Some random mythbustings — Wokou Edition

Many of the enemies of Ming Dynasty are equally as misunderstood as the Chinese themselves. Wokou (倭寇), or Japanese pirates, were a particularly misunderstood bunch.

Myth 1. Hai Jin (海禁, lit. 'Sea ban') or maritime trade prohibition constituted the Wokou phenomenon.
Wako pillage and rape
Wokou engaging in rape and pillage, from 'Tai Ping Kang Wo Tu (《太平抗倭圖》)'.
"Those that suggest to open maritime trade in order to pacify the turmoil have no regard for consequences at all, and (they) have no idea that this chaos is caused by lawlessness instead of stringent law. I am afraid that if the trade is opened, entire Zhejiang will be in dire danger."
— Wan Biao (萬表), protesting the ridiculous notion of opening trade to pacify Wokou, in his book Hai Kou Yi (《海寇議》).

Hai Jin was a REACTION to the exacerbating Wokou problem, not the cause of it. Quite the contrary, the lax enforcement of Hai Jin turned China's coasts into a breeding ground for smugglers and pirates. When Zhu Wan (朱紈) stepped in and set things straight, he actually succeeded in curbing the piracy. Unfortunately, Zhu Wan was imprisoned for his effort, and later committed suicide in prison. The abolishment of Hai Jin after his death caused the Wokou problem to drastically turn for the worse.

In short, lawlessness breeds crime, while strict law, as well as effective enforcement of the law, deter it.

Myth 2. Poor Chinese coastal inhabitants were forced into piracy by oppressive Hai Jin policy.
Japanese pirates refugees
Refugees trying to escape Wokou, from 'Kang WoTu Juan (《抗倭圖卷》)'.
Even during the period when Hai Jin policy was rigorously enforced, Ming court did not attempt to prevent fishermen from going out to the sea (not until Wokou disguised as fishermen started to show up anyway), nor did they ban coastal trade. As such, the livelihoods of poorer coastal inhabitants were little affected by the policy. On the other hand, the turmoil caused by Wokou and Chinese pirates alike affected these people deeply.

While many Chinese coastal inhabitants did end up joining the Wokou, they did not actively trying to do so. Instead they were either captured and forced to join at sword point, or deprived of all choices as their livelihoods were caught up in the conflict and destroyed.

On the other hand Chinese that activelly collaborated with Wokou were powerful sea traders that accumulated their wealth and influence through illegal means such as smuggling, piracy and slavery (do note that they already conspired with Wokou well before Zhu Wan showed up). Consequently, they were the one that was most affected by Hai Jin. These outlaws were so powerful and influential that even after their profit plummeted following the Hai Jin, they were still able to conspire with corrupt officials within Ming court to imprison Zhu Wan and forcibly lift the prohibition.

Myth 3. Wokou were primarily swordsmen.
Wokou and Chinese pikemen
Wokou (right) engaging in pike fencing with Ming troops (left) atop boats, from 'Wakō-zukan (《倭寇図巻》)'.
“Government troops use only long shields and short sabres, while Wokou use long spears and heavy arrows.”
— Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光), in his military treatise Lian Bing Shi Ji (《練兵實紀》).

While many Wokou were undoubtedly terrifying swordsmen, they, like their counterpart in Japan, relied on spears and bows as their primary weapons. As mass production of matchlock gun in Japan just began to take off, Wokou only had limited access to this advanced firearm.

Myth 4. Five hundred thousand Tanegashima/Japan manufactured more matchlock guns than entire Europe combined.
Japanese arquebusiers during the Battle of Nagashino, from 'Nagashino kassenzu byōbu (《長篠合戦図屏風》)'.
This estimate is way overblown, and completely disregard how expensive, labour intensive and time consuming to manufacture even a single gun barrel. Even during the famous Battle of Nagashino (長篠の戦い) in 1575, THIRTY-TWO YEARS after the introduction of matchlock firearm to Japan, the combined force of Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), both fervent adopters of matchlock firearm, could amass no more than three thousand arquebusiers. At best, Japan had more matchlock guns than a single European nation, not entire Europe.

