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



Two Voices Joined in the Chengdu Plain

This book investigates, and to some extent reconstructs, a story comprising two intertwined voices. Two different groups share and act upon certain common interests: One voice exhibits the shape of work, ideas, and itineraries among certain sociological investigators in 1940s China. Theirs was an academic platform—the privileged elite. We see them mainly through the writing of Shen Baoyuan, a twenty-one-year-old female college student in the Department of Sociology at Beijing’s Yenching University. Like other universities at the time, Yenching was forced to transfer its daily operations to China’s West—in this case, to Chengdu. Shen’s writing concerned events of the summer of 1945. As part of her academic requirements, she and others went to the northwest suburbs of Chengdu, in particular to a village in Sichuan Province she refers to as Hope Township (Wangzhen). There, Shen established a relationship with the Lei family, whose male head of household was a local “master” of a secret society known as the Paoge (the Gowned Brothers).1 Shen’s voice blends into the story’s other voice: the Lei family organization. She recorded what she saw and heard and along the way became emotionally and intellectually committed to their lives and fates. Shen’s academic world combined with the wider net she cast, centered on the Lei family organization. People in their networks ranged from rich to poor and from urban to rural, living in an ongoing process of financial and social stress.

In my analysis, the story’s two voices—that of Shen Baoyuan and the Leis—explore larger concepts of morality, laws, governance and disorder, fairness and oppression, and the meanings that these realities projected onto individual lives. The book poses the question of whether a fruitful and enduring harmonizing of voices occurred, or whether the rarefied world of ideas failed to produce. Two basic positions—Shen as an urban educated woman; Lei as a leader of a rural local secret society—underlie the complex story of Shen and the Leis. The methodological theses concern how we can better develop and enrich the historiography of local control and social patterns in modern China. The history of local governance in wide areas of China—before, during, and after the Japanese invasion and into the Japanese collapse in late summer of 1945—must involve analysis of local secret societies. Emerging with anti-Manchu sentiments in roughly the seventeenth century and continuing into the 1940s, secret societies were all over China. These organizations often operated as gangs that provided belief systems around the bonds of male loyalty; they also acted as profit-oriented crime syndicates with corrupt links to hundreds of local governments that were institutionally linked to China’s center. Without a knowledge of secret societies, we cannot truly understand how China worked outside of the national metropolitan and provincial seats of government. The focus in this book is on the Paoge—a secret society with a long history that operated throughout Sichuan. The geographical framework of this microhistory is situated in the Chengdu Plain.

Names for secret societies were quite ambiguous and changeable, and they could be called different things by different actors, even by the organizations themselves. This book concerns a loose but loyal group of individuals in Sichuan called the Paoge, also known as the Gelaohui (the Sworn Brotherhood Society). An illegal organization that struggled with state authority for a long time, the Paoge depended on their solid historical and cultural roots in local soil, their organizational structure, wide social network, and members’ bonds of brotherhood. The organization developed into such a powerful rural-urban civil force that by the 1940s local governments had to work with them to handle local affairs. Paoge masters (daye in Chinese, literally “elder uncle” or alternatively duobazi, “helmsman”; the rankings are discussed in more detail in Chapter 2 and Appendix 1) were de facto leaders of their local places. Known to have preserved stability in everyday interactions, while simultaneously serving their own power structure, the masters became a tenacious force that could (and on occasion did) resist various state incursions and controls.

To enrich the historiography of local control, we must assess groups of people and narrate their stories. We cannot become overly reliant on the structured data that emerge from government archives; we must not forget to shape and frame the narratives that give us human scenes motivated by human needs and desires. Stories of secret societies are not easily come by; they are not well larded in the archives nor consistently published in private memoirs and books. If we accept what has been laid at our feet—for example, Shen’s startling piece of sincere, even emotional academic reporting from the field—and enrich it by making groups of individuals to chart their needs, we can ultimately suggest the nature of people’s motives for their social actions and reactions. New links can be found. By compiling academic biographies, we can further the understanding of the Paoge, as it was a certain group of like-minded leaders in sociology and anthropology who brought about analytic work on secret societies and rural life in China from the 1920s through the 1940s. These sociologists and anthropologists, many of them Western-educated, were quite influenced by the West. We often encounter the label “rural activists” (nongcun gongzuo zhe) for these academics, as they believed that to understand China, they had to understand its rural areas and peasants. Investigations of rural society became an important part of their Rural Construction and Rural Education Movement. These scholars entered the countryside and left us many precious records.

This book takes advantage of what I contend is a convincing trove of new source material, which transcends its role as historiographic tool to become a precious testimonial about people as well as a piece of continuing historical memory for understanding the Paoge and local control and society in China. Along the way, the following questions find partial answers: How did the Paoge and their organizations play a role in the rural community? How were people’s lives affected by the organization? What is clarified about everyday life and patterns by the stories of a local secret society and its members? What do we learn by pursuing secrets of passion and rage, and are those useful in a historiography? How can we assess the work and life of Shen Baoyuan as well as the strivings and achievements of families like the Leis? Was Shen a pure and neutral innocent? Was master Lei a creature of his bathetic passions?

