REFLECTIONS ON THE "OLD SOCIETY"
This essay introduces how the farmers in and around Xiakou portray the conditions of the Old Society. It will review some of the local lore that surrounds what now can be referred to as class relations, secret-societies, and local events connected to the Civil War in the Republican period . "The Old Society" is the popular term for life before the communist Liberation. For people with whom we spoke, direct memories of this period span from the early 1930's to Liberation in 1949.
Memories of the Old Society are colored by the subsequent party line that found justification for revolution in the hardships of the period before Liberation. In 1949 there was a great socio-political inversion where the rich became the bad classes, and the poor the good. The common view incorporates the party line, emphasizing exploitative aspects of the Old Society and the extreme poverty of that time, but local reminiscences also reveal an alternative to a class analysis of the old problems, and a critique of some of the changes that the modern era has brought.
POWER AND POLITICS: THE RED ARMY IN 1935
The earliest historical event which today's memories firmly grasp was the passing of the Red Army in 1935 through the local villages. In the Long March of 1935, the communist army walked three-thousand miles from bases in south-central China to create a new base in the north of China , in Yenan. They were pursued the entire way by Nationalist (GMD) soldiers under Chiang Kai-shek, and triumphed at the cost of great hardship and many lives. The soldiers of the Red Army were the founding fathers of the Chinese communist state, and their activities, making the Long March and setting up a soviet in Yenan, represent a golden age of the communist party. They succeeded because they had a deep understanding of the situation in the countryside at that time, and they were able to appeal to the sympathies of the rural masses.
It was not Mao's division, but rather the 4th route army under the command of Zhang Guotao, that passed the very village of Xiakou . The Red Army moved during the day, and at night spread up into the mountains, where they often lodged in the homes of local farmers. The Fourth Route Army operated in the region surrounding Ya'an for several months. In passing through the area, they engaged in the kind of rural organization for which they were famous. The result was a rural "soviet," a local communist government whose territory extended from Longxi in the south to the northern edge of the upland valley, with headquarters in Zhongli, 10 kilometers above Xiakou. This government lasted only about five months. When the Red Army moved over the Snow Mountain and left this region behind, the structure quickly unravelled.
In local memory, the significance of the Red Army's passage far outlasted its short duration. Wu Guangjun was a toddler in that year, but what must be his very first memories, if they are original memories indeed, are of the bombs that were dropped on Xiakou by the airplanes of the GMD pursuing the Red Army. He points to three places where the bombs fell. The third was his house, where at that moment in his distant past, his own grandmother and chief caretaker was tending a fire within. She died within a few days from her injuries.
Local traditions back up the claims of the history books, which tell how disciplined and fair the Red Army was in its treatment of local peoples; they made a very different impression to that created by the presence of GMD soldiers before and after. When the soldiers aligned with the GMD came around, families hid their sons fearing forced conscription, and their daughters fearing the sexual appetites of the passing soldiers. Zhu Congde, our eldest friend in Xiakou, had been forcefully conscripted by the GMD just before the coming of the Red Army. He had hidden in a tree when the soldiers were sighted, but when they threatened to take the father away if no son came forward, he came out and was marched off. In the 1930s and 1940s, the problem of forced conscription was so pervasive that families with several sons would give sons away for adoption. These sons would be adopted by local couples who had no male offspring because there was a rule that an only son could not be conscripted. In so many small anecdotes, it becomes clear that the GMD soldiers were not liked by the local people. One man, the grandfather of three generations of Xiakou men renowned for their honesty, was killed by the soldiers near home. He was working for the GMD carrying grain for their provisions, but, being deaf, did not hear their command to halt as he crossed a bridge nearby. They shot him with a machine gun.
The Red Army, on the other hand, did not force conscription. They funded their army through the confiscation of goods from the rich landlords. They paid cash for the services of local laborers who carried rice for them, and they bought the food they took from small farmers. They were remembered as polite. Their methods were effective and young people voluntarily chose to join them, seeing in the Red Army an opportunity to improve their social and economic position, while serving their country in the effort to expel the Japanese from the homeland. Many people from Xiakou and the surrounding villages ended up leaving with the Red Army when they moved on in the Long March. While some of these "Old Red Soldiers" were still around in the 1990s, and some have had an important role in the local history of subsequent periods, most of the soldiers of Zhang Guotao's division died on the March and in the battles with the two Mas of Xinjiang. Local people say they died because the Red Army had many enemies--the GMD, bandits, and the minorities. From Xiakou's four teams, 24 people joined, mostly children ages 13 to 15; four or five were from team two. Locals say they went mostly from poor families.
Despite general admiration for the Red Army, there is, however, an ugly side to the history of the local soviet and the expediencies engaged in by the local activists associated with the Red Army. One old man who lives on Qian Jia mountain emphasized that the real Red Army soldiers were very few and quickly moved on. Two stayed in his village for several weeks training the local people to be activists. Many local people participated, he said, and almost all the young men either were part of the local guerilla force ( youjidui ) or worked carrying grain for the army or soviet.
Remembrances of the slogans of that period give an interesting insight into the micro-processes shaking society at that time. The old man from Qian Jia mountain said the task of the locally based guerilla groups was to "dig out the money" of the landlord class. This, he explained, they would do by attacking the local landlord families, taking away their moveable property, and dividing their land. "Digging" is very apt here, because burying silver in a secret location was a common method of storing savings, and it probably required a fair degree of extortion to find. A portion of the confiscated grain and silver would be sent to the Red Army and the rest divided among the local people by the activists. "To dig out the money" may have been a corruption of the more orthodox slogan "to dig out the capitalist roots." Another slogan "divide the paddy, divide the land" is still associated with that time, and shows the importance of economic gain as a motivation for participation in communist activities.
The local soviet government turned out to have a very violent administration, and many people in and around Xiakou were killed in events connected with the bloody rule of its local leader Wu Guanglin. Tradition has it that there is a cave near the township government seat where the bodies of the many individuals killed during his rule lie buried in a heap. Some remember that there was a single day when 16 people from the surrounding villages were executed there. When speaking of this period, there is a half-joke that people often recite: "Mao had told them to 'scare' ( xia ) the landlords, but they misheard it as 'kill' the landlords ( sha )."
After the Red Army came through in 1935, the guerillas came to Wu Guangniang's home. Not born into a wealthy family herself, Wu Guangniang was married into a landlord's family. Wu Guangniang's situation can hardly be seen as having turned out well, however. She was about twelve when the wedding chair was brought to take her away from her natal family. She remembers that she was so small she had to be tied into the sedan chair to prevent her from falling out. People laughed at her and her husband because they were so small. At her husband's house, she felt she was like a servant. Her father-in-law was a terrible miser, and he would scold her for using too much of this or that in her cooking when less would do. She had to sweep and clean and cook, and do whatever work they bid her do. They did not often have her go out to do field labor, but that was what she wanted to do. Anything to get out of that house and away from their scolding voices.
She was sixteen and still living with her child-groom on the top of the mountain in 1935. The Red Army soldiers she remembers as having treated her family kindly, but then the local militia came to do the work of "digging out the capitalist roots." The militiamen argued about her; some of them said she herself was one exploited by the landlords, while others said she belonged to the capitalist root that they were to destroy. Her fate was unclear, until that night one of the militia soldiers stole to where she was being kept and untied her so she was able to run away. This is one of many narrow escapes that she identifies with her fate.
