Haijin or sea ban was a series of related isolationist Chinese
policies restricting private maritime trading and coastal settlement
during most of the
Ming dynasty and some of the Qing. First imposed to
deal with Japanese piracy amid the mopping up of Yuan partisans, the
sea ban was completely counterproductive: by the 16th century, piracy
and smuggling were endemic and mostly consisted of Chinese who had
been dispossessed by the policy. China's foreign trade was limited to
irregular and expensive tribute missions, and resistance even to them
among the Chinese bureaucracy led to the scrapping of Zheng He's
fleets. Piracy dropped to negligible levels only upon the end of the
policy in 1567, but a modified form was subsequently adopted by the
Qing. This produced the
Canton system of the Thirteen Factories, but
also the opium smuggling that led to disastrous wars with Britain and
other European powers in the 19th century.
The policy was also mimicked by both
Tokugawa Japan (as the Sakoku)
and Joseon Korea, which became known as the "Hermit Kingdom", before
they were opened militarily in 1853 and 1876.
3 See also
A map of "dwarf pirate" raiding, 14th–16th centuries. The early
pirates were mostly based on outlying Japanese islands but targeted
the Japanese as well as Korea and Ming China. The later ones were
mostly Chinese dispossessed by Ming policy.
The 14th century was a time of chaos throughout East Asia. The second
bubonic plague pandemic began in Mongolia around 1330 and may have
killed the majority of the population in
Shanxi and millions
elsewhere. Another epidemic raged for three years from
1351–1354. Existing revolts over the government salt monopoly and
severe floods along the
Yellow River provoked the Red Turban
Rebellion. The declaration of the Ming in 1368 did not end its wars
with Mongol remnants under
Toghon Temür in the north and under the
Prince of Liang in the south. King Gongmin of Korea had begun freeing
himself from the Mongols as well, retaking his country's northern
provinces, when a Red Turban invasion devastated the areas and laid
waste to Pyongyang. In Japan, Emperor Daigo II's Kenmu Restoration
succeeded in overthrowing the Kamakura shogunate but ultimately simply
replaced them with the weaker Ashikaga.
The loose control over Japan's periphery led to pirates setting up
bases on the realm's outlying islands, particularly Tsushima, Iki,
and the Gotōs. These "dwarf pirates" raided Japan as well as
Korea and China.
As a rebel leader, Zhu Yuanzhang promoted foreign trade as a source of
revenue. As the Hongwu Emperor, first of the Ming Dynasty, however,
he issued the first sea ban in 1371. All foreign trade was to be
conducted by official tribute missions, handled by representatives of
Ming Empire and its "vassal" states. Private foreign trade was
made punishable by death, with the offender's family and neighbors
exiled from their homes. A few years later, in 1384, the Maritime
Trade Intendancies (Shibo Tiju Si) at Ningbo, Guangzhou, and Quanzhou
were shuttered. Ships, docks, and shipyards were destroyed and
ports sabotaged with rocks and pine stakes. Although the policy is
now associated with imperial China generally, it was then at odds with
Chinese tradition, which had pursued foreign trade as a source of
revenue and become particularly important under the Tang, Song, and
Yuan. A 1613 edict prohibited maritime trade between the lands
north and south of the Yangtze River, attempting to put a stop to
captains claiming to be heading to
Jiangsu and then diverting to
Although the policy has generally been ascribed to national defense
against the pirates, it was so obviously counterproductive and yet
carried on for so long that other explanations have been offered. The
initial conception seems to have been to use the Japanese need for
Chinese goods to force them to terms. Parallels with Song and Yuan
measures restricting outflows of bullion have led some to argue that
it was intended to support the Hongwu Emperor's printing of fiat
currency, whose use was continued by his successors as late as
1450. (By 1425, rampant counterfeiting and hyperinflation meant people
were already trading at about 0.014% of their original value.)
