Yang Zhi (1511-1561): A Pirate in Constant Defiance of the Ming Dynasty

Mention the word “pirate,” and immediately a conception of an illicit, cutthroat, and illegal soul comes to mind.  One would be hard pressed to find a better Chinese example of defiance and willful flouting of established law than the sixteenth century Chinese pirate Yang Zhi.  Though often overlooked for his more famous and similarly named contemporary pirate leader Wang Zhi, Yang Zhi most notably bears the legend of consistent rebellion against restrictive Ming foreign policy, in particular denouncing the haijin “sea ban” policy against non-imperial naval trade.  He was the man who unwaveringly stood against and defied an entire empire. He was the pirate who captured the southern metropolis of Nanjing and held with it the grudging attention of the Ming Empire.

Though he only confronted his Ming enemies head on a few times, much can be learned from his clandestine trade and smuggling under the nose of the Ming foreign trade haijin policy.  Such a perspective lends insight into the effects of the conservative Ming trade policy on China’s economy and in turn may partially explain the subsequent “Great Divergence” between Chinese and Western economies entering the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries onward.

Those with a penchant for economics and politics may find this rebellion against the Ming foreign trade policy and the after effects the most edifying takeaway of the life of the pirate Yang Zhi.  Still others may enjoy the individual legend of the pirate in his daring, ambitious endeavors as well as his talent for public speaking and rallying a band of men to his cause.  Whatever the reader’s interest may be in Yang Zhi, most central to understanding this character is to trace the origins of his lifetime nemeses: the Ming Dynasty and its restrictive haijin foreign trade policy.

By the early fifteenth century, Ming China was the preeminent naval power in the world.  The treasure voyages of Admiral Zheng He brought back exotic animals and artifacts from Ming China’s sphere of influence, which stretched as far as Africa (and possibly North America as well!).  These voyages also served as a power move to demonstrate the superiority of Ming Chinese Culture and way of life, and by the 15th century, Ming China was the foremost naval power in the world, and intended on flaunting its cultural and military superiority.  It was not out of the realm of possibility that the Ming Dynasty could have conquered and colonized foreign lands and extracted their economic value, much like the European powers Spain, France, and England did in the later sixteenth century.  Ming China certainly had the strength; they were technologically ahead of European naval initiatives.  Valerie Hansen notes in The Open Empire: A History of China Through 1600 that “Chinese shipbuilders outpaced their European counterparts” in rudder design, leak prevention and watertight compartments, and sheer numbers and size of ships built1.  Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage to North America comprised four seaworthy vessels, while Admiral Zheng He’s fleet boasted of 317 ships.

Then, all of a sudden, the Ming retreated from the ocean and the shores.  The Yongle Emperor, who had long facilitated Zheng He’s treasure voyages, fell ill and died.  From then on, the Ming administration halted the voyages, due to the prohibitive cost of these extensive sea excursions as well as a desire to check the power of the eunuchs in charge of the navy2.  The Ming left their grand fleet to rot or burned what was left into smoke and ash.  Zheng He himself died in 1433.  Ming naval superiority melted away like the sea foam on the Pacific it used to command.

Along with lack of governmental support, foreign threats against Ming livelihood caused the administration to adopt a conservative foreign policy.  Professor John Wills writes in Mountain of Fame that “the attitudes of the early Ming tyrants toward the coast were dominated by fear of the growth of Japanese piracy and Chinese collusion with it.3” Additionally, Mongol attacks from the north caused the Ming rulers to see the northern border as a “real threat to the well-being of the empire,” and in response to piracy, the Ming “thought the dangers across the seas could be disposed of simply by forbidding Chinese contact with foreign nations4.”  It is in this context that the Ming haijin “sea ban” policy came to effect, which legally restricted naval trade to only imperial channels.  However, there would be individuals attempting to subvert the system, and this brings us to the individual story of the pirate Yang Zhi.

