hand to.

Matteo Ricci,
                                an early Jesuit priest in Macau, by
                                Emmanuel Pereira in 1610 (Source:
                                https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ricciportrait.jpg)During his time in Macau, he also met a Jesuit priest, who befriended Zheng Zhilong and taught him Portuguese. At some point between 1615 and 1620, Zheng Zhilong was baptized in the Catholic faith and became Nicholas Iquan or Nicholas Iquan Gaspard (or Jaspar). Whether he remained a devoted Christian was debatable. Later in his life, some Portuguese wrote, “[he] was so impious, or so ignorant, that he equally burnt incense to Jesus Christ and to his idols.” (Andrade, Lost, 22) It was also possible that he still attended mass until he died. Certainly, he remained in contact with Jesuits in his later years. He wrote poems that he sent to Father Francesco Sambiasi, and while living in Beijing, he paid to have a house and chapel built for the priests living in the city. He also provided funds to them, arranged for servants to work for them, and purchased needed goods for their use. During his final years, when he needed help, they gave him “decem circiter aureos,” a gift that “touched the old man greatly and moved him to tears.” 1 (Vermote, 282)

Zheng Zhilong did many tasks for his uncle, and when his uncle felt it was time to test his knowledge and skills, his uncle put him in charge of an illicit cargo of “white sugar, calambak wood and musk.” (Clements, 18) Zheng Zhilong succeeded in delivering the goods to the Japanese islands of Ryukyu. Eventually Huang Cheng trusted Zheng Zhilong with another important cargo, this one bound to the port of Hirado, Japan. Here, he would come in contact not only with the Japanese but also men and ships from China, the Dutch Republic, England, Portugal, and Spain. It was also where he met pirates.

Hirado Bay in
                                  1621 (Source:
Map depicting Bay of Hirado, Japan in 1621
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The moves to Macau and Hirado opened a wider world for Zheng Zhilong, one in which his charisma, charm, courage, and guile would prove especially beneficial. When winds of change blew across China, he looked to the future, instead of dwelling in the past. The path was rarely smooth and required life skills not taught by academic tutors. His journey of a thousand miles permitted him to lay the foundation upon a legacy that his son and grandson would build.

Before and during Zheng Zhilong’s lifetime, the Ming emperor closed China’s borders to foreign trade and prohibited his people from exporting Chinese goods to outside ports. In places where trade was vital, such as Fujian, these sea bans had devastating effects. The only way for many merchants and their families to survive was to resort to clandestine trade with foreigners. Such activities often began with smuggling goods from one location to another. Initially, they encountered few problems, but when imperial officials and forces enforced the sea bans, or Westerners wished to establish their own footholds in Asian trade, the smugglers confronted armed ships. To protect themselves, the smugglers fortified their vessels with weapons of their own. When permitted, they traded legally. When trade was banned, they plundered other vessels to acquire desired goods. The incongruity of these two sides of the coin resulted in a unique class of piracy, the “merchant-pirates,” and Zheng Zhilong would become an adept among them. But first, he needed to acquire the right skills and knowledge, as well as suitable connections, and learn how to combine all these to become an entrepreneur. The first rung in this ladder was working with his uncle in Macao. The second rung was learning Portuguese. The third rung was venturing to places like the Ryukyu Islands, which connected China and Japan via Formosa, and was a base for legitimate traders as well as smugglers and pirates (known as the wakō).2 The fourth rung was reached when Zheng Zhilong worked for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company), which established their colonial trading post on Formosa (Taiwan). The fifth rung involved visits to Japan, especially the port of Hirado.

17th-century watercolor of Fort Zeelandia,
                      the Dutch settlement on Formosa by Joan Blaeu,
                      drawn no earlier than 1644. (Source: Wikimedia
17th-century watercolor by Joan Blaeu of Dutch colony of Fort Zeelandia on Formosa
drawn no earlier than 1644. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While in Japan, Zheng Zhilong met many people who impacted his life in different ways. Two men – Li Dan and Yan Siqi – were traders from China with significant wealth and influence. Yan Siqi was a tailor who realized that “life is as fleeting as the morning dew,” according to the Taiwan wai ji, and decided to become a pirate instead. Little else is known about him and some scholars are uncertain that he ever existed.

Li Dan, on the other hand, was a Fujian merchant, who once served as a slave chained to the oars of a Spanish ship for nine years. He was proficient at identifying people who would be useful to him, such as financial backers or protectors (i.e., the Matsura family who ruled Hirado), and those he might easily deceive to gain what he wanted.3 This allowed Li Dan to acquire ships and create a trading network comprised of merchants from a variety of cultures, which permitted him to become the dominant trader of Chinese goods in the early years of the seventeenth century. After meeting Zheng Zhilong, he invited the adventurous and handsome lad to joined his enterprise, and it didn’t take long for Zheng Zhilong to become a favorite of Li Dan’s inner circle.4

Map of Hirado
                                  Bay, 1621, artist unknown (Source:
                                  Wikimedia Commons)
Bay of Hirado in 1621 by unknown artist
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The knowledge he acquired from his mentor and his associations with others, as well as his natural talents and aptitude for languages, gave him an edge. He communicated effectively and reached agreements with an eclectic group of associates – Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish – that permitted the Zheng clan to eventually dominate all but ten percent of Chinese shipping for sixty years.

