Showing posts with label china. Show all posts
Showing posts with label china. Show all posts

Friday, February 1, 2019

Damn, Girl-Ching Shih the Terror of South China

One of the most feared pirates of the nineteenth century, Ching Shih¹ and her Red Flag Fleet terrorized the South China Sea until 1810, when she gracefully retired after having been elevated to the nobility, and negotiating a pardon from the Qing government for herself, her husband, and most of her men. She was one of the most successful pirates of all time, but she's barely known outside of the country of her birth.

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Contemporary depiction of Ching Shih
Probably born in 1775, Ching Shih originally hailed from the Guangdong province in southern China. As is typical for most women of this era, very little is known about Ching Shih's life up until her marriage. All that is known about her is that she was working as a prostitute in a floating brothel when she caught the eye of notorious pirate lord, Zheng Yi.²

There are a couple stories about how these two became a couple. The first one being that Zheng ordered his men to raid the brothel, and spirit Ching Shih away. The other story is that Zheng simply asked her to marry him, and Ching agreed on the condition that she would share in the leadership of the fleet. Whatever the truth, in 1801 Ching and Zheng were married, and they shared in command for several years.

When she was married to Zheng, Ching helped him to unite several small pirate bands into a much larger federation they called the Red Flag Fleet. At their largest, the fleet had more than 70,000 men, and 1,200 ships--significantly more ships than the pitiful Chinese navy.

Unfortunately, Zheng died in 1807, leaving Ching a widow in a precarious position. She was the head of a large fleet of rowdy ne're-do-wells, and she needed to consolidate her power quickly. She did this by recruiting her husband's former advisors, and becoming intimate with her husband's second in command, and adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai.

The relationship between Cheung Po Tsai, Zheng Yi, and Ching Shih is mysterious, complex, and a little headache inducing. Zheng Yi and Cheung Po Tsai were very close, close enough that Zheng  adopted Cheung. They were also lovers. Ching had also adopted Cheung, and they would later marry, and have at least one child. The affair was incestous to say the least, and lecherous imaginations can spend many a happy hour imagining what the trio got up to when all parties were still living.

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Cheung Po Tsai. Like any pirate worth
their salt, it is rumored that he hid large
amounts of treasure in a cave.
With Cheung Po Tsai, Ching really started to consolidate her rule. She brought even more pirates into her fold, and she began to keep 'order' on the seas with a very strict set of rules. Sailors who went ashore without leave had their ears cut off. Pirates caught stealing booty were beheaded.Villages who paid tribute to the fleet were considered under Ching's protection, and anyone who raided or plundered a protected village was beheaded.

Particularly progressive were Ching's rules regarding the treatment of female captives. Men were required to keep all pertinent body parts in their pants on pains of death so far as female captives were concerned. Sexual assault resulted in the man in question being beheaded. Consensual sex resulted in the man being beheaded, and the woman being thrown overboard. Pirates could marry a captive, and the woman would be made a full member of the fleet. Captives nobody wanted to marry were set ashore.

As idyllic as some of her policies were, Ching was still undeniably a pirate, and pirates are notoriously bloodthirsty. In addition to all the beheadings, Ching was noted for giving violent ends to targets who resisted her. Villages that submitted to her fleet immediately, and paid tribute, were spared and protected. Villages that resisted saw their homes burned, their men killed, and the village leader nailed to the dock by his feet, and beaten to death. Sailors on captured ships were given the option to join the fleet, or be beaten to death. More than one captured captain committed suicide rather than have to deal with being captured by the Red Flag Fleet.

Ching was a major shipping disruption in the area, and the Qing government wanted to see her gone. Unfortunately, the Chinese navy of the time was composed of repurposed merchant ships unsuited to combat. They went so far as to enlist the help of their foes, the British and Portuguese, but they were unable to capture Ching.

Come 1810, things were starting to change. While Ching and the Red Flag Fleet were still dominating the seas, there was a new metaphorical sheriff in Beijing, and he was frighteningly competent at hunting pirates. As several big name pirates began to fall, the Imperial government offered amnesty to any pirates who laid down their swords. After watching their friends be captured and executed, Ching and Cheung decided to take them up on the offer.