While lives in every village in the area seemed to have been lost to the purges of Wu Guanglin and the guerillas, there was one story from Xiakou that had particularly bitter associations. Wu Guanglin was one of the Xiakou Wus. He was first cousin to Wu Guangniang and her brothers Wu Guangche and Wu Guangyou. Wu Guangyou, they say, was a man of great learning and talent. He had fine calligraphy and was a popular, fair, even idealistic leader who had a position in the local law court. Wu Guanglin was jealous of the talents and popularity of his cousin and used his power as "chairman" of the soviet to seek revenge. Once when Wu Guangyou went to attend a wedding deep in the mountains, Wu Guanglin used the circumstance to accuse Wu Guangyou of fraternizing with "bandits" and lawless elements and had him arrested. Before the day was done and any opposition could develop, he ordered his henchman to execute Wu Guangyou. The henchman, feeling uncomfortable because he realized that this was a frame, refused; whereupon Wu Guanglin became angry and took his own sword and beheaded Wu Guangyou himself.
Some people of Xiakou today will refer to Wu Guanglin as a "traitor" ( pantu ), a label applied in reference to the fact that he failed to join the Red Army himself when the Army finally moved over the snow mountain. It was generally expected that guerilla members would go with the Red Army when it left. Some remember bitterly how he pressured their own family members to join the Army and meet their death, while he himself stayed home. Others, however, relate that Wu Guanglin meant to leave with the Red Army, but the Army left suddenly. His wife of that time went with Red Army, they say, and did not tell him the Army was going.
After the Red Army left, landlords, who had fled the area when the Red Army came, began to return. With their return there was a period of retribution, during which the house of Wu Guanglin was burnt to the ground by a local landlord family, the Dengs of team three. After two or three months, however, Chiang Kai-shek issued a policy to prevent the rural population from being further polarized by such actions, and stated that the past disputes should be laid to rest. Land was simply returned to the landlord families and life went on much as it had, although it is said that after the Red Army left, the rural society under the leadership of the GMD became increasingly corrupt and chaotic. This process culminated in the two years of extreme chaos and widespread banditry that preceded Liberation, 1947-49. As for Wu Guanglin, he eluded the landlords' retribution and lived out a relatively quiet life in the area until his death in 1990.
LAWLESSNESS OF 1947-1949
Banditry was already a venerable institution when the Red Army came on the scene, and continued after it left. But in the period 1947-49, lawlessness became so widespread that no one was safe from bandit attack. The people of Xiakou tell how walking the road from the township to the village, they would be held up and forced to hand over the clothes off their back and the shoes off their feet. Often the bandits set up a roadblock above or below the village and took things from all who passed. If one were spotted turning back or warning others, there would be fearful repercussions. A villager may even have know the bandits personally, but he would have to pretend that he did not. If they were his kin, they spared him his clothes, nothing more.
Government militias and Pao Ge bandits became mixed up in the battles of local 'big men' ( duobazi ), usually landlords, fighting to control territory and trade. The Pao Ge was the local brand of secret society which combined a ritualized brotherhood with bandit activities. In the 1940s, however, the relatively neat opposition of the past between landlords and officials on the one hand, and bandits on the other, became muddied by alliances between the landlords and bandits. The new Pao Ge were relatively unrestrained small private gangs attached more or less to a particular personality. Because of the new alliances, they might be involved in attacking a rival landlord, a rival criminal gang, a local militia, or a common citizen. It is the Pao Ge of this form to which the direct remembrances of many people today relate.
The chaos of this period, with its widespread banditry, high-level leadership struggles, and consummate official corruption, has emerged as a prototype for social chaos in the collective memory. A clearer picture of this prototype emerges from a closer look at the political geography of the period, and especially the changing role of the Pao Ge secret societies. While the crime of this period is scorned as an encompassing hardship, the organizing principles of the Pao Ge incorporated aspects which compare positively to life today and are admired.
POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY OF THE 1940s
The township government in the 1940s had three principal officials-- the secretary general, the township head, and the deputy head-- a few yamen or errand-runners, and a yamen clerk. In addition, the township head brought with him a militia paid for out of his own pocket. The township leaders tended to be local people of wealthy background, generally of the landlord class. Below them were village officials and above them the warlord government and its alliances with the GMD.
While this account focuses on the interactions between the township government, village-level officials, and the various Pao Ge societies operating in and around Xiakou, these lower levels of activity were tied into and affected by the larger political machinations of the Nationalist period-- most notably the ambiguous relationship between the Nationalist (GMD) government of Chiang Kai-shek and the warlord in control of Xikang province, Liu Wenhui, based in the capital city of Ya'an. The roots of this relationship lay in the period of militarist domination in China , the Warlord Era from the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911 to the consolidation of power under the GMD achieved in the Northern Expedition of 1927-28. The collapse of dynastic rule swept China into a state of radical disintegration where local warlords controlled fiefs ranging from a few townships to entire provinces, and entered into shaky alliances whose only purpose was self-preservation. Warfare was endemic and nearly constant. Chiang's power was based on maintaining the loyalty of the former warlords, playing off rivalries and ruling through threat and cajole. This unreliable chain of command was a constant problem for Chiang throughout the Nationalist period and on into the War of Resistance against Japan and the Civil War against Communist forces. One of the many thorns in Chiang Kai-shek's side was the Xikang warlord Liu Wenhui, and his case is instructive for understanding the larger dynamic in China as a whole.
Liu Wenhui rose to prominence in Sichuan in the 1920s and 1930s, until he was ousted from Chengdu by a rival militarist-- his nephew. A family-brokered peace was arranged which mollified Liu Wenhui with control of neighbouring Xikang province, a sparsely populated but opium-rich territory on the periphery of Han China. Liu set up headquarters in the city of Ya'an and set about the highest priorities of a warlord: self-preservation and self-enrichment. The latter was relatively secure through the illicit but uncontrollable opium trade; the former goal (survival) entailed maintaining troops but using them as little as possible. In this, the territory of Xikang province was advantageous to Liu Wenhui, since its marginal position effectively insulated him from rival warlords, and from military engagements ordered by the central government. In the Chinese expression, Liu's base was blessed, for "the mountains are high and the emperor far away." From Chiang Kai-shek's perspective, the matching couplet was more appropriate, "where the water is shallow, the turtles [despots] abound." During the GMD pursuit of the communist forces during the long march, this contradiction between the two leaders came to a head: Chiang repeatedly ordered Liu to bring his troops against the fleeing communists, but Liu made excuses, while secretly allowing safe passage for the Red Army in a non-aggression pact-- a pact consistent with the first priority of preserving one's troops and one's power. Thus the engagements around Xiakou in 1934 did not involve Liu Wenhui's 24th route army, but the 21st army of GMD troops garrisoned just across the Sichuan border in Mingshan.
