A closer look at the phenomenon of banditry in the Jinggang Mountains, because of the importance that banditry and other forms of collective violence had on how the revolutionary movement developed.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Names from this episode:
Qu Qiubai, Named head of new provisional politburo at August 7, 1927 Emergency Conference
Zhu Kongyang, Warlord army officer turned bandit
Welcome to episode 64 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we talked about the broad social historical background to the arrival of Mao’s Worker-Peasant Revolutionary Army in the Jinggang Mountains in the Autumn of 1927. In particular, we looked at the ethnic divisions between Han Chinese and Hakka-speaking so-called ‘guest peoples,’ and how those ethnic divisions had a geographical character, with the relatively better-off and more fertile valleys of the region populated mainly by the ‘native registrant’ Han, and the hills and mountainsides, where the living was more precarious, occupied by ‘guest registrant’ Hakka.
This episode, we’re going to talk about banditry in the Jinggang Mountains. You might recall from episode 60, when right after the August 7 Emergency Conference, Qu Qiubai approached Mao and asked him if he wouldn’t like to go to Shanghai to work on the Communist Party’s central party publication, and Mao replied by saying that he would rather go to the mountains to join the fellowship of the green-wood than stay with the Party leadership in a tall building. Well, in a sense, that is actually what is going to happen. The fellowship of the green-wood would be ‘social bandits,’ of a Robin Hood type. And when Mao gets to the Jinggangshan, these ‘social bandits’ are going to be immensely important in rebuilding Mao’s forces and consolidating the base area that gets formed in the Jinggangshan. As it turns out, it’s more like the fellowship of the green-wood joined Mao, rather than the reverse. But to really understand what happened in the Jinggangshan, which in turn was such a pivotal moment in the Chinese Revolution, we should spend some time getting into the nature of banditry in the Jinggang region.
Nature and Character of Banditry in the Jinggangshan
Last episode, I mentioned that the people living in the hills and mountainsides of the Jinggang Mountains, who were mainly ‘guest registrant’ Hakka people, had to engage in some sort of side hustle in addition to agricultural activity in order to make ends meet. Now, often this was some sort of handicraft, such as tailoring or woodworking, or some form of manual labor, like timber-cutting or working as a porter who carried things for merchants along the paths that connected the communities in the mountains with each other and with the valleys below. But one option was banditry. There were probably always a few large gangs of full-time professional bandits, but most of the brigandage in the region was carried out by small bands with a fluid membership of anywhere from two or three to a couple dozen people.
These were mostly young men, who came together during the downtime of the agricultural season, or when particular opportunities presented themselves. These bandits were part of regular, mainstream society. They had families in the villages and spent most of their time in productive employment. Even those who turned to banditry on a more full-time basis often remained closely connected to local society, rather than living in some remote bandit hideout high up among the mountain peaks. Banditry even sometimes figured into the regular family survival strategies where different sons would go into different occupations. One son might focus on farming, one on handicraft production, and another might go into the bandit trade. And just as the family farm might draw all of the family members in to help with the labor of an intense agricultural season, like when the harvest had to be brought in quickly; at other times family members who weren’t bandits might be called upon to provide shelter for the family member who was a bandit, or even to participate in raids that required more manpower.
Bandits relied on the communities around them to sell the goods that they stole, and in turn they bought food, clothing and supplies. They also relied on these communities for information, both on good targets to raid and also about upcoming government bandit suppression efforts. Smaller bandit gangs could meet these needs informally, but larger bandit operations formalized these relationships, by employing scouts and establishing large-scale fencing, investment and resupply operations. So even though the vast majority of people in the highlands of the Jinggangshan did not participate in banditry themselves, bandit operations were interwoven with the way that society operated in the highlands. Large numbers of people had kinship ties or business relations with people involved in one way or another with bandit operations. And, some people could slide easily between illegal and legal activities, to the degree that there was not the same sort of moral distinction between banditry and other forms of economic activity as there was in more well-ordered and prosperous parts of China.
The example of Wang Zuo, one of the two bandit leaders who joined up with Mao after his arrival in the Jinggangshan, is illustrative of the ties between bandit operations and the broader society. Wang first worked as an itinerant tailor. This sort of job put him in contact with all sorts of well-off people who made great targets for bandits. Eventually, Wang was employed as a scout by a bandit gang, so that he would inform them about the relative wealth and comings and goings of some of his clients. Eventually, Wang left scouting behind, and set up a tailoring small business with seven or eight employees, making clothes for bandit gangs in the area. Then, Wang set up his own gang, and set up a protection racket for other commercial firms in the area. We’ll go into Wang’s history in more detail in another episode soon, but his professional trajectory is, I think, nicely illustrative of the ties that existed between the bandits and people involved in more mundane work in the region.
