Violence and Order on the Chengdu Plain
The Story of a Secret Brotherhood in Rural China, 1939-1949
Di Wang


Chapter 1

A Public Execution

A tragedy took place in 1939. Many years later, the villagers still clearly remembered the cruelty of the murder: a father’s anger had turned into a criminal act. The death on the riverbank lingered unpleasantly, and the people could not understand “his vicious heart, as a father.”1 This was the kind of utterance that we find in Shen Baoyuan’s retelling of the incident. She must have gleaned the narrative from villagers’ stories, bit by bit, adding along the way her own analysis and emotion. There seems to have been no report of it in Chengdu-area newspapers, even though the story, with its many tendrils, took place in nearby Chengdu, in little Hope Township (Wangzhen).

Before we move another step toward Shen’s (and in part my own) reconstruction of the morbid execution carried out by a Paoge master named Lei Mingyuan, we ought to physically locate the man, his daughter Shuqing, and Hope. The wide setting is rural Sichuan’s small locales, where secret societies ran untrammeled and free to exert power. The fine details of the incident played out not just anywhere in Sichuan, but around the Chengdu Plain. The area in general, although relatively isolated in earlier times, has been and still is one of the most densely populated areas of inland China. It was also one of the most affluent, and in an earlier time the province of Sichuan was one of only two provinces with a dedicated governor-general: other provinces shared such administrators. Rice production was the largest in the upper Yangzi region, benefitting as it did from the Dujiangyan irrigation system, which was originally constructed in the third century BC and still helps to control the Min River. The result was (and is) an ecologically stable and attractive region (see map in the Introduction).

In modern scholarship the most important and influential study of Sichuan was made decades ago by anthropologist G. William Skinner. It deals mainly with marketing structures in the Chengdu Plain and provides an analytical model of the way local markets fit into local people’s needs and how everyday economic life was tied at many different levels to these market structures.2 After Skinner, a glaring need for a social-historical analysis of this area of Sichuan resulted in a new sort of research. My own work, published in 1993, answers a part of this need. I have provided a general picture of developments starting in the early Qing period, and my findings have focused on both the rising world of migrants at that time (a situation that has been characterized through the expression “filling up Sichuan with Hunan and Hubei people” [Huguang tian Sichuan]) and the related problem of shortages of arable land factored with steep population growth since the mid-Qing era.3 Thus few people in the last century can have claimed they were descendants of Sichuan natives.4

In late Ming and early Qing times the area was plagued by war. In 1644, for example, Zhang Xianzhong, leader of the peasant rebellion, took Sichuan and established a regime when so many people were killed during the war.5 But by the early 1700s, Sichuan’s economy recovered and the immigrants poured in. The newcomers, despite their other dialects and ingrained duties to their native lineages and temples, tended to be active and striving; they set up guilds and native-place associations; they built shrines, temples, and association halls to service their gods, sages, and ancestors.6 They became heads of their associations as well as leaders of their local communities; they established connections with court-appointed officials and helped to provide for security, militias, granaries, relief and orphanages, philanthropy, and so on. These associations and the endemic populist, charitable programs that drove them became in some sense more important than clans or even the state itself, making the area a fertile ground for secret societies like the Paoge.

By way of contrast to the warm and productive Chengdu Plain, it is easy to imagine that in North China in the harsh winter it became increasingly difficult for households the more isolated from each other they were. Farming settlements in the north were therefore arranged cheek to jowl to fend off the demands of the environment. But people in the Chengdu Plain did not have such a problem. Settlement patterns in the more dispersed and much more commercialized Chengdu Plain saw looser relationships, and families lived relatively more independently. Strictly speaking, grouped families there should not be called villages; the term settlements might be more appropriate.7 Such interrelationships among settlements provided advantageous conditions for trade in the Chengdu Plain. In addition, the ubiquitous bamboo groves created a stable living environment, and good wells were plentiful. At the edges of the groves, other trees and crops were also planted, such as fruits and vegetables, offering a variety of agricultural products for trade in cash and food. Chickens prowled for food in the bamboo groves; ducks and geese wandered in paddy fields or ditches. If a stranger approached a house, a dog would bark. And out at the edges of the groves, farmers buried their venerated dead. The pattern of life, close to the fields, was an expected combination of work, daily routines, and tending to ecological systems (Figure 1.1). Lu Yongji, magistrate of Mianzhu county (Mianzhu xian) during the Kangxi period (1662–1722), wrote in one of his poems that “villages were withered and fallen after the war, and half the residents came from Hubei. Houses were built in the bamboo groves, and neighbors could see each other over the short distance.”8 On every anniversary of the death of their ancestors, family members and relatives went to the graves for rituals.

FIGURE 1.1   A typical scene in the Chengdu Plain in the 1940s: Farmhouses scattered around farmland. Source: Photograph by Joseph Needham, 1943–46. Reproduced courtesy of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge University.