Others assert that it was a side effect of a desire to elevate
Confucian humaneness (仁, ren) and eliminate greed from the realm's
foreign relations or a ploy to weaken the realm's southern
subjects to the benefit of the central government. Nonetheless, it
may have been the case that the
Hongwu Emperor prioritized protecting
his state against the
Northern Yuan remnants, leaving the policy and
its local enforcers as the most he could accomplish and his
mention of them in his Ancestral Injunctions as responsible for
The policy offered too little—decennial tribute missions comprising
only two ships—as a reward for good behavior and enticement for
Japanese authorities to root out their smugglers and pirates. The
Hongwu Emperor's message to the Japanese that his army would "capture
and exterminate your bandits, head straight for your country, and put
your king in bonds" received the Ashikaga shogun's cheeky reply
that "your great empire may be able to invade Japan but our small
state is not short of a strategy to defend ourselves".
Although the sea ban left the Ming army free to extirpate the
remaining Yuan loyalists and secure China's borders, it tied up local
resources. 74 coastal garrisons were established from
Guangdong to Shangdong; under the Yongle Emperor, these outposts
were notionally manned by 110,000 subjects. The loss of income
from taxes on trade contributed to chronic funding difficulties
throughout the Ming, particularly for
Zhejiang and Fujian
provinces. By impoverishing and provoking both coastal Chinese and
Japanese against the regime, it increased the problem it was
purporting to solve. The initial wave of Japanese pirates had been
independently dealt with by
Jeong Mong-ju and Imagawa Sadayo, who
returned their booty and slaves to Korea; Ashikaga Yoshimitsu
delivered 20 more to China in 1405, which boiled them alive in a
cauldron in Ningbo. However, the raids on China continued, most
grievously under the Jiajing Emperor. By the 16th century, the
"Japanese", "dwarf", and "eastern barbarian" pirates of the Jiajing
wokou raids were mostly non-Japanese.
Nonetheless, because the sea ban was added by the
Hongwu Emperor to
his Ancestral Injunctions, it continued to be broadly enforced
through most of the rest of his dynasty. For the next two centuries,
the rich farmland of the south and the military theaters of the north
were linked almost solely by the Jinghang Canal. Bribery and
disinterest occasionally permitted more leeway, as when the Portuguese
began trading at
Ningpo ("Liampo"), and Quanzhou
("Chincheu"), but crackdowns also occurred, as with the expulsion
of the Portuguese in the 1520s, on the islands off
Zhangzhou in 1547, or at
Yuegang in 1549. The Portuguese were
permitted to settle at Macao in 1557, but only after several years of
helping the Chinese suppress piracy.
Piracy dropped to negligible levels only after the general abolition
of the policy in 1567 upon the ascension of the Longqing Emperor
and at the urging of the governor of Fujian. Chinese merchants were
then permitted to engage in all foreign trade except with Japan or
involving weapons or other contraband goods; these included iron,
sulfur, and copper. The number of foreign traders was capped by a
license and quota system; no trading could take them away from China
for longer than a year. Maritime trade intendancies were
Ningbo in 1599, and Chinese merchants
Yuegang (modern Haicheng, Fujian) into a thriving port.
The end of the sea ban did not mark an imperial change of heart,
however, so much as a recognition that the weakness of the later Ming
state made it impossible to continue the prohibition. The state
continued to regulate trade as heavily as it could, and foreigners
were restricted to doing business through approved agents, with
prohibitions against any direct business with ordinary Chinese.
Accommodations could be made, but were slow in coming: the merchants
Yuegang were trading heavily with the Spanish within a year of
Maynila's 1570 conquest by Martín de Goiti but it wasn't until
1589 that the throne approved the city's requests for more merchant
licenses to expand the trade. Fu Yuanchu's 1639 memorial to the
throne made the case that trade between
Dutch Taiwan had
made the ban entirely unworkable.
Territory held (red) or influenced (pink) by
Koxinga and his Ming
As the Qing expanded south following their victory at Shanhai Pass,
Southern Ming were supported by the Zheng clan. Zheng Zhilong
surrendered the passes through
Zhejiang in exchange for a wealthy
retirement, but his son Zheng Chenggong—better known by his Hokkien
honorific Koxinga—continued to resist from
Xiamen and then, after
wresting its control from the Dutch, Taiwan. His dynasty then
developed it as the independent state of Tungning, but were driven
from their mainland bases in 1661.
