The stories of Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai before they joined up with Mao Zedong.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Some names from this episode:
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Zhu Kongyang, Warlord army officer turned bandit
Xie Guannan, Patriarch of the local tyrant Xie family in the area around Maoping
Welcome to episode 65 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We’ve spent the last two episodes speaking in pretty general terms about the social history of the Jinggangshan Mountains, the remote region that ended up playing an important role in the history of the Chinese Revolution as the place where Mao Zedong pioneered his strategy of protracted people’s war. Two episodes ago, we got into the way in which the region is divided between Hakka-dominated highlands and Han Chinese dominated lowlands, and how that ethnic regional divide characterized conflict in the region. Last episode, we spoke about the bandits and larger trend of endemic collective violence in the region, both in very broad terms, and then getting into some specifics about how that violence escalated during the first couple decades of the twentieth century.
This episode, I want to tell a couple personal stories of bandit life in the region, and maybe we can see how bandit leaders could become revolutionaries. We’re going to focus now on the life stories of the two bandit leaders who ended up joining with Mao when he came to the Jinggangshan in Autumn of 1927: Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai. Wang and Yuan were very important figures in their own right, and so their story is worth telling for that reason alone. But I hope that in telling their stories, we can also flesh out in more detail some of the texture and dynamics of life in the hills of the Jinggang region.
Wang Zuo was born in 1898 in a mountain village that had been originally founded by Han early settlers, or ‘native registrants,’ but that had come to be dominated by Hakka speaking ‘guest registrants’ by the late 17th century. So this was a village in the highlands that still had some Han residents, and Wang himself had a Han father and a Hakka mother. In fact, what appears to have happened is that Wang’s mother’s brother was the local leader of the Hong River Society that we discussed last episode, the sworn brotherhood that had been particularly active in organizing raids and in coordinating community retaliation against the depredations of the lowland elite. It appears that Wang’s uncle had arranged for Wang’s mother to marry Wang’s Han father as part of shoring up his flank, as it were, by creating a family alliance with a Han family in the highlands as a way of preempting that family from becoming his enemy.
Anyways, whatever political value that Wang’s uncle may have seen in Wang’s father’s family, the fact was that while Wang’s dad had started life as a small property owner, he ended up selling what land he owned in order to fund his opium habit. And so despite the considerable standing that Wang’s family may have once had in the village that he was born in, by the time Wang was born (and he was the fifth of six children), the family was quite poor. Wang himself only attended school for three months before his father died and he was sent to live in his uncle’s house in 1909. Wang got his personal introduction into the conflict between the Han and the Hakka when some cattle that he was tending wandered off and bedded down in the lineage hall of a nearby Han ‘native registrant’ village, and he was held hostage by outraged locals until his uncle paid several hundred dollars for the shrine’s defiling by the cattle. Even though Wang was half-Han by birth, he was by this point firmly aligned with the Hakka as far as the regional ethnic situation went, and Wang would sometimes identify himself as unambiguously Hakka, while at other times, later on in his life, shoring up political alliances with other highland Han families when that was politically useful.
After the events of 1912 that we talked about last episode, when the Hong River Society was defeated, Wang went to live with other family members high up in the mountains. The family was very poor, and he was soon apprenticed off to a tailor, where he spent three years learning the trade before setting out on his own as an itinerant tradesman, going from village to village, meeting the fairly meagre tailoring needs of what was a pretty poor region of China. It was a living, but it wasn’t much more than that.
Last episode, I mentioned a bandit named Zhu Kongyang, a warlord army officer who became a bandit, and who did particularly well. During Wang Zuo’s itinerant tailoring journeys, he ended up in the village that Zhu had made into his base, and ended up staying there for a while, making clothes for Zhu’s gang out of cloth that had been stolen in raids. Wang got along well with Zhu, and was recruited to become a scout for the band. Wang’s job as a traveling tailor was particularly well-suited to scouting, and gave Wang access to a lot of households and information about the whereabouts of the wealthy people in the region.
Wang’s information led to some good lamb-hanging raids (which, in case you need a reminder, was the local term for kidnapping for ransom), including one in particular in a nearby part of Hunan that resulted in a massive ransom of 50,000 dollars for the return of a wealthy family patriarch. When Wang got his reward for this massive haul, he thought it might be time to settle back down to respectable life and start a family. So in late 1921 Wang returned home and bought some sewing machines, hired a few employees, and set up a business making clothes for nearby bandit gangs. He tried to settle down, but his family was only able to arrange a marriage for him with a woman who had already been divorced once and who had a reputation for sleeping around. It turns out that the reputation was well-justified, as she left Wang pretty quickly for an old lover.