This Introduction provides a framework for this line of questioning. First I summarize recent achievements in historical scholarship concerning China’s secret societies as they operated in local areas from the late Qing to the Maoist era. Next I frame a reliable overview of the intellectual influences on Shen and on the trends in sociology in China’s universities at the time. The Introduction ends with a discussion of Shen’s written report, her bachelor’s thesis. Looking at several passages clarifies her motives and personal horizons, laying the stage for my examination of the Paoge and Shen’s confrontation with their local world.

My interest in the Paoge began in the 1980s. Since then, I have collected all kinds of relevant sources. In my 1993 book on the social history of the upper Yangzi region, I gave a preliminary description of this secret society. In my 2003 book on street culture in Chengdu, I discussed the relationship between the Paoge and street politics. I analyzed the Paoge role in the conduct of “negotiations over tea” (chi jiangcha) and their role in social control in my 2010 book on Chengdu teahouses before the Mao era.2 When I began the careful analysis of Shen Baoyuan’s investigation, I was intensely drawn to the obscure details of the Paoge. Gradually I began to use her materials as a primary source for a microhistory dealing with local society and social work activism in rural Sichuan.3

Over the past four decades, especially since the 1990s, there has been a good deal of scholarship on secret societies in general.4 Dealing with this political phenomenon has not been an easy line of academic research to follow. Part of the problem has been in correctly perceiving the different contexts in which the societies worked: sometimes as antistate secret rebel societies (as was the case in late Qing times) and other times as purveyors of organized crime who occasionally exuded Western gangster traits. In other words, the secret societies and their members have been chameleon-like. The initial look at the political nature of the Paoge was actually as far back as the 1940s—even before Shen produced her thesis. These early observers saw the Paoge as a complex society that showed both positive and negative impacts on local communities; they regarded the Paoge as a mysterious organization with a complex mode of membership.5 These were mostly surface observations, however, and few researchers actually entered deeply into the groups, as Shen did. Another later problem was the code that one had to crack to separate out veritable Paoge actions and records from the “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao) created in the post-1949 era to serve the thinking of the Maoist state, whose conceived roles for these groups wavered from counterrevolutionaries to local bullies and forces of evil.6

We have seen quite a breakthrough since the late 1990s, with discoveries of new sources, the opening of archives, and the introduction of other disciplines. Some excellent studies of the Sworn Brotherhood Society have been published in both the West and in China, but as leading scholar David Ownby has noted, these works mainly concentrate on the origin of the Heaven and Earth Society and popular religions.7 To date, no Western-language monograph on the Paoge has been published. The Paoge was the most fascinating branch of the Sworn Brotherhood Society, and the most influential among commoners. Furthermore, before this book, there has never been a sociological or historical study that dealt with a Paoge-oriented family like the Leis of Hope Township. Paoge master Lei Mingyuan generally operated according to basic templates of the Paoge organization that had been in place for near three centuries in his area of Sichuan.

Let us frame, as effectively as the facts allow, what is known of Shen Baoyuan before her time at Hope Township. What was her back story—that is, what formed her intellectual search upon arriving in the western province of Sichuan? Her choosing a Paoge family as her subject of survey was very discerning. She regarded herself as a rural activist, as numerous scholars concerned with rural issues self-identified.8 Some of these academics became the pioneers of Chinese sociology and anthropology. From the outset, such scholars had the goal of understanding and transforming rural China. Shen Baoyuan’s choice of investigating the Gowned Brothers was not accidental; rather, it was part of the rural educational movement, a result of an academic trend that emphasized fieldwork dealing with Chinese rural sociology and anthropology. At that time, there was not a clear distinction between sociology and anthropology. Today, when we look back at works from the Department of Sociology at Yenching University, we find that their methodologies and research subjects are hardly to be distinguished from those of anthropology. This tradition has persisted: anthropology in many Chinese universities is currently part of the Department of Sociology (including Peking University). The sociology professors of Yenching University mentioned throughout this book were therefore also anthropologists.

