This page was created by Weiting Guo.  The last update was by Kate McDonald.

Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

"Smuggling Prevention Corps Mistaken as Pirate Ship"

As the previous page demonstrates, merchant boats around the Wenzhou water either equipped themselves with weapons for self-protection or approached governments and influential organizations in case of being robbed or attacked by pirate boats. Yet, in the majority of cases, local governments could only take limited measures and even sometimes failed to intervene in piracy incidents. The strong firepower of the pirates, the wide networks of the smuggling business, and the vast water space for the fugitives to hide posed significant challenges to the government's investigation. Moreover, as both police boats and pirate boats were armed with ammunition due to the associated caution, several boats would misjudge the entity of the other boat. As a result, such instances of mistaken identity were quite prevalent in the vast water space.

The cases of mistaken identity, as well as the blurred boundary between bandits and soldiers, were not uncommon in late imperial and modern China. As David Robinson argues, during the sixteenth century the “patronage network” of violence had been built between imperial court and local society (Robinson 2001, 2, 100–105, 163). As Philip Kuhn also noted, the “parallel hierarchies of militarization” had become an apparent trend throughout the late Qing period in which “the same kinds of linkages and the same levels of organization would be visible within both the orthodox, gentry-dominated Confucian culture and the various heterodox, secret-society–dominated sectarian subcultures” (Kuhn 1970, 165–188). Similarly, in the practice of piracy and smuggling, as Robert J. Antony points out, “there appear no firm distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate in the actions of what we and others label pirates and smugglers. It is better to think in terms of a continuum, with activities that are completely legal on one end, those that are completely illegal on the other end, and most activities somewhere in between.” “[T]he aid that pirates and smugglers received from coastal residents, including fishermen, sailors, merchants, soldiers, and officials, factored significantly in their success” (Antony 2010, 8, 10).

In May 1906, a merchant boat filled with iced yellow croakers passed by Wenzhou’s port. The Smuggling Prevention Corps was waiting there, already aiming to capture salt smuggling boats. When they saw the merchant boat sailing in the nighttime, loaded down with heavy cargo, they thought that the boat was shipping smuggled goods. The Corps then turned off their lights, paused their telegram signals, and followed the boat. When they failed to catch the boat in time, they opened fire in a threatening manner. Their subsequent attack made the merchant boat believe that the Corps was actually a bandit boat. The merchant boat was heavily armed with weapons, so it fired back aggressively at the Corps’ boat. In the end, one Corps member was killed and one was injured. No one on the merchant boat was killed.

According to a news report in Shen Bao, November 1923, many merchant boats encountered pirates on their routes between Wenzhou and Shanghai. It was observed that partly due to poor harvest and famine, many coastal residents, as well as retired policemen, joined the pirates around Taizhou and Jiangsu. These pirates looted, killed, and kidnapped ordinary people. Some of them stole the merchant boats and sailed with the boats they stole, pretending that they were merchants or fishermen and luring other boats into their trap. In October 1938, the water police also noticed that four pirate boats heading to Wenzhou disguised themselves as police boats by hanging the flags of water police. The Ningbo Defense Command quickly informed the defense corps along the coast to pay close attention as the fake police boats may rob and disturb other boats on the sea.

These instances of disguising not only appeared in the switch of boats and the flags but also occurred in the articulation of clothing and the look. In September 1930, a steamer, Yongling, sailed from Wenzhou to Ningbo and was robbed near the Shitang region of the Wenzhou water. Four pirates disguised as passengers signaled to a nearby sailboat where over a hundred pirates were waiting for the steamer. The pirates flooded the steamer and opened fire on the sailors and the passengers. Four sailors in uniform were immediately shot dead. Four other sailors who were not in their uniform due to the change of shift dropped their weapons and fled away. A wealthy merchant, who was reportedly the main target of the pirates, took off his silk cloth and ran into the engine room of the boat. There he used coal to paint his face, to appear like one of the coal trimmers of the boat. The pirates were unable to find him, so they kidnapped other passengers with valuable luggage and other members of the crew.

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