A classmate of Shen Baoyuan, Bai Jinjuan worked in a rural social survey project. She described a farmer’s house only a few miles away from Hope Township:

Woman Fu’s house is located on a small path three miles from the local market, surrounded by rice paddies, lush bamboo trees, and a bamboo-fence wall. The main gate of the house faces south. There are eleven to twelve rooms in the north, east, and west sections. Three north rooms have pass-through doors, and three east rooms have the same. An east side-room contains a kitchen, and the south room is the family hall for worship of the Buddha. A big west room is as large as four; it is a storage for grain and tools. In both the northeast corner and the kitchen, there is a small door going to the backyard, which has a stream dividing if from the paddy field. Along the stream there is a fence with a door leading to the stream for fetching water. By the stream there are large stones for washing clothes. In the yard also are bamboo trees and a line of pigsties, feeding eight pigs. The toilet is south of the pigsties. At two sides of the main gate, straw sheds are built for the water buffalos.9

If we think that Woman Fu was a landlord or at least a rich peasant, we would be wrong. Fu was actually a tenant, a widow over fifty, still with several children.10 People like her, toward the poorer end of the spectrum, had numerous ways to earn cash, see profits, and stay afloat. A high-density network of rural markets was established in the Chengdu Plain by which farmers traveled an average of fewer than five kilometers to reach a market. Chengdu was the commercial base of the whole region, and a well-developed trading system was established centered on it, including regional centers, local towns, town markets, and rural markets.11 There were market regulations that prohibited “bad practices” such as cheating and monopolizing. If a dispute occurred, mediation would occur to avoid violent conflicts. The area Shen Baoyuan investigated was very close to the place Skinner studied (Zhonghechang in Map 2).12 According to Skinner, the market network schedule, which avoided conflicting trading days, encouraged small traders. Rural peddlers traveled the market schedule, circulating goods between the central market and the small markets. Rural markets were an important place for socialization, where people could use wine shops and teahouses; peasants gathered for business or met friends, or discussed local news and events, official decrees, and gossip (Figure 1.2).13

The smallest rural settlement in the Chengdu Plain was called a yaodian (or yaodianzi); this rural shopping and trading nexus included such establishments as small grocery stores, teahouses, wine shops, and restaurants; usually these places had no more than one room for business. Yaodian often became social centers for rural areas. People always went to them for their pastimes, and the Paoge master Lei Mingyuan himself spent countless days in a yaodian in the Hope Township area. In slack seasons people spent a lot of time at low-class teahouses. In the Chengdu Plain many landlords lived in the market towns, where entertainment was limited, so teahouses were centers of amusement for them as well.14

In Sichuan many such places were run by the Paoge. This brings us to the question of Hope Township, a small settlement dotted just outside Chengdu, on the large, well-settled plain. We do not know with absolute certainty what or where this town was. One of the purposes of this chapter is to arrive at the best possible answer. We know that Shen Baoyuan did not use real names in her report. In the preface she wrote: “Because this thesis is a study of a secret society and its leaders, it is not necessary to disclose the objects of study; this is the professional ethic of social workers.” Shen wrote about “Hope Township outside the West City Gate of Chengdu,” but one notices that there does not seem to be a “Hope Township” on any historical record or today’s maps. Shen did not state that she changed the place-name, but it is quite probable that she did. Fortunately, a locatable village may be the right candidate.

MAP 2. Chongyiqiao (Hope Township) and the surrounding area

Chapter 11, “Looking for the Storyteller,” recounts my contact with the elderly Shen Baoyuan, who now lives in Guangzhou. I failed to get useful information from her about Hope Township, however, so I pressed on in my hunt. I gathered information about Yenching University’s campus in Chengdu and found the following passage in the entry of 1945 from the appendix of a chronicle of events given in a 1999 book titled A Draft History of Yenching University (Yanjing daxue shigao): “When the summer break started in mid-July, student organizations of Yenching University organized and funded two rural service groups (xiangcun gongzuo fuwutuan), working with West China University (Huaxi daxue) and Ginling College (Jinling nüzi daxue). They traveled to Longquanyi and Yaojiadu (see Map 2), in Jintang County for one and a half months’ activities of rural education, hygiene, anti-Japanese propaganda, and surveys of rural society.”15

FIGURE 1.2   A street in a rural market town in Sichuan. Source: Photograph by Joseph Needham, 1943–46. Reproduced courtesy of the Needham Research Institute, Cambridge University.

