"Righteous Yang”: Pirate, Rebel, and Hero on the Sino-Vietnamese Water Frontier, 1644-1684

Robert J. Antony, University of Macau
Contemporary depiction of the hero Yang Yandi. From the author’s collection.
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This article is a case study of a little-known but important historical figure, known variously as Yang Yandi (Dương Ngạn Địch), Yang Er, and, more colloquially, “Righteous Yang” (Yang Yi), who lived during the turbulent Ming-Qing transition (1644–1684). In that age of anarchy, it was easy for charismatic individuals like Yang to possess multiple identities and affiliations—in Yang’s case, pirate, rebel, and hero. Based on written historical documents and historical fieldwork, this article traces Yang’s life in the chaotic water frontier of the Gulf of Tonkin and argues that he was but one in a long line of pirates and dissidents who operated in this region.

Keywords: Yang Yandi, Dương Ngạn Địch, Gulf of Tonkin, water frontier, piracy, Vietnam, South China


Readers may also be interested in Professor Xing Hang's December 2013 article titled, "The Contradictions of Legacy: Reimagining the Zheng Family in the People’s Republic of China" (Late Imperial China 34 [2]: 1-27), available through Project Muse (muse.jhu.edu/journals/late_imperial_china/v034/34.2.hang.pdf).
This is a highly fascinating and insightful narrative. By examining the life and image of the pirate Yang Yandi, Antony makes several important contributions, namely, the fluidity of identity in a liminal land and sea frontier, the appropriation of historical characters to serve different interpretations, and the expansion of the Ming-Qing transition into a transnational, East Asian-wide phenomenon. After reading it, I am left with many questions on my mind that I will venture to ask here. Yang came from a highly complex and contested boundary zone, separating provinces (Guangdong and Guangxi), states (Ming/Qing vs. Trinh/Nguyen Vietnam), and geography (land and sea). I wonder how he, like the transfrontiersmen that Professor Wakeman (whom Antony cites) describes in the case of Manchuria, manipulate and cross these boundaries? Yang's shifting image through time is also interesting. He is disparaged as a pirate, praised as a righteous hero, and remembered as a Ming loyalist. There seems to be a discrepancy across time and space. Evidently, how the Qing viewed him differed from the Republic and PRC, and between central narratives and local ones. I am curious as to how they interacted and negotiated with one another. Of course, the historiography of these ethnic Chinese exiles and the Minh Huong communities from the Vietnamese perspective will also be enlightening, especially given the troubled past between the two countries. Vietnam played an important part of the Ming-Qing transition. Highlighting its role, along with Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, can piece together the profound regional impact that the Manchu takeover had on subsequent events.
Many thanks to Prof. Hang Xing for his comments and questions. A brief response follows: How did Yang Yandi manipulate and cross the multiple boundaries? First, it would have been relatively easy because there were no real borders, at least not how we view borders today. No passports and checkpoints. This water frontier was, excuse the pun, fluid. It still is today, and today there is a lot of border crossing and clandestine trade in this area. In this area nationality and ethnicity were also fluid and changing. Yang and others like him could easily change or wear many hats to fit their own purposes. If he had trouble in Longmen he could slip away to Hải Nha (where he received help from the local strongman, much to the annoyance of Chinese officials). The question of how Yang Yandi was viewed over time and space is an interesting one. Certainly images of Yang changed over time. It also depended on who we talk about: the Qing saw him as a traitor and rebel (bad guy) yet at the same time (but this is hard to prove) local people saw him as a hero (good guy). I have to admit that at this stage of my research I am not sure how all the different people interacted and negotiated with one another, with Yang and with his image. And yes, I agree that Vietnam played an important role in the Ming-Qing transition, a role that has to date not been fully explored or appreciated by scholars.