bandits". Pinyin Wo1-kou4
, Wade-Giles Wo-k'ou
, Gwoyeu Romatzyh Uokow
. Name for loose bands of pirate
s who attacked the east and later the southeast coasts of China
in the mid-16th century (Ming dynasty
). The provinces of Jiangxi
, and Fujian
were the most affected.
The earlier attacks are known to have been carried out by pirates based in Japan. There survive contemporary illustrations of a two-handed sword technique used by the Wokou that is clearly related to Japanese kendo. Their leaders, however, were often Chinese (such as the pirate kings Li Guangtou (Li3 Guang1-tou2,), executed in 1549, and Wang Zhi (Wang2 Zhi2), executed in 1559. Some scholars have speculated that the southeastern attacks may have been the work of Portuguese, pretending to be Japanese Wokou in order to mislead the Ming's attempts to deal with the problem administratively in Japan.
But it is probably wrong to assign any single ethnicity to the Wokou. Contemporary Chinese and Portuguese records show that there were many bands of smugglers active off the Chinese coast in the decades 1540-1570, and that their nationalities included Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese, at the least. However, the use of the derogatory name Wo "dwarf" by the Chinese may have been meant to represent the sound of Japanese Wa, an ancient ethnonym for the ancestors of the Japanese people. The term Wokou is still occasionally heard in pejorative reference to modern Japanese.
The Wokou were active at a time when the Ming government had severely restricted foreign trade, the glories of Zheng He's day having been long forgotten. Although the great general Qi Jiguang is credited with suppressing them in 1567, that also happens to be the same year the Ming permitted the reopening of foreign trade. Perhaps the Wokou were merely a tool used by the Japanese and Portuguese merchants to force China to relax its harsh trade restrictions.