Membership in a bandit gang often overlapped with membership in a secret society, maybe the best known of which were the Triads. Now, secret societies were also known as sworn brotherhoods. And as the term ‘brotherhood’ implies, there was a certain fictive kinship involved with membership in these societies, which served to link people together, both within the bandit gangs, and with members of the society who did not actively participate in bandit activity. So, while most of the bandits were young men, these sworn brotherhoods would also include many peasants, merchants and other men from local society who would be bound to support their bandit brothers because of their ties of brotherhood, and who in their turn would be immune (or were at least supposed to be immune) to the predations of bandits who belonged to their brotherhood. In fact, these sworn brotherhood ties were ways in which local elites who might otherwise have been targets of the bandits could end up allied with bandits, and even managing to utilize bandit gangs in armed competition with other local elites.
So while the vast majority of both bandits and secret society members were poor, and for obvious reasons the most valuable targets of the bandits were wealthy, it would be a mistake to just see banditry only through the lens of being a survival strategy for the poor. There was a kind of ‘social bandit’ ideal of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and this ideal was expressed in some Chinese novels and folk tales, just like we have Robin Hood in English. But the reality most of the time was that most of what the bandits engaged in was ordinary armed robbery of the rich and the poor alike. And the ability of local elites to utilize the bandits to advance their own interests through the vehicle of shared membership in sworn brotherhoods meant that some of the most conscious and political ways in which bandits were used was in the service of local elites, not in service of the poor.
Early 20th Century Upsurge in Collective Violence in the Jinggangshan
Now, so far, this overview of banditry in the Jinggang Mountains has been very general, and applies to the conditions in the region for a couple centuries prior to where our story is at, in 1927, when Mao and the remnants of the forces that carried out the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan arrived in the region. What I want to do now is to shift to discuss how the political instability and weakened government in China during the first few decades of the 20th century, first with the decline of the Qing Dynasty and then with the post-Qing competition among warlords, really escalated the bandit activity and other forms of collective violence in the region.
One major aspect of how bandit activity and collective violence in general grew in the decades preceding Mao’s arrival in the region was the way in which ethnic tensions between Hakka and Han found expression in this violence. Even though there were bandits among both the Han Chinese of the valleys and the Hakka in the hills, as you can tell so far, we have mainly been talking about banditry as a phenomenon of the hill people, and disproportionately it was hill people who were bandits, and the most prized victims of the bandits were wealthy Han from the valleys. And attacks by bandits on the Han didn’t just make good economic sense for the Hakka bandits, they also provided a certain emotional satisfaction in getting some measure of payback for the various ways in which the Hakka were exploited by the Han.
The first decades of the 20th century saw a major escalation in the ethnic tensions in the region, and in violence that stemmed from these tensions. Apparently, this all began with Qing efforts to prop up the collapsing dynasty by increasing taxes. This increase in expected state revenues from the region led the local Han elite to try to pass on the cost of the increased taxes to the Hakka population. Here’s what happened:
Apparently, the first act in this drama involved lowland Han Chinese beginning to reassert claims on land in the highlands that they had been neglecting for some time. The first instance where this happened was apparently in the 1860s when a Han named Chen claimed that some of the Hakka near the village of Maoping were living on land that was his family’s ancestral land. (Maoping, by the way, spoiler alert, is going to become the headquarters of the Red Army in the Jinggangshan.) Chen didn’t have a land contract, but he did come up with a document with a seal on it that supported his claim, and this seal on his document implied government support for his claim. Apparently, the amount of money he was requesting in rent was pretty small and easily managed, and the Hakka around Maoping felt that it would be less trouble to give in and pay the rent, rather than to challenge it. However, as news of the precedent traveled, more and more Han got in on the act, and began fabricating claims on land that was held by Hakka in the region and collecting rent. Naturally, the more time passed and the more the Han elites got away with this, the more rent they started demanding, and the more they had to resort to the use of force to get compliance. So, by the early 20th century, there had been this escalating situation where Hakka who had been living on and using land all of a sudden had to start paying more and more rent on land that they had previously been living on, even if they lacked legal title. At the same time, Han elites who controlled local markets where people sold their goods began requiring Hakka to pay extra to use the markets and restricting their use of the markets.
In response, there was an escalation of social unrest. In 1888, a martial arts teacher who belonged to one of the sworn brotherhoods organized a raid of over a thousand people from the hills to descend on the government offices in the county seat of Ninggang county (one of several counties in the Jinggang region) and burn down the government headquarters. This was the first of a series of raids that would happen periodically in retaliation for the exploitation of and discrimination against the Hakka of the region. One of the sworn brotherhoods that was particularly active in organizing raids and in coordinating community retaliation against the depredations of the lowland elite was a brotherhood called the Hong River Society, and a series of events involving the Hong River Society in 1912 saw the further escalation of ethnic tensions in the region.
In 1912 the Hong River Society recruited seven new members in a village in the lowlands at the foot of the mountains, in Han-dominated territory. When word got out, the local Han powers mobilized their forces and murdered all seven of these new recruits. This, in turn, prompted a major response from the Hong River Society, which descended from the hills and burned homes in 17 lowland villages. In response, the local elites were able to call on government troops and then guided them through the highlands, going on a rampage through Hakka villages. The property of known Hong River Society members, and of others who may or may not have been involved in the raid on the lowlands, was confiscated to compensate the victims of the raid on the lowland villages. But, of course, because no one was going to be going up into the hills to work on the land that had been confiscated, an armed corporation called the Rescue Society was formed to manage the confiscated land in the highlands for the benefit of the lowlanders.