His personal life also changed in Hirado when he met the daughter of a low-ranking samurai. Tagawa Matsu was a young woman in her early twenties. Whether he married her or not is uncertain, but theirs was a true love match.

In 1623, Li Dan offered Zheng Zhilong the chance to become his agent in trade with the Europeans. He also served as an interpreter and entered into negotiations. This required him to leave Hirado for the Pescadores (Penghu Islands) in the Taiwan Strait. Tagawa, who was pregnant, remained in Japan.

Dutch Pescadores
                      from c 1726 map by J. van Braam and G. onder de
                      Linden (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Pescadores Islands c. 1726 from map drawn by J. van Braam and G. onder de Linden
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The following year several key events took place in Zheng Zhilong’s life. After his return to Fujian, he married Lady Yan in an extravagant ceremony.5 Back in Japan, Tagawa Matsu gave birth to a son. Also noteworthy, his father, Zheng Shaozu, died which made Zheng Zhilong the head of the family. He moved his base of operations to Amoy (
Xiamen), and soon seventeen of his “brothers” worked on his fleet of junks. His network of trade and piracy extended south to Cambodia and northwest to Japan.

The Dutch were among those with whom Zheng Zhilong traded. In October 1625, the governor of Taiwan, Gerrit de Witt, wrote:
Here we are from day to day expecting the man named Iquan, who once served Commander Reijersen as interpreter, to arrive leading twenty to thirty junks, which are reported to pillage the tribute ships or transports the Chinese send up to the north. (Clements, 56)
The following year, he brought them porcelain and agricultural products aboard nine ships. The value of this cargo equaled 28,000 taels.6 One contract stipulated that he supply the VOC with silk and sugar. These commodities, which were measured in shi or dan (pounds), totaled 9,000 shi. In exchange, he received an unnamed amount of cash and 3,000 shi of pepper.7

During the 1620s, at least ten others with their own pirate junks vied for trade with the foreigners. Zheng Zhilong got rid of these rivals one by one. When the next decade began, his power had grown exponentially. According to one official, Zheng was “a whale swallowing up the sea.” (Antony, Like, 33). Shao Tingcai, a seventeenth-century Qing scholar, wrote:
All merchant junks passing through the South China Sea had to have Zhilong’s safe-conduct pass. Therefore, all of the outlaws and rabble in the whole region pledged allegiance to him and came under his control. (Antony, Pirates, 113-114)
When dealing with merchants, he instituted a baoshui, where he basically forced them to give him first right of refusal when it came to purchasing their goods. (It’s also likely that they allowed him to name his price for those goods as well.) Despite such extortion, the majority of people saw him as a Robin Hood. Chaos reigned on land from a series of revolts to severe drought that caused famine, at times driving people to commit acts of cannibalism. Although he likely inflated the numbers, Shao Tingcai wrote:
. . . there was a severe famine in southern Fujian, Zhilong seized several private merchant junks, robbed them of their rice, and fed the hungry famine victims. As a result, his ranks swelled to several tens of thousands. (Antony, Pirates, 113)8
Zheng Zhilong also ferried many from China to Taiwan where they could start life anew.

The Grand Coordinator of Fujian, Zhu Yifeng, had another take on Zheng Zhilong’s effective tactic. “The bandits kill soldiers, but not the people; they pillage the rich and give a small part [of the booty] to the poor. [Thus,] their power spreads.” (Calanca, 88)

What made Zheng Zhilong different from other pirates and his predecessors were his people skills and his ability to isolate and exploit vulnerabilities in the Ming military hierarchy. Two of these involved the perfectly permissible raising of biaobing, which was equivalent to a personal armed force, and recruiting warriors to protect the regions in which they served. This is allowed him to create his own paramilitary group, known as the Zheng Bu (Zheng Ministry), in 1636. When the Ming court selected him to govern their fortress in Fujian four years later, his generals in the Zheng Bu also received official sanction and were posted to command coastal forts.

As his dominance and influence grew, Zheng Zhilong learned many lessons, one of which was reinforced throughout his lifetime: trust no one. Betrayals by family members (including his own mother), and high-ranking men within his maritime organization (such as Li Kuiqi), and agents representing the emperor (as would occur when he aligned himself with the Manchus after they established a new dynasty in China), reinforced this lesson time and again. It was one reason that he surrounded himself with a special security force that became known as the Black Guard. Over time, he purchased and freed around 500 Africans, originally enslaved by the Portuguese. These men towered over most Chinese and possessed exotic appearances when compared to his countrymen. They dressed in heavy armor and flashy silk. When they joined in battle, they screamed, “Santiago,” their patron saint. Those horrific war cries made enemies tremble.