It is important to detour briefly, to give a sense of the way that theoretical and data-oriented social research in the West from about 1880 to 1910 was received academically and put to unique uses in China in the early twentieth century, well before Shen’s time. The Chinese experience was chiefly led and influenced by several foreign professors, especially those working at missionary universities. In 1917, C. G. Dittmer, an American professor at Tsing-hua College, guided student research into the costs of living of 195 households in Beijing’s western suburbs. In 1918 and 1919 the missionary Sidney D. Gamble and Professor John Stewart Burgess of Yenching University launched a survey of Beijing’s social conditions, published in 1921 as Peking, a Social Survey. In the same year, Professor Daniel H. Kulp of Shanghai College (Hujiang daxue) took students in the Department of Sociology to Phoenix Village (Fenghuangcun), located in Chaozhou, Guangdong Province, where they investigated 650 households and later published their 1925 report Country Life in South China.9 In 1922 the Federation of International Famine Relief Commission (Huayang yizhen jiuzai zonghui) invited C. B. Malone and J. B. Tagler to lead 61 students from 9 universities in an investigation of 240 villages in Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and other provinces and published The Study of Chinese Rural Economy in 1924.10 From 1921 through 1925, Professor John Lossing Buck at the University of Nanking (Jinling daxue) organized students to survey 2,866 farms in 17 counties in 7 provinces and eventually published Chinese Farm Economy in 1930. Buck organized an even larger investigation of 16,700 farms in 22 provinces and published Land Utilization in China in 1937.11

Chinese sociologists conducted other social projects during the 1920s. The board of the Chinese Educational and Cultural Foundation (Zhonghua jiaoyu wenhua jijin dongshihui) established the Office of Social Surveys (Shehui diaocha bu), which was renamed Beiping Institute of Social Surveys (Beiping shehui diaochasuo) in 1929. Beginning in 1926, with funding from the United States, the institute conducted many social studies led by Tao Menghe and Li Jinghan and published more than two dozen books. During 1929 and 1930 the Institute of Social Sciences (Shehui kexue yanjiu suo) of Academia Sinica, headed by Chen Hansheng, investigated the rural areas of Wuxi, in Jiangsu Province, and Baoding, in Hebei.12 In 1926 the Association to Promote Chinese Common Education (Zhonghua pingmin jiaoyu cujinhui), led by Yan Yangchu (Y. C. James Yen), conducted experiments in rural education in Ding County, Hebei Province. In the early 1930s, with funds raised in the United States, Yen moved the headquarters from Beijing to the city of Dingzhou and recruited college students to participate.13 Yen’s experiments drew people’s attention to administration at the county level and provided many ideas on how to reform rural society in China. In 1928, Li Jinghan took over Yen’s experiments and later edited Investigation of the Social Conditions in Ding County (Dingxian shehui gaikuang diaocha), which became one of the earliest large-scale county-level surveys.14 Developments in academic sociology and anthropology in China were inseparable from studies conducted directly in the countryside. Yenching University sociology pioneers—such as Yang Kaidao, Li Jinghan, Wu Wenzao, and Fei Xiaotong (Wu’s student)—emphasized rural fieldwork.15 They published a number of textbooks on rural sociology, such as Yang Kaidao’s Rural Sociology (Nongcun shehuixue).16 These works dealt with the realities of rural China’s society, population, land, economy, finance, education, self-governance, and other issues.

Yenching University’s sociology department was founded in 1922 by John Stewart Burgess and D. W. Edwards, whose purpose was to train experts to engage in social welfare and social services.17 This accompanied a larger wave of Western progressivist thinking about the improvement of humanity through reformed education, alcohol prohibition, urban architecture, eugenics, and government guidance and controls upon various facets of the economy and finances. Graduate programs in “social work,” seen as somewhat distinct from the relatively more theoretical sociology, were introduced in major US universities. After earning a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University, Wu Wenzao took a position at Yenching in early 1929 and began to devise a methodology of training students who would work in China. In 1933, Professor Robert Ezra Park (1864–1944) from the University of Chicago—a major center of sociology, early learning, and the new field of social work—was invited by Yenching to teach methodologies of community surveys. Considered one of the most influential figures in early US sociology, Park taught at Chicago from 1914 to 1933, where he played a leading role in the development of the Chicago School within the field of sociology.18

Aiming to bring together the best practitioners to form the department at Yenching, Park suggested that Wu invite Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955), an English social anthropologist and one of the founders of structural functionalism, to give talks at Yenching for three months.19 Subsequently, Wu arranged for Li Anzhai to study anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, then Li transferred to Yale University. Wu also sent Lin Yaohua to Harvard for doctoral studies in anthropology (Li and Lin are discussed later in this Introduction) and Fei Xiaotong to the London School of Economics to study under Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. Fei earned a doctoral degree from the University of London in 1938. All of these men completed their degrees, returned to Yenching, and became influential.20 Under Wu Wenzao’s leadership, faculty members and students in sociology, guided by the theories and methodologies of social work and social anthropology, traveled to a wide range of rural areas for their surveys. In 1936, Fei Xiaotong studied Kaixuangong Village (Kaixiangong cun) and completed Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangzi Valley.21 Shen Baoyuan’s adviser, Xu Yongshun, published an article titled “Migrants and Crime in Northeastern China” (Dongsansheng zhi yimin yu fanzui).22 The research of department chair Lin Yaohua, dean of the law college Zheng Linzhuang, and professor of education Liao Taichu focused on the countryside. It is safe to surmise that their work influenced Shen’s investigative methods and techniques.