So, already in spring 1922, Wang was frustrated in his efforts to settle down to respectable life and was thinking about moving on, when opportunity presented itself. When he was visiting his sister’s family for the Spring Festival that year, he recognized three opium peddlers from Guangdong who were staying with her family. Wang’s sister rented out rooms to travelers as a way of augmenting the family’s income. These peddlers sometimes did business with Zhu Kongyang, which is how Wang recognized them. Anyways, Wang and his relatives waited for the men to go to sleep, then they bound, robbed, and murdered them. And with this act, Wang got the start up capital to buy himself a gun, and on that basis began recruiting the nucleus of his own bandit gang.
The culmination of the origin story of Wang’s gang happened soon afterwards, when four tax police came to the village that Wang lived in, Xiazhuang, to collect the various taxes owed by the villagers. Wang and his brothers enticed the police into his house, then ambushed them, murdering the police and taking their guns. When the government retaliated by sending troops and burning down the village, the villagers retreated into the mountains, and it says something about the conditions of life in the village that, rather than blame Wang for this, many of the young men joined his gang. They retreated to Wang’s sister’s village, Dachuan, and soon held a blood oath ceremony in which the gang members, now about 30 in numbers, became sworn brothers.
Over the next few years, Wang’s bandit gang continued to grow, weathering both raids by the government and competition from other bandits. By 1924, Wang had become the dominant bandit leader in his section of the Jinggangshan by a stroke of luck. His main rival was a bandit leader who had defeated Wang’s old employer, Zhu Kongyang, in an extended gang war. Wang had been keeping a tenuous truce with this other warlord for some time, but eventually his rival, who was larger and more powerful, decided that there was little future in banditry and allowed himself to be bought out and accepted an official government position in Hunan in exchange for abandoning banditry.
So now that Wang Zuo had established himself as something of a king of the mountain, the actions of his band soon attracted the attention of government troops once again. What happened was that Wang’s band captured one of the wealthiest of the local elite in a lamb-hanging raid, resulting in another huge ransom of 50,000 dollars. But what happened next was that, after the ransom had been paid, some of Wang’s people who had been tasked to return the rural magnate to his family had a grudge against the guy, and ended up murdering him instead, even though the ransom had already been paid.
Given the constantly escalating predations of the bandits, and now this murder of a major figure who had been ransomed, an army regiment was sent in spring 1925 to suppress the bandits. As usual, the army could not itself catch any bandits, who retreated deep into the mountains. However, instead of doing the usual thing and leaving the region after an unsuccessful chase after the bandits, this army regiment decided to hunker down in a village that put it within easy striking distance of the highland villages that the bandits normally based themselves in. Given the possibility of a surprise attack from this location, the bandits ended up being stuck in the inhospitable environment deep in the mountains, unable to either go home or to continue their operations.
So there was a kind of impasse. Wang’s bandit gang wasn’t captured, but they had been put in check. The thing was, the army regiment was a huge drain on the resources of the town where they had garrisoned themselves, so that was also not a great thing for the lowlanders. Eventually, a compromise was reached, whereby Wang’s people would nominally turn in some weapons and preserve the reputation of the army regiment commander, so that he could withdraw without shame of failure. Then, in order to put an end to Wang’s lamb-hanging operations, Wang’s bandit gang would be ‘reorganized’ into a militia and Wang and some of his subordinate bandit leaders given official government positions in the highland region where he operated. So, the army would leave, the lamb-hanging would end, and Wang would now be the official government-recognized leader of the area he had formerly controlled as an outlaw.
It would seem to be a win-win all the way around.
But what Wang soon found was that funds had to be gotten one way or another to feed his troops, run his operation and pay himself and his people, be it as bandit or militia. With lamb-hanging out of the question, it was necessary to do something else. Typically, militias funded themselves by collecting taxes. And the mountain area where Wang operated was actually several years in arrears in its taxes, dating from Wang’s murder of the four tax police officers. But, this had created a situation where paying taxes was very unpopular, and in any case several years of gang warfare and repeated suppression campaigns waged against the region’s bandits had left the mountain villages very poor, so Wang decided only to levy taxes on the rich.
It was at this time that a series of events took place that joined Wang up with the other major bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong in 1927, Yuan Wencai. So, before we get into those events, lets catch up quick with Yuan and bring his story up to where it converges with Wang.
Yuan, like Wang, was born in 1898. His family were relatively well-off peasants who worked hard to get Yuan an education that might allow him to break into a different social class. He attended school as a youth mostly with better off students, and was derisively called the ‘cowherd scholar’ because he still had to work on his family’ farm in addition to working on his studies.