Zheng Zhilong’s ties to the Dutch began early in his career. Aside from transacting trade with the VOC, he served as a translator. Later, he became one of their privateers, attacking Spanish shipping bound to and from Manila in the Philippines. One official felt Zheng Zhilong was a better privateer than a translator. In the 1640s, his business ventures brought in yearly earnings akin to or better than those of the VOC or even England’s Honorable East India Company.

Needless to say, Zheng Zhilong’s interests and those of the VOC did not always jibe. They were more like rivals; both wanted freer maritime trade than the Ming government permitted, but they competed for the same trade of imports and exports. As a result, they were sometimes allies. At other times, the Dutch formed coalitions with other pirate fleets.

Zheng Zhilong’s fleet of warships were larger and more powerful than those of the Imperial navy. A governor-general of provinces south of Fujian sent a note to Beijing in which he wrote:
This pirate Zhilong is extraordinarily cunning, practiced in the art of sea warfare. His followers are . . . more than thirty thousand in total. His cannons are made by foreign barbarians, and his warships are huge and tall and meticulously made. When they enter the water they never sink, and when they encounter a reef they never breach. His cannons are so accurate and powerful that they can strike at a distance of ten li and immediately annihilate anything they strike. (Andrade, Lost, 29)
This made his junks the only ones that would be able to effectively fight against a European attack.

Portrait of Zheng Zhilong in
                                Taiwain Waiji, 18th-century book
                                https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Zheng_Zhilong.jpg)Despite all of his wealth and power, Zheng Zhilong wanted something he did not have. When a youth, formal education and advancement in Chinese society were not high on his to-do list. He excelled in hands-on training and real-world experiences more than rigorous and tedious book learning and civil examinations. Both of those were what permitted men to be seen as honorable and worthy. These were two traits that he desired, and events in greater China were about to provide him with that possibility.

Although the Ming dynasty ruled Manchuria, their control over northeast China was tenuous. As the Manchus gained power there, the Ming emperor, his councilors, and his officers neither needed nor could afford to fight on two fronts, so when members of the Quanzhou aristocracy proposed that Zheng Zhilong be offered a pardon, the emperor listened. Now, it really wasn’t appropriate for him to accept bandits into his government, but if Zheng Zhilong’s pirates would disband, the emperor was willing to forgive Zheng Zhilong’s past indiscretions and give him official standing within the Ming government in Fujian. It would, of course, be a provisional appointment, since he did have to make amends. For the next three years he was expected to go pirate hunting and rid the seas of these marauders. When the probationary period ended, he would receive an official military rank.

Not all of the gentry agreed with this plan; surely the emperor had heard the rumors that quite a few government officials in Fujian were on the pirate’s payroll, and perhaps even within the royal court. Perhaps so, but Zheng Zhilong possessed what the emperor needed: men who could fight; local connections; control of the profitable trade between Fujian and Taiwan; and fortified bases not only in Amoy but also in other locations. With pros outweighing cons, the emperor sent Cai Shanzhi to see Zheng Zhilong in 1627. Twenty-two years later, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza wrote of this affair in his Historia de la Conquista de la China por el Tataro (The History of the Conquest of China by the Tatars).
[B]eing informed of his valour, the [Emperor] was desirous to make use of his services in an affair of high importance to the good and welfare of his state, and therefore offered Iquan a general pardon and indemnity for all that was past . . . And that he would not only receive him into grace, but make him High Admiral or Captain General of all the sea coasts, give him the office of Great Mandarin, and abundantly shower upon him favours and rewards. (Clements, 57)
Having long sought honorable respect and prestige, Zheng Zhilong agreed to the emperor’s terms.

It just so happened that Zheng Zhilong’s pirate fleet was one of two plaguing China’s trade. The other belonged to Xinsu, who received the same offer from the emperor. The Ming hope was that the two pirates would destroy each other, or at the very least, get rid of one headache and then the survivor, whose forces would be weaker, would easily be taken care of by the Imperial navy.

Although Zheng Zhilong accepted the Ming offer, he did not immediately carry out his assignment to get rid of Xinsu. He and his brother, Hu the Tiger, disagreed about whether they should work more closely with the Chinese or the Dutch. Zheng Zhilong favored the emperor, while Hu preferred the latter, and they argued for months over whose respect and recognition would be of greater value to them. In the end, Zheng Zhilong’s preference won out and that is when his fleet sailed against Xinsu. The Dutch were also on hand, but came simply to watch the battle unfold. Palafox wrote, “the courage and conduct of Iquan quickly gained him the victory, which he secured by leaping into his enemy’s ship and with his own hand killing [Xinsu], and cutting off his head.” (Clements, 58)

