Early Life. A native in the prefecture of Suzhou, Zheng Ruozeng was born into a literary family that spanned many generations. His father, however, was a businessman. In his teens Zheng Ruozeng studied at the National University in Beijing, but it took him several attempts to pass the examination. He then taught at home and became a pupil of an older scholar.
Geographic Book. In the mid sixteenth century the coastal provinces of China suffered from Japanese pirate attacks. Many cities from the Yangzi (Yangtze) River Valley to Guangdong were sacked and the civilian population killed. In the 1540s Zheng Ruozeng determined to improve the coastal defenses. Encouraged by his friends, he took several years to complete the Yanhai Tuben, a strategic atlas of the Chinese coastal region ranging from the Liaodong Peninsula to southern Guangdong, including the offshore islands. It had a total of twelve maps with brief descriptions.
Serious Scholar. After finishing Yanhai Tuben, he began to work on another book, Chouhai Tubian. He was such a serious scholar that when Japanese pirates besieged his home city in 1554 he went to that area, observing that only field investigations would provide him with better knowledge of the strategies of the interlopers and the weapons they utilized. As piratical raids on the coast of Zhejiang multiplied, Zheng Ruozeng was encouraged by the governor of Zhejiang to continue his research.
Interviews. To gain more dependable information,Zheng Ruozeng conducted interviews with captured Japanese pirates. He also obtained access to government documents and archives, including classified reports of officials who went to Japan to petition Japanese leaders to control the raiders. Therefore, he received firsthand material not generally available. During the interviews he learned that the Japanese had little geographic knowledge of the Chinese coast. Their incursions on China mostly relied upon native guides and river pilots. As a result Zheng Ruozeng recommended that the governor create conflicts between Japanese and Chinese collaborators so as to reduce their military power. Because of his dedication Zheng Ruozeng was granted a military rank in 1560, but he refused to accept it.
Expanded Work. By 1560 Zheng Ruozeng finished a draft of the Chouhai Tubian. The first edition was fairly small because Zheng attempted to compile only a hand-book of pirate activities so as to help Chinese coastal officials. Later, the book was expanded into an encyclopedic reference book on coastal affairs. Divided into eight parts, the book had thirteen volumes and was called one of the most scholarly works in its field. From 1564 to the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the Chouhai Tubian was republished at least three times.
Significance. The Chouhai Tubian was significant because it was not only the first book of its kind but also marked a turning point in the Ming period. Before 1560 China’s foremost threats came from the North, and geographers had thus far emphasized those frontier regions and paid relatively little attention to other sections of the empire. Only after the publication of theChouhai Tubian did the government start to endorse other geographical studies. In addition to this book, Zheng Ruozeng later compiled ten other texts. In his sixties he enjoyed good health and was twice recommended in the late 1570s to serve as an official historian, but he rejected the posting.
F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass. 6c London:Harvard University Press, 1999).