This time frame is consistent with that described in Shen’s 1946 report: “The first day we arrived in the village was July 14, and during five days, until July 19, we visited all kinds of people, especially local leaders and leaders of the [Paoge] society. . . . For one month and five days, from July 19 to August 24, I collected materials every day for my thesis.”16 Shen’s investigation of Hope Township therefore might have been a direct part of that summer agenda detailed in the Draft History of Yenching University appendix. She wrote: “At that time, through the support of the rural service from the student relief association (Xuesheng jiuji hui) and the Department of Sociology, I and two other classmates, and an assistant of our school, carried out pioneering work. We were ready to work hard in this place.” Shen revealed specifics about the project: “Our first work was to establish friendships with local people. Then we wanted to know the general condition of rural life, the situation of peasant families, and information about local power, etc. We planned to do work that included a peasants’ school [nongmin xuexiao], tutoring, medical service, epidemic prevention, health guidance, letter writing, lectures about current events, exhibitions of news and pictures, and screening of movies.”17 Here the “peasants’ school” was no doubt the “rural summer school” (nongcun buxi xuexiao) mentioned several times in her report.

The market town Longquanyi, mentioned in the Draft History of Yenching University, was in fact located southeast of Chengdu. Photographer Carl Mydans (1906–2004), connected with Life magazine, took many photos of Longquanyi in 1941. Shen made clear in her thesis that when she first went to “Hope,” or perhaps on other days when she had to go there from Chengdu, she would travel out of the city via “North Alley through the West City Gate” (Ximen beixiangzi). However, a 1940s Chengdu map shows that North Alley was near the North City Gate (Map 3). If she traveled specifically to Longquanyi, then she actually would have exited Chengdu through the East City Gate and then traveled southeast. Therefore, Hope Township was surely not Longquanyi. Moreover, because North Alley was in the direction of Jintang County, I guessed that Hope Township might be Yaojiadu, in Jintang County. Some other early memoirs also mentioned this village. A woman named Su Yu, for example, wrote: “I spent my whole summer break in Yaojiadu, Jintang County, where I participated in rural service activities organized by the Democratic Youth Association led by the underground CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. At the time I had finished the first year of journalism at Yenching University and returned to school ahead of schedule after the Japanese surrender.”18

For some time I assumed that Shen’s “Hope Township” was Yaojiadu, thus I was puzzled that several times in her investigation she mentioned going out from West City Gate to reach “Hope Township.” Had she erred in her report? Was she perhaps not familiar enough with the layout of Chengdu? By putting certain details together, however, I now am satisfied with another candidate—the township of Chongyiqiao, a northwestern suburb of Chengdu. This was the site of Yenching University’s Rural Research Service Station (Nongcun yanjiu fuwu zhan), one of those projects rolled out after the university moved to Chengdu. According to an essay titled “Thirty Years of the Department of Sociology of Yenching University,” given the university’s major difficulty in keeping students on track during wartime, they realized that the new locale provided opportunities.19 The essay defines three kinds of places for student research activities: the borderland, rural sites, and cities. In the Draft History of Yenching University, we find out that in the spring of 1943, Professor Liao Taichu in the Department of Education led a team teachers and students, who joined up with Law School students, to set up a “station for rural research” at the Xia Family Temple (Xiajiasi) in Chongyiqiao.20

MAP 3. Chengdu City in the 1940s

The Law School had received financial support during these years from the Rockefeller Foundation to establish rural services in Chongyiqiao, to effect social investigation and social services. The station offered peasants continuing education, publication of monthly peasant news (titled Nongmin xiaoxi yuekan), small loans, instructions for visitors of peasant families, and training for rural youth.21 The students and faculty conducted in-depth investigations of local political, economic, and social conditions, and they wrote reports and research papers on the Gelaohui (that is, the Paoge), private schools, Chinese medicine, apprenticeships, and so on.22 Liao remarked that even near Chengdu, the culture of the countryside was “very backward,” and an “evil force was very powerful in the local places.” Therefore, he had selected Chongyiqiao to bring uplift to the rural populace.23 The busy and ideologically promising mission that was set out for Professor Liao’s project might have inspired Shen Baoyuan to choose Chongyiqiao. In addition, Liao had written significant research on the Paoge. Before its publication in Pacific Affairs, Liao offered the manuscript to Shen Baoyuan for her reference, as Shen mentioned in her thesis report.24 In all, Shen would have gained certain advantages by taking up her work in Chongyiqiao. She mentioned in her report that the site had a “Yenching University Office of Services,” seemingly the one organized by Liao Taichu.25

Another discovery confirmed the viability of Chongyiqiao as the actual site of Shen’s Hope Township. I found the following in the Gazetteer of Chengdu Streets (Chengdu jiexiang zhi): “The location of today’s North Alley and South Alley was a route outside the city wall of the Old West City Gate; it connected northern and southern routes.”26 This description led me to look more closely at the same 1940s map, and I found a small alley outside the Old West City Gate that was a south-north route. Divided by the city gate, the alley going north is called North Alley and one toward the south, South Alley (see Map 3). Apparently, the North Alley that Shen mentioned is this one rather than that running near the North City Gate.

