贾志扬:Governance, Lawlessness and Ethnic Difference in Coastal China During the Early Yuan: The Case of Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan

Abstract: Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan were pirates and smugglers who, through service to the Mongols in their conquest of the Southern Song, rose to become leading regional officials under Khubilai Khan, possessors of a large territory in the Yangzi Delta that was under their exclusive control, and owners of fleets of ships that dominated the transportation of grain by sea from the lower Yangzi to Dadu (Beijing). Their story sheds light on the great array of maritime activities under Khubilai and his willingness to tolerate a high level of corruption and misgovernment in the process.
KEYWORDS: piracy, maritime transport, naval expeditions, Taicang, Khubilai Khan


In the annals of the early decades of Mongol rule over southern China, two individuals—Zhu Qing 朱清 (1247–1303) and Zhang Xuan 張瑄 (d. 1303)—stand out by virtue of their colorful histories and the spectacular arc of their careers. Zhu and Zhang were pirates and salt smugglers who, through service to the Yuan during its conquest of the Southern Song, rose to become leading regional officials, possessors of vast land holdings, and owners of fleets of ships that dominated the transportation of grain from the lower Yangzi to Dadu (Beijing), only to be arrested and executed on charges of corruption in 1303. The co-option of pirates or rebels by imperial authorities through the provision of military official status was a common phenomenon in Chinese history, Zheng Zhilong 鄭芝龍 (1604–1661) in the early seventeenth century being a prominent example. However, in contrast to Zheng, who benefited from the weakness of the late Ming state, Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan operated within the Yuan political system under Khubilai Khan (r. 1260–1294), arguably at the apogee of the dynasty. They did so, moreover, as southern Chinese, a group famously ill-favored by the Mongols.

At its height, the geographical extent of Khubilai’s empire dwarfed that of any previous dynasty. Although it possessed a huge and brilliant court that greatly impressed Marco Polo as well as a remarkably cosmopolitan culture, it was nevertheless unsettled in significant ways. Khubilai’s claim to being the Great Khan had been tested in his successful war against Arghun, but challenges from Khaidu in the far west embroiled him throughout his reign. His decision to establish his principal capital in Dadu (Khanbalik) created the [End Page 1] enormous challenge of supplying it without an operational Grand Canal, as the Bian Canal had ceased to function during the Southern Song. Furthermore, the Yuan creation of branch secretariats or quasi-provinces together with their widespread use of Mongols and foreigners created institutional churn in which inexperienced officials often operated with few established institutional norms.

Then there was the sea. As has often been noted, the Yuan continued the active engagement with maritime trade that had characterized the Song with its maritime trade offices (shibosi 市舶司) and the grand emporia of Guangzhou and Quanzhou. There were to be sure differences, most notably the episodic restriction of trade at times to favored groups of merchants (ortoy); however, maritime trade conformed well to the pro-merchant propensities of the Mongols and flourished. The sea was also integral to Khubilai’s ambitions as a world-conqueror, for his conquests of the Southern Song and Koryŏ Korea were followed by naval expeditions against Japan, Champa, Annam and Java. Furthermore, the need to supply Dadu resulted in a massive program whereby grain was sent from the south by sea.

As we will see, Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan were active participants in all of these maritime activities, which provided ideal conditions for them to flourish. Following an account of their lives and fortunes, as well as those of their families, this article will examine the factors behind their emergence as two of the most powerful and wealthy southern Chinese to have served the Mongols, their maintenance for two decades of a virtual state within a state at the mouth of the Yangzi River, and their families’ survivals in the wake of their fall. These factors included: Khubilai’s preoccupation with maritime ventures and the importance of the maritime transport of grain to the capital; the decentralized nature of the Yuan government which allowed Zhu and Zhang to maintain a territorial base at Taicang 太倉 at the mouth of the Yangzi River and do so with a large fleet of ships; and their role in a semi-private patronage network which to a considerable extent undercut the bureaucratic principles of a theoretically centralized empire.

Pirate Lives

Among the curious features of the historical accounts of Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan is the degree to which they are conjoined, for they are usually described in tandem. Although there were some significant differences between them [End Page 2] and between their families, more often than not they are listed as a pair, making it challenging to discern them as individuals.

We must begin with the sources. The Yuan History (Yuan shi 元史) has no biographies of Zhu and Zhang, while the most commonly cited biographical treatment of the two men, found in Ke Shaomin’s 柯劭忞 (1850–1933) New Yuan History (新元史 Xin Yuan shi), is very late.1 By far the most important source—containing most though not all of the material in the New Yuan History—is the contemporaneous account of Hu Changru 胡長孺 (1249–1323), a minor official from Wuzhou 婺州 who served in Jiankang 建康 (Nanjing) and Yangzhou 揚州, the latter located close to Taicang.2 In addition, the writings of a half dozen Yuan and Ming authors present a host of material relating to their activities in Taicang, including the events leading up to their fall, and the fate of their families after their undoing, thereby enriching our understanding of them.3 There is, finally, the biographical account of Zhu and Zhang in the 1924 county gazetteer for Chongming 崇明, the county containing Chusan Island 舟山島 where Zhu Qing was born. Although largely agreeing with earlier sources, it is noteworthy for its addition of some intriguing details and for its whitewashing of many aspects of their stories.4 [End Page 3]

Modern Yangzi River delta from https://d-maps.com/carte.php?num_car=22098, modified by David W. Goodrich.

Zhu Qing was born on Yaoliusha 姚劉沙, an island at the mouth of the Yangzi in Tongzhou 通州 county, Yangzhou. Yaoliusha, named after the Yao and Liu families who first settled there, was a shoal that developed into an island thanks to the sedimentation of the Yangzi, and it eventually became part of Chongming Island. According to Zhu’s biography, in the late Song his mother was the leader of a group of over ten related families who settled there and supported themselves through fishing.5 [End Page 4]

Conditions for these new arrivals were difficult. According to Tao Zongyi 陶宗儀 (1329–1410), the wealthy families on Chongming were noted for their cruelty. In the service—perhaps as a slave—of the wealthy Yang family, Zhu Qing killed his master, seized Yang’s wife and treasury, and ran off to sea.6

Zhu appears to have used his newfound wealth to fund a smuggling operation, for we next encounter him on the Wusong River 吳淞 (aka Suzhou Creek) privately (and illegally) trading salt for rice, and it was there that he met Zhang Xuan. Zhang, a native of Jiading 嘉定 in Suzhou, is described as an orphan raised by his mother through begging. According to the New Yuan History,

When grown he was graceful and imposing in appearance and surpassed others in strength. He loved to drink and gamble, and he was the object of attention among the depraved youths of the village.7


Zhu Guozhen adds an interesting detail, namely that Zhang was illiterate, unable to even recognize the character ding 丁.8

Upon meeting, the two youths immediately hit it off, becoming like brothers. Zhang Xuan joined Zhu Qing in his activities, which included being apprehended by the authorities and locked up in the Pingjiang jail along with sixteen others. The New Yuan History account of what followed is remarkable.

The night before the judicial commissioner Hong Qiwei 洪起畏 went to the jail to witness the execution of the prisoners, he had a dream in which two white tigers were leading a group of tigers, kneeling in front of them. On awakening, he thought this unlucky. At the jail, the jailers brought out the prisoners, who knelt beneath the yamen hall. When presented with his document [of execution] to sign, Qing did so with five inked fingertips and Xuan did likewise. Hong marveled at their appearances and felt that it accorded with his dream, so he said to them: “Today the Central Plain is in chaos. You are both heroic and should contribute to the restoration of the country.” He then freed them.9

提刑洪起畏來涖斬,是夕夢二白虎率群虎伏於前,寤,以為不祥。 旦出視事,獄卒枷眾囚跪廳下,孔目取準伏以筆付清,清塗五指尖 [End Page 5] 以押紙,瑄亦如之。洪奇其狀貌,以為應夢兆,乃諭之曰:「今中原 大亂,汝輩皆健兒,當為國家立恢復之功。」遂釋之。

Zhu Guozhen offers a different version of this incident. According to him, Zhang Xuan alone had been arrested, and in his dream Hong Qiwei saw eighteen prisoners, one of whom had the fearsome appearance of a tiger. The next morning on viewing the prisoners he found Xuan’s appearance truly extraordinary and so spared him.10

Zhu Guozhen offers a similar anecdote concerning one Shen Duyuan 沈都遠, a Song official who was serving in Suzhou during the defense against the Mongols. He too had a dream in which there were two imprisoned tigers. The next day he observed among the prisoners two men—Zhu and Zhang—wearing cangues (hejiaozhe 荷校者), and after investigating their extraordinary [qualities] he secretly released them.11

This tiger imagery also appears in an account about Zhu Qing in his youth. The scholar Zhang Jintang 張錦堂, having incurred the displeasure of the Song Chief Councilor Jia Sidao 賈似道 (1213–1275), fled the court in Lin’an and made his way to Chongming Island, where he bought land in Yaoliusha. There he encountered three to five young men, all very tall. Upon viewing Qing, who was eight chi 尺 in height (approximately six feet) and had the appear ance of a tiger, Zhang prostrated himself and said, “I had not planned to meet a noble man today,” a remark greeted by Qing’s mother with laughter.12

These stories provide insights into the popular personas of Zhu and Zhang, and the way in which their contemporaries viewed them. It seems likely that the fierce tiger imagery (a motif that Zhu Qing was to employ frequently) and the prophecies of future greatness were self-cultivated and enjoyed widespread acceptance during their era of dominance in the Taicang region. However, they also bespeak a considerable force of character, a personal presence that comes through in other anecdotes, as we will see below.

