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Autarky and the Rise and Fall of Piracy in Ming China

  • James Kai-sing Kung (a1) and Chicheng Ma (a2)


We examine the impact of rigorous trade suppression during 1550–1567 on the sharp rise of piracy in this period of Ming China. By analyzing a uniquely constructed historical data set, we find that the enforcement of a “sea (trade) ban” policy led to a rise in pirate attacks that was 1.3 times greater among the coastal prefectures more suitable for silk manufactures—our proxy for greater trade potential. Our study illuminates the conflicts in which China subsequently engaged with the Western powers, conflicts that eventually resulted in the forced abandonment of its long upheld autarkic principle.



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We thank the editor, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, and three anonymous reviewers whose suggestions have helped improve this article substantially. We also thank Ying Bai, Philip Hoffman, Debin Ma, Nathan Nunn, Jeffery Williamson, and seminar participants at various universities for helpful comments and suggestions, and Ting Chen for excellent research assistance. James Kung acknowledges the financial support of the Hong Kong Research Grants Council (GRF642711). We alone are responsible for any remaining errors.



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