Maritime Capitalism in

Seventeenth-Century China:

The Rise and Fall of Koxinga Revisited



Ho-fung Hung

Department of Sociology,

The Johns Hopkins University

541 Mergenthaler Hall,

3400 N. Charles Street,

Baltimore, MD 21218



Working paper, October 2000

IROWS Working Paper # 72 available at

University of California-Riverside


In seventeenth-century China, Zheng Chenggong, known to Europeans as Koxinga, and his family emerged as a formidable commercial and military power in maritime East Asia that was tamed by neither the Ming/Qing governments nor the European colonizers. In this paper, I will reject the conventional interpretation that presents the Zhengs’ maritime power as no more than an ad hoc, individual venture the final failure of which was inevitable given the strength and hostility of the Chinese Empire. By synthesizing original sources and recent findings from the secondary literature, I will revisit the rise and fall of the Zhengs by arguing that: (1) Over three generations, the Zheng familial enterprise had evolved from a decentralized trade network into a vertically integrated, bureaucratically managed business organization with an economic size comparable to the VOC and the Qing Empire at large; (2) By the 1660s, the Zheng regime had become an independent Imperial-merchant state anchored at Taiwan, while the Qing government had tilted toward giving up its attempt to take Taiwan; (3) The final collapse of the Zheng regime in 1683 was contingent and far from inevitable. It would have sustained had it not been exhausted by its unnecessary and miscalculated military adventure to fight back on mainland China in the 1670s. This new look at the rise and fall of the will deepen our understanding of the “interactive emergence of European domination” in Asia.



In 1675, when the maritime power of the United Provinces was at its zenith in Europe, Federick Coyett, a former Dutch governor of colonial Taiwan, observed the emergence of a similar power in East Asia during the dynastic transition from Ming to Qing. The Zheng family, under the leadership of Zheng Chenggong, who was the son of an armed trader Zheng Zhilong and was known to the Europeans as Koxinga, expelled the Dutch from Taiwan in 1662 and turned the island into a base for expanding its commercial empire and resisting the nascent Qing regime. Coyett draws a parallel between the Zheng – Qing conflict and Dutch – Spain conflict at the two ends of Eurasia. The relation between the Zhengs and the Qing was seen as a conflict between a maritime and a continental power:


      When, in the previous century, our beloved Fatherland had fallen into such extremity that it seemed no longer possible to resist the power of the Spaniards, and when the Church had to all appearance become their slaves, that highly celebrated Prince, the greatest politician of the time, whose memory is so dear to the Dutch nation, and on whose martydom the first foundations of our precious freedom were laid, forced the desperate Council to surrender their country to the mercy of the waters by breaking the dykes and dams; thus causing it to sink away as if in a precipice, and compelling the people, with their wives, children, and moveable property, to take refuge in their ships. They would then have to depend absolutely on God’s mercy, and go to sea in search of other countries, where they could found a new republic..        In like manner Koxinga, after many long years of war with the Tartars [Manchus], who pursued him very vigorously, was brought to a state of great extremity; so much so that he has forced to hide his wife and children and all their moveable goods in junks, and to remove from one island to another.

      When, … all [Qing forces] joined together against him, success forsook him for a time, and he was compelled to seek his fortune at sea. Here his influence soon increased as much as power on land decreased; especially because the Tartars had little experience of sea life. (Coyett 1903:384; 412)


The Dutch observation was confirmed by the Spaniards. After ousting the Dutch from Taiwan in 1662, Zheng Chenggong sent an Italian Dominican priest, Fray Victorio Riccio, to Manila as his representative and demanded an annual tribute from the Spanish Colony. He threatened to conquer the Philippines with the example of Taiwan. Receiving no response, Zheng decided to organize an expedition to Manila. The city immediately fell into chaos and panics. The garrisons from all over the Colony were withdrawn and the troops were concentrated to defend the fort of Manila. The Spanish government hysterically witch-hunted Zheng’s collaborators among the Chinese residents and executed a large number of suspects. (Ts’ao 1972: 14; Anonymous 1906: 218-9; Foccardi 1986: 96-7)


            Having heard of the news that Zheng died in 1663 without materializing his plan, the Colony was greatly relieved. An anonymous Jesuits wrote in fear and aspiration that:


      In short, this people [i.e., the Chinese] is the most ingenious in the world; and when they see any contrivance in practice they employ it with more facility than do the Europeans. Accordingly, they are not now inferior in the military art, and in their method of warfare they excel the entire world. …Europeans who have seen it [Zheng’s army] are astonished. …From this may be inferred the joy that was felt throughout the city and the so special kindness of God in putting an end to this tyrant [Zheng Chenggong] in the prime of his life…  (Anonymous 1906 [1663]: 257-8)


After the Zhengs consolidated their regime in Taiwan, they reconsidered invading the Philippines in 1673. The new Governor of Manila, who began his office in 1669, reacted by sending an ambassador to Taiwan to express his friendly overtures. Zheng’s plan was dropped at last because of his renewed engagement in Mainland China. Thereafter, Manila benefited from its good relationship with Taiwan, and the city was visited every year by five to six Taiwan junks which flooded the Colony with high quality Chinese silk (Ts’ao 1972: 14; Wills 1974: 27; TWWJ 28:416 ).


            The English would definitely agree with their Dutch and Spanish rivals. In the seventeenth century, the English were newcomers in East Asia and could not find a niche in the region under Dutch hostility and Qing’s reluctance to trade. They turned to Zheng Chenggong’s successor Zheng Jing (whom they called “the King of Tywan”) and tried to plug themselves into Zheng’s commercial networks. In 1670, an agent of the East Indian Company was sent from Bantam to Taiwan with valuable gifts.


A trade agreement was signed between the Zheng regime and the EIC. The English was granted the right to establish a factory in Taiwan and purchase silk, Japanese copper, sugar and deerskin from the Zhengs. In return, they had to supply Taiwan with 200 bucks of gunpowder, 200 matchlock guns and 100 piculs of iron every year. Besides, the Company had to keep two expert gunners in Taiwan “for the King’s service,” (to train Zheng’s artillery) and a blacksmith for “making King’s guns.” Although the English kept complaining that they were charged with unreasonably high prices for the goods, they had no choice other than to comply. (Ts’ao 1972: 14; Wong 1984: 155-156; Shepherd 1993: 100; Morse 1926: 44-8; Lai 1982: 278-82; Paske-Smith 1930: 82-122)


In addition, the Zheng regime in Taiwan was an active contender against the Qing Empire within the Sinocentric tributary order. It received tributes from certain Southeast Asian states (such as Siam and Annam). In 1671, and once again in 1673, Ryukyu tributary vessels on their way to China were seized by Zhengs’ warships. It was not only a humiliation to the Qing government, but also created a diplomatic squabble between Taiwan and Japan – which was another contender against the Sinocentric order in East Asia at that time (Zhang 1966: 63, 65, 79; Wong 1983: 154; see Hamashita 1988, 1994 and Kawakatsu  1994 for Japan’s place in the Sinocentric order).


In most of the seventeenth century, the Zheng Empire was an insuperable power enjoying naval and commercial supremacy in maritime East Asia. It was tamed by neither the Qing Empire nor the European colonizers. If the Zheng He Expedition between 1405 and 1433 is comparable to later Iberian “maritime Imperialism” in terms of the geographical reach of the Expedition (see Finlay 1992), the power of the Zheng family is definitely comparable to the maritime capitalism of the contemporaneous European Companies in terms of the Zhengs’ mutually reinforcing pursuit of power and profits. Apart from the similarities, how was the Zheng Empire different from its European counterpart? How did it interact with the continental, Imperial state of China? How did it collapse finally? What is its significance in our understanding of the history of China and Asia? These are the questions this paper seeks to answer.





            Under a burgeoning literature on maritime Asia (e.g. Ptak and Rothermund eds 1991; Chaudhuri 1990; Pearson 1988; Das Gupta and Pearson, eds. 1987; Pearson 1987; Subrahmanyam 1990a, b&c; Reid 1988; Blusse 1988), the Eurocentric and teleological view that Asia was no more than a passive victim of the mighty Companies from Europe and that Asia was predestined to be peripherized by the expanding European world-system has been under attack for the last two decades.