Contrary to what was hoped, the battle did not weaken Zheng Zhilong. Nor were Ming officials keen on adhering to the original agreement; they felt that his power and sphere of influence had increased to such an extent that no enemy would or could oppose him. A major sticking point was the size of his empire. They wanted him to downsize. He, however, expected the emperor to follow through on his offer. A Fujian official, He Qiaoyuan, was tasked with trying to get Zheng Zhilong to see things from the emperor’s perspective.
All your feelings are well known . . . You do repent of your behaviour; you do not want to murder and plunder the people of the countryside. All people know this. But of [your] more than ten thousand followers, why don’t they understand your feelings? Some of them just want to fill their mouths and warm their bodies, others are fortune seekers . . . Now that you have so many followers like this, all of them being poor or bad people, runaway soldiers or criminals, they behave obsequiously towards you and become your followers, and make you ‘The Great King of the Sea.’ You also enjoy having this reputation and like to live up to it. (Clements, 58)
Weeks passed. Words were exchanged. Finally, Zheng Zhilong agreed “that his men would no longer cause clamor, and would be progressively dispersed.” (Clements, 59) Going forward, he was to continue to hunt pirates, specifically those who had once followed Captain Li Dan but never acknowledged Zheng Zhilong as his successor, as a further show of good faith. The following year, he was appointed as an imperial admiral and charged with patrolling the seas.
Not everyone in the Zheng clan or within Zheng Zhilong’s network was pleased with his decision to surrender. Chen Zhijing, his godbrother, convinced a man named Zhong Bin to double-cross Zheng Zhilong and attack the Chongwu fortress. He learned of this proposed betrayal and seized his godbrother.

Walled city of
                                  Chonwu (photograph by Zhangzhugang)
Photograph of Chongwu Fortress (2012) by Zhangzhugang
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor was he the only one to commit treachery against Zheng Zhilong. An influential advisor within his organization did so and was slain. One of his valued commanders, a man named Li Kuiqi, absconded with the majority of the Zheng fleet and men, and seized Xiamen. Having lost one of his strongholds and without sufficient vessels to pursue the turncoat, Zheng Zhilong and one of his brothers visited Anhai and nearby fishing villages to cobble together a ramshackle fleet of fifty vessels and persuaded fishermen to serve as mercenaries.

Even though the enemy was three times their size and those crews were skilled fighters, Zheng Zhilong set sail. Despite these overwhelming odds, he was counting on one thing that Li Kuiqi apparently forgot to initially consider. Among the crews of the usurped war junks were many of Zheng’s relatives and their loyalty was to him first. When the light dawned on Li Kuiqi that his ships carried enemies as well as friends, he gathered up all of those loyal to Zheng Zhilong and executed them. Learning of this, Zheng retreated but kept his substitute force at the ready and trained the crews to fight. When the opportunity presented itself and Li Kiqui was away from Xiamen for a brief time, Zheng Zhilong took the turncoat’s family hostage.

Whilst this transpired, discord grew among Li Kuiqi’s officers. One of these captains, who hailed from Gangzhou, sent word to Zheng Zhilong that when the moment was right, he was willing to change sides. This was good news, but Zheng Zhilong would need more to vanquish the snake. He sought help from his network of friends in Japan, one of whom was now governor general of Batavia. Jacques Specx agreed to lend Zheng a few Dutch ships to bring down Li Kuiqi. In February 1630, Zheng’s new fleet and the heavily-armed Dutch approached Li Kuiqi. The Gangzhou captain and his men joined Zheng, and together the three forces demolished Li Kuiqi and his fleet off the island of Nan’ao.

The survivors formed a new band of pirates, led by Liu Xiang. In 1633, they struck Zheng Zhilong’s home base of Anhai and slew several members of his family. A series of battles ensued that came to be known as “the Fujian navy’s seven great victories.” (Lu, 141) By the fifth battle, Liu Xiang’s fleet was showing severe signs of wear and tear and was not nearly as powerful as Zheng Zhilong’s. Even so, Liu Xiang won because he had forced Portuguese and Dutch captives to man his guns. The final confrontation took place off the coast of Guangdong, where Liu Xiang was slain during the battle. An unknown number of survivors fled to the northern border of Fujian, where Chen Peng (Zheng Zhilong’s most indispensable warrior) obliterated them. The rest of the pirates surrendered to Zheng Zhilong.

One Dutchman who was at odds with Zheng Zhilong was Hans Putmans, the new governor of Taiwan. He felt Zheng was not living up to expectations regarding wider trade with China. He did not have permission to grant the Dutchman’s demands, but Putmans apparently did not or would not see this. Zheng Zhilong could merely pave the way by speaking with the new governor of Fujian, Zou Weilian.

Zou Weilian had passed all the civil service examinations and had been elevated from provincial positions to national ones, a rarity among Chinese mandarins. When he came to Fujian in 1632, he did so with express orders from the emperor to resolve the problems with the Dutch and the pirates. From his perspective the only way to get rid of one was to get rid of the other. He once wrote that “I’ve observed that since ancient times, when Chinese and barbarians mix together, all kinds of troubles result.” (Andrade, Lost, 32)

The more Putmans dealt with the Chinese, the more he considered them to be “deceitful, treacherous, untrustworthy, craven.” (Andrade, Lost, 33) In a single word, they were prevaricators. Therefore, he decided to use them to his advantage. Since Chinese sailors earned no more than four tael per annum at most, it might behoove him to pay them to fight their own people. The cost would be minimal from his perspective because the VOC paid their crews nearly ten times as much as what the Chinese received, and whatever booty was captured would finance their share. To that end, he sent out dispatches to Chinese sailors to join him in a new venture that would pit them against Zheng Zhilong. Some accepted his proposal.

