Pirate Nations: Maritime Pirates as Escape Societies in Late Imperial China

Social Science History

Author/s (editor/s):

Joseph MacKay

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

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Joseph MacKay, ‘Pirate Nations: Maritime Pirates as Escape Societies in Late Imperial China’, Social Science History, 37(4) 2013: 551‒73.

This article assesses the pirate bands in the coastal waters of late imperial China as political communities in flight from the state. James C. Scott’s (2009) recent work on fugitive political communities in the highlands of Southeast Asia presents a novel and compelling account of small, remote groups living as escapees from the state. I expand on Scott’s thesis by considering pirate bands as escape groups that not only escape state coercion but go on to accumulate sufficient power to reengage with and sometimes coerce the states they escaped. The pirate bands of the period formed relationships with the Chinese state that were by turns competitive, cooperative, coercive, and extractive. They were persistently loyal to no one but themselves. Two cases illustrate the argument: that of the pirate band of Zheng Zhilong and his son Zheng Chenggong and that of the pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao.

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