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Re-evaluating the Wokou Problem in East Asia During the 1220s and 1390s from the Perspective of Environmental History research-article

Guang Ma

Journal of Asian History, Volume 54 (2020), Issue 2, Page 261 - 280

Previously, scholars have focused almost exclusively on the wokou 倭寇 (Japanese pirates) during the late Ming 明 (1368-1644) dynasty but paid little attention to the serious wokou problem in Yuan 元 (1271-1368) China and during the Kory⊖ 高麗 (918-1392) dynasty. As early as 1223, the wokou began to raid Kory⊖, and from 1309 on they began to invade China's coasts, including those of the provinces Zhejiang 浙江, Fujian 福建, Shandong 山東 and Liaodong 遼東. The causes of these wokou raids are very complex and should be analyzed from a broader East Asian perspective. The traditional explanations are a politically unstable situation and turmoil in Japan and weaknesses in the coastal defenses in Korea and China. However, as will be argued in this study, a crucial factor was also various natural disasters, including droughts, typhoons, epidemics and floods, and possibly changes in the climate. This paper aims to explore wokou raids in China and Korea and discuss their activities while taking these causes into account, in particular, changes in the local climate. The Chinese and Korean governments did not close their doors and block trade; on the contrary, they permitted Japanese merchants to conduct trade along the coasts freely at the time, showing that the presence of wokou was not necessarily related to whether or not there was a prohibition against maritime trade, which is very different from the situation during the Jiajing 嘉靖 period (1522-1566) of the Ming.

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