23 June 2016

Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou (嘉靖大倭寇) — Part 1

Section of the scroll painting 'Wakō-zukan (《倭寇図巻》)' currently kept at the University of Tokyo, depicting a Wokou raid. 
Jia Jing Da Wo Kou (嘉靖大倭寇, lit. 'Great Japanese Pirates of Jiajing period') is a term that can be used to refer to both a specific period (roughly from 1546 to 1567 A.D.) when Wokou raids on Chinese soil reached all time high, and the pirates that were active during said period.

"Japanese" Pirates?
"About three-tenths are real Japanese, seven-tenths are followers."
— Ming Shi (《明史》, History of Ming)

Despite being called "Japanese pirates", Jia Jing Da Wo Kou was in fact multinational/extranational in nature and consisted of predominantly Chinese. Nevertheless, nationality is only one piece of a much bigger picture, and it will be very foolish and ignorant to dismiss heavy Japanese involvement in Jia Jing Da Wo Kou based on numbers alone.

The fact that most Chinese merchant-smugglers lacked any sort of military experience made battle-hardened Japanese warriors a welcome addition to Wokou ranks—and there was certainly no lack of experienced Japanese warriors due to the still ongoing Sengoku Jidai (戦国時代). Japanese members served as the military wing of Wokou bands and did most of the fighting and pillaging, while their Chinese collaborators provided them with intelligence and non-combat workforce. Wokou "armies", whenever they were encountered, often displayed strong Japanese military characteristics. The presence of equipment and items meant for high-ranking samurai, for example good quality Japanese armours, ornate helmets with weird (from a Chinese perspective) decorations, war fans, conch horns, and kage-ryū (影流 or 陰流) swordsmanship manual, all point to the fact that there were many Japanese warriors of high social standing among the Wokou, instead of just vagabonds and rōnin as commonly believed.

In fact, after most prominent Chinese Wokou leaders such as Wang Zhi (汪直) and Xu Hai (徐海) were neutralised, Wokou raids immediately took a turn for the worse. During the last years of Jiajing Emperor's reign (when Wokou activities reached its peak), Japanese Wokou increased in number and became the majority again.

"Wokou are advantageous in sharp swords, sharp arrows and arquebuses. Now what can we use to counter them?"
— Ling Xi Yuan (林希元)

Japanese weapons had the reputations of being well-crafted and deadly, and were rightly feared. Chinese people especially feared Japanese swords, particularly the ōdachi (大太刀). Many Wokou were notorious dual-wielders, using either two ōdachi (presumably for intimidation purpose) or ōdachi paired with a short Japanese sword, possibly kodachi (小太刀) or wakizashi (脇差). Normal-sized Japanese swords were rarely seen or mentioned.

Although overshadowed by Japanese swords, the spears used by Wokou were no less deadly. Chinese sources did not distinguish between Chinese spear and Japanese yari (槍), but described the spears used by Wokou as extremely long and well made. Long spears allowed Wokou to outreach many Ming troops, such as Lang Bing (狼兵) and Tu Bing (土兵) that used shorter weapons, and defeat them with relative ease. Nevertheless, they were disadvantaged when facing Chinese troops armed with spears of equal length, as Japanese method of spear handling (i.e. holding spear in the middle) put a limit on their reach.

Yumi (弓) and arquebus were the primary ranged weapons of Wokou. Wokou archers usually shot at close range to increase the accuracy and lethality of their arrows.

Wokou arquebusiers used both Japanese teppō (鉄砲) and Portuguese matchlocks. With helps from Portuguese gunsmiths among their ranks, some Wokou were even able to manufacture their own matchlock guns, although they generally deployed more archers than arquebusiers.

Other equipment of Wokou included shields improvised from wooden doors, siege equipment such as axes, pickaxes, battering rams, scaling ladders, siege towersYun Che (雲車, lit. 'Cloud cart', a movable cart used to spy on enemy city), as well as Chinese and Portuguese cannons. Wokou also adopted some Southern Chinese weapons, notably crossbows and Tang Pa (鎲鈀). They were also known to use a throwing weapon known by its Chinese name Pa Qiang (鈀槍, possible translations include 'Rake spear' and 'dart'), possibly referring to javelin or bo shuriken (棒手裏剣).

Most Wokou fought unarmoured and bare footed. They seldom wore trousers, and many went around in their undergarments or even completely naked. However, Wokou leaders were often well-armoured and mounted.

Organisation and Tactics
Ming knowledge on the organisational structure of Wokou was understandably scarce. They were barely able to tell apart Japanese Wokou, which they called Zhen Wo (真倭, lit. 'Real Japanese') from their Chinese followers, which they called Cong Wo (從倭, lit. 'Wokou follower') or Cong Zei (從賊, lit. 'Enemy follower'). Wokou leaders were often called Wo Shou (倭首, lit. 'Wokou head') or Wo Qiu (倭酋, lit. 'Wokou chief').

