2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Salvaging Practices in the Fishing Society of Northern Taiwan during the Late Qing Period: Evidence from the Danxin Archives

Yu-ju Lin

Institute of Taiwan History, Academia Sinica

This article uses the Danxin Archives as its main source to discuss three cases of the salvaging of Chinese junks by coastal villagers in northern Taiwan during the late Qing period. It illustrates the rise and prevalence of salvaging practices through the actions and strategies of the accused, the victims, the local administration, and local elites. Salvaging was a common practice of coastal villagers taking valuables from shipwrecks “without feelings of guilt.” Economic need was the the main factor behind fishing societies’ plundering of shipwrecks. Especially when facing temporary shortages, fishermen practiced salvaging for their personal livelihood. On the other hand, fishing villages using stone weirs and shoreline netting regarded ocean rights as the same as land property, which probably formed the basis of their claim to “right of possession over wreckage.” Since regular fishing practices required the pooling of labor and capital, villagers applied the same cooperative spirit to their salvage operations, evading arrest and even rescuing fellow villagers captured by officials.

The continuing nature and prevalence of these salvaging practices were related to the victim’s demands for redress, local government actions, and the return of salvaged items. Outside merchants did not go to the authorities as often as local merchants, due to their relative lack of status, which was a factor in the continuing prevalence of salvaging. As well, although local governments in Qing Taiwan understood the illegality of salvage operations as a form of criminal theft in law, they actually considered such practices merely a bad custom of coastal residents.  They adopted a passive attitude towards the issue, due to the limits on their real powers, the need to maintain social order, and the high costs involved in active prosecutione. And finally, local administration focused on returning the salvaged goods to their original owners, mostly through a process of negotiation and mediation with local elites. However, such attempts had only limited effects, and most of the salvage goods generally remained in the hands of local elites. The victors were essentially those who plundered the shipwrecks, and the nature of local power structures assured the continuation of the salvaging practices of fishing communities.


Keywords: salvaging practices, customs, local government, livelihood, fishing society