Mongol Rulers and Chinese Pirates

Tien Ju-Kang explains how, during the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the government entered into an unlikely and uneasy alliance with Chinese pirates to ensure the supply of grain to the northern capital.

The Mongol epoch generally has been regarded as one of the most destructive in Chinese history, but no one can deny that the Mongols demonstrated a remarkable capacity for adapting to new situations. After Gengis Khan's conquest of North China, his grandson, Khubilai, was determined to extend the Mongol's dominion to all of China. In the 1270s, the Lower Yangtze River Valley region was in chaos and Khubilai was desperately in need of vessels to drive out the Southern Song Emperor, who, along with his followers, was ensconced in Linan (present day Hangzhou). Vessels were needed also for transporting grain to the Mongol's capital in the North. To accomplish his victory over the Song in 1279, Khubilai accepted aid from an unlikely source – defectors from the Song navy. To establish a system of grain transport, he turned to yet another unlikely source – sea pirates.

Over the centuries, silt at the mouth of the Yangtze has produced a number of islands. The largest of these, called Chongming, was a desolate island beyond government control in the thirteenth century, making it an ideal haven for sea pirates. Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan, two pirates who later opened the sea route used to transport grain for the new Yuan dynasty,, used this island as a base for buccaneering. In 1273, Zhu and Zhang offered their services as well as a fleet of 500 ships to the Mongol emperor, and henceforth they were able to carry on their activities on an unprecedented scale.

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