Wokou was not a single, unified entity, but rather a collective term describing numerous loosely connected (sometimes even hostile to each other) pirate groups. Thus their organisational structures varied from one group to another. Relationship between Chinese and Japanese Wokou was not of the superior-subordinate nature, but as collaborators.

As pirates, Wokou most often operated in small bands numbering from less than ten men to several hundred. In smaller bands, they were able to strike at undefended towns or villages, then disperse before proper military response could be initiated. Master of ambush and guerrilla tactics, Wokou were known to disguise as civilians, refugees and even Ming troops. They were even able to set up coordinated ambush instinctively without prior planning.

Even in smaller bands, Wokou were not afraid of taking numerical superior Ming army head on. They often sent several men to taunt Ming troops, provoking them to waste away their ammunition or attack prematurely. Much like the Mongols, they would force captured civilians to run ahead of them, either to disrupt or demoralise Ming troops. Chinese sources described them fighting in an organised manner, deploying battle formations known as Hu Die Zhen (蝴蝶陣, lit. 'Butterfly formation') and Chang She Zhen (長蛇陣, lit. 'Long snake formation'), although these formations do not conform to any known Chinese or Japanese formations. Sometimes, but very rarely, Wokou would also deploy cavalry and well-armoured troops.

Smaller bands of Wokou sometimes congregated into a large horde numbering several thousand to tens of thousand. They became a much more dangerous force, able to lay siege or even occupy large cities.

The Dreaded
Although Wokou were much less numerous than the Mongols, Ming Chinese perceived them as no less a threat. Bei Lu Nan Wo (北虜南倭, lit. 'Japanese in the South, Mongols in the North') became a common saying during Ming period to denote the threats faced by Ming Dynasty. Unlike Mongol raids, which were seasonal and predictable to some extent, Wokou raids could happen anytime and were almost completely unpredictable (although they too were influenced by the monsoon). Also, unlike Mongol raiders that would simply retreat once they amassed enough plunder, Wokou raiders infested China's coasts, raiding one place after another and gradually moving inland.

Wokou warriors were noted to be quick on their feet and fearless of death, often willing to fight to the last man when cornered, although they were not above retreating if the situation warranted it. Wokou were expert swordsmen and archers, and their martial capabilities became greatly feared and exaggerated by Chinese witnesses. Ming sources are abound in records of incredible martial feats such as catching arrow with bare hands, breaking several spears with one sword swing or continue fighting after suffering numerous fatal wounds (even after being set on fire!).

Despite being pirates, Wokou were rather terrible at naval warfare, in part due to their smaller numbers and inferiority of Japanese ships (even though they also used Chinese junks, either captured or provided by their Chinese collaborators). Naval engagement between Ming fleet and Wokou fleet almost always resulted in the defeat of Wokou. Some Wokou even went as far as burning down their own ships once they landed, and avoided naval engagement altogether.

Other blog posts about my Wokou series:
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 1
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 2
Enemy of the Ming — Jia Jing Da Wo Kou — Part 3


  1. Nice investigation. But I just wanted to know from what sources you get this > "The presence of equipment and items meant for high-ranking samurai... all point to the fact that there were many Japanese warriors of high social standing among the Wokou, instead of just vagabonds and rōnin as commonly believed."

    1. Good day. It is based on my own observation and deduction based on various sources describing the Wokou, in particular Qi Jiguang's writings and biography. As mentioned in my article, there were many equipment encounteded by Ming troops that shouldn't be accessable to average Japanese or Chinese outlaws.

  2. " Ming documents are abound in records of incredible martial feats such as catching arrow with bare hands, breaking several spears with one sword swing or continue fighting after suffering numerous fatal wounds (even after being set on fire!)."

    Ah those are all very fun, would you be able to post scans of the source documents too? I've learned a lot from your blog that I haven't heard of anywhere else

    1. @Unknown
      I only have access to digitised version. The original text are:

      "引弓射之,賊悉手接其矢,諸軍相顧愕貽" (bare handed arrow catch)
      "一賊出哨亭外,我兵攢槍刺之,賊斫一刀,十數槍齊折" (breaking dozens of spears with one slash)
      "須臾一賊嗔目咬牙,作叱咤聲,舉刀對斫,火噴星流,著地舞來,眾兵攢刺十數槍,尚能跳起四五尺。" (Wokou continue fighting after being stabbed by spear a couple dozens times)

  3. Breaking spears with sword swings, catching arrows, fighting while on fire all sound awesome! What's the source for those accounts, were they taken seriously or meant to excite?

    1. Most of them are probably exaggerated, I think.

  4. How does one wield an odachi in just one hand, let alone dual wielding it? Even if you are super strong, wouldn't it still be better to wield it two handed?

    1. One can dual-wield odachi with some effectiveness in combat with effort, but it probably doesn't confer any practical benefit. It was probably meant as a show-off/intimidation.


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