Liu walked the tightrope of allegiance throughout the 1940s as well. He made sure that his forces saw as little action as possible, while at the same time he was careful not to arouse the full wrath of Chiang Kai-shek, and thereby continued to reap the benefits of wearing the Nationalist mantle. Not surprisingly, the Liberation of Ya'an in 1949 was peaceful, and Liu Wenhui was rewarded for his unflinching non-aggression with a bureaucratic post in the new communist government in Beijing . Just as Liu Wenhui survived by learning to "wear many hats," successful lower level officials also learned to turn the flux of authority to their own advantage. In its simplest form, this involved Pao Ge bandits melting in and out of military units, or local militias changing color into communist guerrillas and then back to militias when the landlords returned. At the township and village level, the key to survival and wealth was simultaneous allegiance to the GMD, Liu Wenhui, and the Pao Ge .
While the Pao Ge was always technically an illegal organization, in the 1940s it mirrored in structure the government with which it had become somewhat merged. The Pao Ge , like the government, had large and small administrative units with corresponding leaders-- often the very same individuals as the government leaders. There was a county level Pao Ge unit headed by one of the two Gao brothers, a military police leader said to be the Pao Ge duobazi (boss-leader) in Ya'an (the other Gao Brother was a leading figure in the provincial parliament.). In Xiakou the village leader was Wu Wenbing who was also active in local Pao Ge activities between 1947-49. Yang Yunzhong was a bigger player in the Pao Ge than Wu Wenbing, with the label duobazi , and he was at the same time a landlord and the official government leader of a unit that combined Xiakou with his own village of Ding Jia ( baozhang ).
During this period there were at least three groups of Pao Ge organizations whose spheres of influence overlapped at Xiakou. These groups were competitive with one another, but not necessarily hostile enemies; rather their relations were more like the rivalries of companies in a modern context. Xiakou was within the sphere of a group led by the township leader Bai, another led by Yang Yunzhong, and still a third based in Xiali. Around Baoxing, Lushan, and even Zhongli, where criminal activities were more intense, open warfare between rival groups was more acute, and stories circulated of battles that razed whole villages to the ground. It was said that there was a time in Zhongli when everyone carried a gun on market day, and one could count on every man being either a soldier or a bandit.
There was a complex set of marriage links that connected the political and Pao Ge leaders at different levels and locations. In Xiakou, the local leader of the village and the Pao Ge , Wu Wenbing, had a sister, Wu Wenzhen, who married the duobazi -landlord-official Yang Yunzhong. Wu Wenbing and Wenzhen's maternal grandfather was the township leader in Xiali named Peng, who was also a duobazi . Peng, in turn, had good relations with another Xiali township leader "Zhu the benevolent" who was famous for fighting bandit elements and had his own militia.
Yang Yunzhong himself serves as a study in marriage alliance. With only 100 dan of rice from rent receipts, he was not a big landlord, but he nonetheless wielded great local power-- power bolstered by the marriages he developed. Yang had four wives. The first had no sons but many daughters, several of whom died young. Yang divorced her since she was unable to produce sons, but gave her some land from which she could get rents for support. He then married a woman named Diao, whose brother was himself a warlord under Liu Wenhui--a man of national importance. Strategically, this is said to have been Yang Yunzhong's most important marriage. She had two sons but died early. He then married Luo Er Jie (Luo Second-Sister), a person of power even greater than Yang's in the world beyond the local township. She carried a gun, traded in opium, and was said to be a full functioning member of the Pao Ge . Her sister was married to an important duobazi in Lushan, managed to take the place of her husband when he died, and with the Pao Ge name "Bao Shan" controlled a network that extended to Yaoji. Luo Er Jie was killed in the course of her work, after which Yang Yunzhong married Wu Wenzhen, the sister of Wu Wenbing and grand-daughter of Peng. Their son, Yang Zhengguo, quips that when he burned paper money he had a lot of mothers to burn to!
Thus while the GMD government officially led the national and local government and was responsible for taxation, courts etc., the power wielded by local Pao Ge networks became increasingly important, to the point where they superseded the official structures. One story in particular was offered by a local resident as demonstration that these non-government structures rivalled the government in influence: Tea porters on the road to Kangding had to pay a tea tax at local check stations. At Duo Yun, Wu Guanglu had no tax receipt so the local tax officials took away his tea. Wu protested that he was a friend of the local Pao Ge duobazi and sent his travelling companion to fetch the name card of the duobazi . That card got Wu Guanglu back his tea and allowed him to proceed to Kangding.
THE PAO GE
Some older people in Xiakou remember hearing their parents' generation tell about a different sort of Pao Ge society than the one they knew in their youth. Banditry in that remote time was the prerogative of independently organized locals who specifically targeted landlords, usually chosen because they were particularly stingy or otherwise offensive. This pattern contrasts with the later period; by 1947 everybody was a target for banditry and the Pao Ge had entered into collusion with landlords and government officials.
Wu Guangliang said that he never knew the old Pao Ge but heard his elders talk about it. Meetings at that distant time were held in remote mountain locations and a lookout would be posted in case government officials caught wind that something was up. At the meeting, someone or a group of individuals would complain to the Pao Ge boss about a landlord and propose a raid. The leader would give his approval and organise the sortie. "The only landlords that this Pao Ge did not rob were those who had a lot of soldiers and guns behind them. They tended to prey on those who were stingy," said Wu Guangliang,"but any landlord was fair game."
At that time, wealthy landlords might have their own hired militia to protect their interests. Since it was the landlords who also held the official positions in the GMD/Warlord government, these militias might also be the official police of the township. The township militia's job was to defend law and order, and this placed them in opposition to the Old Pao Ge who preyed on the landlords.
But as government control in the countryside weakened, the Pao Ge evolved from being an outlaw, predatory secret society, to play a stronger role in local political and economic affairs. In the 1930s and 1940s the opium trade was an important aspect of the local economy. While grown in Xiakou for just a short period just before Liberation, the region nonetheless lay between a primary opium growing region, the valley from Baoxing to Yaoji, and the local capital of Ya'an city where the Warlord Liu Wenhui was said to secretly use the trade to fund his army. The secret societies, because of their involvement in the contraband trade, became targets for collusion as Liu Wenhui sought to gain control of the trade for his own ends. The opium trade was critical in the transformation of the secret societies.
One story seems to capture the essence of the process of subversion that took place. Opium trade, like the Pao Ge , was always officially illegal and the government would pass down an order to round up the bandits involved. The local militias, however, would warn their "brothers." Then, when the militia went out on their "raid," they would fire their guns loudly. When they went back they would report their success in terms of how many bullets they had fired. In truth they had traded their extra bullets and guns to the bandits for opium, and this collaboration eventually grew into a blatant trade of guns and ammunition for opium, with landlords and officials fully participating.
It is said that when the Red Army came the local Pao Ge did not go against them and often helped them. Although locally I did not hear anyone claim that the Pao Ge made a systematic or coordinated effort at cooperation, it seems that many of the members of the old Pao Ge joined the Red Army. People said that after the Red Army left, then the "upright Pao Ge " had its turning point. Guns became increasingly prevalent and the government became increasingly corrupt. Instead of fighting the Pao Ge , the elite started to infiltrate them and buy them out. Some associated this with the rise of the Gao brothers in Ya'an. The conspiracy between criminal activity and the government became so intense that Liu Wenhui's government actually coordinated the planting of opium at Xiakou just before Liberation. The government handed out seeds to farmers who were authorized to grow opium, and in exchange the farmer had to return a quota to the government.
