Before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea and the East and South China Seas were stalked by local pirates. But by the end of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese stranglehold on the trade in the Sea of Japan. The British Buccaneers then moved into the warmer waters of the Pacific Rim, picking out European and native shipping. By the 1800's, as the Chinese Qing Dynasty went into decline, the demands of European traders become increasingly harsh. The Chinese pirates, however, had grown in strength and number.

The eastern pirates used converted junks, fitted out with guns and rowing boats (for boarding and coastal raids. The largest three-mast junks were almost 600 tons. Measuring 100ft (30m) by 20ft (6m), they were capable of carrying 400 men and 30 cannons. Large oars helped the ship maneuver in light winds and in in tight corners, whereas a rudder, which could be raised or lowered using ropes, was used for steering. The captain traditionally lived on board along with their families. The masts and sails were often stiffened with bamboo battens.

The pirates took full advantage of the weapons imported from Europe such as muskets and cannons, and by the 18th century, they had begun the manufacturing of these weapons themselves, often adapting them, producing small, swiveling cannons fitted on the bows of their boats. Eastern pirates also used a variety of local weaponry, such as carved swords, spears, axes, knives and blowpipes, a long bamboo tube used to fire a single poisoned dart over short distances. The Dao sword was often decorated with human hair.

The cruelty of the eastern pirates toward their prisoners was renowned as being equal to any Buccaneer. Captives were kept in cramped conditions, fed on rice, rats and caterpillars. There are even reports of men having their feet nailed to the deck before being beaten to death, cut up and eaten.

Ching Chihlung, a Chinese Christian pirate, also known as Gaspar Nicholas, was so powerful that he was second only to the emperor Ming. For 20 years, his fleet consisting of 1000 junks and a private army of African and Dutch soldiers, enabled him to rule the coast between Guangzhou (Canton) and the Yangtze River like a king. Ambushed in 1646, he was taken prisoner and executed in 1661. Power passed to his son, Koxinga, but his death in 1662 meant that the pirate kingdom swiftly broke up.

The fleet of Ching Yih was so powerful it could afford to ignore the imperial Qing navy. Controlling the area around Gaungzhou, Ching Yih sold passes to merchants. Unless they surrendered, ships without a pass had their ships were sank and their crews butchered. When he died in 1807, he left command of his 1800 ships to his wife Ching Shih, who it is reported once offered for each severed head brought back to her. The fleet eventually collapsed in 1810, and, with the foundation of European bases at Singapore in 1819 and Hong Kong in 1841, the age of piracy drew to a close.