Yang Zhi was born in 1511 to merchant influences in coastal Fujian, and was raised as a merchant.  From an early age, he was exposed to the sea and its (illegal) possibilities for trade, and joined up with a troupe of wokou, then the term for Japanese pirates.  He often would run the trade route from Japan to Ningbo, where the Ming Dynasty had banned Japanese traders, and continued to do so throughout his career as a pirate until his death.  Another trade route in which he would occasionally smuggle goods was from Ningbo to Manila.  By this time in the 1540s, the Ming Dynasty continued to hold pirates in contempt, and Ming General Zhu Wan was intent on rooting out piracy, launching naval expeditions.  Yang Zhi narrowly escaped the military might of the Ming navy when Zhu Wan commandeered a successful strike against a major smuggler’s base on Shuangyu Island in 1547.  Yang Zhi lost close friends in the aftermath of the strike, and pledged to avenge the fallen pirates against the Ming.  His dream was to capture and loot a major Chinese city like Nanjing or Zhejiang, striking fear into the hearts of the Ming administration.  Such a victory would certainly redeem the loss of his pirate brothers.

Yang Zhi would soon get his chance for reprisal against the Ming.  In another successful attack on smugglers at Zoumaxi Island in 1550, General Zhu Wan overstepped his responsibilities and hastily executed his pirate captives without an imperial edict.  Consequently, Zhu Wan was jailed, and committed suicide5.  Zhu Wan’s fleets were dispersed, and his firebrand extermination policy against wokou piracy fell along with him6.  Yang Zhi saw this as an opportunity to recoup some of the losses the pirates suffered against the Ming navy.  In 1554, he set up a major smuggler’s base at Nanjing, the apple of his eye.  He directed other pirates to similarly set up bases along south Chinese shores at Suzhou and Hangzhou.  These would serve as a springboard for future pirate attacks in 1555, the height of the wokou raids7.

It was in 1555 when Yang Zhi would get the opportunity to raid a major city.  By then, the wokou pirates were well established along the southeast Chinese coastline, within striking distance of mainland Chinese cities.  Sensing this moment of strength, Yang Zhi gathered his men together and stirred in them a spirit of conquest—this was their opportunity for a big payday, and men took well to Yang Zhi’s rhetoric.  Other pirate leaders like Ye Ma and Xu Hai were in contact with Yang Zhi and rallied their men to launch strikes against major Chinese cities.  Ye Ma drew up 10,000 men and a campaign against Zhejiang, and Yang Zhi raised an army of 7,000 to attack Nanjing.  The plans were set and the wokou pirates were at the height of their powers.

The wokou pirates attacked almost simultaneously and with painful effect.  Yang Zhi’s forces attacked the city of Nanjing, and managed to hold siege to the city, while Ye Ma’s regiment landed an assault at Hangzhou.  Of all of Yang Zhi’s military accomplishments, his conquest at Nanjing stands above the rest.  Here was a major, walled city in South China that was well supplied, and was one of the world’s most populous cities.  Yang Zhi attacked the city with a bevy of siege engines, battering rams, and guns.  Early on, the pirate commander meant to lay siege to the city and sought to taunt the Grand Coordinator of Nanjing by throwing parcels of food and water into the city walls.  However, such a large city as Nanjing could sustain itself throughout a siege until Ming military help was on the way, and Yang Zhi’s advisers warned him to strike quickly and forcefully, lest he be forced away from Nanjing himself.  Yang Zhi’s forces eventually exploited an unguarded portion of the wall to force his way into the city.  He managed to take hostage several prominent officials within the city of Nanjing in a daring attack on a lightly guarded military barrack.  Without his aides, the Grand Coordinator of Nanjing sued for peace, and Yang Zhi commenced the plunder of Nanjing.  Aside from usual plundering of fungible items which would be useful in the trade with Japan such as sugars and spice, Yang Zhi looted trophies from the Nanjing court to commemorate his conquest, most notably, the personal sword of the Grand Coordinator of Nanjing.  This sword was known to be of particular significance to Yang Zhi, as this sword was found buried with him.  Inscribed on the hilt is“南京都司,”which indicated the Grand Coordinator’s military powers in Nanjing.  This sword was a personal decoration for a Nanjing regent, and in snatching this possession, Yang Zhi must have envisioned himself on the same level as regents of other Chinese cities. News of Ye Ma’s similar success in attacking Zhejiang reached Yang Zhi at Nanjing, and it was hard to discount the wokou pirates as a real threat to the Ming Empire.  But it was at that moment that Yang Zhi, drunk on success and the afterglow of victory, spent more time exulting in his conquest, just as Ming troops were readying their spears and arrows as they marched on Nanjing and Zhejiang.