Having escaped execution, Zhu and Zhang resumed their piratical activities, plundering the nearby coastal region. How long they did this we cannot say, but since Zhu was born in 1247, his (and Zhang’s) activities as pirates probably [End Page 6] went back to the early 1260s. At some point, when they were threatened with capture by the authorities, they gathered their followers and fled to sea. According to Tao Zongyi, Zhu Qing and his men made a remarkable series of forays to the north:

After traveling east for three days and nights he arrived at Shamen Island. He then headed northeast, passing a Korean port and viewing the Wendeng and Yiwei Mountains (both in Shandong). Further north [he visited] Yan Mountain and Jieshi Mountain (in Hebei). He went and came like the wind and spirits, [and] couldn’t be traced. With increasing abandon, he returned some fifteen or sixteen times.13

東行三日夜,得沙門島。又東北,過高句麗水口,見文登夷維諸山。 又北,燕山與碣石,往來若風與鬼,影跡不可得。稍怠,則復來。亡 慮十五六返。

This episode is curious, for it is hard to imagine that these trips resulted in lucrative plunder and Tao provides no reason for these activities. The most likely explanation is that they were harassing Yuan ports on behalf of the Song, and in fact the Chongming gazetteer states that a Song court discussion led to their pacification and appointment to military office.14 But whether or not they served the Song, the sources agree that they later went over to the Yuan military, though not on how this happened.

The New Yuan History states that after they fled the Yangzi Delta region Zhu and Zhang made their way to Jiaozhou 膠州 (modern Qingdao) in Shandong where they surrendered and were made Brigade Commanders (guanjun qianhu 管軍千戶) and their key followers Company Commanders (baihu 百戶). The location of Jiaozhou would comport with the coastal incursions described above, which the New Yuan History does not mention. Hu Changru 胡長孺 and Tao Zongyi both follow the account of their coastal incursions by recounting an invitation from the Yuan court to join the Yuan cause, an act for which they were handsomely rewarded with their followers being designated as “righteous men protecting the seas” (fanghai yimin 防 海義民).15 Finally, in the Yuan History biography of the Yuan general Dong [End Page 7] Wenbing 董文炳 (1217–1278), Zhang Xuan is described as delegating Dong’s son Shixuan 士選 (1253–1321) and Wang Shiqiang 王世強 to secure his own surrender, and that of his five hundred ships, in the tenth month of 1275, even though the negotiations were conducted by Shixuan alone who visited Zhang on a single ship.16

Some of the discrepancies in these accounts may never be resolved, but the overall picture seems clear. First, it is likely that Zhu and Zhang were supporting the Song cause in their excursions up the coast, perhaps as members of the Song navy. By the mid-1270s, the Song court was desperate and would have welcomed their support. Second, rather than simply surrendering to the Mongols, as Tao would have it, the Yuan forces clearly enticed them with positions and gifts. The five hundred ships that Zhang (and presumably Zhu) brought with them were the key, for by 1275 the two had at their command a sizeable naval force, and this was particularly welcome as the Yuan faced the task of subduing the Song forces along the southeast coast.

Whatever the details of Zhu and Zhang’s submission to the Mongols, they stood in distinct contrast to other noteworthy defectors of the Song-Yuan transition, such as Pu Shougeng 蒲壽庚 (d. 1296), Yang Fa 楊發, Wang Jiweng 王積翁 (1229–1284), and Luo Bi 羅璧 (1244–1309). Pu was a Muslim merchant-official instrumental in the surrender of Quanzhou to the Mongols in 1276, but Yang, Wang and Luo were all Song army officers.17 When they joined the ranks of the Mongols, they may have brought some followers with them, but they certainly had nothing like Zhu and Zhang’s ships and sailors, a resource that the two men continued to control. Thanks to those ships, Zhu and Zhang quickly became involved in the war effort against the Song. In 1276, as the Mongol general Bayan 伯顏 (1236–1295) was approaching Lin’an, [End Page 8] Zhu, Zhang and their followers subdued Shanghai and led their forces up the Wusong River, obtaining the local treasury surrendered by Song officials, which they transmitted to the capital. In 1279, they accompanied Zhang Hongfan 張宏範 (1238–1280) to Yaishan 崖山, where they participated in the final sea battle against the Song.

As a reward for their service there, Zhu and Zhang were charged with eradicating pirates (i.e., Song loyalist forces) along the coast. In 1280, they followed the Yuan general Ataqai 阿塔海 (1234–1289) to Fujian, where with the help of local pirates whom they recruited, they were able to pacify the rebellion of the Song loyalist general Chen Diaoyan 陳吊眼 (d. 1282).18 In 1281, Zhu is credited with defeating the Song commander Cui Xun 崔順, who with a force of five thousand and one hundred warships had been harassing cities on the Shandong coast. According to the New Yuan History, when Khubilai gave him this charge, he asked Zhu how many troops he required. Zhu replied: “I need only two warriors. If I am together with Zhu Hu 朱 虎 (“Tiger Zhu,” Qing’s second son), you need not bother with [additional] military forces.” When Zhu’s forces reached Ziwu Island 紫霧島, where Cui’s ships were anchored and with arrows raining down on them, Zhu said to his followers: “I am Minister Zhu, and the emperor has commanded me to apprehend Commander Cui. Those who follow me will attain wealth and honor.”19 Zhu and his men subsequently attacked and boarded Cui’s flagship. When Cui emerged, Zhu read the imperial decree and had Cui executed, whereupon Cui’s followers were all frightened into submission. Zhu Qing was subsequently richly rewarded.

The following year (1282) marked a development that was to cement the fortunes of Zhu and Zhang for the next two decades. Given the poor condition of the Grand Canal, and faced with the need for a steady supply of grain from the south to support the growing population of Dadu, the imperial court made a decision to transport the grain by sea, and the beneficiaries of this decision were Zhu and Zhang. Arguing their case at court, the Mongol general Bayan recalled how following the capture of Lin’an in 1276, Zhang and Zhu had provided sixty flat-bottomed ships to transport war booty from there to the north.20 [End Page 9] Also in their favor was their long experience operating along the entire coastline. The task of maritime grain transport was thus given to Zhu and Zhang, together with Luo Bi 羅璧, another convert from Song forces who had been involved in the southern campaigns.

The maritime transport program was not without its critics, especially those who favored using the Grand Canal, which however was in urgent need of repair and required large expenditures to dredge and refurbish. In early 1283, the court in fact approved a major undertaking to do just that. But later that same year, aided by reports of rampant corruption related to the dredging operation, the supporters of maritime transport successfully made the case for the primacy of the sea route.