See also: Great Clearance
The Qing regent Prince Rui resumed the sea ban in 1647, but it was not
effective until a more severe order followed in 1661 upon the
ascension of the Kangxi Emperor. In an evacuation known as the "Great
Clearance" or "Frontier Shift", coastal residents of Guangdong,
Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and parts of
Shandong were required to
destroy their property and move inland 30–50 li (about
16–26 km or 10–16 mi), with Qing soldiers erecting
boundary markers and enforcing the death penalty on those beyond it.
Ships were destroyed, and foreign trade was again limited to that
passing through Macao. Checks and adjustments were made the
following year, and the inhabitants of five counties—Panyu, Shunde,
Xinhui, Dongguan, and Zhongshan—moved again the year after that.
Following numerous high-level memorials, the evacuation was no longer
enforced after 1669. In 1684, following the destruction of
Tungning, other bans were lifted. The year after that, customs
offices were established in Guangzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo, and Songjiang
to deal with foreign trade.
Repressive Qing policies such as the queue caused Chinese traders to
emigrate in such large numbers, however, that the
Kangxi Emperor began
to fear the military implications. The immigrant community in Jakarta
was estimated at 100,000 and rumors circulated that a Ming heir was
living on Luzon. A ban on trade in the "Southern Ocean" followed
in 1717, with tighter port inspections and travel restrictions.
Emigrants were ordered to return to China within the next three years
upon penalty of death; those emigrating in future were to face the
Legal trade in the
South China Sea
South China Sea was resumed in 1727, but the
East India Company's discovery that the prices and duties at Ningbo
were both much lower than those at
Guangzhou prompted them to begin
shifting their trade north from 1755 to 1757. The Qianlong
Emperor's attempt to discourage this through higher fees failed; in
the winter of 1757, he declared that—effective the next
Guangzhou (then romanized as "Canton") was to be the only
Chinese port permitted to foreign traders, beginning the Canton
System, with its
Cohong and Thirteen Factories.
The initial Qing sea ban curtailed Koxinga's influence on the Chinese
mainland and ended with his state's defeat, which brought Taiwan into
the Qing Empire.
Nonetheless, it was quite harmful to the Chinese themselves, as
documented in governors' and viceroys' memorials to the throne. Even
before the Kangxi Emperor's restrictions, Jin Fu's 1659 memorial to
the throne argued that the ban on foreign trade was limiting China's
access to silver, harmfully restricting the money supply, and that
lost trading opportunities cost Chinese merchants 7 or 8 million taels
a year. The policies revived rebellions[which?] and piracy along
the coast. The
Great Clearance was completely
disruptive to China's southern coasts. Of the roughly 16,000 residents
of Xin'an County (roughly modern
Shenzhen and Hong Kong) who were
driven inland in 1661, only 1,648 were recorded returning in 1669.
Powerful typhoons that year and in 1671 further destroyed local
communities and discouraged resettlement. When trade restrictions
Guangdong saw enormous outflows of migrants.
The conflicts between the former residents and the newcomers such as
the Hakka provoked lingering feuds that erupted into full-scale war in
the 1850s and '60s and that fueled Guangdong's piracy into the 20th
The restrictions imposed by the
Qianlong Emperor that established the
Canton System were highly lucrative for Guangzhou's Cohong—the
Howqua became one of the world's wealthiest individuals—and
normalized Guangzhou's tax base and inflow of foreign silver. By
restricting imports mostly to bullion, however, it created strong
pressure on the British—for whom tea had become the national drink
over the course of the 17th century—to find any means possible to
adjust the balance of trade. This turned out to be smuggled Indian
opium, which became so lucrative and important that the viceroy Lin
Zexu's vigorous enforcement of existing laws against it prompted the
First Opium War
First Opium War and the beginning of the unequal treaties that
restricted Qing sovereignty in the 19th century. The 1842 Treaty of
Nanking is generally taken to have ended China's isolation, with the
opening of the ports of
Fuzhou ("Fuchow"), Ningbo
("Ningpo"), and Shanghai, but legal trade continued to be limited to
specified ports to the end of the dynasty.
Economy of the
Ming dynasty & Imperial China
Thirteen Factories and Canton System
First & Second Opium Wars
Sakoku, the maritime trade restrictions in Tokugawa Japan
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