When ready, Putmans set sail for Xiamen. His fleet consisted of nine Dutch ships, which Ming scholars described as being
three hundred feet long, sixty feet wide, and more than two feet thick. They have five masts, and behind them they have a three-story tower. On the sides are small ports where they place brass cannons. And underneath the masts they have huge twenty-foot-long iron cannons, which, when fired, can blast holes into and destroy stone walls, their thunder resounding for ten miles (several dozen li). (Andrade, Lost, 36)
Zou Weilian’s description of these combination merchant and fighting vessels was similar.
[T]he red-haired barbarians have ships that are five hundred feet long and seventy feet wide. They’re called decked-ships because within them they have three layers, all of which have huge cannons facing outwards that can pierce and split stone walls, their thunder sounding for ten miles. . . . The Hollanders’ ability to ravage the sea is based on this technology. Our own ships, when confronting Dutch ships, are smashed into powder. (Andrade, Lost 36)
Return to Amsterdam of Second
                                  Expedition to East Indies by Andries
                                  van Eertvelt, 1610-1620 (Source:
                                  Wikimedia Commons
Dutch ships circa early 17th century
(Oil painting by Andries van Eertvelt, 1610-1620, of the second expedition to the East Indies returning to Amsterdam in 1599)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, Zheng Zhilong had shipwrights building new ships for him, and thirty of these were based on these Dutch designs. Each had two gun decks capable of carrying up to thirty-six large guns on European-style gun carriages with the requisite cabling to prevent the guns from becoming loose cannons and wreaking havoc.

Putmans led his fleet of nine ships to the far side of Gulangyu, where they anchored away from prying eyes. At dawn, the fleet separated into two forces and approached the harbor from different directions. The Chinese believed the Dutch were friendly, so they put up no resistance. The intruders opened fire. Those aboard the junks abandoned ship and swam ashore. Rather than waste gunpowder and shot, Putmans had his men hack and burn the Chinese vessels, which provided the Dutch with no plunder other than fifty iron guns and firewood. Only three of Zheng Zhilong’s vessels survived the attack. One Dutchman died in the assault because he caught fire while torching one of the Chinese ships.

Zheng Zhilong’s response, housed within VOC archives, was a mix of shock and anger.
You’ve behaved like a pirate! Are you proud of yourself? Attacking without warning . . .? If you had told me in advance, I would have come out like a soldier and fought openly, and whoever won would have deserved the victory, but I thought you had come as a friend, to trade and do business. I’ll bide my time. Don’t believe that you and your forces will be allowed to remain here in the imperial waterways for long. (Andrade, Lost, 42)
Putmans didn’t take the threat seriously and continued pillaging like a pirate. The Chinese were unable to stop him because their vessels “are tall and large, while ours are low and small, so we can’t attack them from below like that.” (Andrade, Lost, 43) He garnered a wide assortment of booty from watermelons to lacquer tables, from deerskins to cloves. One haul from a vessel returning from the Philippines netted him 27,994 pieces of eight (roughly $8,128,437 in 2023). All told, the Dutch reckoned they captured cargo valued at 64,017.25 pieces of eight ($17,611,614).

Plunder taken was a dividend rather than Putmans’s endgame. He just wanted to put the Chinese out of action and force them to give into his demand of free trade for the Dutch with China. To his way of thinking Zheng Zhilong was afraid; certainly, quite a few pirates felt that might be true, because by the time October came, 450 sailed with the Dutch.

What Putmans didn’t realize was that his actions had forced two opposing forces (Zheng Zhilong and Zou Weilian) to form their own alliance. They set aside their differences to stop the Dutch. Shipwrights returned to shipyards to reconstruct Zheng Zhilong’s new fleet. Zou Weilian mustered military leaders to bring arms of all sizes. Together, these disparate forces vowed to fight to the death.

While Putmans was out plundering, Zheng Zhilong was waging his own version of subterfuge, teasing him with the possibility of compromise. Then he sent another missive, this one very different in tone.
How can a dog be permitted to lay its bitch head on the emperor’s pillow? . . . If you want to fight, bring it to us here in Xiamen, where the high officials of China can watch our victory over you. (Andrade, Lost, 45)
The signatures of twenty-one commanders appeared at the end of the letter. Putmans was offended and considered it more swagger than a real threat. Still his fleet sailed to Liaolua Bay, and all the vessels flew blue flags bearing the letters VOC.

Early the next morning an odd assortment of 150 vessels approached. They belonged to Zheng Zhilong, who wrote:
It was just daybreak when we saw the barbarians’ decked ships . . . nine of them, cocky and self satisfied with the cliffs at their back, accompanied by fifty pirate ships sailing back and forth around them. (Andrade, Lost, 47)
But this approaching eclectic armada was not what Putmans expected. He saw what Zhilong wanted him to see.
[T]hey were extremely well supplied with guns and men, and they comported themselves bravely and without fear, so we concluded that these were all warjunks and therefore expected that – with God’s help – we would be victorious. . . .