Since the Yenching program would open a rural school in Hope Township, we might mention something about work toward education reform and local self-governance in the preceding decades, as a part of China’s overarching rural reconstruction movement. In 1929, Liang Shuming founded the Institution for Village Governance (Cunzhi yanjiu yuan) in Hui County (Huixian), north Henan Province, for the purpose of “rural reconstruction” (xiangcun jianshe). In 1931 he established the Rural Research Reconstruction Institute (Xiangcun jianshe yanjiuyuan) in Zouping County, Shandong Province, and published the journal Village Governance (Cunzhi) in Beijing. These institutions had the direct purpose of developing rural reconstruction, and the journal offered instructions for the movement in local places and provided a platform for information exchange. Liang wrote several books to express these ideas of rural reconstruction.23 Entrepreneurs such as Lu Zuofu, who launched an experiment in Beibei (a part of today’s Chongqing), also took part in this movement. The project emphasized education as the highest priority for rural areas. In 1934, Lu Zuofu laid out the blueprint for rural reconstruction in his article “The Movement of Rural Reconstruction in Jialing and the Three Georges Areas” (Sichuan Jialingjiang Sanxia de xiangcun jianshe yundong).24 His main point was that it was possible in a short period to fashion this remote and “backward” area into a developed region.

After the start of the War of Resistance against the Japanese (1937–45), the so-called Great Rear Area became an important base for the reconstruction movement. Known as Dahoufang (the areas behind the frontlines), the region comprised southwest and northwest China under the Nationalist government during the war. James Yen’s Association to Promote Chinese Common Education shifted its focus to Sichuan. In the spring of 1936 the association worked with the Sichuan provincial government to establish a committee devoted to this goal. In April 1937 the Sichuan provincial government set up Xindu as an experimental county governed directly from provincial offices. In September 1939 the Nationalist government announced the “Outline of County Organization at All Levels” (Xian geji zuzhi gangyao), which adopted the experiences of Yen’s work in Ding and Xindu counties. Given the special circumstances and the important position of Sichuan in the war, the Nationalist government decided, on March 1, 1940, that with the association’s assistance, Sichuan would be the first province to implement the new organization.25

During the 1920s and 1930s there were more than six hundred organizations and institutions engaged in the activities of rural reconstruction, with over a thousand locations and a variety of experiments, such as Yen’s area in Ding County, Liang Shuming’s work in Zouping County (Shandong), and Qinghe (Beijing) undertaken by Yenching University—most of these dealing with education.26 In addition to rural education, the experiments involved rural self-government and such agricultural reforms as seed-stock improvement, pest control, and other activities. There were attempts to solve the problem of farm debts by establishing cooperatives and credit unions, rural hospitals, and rural public health-care systems. They also rolled out slogans and teachings aimed at the rural residents to reform such “evil” social customs as foot-binding, drug abuse, gambling, child marriage, mercenary marriage, infanticide, and other “bad habits.” During the summer of 1945, Shen Baoyuan was in Hope Township, where Yenching University had opened a summer school. This would be the portal through which Shen connected with Lei Mingyuan and his family.

It is not a coincidence that Shen Baoyuan’s academic work occurred during the national crisis. After war broke out, many colleges and universities closed, and the Nationalist government began to relocate them to the interior. In the early years of the war (1937–40), almost all universities along China’s southeastern coast, except certain missionary institutions such as Yenching and Fu Jen Catholic, moved to southwestern and northwestern China. According to the statistics of the Nationalist government’s Ministry of Education, seventy-seven colleges and universities moved to these rear areas and resumed classes, but seventeen quickly closed. After World War II broke out in the Pacific in December 1941, Yenching University moved from Beijing to Chengdu, where it resumed classes in 1942 under the English name “Yen Ching University in Chen [sic] Tu.”27 The university experienced some difficulties finding a new location, but it finally selected the site of a middle and elementary school on Shaanxi Street as its campus.28

Emphasizing social service, Li Anzhai (1900–1985) and Lin Yaohua (1910–2000) served as successive chairs of Yenching’s sociology department. Li was a scholar of ethnology and sociology. From 1934 to 1936 he studied anthropology at the University of California–Berkeley and Yale University, and after returning to China in 1936, he taught at Yenching. Li’s major works include Aesthetics, A Sociological Study of the Book of Rituals and the Book of Rites, and Significs.29 Lin was one of the pioneers of Chinese anthropology, and his major works were on clans and families.30 The department encouraged and organized students to participate in social surveys and services. Professors thought this would lead students to partake in activities that would aid in the necessary organization of people during the war and to develop a better understanding of their social responses in general. Given this backdrop, it seems a matter of course that Shen Baoyuan chose a Paoge-oriented family whom she might help and study.