Stories of local banditry abound for the period before Liberation. Stories from the village of Xiakou demonstrate that the Pao Ge and other informal associations attempted to control, channel, and even limit the criminal activities, but that by 1947 the contradictions exploded into chaos and, despite the continued importance of connections, everyone was a target.
There was a general principle not to rob people of one's own village--bandits from Xiakou would raid a neighboring village such as Ding Jia or Taiping. From the locals' perspective, however, the principle was clearly compromised on several occasions.
Wu Wenzhen, former wife of Yang Yunzhong and sister of Wu Wenbing, remembers her family being robbed three times in her youth. Xiakou was robbed in 1934, when she was 18, by a group of bandits who came specifically to rob her family, knowing they were wealthy. The bandits descended from Qian Jia mountain during the day to take their new quilts and smoked meat. The second time was not long before Liberation and everyone in Xiakou was robbed. She was reluctant to name names, although she said all of them were dead now, but she did admit that Yu Sulan, a man from Xiakou, was a leader of the group. These two robbery events seem to conform to the general distinctions made between the "old" and later Pao Ge , since in the first robbery it was her family in particular who was targeted, and in the later instance, the whole village was indiscriminately robbed.
Wu Wenzhen also remembers the time her new family was robbed when she was living at Yang Yunzhong's house as his wife. She listed sentimentally the many personal belongings they took, and remembers that someone of the house grabbed her infant son and ran with him to the woods. These bandits were called out by Deng Tingjie, the team three Landlord, because of a dispute with Yang Yunzhong. Yang, in his capacity as an official, decided how taxes for the "winter defence" (dong fang ) should be paid. He told Deng how much Deng should pay. Deng felt it was too much, and countered that if Yang would pay tax at the same percentage on his own rents, then he, Deng, would also do so. Yang, in a position of unrivalled local power (both official and unofficial), ignored the suggestion and seized grain stores in payment of the tax. Deng was furious and went to Xiali to arrange revenge through "Zhu the benevolent." Zhu was away, and his nephew was managing affairs. Had Zhu been there, the debacle could never have proceeded, but the nephew, young and impetuous, agreed to muster a group from Zhongli to rob and kidnap Yang Yunzhong. They spirited Yang away, but within days he was freed and their belongings returned. Wu Wenzhen said they got all their belongings back because her mother's father was well connected with Zhu the benevolent.
It was notable that every time we heard this story it was a different particular line of connections that secured Yang Yunzhong's release, a fact that underlines the complicated and overlapping nature of connections at the time. In Wenzhen's version her maternal grandfather was key. By another, I was told the critical relationship was that Yang Yunzhong's daughter from one of his early marriages had married the Gao brother who was the militia head in Ya'an. He claimed that he saw with his own eyes 1000 militiamen marching up the road from Ya'an with machine guns to retrieve Yang Yunzhong. Yet another person said Yang was freed through connections in Lushan. Lushan had a famous bandit Chen Ziwu who had no land but a well-armed militia. He traded opium for guns and bullets and was so well armed that he had the strength to take on Liu Wenhui, and thus his power stretched to Ya'an. He never fought Liu Wenhui but the threat was enough to assure his position. This man's personal secretary had been hidden by Yang Yunzhong, after he had to run away after a murder, so their relationship was good. Some have asserted that it was this connection that had the power to prevail over the kidnappers.
The story of the kidnapping and release of Yang Yunzhong shows the state of chaos reached by the late 1940s, when the vacuum of central power gave rise to local strategies of survival that drew almost everyone into conflicts. As corruption spread, more and more people resorted to criminal activities, and Xiakou residents became increasingly caught up in local power struggles. Everyone became a potential victim.
THE PAO GE AS A MUTUAL AID SOCIETY
To say the Pao Ge was, at any point, simply a criminal organization, however, would be to miss out on an important aspect of the organization. The Pao Ge is significantly described as a "brotherhood for mutual support." It's founding myth comes from a story of three heroes from the classic novel The Three Kingdoms ( San Guo Yan Yi) who die for each other in acts of loyalty. Local people talk of "one Pao Ge that had two faces": the "clear water" ( qingshu i) Pao Ge and the "muddy water" ( hunshui ) Pao Ge . Those who were identified as muddy water Pao Ge were involved in its criminal activities; those who were clear water Pao Ge used the Pao Ge networks merely for association and support.
The "name card" ( ming pian ) is said to have been a key function of the Pao Ge . The duobazi leaders issued name cards for members of their organization who travelled. The name card would be a paper with the bearer's name and the duobazi's signature on it, with a distinctive seal, for example a pattern of chicken feathers glued to the outside surface. When the traveller went through an outside territory, he could show this card to a local Pao Ge member and would be given lodging and some degree of protection from local bandits and government authorities. Not everyone would be given a name card. It was the power and prerogative of the "Granddads" ( laoye ) and duobazi to issue them to chosen travellers in need.
This was an important and long-standing function of the Pao Ge , for when it sanctioned a criminal activities, such as a murder, the culprit could use the network provided to shelter himself from repercussions. He could go to an outside area and the local duobazi would shelter him from investigation, and provide him with the necessities of life. If that leader felt he could no longer protect the person, he would give him some money and the fugitive would go on to another Pao Ge group. The leaders would remember whom they had helped, and when they in turn needed help, they counted on brotherly reciprocity.
The Pao Ge was a single network to cultivate connections, but it was used for both clear and muddy purposes. But when the 'muddy water' leaders took control of the Pao Ge networks in the 1930s and 1940s, locals say, the Pao Ge changed.
The structure of the Pao Ge involved participation in meetings and rituals of induction. There were five grades of the Pao Ge , and after moving through the five grades one became an initiate. Being an initiate entitled sons to enter the Pao Ge and opened the way to becoming a "big granddad," a position of ritual seniority but not necessarily real power. Also among the initiates were the duobazi , men of wealth and power who controlled the activities and sponsored the feasts and meetings in the later phase of the organization.
General meetings were held once a year or so, when a feast was prepared and rituals carried out, but meetings were said to increase to three or four a year during the period 1947-49, corresponding to the increased importance of the Pao Ge . On August 15 all the members of the Pao Ge would contribute some money to the leadership. This money was used to buy guns and help chosen families who were having difficulties, although some people describe lotteries for distributing funds. They cite as relevant the axiom that, "one person cannot lift ten people, but ten people can lift one."
Life was not easy for the duobazi . The held a key-- but precarious-- position as patrons in the local social hierarchy. Old Yang, an older resident of Xiakou (not related to Yang Yunzhong), gave insight into the general problem of landlords and duobazi of the period, by telling of the example of Zhu the benevolent. Zhu had independent wealth from renting land and hired the town militia from his pocket, but he had to entertain lavishly to hold his position. "It was no good to save money at that time; one had to spend it on making friends that could keep you powerful." Zhu killed eleven pigs at the new year festival for the feasting he sponsored. From Yang's narratives one gets a picture that the leaders were not in full control of their armed underlings; the best a good leader could do was to keep a balance and judge whom they could afford to offend and who was really important.