In addition to the periodic raids that sworn brotherhoods would organize against the lowland elite, the main Hakka response against escalating exploitation and discrimination took the form of increased bandit activity. In particular, one kind of raid, known as ‘lamb-hanging,’ saw a large increase. ‘Lamb-hanging’ involved the kidnapping of wealthy and prominent Han elites for ransom. While this had always been one form that bandit activity might take, the upsurge in this practice during the 1910s and 1920s can be understood as a form of social protest and revenge as well.
But, it’s important to note, that the upsurge in banditry was not only a form of social protest. It also reflected the chaos and violence of the warlord era in China, and banditry in the region was exacerbated by the movement of troops into the region who had left warlord armies in order to become bandits. This could happen a number of different ways. Sometimes junior officers who didn’t like their orders or how they were being treated might just take their platoon and abandon the warlord they were serving with. In other cases, surviving remnants of forces that had been splintered in battles might regroup as bandits rather than rejoin the larger force they had belonged to (assuming that it even still existed). In other cases, individuals or small groups might desert due to bad treatment or bad pay, both of which were very common, and turn to banditry. It was a pretty common thing for warlord forces to constantly shed some of their troops in this fashion.
The arrival of these sorts of deserters-cum-bandits from warlord forces also contributed to the escalation of the chaos and organized violence in the region, quite apart from the already escalating violence due to the increase in ethnic tensions between the Han and Hakka. But these warlord troops turned bandit also tended to be assimilated into the dynamics already at play in the region. Let’s look at the story of one of these examples in particular, to give you a sense of what this could look like:
Zhu Kongyang was a minor warlord army officer from Hunan who had been tasked to garrison a county on the southern end of the Jinggangshan. He led a dozen or so men from his unit away from the army and set up an ‘inspection station’ on a road in the area, forcing people coming through to pay them in order to go through. Then, he expanded his operation to serve as an escort and enforcer for opium traders from his home town in Hunan who were bringing opium into the area to sell. After some ups and downs with this business, Zhu and his gang moved on to specialize in lamb-hanging operations. Now, because Zhu was himself Hakka in origin, he was able to assimilate into local society somewhat and to end up basing his forces in a village up in the mountains. As Zhu’s success grew, so did his bandit gang, and eventually the village he occupied basically became one big bandit camp. Now, one of the reasons that we know Zhu’s name is because he was particularly successful. But even if he wasn’t typical, he gives you some sense of what it could look like when warlord troops entered the region and turned into bandits.
This upsurge in banditry during the 1910s and early 1920s, and in particular the growth of ‘lamb-hanging’ raids, led to generalized fear among the elite, and a kind of cat-and-mouse game where local elites took increasing measures to hide knowledge of the whereabouts of family patriarchs, hired more armed retainers, and reinforced the defenses of their residences. On a broader level, there was an increased militarization and organization of the militias commanded by the local elites. One measure that was taken with some particularly large bandit gangs was to co-opt them, turning them from bandit forces into militia forces overnight, and admitting the bandit leaders of these gangs into the local elite. In the case of one particularly notorious bandit turned respectable citizen, the bandit leader himself was given all sorts of property and a series of posts in local government, in return for his move from preying on local elites to defending the dominant social order.
Militias, and bandits forces turned into militias, had local knowledge that made them much preferable as an anti-bandit force to the formal military. Sometimes, after particularly egregious raids, the government, such as it was, felt it necessary to send in more formal military forces to engage in bandit suppression campaigns. But, lacking local knowledge and in particular the sort of mobility that local forces had in the mountains, these forces were largely ineffective at anything other than terrorizing the people in the villages that they moved through. Zhu Kongyang liked to say that in order to avoid the army, all that he had to do was to “travel in circles,” an observation that would later be echoed by Mao Zedong. Meanwhile, government armed forces took a toll on lowland villages as well. So overall, it was preferable, and indeed pragmatic, for the local elites to deal with the bandits with minimal interference from the armed forces of whichever warlord happened to control Jiangxi Province at the moment. The presence of army troops in a lowland village was often not really preferable to suffering a raid from highland bandits, as the warlord armies ‘lived off the land,’ as it were, taking what they needed and ravaging lowland villages that they passed through.
Perhaps the last thing to note about the nature of banditry in the Jinggang Mountains in the period right before Mao’s arrival there is that, even though the amount of banditry increased, the available targets for bandit raids did not. This meant that bandits increasingly competed among themselves for good targets, and also made targets of each other. So in addition to all of the violence that I’ve been describing so far, gang warfare also was a major issue in the region.
Let me wrap up here by quoting from Stephen Averill, whose Revolution in the Highlands I have heavily relied on for this episode. I can’t recommend the book highly enough, and it’s really the only English language source for this sort of detailed information on the Jinggang Mountains, so if you want to get deeper into this material, go get the book. OK, here’s how Averill describes what all this banditry meant for the revolutionaries who emerged within the region, and also those like Mao who came from outside:
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