With that evidence, Shen Baoyuan’s description of the location of Hope Township is easier to understand: “Going out from the West City Gate and traveling through North Alley, passing Ping Hamlet (Pingxiang), and then walking five li [3.2 li = 1 mile] one arrives in Hope Township.” Because North Alley was south-north, although Shen went out from the West City Gate, she actually went northward, not westward. Here Ping Hamlet should be Taiping Hamlet (Taiping xiang), one of fourteen townships in Chengdu County. Shen mentioned that Ping Hamlet was an “area for wartime evacuation” that had become “crowded” and taken on a “mixture of urban and rural lifestyles.” From there, “one walked forward for five li and reached the area of Hope Township.”27 Looking at Map 2, it became clear that this was in fact the location of Chongyiqiao. Based on a Gazetteer of Sichuan (Sichuan tongzhi) compiled during the Yongzheng period (1723–1735), “Chongyiqiao Station (Chongyiqiao pu) was in Chengdu County, 20 li [6 miles or so] northwest of Chengdu City.”28 It is worthwhile to consider that the character chong has a meaning that softly resonates with that of wang. Thus when Shen devised a cover name, she could have given out some kind of clue.

Well-known scholar Ye Shengtao lived in Chengdu during wartime. In his diary Ye mentioned several times visiting the famous historian Gu Jiegang in Chongyiqiao. For example, after breakfast on November 17, 1940, he went out Chengdu’s South City Gate to see a friend, stayed there for half an hour, then they took the bus to Chongyiqiao. In about an hour and a half, they arrived in Chongyiqiao, then took a poultry wheelbarrow (jigongche, a one-wheel car in the Chengdu Plain) to the Lai Family Complex (Laijiayuan) (Figure 1.3). Ye stayed there for a night and went to Chengdu with Gu Jiegang in the afternoon. They took the wheelbarrow again and did not enter the city from the North City Gate but through the West City Gate, as Shen Baoyuan did on her route to the so-called Hope Township. “It was beautiful to see bamboo groves along the stream,” Ye wrote. It took two and half hours to arrive at Chengdu, then they changed their mode of transport from jigongche to rickshaw.29

Chongyiqiao was just a small place. During the Kangxi period (1662–1722), it gradually was transformed into a market town and later one of fourteen townships in Chengdu County.30 Because of its important location, Chongyiqiao had close economic relationships with the other market towns of Chengdu County, such as Xipuchang, Tuqiaochang, Qinglongchang, and Tianhuizhen, and some market towns in other counties, like Longqiao of Xinfan County (see Map 2). Closer to modern day, a secretary of Mao Zedong named Tian Jiaying suggested during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) that the name of the place be changed to Dafeng (literally, “great harvest”). Tian, a native of Chongyiqiao, found that in February 1959 cadres were exaggerating harvest yields, which contributed to mismanagement of the harvest and then massive deaths from starvation. He suggested the name change because the word chongyi meant “respectful of righteousness”; he felt the town was no longer worthy of that but should, perhaps sardonically, receive a fantastic “great harvest.” Tian committed suicide after he was wrongly accused during the Cultural Revolution.31 Shen’s and Tian’s investigations were only fourteen years apart. History seems to ridicule us: in a few short years, with a major regime change meant to clean up the brutality, tragic events continued to haunt such a little place.

Chongyiqiao was urbane enough, however, to have guild halls and native-place associations.32 There were also the ubiquitous teahouses. When Wang Qingyuan investigated teahouses in the Chengdu Plain in 1944, he saw “over thirty teahouses” in Chongyiqiao.33 Lei Mingyuan, known for lounging in teahouses, might have been there in Chongyiqiao when Wang Qingyuan came to investigate. Lei might even have come into contact with the family of dissident intellectual and writer Tie Liu. Tie’s long autobiography, describing his life’s ups and downs, recalls his hometown—Chongyiqiao. Tie’s family was poor and lived in an area in Chongyiqiao called Gao Family Alley Village (Gaojiaxiang cun), but in the late 1930s, when Tie was a boy, his family moved to Chengdu.34 When Tie’s family resided in Chongyiqiao, it was the period during which Lei Mingyuan’s power over the wider area had reached its peak.

FIGURE 1.3   A wheelbarrow with umbrella (jigongche) in the Chengdu Plain. Source: Photograph by Sidney D. Gamble, ca. 1917–1919. Reproduced courtesy of Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Hope Township (Chongyiqiao) was just this sort of rural market town where the murderer, Lei Mingyuan, lived with his family. Lei, naturally in those times, was the head of the household. Although he was only a tenant in his property, he was deputy chief of the local branch of the Paoge and was thus called the vice helmsman (fu duobazi). Later in this tale, we learn about the man who was a rank above Lei—that is, the helmsman (Appendix 1 details the Paoge ranks). Even though Lei was not exactly a full helmsman, the title made him an important man.

At this time, his daughter Shuqing was a teenager. She was Woman Lei’s stepdaughter, born by Lei Mingyuan’s first wife, Woman Huang. Huang did not live in Hope Township but in another market town nearby, taking care of Lei’s father (Chapter 7, “Entering the Paoge,” provides more details about the wives and children of Lei Mingyuan’s two families; see Appendix 2 for the Lei family tree). After finishing a village private school, Shuqing’s opportunities to receive further education were complete; she stayed at home doing needlework, a common skill for Chinese women to pursue. It was almost 1940, a time of increasing modernization in China and of a certain Westernization of mores and social horizons—even in out-of-the-way places. Nevertheless, Lei did not think that education was important for his daughter.