Pao Ge leaders garnered loyalty and respect through providing both favors and a sense of order in an otherwise anarchic world. According to Old Yang, Yang Yunzhong was a man with excellent connections, comfortable and relaxed, personable and good at making friends. He went about like a common person, without body guards, carrying a long pipe as his only weapon. "If you had a problem, you could go to him for help.":
Yang Yunzhong's nephew had borrowed five shen of rice from my Aunt but did not return it. When she asked for it, the nephew would be condescending and ridiculed her. When my aunt went to Yang Yunzhong, he not only made the nephew pay her back, but he shook his long pipe at the nephew and made him bow down and then beat him.
Old Yang said that some of those involved in criminal activities within the village were not originally bad people-- it was the society and the times that caused them to become criminals. When people in Xiakou were just starting to take up banditry and acquiring guns, they came to Old Yang's family and told them they should buy guns and join them. The Yangs refused and as a result they became mistrusted and a target. One night they were robbed. They did not know who had come to their house; the bandits wore disguises and spoke in the secret language of the Pao Ge . Afterwards, however, they slowly came to know who it had been, and among them were people from Xiakou. After the robbery, the Aunt went to Yang Yunzhong and, knowing he knew about all robberies since they had to be cleared through him, pleaded to get her things back. He answered her that her things were few, she didn't have a lot worth robbing, so if she would forget it, he would make sure it would not happen again. And it did not.
Besides the Pao Ge , there were several other institutional ways in which disputes were settled in the Old Society. For minor property disputes, the tea house was the preferred mode of judgement. Two parties who disputed over where property lines should fall, or the ownership of a particular tree, or like cases, would agree to go to the tea house for a judgement. At the tea house, local officials or other persons known to be learned and fair would give a public hearing. After hearing both sides, they would make a judgement and determine the level of compensation to be paid. These judges would offer a public explanation of their decision, and the "reasonableness" of their speech was considered of key importance. The decision was binding and the loser, in addition to the damages, had to pay for the tea. Local people had great respect for this old method of "speaking reason" ( jiang daoli ), and feel it was more fair than the courts of today. The tradition was ended at Liberation.
For small disputes within the family, the village elders of the same family name would be called upon to arbitrate. In the Old Society generational distinctions were said to be more important than today, and any individual who bore the generational name above one's own commanded respect, regardless of relative age. Elders could discipline and even strike their patrilineal cousin's children as readily as their own. The general system is perceived to have broken down considerably today, although families still call on Wu Guangxing, Wu Guangliang and Wu Guangkui--respected individuals of the older generation-- to settle family arguments among the Wus.
For more serious legal problems the township and the county had a government system of courts, and several old stories of court cases are told, such as this one where a woman sued her husband's kin: A widow in Xiakou's second team ran a successful tea manufacturing business out of the home of her deceased husband. Because she had several men around who worked for her at the business, the antagonistic kin of her dead husband, having her property to gain if she were to depart, spread many evil rumors about her relations with these workers. In the face of their attempts to discredit and disinherit her, she took them to court and in fact won the case.
Petty disputes over inheritance and land ownership, I was told, were an unpleasant aspect of life in the Old Society. On the other hand, even in the most chaotic time, people in the Old Society possessed a strong set of principles that tried to keep behavior in check. This resonates with a more general central point old timers like to make contrasting the Old Society with lawlessness today--in the Old Society the Pao Ge and kinship networks were part of a system that was strongly principled, and so people had a sense of order and respect that is lacking today.
TODAY AND YESTERDAY
The generational elders, the tea house and even the Pao Ge were grass roots institutions which regulated human relations in the Old Society. As the government became increasingly corrupt in the 1940s, however, they were hard-pressed to cope with the contradictions that emerged. Internal strife reached a desperate peak, and intra-village crime took on serious proportions. No family was safe from the ravages of banditry on the eve of Liberation. Nonetheless, older individuals today feel that even in that crime ridden, strife stressed society, there was somehow a sense of honor and restraint lacking today. One evening I listened as several older men sat telling a young man of the village how the Pao Ge embodied these qualities now lacking, and in the process they also made the point that the Pao Ge gave them a place and mode of appeal that was, in its time, stronger and more effective than the government:
Wu Guangjun's father went to do some business trading Indigo. On the way back he felt someone touch his shoulder as he passed through Qipan. The shoulder was where one hid money in the old days. When he got home he unwrapped his cloth pouch and found a rock in the place of his money. He immediately went back to Qipan where he had felt the touch on his shoulder and appealed to the local Pao Ge leader. Because he had good relations with this leader, the Pao Ge man said, "you go home, I will look into the matter immediately" and off they each went. The next day the Pao Ge leader told Wu Guangjun's father that he was sorry, there was nothing he could do, the thief had been an outsider passing through. Wu Guangjun's father's claim had been efficiently processed without his losing a lot of time and effort on the matter.
The weak were also protected by the Pao Ge and here they told a story about Wu Guangxing's family. There was a local bully who wanted to cut the trees that belonged to Wu Guangxing's family. Since Wu Guangxing's family was just a woman and two small children, they were potentially very vulnerable. Because of their favorable relations with the Pao Ge network, however, this bully did not dare to bother the trees.
The old men continued their portrait of the old days as a time when moderation characterized criminal behavior, and even thieves valued principles such as the ideal of loyalty. I had heard several people make the point that thieves in the Old Society rarely beat people and even in the period of 1947-1949 few people were killed in bandit raids on homes and individuals. Now, they say, it is more likely a thief will beat or kill someone; before there was a greater sense of honor.
That evening the following story was given by the old men as an example of the spirit that has been lost: At Mingshan an "outside" criminal had failed to register with the local Pao Ge but was nonetheless engaged in criminal activities in the area, working independently. A group of locals caught on to who he was and gave chase. They caught him against a gully where there was no bridge for him to cross and run away. They were beating him, blow after blow, soon to beat him to death, when one among them, a man famous for martial arts complained, "you all are doing this too slowly. I can kill him with one strike." The others gave way and this man proceeded to pick up the thief and throw him over the gully to safety. Later (the story goes) the man of mercy with the martial arts skills encountered a stranger in Ya'an, who invited him to a meal and gave him money. This, he believed, was the man whom he had saved years before.
Older people, in recalling the Old Society, like to point out that people back then had many special skills, such as magical martial arts, that were not passed down. More than that, people of that time had a greater sense of honor, respect and "virtue and morality" ( renyi daode ), as the men in the last story demonstrated. The man with the ability in martial arts had a sense that his comrades were going too far in their punishment of the outsider, and he took it upon himself to save him. Likewise, the man saved made a noble gesture of gratitude, although years had passed by. Life in the Old Society was poor, and it was made difficult by bickering, petty feuding and ultimately banditry, but the Old Society also had some traditions of which the old folks are proud, and it is with regret that they feel these traditions are being lost.
WEALTH AND POVERTY
While there are some aspects of life in the Old Society which may compare favorably to the life-styles adopted today, economically, people were unequivocally far worse off. "In the Old Society life was bitter," they say, "it was much harder and much poorer back then." One important way this is commonly expressed is in terms of the inferior food which people ate then. Most local families were lucky if they had an annual new-year's pig to eat. Every family would feed a pig, but many would have to sell a half or the whole pig to give them the cash they needed for other basics. Families frequently went for two months without meat. Very few families ate rice on a regular basis. Most relied on coarse corn cakes for their staple, and some did not even have that. They say that even at that time they felt that to be able to eat rice was a better state of affairs, and their reliance on corn was a badge of the poverty of their mountain environment.
