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The Empire’s Scorched Shore: Coastal China, 1633-1683

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

Abstract In the mid-seventeenth century, the Qing empire of China reacted to piracy and rebellion by forcibly depopulating the coast and burning its shoreline into wasteland for twenty years. As unique as the scale and brutality of this response may be in maritime history, the Qing state was not inherently isolationist or anti-maritime. Its underlying imperatives were shared by other early modern states: a desire to establish sovereignty, impose subjecthood, and constrain the mobility of peripheral populations. This article places the Qing Coastal Depopulation of 1661-1683 in the context of fifty years of maritime militarization, invasion, and civil war in the coastal province of Fujian. It portrays the Depopulation as not just a military act to combat pirates or the powerful sealord Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), but also an act of social engineering to subjugate the coastal population by removing it behind an artificial land boundary. At the same time, the article shows that the Qing state’s practice of “outsourcing” coastal control to regional lords helps to account for the policy’s longevity and some of its severest abuses.

Affiliations: 1: University of Rochester


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