Earlier in that disturbing year of 1939, the family had hired a young tailor to make clothes for the family. He was known to chat with the young Shuqing, and as time went by their relationship became closer. We will likely never know what stage of their relationship had developed, but a rumor began to spread accusing them of having done “a shameful thing.” When the gossip reached Lei Mingyuan’s ear, he exploded and vowed to punish them both. Woman Lei—we do not know her real name, as Shen Baoyuan called her “Lei Daniang” (Woman Lei)—recognized that the situation was dangerous and managed to help Shuqing to quickly run away from home. The young couple fled to Chengdu, hiding at the home of the tailor’s family. However, Lei led his Paoge brothers there, rushed into the house, and caught the two. They tied up the couple and brought them back to Hope, where they were taken straight to the riverbank at gunpoint. Lei was enraged. Terrified and shivering, Shuqing and the young tailor were “without even a word to defend themselves.”35 They may have known Lei’s temper well and that no matter what they said, they could not save themselves.

Shen detailed snippets of people’s memories of the incident in her report, building on how each recounted their versions:

This was an execution procession: a father marches off to shoot his daughter. Many villagers were too scared to come out to watch the tragic scene, and they wept, whispered, and prayed. Some good-hearted men rushed to the site to try to stop the enraged father, but Lei shouted: “Damn, I am going to kill anyone who tries to stop me, and my pistol is not merciful!” Thus they had to step back with their anger and some were so afraid of saying anything. At this moment, people could do nothing but watch the killing begin, because villagers knew his vicious temper very well.

People quietly watched the “death procession” led by the young girl’s father, but many did not want to come out for the “tragic scene.” Sad and hopeless, some prayed silently while a few courageous people tried to stop the murder. The angry Lei easily thwarted their attempts.36 The procession walked closer and closer to the riverbank. Shuqing and the young tailor trudged toward death at Lei’s gunpoint. Woman Lei followed, crying, carrying candles and “paper money” for burning later on, as an offering to the dead. Although Woman Lei was usually an active person, as Shen described her, she felt helpless as she watched her stepdaughter’s final movements. Facing her tyrannical husband, perhaps Woman Lei lost courage and could merely acknowledge that her stepdaughter’s death was inevitable.37

Shen’s report included this dialog between Master Lei and his young daughter, from just before the execution:

“Big girl, don’t come back here when this is all finished!” “No, I won’t,” she answered.

The father added: “Do not come back and haunt us by making banging sounds above the house!”

“I won’t.”

“If you want revenge, you should find the one who harmed you and do not look for me!”

“Oh I won’t.”

As recorded in Shen’s report, the daughter lowered her head and did not look at her father’s face when she answered. Apparently, this cruel man was afraid of her ghost coming back to haunt him. In traditional China many believed that a person’s soul after death could, if disturbed for some reason, return to its home.38 Most disturbing is reading about Lei’s negotiation for his future peace of mind with his victim (his own daughter). It is difficult to rationalize such premodern beliefs about ghosts with modern notions about death.

It is no doubt right to imagine that Shuqing, at that moment, had no hope she would survive. She would likely have been familiar with her father’s weak character: he would not yield to bonds of kinship. To save face and to maintain his reputation and authority were more important than his own daughter’s life. Given Shen’s description of Shuqing meekly agreeing not to haunt her father, Shuqing probably did not beg for her life; rather, she likely just waited for her last moment. Perhaps frightened about her life’s miserable prospects after being branded with an “immoral relationship,” Shuqing thought herself better off dead. How, living such a life, would she face her tyrannical father every day? How would she deal with villagers’ looks and continuing rumors? If she really loved the young man, it was now useless, since her lover was dead. It seems likely that she wanted to die simply to gain relief from a life of potential suffering. Keeping silent and weeping were the only stance she could assume.

Shen Baoyuan’s report continues her rendition of the violent incident:

Bang! With the sound of a gunshot, the first one struck was the boy, who fell into the waves. Then, the second shot, and the girl immediately fell into the river. Two kind-hearted villagers cried out anxiously: “I’ve come to save them! I would like to pay! I would like to pay!” “Please anyone around here: do the good thing!” However, two of Lei’s men jumped into the rushing river and pressed the girl’s head into the water. They looked like they had a real grudge against the departed. The river, sounding urgent and its waves rolling swiftly, carried away the tragic boy and girl, both pitiful creatures buried by the old code of ethics.

