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


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Two Voices Joined in the Chengdu Plain
chapter abstract

The academic disciplines of sociology and anthropology took root in 1920s China under the influence of American scholars and missionaries. Among these pioneers were Shen Baoyuan's teachers in the Department of Sociology at Yenching University in Beijing. Under their influence, Shen aspired to become a "rural activist" and went to the countryside to learn about rural issues from peasants. In the summer of 1945 she traveled to the village she called Hope Township in the Chengdu Plain, Sichuan Province, to investigate the Gowned Brothers. This introduction discusses past scholarship of secret societies and traces the intellectual origins of Shen's investigation that built the academic foundation for her fieldwork.

1 A Public Execution
chapter abstract

Shen Baoyuan created the pseudonym Hope Township to protect the privacy of the people she investigated. However, based on the information in her report as well as other historical sources, this chapter confirms that Hope Township is in fact Chongyiqiao, a northern suburb of Chengdu. Lei Mingyuan, the central personality in Shen's report and head of the local branch of the Gowned Brothers, publicly lynched his daughter and the young tailor who worked for the family in response to rumors that the two were engaged in an affair. Despite the brutal and brazen nature of his crimes, however, Lei did not face any charges. This chapter details the horrific crime and its ramifications, looking at the problematic prevalence of lynching and the rule of law at the time.

2 A Local Band of the Gowned Brothers
chapter abstract

The Chengdu Plain, in rural western Sichuan, was one of the most affluent areas in all of inland China. All aspects of geography, ecology, economy, lifestyle, and local culture and customs enhanced the development and survival of the Gowned Brothers, who thrived here. This chapter describes these factors as well as the growth of the secret society. The organization was founded in the early Qing period with the goal of "overthrowing the Qing and restoring the Ming." In its long struggle against the Qing government, the Gowned Brothers developed a solid organizational structure and extensive power network. A large proportion of Sichuan's male population were members and played an active role in local control and security. This chapter documents how this secret society assumed and enforced dominance of local communities.

3 Spirituality and Customs
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the spiritual beliefs and actions of the Gowned Brothers and looks at how these reinforced the secret society's power structure. Paoge members took what was traditional and fashioned a variety of specialized rites and customs for themselves. Over the past forty or so years, historians and students of Chinese society have taken a much-needed neutral, in some sense anthropological, stance toward China's broad landscape of rites, beliefs, and religious and ceremonial practices. This chapter turns to the unique observations of Shen Baoyuan, who was fascinated with what many in academe of her time thought of as arcane and superstitious ploys. It begins with a short sketch of how traditional rites and beliefs were acted out in the Paoge's own local areas. Popular religions were closely tied to local culture, and the Gowned Brothers worshipped Guandi, which brought members together to fight for a common goal.

4 Secret Codes and Language
chapter abstract

In her investigation, Shen Baoyuan documented unique words used by Paoge members in everyday life, rituals, and communication, often referred to as "black words" or "hidden lingo." Her 1946 report explained pointed out that the very name of the Paoge originates from an agenda of "national spirit" and "revolutionary ideas," which was a way to refer to the anti-Manchu revolution. Haidi, documenting the organization's history, language, structure, and other information, was the organization's canonical text. The Gowned Brothers created their own language, which reflected their unique political ideas, identity, and historical narratives and provided a covert means of communication. This chapter analyzes the development and role of their secret language as well as the political implications.

5 Disciplines and Dominance
chapter abstract

Members of the Gowned Brothers reinforced their solidarity and internal stability through strict regulations, codes of conduct, and rituals for meetings and other activities. Any member who violated them would be harshly punished or even executed. This chapter examines these regulations and their chilling effect on nearly every type of behavior. Paoge members actively participated in stabilizing local order. The parties involved in a dispute usually did not pursue justice through a formal, forensic process, but instead went to a teahouse for "negotiation tea." This practice was an important means through which Paoge members learned about current events and kept order in even the smallest of neighborhoods. As prominent members of the community, the brothers challenged official judicial power in this role. This chapter describes the Paoge's mediation process and its effect on local jurisprudence.

6 A Tenant Farmer and Paoge Master
chapter abstract

This chapter examines Lei Mingyuan's economic situation as his leadership in the Gowned Brothers grew. Scholars generally believed that a tenant belonged to the economic class of poor peasants, but Lei, as a tenant farmer, did not actually do fieldwork. Instead, he hired four short-term laborers, whom he paid on a daily basis. Contrary to the assumption that a leader of the secret society would at least be economically well-to-do, Lei did not fit any category of the rural class division established by the Chinese Communist Party during the Land Revolution in the early 1950s. He rose to power primarily through success in fighting bandits.