It is shown that in their course of expansion into Asia, European traders always ran into indigenous merchants as tough rivals. The latter were not inferior, or even superior, in many aspects to the Europeans. The integration of state-building and profit-making activities, as an essential characteristic of the European Companies ( Steensgaard 1974; Tracy ed. 1990; Tracy ed. 1991; Israel 1989; Blusse and Gaastra eds. 1981; Lane 1979; cf. Tilly Arrighi Wallerstein), was never unique to them. A widely noticed example counterpoising the uniqueness of the European model was the maritime-oriented state of Oman. Over the seventeenth century, the Omanis’ sphere of prevalence extended from the Persian Gulf to the east coast of Africa and west coast of India. The Portuguese, Dutch and the English could hardly break the trade monopoly of the Omanis, and were kept at bay by them (Bathurst 1972; Boxer and de Azevedo 1960; Alpers 1975; Subrahmanyam 1995: 770-2).


Evidences also point to the fact that Asian empires were not invariably hostile to maritime communities. By studying the Ottomans’, Safavids’ and Mughals’ relation with various commercial communities, Subrahmanyam (1995) finds that traders could always benefit from their active alliance with the continental state, and “under the carapace of the Islamic Empires of the early modern epoch, merchant groups could not only expand geographically but gradually redefine their place and engage in new ways with political power” (774). These refreshing studies are in tandem with the re-conceptualization of the nature of European expansion into Asia as an “interactive emergence of European domination” (Wills 1993), emphasizing the active role played by Asian traders in the process.  More case studies are in need to substantiate this claim and to illuminate any intra-Asian variation. 


On the part of China, Wills pioneers to illustrate that there existed a tradition of maritime commerce, a tradition of positive interaction between profits and powers, in late Imperial China. He notices that the Dutch VOC faced a number of difficulties in establishing themselves in East Asia, with the competition from the Zheng family as a big obstacle (Wills 1974). Later, Wills (1979) moves further to locate the Zhengs, and the tradition of maritime China in general, within the late Imperial history of China:


[W]e see them [maritime traders, ports, etc.] as “peripheral” to the main patterns of Chinese history... [T]heir influence was limited in periods of political instability and they were more or less repressed, exploited, and distorted by the dominant core system in times of stability.

            [T]he case of Cheng Ch’eng-kung [Zheng Chenggong] .. suggests that the maritime interaction of profit and power fully realized its political potential only in combination with strict military discipline and strong committment to a political cause. In the events discussed here, this happened only in a narrow focus on an extraordinary individual, not in an often-repeated pattern of personal power and legitimation, still less in the involvement of a whole community in the pursuit of maritime profit and power. Cheng Ch’eng-kung was neither Shih K’o-fa [Shi Kefa, a renowed Ming hero who selflessly resisted the Qing] nor a K’ang-hsi [Kangxi, the Qing Emperor from 1661 to 1722]; Amoy [Xiamen, a port that served as Zheng’s base before he retreated to Taiwan] was not a Venice or an Amsterdam. (204-6; 234)


In sum, Wills contentions are threefold: (1) the naval-cum-commercial power of the Zhengs was nothing more than a personal endeavor, and the individual adventures of maritime traders were more ad hoc than accumulative; (2) the Imperial power was antagonistic to the maritime power, and would crush it whenever it could; (3) the final collapse of the Zhengs were inevitable. In addition, Wills hints later that the vulnerability and political subjugation of maritime China are exceptional to the overall pattern of maritime Asia, in contrast to the port-states tradition in Southeast Asia and Oman for example:


At least as important for the long-run evolution of maritime Asia was the anomalous situation of the maritime Chinese.... The sophistication and staying power of the Chinese imperial state made regional state-building tendencies [in the maritime communities] neither feasible nor essential for defense (Wills 1993: 87; 105).


            The two quotations above illustrate the most comprehensive framework to date that puts the Zheng family in the context of Chinese late Imperial history and the history of maritime Asia. A number of revealing studies on the subject appeared after Wills’ path-breaking works in the 1970s to enrich our knowledge on the Zhengs[1]. Each of the research focuses on certain specific aspects of the Zhengs venture. Most of them follow or share Wills’ grand interpretation that the rise and fall of the Zhengs is a fortuitous episode in Chinese history. 


            In this paper, I try to unravel this “China exceptionism” in maritime Asia as suggested by Will’s interpretation of the Zhengs family. Through a synthesize of secondary sources and original research,[2] I will reinterpret the rise and fall of the Zheng family and argue that: (1) The enterprise of the Zheng family was far more than a personal endeavor. Over three generations (Zheng Zhilong, Zheng Chenggong and Zheng Jing), it had evolved from a loose familial trade networks to a vertically integrated, bureaucratically managed trade organization; (2) The political ambitions of the Zhengs and Qing’s policy towards them, as well as the strategies they employed to deal with each other were in flux. By 1670, a stable maritime order had emerged over the Taiwan Strait in which the Zheng regime became a virtually independent Imperial-merchant state exercising its dominance over maritime East Asia, while the Qing government no longer bothered incorporating Taiwan into the Empire; (3) The final collapse of the Zhengs’ maritime Empire in 1683 was largely a result of contingencies. Had not the Taiwan regime collapsed by itself because of its over-ambitious engagement in the mainland, the Qing government would not have been able to incorporate Taiwan into the Qing Empire in the end.  


In what follow, I will first outline the rise of Zheng Zhilong that laid the foundation of Zheng Chenggong’s maritime empire. Then I will decipher the structure of economic and political organizations of the Zheng regime. At last, I will analyze the concatenation of events that led to the collapse of the Zheng regime in 1683.





Ming China entered the phase of dynastic decline in the middle of the sixteenth century. Corruption of the Imperial bureaucracy grew and budget deficit enlarged. Meanwhile, the balance of power in the North was disrupted by the expansion of the Jurchens. In the Southeast coast, illegal trade conducted by armed Chinese and Japanese traders – known collectively as wokou or “Japanese pirates” to the Chinese government – flourished when trade with China was encouraged by the coastal warlords in Japan. (Lin 1987: 85-111; He 1996: 45-7; Tong 1991: 115-29; Wakeman 1985: Ch.1; Huang 1969: 105-23; Wills 1979: 210-1; So 1975) The intrusion of the Portuguese in the region escalated the level of violence among the Chinese and Japanese traders when the Portuguese traded their firearms for silk from the Chinese. Nonetheless, because of the over-extension of Portuguese maritime power, the Portuguese were weak in East Asia and never displaced the Chinese and Japanese traders as the leading forces in East Asian trade. Though the Ming government lifted its sea ban in 1567, trade with Japan was still forbidden. Armed smuggling continued (He 1994: 49-52; Boxer 1969: 56-7; Souza 1986: 130-1).


The militarization of maritime trade led to the rise of highly organized and militant Chinese merchant groups. Their power inflated drastically after the retreat of the Japanese merchants in the 1630s under the Tokugawa Seclusion Policy that forbade its subjects to travel abroad (for discussion of the Seclusion Policy, see Howe 1996: 12 and Lee 1999). Zheng Zhilong was one of these armed Chinese traders. He was born in 1604 in a merchant family in Fujian. In 1621, he became a follower of Li Dan, one of the most influential Chinese traders in the Japan and Manila trade routes.  Meanwhile, he was employed by the Dutch VOC as an interpreter in 1624.  (Lin 1987: 112-7; Yang 1982: 294; Chen 1984: 151; Wong 1984: 120-3; Blusse 1981: 94) In 1625, Li Dan died. Zheng immediately took over all of his property and trade networks under the military support of the Dutch. (Foccardi 1986: 6-8; Blusse 1981:98; Wills 1979: 217-8; Lin 1987: 114-5)


After a few years, he was the strongest Chinese on the sea. He monopolized both the connections with the Dutch, who had controlled Taiwan and turned it into their key trading post in East Asia since 1624, and the supply of Chinese products, and became more independent. He was upgraded from an employee to an ally of the Dutch in 1628, when the two parties signed a three years trade agreement. Zheng was to supply Dutch Taiwan annually with 1,400 dan of raw silk, and a certain amount of sugar and textiles, whence the VOC promised him an annual supply of 1,000 dan of pepper. In 1630, Zheng and the Taiwan Governor signed a treaty on mutual military protection. He was then 26 years old. (Chen 1984: 188; Yang 1982: 309)  


Zheng Zhilong’s dominance in coastal China alarmed the Ming government. In 1630, the secretary of the Ming military ministry reported to the Emperor that “all Zhilong’s ships are barbarian [i.e. Dutch] ships, all his canons are barbarian canons, and he now possesses up to a thousand warships.” (MSL Chongzhengchangpian 41: 3.12 yiyi) When the inland turbulence picked up, the Ming government gave up subjugating Zheng by force, and instead tried to incorporate him into Ming’s power structure. In 1628, an alliance was formed between the Ming government and Zheng. Zheng was entitled  Patrolling Admiral (youji jiangjun), bearing the responsibility of eliminating all other “pirate groups” under the logistic support of the Imperial navy. By 1636, all competing merchant groups had been smashed or incorporated into Zheng’s network. All foreign trade activities of China were put under his unified leadership (Wills 1979: 218-9; Struve 1988: 667; Chen 1984: 156-7; Wong 1983: 127-9; Lin 1987: 117-23; MSL Chongzhengchangpian 11: 1.9 gengwu, 41: 3.12 yiyi; Foccardi 1986: 16).


