The best books on Chinese pirates

The Books I Picked & Why

History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea from 1807-1810

By Yuen Yung Lun, Charles Friedrich Neumann

History of the Pirates Who Infested the China Sea from 1807-1810

Why this book?

The original chronicle of the massive pirate outbreak along the China coast in the early 19th century. Written by a Chinese amateur historian, he makes his patriotic agenda clear on every page: to boost the maligned reputation of China’s imperial navy in allegedly quashing the pirates (by twisting the historical truth, to put it mildly). The main characters and incidents are based on fact, while he fills in the gaps with private conversations and meetings that no one could have been privy to. Translated into English by a German missionary in 1835, this mix of fact and speculation is the ur-document on which every western account of these pirates is based. Newer editions include an eyewitness narrative by a British sailor who spent six months as a captive of the pirates. Essential and entertaining reading which should be taken with large pinches of (pilfered) salt.


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Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810

By Dian Murray

Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810

Why this book?

Dian Murray spent ten years in Taiwan and mainland China in the 1970s and 1980s doing groundbreaking research into the early 19th century pirates, which became her PhD dissertation, later expanded into this book. This is the first attempt in any language to put together the full story of these pirates. Being an academic, her interest was less on the wider narrative and personalities, and more on various issues of historical development, sociology, weaponry, and more. By far the most important book for anyone researching these pirates. Sadly out of print.


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Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

By Robert J. Antony

Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China

Why this book?

Formerly a professor of History at the University of Macau, Robert Antony has made it his life’s work to study piracy along the China coast. Among his several books on the topic, this one digs deepest into the development of piracy in the early 19th century, citing weather, economic, and political conditions, told in a highly readable narrative style. Among the entertaining details, he tracks the average annual going rates for ransom and stolen goods. He writes in an agreeable, relaxed manner, with a number of incidents told as edge-of-your-seat thrillers. The title itself was a common term of invective to describe Chinese pirates. An essential read for students of piracy.


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I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

By Aleko E. Lilius

I Sailed with Chinese Pirates

Why this book?

Lilius, a Finnish-Russian journalist and adventurer, describes his first-hand account of sailing around the Pearl River Delta in the 1920s with the female pirate chieftain Lai Choi-san. It’s a swashbuckling page-turner, featuring cutthroats, cannons, and opium dens. It’s a wonder he survived unscathed. Yet even though he includes photos, there is reason to believe that he made up the whole thing, since there are no other records of Lai Choi-san. Worth reading anyway, for the details about ships, boat people culture, and coastal life in the late 1920s, were properly researched and all ring true. First published in 1930, it was reissued in 2009.


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A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates: In the Chinese Seas

By Fanny Loviot, Alex Struik, Amelia B. Edwards

A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates: In the Chinese Seas

Why this book?

In 1852 a young French woman set out on a round-the-world tour, stopping in Brazil and California before sailing to the young British colony of Hong Kong. Her return vessel to San Francisco was damaged in a typhoon, then hijacked by pirates. She chronicles in effervescent detail her treatment by the pirates, both callous and kind, offering a rare glimpse of Chinese pirate life. The original French edition was a big hit and soon translated into other languages. In the spirit of other 19th century travelogues, this book transports the reader in exquisite detail to many colorful and exotic far-off places, but the highlight is her engaging account of the terrors and discoveries of her captivity on the South China Sea. For the serious researcher, it offers a wealth of rare details of shipboard and captive life.


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