This occurred under the public’s eye. Some good folk did step up to beg that Master Lei and his Paoge brothers spare the two youngsters. Surely the villagers could not believe what they saw next, after the shots: Lei’s men went into the river to “press the girl’s head into the water.”39 Shuqing struggled but soon lost her strength, and her body floated away with the waves. After Lei and his followers left the riverbank, a morose Woman Lei, alone, burned the paper money for her stepdaughter. The riverbank calmed, and the river kept rushing by in rolling waves. After that, everything almost seemed not to have happened.

A few miles away, Woman Huang—Shuqing’s biological mother, Lei Mingyuan’s first wife—heard the bad news and fell into deep grief. She could not imagine how Lei could have killed his daughter by his own hand. However, Huang could not openly express her grief; she had to protect the “family honor” and “husband prestige.” She could not even cry, so she secretly sobbed, to bury her “infinite pain and endless bitterness in her heart.”40 From Shen’s report, we see that Huang did not dare defend her daughter and only quietly endured the deep pain. In Chengdu the young tailor’s parents, also feeling threatened by Lei Mingyuan’s tyranny, did not dare to fight for their son’s justice. They simply went out to Hope Township and buried him, after the body was carried out from the river. They might have felt that their son had indeed done something wrong, even if they could not say what that might have been. Rumors may have caused them to lose courage. To them, their son “had clearly succumbed to the control of the big man in the local brotherhood.”41

People did not anticipate that this execution-style murder would have an unfortunate sequel. But it did. From Shen’s report, what happened next concerned a local woman she refers to as Woman Li:

After the execution, Woman Li, kind-hearted wife of the principal of the local elementary school, could not relieve herself from the emotions of the tragedy. She fell into a deep sorrow and was unable to forgive Lei’s treatment of his daughter’s body—hastily burying it in the ground right near where it sunk. Since then, Woman Li’s mind had become restless; she blamed herself for not being able to save the girl. Her nerves finally broke down: she often just sat, wept, or talked to herself. On a warm morning, she went to a nearby temple to burn incense for the dead and she claimed after she came back that she saw Shuqing’s shadow in the mirror. After that, she developed a mental problem. Her husband was a gambler, and the family became increasingly poor but he made no effort. That Shuqing could not be saved from death, and furthermore that Woman Li’s daughter got tuberculosis, this all wore her down. Six months later, in a stuporous madness, she jumped into the river to meet her own end.42

We have every reason to assume that the river was the same one that engulfed Shuqing and her lover. Although Woman Li’s death brought back bad memories among other locals about the incident that had transpired there six months earlier, the impact and gossip in this case only lasted a few days, then everything was back to the usual. Time can erase people’s memories. Those who do not witness wounds and blood perhaps tend more toward self-deception and choose business as usual.

Lei Mingyuan’s killing of his daughter Shuqing was not a secret murder. In its own quasi-sanctioned way, the incident was a public execution. Lei did not face charges. The only explanation, according to Shen’s report, was that such lynchings were to some extent recognized by society. The Paoge “did not feel anything wrong with such a punishment.”43 No villager reported the murder to the authorities. In fact, none thought Lei Mingyuan was guilty of the murder he committed. However, during China’s Republican period, laws regarding the punishment for murder, including domestic murder, were clear. According to the “Criminal Codes” enacted in 1935, chapter 22 on “homicide” stated:

The murderer is sentenced to death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment for ten years or more; a penalty should be applied for an aborted crime; planning for a crime receives two years or less imprisonment (Article 271).

A person who kills a family member or relative is subject to the death penalty or life imprisonment; a penalty should be applied for an aborted crime; planning out a crime—three years or less imprisonment (Article 272).44

According to Articles 271 and 272, Lei’s killing was a capital crime. Despite that, there was no legal action taken against him: he was not even sued. Villagers tacitly approved the Paoge’s tyrannical power. This act in 1939 illustrates the social conditions in China at the time. A head of a social organization and a father could arbitrarily execute his family number. In the early twentieth century, numerous Western laws and principles of legal systems were being introduced into China. Lei’s case revealed that in rural areas, even those close to big cities, modern concepts of justice were far from embedded in the local society.

Hope Township should be considered a microcosm of rural society. Similar tragedies took place all over China. The Republican government had been established for more than three decades, movements that promoted modernization had gone on for more decades—for example, the New Culture Movement (1910s and 1920s), the Rural Reconstruction Movement (1920s and 1930s), and the New Life Movement (1930s and 1940s). China’s rural society may have seemed to some (the intellectuals perhaps) to have changed for the better, but it had really changed little.45 Rural people in the Chengdu Plain were, to a certain extent, still cloaked in the past several centuries. Moreover, since the killing of Shuqing happened in the outskirts of the provincial capital—a place held up as a center of trends—the elite no doubt imagined even worse things deeper in the hinterland.