Soon the Dutch realized that Zheng was their toughest competitors in the East Asian market, and they decided to do away with him once and for all. In July 1633, a Dutch assault of Zheng’s naval base at Xiamen triggered a war between the Zhengs and the Dutch along the southeast coast of China. It ended up in the humiliating defeat of the Dutch who retreated hastily back to Taiwan in October and never set their foot on the China coast again (Chen 1984: 158; Blusse 1981: 102-3; Wills 1998: 370-1).


In 1641, a peace and trade treaty was signed between Zheng and the VOC. The Dutch would pay an annual tribute of 30,000 écus to Zheng to exchange for stable supply of Chinese commodities. Peace was restored under a new maritime order. The Dutch could only find his place in this order as Zheng’s humble partner, while the Ming government had actually transferred the governance of the coastal regions to Zheng.


At the peak of Zheng’s career, the Ming government in Beijing collapsed in 1644, followed by the fall of the Southern Ming court in Nanjing in 1645. A number of Ming courts were set up by different Ming princes at various places in southern China. Lungwu court was founded in Fujian and Zheng became its protector. However, when the Manchu troops were approaching the border of Fujian in 1646, Zheng withdrew his force from Fuzhou and let the Qing forces capture this provincial capital without any resistance. Zheng’s calculation that Manchus would co-opt him like the Ming court did turned out to be a mistake. He was arrested and sent to Beijing, where he was held hostage till he was executed in 1661. (Struve 1988: 665-73, 675-6; HSJWL: Yongli 1.1; HJJY: Lungwu 2.8; MHJY: Lungwu 2.9, MHJL Lungwu 2.9; Wills 1998: 224; Chen 1984: 160-3; Lin 1987: 123-4)


The Zheng family was caught in a familial feud after Zhilong was arrested. It was not until 1650 was it reunified under the strong leadership of Zhilong’s eldest son, Zheng Chenggong, who forcibly eliminated his uncles’ power. The Zheng family recouped rapidly from the chaos of leadership transition and re-attained the status of supremacy in East Asian trade. Zheng Chenggong significantly upgraded the family’s commercial capacity by turning his father’s trade networks into a vertically integrated and bureaucratically administered organization.


Compared to his father, Zheng Chenggong was much more purposeful as well as effective in mobilizing the trade revenue to establish an intact politico-military apparatus that turned his family venture into a maritime empire. The Zheng regime continued to be the most prominent player in the East Asian water even after Zheng Chenggong retreated to Taiwan in 1662 following his failure in taking Nanjing, the traditional imperial center in the South. The Zheng regime was further consolidated and turned into a de facto independent kingdom on Taiwan – a well defended island insulated from the attack of Qing’s feeble navy – under the leadership of Zheng Chenggong’s successor Zheng Jing.





The Mainland Period


From the 1620s to the 1640s, Zheng Zhilong’s supremacy in maritime China allowed him to accumulate an enormous amount of wealth for his family. It is reflected by the fact that during a Qing attack of Xiamen in 1651, 900,000 taels of gold, equivalent to about 10 million taels of silver, were seized (CZSL: Yongli 5.4.1, 7.8).[3] It was all the liquid capital he had commanded. This amount was extraordinarily large, given that the total cash revenue of the Qing government in the same year was 21 million taels of silver, (Wakeman 1985: 1070) and the surplus accumulated by the VOC in Batavia between 1613 and 1654 was only 15.3 million guilders, or 4.4 million taels of silver. [4] (Glamann 1958: 248) Zhilong turned Fujian into his own paradise. He bought great estates there and built his extravagant palace near Xiamen. He was considered by the coastal population as the “King of Southern China” (Foccardi 1986: 18). 


However, Zheng Zhilong’s enterprise was no more than a decentralized trade network. He never managed to consolidate his grip of the whole network that was built upon incorporating rival merchant groups. Instead, he shared the control of the business with his brothers and other members of the Zheng family. It is why the Manchus did not co-opt Zheng Zhilong after he surrendered (as they usually did to other surrendered Ming generals and officials), but used him to threaten and blackmail the rest of the Zheng family. The Manchus realized that Zheng did not control his family effectively and was incapable of delivering its whole power structure to the Qing (Wills 1979:222).


After guaranteeing his leadership in the family, Zheng Chenggong set out to rebuild his father’s enterprise. He upgraded his family’s commercial capacity by converting the trade network into a centrally commanded structure. Five companies (wushang) and two fleets were set up to conduct inland and overseas trade. Each of the five companies was divided into two branches (hang), one conducing inland trade and the other conducting maritime trade. One was located in the Lower Yangzi region under the coordination of Zheng’s secret regional headquarter at Hangzhou, and was responsible for purchasing indigenous products. The goods were then shipped to the other branch located at Xiamen. The latter then distributed the cargoes to either one of the two fleets – the Eastearn Sea fleet (dongyangchuan) or the Westesrn Sea fleet (xiyangchuan). They in turn sold the goods at the Japanese and Southeast Asian markets respectively. Each company and fleet received its capital from the treasury. All incomes were delivered back to the treasury after the goods were sold. All of the treasury, five companies and two fleets were centrally administered by the minister of finances of the Zheng regime, who was Zheng Chenggong’s brother Zheng Tai. The treasury’s account records were reported to, then dated and stamped by Chenggong regularly. The operation of the whole structure was kept in check by an independent monitoring officer (lucha). [5]


Besides, the companies and treasury lent money to independent merchants in lack of capital. The activities of these merchants were coordinated by the minister of finance. The inland five companies also served as intelligence agencies that collected information about Manchus’ activities. (Nan 1982; Yang 1992: 258) The structure and operation of the whole organization are illustrated below.


(Figure 1 about here)


Through this organization, Zheng’s seafaring enterprise was integrated with the Lower Yangzi market and production zone. A centralized and vertically integrated commercial organization was instituted as the revenue generating apparatus of the Zheng regime.


Major items of trade controlled by the Zheng enterprise included silk textiles, ceramics and gold from China, copper, silver and sulphur from Japan, and spices from Southeast Asia. More than 80 percent of the Chinese junks trading in Nagasaki and Southeast Asia belonged to the Zhengs. (Yang 1984b: 224-6; see also Han 1982: 148-55)  All other vessels sailing in Zhengs’ sphere of influence (which meant nearly the whole maritime East Asia) had to fly his flag, and pay him a toll of 3,000 taels of gold. In return, the Zhengs protected them from any danger at sea, which was mainly the attack of the Dutch.[6] The annual interest rate of the loans offered to the independent merchants was around 100 percent. The Zhengs also provided shipping services to the merchants who did not bother travelling abroad to sell their goods (Lin 1984: 199; Nan 1982: 218-20; Li 1982: 226-7; Han 1982; Zhang 1982).


It is estimated that in the 1650s, the average annual profit of Zheng’s direct involvement in trade was 2.4 million taels, equivalent to about 8.5 million guilders. (Yang 1984b) It was nearly five times bigger than the VOC’s annual profit in East Asia, slightly larger than the Company’s profit in the whole Asia, and more than one-tenth of the annual cash revenue of the Qing government around the same period.[7]


During the Zheng Chenggong era, the Dutch continued to be a humble player in the East Asian trade as they continued to rely on Zheng for supply of Chinese goods. Zheng Chenggong was regarded by the Governor General of Batavia as “the man who can spit much in our face in Eastern seas” (Foccardi 1986: 59). To guarantee its access to Chinese products, the VOC paid an annual tribute of 5,000 taels of silver, 100,000 arrows, and 1,000 dan of sulphur to Xiamen (CZSL: Yongli 11.6; Han 1984: 212-3; Yang 1992: 265; Coyett 1903: 389; HJJY Yongli 11.6; MHJY Yongli 11.6). 