At an imperial conference in the twelfth month of 1283, Manggudai 忙古帶, the Governor (pingzhang zhengshi 平章政事) of Fujian and Superintendent of Maritime Shipping (shiboshi 市舶使), endorsed a proposal by Zhu and Zhang that they handle the maritime grain transport, noting that they would use their own ships and men to do so. Supported by Bayan and others, the proposal was accepted. Zhu and Zhang headed two new Brigade Offices for Maritime Transport (haiyun wanhufu 海運萬戶府) under the supervision of Manggudai, who was named Governor of Jianghuai 江淮 and Director of the Transport Commission (zhuanyunsi 轉運司).21

The maritime transport operation proved to be successful and enormously lucrative. Initially, Yuan naval ships were used for the shipment of grain, but beginning in 1284, the navy was relieved of this responsibility after Zhang and Zhu started to furnish the ships and sailors. That same year they charged a transport fee of 8.59 taels per picul of rice when the price of rice in the lower Yangzi was three taels.22 All was not smooth sailing, however. There were not only proponents for canal-based transport, particularly for a plan to dredge a canal across the Shandong peninsula, but also other competitors eager to take over the maritime transport. In 1286, bad weather, which included a typhoon, [End Page 10] resulted in the disappearance of a quarter of the annual shipment, and some 144,570 piculs were lost. As a result, Zhu and Zhang lost their monopoly, which was taken over by the Uighur minister Sangha (Sangge 桑哥). This was accompanied by an administrative reorganization. An Ambulatory Office for Quanzhou (xing Quanfusi 行泉府司) under the leadership of Sangha’s allies was created in Quanzhou to oversee, among other things, four new Offices of Maritime Transport in Quanzhou, Pingjiang (Suzhou), Shanghai, and Fuzhou.23 Although Sangha’s men were prominent in these offices, Zhu and Zhang retained some degree of influence. The Pingjiang Office was run by Manggudai, a patron of Zhu and Zhang, together with Zhang’s son Wenlong, while Zhu Hu was appointed to the Fuzhou Office.24

Not surprisingly, Zhu and Zhang were repeatedly involved in the support of Khubilai’s overseas ventures, which were a hallmark of his reign. After subduing Korea and defeating the Southern Song, the Mongol conquest of eastern Asia was virtually complete, but Khubilai as a world conqueror was not content. There followed invasions of Japan, Vietnam and Java as well as thoughts of conquest elsewhere in maritime Asia.25 These campaigns were expensive and entailed great numbers of ships, which is where Zhu and Zhang came in. They provided ships and logistical support for the second invasion of Japan in 1283 and preparations for a third invasion in 1286, as well as the invasions of Champa in 1283, Annam in 1287 and Java in 1292.26 The Annam invasion was noteworthy for the fact that Zhang’s son Zhang Wenhu 張文 虎 (Literary Tiger Zhang) and Zhu’s son Zhu Ji 朱濟 commanded a grain fleet with 170,000 piculs of rice sent to provision the Yuan army there. The venture ended in disaster when the fleet was attacked by Annamese warships and was forced to retreat to Hainan after losing eleven ships carrying 14,300 piculs.27

The loss of their grain transport monopoly does not seem to have greatly hindered Zhu and Zhang’s activities during the period between 1286 and 1291. In addition to their support of the 1287 Annamese expedition, they were [End Page 11] promoted to the rank of Military Governor (xuanweishi 宣威使) in 1288, and further promotions followed in 1290, when in return for the grain shipments they made to Liaoyang and Korea they were given, ironically, the titles of Cavalry General-in-Chief (piaojiwei shang jiangjun 驃騎衛上將軍).28

A central task undertaken by Sangha with his new control over maritime transport was the Shandong canal project, aimed at shortening transport time via a canal across the Shandong peninsula. Although completed by 1289, it turned out to be a fiasco; it was expensive to build, difficult to maintain, and unable to accommodate large grain ships.29 Then in 1291, the combination of Sangha’s fall, and subsequent execution, and another disastrous shipping season in which 16% of the tribute grain was lost resulted in the restoration of Zhu and Zhang’s monopoly, which they maintained until 1303. It was also accompanied by another institutional reorganization that dissolved the Ambulatory Office in Quanzhou and collapsed the four Maritime Transportation Offices into two, with Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan each controlling one, thus solidifying their political control over maritime transport.30

The Taicang Bailiwick

Among the most remarkable results of their joint rise to power were the changes Zhu and Zhang wrought in the eastern part of the Yangzi delta, centered on the town of Taicang 太倉 (now Taicang county), which they built into a thriving port. Blessed with a natural harbor, it was also adjacent to Chongming Island, Zhu Qing’s birthplace. According to the New Yuan History:

Both Qing and Xuan moved to Taicang within the Hui’an township of Kunshan, a place with fewer than a hundred families. There they built estates that fronted directly on the water, and grain transports and merchant ships gathered like clouds in its market. Over a hundred of Qing and Xuan’s relatives sported gold and silver badges. Rare commodities from abroad [such as] rhinoceros horns and kingfisher feathers filled their warehouses. Their status and riches were awe-inspiring, making them the crown jewel of the southeast.31 [End Page 12]

清、瑄並移居於太倉。太倉為崑山惠安鄉之屬地,不滿百家。清、 瑄營建第宅,開海道通餘直沽,糧艘商舶雲集於市。清、瑄兩家子 弟,佩金銀符者百餘人,蕃夷珍貨、文犀、翠羽充斥於府庫之內, 富貴赫奕,為東南之冠。

It is noteworthy that Yuan writers focused most of their comments on how Zhu and Zhang employed their wealth and power rather than on their piracy or management of maritime transport. Take, for example, this account by Tao Zongyi, writing in the late Yuan:

Fathers and sons rose to become ministers, while their brothers and nephews became high officials. They had estates throughout the country and their warehouses were laid out facing each other. Their great ships sailed to foreign lands while their carts and riders filled the streets and gateways, and their servants lined the corridors wearing gold badges.32

二人者,父子致位宰相,弟侄甥皆大官,田園宅館偏天下,庫藏倉 庾相望,巨艘大舶帆交番夷中,輿騎塞隘門巷,左右仆從皆佩於廊 金符。

The creation of this prosperous enclave as a virtual state within a state is especially striking, for the area was an economic and administrative backwater at the end of the Song, an outlying part of Kunshan county 昆山縣 in Suzhou. The sources point to a wide variety of activities—licit and illicit—that help explain the rise to prominence of Taicang and the total dominance of the Zhu and Zhang families in that process.

Through the enormous revenues that it generated, the maritime transport monopoly was the primary economic force behind the Zhu-Zhang enterprise. Given the roughly five-tael difference between the price per picul of rice in the Yangzi Valley and what they charged for transporting it, in the early 1290s when the annual shipments averaged over 1.3 million piculs, profits would have been in excess of six million taels per year.33 With their hundreds of ships, Zhang and Zhu were able to employ large numbers of people from the Taicang region and beyond,34 and they possessed extensive resources that could be used to fund their other activities. [End Page 13]

One such activity, remarkably, was printing their own currency, a privilege granted to Zhu and Zhang by the court.35 Overseas maritime trade, the source of the “rhinoceros horns and kingfisher feathers” described above, was another activity and source of income. According to Jung-pang Lo,

Besides transporting grain for the government, the ships were another source of income for Chu Ch’ing [Zhu Qing] and Chang Hsuan [Zhang Xuan]. They were used to engage in the lucrative trade with the states of Southeast Asia. Although foreign trade was then a government monopoly, they were able, through the influence of their friend Manggudai, to obtain a share in it. Manggudai also arranged the transfer to them of the old ships originally built for the invasion of Japan, and, for a while before he left for Annam, Abachi had the job of superintending the repair of these ships.36

Thus Taicang with its Liujia Harbor 劉家港 became a locus for maritime trade, even though it had no maritime trade office. The Chongming gazetteer describes foreign ships bearing pearls from Japan, Koryŏ and other countries, giving it the reputation of being “the greatest city of the world” (tianxia duhui diyi 天下都會第一), a claim, which despite its obvious hyperbole, is interesting for its mention of Japan and Koryŏ. According to the Ming writer Zhanggu Zhenyi 長谷真逸, Taicang’s prosperity was fueled in part by grain pilfered from the maritime transport. He describes one of Zhang’s sons, who served as an Assistant Grand Councilor (canzheng 參政), as follows:

His wealth exceeded those of nobles and his pearls and jewels numbered in the tens of thousands. Every year the maritime transport [service] falsely reported that [grain] had been lost at sea, while they transferred and sold it to foreigners for private gain; his power damaged all of society.37

富過封君,珠寶番貨以鉅萬計,每歲海運詐稱沒干風波,私自轉入 外番貨賣,勢傾朝野。

Later in the same essay, Zhanggu claims that: “Thereafter (reading 厥後 as 以 後), at court the Zhu and Zhang families were overbearing, deceiving their superiors, and in their connections with foreigners they had seditious intentions.”38 [End Page 14]

This open yet illicit trade is remarkable considering that nearby Ganpu and Shanghai had maritime trade offices. We do not know how much the Taicang trade hurt those offices, but its very existence must have caused them concern, and it certainly undercut the carefully structured Yuan maritime trading system.