In recollecting their past, Xiakou farmers highlight aspects easily passed over by urban observers. Old timers like to point out that before Liberation they did not have rubber shoes. They are referring to the army sneakers that since the time of Liberation have been the ubiquitous footgear of the rural population. Before Liberation, for work they only had home-made cloth shoes for the winter and straw shoes for the summer. Carrying a heavy load on steep wet mountains , it is related, was much more difficult in the home-made shoes, and the cloth shoes were very uncomfortable in the damp climate. With the advent of rubber shoes they could carry a heavy load more safely and comfortably. Generally they did not have the relative abundance of well tailored clothes they have today--garments were coarse and inconvenient. Men wore big cloaks that required belts at the waist to prevent them from tripping over them. Most people just had one or two sets of clothing, whereas a young person today might wear a different outfit every day for a month.
The poorest families were landless families, and a sign of poverty was the need to sell one's labor to survive. To earn cash, men often worked carrying tea on the road to Kangding, in the direction of Tibet , and medicinal mountain herbs coming back. They would take payloads of around 80 pounds, plus what they had for a bedroll and provisions, and in this way they would walk 40 kilometers a day. Relative wealth and poverty in the Old Society are generally spoken of as part of a cyclical process. The bottom of such a cycle is often personified, in the memory of the middle-aged and elder folk, in the image of a degenerate male household head, addicted to opium, who squandered the last of the family fortune. The family of the opium addict had it hard.
Wu Guangjun's father was an addict. He beat his children frequently. Wu Guangjun said that even though he was a good fisherman, his father would sell the fish for cash which he would use to buy opium, leaving his family to go hungry.
Wu Guangche became an addict and sold his land to pay for his habit. While his sister told me their parents had never been rich, his son, Wu Wenxue, believes there was old money in the family, but that his father squandered it. Wu Guangche was so impoverished after his first wife died he "sent" (some say "sold") his two sons to other families, one to live with a childless couple in the town, the other remaining in Xiakou. The father then wandered away from Xiakou and some few years passed before he returned with a new wife and a third new son, Wu Wenxue.
Wu Wenxue says he has never forgotten how his elder brother, Wu Wenchuan, the one who never left Xiakou, earned some cash as a teenager cutting firewood in local woodlots and selling it in Ya'an; how his brother hid the earnings carefully in his room, not knowing his father had caught on to the hiding place. Then, waiting until the wood season had neared completion and the savings were at their peak, the father raided the store of his son's savings. The town son, meanwhile, was doing relatively well. He had some small work doing errands, making tea, etc., for a high Army official. Once he came to Xiakou to visit and when the father saw that he had some cash, the father chased him around the village at a run to wrangle it away from him. The second wife, the mother of Wu Wenxue, is said to have given birth 15 times and only one sister survived of the lot.
But those who indulged in opium had their own price to pay as well. Wu Guangxing's father had two brothers, Zhi and Pan, who smoked opium and ruined themselves. With no inheritance and a poor family situation, their sons went off to work as porters on the road to Kangding and were never heard from again. When the two brothers Zhi and Pan died, they had no one to bury them. People who smoked opium, Wu Guangxing added, were not nice people because they were always focused on where to get their next fix. They were the ones likely to get involved in crimes.
Land was perceived as an important means to wealth and security. Rents were high and interest rates usurious. Moreover, rents were not adjusted in years of bad harvest. With land one could build one's fortune; while without land one really had nothing. I heard several stories of hard working and thrifty individuals who saved their every penny to accumulate land and so threw off their poverty. It is said that when a landlord accumulated enough land to receive 200 dan of rice a year in rents, then he and his family would cease to labor on the land. A man who was, in addition, successful at business, that is buying and selling, could propel his family into riches. And a man who had some money, and knew how to use his money to develop his social connections, found his way to power.
For one individual, asking about material conditions in the Old Society provoked a memory of the family of Wu Guangleng, the poorest family in the village in the period before Liberation. Wu Guangleng's family, while of the family name Wu, in fact was not blood kin or any known relation to the rest of the Wus who numerically dominated Xiakou. This family moved to Xiakou from lower in the valley in the time of the preceding generation. They came presumably in the hopes that their name would be of some little help in establishing themselves in an area where wild resources, succour for the very poor, were more abundant. They gave their son the generational name of his peers in the village to further the effort of blending in. This family was so poor that they made a staple bread out of the root of the Zhong Lu palm and banana trees:
If you want to know how bad that time could be, go ask Wu Guangleng--his family did not have a clod of dirt under their feet or a shingle over their heads [meaning landless and fortuneless]. That whole family slept under this one quilt, their only quilt, and it was a sight. I remember when they hung it to air and it was just this big hodgepodge of rags stuck together. That kind of quilt does not keep a person warm...At lunch we kids all had our corn cakes and we saw that he had a different kind of bread, one made from palm root. We children did not know that it was because they were so poor they had no corn, and so we would switch our corn cakes with his. I ate his cake and he had mine. It was not bad to eat. But then our parents, seeing this, said we could give him our cakes, but because he was poor we should not take his.
In China , feeding someone is an important symbol that imbues a relationship with meaning--be it that of friendship, kinship, client to patron, patron to client, or even romantic love. Furthermore, how a family eats is an important marker of class. It is not surprising that food usually tops their list of why conditions are better today than before. Consider, for example, that it was forty years later when someone remembered with disapproval that the family of Wu Guangfu, a wealthy man of pre-Liberation Xiakou, set two types of tables when they invited the family of Wu Guangleng to work on their land for them. At one the host family ate rice and at the other Wu Guangleng's family ate corn cake. To work other people's land, the pay, if it be called that, was and is no more than the day's food. The underlying principle of the arrangement is that it is a system of "trading labor" rather than employer/employee, even when the arrangement is not reciprocated. That this man's family ate rice while he gave others corn was a significant symbolic gesture of exclusiveness and class.
In the stories above, class consciousness gives the food a special significance, and the "bitter" status of life in the old days is established through comparison to what they could see that others had at that time, or to what they knew people would have in a later period. Thus descriptions of hardship in the Old Society can be weighed on three levels: as non-contextual feelings of discomfort such as might accompany hunger, sickness, and cold; as feelings of relative deprivation compared to what they were aware others had at the time; and as the representations of the reevaluation of past experience in later periods.
Xiakou farmers will imply that their conclusion that the life before was poorer is based on non-symbolic, common-sense considerations. Rice went with certain foods in a way that corn cakes could not--it could absorb rich meat sauces whereas corn bread did not physically mix well. In addition, although they had more fish in those days than they have today, they had no spices and less oil to flavor the fish and so eating fish in the old days was very boring and unpalatable. The quilt that Wu Guangleng's family had was poor protection against cold. How should we evaluate these assertions based on the sensual experiences of physiological fact? While I would not invalidate the reality of physical discomfort, I would suggest that it is social categories which constitute the only means through which experience can have meaning and through which memories can be fully constituted and expressed. This does not deny apperception of raw uncategorized sensation; rather what constitutes the memory of that experience is the result of a filtering through categories that are socially constructed through the interactions of human groups. Thus, while it may be the case that the Old Society was a time of great discomfort, this fact only becomes significant when a person expresses this conclusion as meaningful.