The Taiwan Period


In order to weaken Zheng’s regime by cutting off the supply from the mainland, the Qing government implemented the scotch-earthed evacuation policy in 1660. All residents in the Xiamen area had to be moved 10 miles away from the seashore. It was then extended to the whole Fujian province in 1661, to Guangdong in 1662 and part of Zhejiang in 1663. All coastal villages and towns were burnt down. Castles were built along the evacuation line. (QSLZZZLZ: 44; HJJY: Yongli 15.10; MHJY: Yongli 15.10; Foccardi 1986: 90; Ts’ao 1972: 12; Shepherd 1993: 96)


The evacuation policy of Qing caused great difficulty to Taiwan initially (MHJY: Yongli 17.1). The effect of the measure faded, nevertheless, when illicit trade across the Strait resumed. The “five companies” system survived and continued its operation through the 1660s and 1670s.[8] Over the period, Taiwan was never short of silk supply from the mainland. (Nan 1982: 204-8; Ju 1986: 141-6; Lin 1984: 198-9; Li 1982: 228-9; Shepherd 1993: 96) In addition, the deerskin resources and sugar cane plantation in Taiwan generated additional profits for the Zhengs (Ju 1986:147-9; Wong 1983: 154-5; Shepherd 1993: 100). Ironically, the evacuation policy backfired as it let the Zhengs further monopolize the supply of Chinese products in the international market. It is observed by a Qing officer that,


After our court imposed a strict ban on sea trade, not a single junk is able to go into the sea. However, some merchants, who monopolize the supply of products, bribe the officials and soldiers guarding the coast, and trade with the Zheng family secretly. Consequently, the profits on the sea are manipulated solely by the Zhengs, and their wealth and supplies become more and more abundant. (quoted in Han 1982: 143; see also Ng 1983: 53)


Taiwan was then turned from an insignificant island into the most important entrepot in East Asia:


The Cheng [Zheng] trading junks also called in at Tonking, Quinam, Cambodia, Siam and other ports of Southeast Asia to obtain goods for their Chinese and Japanese trade. … In return exchanged Chinese goods and Japanese copper and gold “koban”. Copper and gold were then re-exported to the ports of India. Thus, brisk trade was carried on with the neighboring areas, … the Cheng was benefiting from the advantageous position of Taiwan, and could still hold their dominant position as an important intermediary of the international trade in East Asia.  (Ts’ao 1972: 15)


Under Zheng Chenggong and Zheng Jing, the Zhengs commercial empire transcended the phase of personal endeavor as characterized by the trade networks of Zheng Zhilong. Zhengs’ commercial organization was vertically integrated and bureaucratically administered, contrary to the typical image of Chinese business as informal trade network. In terms of economic size, the Zheng enterprise was well comparable to the VOC and even the Qing continental empire at large.  Below, we will see how the Zhengs utilized their commercial income to build up a political-military apparatus which is described by Wakeman as the “most aggressive assault forces in all of East Asia” (1985: 1047) at the time.





Territorial Ambition of Zheng Chenggong


Witnessing the unexpected reconsolidation and strengthening of the Zheng family under Zheng Chenggong, the Qing government offered a generous proposal to seek his cooperation in 1652. The Manchus promised a semi-autonomous status and the release of his father to exchange for Zheng’s submission. They also promised to grant the Zheng family a jurisdiction of four prefectures. In an edict to Zheng, the Emperor wrote:


… Competent officials are needed to defend [the coastal area] anyway. Why should I choose somebody else to take up the duty? Isn’t it much better to give the responsibility to you and your followers? … Now I would like to grant you the title of dukedom, and actual administrative power. You will be able to share the merit of founding the Empire, and your whole family will be honored… I will allow you to decide how to defend against or get rid of the pirates in the Fujian area. I will also allow you to manage, check and tax all seafaring ships. You can keep all of your original officials and followers… If you accept my grace and trust, you should be responsible for repaying me by serving me wholeheartedly. The peace and prosperity of the coastal area are now in your hands… (CZSL: Yongli 8.1.10) 


      The negotiation lasted for two years. Qing’s concession and patience are understandable as the Manchus were not confident in crushing the Zhengs by force, provided that the Manchu troops were indeed “baffled and frightened by the sea,” though they excelled in land operations. (Struve 1988: 711; see also Wills 1979:23; Foccardi 1986: 55) Had Zheng accepted Qing’s offer, a configuration of power resembling that between Zheng Zhilong and the Ming government would have been restored. Nevertheless, Zheng Chenggong was never serious about the negotiation and knew about the Manchus’ weakness, as he wrote to his father, who had been under Qing custody, at the beginning the negotiation:


The coastal area has long been our possession. The profits from the Eastern and Western trade are well enough for our own survival and expansion. We have much room to maneuver. Why should I not enjoy this autonomy and subjugate myself to others? … In the Qing court, there must be some officials with a good sense, and know that the seashore of Fujian and Guangdong is thousands miles away from Beijing. The road in-between is so difficult that most of the soldiers and horses sent to here would definitely be exhausted, sick and dead… (CZSL: Yongli 7.8) 


 Zheng was actually not just concerned about securing his control over the coastal area. During the temporarily peaceful environment in the early 1650s, Zheng was preparing for a military campaign to expand his sphere of dominance to the Yangzi Delta. A formidable political-military apparatus was built by using the handsome trade revenue.


Zheng Chenggong established his own shipbuilding and military industry in Xiamen. The rich lacquer and oak resources in Fujian were mobilized to build warships after European model. A large amount of military supply, such as cannons, metal (for making weapons), and saltpeter (for making gunpowder) was imported from Japan (Struve 1988: 699-701; Huang 1982: 265; Han 1984: 209; Li 1982: 226). By 1655, an army of 250,000 well-equipped fighting men and 2,300 ships was under Zheng’s command. (Struve 1988: 714). Politically, Zheng declared his allegiance to the faraway and fragile Yongli court established in Southwest China by a Ming prince fled from Beijing in 1644. In this way he could establish his legitimacy and summoned support from the Ming loyalists in the coastal area without actual subjugation to any Ming monarch and bureaucracy (Wills 1994: 226; Struve 1988: 712).


In 1655, Zheng renamed Xiamen as Ximingzhou, or “Memorial Prefecture for Ming,” and made it the capital of his regime. A Ming-style government was established, comprising the ministry of secretary, finance, ceremony, military, justice and public works. Zheng’s proclaimed loyalty to the Ming and his impressive military might attracted a lot of disoriented Ming loyalists. Ex-Ming officials alleged to him were appointed to govern the villages and cities he captured. At its apogee, the Zhengs controlled eighteen prefectures in Fujian, four prefectures in Guangdong and two prefectures in Zhejiang. Regular taxation was imposed upon the population within his jurisdiction. Archaeological evidence even showed that European-style and standardized silver coins with Zheng Chenggong’s name on it were made and circulated in the area. (Foccardi 1986: 45, 56; Wong 1983: 138, 142; Struve 1988: 714; CZSL: Yongli 9.2, 9.3; MHJY: Yongli 12.2; Guo1982 a & b)


In 1654, Zheng wrote to his father to stay his determination to fight though the latter was still in Manchus’ hand. He declared that “I have forgotten that I had a father for a long time” (CZSL: Yongli 8.4, 8.5). The Qing government realized that any longing for peace would be unrealistic, and launched an assault on Xiamen in 1656. The Qing troops were repelled and decimated swiftly. After the repulsion of the Qing assault, Zheng initiated the long-prepared campaigns aimed at taking control of the Yangzi Delta. In the spring of 1658, right before he set out to capture Nanjing, Zheng disclosed his ambition to his generals, stating that “if we are successful in getting control of the Yangzi River, half of the Empire at the River’s South will be mine” (HJJY: Yongli 12.5 29; see also CZSL: Yongli  9.1).


