Reading: Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

I was aiming for Dian H. Murray’s Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810, which is probably the definitive work on the subject in English. Alas! Have you seen the price for that? It’s like reading Michel Serres when the only translations were hardcover university press, for which said universities charged obscene amounts and I was reduced to photocopying below the sign that said “Do Not Photocopy Entire Books!” and accompanying security camera (thankfully now reprinted at normal person prices). Even I balk at haemorrhaging such quantities of euros for a book. So I settled on the second on the list, Robert J. Antony’s Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China.

This fits in closely with Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates, and is so far the most concise and well-researched book on the subject (for which I have an unhealthy fascination) that I’ve come across. Antony describes his approach to history as coming from the bottom up, a little perhaps like Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, an approach that is by far my favourite; there are only so many books you can read on important men fighting each other before you get the general idea on a subject. Mostly I think Antony achieves this, though definitely not with the same depth and rigour of Hershatter.

Mainly I wanted to read this for the Cantonese pirate Jihng Sih (or Zhang Yi Sao) the wife of a pirate who rose to command hundreds of junks and tens of thousands of pirates. Sadly there wasn’t much, as Antony seemed to regard her husband Cheung Po Tsai (Zhang Bao) as the real leader, which doesn’t agree with what I’ve read to date. Nonetheless, Antony introduces me to a couple of other formidable woman pirates who made things miserable and provided much-needed trade along the South-China coast.

I still have my eye on Dian’s book, but in the meantime, for a quick, well-researched (though a little dry) introduction to the subject that is also affordable, Like Froth Floating on the Sea does the job.

Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China
Robert J. Antony — Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

Reading: Wensheng Wang — White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates

I came for the pirates, particularly Jihng Yāt Sóu, otherwise known as Zheng Yi Sao, the wife of Zheng Yi, bisexual Cantonese pirate. Sounds brilliant if I stop right there! Once I discovered the world’s foremost pirate was both a woman and from the city of my heart, Guangzhou, I knew I’d be devoting a meandering number of years to tracking her down. It’s proved remarkable difficult. European pirates are far better known, even the female ones like Mary Read and Anne Bonny are equal to Blackbeard, but Ching Shih, she commanded hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors and wow but it’s hard to find stuff on her.

I’d hoped Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South Sea Pirates — Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire was going to say more than the one paragraph plus some lines that it did on her, though it has presented a good summary of South China Sea piracy from mid-1600s to the demise around 1810, enough for me to better decide what I’ll read next on this subject. The book itself is a little dry, even for my usual academic reading, and I even find myself disagreeing with Wang, for example with his description of Lingnan as a economic macroregion and therefore explicitly part of China and Chinese, whereas I’d see it perhaps better understood as a state under colonial control of China, yet fundamentally not-China and outwardly-directed across the South China Sea in its inter-state interactions. Possibly picking at straws here.

The history of the White Lotus Sect and the Qing Dynasty around the early-1800s is fascinating for me, but work is nowhere near the standard of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter (despite the very nice cover). And the absence of a proper bibliography is either a mistaken omission or if intentional is bizarre.

Wensheng Wang — White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire
Wensheng Wang — White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates: Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire

Reading: Aleko E. Lilius — I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

A stack of books waited for me while I was in Bologna, and yesterday I had my first riding in snow of the year to pick them up. I didn’t know which one to start with, so I started with them all; I think the word for that is gluttony.

I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, I discovered this on China Rhyming, a blog responsible for a not insignificant number of the books on China I pick up (and yes, the actual work being discussed there, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates, is also on my list). I’ve had a thing for southern Chinese pirates ever since I discovered their leader for a period in the Qing dynasty was a woman named Jihng Sih (or Ching Shih in Mandarin), who commanded hundreds, or maybe thousands of junks and tens of thousands of crew, and despite appearances in popular culture has not had much written of her in the way of biography. Jorge Luis Borges though wrote a story about her, “The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate” in A Universal History of Infamy.

As for Aleko E. Lilius, he was one of those comically hard journalists who threw himself into highly improbably situations and lived to write about them, somewhere between Peter Hopkirk and Ernest Hemmingway, though unlike the latter, he’s not embarrassed to write of his terror when the pirate junk he is sailing on goes into battle with canons pounding.