The maritime transport monopoly also conferred great power on Zhu, Zhang and their families, power that they flamboyantly displayed. On one occasion in the 1290s, Zhu and Zhang demanded that an honor guard of one thousand greet them when they arrived with their fleet of transport ships at Zhigu 直沽, the port for Dadu (in modern Tianjin).39 The New Yuan History lists ten followers of Zhu and Zhang, all holding high military titles such as Commander (wuwanhu 五萬戶), Brigade Commander (wanhu 萬戶), or Battalion Commander (qianhu 千戶) within the maritime transport service. The followers were all from Chongming and included Zhu Qing’s adopted son Zhu Rixin 朱日新, his son-in-law Yu Yingwen 虞應文, as well as a Yang and a Liu, the surnames of the two dominant families in Chongming when Zhu Qing was born.40 The results of this accumulation are described in the Chongming gazetteer:

After [Zhu] Qing developed the maritime transport city, the hundred plus men who had been named as Commanders were all considered to be Qing’s family clique, and the fields and residences of his retainers were spread throughout the southeast.41

自清創海運邑中封百干萬戶者百餘人皆清族黨,及廝養輩其田宅遍 東南。

This local political base combined with their huge economic resources allowed the Zhus and Zhangs to act in ways often associated with local tyrants (tuhao 土豪). For example, Fujino Akira describes the fate of a certain Wang family, whose wealth in the late Song had survived the transition to the Yuan. However, when their spendthrift sons fell into debt, the Zhus and Zhangs were able to entice them with high interest loans. Then, following the death of the Wang patriarch, they seized all of the Wang family lands.42 [End Page 15]

The exalted position of the two families also allowed them to act with legal impunity. Jung-pang Lo notes that they “condemned to death anyone who defied their authority.”43 Xu Youwang 許有壬 (1287–1364) described how the families’ power was such that when one of their men, Battalion Commander Zhou, killed three slaves of the wife of one Shen Chang 沈昌, there was nothing that the officials could do.44 We learn too from the New Yuan History that people particularly feared the wrath of Zhang Xuan, who was reportedly more tyrannical (haoheng 豪橫) than Zhu Qing, lest they be “bound and thrown into the sea.”45

Their impunity extended to conflicts with officials. In a brief essay condemning both the Zhus and Zhangs, Zhanggu Zhenyi stated that across the Jiang-Huai region, those who needed to sell their estates had to do so to the two families, and others dared not oppose them. He goes on to describe an incident involving Assistant Grand Councilor Zhang 張參政 (one of Xuan’s sons) who when passing at night in front of the residence of Pacification Commissioner Cao 曹宣慰, was involved in a violent altercation with Cao (or his men). In revenge, Zhang had a waterway dredged that damaged the Cao’s outer gate. When this matter reached the court, the emperor designated 2,500 strings of cash to be used by prefectural officials to repair the gate, and he ordered them to host a feast to settle the score between the two families.46 Clearly, the Zhus and Zhangs had support from on high.

Hu Changru provides us with an unusual perspective on Zhang through the person of He Jingde 何敬德, whose biography actually contains within it the biographical accounts of Zhu and Zhang. Jingde, a native of Pudong (Shanghai), was a commoner known for his frugality, honesty and philanthropy, and he purportedly played a leading role in alleviating a famine in 1307. Long before that, Jingde managed Zhang Xuan’s maritime storehouse and was scrupulously honest. Although Xuan and his sons depended on him, he left their employ after ten years. Following his biographies of Zhu and Zhang, which ends with their fall in 1303, Hu Changru adds that Jingde [End Page 16] warned the Zhangs (father, sons and mother) that their addiction to filling their warehouse would hasten disaster, a caution that went unheeded.47

The reach of Zhu and Zhang in Taicang extended beyond political and economic activities to include the patronage of religion. Liu Xun 劉壎 (1240–1319), who like Hu Changru was a contemporary of Zhu and Zhang, wrote an interesting account of their religious activities. Liu begins his account of Zhu and Zhang by describing these “heroes” as woodcutters, who took advantage of the “change in the Mandate” (i.e., the Yuan conquest) to rob and plunder at sea, targeting the large ships of wealthy merchants. Such was the enormous wealth that accrued to them that they received the posts of Pacification Commissioner and Assistant Grand Councilor. With this grandness and wealth, writes Liu, Zhu became intent on accumulating good deeds and he began to engage in religious activities, building an opulent temple in homage to the Buddha. One day, while in Jinling 金陵 [county], Zhu encountered the Daoist master Zhang Tianshi 張天師 on his way to court in response to an imperial summons, and he persuaded Zhang to perform a major sacrificial prayer for communicating on his behalf with the gods.48

Zhang Tianshi was in fact Zhang Yucai 張與材 (d. 1316), the leader of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi) Daoist sect who claimed to be the thirty-eighth Celestial Master in a tradition that traced its origins to Zhang Daoling 張道 陵 (34–156), the leader of the Five Pecks of Rice Movement of the Eastern Han, also known as the Way of Orthodox Unity (Zhengyidao 正一道). Already important in the late Southern Song thanks to the patronage of Emperor Lizong (r. 1224–1264), during the Yuan Khubilai gave the Celestial Masters the right to control Daoist affairs in the Jiangnan region.49

With his temple building and his dealings with Zhang Yucai, the elderly Zhu Qing (this was at least 1298) was clearly attempting a transition into elite respectability, and perhaps he was in some fashion actually trying to make amends. But Zhang Yucai’s religious authority and patronage by the court [End Page 17] may also have played a part in Zhu’s thinking. That said, for Liu Xun, Zhu’s encounter with Zhang Yucai provided a harbinger of the future, for a spirit writing session produced the following message:

Accumulating good fortune is like a mountain, creating an enterprise is like a pit. When the mountain of good fortune is overthrown, it must not be allowed to fill in the pit of enterprise.


Upon seeing this, Zhu was reportedly terrified and the saying gained fame. A few years later Zhu indeed experienced failure, death and the government’s subsequent confiscation of all his family’s possessions. Liu goes on to interpret this as the gods’ repudiation of Zhu and his evil deeds.50 It is to the collapse in the fortunes of both Zhu and Zhang that we now turn.

The Fall of the Zhus and Zhangs

Although when it occurred in 1303 the fall of the two men and their families was sudden and dramatic, this was not the first attempt by their enemies to bring them down.51 The late Yuan scholar Wang Feng 王逢, who is sympathetic to the men, describes an incident in the late Zhiyuan reign period (c. 1293), when the “crafty” Yao Yan 姚衍 “falsely accused” the two of harboring seditious ambitions (yizhi 異志) for the coastal region. Given the state within a state the Zhus and Zhangs had created, such a charge was understandable, but the ailing Khubilai would have none of it. Addressing the Grand Councilor Oljei (Wanze 完澤), he said, “Zhu and Zhang have performed meritorious labor. They have been trusted ministers. Their soldiers (are simply) protecting them.”52 Yao Yan’s charge was echoed two years later when rumors of seditious plans (yitu 異圖) were reported to the newly enthroned Temur Khan (Chengzong, r. 1295–1308), but he refused to act on them.53

In the first month of 1302, ministers from the Secretariat proposed that [End Page 18] because Zhu and Zhang were so often the subjects of peoples’ gossip (renyan 人言), they should be stripped of their posts and their office-holding sons sent to the capital.54 Two days later a monk from Jiangnan by the name of Shizu 石祖 submitted a ten-point indictment of Zhu and Zhang, alleging illegal activities. Given Zhu Qing’s Buddhist philanthropy described earlier, it is noteworthy that the complainant was a monk. This led to the following exchange between Temur and the censors who had questioned Shizu:

The emperor addressed the censors saying: “I have heard that wealthy families in Jiangnan have seized fields of the common people, causing the poor to become homeless and migrate. Have you heard this?” The ministers replied: “There are many wealthy people who request protection through imperial letters, which they then use to cheat poor people. The officials are unable to control this, so it would be best to put a stop to it.”55

帝語臺臣曰:「朕聞江南富戶侵占民田,以致貧者流離轉徙,卿等嘗 聞之否?」臺臣言曰:「富民多乞護持璽書,依倚以欺貧民,官府不 能詰治,宜悉追收為便。」

But again Temur declined to take action against Zhu and Zhang, instead ordering measures aimed at eliminating clerical abuses.