Though Zheng’s troops were victorious all along the Zhejiang coast and the Yangzi River, they ended up in a disastrous defeat by the Qing’s cavalry and infantry out of Nanjing’s city wall. (Struve 1988:718-21; Wills 1979: 226-27; Foccardi 1986: 63-5; 67-70; CZSL: Yongli 13.7.17-13.7.23; 158-62; HJJY: Yongli 13.6; MHJY: Yongli 13.6-13.7; Wills 1994: 226-228; Wakeman 1985: 1048) Nonetheless, Zheng’s navy was unscathed and was able to transport all of the survivors back to Xiamen. Realizing that expanding his territory in mainland China was out of question, and cognizant of the news that the Yongli court collapsed after the Yongli Emperor was arrested by the Manchus in Burma, Zheng changed his strategy by leaving the mainland, taking Taiwan and turning it into his new base (Struve 1988: 705-10; 722; CZSL: Yongli 15.1; HJJY Yongli 15.3; MHJY: Yongli 15.3)



State-Building in Taiwan


            In the spring of 1661, Zheng summoned most of his warships and crossed the Taiwan Strait. The Dutch were outnumbered and surrendered on February 1, 1662. A treaty was signed between Zheng and the Dutch Council in Taiwan that allowed the former to confiscate all VOC’s property on the island and the latter to evacuate peacefully (Coyett 1903 [1675]: 414-55; Ts’ao 1972:12; HJJY: Yongli 15.3-16.2; MHJY: Yongli 15.3-16.2 ; CZSL: Yongli 15.4.1-15.5.2).


Zheng Chenggong recentered his regime at Taiwan immediately. Fort Porvintia, a military castle built by the Dutch, was renamed Dongdumingjing, or the “Ming Eastern Capital.” It became the new capital of the Zheng Empire, replacing the endangered Xiamen. Taiwan was renamed Dongningzhou, - “the Prefecture of Peace at the East.” (MHJY: Yongli 16.2; HJJY: Yongli 16.2; CZSL: Yongli 15.5.2; QSGZCGZ :56) Zheng did not abandon the Ming calendar, custom and style of clothing, nor did he relinquish the claim of crushing the Manchus someday. Nevertheless, in an edict outlining the principal policies of his new government in Taiwan, he declared to his followers that “now we establish our families and found our nation [kaiguolijia] in the Ming Eastern Capital. The foundation of our enterprise cannot be uprooted for tens of thousands of generations.” (CZSL: Yongli 15.5.18)


Institutions such as Confucian academies, prisons and salt plants were founded in Taiwan. Population and land census were carried out. An examination system for the selection of civil officials and a welfare system taking care of the aged and weak were established (ZCGZ: 22; ZSGZCGZ: 56; MHJY: Yongli 18.3). The Dutch system of tax farming was inherited. More advanced agricultural methods were introduced to the residents. Zheng also encouraged his officials to take uncultivated land and turn it into their own estates, with an obligation of fulfilling the tax quota imposed. Soldiers were sent with seed and plows to reclaim the remaining land. The provision problem was solved and a fiscal system with an agrarian-bureaucratic outlook took shape (CZSL: Yongli 15.5.18; HSJWL: Yongli 21; Shepherd 1993: 93-4, 97).


Before the Nanjing failure, Zheng Chenggong aspired to controlling the South of Yangzi River. After his retreat to Taiwan, he began to present himself as the political leader of the overseas Chinese. In fact, one of the stated reasons for his expedition to Taiwan was to liberate the Chinese migrants and aborigines from the Dutch tyranny (HJJY: Yongli 15.3; MHJY: Yongli 15.3). Later, Zheng threatened to punish the Spanish harassment of Chinese in the Philippines by conquering the archipelago (Foccardi 1986: 97). The political project of the Zhengs was ever changing. It seems that Zheng, and more notably his successors, were downplaying their ambition of conquering mainland China, and were more occupied with strengthening their independent power in the maritime zone of East Asia. It can be reflected by the position of the Zhengs during their intermittent negotiation with the Qing government between 1663 and 1683.  


Between 1663 and 1683, the Qing government repeatedly sought the surrender of the Zhengs by presenting the offer of semi-autonomous status as it was promised to Zheng Chenggong in 1652. Every time the Zhengs returned with a counterproposal. They promised they would give up armed struggle against the Qing if the later granted Taiwan the status of a tribute vassal, “following the example of Korea and Ryukyu.” In that case Taiwan would “pay tribute [to the Qing Emperor] without shaving their hair and settling back to Mainland China” (HSJWL: Yongli 23; HJJY Yongli 16.6, 23, 31.12, 32.10, 33.7; MHJY: Yongli 23, 31.12; PDHKFL: 4.1-4.2; ZCGZ: 26; QSLZZZLZ: 48; QSGZZGC: 57, 60; QSL: Kangxi 22.5.23). Zhengs’ request was never accepted, as the Kangxi Emperor was firm that “the thieves in Taiwan are Fujianese, Taiwan is incomparable to Korea and Ryukyu” (QSL: Kangxi 22.5.23; PDHKFL: 4.1-4.2).


The Zheng family suffered from a familial feud again following the death of Zheng Chenggong – probably out of malaria which was a common epidemics in Taiwan – in the summer of 1662 (Foccardi  1986: 99-100; HSJWL: Yongli 16.5; MHJY: Yongli  16.5). With the naval support of the Dutch, the Manchus took the opportunity of the succession crisis and seized Xiamen in the autumn of 1663 (MHJY: Yongli 17.9; HJJY: Yongli 17.9). Then they launched a series of expeditions to Taiwan with Admiral Shi Lang – who was a defector from Zheng and excellent in naval warfare – as the commander. Owing to the Manchus’ inexperience at sea and the turbulence of the Taiwan Strait, every expedition was aborted in the midway without even a single fight. Bad weather and ill coordination of the warships were always the reported reasons for the failures. With those ungraceful results, and the great financial burden brought by the expeditions, the Qing government gave up any risky military action against Taiwan in 1665, and Shi Lang was called back to Beijing (HSJWL: Yongli 19.4; HJJY: Yongli 19.4; MHJL Yongli 19; QSLZZZLZ: 44-5; QSGZZGC: 57; Foccardi 1986: 106-7).


After the Qing quitted its attempt to conquer Taiwan, Taiwan was no longer regarded as an important issue in the Qing government. The troops stationed in Fujian were reduced. (HJJY: Yongli 23; MHJL: Yongli 18, 19; see also QSL: Kangxi 5.1.26) The Manchus even did not consider Taiwan as part of the Qing Empire.[9] A de facto independent kingdom of Taiwan was in place. This was well described by a Qing writer that:


After Shi Lang was called back to Beijing, [Zheng’s] surrendered soldiers were dispersed and stationed in different provinces, and the coastal area was strongly fortified and defended, [the Qing government] diverted its attention from Taiwan. At the same time, [Zheng] Jing’s army had not been mobilized [to attack the coastal area]. Henceforth, there were a number of years of peace (QSGZCGZ: 57).[10]


Having survived the succession crisis subsequent to Zheng Chenggong’s death, the Zheng regime was reconsolidated in Taiwan. Zheng Jing ousted his opponents and became the heir of the throne. With the peaceful environment after 1665, and being successful in breaking the embargo through smuggling, the Zhengs were able to recover from the losses of the early 1660s and further expand their maritime empire. Zheng Jing’s inclination to consolidate an independent, maritime power in Taiwan was illustrated by his letter to a Qing negotiator in 1667:


Today’s Dongning [Taiwan], having thousands of miles of land, has become an independent glory out of the [Qing’s] territory. We have food storage enough for several decades, and the barbarians from all directions are complying with us. All goods are circulating smoothly, and our people live and are educated well. We are able to live strongly and healthily on our own. Why should we adore the title of dukedom? Why should we want the lands in mainland? If the Qing court really cares about the livelihood of the coastal residents, it should treat us with the rites of dealing with a foreign countries [yi waiguo zi li jiandai], opening trade with us, withdrawing the troops and letting the people rest, then I will definitely follow. (KXTYTWDASLXJ: 69) 


In the early 1670s, the prosperity and stability of the Taiwan kingdom peaked with the pinnacle of Zhengs’ prestige in maritime East Asia, as shown by the European perception of the Zhengs as presented in the paragraphs quoted in the beginning of this essay. By then, nobody in the world, including the Qing court, would expect the sudden collapse of the Zheng Empire and a quick resolution of the Taiwan question. But it did happen.