In 1917 Yuan suspended his studies, got married, and began helping out on the family farm full time. The local tyrants were the Xie family, and, as could happen, the second son of the Xie patriarch took a liking to Yuan’s wife and took her to live in his household. All Yuan could do was to marry someone else and move on. After a few years, Yuan’s family was able to borrow some money to send him to middle school in a neighboring county. Middle school graduation for someone in rural Jiangxi was a mark of distinction, and would have been a great accomplishment for someone of Yuan’s class background. It would have opened doors to a job in the expanding modern school system, in commerce, or in the government bureaucracy. But, during his second semester at Middle School, Yuan’s father died, leaving the family in debt and in need of Yuan’s labor.
With his scholarly aspirations shattered, Yuan shifted his ambitions to local politics. When one of the Xie sons led a group of followers to Yuan’s village to press for payment of road and bridge repair ‘contributions,’ Yuan organized a successful resistance movement in the village. Then in Spring 1923, Yuan publicly exposed a scandal involving bribes that Xie had taken for supporting a provincial level politician, leading to a public exchange between himself and the Xie patriarch, Xie Guannan which caused great embarrassment to the Xie family. Yuan was on a collision course with the local power holding family, and in more settled times, Yuan likely would have had few resources against the retaliation that was eventually coming.
Yuan’s activism brought him to the attention of the leader of a local bandit outfit called the Saber Detachment. After some continued efforts, Yuan decided to join the bandit group secretly, providing information and intelligence to the group initially, before eventually beginning to actually participate in some kidnappings. Although Yuan tried to live as a regular peasant and keep his bandit affiliation secret, somehow it came to the attention of Xie Guannan, who had been on the lookout for a pretext to go after Yuan. Xie denounced Yuan to the local magistrate, who then sent troops to arrest him. Yuan and most of his family escaped, but his mother was killed and the family home was burned.
After this raid, Yuan threw himself into the work of the Saber Detachment. Almost all bandits were totally illiterate, and Yuan impressed the gang with his high level of education. And he was able to do things like write ransom notes, read replies to ransom notes, keep accounts, read newspapers, and other useful things that educated people can do, and that I think most people today would take for granted, but that are actually really major contributions to the functioning of a group of illiterate people. But it wasn’t just Yuan’s education, but also his forceful personality, that had an impact, and he soon rose to a leading position in the group.
Yuan was very much a ‘social bandit,’ and got the Saber Detachment to lay off preying on the local peasants and to just focus on the elite. He also organized a major raid on local lowland centers of power in the summer of 1924, allying with two other bandit gangs and also recruiting unaffiliated highland Hakka people to go and burn down the county seat and the Confucian temple and Xie family lineage hall in the main county town.
Despite the great hatred of the Xie family, the local elite more broadly came to understand that for the foreseeable future, the largest bandit gangs were more easily bought off than defeated, and in October 1925 Yuan Wencai reached an agreement to convert the Saber Detachment into a local militia force.
It was at this point that the stories of Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai converged. When Wang Zuo began collecting taxes, this put his officers in contact with the local elite in a way that they never had done before. Taxation is a more civilized business than kidnapping for ransom, and what this meant was that there was the possibility for landlords who were being taxed to get the ear of and influence some of Wang Zuo’s subordinate officers. One of these landlords managed to conspire with one of Wang Zuo’s subordinates to stage a coup attempt and take over the militia group.
Wang Zuo managed to escape the coup because he had put a secret passageway in the rear wall of his house. He escaped to his sister’s village, and there his brother-in-law, who knew people in the Saber Detachment, suggested that maybe the Saber Detachment, which had just recently undergone the transition from bandits to militia that Wang had gone through, might help him. So Wang made his way to Maoping, where the Saber Detachment was based, and made his case to Yuan Wencai. Apparently Wang and Yuan got along famously right from the start and soon became sworn brothers.
Before Wang and Yuan could act, some members of Wang’s militia who were loyal to Wang killed the guy who staged the coup, so in the end, Yuan didn’t have to do anything to get Wang his militia leadership post back. But they had met now and the beginning of an alliance had been formed.
Now, you may have noticed, that the period of time we have gotten up to in the story of Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai, basically late 1925, is just on the eve of the spread of radical politics throughout China, especially in the wake of the Northern Expedition which came in 1926. Already, though, there was an emerging revolutionary movement even in the remote Jinggangshan. Next episode, we’ll finish this four-part catching up series where we look at the background on the Jinggangshan by looking at the early revolutionary movement in the area, and how Wang and Yuan were drawn into its orbit. Then, in two episodes, we’ll be back to Mao’s arrival in the region, and his meeting up with Yuan Wencai in October 1927. I know that this has been a bit of a detour, but I think that our understanding of all the events that follow Mao’s arrival in the Jinggangshan will be really enriched by having gone back and looked at the background of the region.
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See you next time.