This stance changed dramatically in 1303. In the first month, orders were given for Zhu, Zhang, their wives and their sons to be brought to the capital, their family possessions inventoried, and their weapons and seagoing ships seized.56 There was one voice of dissent. Left Grand Councilor Oljei, to whom Khubilai had addressed his defense of Zhu and Zhang in 1294, produced a posthumous edict from Khubilai admonishing [Temur] not to move against them.57 He in turn was accused of having received bribes from Zhu and Zhang, though no action was taken against him.58 However, despite Oljei’s protest, the measures against the Zhus and Zhangs continued apace. Their lands were confiscated and supervising officials commandeered their rental income.59 This included their merchant ships (shangbo 商舶), and a special [End Page 19] order was given in fact to seize their merchant ships that were still at sea upon their arrival at port.60 Sons and grandsons were ordered exiled to distant locales in the north.61 And while some imperial princes proposed unsuccessfully that the offspring be enslaved, in the end the males were given craftsman household (jianghu 匠戶) status, while the females were sent to the Bureau of Embroidery (xiuju 繡局).62

Zhang Xuan and his son Zhang Wenhu were executed at the capital, possibly along with Qing’s son Zhu Hu. Although according to Zhu Guozhen, Zhu Hu was later rehabilitated, the New Yuan History states that all three were executed in the marketplace, and further that Zhu Hu’s wife, Lady Mao 茅氏, committed suicide rather than accept a forced remarriage, a detail that makes the account of his execution more plausible than Zhu Guozhen’s report of his survival.63 Zhu Qing, when confronted with arrest, exclaimed: “I am the old minister of Shizong, incomparably esteemed and rewarded by him. How could I dare follow the way of rebellion? The many new chief ministers scheme for my possessions, and so it has come to this.”64 Enraged, he fell, striking his head on a stone, and died.

Despite the earlier charges of sedition, the primary issues driving the campaign against the Zhus and Zhangs were bribery and, as Zhu Qing suggested in his final plea, the lure of the vast economic holdings of the two families. Concerning the former, in the third month of 1303 Zhu and Zhang were charged with having bribed officials with gold and pearls on a vast scale,65 and the same month wide-ranging charges of corruption were leveled against a number of high officials.

The investigation also led to the discovery that their two families had paid bribes to several high-ranking officials in the central government. Saiyid Ajall Bayan, Liang Degui 梁德珪 (1259–1304), Duan Zhen 段真, and Arghun Sali [Alihun Sali 阿里渾撒里], all Managers of Governmental Affairs, and four other ministers of the Secretariat were cashiered on the same day for accepting bribes. Even Oljei was impeached for the same offense. [End Page 20]

These measures broadened to a general anti-corruption campaign, with officials sent to all quarters of the empire, leading to the conviction of 18,473 clerks and officials and the seizure of 45,865 ting in illegal profits.66 As we will see below, both these charges and the seizure and disposal of the diverse properties of the two families must be viewed against the background of factional politics.

In 1304 and again in 1305, the Household Service for the Empress (zhongzheng yuan 中正院) was designated as the repository for the assets of Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan.67 The empress in this case was Bulukhan 不魯罕, who had become empress in 1299 after the death of Temur’s principal consort and who wielded enormous power until Temur’s death in 1307. Although she is not directly named in the actions taken against the Zhus and Zhangs, she is widely believed to have been behind the move against them, though there is disagreement as to the nature of her role. Tadashi Uematsu and Ch’i-ch’ing Hsiao argue that her persecution of the two families was driven by her desire to aggrandize her power and wealth.68 By contrast, Yasuhiro Yokkaichi contends that Bulukhan had been a supporter of Bayan, Zhu and Zhang, but that her hand had been forced by the powerful indictment of them advanced by the Chief Minister Harghasun (Halahasun 哈剌哈孫, 1257–1308) for conspiracy, the printing of money, and engaging in illegal maritime trade. She was therefore compelled to order the actions against them, and in order to further her economic interests she also took control of their assets.69

In the wake of the executions and confiscations of 1303, a remarkable thing happened. The two families—or at least portions of them—underwent a revival, and did so rather quickly. The most detailed account of this revival comes from the biography of Zhang Tianlin 張天麟, the son of Xuan’s son Wenlong 文龍.70 After a period of exile in the north—the New Yuan History [End Page 21] says northern Mongolia—Tianlin returned determined to rehabilitate his father’s reputation. In 1305, he made his way to the capital where he tearfully and publicly charged that false accusations had been made against Wenlong. This not only resulted in a decision to reopen the case, but also in his appointment to direct [the office for] Japanese merchant shipping.71 A few years later, under the new emperor Wuzong 武宗 (r. 1308–1311), the Ministry of Works revoked the craftsmen and embroidery statuses for Zhang and Zhu’s offspring, and Tianlin was offered a position as supervisor of the government foundry in Jiangzhou (Shandong), though he turned it down. He spent the rest of his life as a man of leisure engaged in Yijing studies, even once again being recommended for office in 1334, shortly before his death. For his part, Zhang Wenlong was transferred to the Directorate of Waterways to supervise sea transport in 1308.72

Even if we discount the report of Zhu Hu’s rehabilitation (see above), we know of two Zhus who flourished after 1303. In 1320, Zhu Qing’s grandson Wan 完 served as an Administrative Assistant (panguan 判官) in the Bureau of Military Affairs. Accounts of Qing’s third son, Zhu Xu 朱旭, are intriguing. Known for his filial service, he was like an anchor (bo 泊) for his family during its heyday and served as a Brigade Commander of sea transport. After his family’s fall, he refused further service and retired to the countryside where he gathered daily with the gentry (shidafu) for poetry and wine. He studied the classics and histories, became proficient in calligraphy, was a follower of Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254–1322), and authored a book.73

Although we have only these two cases, the process of gentrification through which Zhu Xu and Zhang Tianlin were absorbed into the local elite is remarkable given the disreputable origins of their families. What made it possible is the fact that their individual rehabilitations were accompanied by the restoration of property.

The process of restoration was different for the Zhus and Zhangs. Zhang Tianlin’s public advocacy for his family did not end with his successes under Wuzong. Following the accession of Renzong 仁宗 (r. 1312–1320), his proposal [End Page 22] to permit the burial of his grandfather Qing in Shanghai was praised as an act of filial devotion and approved by the emperor; however, it was blocked by opponents. Yet, in 1315 permission was given and all assets registered (suoji 所籍) to Tianlin and presumably his family were returned.74 For the Zhus, the accounts of restoration are linked to Zhu Wan. His appointment to the Bureau of Military Affairs was accompanied by the restoration of the family’s fields and residences (tianzhai 田宅) and the return of sons and grandsons to Taicang, nominally to preserve the family graves. Subsequently, in the view of a later writer, “The fengshui of Taicang relied on the lush wooded hills of the Zhu family for its prosperity.”75

Finally, there is an item from the Yuan History biography of Wu Ding 吳 鼎, which suggests that the restoration process either began earlier than the accounts just described or that the confiscations of 1303 were never complete. It is dated to 1310, when Wu was serving as an official in Zhejiang involved with famine relief:

Zhejiang has two wealthy and powerful [families] named Zhu and Zhang who made many loans to the people. The two families were subsequently executed and exterminated, but the [loan] contracts continued so the matter was taken to an official. The official examined them and deemed them proper, [but] the people cannot endure it.76

浙有兩富豪,曰硃、張家,多貸與民錢,其後兩家誅沒,而券之已償 者,亦入於官,官唯驗券徵理,民不能堪。

Wu was able to intervene on the people’s behalf and obtain an exemption, but this account calls into question just how altruistic and beneficent the two families were in their post-restoration existences.

Zhu and Zhang and Early Yuan Governance

The dramatic saga of the southern Chinese pirates Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan raises the question of how they did it. How did they succeed in amassing enormous wealth and power and dominating an important region of the Yangzi delta with few challenges for over two decades, a period that corresponded to the heyday of the Yuan? The answer lies in three key factors: geopolitical [End Page 23] considerations relating to the later years of Khubilai’s reign, the decentralized nature of Yuan governance, and the patronage networks that informed the politics of the empire.

The geopolitical factors were two-fold. First was Khubilai’s obsession with furthering his conquests through sea-borne invasions—of Japan, Annam and Java—which placed ships, especially fighting ships, and seasoned sailors at a premium for the decidedly non-maritime Mongols. As noted above, Zhu and Zhang supplied ships for all of these ventures. In this regard it is noteworthy that, early in his reign, Temur (Chengzong) decisively put an end to Khubilai’s maritime campaigns, cancelling an invasion of Annam planned by Khubilai and rejecting a proposal for yet another invasion of Japan.77 This most certainly had the effect of reducing the value of Zhu and Zhang’s fleet of ships with their seasoned sailors.