The Chinese came forth like insane, forsaken, crazy, desperate men, who had already given up their lives, showing no fear of any violence of cannons, muskets, fire, or flame. (Andrade, Lost, 47-48)
And then it was too late. Two opposing vessels slammed into each other and “went up in an instant in such terrifying tall flames, burning so vehemently, that it seemed nearly impossible.” (Andrade, Lost, 48) When the flames reached the magazine where the gunpowder was stored, the vessels exploded, killing Dutch and Chinese alike.

Despite the conflagration, the Chinese soldiers didn’t stop with just the one ship. They boarded another and clashed in hand-to-hand combat, driven by the promise that if they seized this second vessel, they would receive accolades of the highest order. More vessels came together and the flames spread.

Zheng Zhilong described the scene.
When the decked ships were burning, the fire and smoke soared up to the heavens, and our eyes were filled with the sight of floating corpses, while the bodies of those who were captured and beheaded piled up in heaps. (Andrade, Lost, 49)
The truth finally dawned on Putmans.
[T]his entire fleet had been prepared as fireships and they’d had no intention of doing battle, planning instead to come up against us and set fire to our ships. This was despite the fact that these were well-armed and large vessels, the very best warjunks. We had no chance of victory since they enjoyed odds of twenty against one and didn’t care about their own lives. (Andrade, Lost, 49)
Putmans’s flag ship fled. Zheng Zhilong pursued. But fate intervened with “wild” “sea wind” and “rough and treacherous” “waves.” (Andrade, Lost, 49)

When a final tally was taken, Putmans lost four of his nine ships. Ninety-three men were gone, although how many of those died or were taken prisoner is unknown. Among the prizes Zheng Zhilong took were “six large cannons, two little cannons, sixteen muskets, eleven barbarian swords, one iron helmet, six tubes of gunpowder, seven barbarian books, one sea chart, three suits of armor.” (Andrade, Lost, 50) His captives included Chinese pirates, two of their wives, and an undefined number of Japanese pirates. The emperor and his court considered this win a “miracle at sea.” From Zheng Zhilong’s perspective,
[i]t seems that this victory is enough to reestablish the prestige and authority of China, and, in contrast, to lower the spirits of those crafty barbarians. (Andrade, Lost, 50)
The strange bedfellows that brought about this victory proved particularly rewarding to Zheng Zhilong. He could still use the Dutch, and Ming officials felt he was the only person capable of managing them. Therefore, why did he need Zou Weilian around to get in his way?

He took Zou Weilian’s place as governor, and once free to continue as he deemed best, Zheng Zhilong resumed trading with the Dutch. Mostly he sent his ships to Taiwan, rather than allowing their ships to come to him. He decided how much silk they could purchase and told them how much it would cost.

During his time as admiral, Zheng Zhilong taxed ship cargoes at forty percent and insisted that ships pay for protection. The latter was the only way to avoid being plundered by pirates. In exchange for the extorted sum of 3,000 in gold, merchant captains received a flag emblazoned with the Chinese character “Zheng” (Serious). Few ship owners refused to pay. Ships also had to pay tolls, and when combined with the taxes (or extortion fees), these proved quite profitable. The tolls his men collected equated to around 10,000,000 taels per annum. His trade with Japan and Southeast Asia garnered two to three times that amount. Add to that what he took in from rents and other land resources, as well as bribes, and his annual income probably surpassed that of the VOC three or four times over.

Around this time, Zheng built a new home in Anping, north of the island of Jinmen on the mainland and south of Quanzhou. The opulent palace was surrounded by a three-mile outer wall. Guards walked along parapets of the compound to protect the interior and his family. The garden included fountains, ponds with fish, pavilions, tea-houses, and a small zoo of exotic animals. “A canal led directly to his personal residence, and it was said that it even stretched to his own bedroom so he could board a ship at a moment’s notice.” (Andrade, Lost, 53) He also had a private chapel in which he displayed the Catholic crucifix and various statues of Chinese deities. When all was ready, Zheng Zhilong summoned his seven-year-old son, often called Lucky Pine, to come live with him. His mother, Tagawa, remained in Japan. When Lucky Pine arrived, Zheng Zhilong embraced this son whom he had never seen and called him Zheng Sen (Forest). Each evening, the young boy “would face east and look to his mother, hiding his tears.” (Clements, 72)

Zheng Zhilong wished for his first love to join him. She had not come with their son because the Japanese were not permitted to leave their country. So, in 1646, Zhilong sought permission from the authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate to allow Tagawa Matsu to emigrate. Permission was granted, but she was forced to leave behind another son.

