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Kwangtung Bandits - 1826-1832

A cautious student who reads into the Chinese history can construct a cycle of bandits beginning with the decline of Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) when China Proper already became a populated country and the literati slowly but surely established themselves as a ruling, privileged class. He can connect with it all the social uprisings on one hand and, on the other, he can relate it to the process of the reproduction of Chinese. Although there is no reliable census of population at his service, he can rely on the experience of mankind and say that despite all the natural obstacles the Chinese have been increasing at intervals and that with each large net increase the curve of bandits rises, if such a curve can be made. At any rate, he can insist upon the proposition that for a long time there has been a problem of bandits in China.

Flood and famine, it is said, produce bandits. Both occur every few years and may bring disastrous results. Agriculture, industry and commerce, the arteries of economic life, disappear or remain stagnant. People by the thousand stand homeless and everywhere charity is too inadequate to succor them. Without food and shelter, so it is concluded, they are bound to become lawless lest they be starved to death or commit suicide.

Flood and famine do not turn out bandits. Either of them, however, may bring economic pressure on those who own property and sooner or later some of these people will be obliged to mortgage or sell their possessions while others will discharge their workers. When they find themselves propertyless and there is no prospect of employment to insure the maintenance of their life, the burning out of their moral fiber must move with accelerated speed. Demoralization arises with hunger. Their thought becomes anti-social, their courage dangerous, their habit reckless; all are fine qualities of a bandit whom they used to despise. Now they feel like him and fall into his lot. In their misery, or rather in the shifting of property or employment, therefore, we find the significance of the event of flood or famine if such an event precede the increase of bandits in China.

Although the government may be incompetent in many other ways, it is not so in the matter of curbing "lawless" Chinese. The Chinese officials are ever ready to suppress their own people. Hundreds, nay thousands, of bandits had been beheaded every generation. Thousands upon thousands have been imprisoned under terrible conditions and punished with deadly weapons. Suffice it to point out the fact that wherever the army fails, the "united defense leagues" and the "village unions" or "peace-preservation organizations" (baoan zuzhi) succeed. The reason for this is obvious. The army is composed of men who come with one or more officials from another province and are professional soldiers, living to eat and to destroy. The "unions" and "leagues," on the other hand, are all made up of the inhabitants of their respective localities and, perhaps except the officers, have no regular employment. Previously, they were compelled to lie idle and steal or rob. Now they earn a fair income as "policemen" and go about as useful citizens in other ways. They begin to acquire what lies beyond the "rice bowl," guard the road between right and wrong, and become sympathetic with those who need help.

Guangdong was once called Kwangtung, and Guangzhou [Kwangchow], the capital of Guangdong, was once called Canton. The first trade between China and western nations flourished from 1760 to 1840 in Canton. There are many different dialects in China that may cause great difficulties to communicate between Chinese. In Hong Kong and Guangdong Province people speak Cantonese which is like another language for most Chinese, who speak Mandarin, although Chinese characters are used. Cantonese is a spoken dialect, used in both Guangdong Province in Mainland China as well as in Hong Kong. Cantonese doesn't have a written form distinct from that of Mandarin, although it does use some unique lexical items and grammatical structures of its own.

In the nineteenth century floods, typhoons, droughts, and general poverty were the endemic forces on the Pearl River delta of which Kwangchow was the city center. Besides insufficient protection from natural catastrophe and unparalleled population density, further insecurity stemmed from the loose and faltering central government in Peking, twelve hundred miles north of Kwangtung,, ethnic disputes among the three main districts (Hakka, Punti, and Tanka), local official corruption, heavy taxes which drained a large portion of meager earnings, and an abundance of local bandits roaming the hills.

The very people who are most likely to be the first in incurring oppression by being most prompt to refuse compliance with tyrannical demands - instead of organizing and heading some local insurrection, would take vengeance as far as they can with their own hands and then become outlaws - bandits or pirates - having more or less of the sympathy of the public, upon whom they from the first levy black mail rather than plunder of all their property, as mere robbers would. This is one way in which prolonged resistance to the general government takes place.

A man, originally a mere thief, burglar or highwayman, whose sole object was the indiscriminate plunder of all who were unable to guard against him, finds it possible, in the state of general apathy to public order produced by continued oppression, to connect himself with a few fellow thieves, &c. and at their head to evade all efforts of the local authorities to put him down. As his band increases, he openly defies these authorities, pillages the local custom houses and treasuries, levies a tax on passing merchandize and a black mail from the wealthier residents, but refrains from plundering any one outright, and while, by exempting the great bulk of the population from all exactions, he prevents the rise of a general ill feeling towards him, he as the scourge of the oppressors gains the latent or conscious sympathy of all classes.

