The legend of Captain China

AVENGERS: Endgame will be released in theaters in April this year, and it's expected that people will be talking a lot once more about comic book heroes like Steve Rogers aka Captain America. By now, everyone and their dog knows who Captain America is, but it's a safe bet to say that you and many others have yet to hear of Captain China.

Unlike the fictional Steve Rogers, Captain China was a real-life person. But while Captain America was a gallant soldier and hero who was loved and admired by his countrymen, Captain China was a wily pirate and scoundrel who had a lifelong love-hate relationship with his fellow Chinese. Furthermore, it should interest you very much that Captain China belongs not just to the Chinese nation, but to the Philippines as well – yes, he is as Chinese-Filipino as Lucio Tan, Kim Chiu, Tim Yap, Queena Lee-Chua, and St. Lorenzo Ruiz. Both Ruiz and Captain China share the exact same historical period, but unlike Ruiz, Captain China was anything but a saint. This is probably the reason why people don't talk about him much.

Captain China was born Li Dan sometime in the 16th century, possibly in Fujian Province. It must be noted that during this time, Fujian was a bustling trade hub thanks to its proximity to the Spanish-held Philippines and to Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, which in turn were stepping-stones to Japan. It was also for this same reason that Fujian was a hotbed for piracy and smuggling: it was not unheard of for fishermen to moonlight as smugglers, and for admirals and merchants to double as pirate lords.

As a young man, Li Dan would eventually make his way from Fujian to the Philippines; but how he got here in the first place remains unclear to this day. Did he immigrate as a merchant in search of greener pastures? Was he a sailor who decided to settle down in Manila? Or was he already sailing as a pirate, albeit one who got careless and wound up as a prisoner of the Spaniards? While these theories aren't mutually exclusive, if we had to pick just one we might have to go with the third, since legend has it that Li had been enslaved aboard a Spanish galley for nine years. Nevertheless, Li managed to secure his freedom (or escape) and went on to amass a great deal of wealth and influence in Manila's Chinatown, thus earning the title “Capitan Cina,” or Captain China.

While that title would become his name for the rest of his life, Li wasn't the only Captain China in history – or in the world, for that matter. For a Chinaman to be appointed Captain China by the colonial authorities was for him to effectively be made the mayor of his Chinatown, and there were many Chinatowns all throughout Southeast Asia and even Japan back then. Furthermore, this government position wasn't unique to the Chinese: there were corresponding posts for other ethnicities too, such as Captain Arab and Captain India. (I know what you're thinking – if only they banded together, they could have formed something like a Justice League or Super Friends to fight colonial oppression in their respective localities... but as always, I digress.)

Captain China would eventually tire of Manila and relocate to Hirado, Japan, where once more he quickly established himself as the head of the Chinese community there and amassed even more wealth, ships, and men. It was also at Hirado that he would meet merchants and privateers from England and the Netherlands who were just beginning to establish themselves in the region as rivals to the Spanish and Portuguese. The Captain, using a combination of charisma and opulence, led the English and Dutch to believe that he held considerable sway with the Ming government back on the Chinese mainland (when in fact he did not) and established himself as their go-to guy when it came to trading, loans, and information. He would impress them with grand gestures such as giving his children European names, all the while fleecing them of so much cash and giving them so little in return.

When the English traders decided to call it quits in Japan after years of no progress, their Dutch rivals offered to assume their debt to make them leave the region quicker. The English gladly took this offer, and left the Dutch horrified to find out that they now owed Captain China a massive sum of money! It was at this point that the Dutch decided that perhaps it would be much easier for them to get rid of Captain China once and for all than to pay up. Besides, they had gotten tired of his wheeling and dealing after all these years of having to deal with him and no one else when it came to Chinese matters.

Luckily for Captain China, in 1625 he died in Hirado of old age before the Dutch could catch up with him. While crime dramas on TV would have you believe that crime doesn't pay, real life shows us that there are many exceptions to this rule, and the life of Captain China is one such exception. This begs the question: with so many exceptions, is there really even such a rule to begin with?


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