(As a side note, Oda Nobunaga did not actually invent the three rank volley fire tactic, nor did he use it in Battle of Nagashino. The myth stem from Edo period historical fictions and romances, and should not be taken as fact.)

Gunmaking was actually the least of Japan's concern. Japan did not produce saltpetre (a major ingredient of black powder) domestically, and had to rely on Portuguese traders, China (through illicit trade), Siam and India for imports. As high demand drove the price up, they even resorted to slave trading (selling women captured from rival daimyō to the Europeans) in order to cover the expense. Besides, Japan could not produce enough lead to meet the demand of their firearms, so they also had to import lead from Portuguese traders to cast bullets. The enormous cost of both gunpowder and ammunition imposed a severe constraint on Japan's ability to field arquebusier in large numbers, total number of guns produced, as well as the calibre of their guns. It was also one of the factors that prevented the Japanese from adopting heavy artillery on a large scale.

In fact, Japan actually produced much less matchlock guns than Ming China, which had a twenty year head start in matchlock gunmaking, much larger manufacturing base, procured all raw materials domestically, and produced the same gun many times cheaper.

Myth 5. Japanese Yumi is weaker/has lower draw weight than English longbow (or other bows).
Legendary Samurai Archer
Minamoto no Tametomo (源為朝), a legendary Japanese archer, said to be able to pull a Gonin-bari. From ' Honcho buyu kagami (《本朝武優鏡》)' by famous Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳).
"The (Japanese) bow is seven to eight chi in length, with four to five chi long arrow. Its iron arrowhead is like a flying (swallow) tail, (while its) bamboo arrowhead is like a long spear. Shot across the river from outside the city, (the arrows) hit the houses in the city, pierced through roof tiles and buried into the rafters."
— Cai Jiu De (採九德), in his book Wo Bian Shi Lue (《倭變事略》).

"More importantly, the arrows of the Japanese and nomads are heavy, and their bows powerful. (Their bows) do not shoot far, but they never shoot hastily, and every shot will find its mark. Those hit (by the arrow) will certainly die, thus people are afraid (of their bows and arrows)."
— Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光), in his military treatise Lian Bing Shi Ji (《練兵實紀》).

A warbow can be made as strong as it needs to be, limited only by the strength and training of its wielder. Given similar draw weight, a Japanese bow will outperform a yew bow handily due to its laminated construction, recurve design and significantly longer draw length (which can be as long as 40 inches!).

It is evidently clear that Japanese bow, with its large size and heavy limbs, is optimised towards launching heavy, armour piercing arrows with devastating power, but with slower arrow speed and relatively short range. True to this regard, Japanese arrows are some of the longest and heaviest in the world. These heavy arrows in turn require bows of very high draw weight in order to achieve optimum performance.

Tōshiya Japanese long range archery
Ukiyo-e painting depicting a Tōshiya contest. The contester (lower right) at the southern end of the veranda shoots at a curtain erected at the northern end of the veranda. Note that he must shoot from sitting position and cannot shoot in arc, otherwise the arrow will hit the ceiling before it reaches its target. From 'Uki-e Wakoku Keiseki Kyōto Sanjūsangen-dō no Zu (《浮繪和國景跡京都三拾三軒堂之図》)' by Toyoharu Utagawa (哥川豊春).
Nevertheless, one should be reminded that Japanese bow is only considered short ranged in relative to range-optimised bows of neighbouring cultures such as Korean bow. It can still propel an arrow to a range of 135 yards without needing to arc the shot, as was done in historical tōshiya (通し矢) archery contest (modern event based on the historical Tōshiya halves that range). With proper flight arrow, Japanese bow had been demonstrated to be able to shoot as far as 421.6 yards (which is impressive for such a large bow, but still no match for the likes of Turkish bow). Such extreme range was never considered practical on the battlefield, however.

110lbs draw weight Japanese Yumi Warbow
A 50kg (or 110lbs, Japanese prefer to use kilograms to measure draw weight) pull Japanese bow made by none other than master bowmaker Shibata Kanjuro (柴田勘十郎). (Source: 御弓師 柴田勘十郎のブログ)
Contrary to popular misconception, Japanese warbow was primarily used as foot bow like its European counterpart. Japanese were never good horsemen to begin with, while early samurai were horse archers, they only comprised a tiny portion of their army. After the Mongol invasions of Japan, even samurai abandoned horse archery in favour of foot archery and close combat.

