This study examines the Zheng organization, which flourished from 1625 to 1683, during a time when the Ming-Qing transition in China intersected with the formation of an integrated early modern economy in maritime Asia. This quasi-governmental commercial enterprise reached the apex of its power under Zheng Chenggong (1624-1662), and his son and successor Zheng Jing (1642-1681). From bases along the southeastern Chinese coast and Taiwan, they relied upon overseas commerce to maintain a sustained resistance against the Manchus, who had taken over most of China in 1644 from the collapsing Ming, the ethnic Chinese dynasty to which both men had pledged their support. Like their fiercest competitor, the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the organization protected the safety and property of Chinese subjects abroad, engaged in armed trade, and aggressively promoted overseas expansion. Zheng Chenggong and Jing proved far more successful and profitable at these endeavors than the VOC. In 1662, shortly before his death, Chenggong even defeated and expelled the company from its colony of Taiwan, and opened the island for Chinese colonization and settlement.
Yet, operating within an imperial world order that looked upon overseas contact of any form as a potential source of political instability, the Zhengs, lacking “native” maritime sources of legitimacy, had to receive recognition for their authority from continental centers of power. Father and son skillfully utilized the ranks and titles from the Ming Yongli pretender to rule over territory, develop a civil bureaucracy, and sign treaties with foreign powers, functioning essentially as an autonomous “state.” Moreover, by successfully intermediating between continental and maritime Chinese cultural discourse, they forged a complex social unit of traders, militarists, and Ming imperial descendants and loyalist elites. However, this ambiguous arrangement, which gave the organization maximum autonomy and flexibility, came under threat due to the gradual consolidation of Qing rule.
Chenggong’s successor, Zheng Jing, turned away from Ming symbols of authority on Taiwan during the 1660s, and tried to institutionalize a new identity based upon Han Chinese customs and Confucian moral values on an island considered by contemporaries to be geographically and culturally outside of “China.” In negotiations with the Qing court, he pressed hard for the emperor to recognize Taiwan as a tributary kingdom along the lines of Korea. The talks broke down, however, over ethnic identity, as Zheng insisted upon keeping his Han Chinese long hair and flowing robes, while the Qing ruler ordered him to shave his head and wear tight riding jackets in the Manchu style. Despite the failure of negotiations, Zheng took significant steps toward articulating a distinct Han Chinese state. He traded extensively, signed a commercial treaty with the English East Indies Company, and nearly launched an invasion of the Spanish Philippines. However, his return to China to participate in the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories (1674-1681) ruined his organization and paved the way for the Qing invasion and occupation of Taiwan in 1683, two years after his death.
This project moves beyond the standard Confucian trope of the Zhengs as ardent Ming loyalists or the Western narrative of ruthless pirate entrepreneurs, extreme discourses later appropriated to serve different nationalisms. Instead, the two men should be viewed as both the initiators and products of a dynamic and internally generated East Asian modernity within an interdependent economic and cultural region that nonetheless enjoyed significant interactions outside the system. Such an approach imbues maritime China with agency and revises the role commonly attributed to it as a marginalized appendage of its bureaucratic and agrarian continental counterpart. An examination of interstate relations unique to this East Asian world region also allows one to conceive of communities beyond the nation-state, and make sense of their identity formation and change, especially when combined with shifts in spatial settings.