At the end of 1673, the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories – Wu Sangui in Yunnan, Shang Kexi in Guangdong and Geng Jingzhong in Fujian  – broke out in the mainland. Zheng saw it as an opportunity to fight back to China and decided to join the Rebellion promptly. An anti-Manchus alliance between Zheng and Wu was formed, and a Geng-Zheng united operation to capture the Lower Yangzi region was seriously considered. (HJJY: Yongli 24.2-28.10; MHJY: Yongli 28; MHJL: Yongli 28.2-28.5; Foccardi 1986: 110-3; Wakeman 1985: 1099-1127)


In 1674, Zheng Jing recaptured a number of coastal cities in Fujian including Xiamen. Most residents evacuated from the coastal area moved back. Soon Zheng’s army pushed into Guangdong. In 1676, his forces reached the vicinity of Guangzhou. (HJJY: Yongli 28.7, 30.2; MHJY: Yongli 29.5, 29.6, 30.1, 30.2; Foccardi 1986: 113; QSGZCGZ: 58) The English regarded the Zheng’s revival in the mainland as a golden opportunity for them to open the China trade. In 1675, the EIC, states of Annam and Siam sent their envoys and tributes to Taiwan and asked for trade in coastal China. Subsequently, Xiamen reopened for free trade and became a lucrative city again. A new commercial headquarter of EIC was established there (HJJY: Yongli 29.6, 32.12; MHJY: Yongli 29.6; MHJL: Yongli 29.6; Ju 1986: 140; QSGZCGZ: 58).


In the middle of the 1670s, the Zhengs regained its glory in coastal China. However, their ambition soon backfired, as the unfruitful campaign triggered a subsistence crisis in Taiwan. The Zheng family had been facing the difficulty of feeding their army ever since the 1650s. Owing to land infertility, Fujian was “a major rice-importing region famous for buying rice at a high price” in the seventeenth century (Kishimoto-Nakayama 1984: 230). Zheng’s trading networks never penetrated into the rice exporting provinces such as Hunan and Shangdong, which were firmly controlled by the Manchus. The Lower Yangzi Delta, from where most of Zheng’s purchases came, was itself a rice deficient area because of its specialization in cash crop cultivation after the sixteenth- century commercial revolution (Li 1986; Chen 1991: 70-77).


Zheng Chenggong’s remedies in the 1650s were establishing soldier colonies (tuntian) and raiding the Qing granaries. The first method was not reliable so far as the soldiers were frequently mobilized for the endless military campaigns. The second method became the most crucial one. It is estimated that between 1656 and 1661, Zheng at least launched 24 military actions with the primary objective of seizing food. Still, Zheng’s rice storage was never enough for more than a few months. When Zheng’s freedom of action was strictly limited after the Nanjing failure, the provision crisis sharpened (Yang 1984a: 89; see also CZSL: Yongli 7.8, 10.10.6; 10.12.29 for examples).      


            To a certain extent, the conquest of Taiwan was a conscious attempt to find an ultimate solution for the problem. Zheng Chenggong persuaded his generals to support the expedition to oust the Dutch and take Taiwan by emphasizing that the Island was full of virgin, fertile land (CZSL: Yongli 15.1; HJJY: Yongli 15.3, MHJY: Yongli 15.3; see also Wills 1979: 228; Yang 1984a: 90). Even though Zheng’s army took over all of the food storage left by the Dutch, the first year of the Taiwan regime was still under a near-famine situation. Preventing their alienation from the local population, the Zhengs disciplined their soldiers strictly and kept them from looting the Chinese and aborigine villagers. Staples were purchased from the residents at high prices. The expected food supply from Xiamen was delayed many times. Rice was rationed. Some officers started eating wood debris and many fell sick (CZSL: Yongli 15.3.27-15.4.1, 15.6-15.8.28; Shepherd 1993: 94). Zheng Chenggong’s planned assault on Manila right after he set his foot on Taiwan might have something to do with the food shortage.


            With the aggressive policies of increasing agricultural productivity, clearing tax delinquency, and turning all soldiers into colonizer-farmers, the food shortage was alleviated in the following year. Agricultural manpower increased considerably by the influx of refugees driven out of the coastal regions by Qing’s evacuation. Temporary rice supply was raised by the duty fee policy that encouraged rice imports from Southeast Asia. These efforts ended up in the great harvest of 1666, which marked the beginning of the golden age of the Taiwan kingdom. (Wong 1983: 153; Shepherd 1993: 96-100; Ts’ao 1972: 15) However, the affluence of Taiwan was interrupted by Zheng Jing’s participation in the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories. The new round of coastal warfare threw the Zheng Empire into the most serious provision crisis it ever confronted. It was exactly this crisis that brought Zheng’s prowess to an abrupt end.


            In 1674, all of the soldier colonists in Taiwan – numbered to around 18,000 – were called to leave their fields and head for Fujian. As these soldiers constituted one-third of the total Chinese population of Taiwan and was the core productive force on the island, [11] their sudden departure led to an immediate downturn of agricultural output. Worse, a substantial portion of the already discounted food supply in Taiwan was shipped to Fujian to support the military campaign. When Zheng Jing found that the Taiwan supply was insufficient, he issued an order allowing the extraction of cash and grain taxes from the mainland residents who just resettled in the his occupied territories after Zheng revoked the evacuation policy there. (HSJWL: Yongli 28.12; HJJY: Yongli 28.12)  


            As long as Zheng was expanding his territory in the mainland between 1674 and 1676, especially after they entered the heartland of Guangdong in the spring of 1676, the problem of food supply was contained. However, following the surrender of Geng Jingzhong at the end of 1676 and the surrender of Shang Zhixin in spring 1677, Zheng was isolated and kept losing grounds to the Manchus. The morale of the army eroded with the diminishing of provisions, and a vicious circle ensued. In 1677, with all major coastal cities lost, a majority of Zheng troops retreated to Xiamen with hunger. Every Xiamen adult citizen was forced to submit one dou of rice to the army every month. Tax evasion was widespread. Zheng’s generals suggested pulling all remaining troops out of the mainland. Zheng Jing was hesitant initially and started sending back his generals’ families back to Taiwan. But after a month or so he rejected the proposal and insisted on staying. When the seesawing between Zheng and Qing went on, the tax quota was tripled, and an additional cash tax was levied in 1679. (HJJY: Yongli 31.2, 33.2; MHJY: Yongli 31.2 MHJL: Yongli 31.2, 31.3, 33.3)


            Though Zheng managed to regain some grounds in Fujian in 1677 and 1678, his military structure fell apart. The shipment of grain from Taiwan was frequently interrupted. Brutal violence of Zheng’s army such as arbitrary extortion, looting of civilian property, and burning of villages refusing to pay taxes was widely reported. Hungry generals and soldiers surrendered one after the other, given the Qing promise of amnesty and rewards. In 1680, having heard of the news that the Qing reinforcement was coming close to Xiamen, Zheng’s fighters rushed onto the ships and headed back to Taiwan in a stampede. Qing took the city without any resistance. The Xiamen residents had suffered so much that they welcomed the Qing troops with joy. (HSJWL: Yongli 32.3, 34.1-34.4; HJJY: Yongli 34.2.28; MHJY: Yongli 34.2; MHJL: Yongli 32.8.24, 33.3)


            In 1679, Zheng Jing realized that the day of his kingdom was numbered. He lost his will to rule and handed the actual leadership to his son, Zheng Kezang, who was then 16 years old. (HJJY: 33.2; MHJY: 34.10) Jing died in 1681 and a bloody coup d’etat followed suit. Zheng Jing’s wife and her allies murdered Kezang and purged his supporters. Jing’s another son, Zheng Keshuang was made the new leader of the regime, despite the fact that he was only 12 years old. (HJJY: Yongli 35.1-35.2; MHJY: Yongli 35.1-35.2)


The return of the exhausted and hungry soldiers in 1680 exacerbated the food crisis and ungovernability of the island. The situation in 1680 was much tougher than that in 1662. This time, the Zhengs had no Dutch granaries to seize. The rice storage of the island was already almost exhausted, and the treasury of the government had been dried up because of the expedition. The Zhengs tried to mitigate the crisis by extending and intensifying tax extraction. A large number of villagers reacted by burning down their houses, fleeing to the mountain and evading the tax. Some of the soldiers revolted for payment, in resonance with a series of aborigines rebellions. Grain price skyrocketed and a famine broke out in the winter of 1682. The crisis was aggravated by a fire that wiped out 1,600 houses in Tainan, the capital city of the Zheng regime. In the spring of the next year, a massive famine broke out. (HSJWL: Yongli 36.1; HJJY: Yongli 36.7, 36.12, 37.1; MHJY: Yongli 35.10-37.1; MHJL: Yongli 37.2; see also Shepherd 1993: 103)