Thus, compared to English longbowmen that consisted of mostly peasant levies and some noble's household retainers, samurai (foot) archers had access to equipment of the highest quality, livelong rigorous training in archery, frequent recreational bowhunting to hone their skill, and most probably better standard of living and nutrition. Since samurai had to prepare their own equipment, it stands to no reason that samurai archers were unable to, or intentionally chose to not, use the best warbows with the highest practical draw weight they could afford.

Three men trying to string a Japanese bow, from 'Obusuma Saburō Emaki (《男衾三郎絵巻》)'.
Japanese Kyudo Yumi Stringing
Demonstration of four-person method of stringing a Japanese bow. (Source: ドイツに暮らす
Ming period Chinese records frequently mention the terrifying power of Japanese bows and arrows, having experienced its effectiveness first-hand through the Wokou. Japanese sources in turn mention exceptionally powerful warbows such as sannin-bari (三人張り), yonnin-bari (四人張り) and gonin-bari (五人張り), bows that require three, four and five person just to string it, respectively. Note that due to massive size and asymmetrical shape of Japanese bow, its stringing method is different from most other bows.

Modern estimates put the draw weight of Sannin-bari in the range between 80 pounds and 140 pounds.

As a side note, correct name for Japanese bow is wakyū (わきゅう or 和弓, Japanese bow). Yumi (ゆみ or 弓) just means bow in general.

Myth 6: Lang Xian (狼筅) was developed to specifically counter Japanese swords.
Real Multiple Tip Bamboo Spear
What an actual Lang Xian ought to be: a long bamboo with bush so thick that it completely blocks the vision of anyone standing at the wrong end of the weapon. (Source: 黃帝设局)
“The Lang Xian has thirteen layers of branches that can defend against arrows, defend against horses, defend against rolling sabres, and defend against long spears. (It is) the best of weapons. However (it is) heavy and cannot kill, which is its disadvantage.”
— Wu Shu (吴殳), in his martial arts treatise Shou Bi Lu (《手臂錄》).

Lang Xian was already in use for years before Wokou became a serious threat. It was first used by rebels from Zhejiang against Ming troops in mid-fifteenth century.

While Lang Xian was an effective counter to Japanese swords, it wasn't specifically designed for this role. In fact, it was effective against pretty much every other weapons by virtue of being a defensive weapon.


  1. Just curious, the Wokou are pirates and pirates obviously like their booty. What were the main illegal goods that the Wokou and smugglers were after during this period and why did the Ming see it fit to restrict trading of those goods?

    1. Good day JZBai.

      Wokou would generally take anything they could lay their hands on, but their main target was obviously money. Other than money, their mostly went after silk and silk product. Before Zhu Wan strengthen the Haijin, these smugglers also tax (read: racketeering/extort protection money)from other merchant ships.

      Slavetaking was another motivation for the Wokou. They captured male slaves to swell their ranks, and female slaves to process silk into whatever silk product they desired as well as sex slaves. They also kidnap wealthy people for ransom. Many Chinese slaves eventually end up in Japan and forced to work the farmlands in terrible living condition, and Ming had send several diplomatic protect to Japan in order to get these people back to China.

      The Ming government wanted these trading activities to be conducted in a lawful, peaceful and controllable manner, which was (generally) through their tributary system. Granted that system was pretty outdated and incovenient, but it was still better than outright lawlessness.

    2. Oh, Ming government saw fit to restrict trading BECAUSE there was a piracy problem.

  2. Very informative but I got to ask why didn't the wokou wear pants also why go barefoot every depiction I see of them are like that doesn't make any sense

    1. @Kevin Gonzalez

      They were pirates (i.e. seaborne), and ships got wet and slippery all the time. Since it is hard to move around with the pants drenched in water, they just stripped it off.

      Chinese troops did the same actually, although they only removed footwears.