Cheung was initially sent to handle negotiations, but was unsuccessful. When talks stalled, Ching walked unarmed into the governor's office in Guangdong with a posse of seventeen, also unarmed, pirates. When negotiations where completed, Ching had gained clemency for all but 400 of her pirates, of which only 126 were executed. In addition to keeping their lives, they were also allowed to keep their ill gotten gains. Ching and Cheung retired especially handsomely. Both were raised to the nobility, and Cheung was made an officer in the Chinese navy.

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Chinese junk ships, the type of ship Ching used.
Negotiations almost stalled when the governor required that the pardoned pirates kneel before him in homage. The pirate masses definitely weren't going to kneel in front of the governor, so the governor reduced his requirement to just the leaders, Ching and Cheung. This was a pretty non-negotiable point on the part of the governor, but Ching and Cheung weren't too keen on the humiliation. To satisfy the pride of all parties, they convinced the governor to dissolve the adoption that made Ching Cheung's mother, and had the governor marry them. At the end of the ceremony, the couple traditionally knelt in thanks to the officiant, neatly solving the kneeling problem.

After negotiation her retirement from piracy, Ching returned to Guangdong. She and Cheung had one son, and after Cheung died Ching opened a casino/brothel. She lived to see her son grow up, and her grandchildren be born. She died in 1844 at the age of 69.


¹It should be noted that there are multiple spellings for all of the names mentioned in this narrative.
² Ching Shih was not Ching's birth name, it literally means 'Widow of Cheng' (Zheng).


More on Similar Topics





Sources
Ching Shih, the Former Prostitute Who Became the Greatest Pirate Who Ever Lived
Meet Ching Shih: the Prostitute Turned Pirate Who Banned Rape in Her 50,000 Man Fleet
Ching Shih Pirate Biography and Facts
Ching Shih
Ching Shih (1775-1844)
Ching Shih: From Prostitute to Pirate Lord
Cheung Po Tsai and Ching Shih: Pirate Monarchs
Cheng I Sao
Cheng I Sao, Female Pirate Extraordinaire

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Dangerous Ground-The Spratly Islands

Located between Vietnam and the Philippines, the Spratly Islands have no native population, yet the area is one of the most disputed regions in the world, with six countries claiming all or part of the archipelago. Largely barren, the islands, many of which are not above water all of the time, cannot sustain human life. Yet, the rich untapped potential of oil and natural gas reserves under the reefs, and their strategic maritime position has made the Spratly Island a point of contention in East Asia since the 1950s.

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Aerial view of an atoll in the archipelago.
The first verified 'discovery' of the Spratly Islands was in 1843 when British whaling captain Richard Spratly spotted a large island. He named it after himself, as one does, and the name was eventually applied to the entire island group. Though this was the era of the British Empire, and the British were well known for claiming any piece of land that stood still, Spratly sailed on, and the English did not attempt to claim the islands. The islands were mostly left alone until the Japanese built an army base on the largest island during WWII.

The Spratly Islands are comprised of various bits of land that sometimes are, and sometimes aren't above water. There are more than 100 of these reefs, shoals, atolls, and islets, with Spratly Island itself being the largest. Though there is no indigenous population, approximately 45 of the islands are occupied by military presence from one of the six countries that lay claim to the area.

While there is sparse vegetation and very little wildlife, there is a huge reserve of untapped natural gas and oil under the reefs. These resources are very useful to the rapidly developing nations that claim the area, especially to China, who uses about 12% of the world's oil--second only to the United States in world usage.

In addition to gas and oil, the Spratly Islands are also rich in fish and other sea life--a major component of the southeast Asian diet. Being able to fish in those waters is very important to the livelihood of the people closest to the area, and having control of those waters lends an enormous economic advantage.

However, fish rights aren't the only thing that makes the Spratly Islands strategic. Their location in the South China sea not only makes them an excellent military outpost to launch attacks in Southeast Asia, but it also lends control of one of the largest shipping routes in the world. Any cargo boat that sails to Asia has to go through the South China Sea, and whoever controls the Spratly Islands exerts significant influence over trade in the region.

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Map of the islands and the claims exerted over them.
The Spratlys are claimed by six nations--China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. While the Spratlys are closest to Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Taiwan retains the longest military presence, and China is the most militant about populating the area, going as far as to build artificial islands to station military forces on.

