Bandits, Rock Fights, and Dan Boat People in the Pearl River Delta

Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:50 AM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Robert Antony, Guangzhou University
This paper examines two aspects of the culture of violence in the Pearl River Delta in the modern period (1800s-1940s), namely banditry and rock fights. Based on archival research and fieldwork in Guangdong province, Antony takes an interdisciplinary approach to examine violence as social reality and cultural construct. First, he explores the socio-cultural roots of banditry by placing it in the larger context of the culture of violence among south China’s marginalized “floating population”, the Dan ethnic group (known derogatorily as the Tanka or “egg families”). He argues that banditry was but one form of violence that played an integral role in the lives of countless poor, marginalized Chinese. In the second part of his paper, Antony discusses the annual ritualized rock fights that were common in the Pearl River Delta since the early Qing period. To fully understand banditry we need to understand the role that violence played in the everyday lives of the poor and marginalized segments of the population. Although over the previous centuries China’s educated elites came to increasingly identify themselves by their condemnation of most forms of violence, he argues that among ordinary folks, and particularly the Dan, a culture of violence remained an intrinsic and ubiquitous part of their lives and mentalité. Indeed, hardship, poverty, and prejudice made violence an overwhelmingly unavoidable and accepted part of life. Violence was rooted in a working-class ethos whereby fighting and aggression were considered appropriate behavior and often served as a means to acquire status and prestige. People living in a hostile, brutal, and exploitative environment had no difficulty viewing violence as necessary for their survival. For the poor and marginalized the culture of violence had a logic of its own, distinct from and in opposition to the socio-cultural norms of dominant society.