In June 1644, the Manchu invaders captured Beijing and established the Qing dynasty.9 Initially, the Zheng clan pledged allegiance to the Ming dynasty and vowed to see the rightful emperor restored to the throne. Rather than allow the Manchus to capture him, the Ming emperor committed suicide near the end of April. While the Qing ruled from Beijing, the Ming established a southern dynasty. The first of these, the Hongguang emperor, was captured in 1646 and executed in Beijing. He was succeeded by the Longwu emperor, who sought refuge in Fujian province. Whether Zheng Zhilong decided to be proactive or thought his best chances of survival lay with the Qing court, he negotiated with their representatives and changed sides, retaining his position of power in Fujian. This allowed the Manchus to capture the province, as well as the Longwu emperor who was taken and slain in October.

Hongguang Emperor,
                      artist unknown (Source:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%BC%98%E5%85%89%E5%B8%9D.jpg)Longwu Emperor,
                      artist unknown (Source:
Left: Hongguang Emperor, also known as Zhu Yousong, by unknown artist (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Right: Longwu Emperor, also known as Zhu Yujian, by unknown artist (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As the Manchus swept through Fujian, they also captured Quanzhou, where Tagawa Matsu lived. Some accounts say that they ravaged her and afterward, she committed suicide. Or perhaps she took her own life to prevent herself from falling into their clutches. No matter which was true, her death had a profound impact on her son.

Portrait of Koxinga, artist
                                unknown, mid-17th century (Source:
                                https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Portrait_of_Koxinga.jpg)The Zheng Bu ceased to exist after this. Some of its generals joined the Southern Ming emperor’s government. Others became local military commanders. Those who remained fully loyal to the Zheng clan joined Zheng Chenggong, who assumed leadership of his father’s organization. Unlike his father, he remained loyal to the Ming dynasty, and eventually was honored with a name that meant “Lord with the Imperial Surname,” which Europeans translated to Koxinga (also spelled Coxinga).

Unfortunately for Zheng Zhilong, the Qing court did not keep their promises to him for long. Prince Bolo distrusted him, believing that he was double dealing, playing one side against the other, for his own advantage. Prince Bolo ordered him to be placed in chains and escorted to Beijing. A Franciscan friar described his capture in a letter.
The prince and lord of this city of Anhai, of these ports and frontiers, is the mandarin who is called Yquam [Iquan], whose beginnings were in making himself feared by the power he had at sea. He, because of the fear which the Tartar King [the Qing emperor] had of him, was summoned and taken by design to the court of Beijing, where he is detained, he being given hope that he will be sent back to his lands and will be given absolute rule over this province of Fujian, that of Guangdong, and another which adjoins them. Pending his return, this city and these ports are governed by the same people whom he left in charge, which are in this city of Anhai a mannish woman, his stepmother [una varonil mujer, su madrastra], in a related port his brother, another [brother] in Amoy [Xiamen], and in his lands a son of his who now with more than one hundred thousand men is at sea to make war against the Tartars if they do not release his father. (Wills, 124)
The Qing court held Zheng Zhilong in Beijing under house arrest. His accommodations befitted those of a prince, but he was kept away from most of his family. Despite his seclusion, he still conducted business and made new friends, including local Jesuit priests. He even provided money for them to build a new church.

Thinking they might better control him and through him, his son, Qing emissaries persuaded Zheng Zhilong to bring his son into their fold. In fact, if he brought the rest of the Zheng clan over to their side, he would be released. He and his son exchanged letters. In his second one, Zheng Zhilong wrote:
The Manchu court offers territory in exchange for peace. They wish to send two noblemen to present you with the title and deeds of the Dukedom of Haicheng, allowing your followers to abide in the region. (Clements, 149) 10
But Zheng Chenggong had learned well from his father. He did not trust the Manchus, and he had no intention of forsaking the Ming emperor.

Two years later, Zheng Zhilong wrote another letter, but this one was not at the behest of his jailers. His words were meant only for his son, and the missive was to be smuggled out of the city by those who still supported the Zheng clan. What Zhilong wrote and how the document ended up in Manchu hands remains unknown, but the contents were sufficient to abruptly end the Qing emperor’s efforts to bring Zheng Chenggong into the fold. Zheng Zhilong was divested of all his titles and thrown in prison with other members of his family, including one of his sons and Bao the Panther, his brother. He was also sentenced to die, but that judgement was not carried out immediately.

Young Kangxi
                                Emperor, age 20, Qing court painter,
                                before 1722 (Source:
                                https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Young_Kangxi.jpg)When the first Qing emperor died of smallpox in February 1661, his third son became the Kangxi Emperor. He was only seven years old, so Manchu members of the royal court, who had also served his father, acted as regents. They decided it was time to carry out Zheng Zhilong’s sentence, announcing on 24 November that he would endure lingchi. This ritualistic death by a thousand cuts involved single cuts in a specific order: “fleshy parts – thighs, calves, and breasts – were dealt with first, followed by appendages such as the nose, ears, fingers and toes.” With surgical skill the executioner dismembered the convicted piece by piece, ending “the butchery by stabbing the man through the heart, and decapitating him.” (Abbott, 381)