Delving into the basis of territorial claims on the Spratlys, many countries share similar justifications for why the Spratlys should belong to them. The claims separate into about three camps, with all of them boiling down to the same reasoning that five year olds use to fight over toys. These claims are: I had it first, I have it now, and But it's close to me.

  • I had it first.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all use this argument. All three countries have produced documents that 'prove' the existence of Chinese¹ and Vietnamese people living on the Spratlys hundreds of years ago. The Chinese produced records stating that Han people had settled the area in the 1600s, and the Vietnamese produced records showing that the Spratlys had been a part of several ancient Vietnamese kingdoms. However, this historical evidence is shaky at best, and due to a lack of continuous occupation of the region, an important factor in claiming sovereignty over an area, has not been accepted as grounds for a valid claim by the United Nations.
  • I have it now.
While nowhere near one of the greatest military conflicts in the late twentieth century, armed conflict, and taking island features by force has been one way of securing possession of the archipelago. There have been armed skirmishes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, and between China and the Philippines in 2012. Following, and in between these skirmishes the Chinese government has established airfields and military bases on various island features. They have also gone as far as to include the Spratlys on their official maps, and give them an official place in the Hainan Province.

Taiwan has had a physical occupying force in the islands since the end of WWII, with only a brief interruption. They occupy Itu Abu, the largest island in the archipelago, and have been administering it peacefully for decades.

Malaysia, likewise, has physical garrisons on the islands, and claims twelve islands that are located on its continental shelf. Malaysia, however, is the newest claimant to the game, not taking possession of any of the islands until the 1980s.

All of these countries are operating under the idea that continuous occupation=ownership. It's the same idea that led Canada to abandon 92 in the High Arctic. It is, by far, a much stronger claim than historical precedence or international law, given that possession is 9/10ths of the law.
  • But it's close to me.
Part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a nation may claim up to 200 nautical miles away from their land as an exclusive economic zone. This is the law upon which Brunei hangs its claim, and a law that Malaysia and the Philippines both utilize. It is worth noting that in all three of these cases the country in question isn't claiming the entire archipelago, just a few islands, or, in the case of Brunei, a single reef. 
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A Chinese Military Base 

All of these countries make strong claims to certain features of the Spratly Islands, and peace would certainly be conceivable if China, Taiwan, and Vietnam weren't attempting to claim the entire archipelago. As it stands, the Spratly Islands is the epicenter of a cold and sporadic conflict. None of the claimant countries make an active effort to maintain the claims on the region, and Malaysian and Filipino fishermen make use of the waters surrounding the archipelago. It seems unlikely that any resolution between the six countries will be reached soon, and so the Spratly Islands remain a volatile, and dangerous region.



¹The Taiwanese have been lumped in with the Chinese here, as Taiwan was administratively a part of mainland China until 1949. The Taiwanese historical claims are the same as the Chinese historical claims.

More on Similar Topics





Sources
The Spratly Islands Dispute: International Law, Conflicting Claims, and Alternative Frameworks
For Dispute Resolution by Robin Gonzalez
Why is the South China Sea Contentious?
The South China Sea: the Spratly Islands Disputes
Making Sense of the South China Sea Dispute
Spratly Islands
Spratly Islands: Reefs, Shoals, Atolls, and Islets

Friday, January 18, 2019

Damn, Girl-Trieu Thi Trinh

Little is known about Trieu Thi Trinh, despite the fact that she lead an incredible life. At the age of 19 she led armies against the invading Chinese, and spent four years attempting to drive them out of Vietnam before commiting suicide after a defeat. Her birthplace is unclear, even her proper name is unknown (Trieu Thi Trinh translates to something along the lines of 'Lady Trieu'). Despite the mystery surrounding her, Trieu Thi Trinh, also known as Ba Trieu, has survived to become one of Vietnam's greatest heroines, and is still celebrated today.

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Traditional Vietnamese artwork depicting Ba Trieu
Ba Trieu was likely born sometime in 225 CE. At the time, Han China had been occupying Vietnam for about 200 years, and their hold on the region had only gotten stronger. It had been more than a century since the Trung Sisters had risen up, and the Han had successfully removed Vietnamese rulers and officials from every position of power in the country. Chinese domination was so widespread that they commonly referred to the area as 'Am Nam', which, translated, meant 'conquered south'.