The Ming troops marched southward from the north, and confronted Yang Zhi’s forces at Nanjing, and Ye Ma’s pirates further south at Zhejiang.  While Yang Zhi was barely able to fend off the Ming offensives, Ye Ma’s men fell into a trap.  Ming troops deliberately left a major shipment of wine—poisoned wine—for Ye Ma’s men to intercept.  As Ye Ma’s pirates drank and enjoyed the tainted spoils, almost a tenth of their fighting force was killed off due to the poison, severely weakening them.  Ye Ma’s men were forced to retreat towards the sea, and this left Yang Zhi stuck in a precarious situation8.  Yang Zhi’s forces were already heavily harassed from the North, but the Ming forces south of his position at Zhejiang could either pursue Ye Ma, or worse, head north to Nanjing where they could finish off Yang Zhi.  Supremely proud of his accomplishment in subduing Nanjing, but too practical to allow himself to die for that cause, Yang Zhi and his men lifted their control over Nanjing and fled along with Ye Ma into the sea, making sure to steal away with his favorite treasure from his conquest—the inscribed sword of the Grand Coordinator of Nanjing.  With that, Yang Zhi took a personal memento from a conquered city that he would never again lay eyes on, let alone reconquer.

While the memories of dazzling victory were still fresh, the wounds from being kicked out of the Chinese mainland still stung acutely for many pirates, Yang Zhi among them.  At this point, he was convinced that if the wokou pirates could concentrate their forces (instead of in sectional gangs, as there were), reentering the Chinese mainland was a real and profitable possibility.  This however, was easier said than done, as Wills notes that “the [sixteenth century] maritime world was full of uncertainty and violence at sea,” certainly so in the different factions and pirate gangs that plagued the Chinese sea9.  Some groups as those under Yang Zhi were eager to raid Ming strongholds, but this thirst for re-conquest was not universally shared among all pirates.  Famous wokou pirate leader Wang Zhi had never personally led a military conflict into China, and had been in discussion with Ming General Zhu Wan’s successor, Hu Zongxian, about amnesty for pirates and relaxation of the haijin policy in return for wokou surrender.  Yang Zhi personally saw Wang Zhi’s inclinations toward surrender as traitorous to their lifestyle, and from there on began to distrust Wang Zhi.

Though the rest of Yang Zhi’s military accomplishments from then on pale in relation to his success at Nanjing, one notices a more politically savvy leader in the pirate commander.  Yang Zhi, eternally distrustful of the Ming administration as well as Hu Zongxian’s calls for wokou appeasement and ease on the haijin “sea ban” policy, warned many pirates that to fall in with surrender and the appeasement policy was tantamount to walking into a trap.  “We may joust for control over the seas,” he offered, “but when you bow your head to the Ming Emperor on his land, he may do with you what he pleases.”  And even if granted amnesty, Wang Zhi would have pledged to turn his forces against his former wokou comrades; very much in the way that Zheng Zilong was “made a naval commander…[to be used] against other ‘pirates’ along the coast10.”  Wang Zhi was nothing more than a turncoat to Yang Zhi and his followers.