Yenching students at the time were also deeply influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On October 15, 1944, “the progressive students” (jinbu xuesheng)—namely, leftists from various universities, including Yenching—established an Association for Democratic Youth in Chengdu (Chengdu minzhu qingnian xiehui). The Chinese Communist revolution was already a force based in numerous parts of the south-central, western, and northwestern countryside, and the CCP was encouraging young people to go to rural areas to better understand the peasants, who were beginning to function, through indoctrination and training, as a key part of Mao’s radical formation of local, revolutionary militias. The Yenching students who went to the countryside were not only influenced by their professors; they were also responding to the CCP’s call. In the spring of 1945 the Association for Democratic Youth in Chengdu arranged for the performance of various services during the summer break; members of rural work teams (nongcun gongzuo dui) provided medical service and medicines, organized evening classes, gathered people in support of the war, and looked into landlord-tenant relations.31 I did not find direct information to determine whether Shen Baoyuan’s investigation in Hope Township was organized by the CCP, but a connection is not implausible. Her leftist ideology (explored in future chapters) would have had common ground with party thinking.

Let us look further at Shen’s intellectual positions, her habits of expression, as a young academic. We can take the first step visually, by observing the title page of her bachelor’s thesis. It reads:

Thesis for Bachelor of Laws, Department of Sociology, the Privately Established Yenching University

Supervisor: Xu Yongshun
Chair: Lin Yaohua
Dean: Zheng Linzhuang
Name of the student: Shen Baoyuan
Student number: W42039
April 1945
Title: “A Family of the Rural Social Organization”

Chapter 11, “Looking for the Storyteller,” examines the academic stances of Shen’s mentors (those mentioned on the title page). What emerges is the activist nature of China’s first sociologists and anthropologists. In addition, Shen’s use of the term shetuan—a contraction of shehui tuanti (literally, a band or group emerging from and/or advocating for a local society)—is quite purposeful, revealing a facet of her thinking that I delve into later. She was careful to use what her profession would have considered to be an accurate term as well as a sociologically acceptable point of view—one that aligned to some extent with newly developing Communist Party attitudes toward revolutionary society and the operations of unsanctioned “bands of brothers” (arguably an acceptable way of taking shetuan). What the outside world was calling “secret societies” in this way became more neutral and possibly ideologically trainable. Next, we sort out the effectiveness of that line of thinking.

Shen’s abstract preceding her thesis reveals more. She reverts to the blunt term “secret society.” It begins:

This thesis aims at a dissection of the Paoge, a society that currently exists in China; it analyzes the history of a Paoge leader’s life in order to explain the functions as well as the fluctuations and flourishing of a secret society’s local community control.

To match up theory with practice, I chose a head of the Paoge who was very active ten years ago in a farm village. I would like to examine the everyday life of this lower-level leader in a local place, and the relationship between his family and the locale in order to advance by one more step our understanding of the goals and capabilities of that society. Therefore, what I draw on includes the case-study methodology, an examination of the relationship between his social background and community, and a portrait of the typical circumstances of a Paoge member. In addition, I draw on a new socio-anthropological methodology—the Operational Method.32 From a functionalist viewpoint, it studies the phenomenon of Paoge society.

The Paoge society is the foremost one of the secret societies, always hiding its secrets from the outside, and maintaining an oblivious distance from other organizations. It is a unique specimen and becomes a special form of the secret society because it has its “secrecy” and “sacrality” while also being “quasi-overt” and “tainted,” which internally expresses a complexity and richness. Out of my own curiosity and interest, and after careful consideration, I decided to choose this topic.

Here we see that Shen Baoyuan was not rigid about terminological correctness. Perhaps she simply desired to be truthful to her mentors and at the same time reveal her own commonsense approach to everyday life in China and its dramatic implications. We encounter another term from academic jargon: “operational method.” It is safe to deduce that this is Shen’s English for “structural functionalism”—an important theory of sociology that had been acutely noticed and taken up among China’s first sociologists. She took care to keep her rather bold and personalistic approach contained within the profession and its accepted tools.

Looking further into Shen’s habits of thought, let’s examine the first paragraphs of the main text of her report:

Since childhood I yearned for rural life very much and appreciated the natural scenery much more than the manmade cities. I loved the naive smiles on the faces of rural companions, who were far and away better than the cunning boys and girls in the city. My heart often stayed behind on the far shore of life, with its blue mountains and green rivers and quietly fell in love with the naturally shaped, beautiful countryside.

Today, however, as a rural activist, my appreciation for the beautiful scenery has been transformed into sympathy and respect for rural people. When I think of the farmers’ hardships, I always feel a deep apology for them, so I want an opportunity for living, playing, and working with peasants. I have a selfish reason: I cannot gain peace in the noisy city and miss the quiet life in the countryside. I want to practice simplicity, to work hard to change for the better my bad habit of boastfulness in order to return to the natural state of mankind. Therefore, out of a preference and a hope present from birth, I have decided to serve rural areas from now on.