Disregarding the hesitation or opposition of most officials, the Kangxi Emperor decided to grasp the chance and take the risk of attacking Taiwan in 1680. The Emperor had not shut the door of peace, however. Accompanying the preparation for the campaign, the same offer of a semi-autonomous status was presented to the Zhengs in 1680 and one more time in 1683. The negotiations broke down again as the Zhengs were still insisting on a status of tribute vassal. They might still believe that the Manchus would not have the courage and capability to cross the Taiwan Strait. (PDHKFL: 2: 3, 3: 1, 4: 1-2; Wong 1983: 175; QSL: Kangxi 19.8.5, 22.5.23)


In spite of the widespread chaos, Taiwan was still well defended. After an initial setback, the Qing troops landed on the strategic Panghu Islands West of Tainan amid an unexpectedly favorable weather in July 1683. On the Islands, a fierce battle endured for seven days. The Qing force cleared the Zheng’s forces at a high cost. In addition to tremendous losses in soldiers and warships, many high rank commanders were killed. Even the commander in chief was seriously injured. The Qing force was apparently not able to recoup and push forward immediately. Zheng’s generals proposed an expedition to invade the Philippines and “rebuild the nation” (zaizuoguojia) there. The plan was abandoned at last when the morale continued to fall and pessimism grew. Zheng’s followers defected successively. At last, the Zhengs surrendered unconditionally in August.  Zheng Keshuang was granted the title of dukedom (though without actual power) and resettled ashore. The loyal generals of Zheng were treated well and placed into high positions in the Qing land forces.[12] The Zheng Empire vanished. (PDHKFL: 4:1-4, 6; HSJWL: Yongli 37.6-37.12; HJJY: Yongli 37.6, MHJY: Yongli 37.6; MHJL: Yongli 37.6; ZCGZ: 38-9; QSLZZZLZ: 48-9; QSGZCGZ: 60-61; Shepherd 1993: 474;Wong 1983: 180-5; QSL: Kangxi 22.6.29-22.9.10, 23.3.6)


            After a brief confusion in the Qing court, Taiwan was at last incorporated into the Empire in 1684. The island was colonized after it was strongly fortified. In 1683, all restrictions on seafaring activities were lifted by the Qing government. Chinese merchant groups were active in the coastal area again. However, to preempt the possibility of any trouble from those private traders, the authorities watched the shipbuilding industry closely. Strict regulations were imposed to restrict the size and weight of seafaring ships. No weapons were allowed on board. (Tian 1987: 12-6; QSL: Kangxi 22.10.10, 23.1.21) A new era of maritime trade in China came, and it was wittily captured by Wills (1991) as an era when “trade was legal, but maritime China had lost it fragile political autonomy” (54; see also Ng 1991, 1983).





The records of the EIC shows that the English in Taiwan were well aware of the fact that Taiwan fell not because of the might of Qing’s navy but the internal turmoil on the Island. By the time the Qing force had captured the Penghu Islands, the Zhengs were troubled by “being poor, and provisions most excessive deare.” And “[t]he King [of Tywan] and Grandees, observing the discontent of the poor, and of the army, resolved that it was impossible any longer to continue the contest, or for the King to retain the throne of his ancestors” (quoted by Paske-Smith 1930: 117).


Had Zheng Jing not fought back to the mainland in 1674, or had he accepted his generals’ suggestion of pulling out in 1677, the subsistence crisis of Taiwan in 1680 might not have broken out and the Taiwan government would not have collapsed. The most probable alternative outcome would be the continuing coexistence of the two rivalries across the Strait. If the Zhengs had no seized the opportunities given by the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories to embark on the adventure of regaining their grounds in mainland China, they would have likely expanded his territory in the maritime zone instead. As we have seen, the conquest of the Philippines was always on their agenda. Zheng Jing was actually preparing for an expedition to Manila right before the Rebellion in the mainland erupted.


            Maybe some will argue that the failure of the Zhengs was still inevitable as their commercial profits relied so heavily on the goods from the mainland. Smuggling might go on in large volume for some time. But it would be crushed by the Qing government someday after it managed to consolidate itself, as it actually did in the eighteenth century. But the question is, was the Qing consolidating itself during the deadlock across the Taiwan Strait?  


After the Manchus failed to conquer Taiwan, they quitted trying to defeat the Zhengs by force. What they could rely on was its ineffective and even counterproductive scorched-earth evacuation policy, as we have seen. On the other hand, the sea ban brought a great damage to the Qing economy, which was as silverized and commercialized as the late Ming economy, for it cut the mainland off from all sources of silver supply. By the 1650s, the Manchus had built up an efficient Imperial bureaucracy, resumed regular taxation, and put down most contenders of power. High level of political stability was attained, and production recovered. (Wakeman 1985: 1050-1127) Nonetheless, the evacuation policy created an empire-wide silver shortage. The situation was worsened by the increasing military expenditures incurred by the hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. [13]


The result was a deteriorating fiscal deficit of the Qing state. In 1661, the Qing government imposed extra taxes to make ends meet. Nearly 5.7 million taels of silver were levied in addition to regular tax that year. The silver shortage led to serious deflation. Peasants, merchants and landlords were hit hard as they became incapable of fulfilling the ever-increasing tax quotas. Many Qing officials were aware of the connection between the economic crisis and the evacuation policy, and advocated a relaxation of the sea ban. Now the empire-wide economic downswing between circa 1656 and 1680 is well documented and is known as the “Kangxi depression.”[14] (Wakeman 1985: 1070, 1070ff; Huang 1969: 122; Vogel 1987: 2; Kishimoto-Nakayama 1979, 1984; Atwell 1986)


It is unclear how the “Kangxi depression” was related to the reappearance of political upheavals in the 1670s. But in 1672, on the eve of the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories, an able secretary of the governor of Zhejiang noted that,


The whole land has now been brought under the same rule, the only exception is Taiwan, but it is located far beyond the sea and cannot do any harm to our land and people. The present dynasty commands the largest area of land in history. But land without people is worthless and people without wealth is valueless, and in the present dynasty, we find that the poverty afflicting the whole population is unprecedented in the history of China. (Wei Jirui, quoted in Kishimoto-Nakayama 1984: 229)


There were not many choices in front of the Qing government. If it had insisted on continuing the evacuation policy, its fiscal and economic crisis might not have been solved and it might have crumbled at last. If it had yielded to the pressure of silver shortage and lifted the sea ban, the supply problem of Taiwan would have been solved once and for all, and the Zheng regime could have persisted successively established itself as an independent tribute vassal of the Qing empire as it wished.


Viewed in this light, the final stabilization of the Qing Empire in the eighteenth century – which was a result of the massive influx of American silver after the lifting of sea ban (see Quan 1987, 1996a) – cannot be taken for granted. It is wrong to suppose that the Zhengs were destined to fail when a land-oriented and strong dynasty was restored in the mainland. In fact, the final consolidation of such a dynastic order was to a certain extent a function of the contingent resolution of the Taiwan question. 


Have the Zheng Empire survived into the eighteenth century in one way or other, the development of Chinese merchants’ military capabilities, and their supremacy in maritime East Asia would have continued. The history of East Asia and China in the following centuries, in that case, would have been very different from what we know it today. 





To recapitulate, we see that the business of the Zhengs was much more than a mere familial venture. Beging as a familial network of armed traders under Zheng Zhilong, the enterprise was an accumulative outcome of protracted illegal trade and military conflict in coastal China since the mid-sixteenth century. When Zheng Zhilong joined the world of maritime East Asia in the 1620s, there were numerous preexisting trade networks having developed for over one hundred years. What Zheng achieved was to take over and unify this bulk of networks – and all related “hardware” such as junks and ammunition. Then Zhilong’s trade network was transformed radically by Zheng Zhenggong into a vertically integrated and bureaucratically managed organization well comparable to the VOC in its structure and economic size. The organization was not a joint stock company, but it was more than a one-family business. Behind it was a community of independent Chinese traders protected and financed by the Zhengs. 