That local people were in a state of deprivation in the Old Society is demonstrated, in part, through comparisons to what people knew others had at that time in the past. The quilt was notable in its difference to the quilts of other families. That Wu Guangleng's family had to eat corn cake when their hosts had rice underlined their deprived status.
But another aspect of this phenomenon of relative deprivation also begins to suggest itself: in a real sense people were deprived because conventions labelled them as such. One old man, Zhu Congde, once demonstrated for us how he used to speak to schools as part of the "recall past bitterness; savor today's sweetness" activities organized during the Cultural Revolution. "We were very poor before. We all had to eat corn cake and did not have rice." Then he interrupted his dramatic recitation to add, "those old corn cakes were really good, mmm, I wish I had one now." Food categories have an ideal hierarchy and the proper conclusion should be that rice is better than corn which is better than palm bread. That individual judgements could, even for a moment, invert this order demonstrates a sense in which poverty was manufactured. In the memory of Wu Guangleng's cakes quoted above, the taste of the palm cake to the un-self-conscious child's palate was "good," but that the family ate palm bread nonetheless labelled their position as difficult, and no doubt in a very real sense their position was difficult because it was labelled such. This assertion does not contradict the notion that the Old Society was a time of physical hardship and discomfort.
In assessing remembrances of past poverty, it also needs to be recognized that the process of remembering the Old Society has been colored by particular experiences of the communist period. In later days, especially during the Cultural Revolution, the communist party encouraged people to re-explore their past in the light of two themes: 1) identifying the exploitative forces of the past that may have conditioned relations in the present; and 2) emphasizing ways in which changes brought by the communist government represented great improvements over the pre-communist period. Memories now forty years old of material hardships borne, or of a meal where two types of food were served, would seem likely to have increased in significance in the class struggles of the subsequent period.
Although such experiences may have increased in significance, I see no reason to doubt that the changes were rooted in unhappy aspects of the Old Society that cried out for change or that the gratitude commonly expressed is sincere. For example, many older women expressed unhappiness concerning the position of women and the conditions of marriage in the Old Society. "Young girls today," they say, "have it much better. They can move about freely and can go out to movies." Moreover, they point out that girls today can get to know their husbands before they marry and they have a say in the choice. "Before, we did not know until the wedding day what he looked like. If he turned out to be pock-marked and ugly, we just had to forget about it." Older women also shared with us their recollection of the pains of foot-binding, a common practice in this area before Liberation. Advances in the position of women have been widely touted by the communist party; propaganda value aside, older women are genuinely grateful that the old rules have been reformed.
INHERITANCE, SUCCESS, AND THE CYCLE OF FORTUNE
The people say that the villages around Xiakou did not have very big landlords; nothing to compare to the old landlords of the plain areas, to the type of landlord made famous in the communist propaganda , or to the rich man of today. People of differing class backgrounds have made this point to say, 'well, we gave our landlords a hard time of it in the revolutionary period, but when you look back at it, their's was not such a wealthy life.' Many of them seem to feel that the communist label of landlord applied in this mountain area was somewhat inappropriate. While you may hear a local landlord's reputation tainted by his snobbery, his stinginess, or even by the old system of usury, it was not tainted by any great extravagance of wealth.
A landlord of that time did not have so much. Maybe he had two or three pigs to kill at new year's. He ate better. His clothes were newer instead of the rags we wore. He might, if he were very well off, have a couple who worked for him--a woman to cook and a man to cut firewood. But in many cases his family still worked the land. He did not have the many possessions that an average family today has and his condition was no better than an average one of us today. We have televisions and radios and plenty of rice to eat. At the very most, if he was really rich, he had a gramophone player.
In the villages closest to Xiakou, the biggest landlords had around 200 dan of rents which they reckon as small. There is a tradition that there were some very wealthy landlords who used to make Qian Jia mountain their home. They had rents of 1000 dan and most all of the paddy of Ding Jia was theirs. They were well gone by the time the oldest living people today were born, and their story remains a bit mysterious. Some think their wealth may have come from successful forestry enterprises--the selling of large trees for coffins. They are known because of the ruins of large house foundations that remain.
Many rich people were said to live at the far end of the plateau above Xiakou, the area around Shangli. Nonetheless, having visited some of the famous landlord homes at that end of the broad valley, beautifully carved houses now protected by official historical labels, I have heard Chinese from other parts of Sichuan dismiss them as "small" and "nothing special."
A family's fortune is perceived as cyclical in nature and determined by an interaction of individual ability and fate . Fate ( mingyun ) can be regarded as a sort of absolute potential that the individual will play himself against in the course of his life's struggle. It is paradoxically both fixed and malleable. A person's fate is determined by factors such as the way in which ancestors are buried, the positioning of his house (geomancy), and aspects of individual character as represented by his particular configuration of the eight trigrams, (a kind of horoscope). Fate is fixed in the present, but can to some extent be manipulated for the future by moving a house, altering a grave, or timing the birth of one's child. These factors set in broad strokes an individual's potential for fortune or disaster.
Skill in everyday tasks and affairs, success in academic learning, achievements of physical technique, on the other hand, are the marks of an able person ( nenggan ). Fortune without ability is mere luck ( yunqi ), an erratic happening that is probably unsustainable. A good fate alone cannot guarantee real success--an individual should apply himself to realize his potential. The able person who applies himself will meet with success unless his fate intervenes making success impossible. In general, however, good opportunities are in greater scarcity than good ability. There are many able and hard-working people who are not great successes, but the successful are generally assumed to be able.
The concepts of fate and ability and their role in creating success or failure are well-illustrated in Wu Guangxing's analysis of inheritance in the Old Society:
Inherited wealth can only last three generations or so, then old money will be lost. Wealth is something people have to make for themselves. Sons will inherit evenly and some will do better than others. Each son may get no more than 100 yuan but some will prosper with this, while others will lose it and live poorly. Therefore, one cannot say it is bad to have many sons and only a small lot to give to each of them. It can happen, however, that a single person gets a great boost because they have a big inheritance.
He then told the story of Wu Guangfu, who inherited three people's estates (his father's and those of his father's two brothers), and was the head of a family of three brothers who did not divide their property.
Wu Guangfu was the brother of Wu Guangkui, who still lives in the village today. Wu Guangfu, many people including Wu Guangxing have said, was a man of ability who made good money trading in Indigo. His father was still alive in the 1940s but gave the leadership of the family to Fu, the eldest of his three sons. The second brother after Wu Guangfu was a student who went away to Ya'an to study. While the course of events was interrupted by that brother's untimely death, it was hoped that his learning would lead to a career divorced from the land. The youngest brother, Wu Guangkui, worked the family land, learned neither to read nor write, and being still young had not separated from the paternal household. Wu Guangfu himself, a man of business, did not till the soil.