In the summer of 1945, the slogan “The Intellectuals Go Down to the Countryside” was seen everywhere. By using our summer break, we want to spread around the fruits of rural labor. On the one hand, we can express our highest respect to peasants, and to gain knowledge that one cannot get from books, and on the other hand, we repay those uncrowned kings, the kind-hearted peasants, for their hard work and suffering.

Shen enthusiastically welcomed the notion that students needed to link their learning to practice in the field and to mingle with ordinary people. Since childhood, she notes, she had yearned for the rural life and its environment: the hustle of urban life held little interest for her. Noting that rural people were honest, Shen did not trust “cunning” city residents. In fact, she admitted that her participation in the investigation was “for a selfish reason”: she could derive no peace in the city, and she longed for “the quietude of the village life.”

Yet we must also grant Shen the bravery to say that those childish thoughts have been supplanted by more socially minded ones. She has transformed from a frilly dreamer into what today we might call a “social justice warrior.” She has dared to attack her own naivety and self-imposed guilt concerning social worlds not her own and thus thought to take on the harshness encountered by the suffering “other”—a class of people identified as potential leaders of an idealized new society. Shen sympathizes with that so-called lower class, revealing guilt over her privileged life. She has “sympathy and respect” for the peasants and a desire to “live, play, and work with them.”

Shen was an idealist, obviously, and felt uncomfortable with her own background. She wrote that fieldwork was a response to the current slogan about “going down to the countryside” and thus she will use her vacation to work with farmers, express her respect, and learn beyond mere books from them.33 Shen’s professors at Yenching offered direct examples of this idealism. Professor Liao Taichu in the Department of Education had established a rural service station in Hope Township. During four years at the Chengdu campus, Lin Yaohua, sociology department chair, had spent three summer breaks in the minority areas of Liangshan and Xikang (Map 1).34 Shen’s investigation followed such practices and shared the class-oriented values that were regularly preached through Communist ideology.

This look at Shen Baoyuan’s academic environment better frames the rural fieldwork and activism that we encounter moving forward. Her thesis may be regarded as a product of early Chinese sociology and anthropology and a result of influential academic trends since the 1920s and 1930s. She briefly mentions in her work that Lin Yaohua taught her the viewpoint of structural functionalism, an academic theory that regarded society as a complex structure whose parts (births, deaths, schools, work, rituals, associations, and so forth) work together to function as an organism. This theory tended to observe the everyday outcomes of the parts to correlate the data. One may surmise that, to a certain extent, Lin’s study of families influenced Shen’s own topic choice. The theory of structural functionalism had become popular in 1930s and 1940s China and went on to dominate Western academic sociology, as seen in the work by Harvard University’s Talcott Parsons in the 1930s through the 1960s and beyond (through his students). When the University of Chicago’s Robert Ezra Park visited Yenching, he taught field investigation and community studies, inspiring Wu Wenzao, Lin Yaohua, and Fei Xiaotong to combine the methodologies of sociology and anthropology. During his visit in China, Radcliffe-Brown was the adviser for Lin Yaohua’s master’s thesis, and under Radcliffe-Brown’s influence Lin advocated the new sociological and anthropological methods of structural functionalist research for the study of families. This advocacy turned immediately to village families in the west, due mostly to the fact that the war had pushed everything away from the northern and eastern cities.35

MAP 1. Sichuan in the 1940s (Map 4 is the inset area in Map 1).

Shen Baoyuan came to Hope Township during this academic environment. The training she had received from Yenching University and the political and ideological currents there no doubt impacted her investigation. She held onto her original, if naïve, intentions concerning rural areas and rural problems, and she sympathized with peasants and their situations. Such intentions apparently played a crucial role in her observations of rural reality. These simplistic intentions were melded with some more complex strains of theory—the result of academic sociological and anthropological developments from before her time, developments that have escaped thorough investigation and retelling.

In April 1946, Shen Baoyuan completed the report and titled it “Yige nongcun shetuan jiating” (“A Family of the Rural Organization”) as her bachelor’s thesis for the Department of Sociology at Yenching University. The report consists of forty-three pages, plus a three-page abstract. The thesis is written on the special stationary printed for Yenching University that provided spaces for 576 Chinese characters on each page. Each page is folded along the center line, where “Yanjing daxue biye lunwen” (Graduation thesis of Yenching University) was printed, resembling the A and B folded pages of traditional woodblock printed books. The thesis has a total of twenty-four thousand or so Chinese characters for the main text. A three-page appendix contains approximately a thousand characters and covers six parts: (1) discussion of the origins of the Paoge and the Paoge’s canonical book Haidi (further discussed in Chapter 4); (2) definition of the Paoge and its other names; (3) examples of Paoge secret codes; (4) Paoge internal regulations; (5) examples of Paoge argot; and (6) a bibliography of Paoge canonical writings.