Thomas Taylor Meadows wrote of witnessing such an execution in 1851. The
executioner proceeded, with a single-edged dagger or knife, to cut up the man on the cross: whose sole clothing consisted of his wide trousers, rolled down to his hips and up to his buttocks. He was a strongly-made man, above the middle-size, and apparently about forty years of age. . . . we observed the two cuts across the forehead, the cutting off of the left breast, and slicing of the flesh from the front of the thighs . . . From the first stroke of the knife till the moment the body was cut down from the cross and decapitated, about four or five minutes elapsed. (Meadows, 655-656)
Portrait of Zheng Zhilong from
                                Taiwain Waiji, 1799 (Source:
                                https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Zheng_Zhilong.jpg)To make Zheng Zhilong’s execution more gut-wrenching, he would first have to watch two sons and eight others undergo this form of torture first. When the execution day arrived, the Qing court altered their pronouncement; instead of dying by lingchi, Zheng Zhilong and the others would be decapitated. Afterwards, all of the Zheng family’s property and wealth was seized, and their ancestral graves destroyed.

During his lifetime, Zheng Zhilong mastered many skills and finessed many people in his climb from obscurity to the lofty realms of a sea lord. He was canny and had a knack for military tactics. If his enemy thought him in front of them, in reality he was behind them. He began writing a strategy handbook entitled Jing guo xionglue (Grand Strategy for Ordering the Country) while in Japan in 1612. (The original twenty chapters were a gift for the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate.) This handbook became a work-in-progress that had reached eighty chapters in 1645.

Father Vittorio Riccio, a Dominican missionary and contemporary of both Zheng Zhilong and his son, said of the former:
Nicolas the apostate, a marvel of human fate, who rose up by most despicable chance to challenge kings and emperors. (Ho, 263)

1. Although the Latin words translate to ten gold coins in gold, it is more likely that the Jesuits gave Zheng Zhilong ten silver taels. At the time, one of these coins would be enough to purchase more than 166 pounds of flour.

2. Wakō, referring to where the pirates originated rather than their race, are often thought of as Japanese. In reality, they were Chinese.

3. The Matsura ruled Hirado from 1603 to 1868, but their roots there trace back to 794. Prior to Tokugawa Ieyasu gaining control over all of Japan and establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Matsura supported a different leader. To show that they now supported the new shogunate, the head of the Matsura torched his new castle in 1613. Eventually, the family gained high standing within the Tokugawa Shogunate during the seventeenth century.

4. It’s possible that Zheng Zhilong delved into piracy early in his sea career. In 1622, there were three pirate leaders operating out of Fujian, China: Yang Lu, Cai Wu, and Zhong Bu. The latter two got into a scuffle with naval commander Yu Zigan. He won; Cai Wu fled to Japan and Zhong Bu lurked around Taiwan. This defeat gave Yang Lu greater power; the pirates giving their allegiance to him numbered 3,000 and they served aboard seventy-two junks. Zheng Zhilong, a small-fry among the unallied pirates, offered to join Yang Lu, but he refused. This might be how he came to join Li Dan’s organization.

5. Lady Yan was the daughter of one of Li Dan’s associates. She would give Zheng Zhilong four sons: Shixi, Shidu, Shiyin, and Shi’en.

He also had two daughters (mother unknown) who were raised in the Catholic faith. One would marry a Portuguese man named Antonio Rodrigues, whose father had ties with Zheng Zhilong on Anhai.

6. Tael was a means for measuring silver in China. It was recorded in accounting ledgers to show the amount of a transaction and what it was worth. Payments were made in actual silver or foreign currency, depending on whether the trade was made in China or transacted with outlanders. The actual measure of a tael varied because there was no uniformity in scales and regions, but according to Encyclopedia Britannica “most were equivalent to 1.3 ounces of silver.”

7. China’s first emperor, Shi Huang Di, unified basic measurements after he came to power in 221 BCE. The shi or dan was a measurement of weight and was equivalent to the weight a man could tote around on a shoulder pole. During the Ming dynasty, one shi was equal to 100 jin and 1 jin has been equated to 590 grams in the metric system of weights, which did not exist during the Ming dynasty. Thus, 3,000 shi = 300,000 jin = 177,000,000 grams. 9,000 shi = 900,000 jin = 531,000,000 grams.

8. Among his many lieutenants (commanders of his junks) were his younger brothers Bao the Panther and Hu the Tiger and his half-brother Peng the Roc. In addition to blood relatives, Zheng Zhilong often adopted the offspring of the poor and destitute, whom he raised to become viable members of his crews. One of these boys was named Zheng Tai, a sullen and stubborn lad whose own family showed him no respect. Zheng Zhilong took him under his wing, and Zheng Tai rose through the ranks and outlived many of those who thought he would never amount to anything.

9. Once Beijing fell, war would be waged for four decades before the Qing dynasty gained complete control of China.

10. This passage is a summarized version of Zheng Zhilong’s words and were recorded in Yang Ying’s Xian Wang Shi Lu Jiao Zhu (Notes on the Records of the First Kings) around 1661.

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