7 Entering the Paoge
chapter abstract

This chapter describes the dynamics that led the Paoge worldview and policies that took hold in the Lei family. Although Lei Mingyuan was a Paoge leader, he was not omnipotent, according to Shen Baoyuan's observations in her 1946 report. He was imperceptibly influenced by social constraints, but he had to support his family and fulfill family obligations. Rice cultivation was the primary focus of those who lived in Hope Township, and the home Lei shared with his second wife, Woman Lei, was surrounded by bamboo groves and paddies. Woman Lei was literate and stern, the survivor of a great tragedy in her first marriage. Her demeanor and shrewdness enhanced the family's ability to establish Lei's reputation as a leader in the organization.

8 The Decline of Power
chapter abstract

This chapter describes the events that sealed Lei Mingyuan's grim demise, through the lens of the larger framework of leadership in the Gowned Brothers. Given his apparent lifestyle and role in his village from about 1939 to 1945, Lei was incapable of maintaining his responsibilities. Covering up his growing financial and leadership problems, Lei lost his economic freedom when his paddy fields of about seven acres were transferred to another tenant as a result of his failure to pay rent. One might assume that a landlord would not dare enforce the rules against a man as powerful as Lei, but in reality all landholders, despite their status, were subject to the same standards. As Lei's personal economic situation weakened, the financial support he had provided his subordinates diminished, thus causing his political power to wane as well.

9 A Family Crisis and a Rural Woman's Fate
chapter abstract

Lei Mingyuan understood that his leadership position in the Gowned Brothers depended on the strength of his reputation. His need to "save face" had driven him to carry out the public execution of his daughter and her presumed lover. This chapter weaves together other stories and details of community life revealing that the women in Lei's family suffered under his tyranny. Lei's economic and political instability drew him into a life of decadence: he began taking opium, further escalating his personal financial crisis. Notoriety resulted for Lei family when their servant girl ran away, further diminishing Lei's reputation and authority. Lei was indifferent to his family's suffering and sought a concubine. Woman Lei resisted, however, and garnered the support from other Gowned Brothers, leading Lei Mingyuan to abort his plan. Eventually, the couple reconciled and the Lei family moved to a shabby house in a neighborhood of coolies.

10 Fall of the Paoge
chapter abstract

This chapter explores how the Communists established their control in rural China. Knowledge of the transition from the Nationalist regime to the socialist state has centered on major cities, and there has been little understanding of how the CCP extended its power into the countryside. This chapter reveals that the Paoge did not confront the CCP upon its arrival on the Chengdu Plain; rather, the organization quietly watched the situation unfold. When the new regime imposed a grain tax, however, the group led resistance in what the Communist discourse called the "bandit riots." Although the Paoge had many connections with the Communist revolution, the CCP could not tolerate its antiestablishment tradition and was determined to destroy the organization entirely.

11 Looking for the Storyteller
chapter abstract

This book is primarily concerned with two people: Paoge leader Lei Mingyuan (and his family) and Shen Baoyuan, the storyteller. This chapter provides important, new information on Shen and her 1946 report. Lei and Shen lived in two completely different worlds, with different geographical, educational, social, and economic backgrounds, but they intersected in the summer of 1945. One was investigated and described; the other was the investigator and narrator. Both played a role in retelling an untold, powerful piece of human history. The book is also a three-way narrative: in addition to Lei and Shen, there is the author, who engages the dialogue and attempts to understand the Paoge leader Lei Mingyuan through Shen Baoyuan's perspective.

12 Untangling Paoge Myth
chapter abstract

This chapter's comprehensive examination of texts and narratives aids the understanding of how the public's perception of the Gowned Brothers was constructed over the centuries. These materials reveal the complex relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Paoge. In her report Shen Baoyuan harshly criticized the Paoge in Hope Township, but she found a reason to be hopeful by the fresh ideas presented in Righteous Monthly, a journal published by the organization in Chengdu. At the time, however, Shen did not realize that the journal actually was controlled by the CCP. More than six decades have passed since the Paoge was obliterated. However, during the post-Mao reform the CCP gradually loosened its control, leaving a prime opportunity for the revival of at least some secret societies in China.