Qin Mu, famous writer in contemporary China, published an article in 1943 titled “Lynching, Marketing Humans, and Blood Lust” (Sixing, renshi, xue de shangwan) that criticized the not-too-rare phenomenon of lynching. He pointed out that in some places a man and a woman caught in illicit sexual activity could be tied together, placed into a bamboo cage, and weighted down to the bottom of a river. In remote areas, Qin said, people ate their enemy’s heart and liver. As a child, Qin was eyewitness to villagers who had killed a robber, cooked his heart and liver, and ate them with wine. In some places, Qin noted, after catching a thief who stole vegetables from a garden, villagers would cut his hamstring, so that the thief became crippled for life. Most thieves who stole food were hungry and poor, but they could be given brutal punishment. Qin condemned these harsh tactics, adding they were “regarded as normal even among the good country folk.” Inhuman punishment was “rarely opposed by villagers,” he wrote, and “it was a great pity that people did not stand against it and that laws did not forbid lynchings of all kinds.”46

Given the reality of traditional Chinese family punishments and clan regulations, which were often sanctioned as “correct” within the local community, people felt powerless in the face of a lynching. The elite of a locale, usually gentry, for centuries had enjoyed various privileges under imperial laws; they simultaneously wielded authority to exercise domestic discipline and issue their own lineage rules, to protect their ancestral halls, private schools, cemeteries, and the like. Regulations were needed to bring lineage members together in their duties and ritual obligations. Domestic discipline was thus supported by the central state’s laws; the state in turn relied on the clan and family to keep order. However, as historian Lü Simian has pointed out, in modern Chinese society there were often “social punishments that were not legal punishments,” which existed partly from political instability. Therefore, in many places people relied less on poorly implemented and often locally confusing laws than on the traditional, widely acknowledged, social customs. Another impetus for unsanctioned punishments was the need of certain “evil powers” (namely the secret societies) to exert their own forms of discipline.47 In this sense, Lei Mingyuan’s public execution of his daughter was not a crime in terms of the state but merely an exercise in domestic discipline. The state did not interfere with clan and family, except when a figure was charged with a criminal offense. As a result, lynchings, seen as a form of discipline, could continue unabated.48

Six years after the murder of Shuqing, the young student Shen Baoyuan entered Hope Township and engaged with the Lei family. Without her investigation we would never know the tragic story, thus making it similar to the millions of forgotten tragedies throughout Chinese history. With grief and indignation, Shen wrote: “The river . . . carried away the tragic boy and girl, both pitiful creatures buried by the old code of ethics.” The so-called old code in some sense meant Confucian ethics and moral injunctions. The two young people were arbitrarily killed, Shen sensed, just like ants; Shuqing was a victim of a “conservative social system, occlusive customs, and rumors.” Her powerful father was not her protector but in fact the one who destroyed her. Lei Mingyuan regarded a woman’s virginity so fetishistically that he killed his own daughter “without reasonable investigation and testimony.”49

The murder would consolidate Lei’s reputation in the local place: basically Shuqing’s life was sacrificed for his own search for status. But some villagers at that time, in that rural place, were cynical in another way; they held unsanctioned murder to be bad simply because it would disturb the natural habits and movements of dead souls and the rules of the postmortem underground. Lei’s murder of his daughter would have been thought of as a portal for the admittance of bad luck. Later, the Lei family’s status declined socially and economically, tempting the locals to see fitting retribution. When we revisit this tragedy almost eighty years later, using modern ways of inquiry and scholarship, we want to know why it happened and what in the social and cultural soil may have engendered it. Therefore, we press ahead in Chapter 2, by entering the interior of the Paoge secret society.


1. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 23.

2. Skinner 1964–65.

3. Wang 1993. Before the outbreak of World War II, the population of Chengdu was about half a million, due mainly to even newer immigrants—namely, the refugees steadily resituated away from the major eastern and northeastern cities after the Japanese invasion. By 1945, Chengdu’s population had risen to more than seven hundred thousand.

4. He Yimin 2002: 583.

5. Zhang Xianzhong (1606–1647), a leader of the peasant uprising in the late Ming, established the Daxi regime. Battles and bloodshed would return later, in the first part of the twentieth century.

6. Lü Zuoxie 1982; Wang 1993; Wang Dongjie 2008; Liu Zhenggang 1991; Lan Yong 1996; Golas 1977; Rowe 1984: chapters 8 and 9; and Ho Ping-ti 1966.

7. Huang 1985: chapter 3.

8. Lu Yongji as quoted in Fang Zhirong and Zhou Jianhua 2011: 84.

9. Bai Jinjuan 1946: 19.

10. Bai Jinjuan 1946: 22.

11. Wang 1993: chapter 4.

12. “Baxian Bamiao chang changshi guizhang”; and Skinner 1964–65.

13. Zhang Fengzhu n.d.: vol. 4, “tusu.”

14. Wang Qingyuan 1944: 32.

15. Zhang Weiying, Wang Baiqiang et al. 1999: 1331.

16. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 3.

17. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 2.

18. Su Yu 1993: 205. Su Yu (b. 1926) graduated from the Department of Journalism of Yenching University and became an editor for several newspapers and journals.