When Ba Trieu was the sister of the powerful southern leader, Trieu Quoc Dat. He had taken care of Ba Trieu after their parents died, and he himself was involved in a certain amount of rebellion. Therefor, it was no surprise when, at 19, Ba Trieu decided to get into the sedition game herself, despite her brother's counsel that she get married instead of cause insurrection.

Ba Trieu gathered her army of 1,000, and headed up the nearest mountain to train. Though this whole story is surrounded in myth, here is where it becomes really tricky to separate fact from fiction. According to legend, Ba Trieu was nine feet tall, with three foot long breasts which she tied back over her shoulders when fighting. She was beautiful, and had a voice like ringing bells. In battle, she lead her armies from the top of an elephant, dressed with ivory shoes and golden hairpins. She struck fear into the hearts of her Chinese enemies, and she and her army won over 30 battles.

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Ba Trieu's temple, about 100 miles south of Hanoi.
Unfortunately, Ba Trieu's army was severely underfunded, and possessed no siege equipment. When they came to a Chinese fortress, they had to wait on the Chinese to come out and meet them. Ba Trieu also had an enormous weakness--she was very fastidious, and couldn't stand the sight of filth. One Chinese took advantage of this, and sent his army of men running out of the fortress naked, kicking up dirt and grime. Ba Trieu left the battlefield, and her army panicked, leading to a massive defeat. Rather than let her enemies capture her, Ba Trieu committed suicide by throwing herself into a river. She was only 23.

However, according to legend, Ba Trieu's harassment of the Chinese invaders did not end with her death. She haunted the Chinese general who defeated her, and spread an illness among the Chinese soldiers that could only be warded off by hanging wooden penises over the doorways of rooms one wished to occupy.

There are, unfortunately, very few actual specifics on Ba Trieu, and much of what that is known about her is shrouded in legend. However, there is some proof that Trieu Thi Trinh existed. Records of the Chinese governor over Vietnam at the time of Ba Trieu's life mention a short period of resistance, and contemporary artwork featuring a lady on an elephant leading an army has been found

Mythical or not, Ba Trieu has been a popular folk hero since the 200 CEs, and is the subject of several epic works still studied in Vietnamese schools. She was cited as the inspiration of many Vietnamese rebels after her, and has a temple dedicated to her, and many streets named after her, most notably in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

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Sources
Modernity and My Mum: A Literary Exploration into the (Extra)Ordinary Sacrifices and Everyday Resistance of a Vietnamese Woman by Kim Huỳnh
Ba Trieu (225-248 CE)
Trieu Thi Trinh, the Vietnamese Joan of Arc
Vietnam Under Chinese Rule

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Documentary Review- China's Forbidden City

There's something about the name 'Forbidden City' that is just inherently interesting. It brings up all sorts of questions like, 'why is it forbidden?' and 'can I go there?'. Additionally 'what's inside that makes it so exclusive?', 'what will happen if I go there?' and 'what exactly are the rules surrounding this?'. While this lovely documentary put out by the Smithsonian didn't quite answer all of these questions, it gave valuable background and context for one of China's most beautiful historic sites.


Image result for china's forbidden city documentaryThis documentary has two parts, the first detailing the construction of the Forbidden City, and the general origin story, and the second telling the story of the Empress Dowager Cixi, and the fall of the Forbidden City in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

The first part is very detailed about the actual building of the city. It explains a lot of the symbolism behind the different features (the towers at the corners of the city, the number of pillars, etc.), and brings in historical architecture experts to talk about it. This part is very interesting if you're into architecture and building, but I personally did not find it very interesting.

The second part though, that was fascinating. As I mentioned before, it recounts how Empress Cixi rose from a humble concubine, to Empress, to eventually ruling China. It's a fascinating story of political intrigue and sexual scheming. And the story of one badass lady, who used the men around her to rule a country.

'But what does that have to do with the Forbidden City?' You ask. Well, it is an unfortunate fact that during Cixi's 'reign' the English came a-knocking, and, as any student of history will tell you, that never ends well for the people the English come to see. Though Cixi did her best to keep the English at bay, she was unsuccessful, and the court had to flee Beijing. The Forbidden City was destroyed by the invaders shortly after.

Overall, it's a great documentary series. It's interesting, well paced, and the visuals are beautiful. Unlike many documentary series, this one doesn't lose momentum, and will keep you hooked until the very end.

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