Nicholas Iquan

Cheng Chengkung and his father The most famous sea-faring merchant of the era was Cheng Chih-lung.

A native of Nan-an (??), Fukien, Cheng Chih-lung was known by the nickname I-kuan (銝摰?. Dutch documents transliterated the South Fukien pronunciation of the name as Iquan, which they then often combined with Cheng's Christian name, Nicholas. The Tai-wan Wai-chi (?箇憭? or Side Stories in the History of Taiwan), describes Cheng as a man "of idleness and debauchery who detests study, and of great physical strength who likes to fight." In other words, he was anything but the classic Chinese gentleman.

In his early years, Cheng obtained passage to Manila through the aid of his maternal uncle Huang Ch'eng (暺?), a merchant in Macao. From there, he journeyed to Japan, where he worked in the service of Li Tan (?), the most powerful maritime trader of the time. After the Dutch occupied the Pescadores in 1622, Li Tan served as a mediator between the Dutch and Chinese authorities, eventually persuading the Dutch to withdraw and establish their base on Taiwan. He dispatched Cheng Chih-lung to the Pescadores to serve as an interpreter for the Dutch. Later, Cheng was involved in Dutch efforts to monopolize trade with Japan by encouraging Chinese piracy along the coasts of China.

Map of Macao Johannes VingboonsAfter Li Tan's death in 1625, Hsu Hsin-su (閮勗?蝝?, leader of the Chang-chou people dwelling in and around the city of Hsia-men (撱?), emerged as his successor. However, he was soon overthrown by Cheng, who then established himself as the new local strongman. Cheng's victory marked the ascendancy of his clan as the new rulers of Hsia-men, and the concurrent rise of the Ch'uan-chou (瘜?) Gang. Before long, Cheng was amnestied by the Ming court, and commissioned to wipe out the remaining pirates.

He moved swiftly, eradicating Li K'uei-ch'I (??憟?, Chung Pin (?暹?), and Liu Hsiang (??), and thus mastered the seas between Japan and China. All the ships in the Hsia-men area were at his command, and the port was closed to those not flying the Cheng flag.

Kinmen|Hsia-menDespite his amnesty, Cheng Chih-lung continued his conquest of the seas, monopolizing trade routes with Japan and extending his power as far south as Manila. In 1633, Hans Putmans, the Dutch Governor of Taiwan, attempted to open trade with Hsia-men by force. His troops assaulted the towns and villages in the area, but they were eventually defeated by Cheng's forces. Shortly after, the two sides came to an agreement. Governor Putmans promised not to make further forays into the coastal regions of China, and Cheng agreed to dispatch trading vessels to Taiwan. The archives of the Dutch East India Company have this to say: if the Company wishes to survive, it must pull the thorn of Cheng Chih-lung once and for all. This gives an indication of the kind of power the pirate-cum-merchant king possessed.