Upon the profits generated from this enterprise, the Zhengs instituted a political-military apparatus for realizing his territorial ambition and facilitating the enterprise’s further commercial expansion. Of course, the Zheng regime, though was financed principally by trade revenue, was no Republic, as its political form was a replica of the Ming Imperial government. Hence I identify the regime as an Imperial-Merchant state rather than merely a merchant state. In the 1660s, the Taiwan-based Zheng regime was turned into a de facto independent power that invites comparison with other maritime states in Asia such as Oman and Siam.[15] It even nearly took onto the path of overseas colonialism, as the conquest of the Philippines recurrently appeared on their agenda.


            The relation between the Zhengs and the Qing Empire was constantly in flux. They kept changing their ambitions and strategy against the other along the way. After the nascent Qing regime found it impossible to subject the Zhengs by force, it turned to seek to build an alliance with them by granting them semi-autonomous power to govern the Empire’s Southeast coast. The Qing proposal was rejected by the Zhengs, who first were aspired to controlling the southern part of China, and later to building an independent state on Taiwan following the example of the kingdom of Korea and Ryukyu. By the 1660s, the Qing government had abandoned conquering Taiwan and was about to leave the Zhengs there. The Manchus would not have been able to incorporate Taiwan in the Empire in 1683, had the Zheng regime not collapsed in 1680 under the weight of its retrospectively miscalculated decision of fighting back to China in the 1670s.


The Zheng’s final collapse was contingent upon a number of factors, and was never predetermined. Any teleological account of its final failure, and the conception that the maritime communities of China were exceptionally and essentially weak as compared with other commercial groups in maritime Asia has to be revised. On the other hand, we would suspect whether the extraordinary economic and politico-military strength of the Zheng was exceptional compared with other indigenous maritime powers in Asia, hence constituting another kind of China exceptionalism. How is the Zheng Empire compared with other political-commercial actors in maritime Asia, such as the Omanis state? How was the path of “interactive emergence of European dominance” at the expense of indigenous traders in East Asia similar to or different from the paths in other sub-regions in Asia? Had the Zheng Empire survived, would it have grown into the greatest stronghold of maritime Asia against European encroachment and revised the course of European expansion at large, provided with the centrality of Chinese products in the world market, as well as East Asia’s geographical remoteness from Europe? They are the questions that await further exploration.     


Figure 1




                                                        Zheng’s Central Administration






                                      Financial Minister                                        Monitoring Officer

                                            (huguan)                                                         (lucha)








                      Western               Eastern                 Inland Five          Overseas Five

                      Sea Fleet            Sea Fleet               Companies             Companies

                   (xiyanchuan)   (dongyangchuan)   (shanluwushang)     (shuiluwushang)






  Independent Merchants









Figure 1. Vertically Integrated Business Organization of the Zheng Regime


Derived from CZSL (Yongli 11.50) and Nan (1982)



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[1] For example, Blusse’s (1981) work illuminates the Dutch connection in the rise of Zheng Zhilong; Struve (1988) documents in details the relation between Zheng Chenggong and the various remnant Ming courts in the 1640s and the 1650s; Shepherd (1993) on the state-building of Zheng’s Taiwan. For the contribution of scholars from Mainland China and Taiwan, see the various compiled volumes on Zheng Chenggong studies cited in this article.

[2] In the parts on economic and political organizations of the Zheng regime, I build up my arguments mainly by integrating the findings from the secondary literature on the subjects. I also rely on Congzheng Shilu by Yang Ying who was a high rank official in the Zheng regime and was responsible for finance and military provisions. The work, written in retrospect and published in around 1672, documents in great details how Zheng Chenggong prepared for the Nanjing expedition and the conquest of Taiwan, emphasizing the Zheng’s economic organization, political interaction with the Qing, as well as episodes of military campaigns. The trajectory of the collapse of the Taiwan regime is overlooked in the literature. Hence in that section I rely mainly on primary sources, including a number of works written by two seventeenth-century Fujianess authors who witnessed the Ming-Qing transition. Several biographies written by Qing writers will also be used, supplemented by some relevant Qing Imperial documents.   

[3] This is verified by other sources which record more or less the same amount of loss during the plunder. See Lin (1987:128)

[4] One Chinese tael was approximately equal to 3.5 guilders according to the account book of the VOC in the 1660s. (Wills 1974:27)

[5] The most comprehensive account of the structure and operation of Zheng’s enterprise can be found in the following paragraph in CZSL, which is about a case of fraud within the organization:

In May [1657], Zheng Chenggong stayed in Ximingzhou [Xiamen]. He checked how a number of affairs went on, including the provision of the army, production of armors and Western-styled ships, etc. In February of that year, monitoring officer Zhang Shouling was on vacation. Zhenggong ordered acting minister of finance Zheng Gongfu to review the accounting of costs and profits from the Eastern and Western Sea Fleets as well as from the ten branches jin, mu, shui, huo, tu, ren, yi, li, zhi, xin made by Yuguoku [enriching the nation treasury] Zhang Hui and Liminku [Benefiting the people treasury] Lin Yi. At that time, Lin Yi reported to Zheng Chenggong that some ten thousand taels of cost were not included in the accounting as the amount had not returned yet. Zhang Shouling reported to Zheng Chenggong secretly that Lin Yi did not report this amount of money because there was an act of fraud among him and the minister of finance.. Zheng Chenggong was suspicious too. But as all reported account books are dated and stamped by Chenggong, the case was not difficult to be investigated. (CZSL: Yongli 11.5)  

[6] It is estimated that the trade volume of the Zheng family commanded around 60% of the total trade volume of the Chinese merchants in East Asia. (Han 1982: 150)

[7] This was also eight times as much as the annual administrative cost of VOC in Batavia in the 1660s. (data quoted from Dagh-register by Yang 1992: 294) In 1627, the annual balance of VOC at Batavia was 6 million guilders. (Glamann 1958: 246) Meanwhile, the average annual profit of the Company’s sales of all Asian products in the Netherlands between 1649/50 and 1658/59 was 5.7 million guilders. (Glamann 1958:16) The total profit gained by the VOC in Taiwan and Japan in 1649 was 1.8+ million guilders. (Chen 1982: 198) Another reference point is the income of the Ming/Qing government. According to the estimation of Huang (1969:104), regular cash items received by the Ming Ministry of Revenue from 1570 to 1600 remained approximately at the level of 2.6 million taels of silver per year. The newly established Qing government, with its effective administration, could guarantee larger cash revenue. In 1651, it had a cash income of 21.1 million taels. In the 1680s, it had risen to 27 million taels. (Wakeman 1985: 1070)

[8] According to the Qing’s criminal records over this period, a lot of wealthy merchants in Jiangnan were arrested and found purchasing Jiangnan products for Taiwan. Their activities were concentrated in Suzhou and Hangzhou. (Fan 1998: 103)

[9] As the Kangxi Emperor stated in 1683: “Taiwan was just a small piece of land, capturing it brings no addition [to the Empire], and abandoning it infers no loss.” (QSL: Kangxi 22.10.10) It explained why the Qing government could even ask for the help of the Dutch to crush Zheng by promising to return Taiwan to them (see Wills 66, 87; Wong 1983: 151). In addition, the Qing government did consider seriously abandoning the island after moving all residents back to the mainland in 1683. This plan was dropped only under Shi Lang’s strong persuasion of developing Taiwan. (Wong 1983: 187-9; see also QSL: Kangxi 23.1.21)

[10] As observed by Blusse (1988), “[f]rom 1664 to 1673, the Ch’ing [Qing] army and the forces of the Cheng [Zheng] family kept each other in balance until this stalemate came to an end with the eruption of the Revolt of the Three Feudatories” (119).

[11] The figures are estimation by Shi Lang in 1668. (quoted in Shepherd 1993:96)

[12] For example, Liu Guoxiang, who fought for the Zheng family until the final surrender, was appointed as the Zhili commander in chief at Tianjin. (QSL: Kangxi 23.4.2)

[13] As Wakeman (1985) noted, “the military budget that year [1661] for the first time exceeded 5.7 million taels because of the hostilities in Fujian.” (1070ff)

[14] The matching of the span of the depression and the span of sea ban (firstly imposed in 1656 and lifted in 1683) is highly remarkable.

[15] Siam became a formidable power in Southeast Asia over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Ayutthaya state created a monopoly of trade and firearms. Great portion of state revenue was generated from the royal trade monopoly, and the Siamese royal ships competed fiercely with other trading states in Southeast Asia as well as the Portuguese and Dutch (see Reid 1993: 216; 247-8; 258-9; 260-1).