Banditry, Ethnicity, and Violence in Modern China

AHA Session 92
Historical Society for Twentieth-Century China 1
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham, East Lobby)
James Millward, Georgetown University
Tobie Meyer-Fong, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

Banditry was a metaphor for violence. It conjures up images of pillage, brutality, and murder by gangs of ruffians and rebels. In China ethnic groups were often depicted in similar fashion as uncivilized brutes. One of the most important factors used by states in fixing ethnic identities, in fact, was the propensity for violence. Nonetheless, as the papers in this panel show, identities, whether as bandit or as ethnic group, were complex, malleable, and changeable according to time and place. Borderlands and frontiers, those nebulous contact zones outside direct gaze of states, have traditionally been the locus of both ethnic groups and bandits, as well as rebels and dissidents. While John Herman and Bradley Davis examine ethnic violence and banditry in mountainous peripheral areas of south and southwest China, Robert Antony looks at banditry and the culture of violence among ethnic boat people in the core Pearl River delta. Violence was a negotiable component of power not only for states but also for ethnic groups and bandits. States readily used the term bandit and applied ethnic labels to anyone not conforming to its self-defined political culture, and in turn used such labels to discredit dissidents and justify brutal suppression campaigns and imperial expansion. These points raise larger questions about the nature of violence as well as the relationships between banditry, ethnicity, and political authority, which are key issues addressed in this panel.

Herman’s paper on ethnic violence and state expansion on the Yunnan frontier in the 18th century, shows not only the mutability of banditry but also the weakness of state authority on the fringes of empire. After the Qing state retained a notorious bandit, who was himself a member of an ethnic minority, to aggressively incorporate a hitherto autonomous area into the empire, such labels as hero, bandit, and rebel became ambiguous, misleading, and even meaningless. Davis takes the story further with his study of violent resistance, labeled by officials as banditry, to French colonialism on the Sino-Vietnamese borderland at the turn of the 20th century. Focusing on the investigation of the murder of a French priest, Davis elucidates how intercultural miscommunication and misunderstanding fostered a shared culture of violence in a border no-man-land. Problems of violence and banditry, however, were not limited to peripheries. They also posed tremendous problems in China’s political and economic core areas, such as the Pearl River delta. In fact, as Antony shows, contrary to conventional wisdom, there were more cases of banditry in the Pearl River delta than anywhere else in Guangdong province between 1800 and 1940. To fully appreciate this phenomena he further argues that it is necessary to examine banditry within the larger context of a ubiquitous culture of violence, epitomized by annual rock fights among boat people in the delta.

This panel, we hope, will contribute to ongoing reassessments among historians about the important roles that banditry, ethnicity, and violence played in the history of borderland and core areas of China over the past 300 years.

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