Yang Zhi’s worst fears were confirmed when Zhao Wenhua, a prominent politician in the Ming court and a proponent of appeasement toward pirates, was found guilty of embezzlement.  Zhao was thrown in jailed and summarily executed.  When this man was disgraced, his advice was given short shrift as well.  Given this current political situation, it was impossible for Hu Zongxian to follow up on his preferred policy of appeasement towards pirates11.  Yet in 1557, Wang Zhi already handed himself over to Ming authorities on Zhoushan Island, expecting amnesty from the Ming Emperor as he awaited the imperial edict in a nobleman’s prison.  Wang Zhi expected a pardon, and imperial commission as a privateer12.  Instead, Wang Zhi was executed, and when news of the famous pirate leader’s death reached Yang Zhi and the rest of the wokou pirates, the different pirate factions would not coalesce together, but instead bickered and fought over which group was the rightful successor to Wang Zhi’s unofficial mantle as the main leader of the wokou pirates.

Wang Zhi’s son, Mao Haifeng, was a natural choice, but Yang Zhi saw differently.  He, after all, had correctly predicted that the Ming authorities would betray Wang Zhi, and that the appeasement policy would not be observed.  Mao Haifeng was much younger than him, and became a leader strongly based upon his blood ties, rather than out of any noticeable accomplishment to date.  This, Yang Zhi insisted, as he brandished his trophy sword from his conquest of Nanjing, disqualified Mao Haifeng from the unofficial responsibility of overseeing the wokou pirates’ fortunes.  Therefore, he reasoned, Yang Zhi alone possessed the foresight and experience necessary to guide the loose organization of wokou pirates through the slew of recent defeats.

This however, was not to be: in 1561, Yang Zhi’s pirates strayed into a trade route controlled by Mao Haifeng’s group, only adding gasoline to the fiery conflict between the two pirate commanders.  It was there that words and insults escalated into drawn swords and gunfire.  A short, but nasty skirmish between Mao’s men and Yang’s men resulted in the latter being killed by stray friendly gunshot, and so ended the life of one of the most ambitious and calculating wokou commanders.

If one is to consider the impact of Yang Zhi’s life, it is that the wokou pirates posed a legitimate threat to Ming livelihood and induced a change in Ming trade policies.  Consequently, the Ming administration eased up on the restrictive haijin policy, and honored their appeasement policy, the opposite of what Yang Zhi predicted.  It was under such a policy that future naval heroes like Zheng Zilong and his famous son, Zheng Chenggong, hunted down pirates in the name of the Ming Emperor.  Trade became more permissible; individual merchants had fewer restrictions on their trade and there was real enterprise to be found in now legal sea trade.  But perhaps the change in policy came too late for major and sustained economic growth as seen in the Great Divergence.  The effects of the haijin policy still made their impact; restricting sea trade to only imperial channels cut off major avenues for economic growth among coastal Chinese cities.  The sea was the way to trade, economic opportunity, and eventually colonization, as one would observe with the European powers in the seventeenth century.  But under the haijin policy and pressure from foreign attackers like the Mongols and the Japanese, such a China was not to be under the Ming Dynasty, which would leave future generations of Chinese policymakers under the gun of superior Western naval and world powers.


1 Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China Through 1600.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. Page 381.
2 Hansen, 383.
3 Wills, John. Mountain of Fame: Portraits of Chinese History. Princeton University Press, 2012. Page 218.
4 Hansen, 386.
5 Goodrich, L. Carrington; Fang, Chaoying, eds. Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368–1644.   Columbia University Press, 1976.   Page 375.
6 Higgins, Roland L. Piracy and coastal defense in the Ming period, government response to coastal disturbances, 1523-1549 (1981), University of Minnesota. Page 199.
7 Geiss, James. The Cambridge History of China, Volume 7: The Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644, Part 1. Cambridge University Press, 1988.  Page 496.
8 Lim, Ivy Maria. Lineage Society on the Southeastern Coast of China. Cambria Press, 2010.  Page 119.
9 Wills, 220.
10 Wills, 221.
11 Geiss, 501-2.
12 Lim, 132.

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