Facing east to the ocean, Wenzhou had long served as a port for maritime trade. Naturally, because of its proximity to water, Wenzhou also has a long tradition of smuggling and piracy. Traders in the surrounding waters engaged in these activities and built connections with fishing villages along the coast. The surrounding mountains blocked the land routes between Wenzhou and other regions, thus the water routes played an important role in Wenzhou’s economy, with many local communities relying on maritime trade and the successive waves of commercialization expanding the network of illicit trade.
In the following sections, I will use newspaper reports to showcase how smuggling and piracy prevailed in Wenzhou’s water space. The ocean provided a vast area for traders and smugglers to expand networks and transport and distribute goods. Some engaged in smuggling in order to survive, while others joined this business to avoid taxes or make a profit. Continued commercialization and the emerging opium trade allowed smuggling and piracy to flourish around the South and East China Seas. Some coastal residents stole others’ boats and goods to make a living; others allied with foreign merchants, underground societies, and the forces of different nationalities to expand their business. Fishermen, sailors, boatmen, and sea rovers frequently engaged in piracy; some were even kidnapped or forced to join illicit organizations. Many traders and smugglers also equipped themselves with weapons, either to be used for invasions or for self-protection. Local officials and policemen created expedient procedures toward the persecution of smugglers and, at times, even tolerated or participated in illicit trade. All in all, frequent smuggling and piracy made it difficult to distinguish “legal” and “illegal” activities. While water provides a platform for actors of varied strata and backgrounds to negotiate local order and maritime trade, illegal activities also played an important role in shaping Wenzhou’s water spaces.