Second, the need to supply Dadu with southern grain required large numbers of sea-going ships. Ironically, these two factors together with the Mongol encouragement of maritime trade gave the Yuan dynasty a unique maritime orientation, and in this Zhu and Zhang were essential. By the same token, their ability to command large numbers of ships and their crews long after the Song conquest was complete was a fundamental factor in their long-term success.

Despite efforts by Khubilai to centralize power and authority in his new Chinese empire—for example, by abolishing the three secretariats (sansheng 三省) and replacing them with one central government secretariat78—the Yuan government was arguably the most decentralized of any major Chinese dynasty, and “the product of a compromise between traditional Mongolian patrimonial feudalism and the traditional Chinese autocratic-bureaucratic system.”79 More specifically, Elizabeth Endicott West notes three factors conspiring against centralization: “the tendency of the military bureaucracy to encroach on the civilian sphere, the existence of semi-independent appanages outside regular government control, and the wide latitude taken by regional and local officials despite the pyramidal structure of communication and control.”80 [End Page 24]

Since appanages constituted a form of government employed across the broader Mongol empire (in the 1250s Khubilai himself ruled an appanage comprising much of northwest China), the practice of providing considerable autonomy to local officials was not unusual, and may help account for the Yuan creation of Branch Secretariats (xing zhongshusheng 行中書省)—the predecessors of the Ming provinces, which mirrored the institutions of the central government. Charles Hucker has suggested that they functioned as “the administrative bases from which entrenched Mongol nobles occasionally flouted Peking’s authority and became autonomous warlords.”81 The fact that the government was dominated by Mongols and semu foreigners who, if not ignorant, at least were not steeped in traditional bureaucratic structures and norms undoubtedly also contributed to a fragmentation of political authority.

At the local level, this fragmented system allowed for severe misgovernment. Drawing on the writings of Yuan literati, Paul Smith has described a political environment in which the protection of wealthy landowners and magnates and the sale of offices to “butchers and wine peddlers, brokers, and marketplace riffraff” led to widespread lawlessness and social misery, particularly in the Jiangnan region. Based on these accounts, he argues that “the common people’s troubles stemmed not from the malicious policies of a conquering horde but from the inability of a weak state to control its own functionaries.”82

The successes of Zhu and Zhang must therefore be viewed in the context of the many semi-autonomous entities that dotted the imperial landscape as well as the endemic lawlessness just described. And yet, they were different. It undoubtedly helped that Taicang was in an administrative backwater. It was a part of Kunshan county, but the county seat was close to forty kilometers to the west, and prior to their settling there this village of “fewer than a hundred families” had no political status. Thus, Zhu and Zhang did not have to deal directly with established local authorities, which in all likelihood afforded them greater latitude in establishing their own power structure. It helped too that they were part of the military bureaucracy, which undercut the ability of civil officials to control them. Moreover, even though their transgressions [End Page 25] were hardly unique in the chaotic landscape of Yuan Jiangnan, it was the autonomous nature of the control exercised by Zhu and Zhang that set them apart.

That said, the realities of their wealth, power and prominence, the location of Taicang in the economic heart of the empire, and the fact that they were southern Chinese all underscore the truly remarkable nature of their accomplishment. Theirs was not an appanage and yet they were too important to have been ignored.

In arguing for decentralization, I am not suggesting that the Yuan imperial structure was a fiction. Offices from capital ministries to the counties were staffed, imperial policies were promulgated and generally enacted, and until the late Yuan the government effectively controlled its vast territory. However, as Yasuhiro Yokkaichi has shown, the actual exercise of power often operated through hierarchical patronage networks in which powerful individuals, often Chinese, answered to and were protected by high officials, who in turn answered to their imperial patrons.83

According to Yokkaichi, two such networks dominated the southeastern provinces in the late thirteenth century. One was led by the beforementioned Sangha, the Buddhist Uighur who was a dominant presence in Khubilai’s court from 1282 to 1291, and Shihab al-Din (Shafuding 沙福丁), a Muslim official who thanks to Sangha controlled commercial and naval affairs in Quanzhou, the primary port for maritime trade during the Yuan. Beneath them were several powerful generals, notably the Mongol general Möngtei (Mangwutai 忙兀歹), and merchants, among them Pu Shougeng in Quanzhou and Yang Fa, whose family developed Ganpu 澉浦 in the southeastern part of the Yangzi Delta into a thriving port.

The second network, which included at its highest levels the chief minister Oljei and, after 1299, Empress Bulukhan, was centered on Bayan 佰顏, the grandson of Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Dīn (Saidianchi Zhansiding 赛典赤· 赡思丁), a Muslim from Bukhara who gained fame through his humane governance of Yunnan in the 1270s. Bayan (to be distinguished from the Mongol general mentioned earlier), whose proper name was Nāsir al-Dīn Abū Bakr, steadily accumulated power through his administration of various southern provinces as well as his family’s involvement in maritime trade, until he became a Chief Councilor (zaixiang 宰相) in Dadu in the 1290s. Like [End Page 26] Sangha, Bayan was associated with Chinese generals from north China, in particular Dong Wenbing and his son Dong Shixuan. In addition, Zhang and Zhu developed strong ties with him in opposition to Shihab and his network.

It is unclear when their connection to the Sayyid Ajall family began. The Mongol generals Bayan and Manggudai who supported Zhang and Zhu’s acquisition of the maritime transport monopoly in 1282 and 1283 were not, to my knowledge, involved in either of the networks. It is likely that the connection was made by the Dongs, father and son, since they had helped bring Zhu and Zhang over to the Mongol side in 1275. In any event, by the mid-1280s Zhu and Zhang had ties to Bayan’s brothers, and in 1303 Bayan was accused of having been bribed by Zhu and Zhang, which resulted in the loss of his position at court. Zhu and Zhang’s opposition to the Shans al-Din network is evidenced by the fact that they lost their grain transport monopoly in 1286 to Sangha. Moreover, in 1289 Shihab was responsible for the transfer of a group of northern soldiers and their families to the south to work as sailors, thereby replacing those under the employ of Zhu and Zhang.84 The fall and execution of Sangha in 1291 allowed them to regain their maritime transport monopoly.85 Following their deaths in 1303 and the accompanying dismissal of Bayan, Shihab managed to have the grain transport monopoly transferred to two of his brothers.86 The Sayyid Ajall network can therefore be seen as an essential factor in the long-lasting success of the Zhu and Zhang enterprise.

It would be a mistake to interpret Yokkaichi’s networks rigidly. As noted earlier, when Sangha, who exercised virtually dictatorial authority over the central government from 1287 until his fall in 1291, wrested control of the maritime transport monopoly from Zhu and Zhang, two of their sons held leading positions in maritime offices. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that Sangha’s coercive and unpopular campaign to collect the tax arrears of government officials and commoners had an impact on Zhu and Zhang’s Taicang fiefdom.87 Large bribes to Sangha and others were a likely reason for their privileged treatment, but the two also had direct ties to Khubilai which may have been the most critical factor in surviving the Sangha years and in [End Page 27] their successes more generally. Zhu Qing’s dying self-identification as “the old minister of Shizong [Khubilai]” was not merely hyperbole. It is possible that a bond between the two was formed in 1281, when Qing declared in court that he could defeat the Song loyalist Cui Xun and then proceeded to do so. But whatever its origin, Khubilai’s refusal to move against Zhu and Zhang when charges were brought against them in 1294, and his posthumous edict defending them produced by Oljei in 1303, point to his support as the ultimate source of the protection the two men enjoyed.

We must also consider the role of Empress Bulukan. If, as Yokkaichi argues, she had been a supporter of Bayan, Zhu and Zhang and had been forced to act against them, this may help to explain the rehabilitation of Zhang Wenlong in 1305. It is true that the revocation of craftsmen/embroidery status for the Zhus and Zhangs, and the further promotion of Zheng Wenlong, occurred under Wuzong when the Shihab network was dominant.88 On the other hand, the return of family property was enacted in 1315 under Renzong, when the factional tables were again turned.