19. Lei Jieqiong and Shui Shizheng 1989.

20. Zhang Weiying, Wang Baiqiang et al. 1999: 1320–21.

21. Beijing shi shehui kexue yanjiusuo shehuixue yanjiushi 1984: 276.

22. See “Thirty Years of the Department of Sociology of Yenching University,” in Yanda wenshi ziliao bianweihui 1989: 55.

23. Zhang Dezeng 1992: 263–70 (the work is about Liao). There were several tasks: provide law students summer practical activities; facilitate a school for dropout rural students; help with local illiteracy; develop manufacturing; promote new agricultural knowledge; and provide public health education as well as simple medical services.

24. Liao T’ai-ch’u 1947: 161–73.

25. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 23.

26. Yuan Tingdong 2010: 275 (Yuan is the author of the gazetteer).

27. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 8.

28. Huang Tinggui et al. 1733: 3830.

29. Ye Shengtao 2004: 305–6.

30. Chengdu shi difangzhi bianzhuan weiyuanhui 2009: 425; and Jinniuqu difangzhi bianzhuan weiyuanhui 1996: 51. In January 1950, when the People’s Liberation Army took over Chengdu County, Chongyiqiao was changed to Chongyi Township, as one of four townships in the Second District of Chengdu County. In 1952, Chengdu County was restructured, then Chongyi Township was put under the jurisdiction of Xinfan County (Xinfan xian). During the Commune Movement in 1958, it became Chongyi Production Brigade (Chongyi dadui) of Xinfan Commune (Xinfan renmin gongshe). In 1959 the Chongyi Township Commune (Chongyi xiang renmin gongshe) was established and soon Chongyi Township was changed to Dafeng Township Commune (Dafeng xiang renmin gongshe). In 1965, when Xinfan County was annexed by Xindu County (Xindu xian), Dafeng Township was also incorporated into Xindu County (see Map 2). In 1982, with the abandon of communes, Dafeng Township administration was established, which had thirteen villages (Sichuan sheng Xindu xiangzhi bianzhuan weiyuanhui 1994: 84–85; and Jinniuqu difangzhi bianzhuan weiyuanhui 1996: 51). This book covers the period when Chongyiqiao was still a part of Chengdu County.

31. Li Yonghui 2009: 17–19; and Peng Yaxin 1988: 166–87.

32. These included the Culture and Militance Temple (Wenwu miao, 1770) put up by the Hubei and Hunan Native Place Association, the South China Temple (Nanhua gong, 1782) by the Native Place Association for Guangdong People, and others of this type (Zhengxie Chengdu shi Xindu qu wenshi ziliao bianji weiyuanhui 2006: 18–19).

33. Wang Qingyuan 1944: 34.

34. As of this writing, Tie Liu is eighty-six years old and a dissident writer. In 1957 he was categorized as a “rightist” and sent to labor camp for twenty-three years. On September 14, 2014, eight days after I read this memoir, he was arrested for criticizing China’s political situation; see, September 15, 2014; accessed on October 1, 2014.

35. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 23.

36. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 23.

37. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 24.

38. In Soulstealers, Philip Kuhn discusses the separation of soul and body (Kuhn 1990: chapter 5). However, here I discuss the opposite of Kuhn’s example. The activity of calling the soul was to call the soul back to the body and to let the deceased come back to life. Lei Mingyuan did not want his daughter’s soul coming back home.

39. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 24.

40. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 25.

41. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 26.

42. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 25.

43. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 26.

44. Fawu bianji xiaozu 2001: 57. The “Criminal Laws of Republican China” in 1928 had similar punishments. In Item 282 of Chart 21, “Homicide,” the murderer could be sentenced to death, life imprisonment, or ten or more years of imprisonment. In Item 283 the one who killed a member of the immediate family would be sentenced to death or life imprisonment (Wang Chonghui 2006: 74–75). Regarding studies of criminal laws during the Republican period, see Guo Jian et al. 1998; Liu, Zhang, and Messner 2001; Mühlhahn 2007; Neighbors 2009; and Luo Xunan 2012. Regarding the laws and punishment of adultery in the Qing period, see Sommer 2000. For a comparison of laws and their practices in the Qing and the Republican period, see Huang 2001 (Huang’s book focuses on civil not criminal laws, however).

45. Regarding the New Cultural Movement, see Wu Qiyuan 1934; Goldman 1977; Chen Shaoting 1979; Geng Yunzhi and Chen Yuwu 2009; and Fung 2010. Regarding the New Life Movement, see Xin shenghuo yundong cujin zonghui n.d.; Eastman 1986; Zuo Yuhe 1990; Guan Zhigang 1992; Oldstone-Moore 2000; Qiao Zhaohong 2005; Zhou Lei 2009; and Liu Wennan 2013.

46. Qin Mu 1983 [1943]: 359–65.

47. Lü Simian 2011: 16; and Zeng Xianyi 2011.

48. Hu Guotai 1993: 267–311.

49. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 26.