Shen’s title page tells us more about other people who inhabited this academic world—namely her Yenching University mentors, including thesis adviser Xu Yongshun and two reviewers, Lin Yaohua and Zheng Linzhuang.36 In addition, in the preface Shen offered a special appreciation to Liao Taichu (Liao T’ai-ch’u) for providing her with his English-language paper on secret societies in Sichuan titled “The Ko Lao Hui in Szechuan.” Although Shen Baoyuan did not mention the title per se, Liao published only one article on the Paoge. Shen completed her thesis in 1946, but Liao’s article was published in 1947. What Shen read, apparently, was the manuscript of the Liao’s article before its publication. Since the completion of Shen’s report in 1946, although it has always been listed in Yenching University’s catalog of sociological theses, no later scholar or any other writer to my knowledge has recognized its value.37 Shen’s academically oriented report, coupled with contemporary social surveys, archives, novels, and memoirs, shows us that the rural activists in Republican-era China made outstanding contributions to our current understanding of rural China. From their particular perspectives, they all have contributed to a picture of the Paoge in 1940s Sichuan.


1. Throughout the book, except in a few circumstances, I use “the Paoge” as a plural term. The secret society had many branches but no unified headquarters. “The Paoge” could mean both the organizations and their members. For the latter, I sometimes use “the Paoge brothers” and “the Gowned Brothers.”

2. Wang 1993, 2003, 2008a, 2008b, and 2010.

3. Regarding microhistories, see Ladurie 1978; Ginzburg 1982; Darnton 1985; and Davis 1984. Microhistory is almost absent in the writings of Chinese history, however, although a few books might be exceptions. William T. Rowe’s Crimson Rain: Seven Centuries of Violence in a Chinese County (2007) reveals a seven-hundred-year history of violence in Macheng county, Hubei province. Henrietta Harrison’s The Man Awakened from Dreams (2005) uses local elite Liu Dapeng’s diary to describe his life as a literati, dutiful son, merchant, and farmer. Jonathan Spence’s Death of Woman Wang (1978) also has a perspective of microhistory. Done in the 1970s, before the rise of microhistory in the West, there had been some relevant works in Italy and France, but they had not been translated into English. Spence’s methodology is very close to those used by microhistorians. The book began with an earthquake, allowing us to see how natural disasters influenced people’s lives and changed the ecosystem, how women lived, how a widow survived, how children were educated, and what family violence looked like. Although the title is about Woman Wang, only the last chapter is about her. All other chapters talk about something else. From a strict definition it might not be a real microhistory.

4. Chesneaux 1971 and 1972; Davis 1977; Cai Shaoqing 1987 and 1990; Dai Xuanzhi 1990; Zhou Yumin and Shao Yong 1993; Yu Songqing 1994; Li Fuhua and Feng Zuozhe 1994; Zhuang Jifa 1994; Wang Jianchuan and Jiang Zhushan 1996; Sakai Tadao 1992; Ownby and Heidhues 1993; Ownby 1996; Ter Haar 1998; and Booth 1999. Studies of the Paoge in China mainly are general history and informative, although there have been a few articles published in English. There is no in-depth research tome on the Paoge, however. Regarding studies of the Paoge, see Hu Hansheng 1988; Wang Chunwu 1993; Qin Heping 2001a; Stapleton 1996; McIsaac 2000; and Wang 2008b and 2010. Japanese anthropologist Yamamoto Shin (2010) has also studied the Paoge of the 1940s.

5. Liu Shiliang 1939 [1975]; Shi De 1946; Wu Cang 1946; Xiao Tiezhui 1946; Zhang San 1946; Li Mufeng 1947; Guan Qun 1948; and Ling Guangfu 1949.

6. In this book I use such materials as Wang Yunzi 1981; Fan Shaozeng 1982; Chen Maozhao 1983; Deng Xihou 1986; Wang Shiliang and Diao Chunjin 1990; Wang Dayu 1993; Cao Yunsheng 1999; and Liang Xisheng et al. 1999.

7. Ownby 2001.

8. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 1.

9. Dittmer 1918; Gamble and Burgess 1921; Kulp 1925; and Han Mingmo 1997.

10. Malone and Tagler 1924.

11. Buck 1930 and 1937. The former was translated into Chinese by Zhang Lüluan and published in 1936.

12. Educated in the United States and Europe, Chen Hancheng (1897–2004), also known as Chen Han-seng and Geoffrey Chen, is considered a pioneer of modern Chinese social science.

13. Regarding the Movement of Rural Construction, see Zheng Dahua 2000; Li Weizhong 2009; Liu Chonglai 2006; Lu Zhenxiang 1987; Zhao Xudong 2008b; He Jianhua 2008; Hayford 1990; and Keehn 1993.

14. Dingxian shehui gaikuang diaocha (Investigation of the social conditions in Ding County) has seventeen chapters, including geography, history, county government and other local organizations, population, education, health, and so forth (Li Jinghan 1933). Also see Han Mingmo 1997.