Before concluding, I would like to address the question of ethnic difference, an issue that was one of my initial points of inquiry, given the fact southern Chinese (nanren 南人) were the lowest class in the famous four-tier classification system of the Yuan. I have found no evidence that this posed a problem for Zhu and Zhang. As noted above, during their conquest of the Southern Song, the Mongols readily incorporated Song military officers into their ranks as the examples of Yang Fa, Wang Jiweng, and Luo Bi attest.89 Zhu and Zhang stood out by virtue of their background as pirates. If they had Song military status, their actual ties to the Song military were most likely tenuous. As we saw above, they and their five hundred ships were welcomed by the Yuan. But also, unlike their compatriots who joined the Yuan, they kept control of their ships and operated throughout the empire from their home territory in the Yangzi delta. The only reference that I have found referring to Zhu and Zhang as “southern Chinese” was in 1283 by Manggudai, the Governor (pingzhang) of Fujian. Manggudai’s reference was made in support of a proposal by Zhu [End Page 28] and Zhang that they handle the maritime grain transport, noting that they would use their own ships and men to do so.90 In this sense, their identity as southern Chinese was important, for only southern “locals” could provide such services.

It is also noteworthy that the post–1303 rehabilitation of the Zhus and Zhangs described above was modest. There was no return to the Taicang glory days, and in fact Zhu Xu and Zhang Tianlin, the most prominent of the two families’ survivors, succeeded in entering the local elite ranks of southern Chinese scholars. Set against Zhu Qing and Zhang Xuan’s origins in poverty and piracy, this was upward mobility, but it was a great comedown from what they had enjoyed for many years.


What are the key take aways from this article beyond the colorful story of Song pirates turned wealthy Yuan officials? I would offer three observations. First, their story sheds light on the nature of Yuan governance. In contrast to the early periods of most Chinese dynasties, during which the founding emperors created institutional structures over which they had direct authority and control, the Yuan tolerated a remarkable level of autonomy and misgovernment. While it is true that the Han and Ming created principalities and the Qing established feudatories, these were used either for imperial princes or for generals who had been instrumental in the dynastic founding, and successive emperors took steps to eradicate them.

The Yuan case was different. Zhu and Zhang were rewarded not for their roles in the conquest of the Song but for the service that they provided: the use of their ships for naval expeditions and for grain transport. Nor was there any dynastic plan to curb their growing power. Despite the high titles that they were given, there is no evidence that they were effectively incorporated into either the military or civil bureaucracies. Rather, for the various reasons that I have provided, they were given free rein to dominate the eastern delta region, even to the extent of printing money. That control was lawless, in the sense that it was not constrained by the Yuan legal system or its laws, and it openly flouted the Yuan system for managing maritime trade. [End Page 29]

Second, however unlawful their control, Zhu and Zhang were the founders of what is today the thriving city of Taicang, so it is not surprising that local historians have been more positive in their accounts of their exploits. The whitewashing of some of their activities in the Chongming County gazetteer of 1923, mentioned earlier, is one example. An article on the website of the Chongming County Museum identifies Zhu Qing as one of three local heroes (jie 傑). It describes his activities as a pirate as being directed against the wealthy to benefit the poor, details his development of port facilities in Taicang, and ends by stating that he committed suicide because of false accusations leveled against him.91

Third, the case of Zhu and Zhang requires a more expansive evaluation of the role of the sea in this empire created by nomadic warriors. Most scholarly attention by myself and others has focused upon Yuan naval ventures and especially their maritime trade. When one adds to this the maritime transport system, which involved enormous numbers of ships, men and money, the conclusion that the sea was uniquely important, at least during Khubilai’s reign with its naval expeditions, is inescapable. And precisely because the Mongols were not seamen, they had to rely on those who were. Thus, as this article has argued, it was two ex-pirate southern Chinese who for twenty years were among the central actors in the Mongols’ engagement with the sea. [End Page 30]

John Chaffee
Binghamton University


1. Ke Shaomin 柯劭忞, Xin Yuanshi 新元史 (Tianjin: Tuigengtang 退耕堂, 1922), 182/1a–5b. This will subsequently be cited as XYS. Ke was a leading historian-archivist in the late Qing\early Republican period; he was a major contributor to the Draft Qing History and oversaw the vast bibliographical project resulting in the Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典, which covers over 20,000 works. Thanks to Ke’s unrivaled access to the state archives, the New Yuan History filled many of the gaps left by the Yuan History, especially in its coverage of biographies, including that of Zhu and Zhang. For the Siku da cidian project, see Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1998), 270–72.

2. Hu Changru 胡長孺 (1249–1323), Guochao wenlei 國朝文類 (Sibu congkan ed.), 69/6a–10a. Hu’s treatment is embedded in a biography of one He Jingde, who provided important service to Zhang Xuan and who will be discussed below. Tao Zongyi 陶宗儀 (1329–1410) also provides a joint biography of Zhu and Zhang in Zhuogeng lu 輟耕錄 (1366) (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1936), 5, drawn virtually verbatim from Hu’s account.

3. These include Kong Keji 孔克齊, Zhizheng zhi ji 至正直記 (1365; Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987); Liu Xun 劉壎 (1240–1319), Yinju tongyi 隱居通議 (1799 ed.); Wang Feng 王逢 (fl. 1341–1368), Wuxi ji 梧溪集 (Zhongguo zhexue shu dianzi hua jihua digital edition); Xu Youren 許有壬 (1287–1364), Zhizheng ji 至正集 (Wenyuange siku quanshu, Jibu vol. 150; Taipei: Taiwan shangwu chubanshe, 1983); Zhanggu Zhenyi 長谷真逸 (Ming), Nongtian yu hua 農田餘話 (Baibu congkan ed.; Taipei: Yiwen yinshuguan, 1965); Zhu Guozhen 朱國禎 (1558–1632), Yongchuang xiaopin 湧幢小品 (Shanghai: Xinwenhua shushe, 1935); and Zhou Mi 周密 (1232–1298), Guixin zashi xuji 癸辛雜識續集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1988).

4. Wang Qingmu 王清穆, compiler, Chongming xianzhi 崇明縣志 (1924; Taipei: Chengwen chubanshe, 1975), 12/2a–b.

5. XYS 182/1a.

6. Hu, Guochao wenlei, 69; Tao, Zhuogeng lu, 5.85–86; Wang, Chongming xianzhi 12/2a.

7. XYS 182.

8. Zhu, Yongchuang xiaopin, 2.97–98.

9. XYS 182/1b.

10. Zhu, Yongchuan xiaopin 14. According to Zhu, years later when Zhu and Zhang were high officials, they visited Shen to pay their respects, calling him “our father.”

11. Zhu, Yongchuan xiaopin 14. Zhu cites the Lu Wengu ji 陸文裕集 by Lu Shen 陸深 of the Ming as the source of this story.

12. 「不圖今日得見貴人.」清母及諸婦爭笑之. XYS 182/1b.

13. Hu, Guochao wenlei, 69; Tao, Zhuogeng lu, 5.5–6; XYS 182/4b. Jieshi Mountain, which is located near the Bohai Sea coast west of Tianjin, could have been visited by Zhu and his men. However, the mention of Yan Mountain is curious, for it is to the north of Beijing.

14. Wang Chongming xianzhi, 12/12a.

15. Hu, Guochao wenlei, 69; Tao, Zhuogeng lu, 5.85–86.

16. Song Lian 宋濂, Yuan shi 元史 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1976), 156.3672. This will hereafter be cited as YS.

17. For Pu and his remarkable life, see John Chaffee, “Pu Shougeng Reconsidered: Pu, His Family, and their Role in the Maritime Trade of Quanzhou,” in Robert J. Antony and Angela Schottenhammer, eds., Beyond the Silk Roads: New Discourses on China’s Role in East Asian Maritime History (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017), 63–76. Yang, Wang and Luo all went on to successful official careers, and both Luo and Yang were involved with maritime transport. As we will see below, Yang and his family were rivals to Zhu and Zhang, and took over control of maritime transport after their fall in 1303. For Luo’s biography, see Chen Gaohua 陈高华, “Yuandai de hanghai shijia Ganpu Yangshi—Jian shuo Yuandai qita hanghai jiazu” 元代的航 海世家澉浦杨氏⸺兼说元代其他航海家族, Haijiaoshi yanjiu 海交史研究, No. 1 (1995): 4–18; and YS 166.3894–95.

18. XYS 182/2a.

19. 但率壯士二人, 及朱虎在此, 不煩兵力; 我朱相公也, 皇帝命我招崔都統. 從我 者. 共取富貴. XYS 182/2a–b. There is no reference to this episode in the Yuan History.

20. Jung-Pang Lo, “The Controversy over Grain Conveyance during the Reign of Qubilai Qaqan, 1260–1294,” The Far Eastern Quarterly, vol. 13, no.3 (May, 1954), 268, citing Da Yuan haiyun ji, 1:1.

21. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 268, 270–74. Fujino Akira 藤野彪, “Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite” 朱清・張瑄について. Ehime Daigaku Rekishigaku Kiyō 愛媛大学歴史学 紀要 3 (1954), 4, cites the passage about this conference as coming from Da Yuan haiyunji, shang 大元海運記, 上.

22. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 277. That year they shipped 290,500 piculs, which meant that they were charging transport fees of close to one and a half million taels.

23. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 278–79.

24. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 279.

25. These are covered in detail by Lo Jung-pang, China as a Sea Power, 1127–1368: A Preliminary Survey of the Maritime Expansion and Naval Exploits of the Chinese People During the Southern Song and Yuan Periods (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press 2012).

26. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 281–82; XYS 182/2b.

27. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 282; XYS 182/5a.

28. XYS 182/3a.

29. Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 189–90.

30. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 284.

31. XYS 182/3a–b.

32. Hu, Guochao wenlei, 69. Also Tao, Zhuogeng lu, 5.85–86.

33. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 268.

34. In addition to the per picul charge that the government paid to Zhu and Zhang, it also provided four bushels of grain and exemption from taxation for the families of the sailors. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 276.

35. Fujino, “Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite,” 9; Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 277.

36. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 277.

37. Zhanggu Zhenyi, Nongtian yu hua, xia/1b.

38. 朱張二家, 厥後在朝, 有其豪橫罔上. 結連外番有無將之心. Zhanggu Zhenyi, Nongtian yu hua, xia/1b.

39. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 284. Lo does not provide a source for this.

40. XYS 182/4a–b.

41. Chongming xian zhi 12/2b (p. 1422).

42. Fujino, “Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite,” 8. He does not cite his source.

43. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 285.

44. Xu, Zhizheng ji, 52. Cited by Fujino, “Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite,” 11–12. Xu writes that the families’ “power shook those within and without” (hao zhen zhongwai 豪震中外). It is possible that qinu 妻奴, translated above as “three slaves,” refers to three concubines.

45. XYS 182/3b. This allegation is repeated in Chongming xian zhi 12/2b (p. 1422), though without it being ascribed to Zhang Xuan specifically.

46. Zhanggu Zhenyi, Nongtian yuhua, xia/1b. Cited by Fujino, “Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite,” 8.

47. Hu Changru, Guochao wenlei, 69.

48. Liu Xun, Yinju tongyi, 30.

49. Fabrizio Pregadio, The Encyclopedia of Taoism (London: Routledge, 2008), 1190, 1222. In an essay which precedes that concerning Zhu Qing in the Yinju tongji, Liu Xun describes the importance of the Celestial Masters under Lizong, and the role of Zhang Yucai (though identified only as the thirty-eighth master) in alleviating a flood (Yinju tongji, 30). See Edward L. Davis, Society and the Supernatural in Song China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001), 37–41, on the rise to prominence of the Celestial Masters sect in the late Southern Song.

50. Liu Xun, Yinju tongyi, 30.

51. This section owes much to Uematsu Tadashi 植松正, “Gendai Kōnan no gōmin Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite sono chūsatsu to zaisan kambotsu wo megutte” 元代江南の豪民朱清張 瑄についてその誅殺と財官沒をめぐって, Tōyōshi kenkyū 東洋史研究 27/3 (1968): 292–317.

52. 朱張有大勲勞, 朕寄股肱卿, 其卒保䕶之. Wang Feng 王逢, Wuxi ji 梧溪集 4, “Zhang Xiaozi” 張孝子.

53. YS 18, 390 (1295/1/甲戌).

54. YS 20, 439 (1303/1/乙卯)

55. YS 20, 439 (1302/1/丁未).

56. YS 20, 447 (1303/1/乙卯).

57. Wang, Wixi ji 4, “Zhang Xiaozi.”

58. According to the biography of Oljei (Wanze 完澤) in the Yuan History (YS 130.3173–74), he was highly valued by Chengzong and although he died in 1303, he did so honorably.

59. XYS 182/4a.

60. YS 21.452 (1303/intercalary 5/癸未).

61. YS 21.450 (1303/4/辛未).

62. Wang, Wuxi ji 4, “Zhang Xiaozi.”

63. XYS 182/3b; Zhu, Yongchuan xiaopin 14.

64. 我世祖舊臣, 寵渥逾眾, 豈從叛逆, 不過新進宰相圖我家貲, 欲以危法中我耳. XYS 182/3b.

65. YS, 21.450 (1303/3/丑朔).

66. Hsiao Ch’i-ch’ing, “Mid-Yuan Politics,” The Cambridge History of China: Volume 6 Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 499. See also YS 21, 449, 1303/3/乙未 and Uematsu Tadashi, “Gendai Kōnan no gōmin Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite,” 50–51.

67. YS 21, 459, 1304/5/辛酉.

68. Uematsu, 52–53; Hsiao, “Mid-Yuan Politics,” 504.

69. Yokkaichi Yasuhiro, “The Structure of Political Power and the Nanhai Trade: From the Perspective of Local Elites in Zhejiang in the Yuan Period” (paper presented to the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies, San Francisco, 2006), 16–17. The source for his argument is an account in Rashid al-Din’s Tārīkh-e Vassāf.

70. Wang, Wuxi ji 4, “Zhang Xiaozi.” Zhang Tianlin was also known as Zhang Xiaozi 孝子.

71. Zhu Guozhen, in Yongchuan xiaopin 4, states that Zhang Wenlong and Zhu Hu were both given positions in sea transport. As I argue above, it seems more likely that Zhu Hu was executed in 1303.

72. This paragraph draws on both XYS 182/4a and Wang, Wuxi ji 4, “Zhang Xiaozi,” which are in agreement on all essential details.

73. Zhu, Yongchuan xiaopin 4; XYS 182/4b.

74. XYS 182/4a; Wang, Wuxiji 4, “Zhang Xiaozi.”

75. 太倉風水, 賴朱氏山林茂盛, 以致殷富. Zhu, Yongchuang xiaopin 2, 96–97.

76. YS, 170.4004.

77. Hsiao, “Mid-Yuan Politics,” 501.

78. Elizabeth Endicott West, “The Yuan Government and Society,” in The Cambridge History of China: Volume 6 Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 588.

79. Hsiao, “Mid-Yuan Politics,” 491.

80. Endicott West, “The Yuan Government and Society,” 588.

81. Charles O. Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 63.

82. Paul Jakov Smith, “Impressions of the Song-Yuan-Ming Transition: The Evidence from Biji Memoirs,” in Paul Jakov Smith and Richard von Glahn, The Song-Yuan-Ming Transition in Chinese History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003), 90–91. The quotation about butchers, etc., is by Hu Zhiyu 胡祇遹 (1227–1295).

83. See especially Yokkaichi Yasuhiro, “The Structure of Political Power and the Nanhai Trade.”

84. Yokkaichi, “Structure of Political Power,” 8, citing YS 15, 322 (1289/4/丁丑).

85. Shihab was spared punishment at the time of Sangha’s fall by the argument made on his behalf that punishing him would harm the valuable maritime trade.

86. Lo, “Controversy over Grain Conveyance,” 285.

87. Uematsu Tadashi, “The Control of Chiang-nan in the Early Yuan,” Acta Asiatica 45 (1983), 55–57.

88. In the struggle to determine the successor to Chengzong, Empress Bulukhan’s attempts to have a cousin to Temur (Chengzong) named failed. She was subsequently arrested and executed.

89. Wang and Yang switched to the Yuan side during the Mongol conquest of Fuzhou and Quanzhou respectfully. Earlier, Luo had followed his commander in deserting the Song army and joining the Yuan when serving in Sichuan. It should be noted that some of the most prominent Chinese generals serving the Yuan cause, most notably Dong Wenbing, were from north China.

90. Lo, “The Controversy Over Grain Conveyance,” 274. Fujino, “Shu Sei, Chō Sen ni tsuite,” 4, cites the passage described here from Da Yuan haiyunji, shang 大元海運記, 上.

91. “‘Haiyun san jie’ xiangyu hai neiwai” “海运三杰” 享誉海内外, Chongming xian bo wuguan 崇明縣博物館, https://www.baike.com/wikiid/6240625358051075860?view_id=bpbg0lb1x3400. The other two heroes were Shen Tingyang 沈廷揚 (1594–1647), an official engaged in maritime grain transport to Beijing in the late Ming and subsequently an important Ming loyalist, and Chen Ganqing 陳干青 (1891–1953), a leader in naval affairs in the Republican era. Zhang Xuan is not mentioned presumably because he was not a Chongming native.


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