Banditry was common in Kwangtung [Guangdong] province in South China during the 18th and 19th centuries and resulted in many new laws, regulations, and policies between 1780, a time of relative stability and population, and 1840, the time of the Opium War. The province had a longstanding reputation for lawlessness and violence including coastal piracy, armed feuds, secret society disturbances, and the banditry that accompanied the ongoing social and economic changes in China. Many itinerant laborers, beggars, and others joined bandit gangs and other illegal associations for self-defense and survival. The first law to address the problem of Kwangtung bandits was enacted by the Emperor in 1780 and required the execution by decapitation of those involved in any way in banditry conducted by gangs of 10 or more. The law was rescinded in 1801, and cases were then handled the same as cases in other provinces. However, another new and particularly harsh law was enacted in 1811. Further policy and legal measures were adopted in 1821 and 1824. In addition, annual military campaigns were conducted between 1826 and 1832 against the persistent bandits who hid in the mountainous areas of the province.

In 1828, the provincial judge of Kwang tung promulgated a proclamation, in 'which he said:-" In Canton province the law against banditti is very severe. In cases of a general pardon from the throne, those who have robbed in bands are not to be included. If a bandit has escaped three years, and plundered three times, he is executed immediately after conviction, and his head is suspended in a cage." This is not the mode of treating banditti in any other province. Here the law is not only severe, but the exertions of the police to seize offenders are strenuous. Still there are at this moment undecided cases in court of robbery by banditti in this province, to the number of four hundred and thirty, which involve upwards of 2100 bandits who have not yet been caught; and they are, moreover, daily augmenting. In the next year the governor obtained rewards for the military, who in the preceding autumn had scoured the hills to the north and east of the province, and captured three hundred bandits. In the neighbourhood of the metropolis of Kwang-tung, the banditti require the peasants to pay for a ticket of security, and plunder those who do not comply. In August 1830, a party of about five hundred banditti openly plundered the house of a rich man in the western suburbs of Canton in open day.

The lieutenant-governor of Keang-se reported in 1831, that the people on the borders between Keang-se and Kwang-tung were by nature fierce and intractable; robbery and rape were their common occupations. Having taken a hundred prisoners, and fearing lest they should die, having fallen sick in the meanwhile, he decapitated them on the spot. His imperial majesty remarked, upon this representation, that perspicuity and knowledge of governmental justice, ought always to act thus. The consequence of this consummate prudence was, a rebellion next year.

Western translators kept on rendering tsih by robber or bandit only; though it led them into the glaring absurdity of employing these terms of men who had assumed the state of sovereigns and had fought pitched battles at the head of armies that would be considered large in Europe. About one seventh of the whole Penal Code of China was occupied by one section treating of attempts to take possession of the property of others, from the theft of a small sum of money up to the attempt to seize the Empire by a person who "assumes a dynastic designation, enrols troops, and perhaps styles himself a sovereign prince." This whole section is entitled Tsih taou. Now taou is the real Chinese term for robbery and theft; while tsih refers to the larger class of crimes, the different degrees of rebellion, treated of in the section. Tsih means therefore to rebel, rebel and rebellion. Its mistranslation into "robbers," "bandits," was the cause of mistaken and mischievous interference in Chinese internal politics.

The people of Kwangtung Province were always strongly inclined to revolutionary schemes. These plots are usually fruitless. But the Hakka section of the province was the cradle of the great Taiping rebellion which began in 1850, and held on its conquering course for years over a wide region of the Empire. It held its own until the moral degeneration of its chiefs under their unexpected successes prepared the way for their defeat and failure.

Most of the Chinese immigrants to American Chinatowns throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were Cantonese from Guangdong's Pearl River Delta region. The majority of the approximately one hundred thousand Chinese arriving at the port of San Francisco between 1860 and 1880 came from Kwangtung Province. In the mid-nineteenth century a major out-migration occurred as China was weakened by the impact of internal weakness and Western imperialism. Chinese migration to the United States was encouraged by many factors. In China, the mid-19th century was marked by high population density, a severe shortage of arable land, and major political catastrophes marked by the Opium War (1839-1842) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). The Taiping Rebellion and clan warfare especially devastated Guangdong. In the southern provinces of Guangdong (Kwangtung), and Fujian, a long history of periodic famines, floods, and droughts encouraged Chinese to emigrate overseas in search of wealth and prosperity especially in the gold mines of the western United States. Formal emigration to the United States was illegal until the 1868 Burlingame treaty which guaranteed free migration of Chinese, but people around the Guangzhou (Canton) region in Guangdong province already had access to the port of Hong Kong, which had been controlled by the British since 1842. Tens of thousands took passage from Hong Kong to countries all over the world, including Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations, and California to participate in the Gold Rush.

For many decades, Chinese cuisine in the United States was synonymous with Cantonese cuisine. Cantonese truly love eating Guangdong Province and its capital Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) has been a Chinese culinary Mecca for centuries. The foodstyles are essentially the same as in Hong Kong, located only 60 miles away from Guangzhou. People of Guangdong (Cantonese) are famous for their appetite for the exotic. Cantonese people crave seafood in all varieties from fish to eels to shellfish. They do require the ultimate in freshness by wanting live seafood and live poultry that they watch being butchered.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:28:28 ZULU