Bandit or Hero: The Tale of Lu Dingkun on the Yunnan Frontier

Friday, January 5, 2018: 11:10 AM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
John Herman, Virginia Commonwealth University
In the spring of 1726 Qing military units began their advance into the Wumeng region of present-day northeast Yunnan province. This expansive region was an area of relative autonomy within the greater Qing empire (1636-1912), one of a handful of “shatter zones” in southwest China described by James Scott in his book, The Art of Not Being Governed. Located atop the eastern extent of the Himalayan Uplift, Wumeng’s ruggedly dissected landscape of precipitous mountain ranges, deep gorges, and fast flowing rivers was unsuitable for the type of fixed-field grain agriculture practiced by Han farmers. Moreover, for centuries the non-Han inhabitants of Wumeng stubbornly resisted Han settlers and the Chinese state from entering Wumeng. In short, the ethnic differences separating the indigenous non-Han of Wumeng from the Han Chinese living in China proper was explicit. This paper focuses on two issues: first, why did the Chinese state decide in 1726 to end Wumeng’s centuries-long autonomy and assert control over the region; and second, how did the Qing state hope to extend its control over this mountainous peripheral region? For historians, the second question is far more interesting than the first, and most of my paper will center on the Qing state’s reliance on a well-known non-Han bandit named Lu Dingkun to gain access to Wumeng. The Qing provided Lu with exclusive access to Chinese markets; it assisted him in eliminating his enemies in Wumeng; and it even sent him to Beijing to meet the emperor. Yet after all this, Lu turned on the Qing, mobilizing the non-Han peoples of Wumeng to attack Qing forces both inside and beyond Wumeng. Lu’s “return to banditry,” according to Chinese sources, precipitated a massive rebellion that lasted several years and required Qing forces from several neighboring provinces to quell.
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