15. Yang Kaidao (1899–1981) studied at Iowa State College and Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), where he earned a doctorate in sociology. After his return to China, he taught rural sociology at both Shanghai and Fudan Universities, and in 1928 he taught at the Department of Sociology at Yenching University. Yang Kaidao was in charge of an experimental district in Qinghe township, a suburb of Beijing, to investigate local history, environment, economy, population, families, hygiene, education, and so on. The investigation resulted in Ching Ho: A Sociological Analysis: The Report of a Preliminary Survey of the Town of Ching Ho, Hopei, North China 1930 (Yen-ching ta hsüeh, Shê hui hsüeh hsi 1930). Li Jinghan (1895–1986) studied in the United States in his early years and then taught in the Department of Sociology at Yenching University. In the mid-1920s he guided students conducting surveys of population, families, family income, and family lives in four villages in the Beijing suburbs. He later published A Survey of Rural Families Past Beiping’s Suburbs (Li Jinghan 1929). From 1924 to 1931, Li Jinghan was in charge of the famous survey of Dingxian, Hebei, and wrote Investigation of the Social Conditions in Ding County (see Li Jinghan 1933). Wu Wenzao (1901–1985) earned his doctoral degree from Columbia University in 1929, after which he returned to China and became a professor in Yenching University. By applying methodologies of community studies and field investigation of British functionalism of cultural anthropology, he promoted studies of rural community (Wu Wenzao 1934, 1935, 1936).

16. Similar books include those by Gu Fu 1924; Yang Kaidao 1929; Feng Hefa 1932; and Yan Xinzhe 1934.

17. Lei Jieqiong and Shui Shizheng 1989.

18. Park’s works include Introduction to the Science of Sociology (with Ernest Burgess, 1921) and The City: Suggestions for the Study of Human Nature in the Urban Environment (with R. D. McKenzie & Ernest Burgess, 1925).

19. Radcliffe-Brown’s works include Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931) and The Andaman Islanders (1933).

20. Fei Xiaotong’s works include Social Organization of Hualanyao (Fei Hsiao-tung [Fei Xiaotong] and Wang Tonghui 1988), Three Villages in Yunnan (1990), “Fifty Years Investigation in the Yao Mountains” (1991), and From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society (1992). There are many studies of Fei’s scholarship, such as Zhao Xudong 2008a; Wang Jianmin 2010; Arkush 1981; Fong 1997; and Pan 1992.

21. It was written in English (Fei Hsiao-tung [Fei Xiaotong] 1939). Also see Han Mingmo 1997.

22. Xu Yongshun 1931.

23. Liang Shuming (1893–1988) taught at Peking University from 1917 through 1924. Regarding studies of Liang Shuming and rural construction, see Lu 2010; Thøgersen 2009; and Wu and Tong 2009.

24. Lu Zuofu (1893–1952) was an entrepreneur, educator, social activist, and founder of the Minsheng Shipping Company. For studies of his ideas on rural construction, see Liu Chonglai 2007.

25. Li Zaiquan 2006: 132–36.

26. Liu Chonglai 2006 and Cheng Bicheng 2014.

27. Zhou Yong 2006: 373–74; Yanjing daxue Chengdu xiaoyou hui 2007: 344; and Zhang Weiying, Wang Baiqiang et al. 1999: 1314.

28. Yanjing daxue Chengdu xiaoyou hui 2007: 344; and Zhang Weiying, Wang Baiqiang et al. 1999: 1314.

29. Li Anzhai 1934, 1935, and 1945.

30. Lin Yaohua 1935a, 1935b, (Yao-hua Lin) 1947a (original in English; for two Chinese translations, see Lin Yaohua 1977 and 1989), 1947b, 1985, 1990, 1997, 2003a, and 2003b. For a study about Lin Yaohua, see Zhang Haiyang 2001.

31. Wang Xiaoting and Huang Wenyi 1993: 100–101. Regarding Yenching University, see Stuart 1946; Edwards 1959; and West 1976. Regarding the university’s student movement, see Perry 2013.

32. Here, Shen used English.

33. Shen Baoyuan 1946: 1.

34. Zhang Weiying, Wang Baiqiang et al. 1999: 1320; and Lin Yaohua 2003a: 457–60 and 2003b.

35. During the Chengdu period (1942–1945) of Yenching University, he visited the Yi people’s area in Liangshan three times. See Lin Yaohua 2003a: 456–60 and 2003b.

36. The Department of Sociology was under Yenching University’s School of Law.

37. Li Wenhai edited a large source collection of social investigators in the Republican period. Among it, volumes of “Marriage and Family” (Li Wenhai 2005a), “Social Organizations” (Li Wenhai 2005b), and “Rural Society” (Li Wenhai 2009) do not include Shen’s thesis.