Originally published in 1932 during the Republican era,  I Sailed with Chinese Pirates was republished in 2009 with a short forward by China Rhyming’s Paul French, who also wrote about the book, which makes for a good read as well. And what else? It’s full of photos! Photos of Cantonese pirates and southern China from the 1920s! It’s also a very fast gallivant of a read; I’ll probably finish it tonight.

Aleko E. Lilius – I Sailed with Chinese Pirates
Aleko E. Lilius – I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

Reading: Julia Lovell – The Opium War

Canton. The idea is romantic, and unavoidably one of Orientalism. Still, I lived there on and off for a few years, known now as Guangzhou. Whatever centre of the world Canton once inhabited, it has long been overshadowed in China by Beijing and Shanghai to the north, and that city of internationalism and projected fantasies to the south, Hong Kong. It is a city with a history though, and a very long one. I feel an affection to that place I called home, and hoard what I might find on its history, as however much it might be inside China, it has always been the outward-looking southern barbarian.

The Opium War. Drugs, piracy, smuggling, empires and colonialism in Canton from the 17th Century till the communist dictatorship. That’s enough, no?

Julia Lovell – The Opium War
Julia Lovell – The Opium War

China’s ‘gray’ publishing

This article on That’s Magazines explore the vile legal world of publishing in China.

Shanghai. (Interfax-China) – A potential dispute is on the horizon between China’s leading English language magazines and their Chinese publisher, highlighting the dangers and difficulties associated with publishing in the country. The That’s titles are a series of city magazines, similar to Time Out, which are published in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, with city circulation figures in the tens of thousands. The That’s Chinese publisher has launched a rival title, that directly infringes on the That’s brand name, as well as duplicating content.

Due to the nature of this business, the Chinese publisher believes and would appear to be within its rights to undertake such actions.

In 1998, Klau and Benedict (Gao Bang Enterprise Consulting Co. Ltd.) launched an English language magazine in Shanghai focused on introducing expatriates and foreign tourists to the city and its culture. The magazine, titled That’s Shanghai, has since become one of most well known English publications in China. Consequently, the appearance this year of a new magazine publishing under the That’s brand name without having first consulted Klau and Benedict has led market observers to predict a dispute is in the making. Adding more intrigue is the fact that this new magazine, titled That’s China, is being published by Klau and Benedict’s Chinese partner.

The whole article is well worth a read for encapsulating everything that is dodgy in the Chinese world of intellectual property and copyright.

Tarantino and the pirates of China

Cannes Film Festival opened today, with three films from China in the Feature Films sections, two actors, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi on the Ones to Watch List and the hot pre-opening forum was that favourite of everyone who makes a buck off artists, piracy.

With paranoid doomsday predictions from among others the masters of virus, worm and spam research Microsoft, and unrealistic remedies including digital ‘tattooing’ one person seemed to manage a pragmatic response devoid of the hysteria of the accounting department which made up the bulk of the forum. Cannes jury president, Kill Bill Tarantino, whose oeuvre is one long essay on intellectual piracy had this to say about those nasty swashbucklers:

On one hand, this is a business. … You need to have a healthy industry,” the director said. But he condoned the fact that pirated copies of his film “Pulp Fiction” circulate in China, where it would not otherwise be released, and said he is grateful that certain rare movies not available from legit routes can be found on bootleg copies. “I would be a liar if I was to say, across the board, no piracy.

And as for the movies, 张艺谋 Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic 十面埋伏 Shi Mian Mai Fu House of Flying Daggers is in the “Out of Competition” section, Chang Cheh’s 1971 classic San Duk Bei Do The New one-Armed Swordsman is in the Cannes Classics section, and the movie I’ve been waiting for, 王家卫 Wong Kar Wai’s ‘sequel’ to In the Mood for love the sci-fi 2046 is in the main competition. Actor 张曼玉 Maggie Cheung is back again in 2046, hoping for an award after missing out last time around in In the Mood for Love, and shampoo-ad model 章子怡 Zhang Ziyi is in both this and House of Flying Daggers. All movies available at your local government-sponsored DVD pirate shop today (Cannes special on all three).