A cousin of Fu's, Guanglu, had joined the Red Army in 1935 never to return, and so left his father without a direct heir. This lot came to the family of three brothers. It was a combination of ability and fate, however, which gave Wu Guangfu his further boost; he was individually chosen as an adopted son ( fu erzi ) of another uncle when that man became childless. In this arrangement, Wu Guangfu had to move into the uncle's home, agree to care for the uncle and his wife in their old age, and in exchange for his assumed responsibility, he acquires the inheritance. His good fate was that he had heirless uncles whose property he had an opportunity to obtain. His ability had an important role, however, because he was chosen over other nephews to receive the wealth of this last uncle, chosen because he had the means to take care of that uncle (I have heard the expression, "he bought the inheritance"), but also because he was perceived as relatively reliable in his attitude toward his elders.
The importance of concepts such as fate and the cyclical nature of family wealth have emphasized the reversible and capricious nature of family fortune. This fact is made further evident in the many stories of how a particular family became wealthy or impoverished just before Liberation, and how the snapshot status of that moment determined the family's status for the next thirty or forty years in a great reversal-- the wealthy became the "bad" classes and the poor the "good." These are stories that mainly feature the workings of fate. In talking about the Old Society, I have also heard the remark made that "money finds money," a comment rooted in class analysis, and alien to the concepts of fate and ability. Class analysis, I would say, is the least common mode of describing the sources of wealth in the Old Society. The most common portrait of the creation of wealth in the Old Society is that able and hard-working people became the well-to-do, and the lazy never amounted to anything. All these modes of analysis are applied to conditions today in much the same way.
A short biography told by Old Yang about his grandfather's brother can illustrate these ideas of capricious fate, the value of hard work, and the essentially arbitrary nature of class labels. Yang Xingbang had a lot of money. He had a large amount of dry land (30 mu ), but no paddy. He was not wealthy from his land, but from his many enterprises. Early on Yang became a skilled carpenter and earned money making coffins and building landlords' houses. He ran a lodging house in Xiakou; he was a butcher and sold pigs; he sold tea, and he ran an opium den. As a result, he provided his elder generation with nice tombs.
Yang Xingbang's wealth and fame grew and he began to have more powerful friends, like a Yang cousin from Zhongli who could help him "get things done." Old Yang guesses that his family never grew as populous or wealthy as the Yangs of Zhongli because, lacking paddy land, it was difficult for them to marry. Nevertheless, his grandfather's brother's wealth became so established that in 1934 he was chosen to sponsor the annual festivities at the local Chuan Zhu temple. He bought many gifts for the temple, and his friends helped contribute red silk cloth and wooden plaques. After this honor his wealth was famous, and the next year thirty bandits from Zhongli came to rob him. He ran to Mingshan to hide. Eventually, he found the threat of banditry so heavy that the next year he emigrated to Mingshan, where there were many wealthy people, and established a weaving business. This was fortunate because the next year, 1935, the Red Army came and he surely would have been killed had he remained at home.
Later, Yang Xingbang had two children, a son and a daughter. In the late 1940s his daughter lived in Xiakou and, with her husband, managed the family interests, including a mill. About this time Yang decided to mortgage his dry land and rented paddy for his family to work. He himself was still in Mingshan. Thus he had income, he ate two pigs a year, but he was now of the landless category. Also, the income standards in Mingshan were high, so at Liberation he could again count his special luck; he was given a good class assignment. This man had been hard working, but he also relied on a good fate that allowed him to escape the bad class label. Others were less fortunate, and there is a whole genre of such stories about the luck of the draw in 1949 which offer a parallel alternative to the class analysis which is party dogma. While the impulse to attack local landlords clearly existed in the Old Society, in hindsight, and with the experiences of the intervening period, people today feel that the revolutionary experiences carried with it some excesses in this regard. In this mountainous region, the communist party is more appreciated for the economic progress that its leadership provided than for its role in pushing class struggle.
The Old Society represents a critical parallel for comparison with conditions today. Old people's direct memories of the 1930s and 1940s share in common with post-reform China a family-based system of production, receding government control, increasing corruption, and the threat of increasing crime and even disease. With the full return of family-based production, the concepts that defined a family's fortunes in the Old Society are fully relevant today. As a result, when speaking (in 1993) about growing inequalities or social problems, people often made the observation that "society today is just like the Old Society."
Even so, there are some areas in which the reform period is different from that time in the past. One key area in which old timers were nostalgic about the Old Society is the sphere of values and beliefs. In the Old Society, people are believed to have been more moderate (in terms of criminal violence), and they appreciated the value of their human relationships. People in the Old Society were more careful in their work and so had greater skill. The legal system was more fairly based on the ideal of speaking reason and there was a well-developed community-based dispute settlement system. Perhaps most interestingly, in the Old Society there existed informal networks which gave people position and power in the areas where the government failed to deliver.
That said, conditions today are unequivocally better than they were in the Old Society. Contemporary social problems are not equal to the full-scale chaos of the 1947-49 period and people continue to be grateful to the communist party for the upright leadership they provided in addressing the problems of that time. The party is appreciated for its role in land reform and marriage laws and, most clearly, for improving the general standard of living. The general economic progress that has emerged since 1949 is in no way overlooked by these farmers.
For a colorful description of banditry in traditional China in the classical literature, consult Shuihuzhuan translated as All Men Are Brothers by Pearl Buck (Luo 1957). For a more scholarly treatment of the subject, see Billingsley (1988), Metzger (1974) (1974); banditry from a north China perspective in Perry (1980).
Many accounts link the "Elder Brother society" ( Gelaohui )-- a national-scale version of the Pao Ge -- to the rural mobilisation of the communist movement. Thus we learn that the general Zhu De was a member of the Gelao hui (Smedley 1956), and that Gelaohui "bandit groups" were involved with helping communist forces (Billingsley 1988, p. 251, 255). These findings underscore the idea that the bandit/secret society forces were a crucial grassroots source of support, but do not necessarily suggest an ideological commitment to anything higher than survival. In Xiakou, the Pao Ge was in `alliance' with local government forces. The swift and effective suppression of `secret societies' as one of the first measures of the fledgling communist regime also indicates a recognition of their potential destabilising influence for any central authority.
Friedman (1974, p.157) suggests that "[d]ifferent localities in China lived on different popular myths" where "somewhat deified local heroes provided approved models of ultimate actions." For Sichuan as a whole, The Three Kingdoms has particularly strong resonance, and its heroes take on the live significance Friedman observes.
In the Chengdu plain, not far away, there were landlord families of more fantastic wealth. Perhaps the most famous of these were the Liu family of Dayi, the family of the warlord Liu Wenhui. While this family's wealth was formidable enough, during the Cultural Revolution fact was mixed with fantasy and the family estate in Dayi was turned into a "Landlord Museum." Here, famous myths were manufactured about the way a landlord family of old ran its affairs. Visitors were told that one of the Lius kept a collection of women who provided him with the human milk he allegedly craved. Visitors were shown a torture chamber where the Lius were said to torture the peasants who worked for them.
This dynamic is also observed by Hsu (1949), but he emphasizes that social mobility was a function of a work ethic among the poor, and the extravagance of the wealthy-- a characterisation not generally accepted by villagers.
About This Essay
This essay focuses on the moral character of village life from 1911 to 1949 (referred to locally as the minguo , or nationalist period), highlighting the role of secret societies and a government in decline. It is based on older villagers' recollections of life in Xiakou village before the communist liberation, as told to us in the early 1990s. An earlier version of this narrative appeared as the chapter entitled "Old Society" in Pam Leonard's 1994 Ph.D. thesis "The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village ."