Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

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Antony, Robert J.
China Research Monograph 56
2003. 210 pp.
ISBN 1-55729-078-4
$16.00

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of great piratical activities all along the southern coast, from Zhejiang to Vietnam, where tens of thousands of men, women, and children became involved in piracy. Pirates organized themselves into several formidable fleets, disrupting trade and effectively challenging Qing authority in the region until 1810. Pirates, and seafarers in general, lived in a world that was less romantic than it was brutal and base. The violence and destruction of both man and nature were real, everyday occurrences that shaped the lives and minds of the men and women who went to sea and who lived along its shores.

Piracy was but one of the many social upheavals in China at the end of the eighteenth century. It was a time of profound change and transition driven by commercial expansion and population explosion. While some Chinese believed that they lived in the best of all possible worlds, others took note of several disturbing trends: the weakening of traditional values, the growth of massive unemployment and underemployment, and the development of a huge floating population of itinerant laborers, seafarers, peddlers, and vagabonds.

This book explores the world of pirates and seafarers and the integral role they played in shaping maritime society in Fujian and Guangdong during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It attempts to understand piracy for what it can tell us about the nature of socioeconomic change in maritime South China during the late imperial age. The approach, what has been called "history from the bottom up," seeks to look at ordinary seafarers and pirates on their own terms and to reconstruct their daily lives and aspirations. By reclaiming their social, economic, and cultural history, it hopes not only to further our understanding of maritime society as a whole, but also to demonstrate how dynamic economic growth, commercial change, and population explosion promoted dislocation, conflict, and violence on China's southern coast.


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