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Mysterious Communication: The Secret Language of the Gowned Brotherhood in Nineteenth-Century Sichuan
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Mysterious Communication:
The Secret Language of the Gowned Brotherhood in Nineteenth-Century Sichuan

To study lower-class and marginalized people, we always have to face the issue of how to find their voices. The study of Chinese secret societies has depended heavily on archival sources, especially reports by local officials—from governors to magistrates—and on prisoners' confessions under torture. In such sources the voices of secret society members are inevitably distorted. In this article, I propose to explore the words found in secret society sources, especially The Bottom of the Ocean (Haidi)—the canon of the Gowned Brotherhood, a text filled with examples of the Brothers' secret language (their argot and signs). By looking at their specialized language, I will look for echoes of their political thought, identity, and behaviors, particularly in the late nineteenth century, when the organization both faced government pressure and attacks and also experienced unprecedented expansion. The Bottom of the Ocean was a history of the Brotherhood written in their own words, and perhaps even their own voices. It thus, to a certain extent, can be understood as a "hidden transcript," a term used by James Scott, to refer to a text showing a kind of "subordinate group politics," or "the small voice of history," a term used by Ranajit Guha, as he committed himself to writing the history of the subaltern. By interpreting the "hidden transcript" or the "small voice," we can find "the [End Page 77] public discourse of subordinate groups."1 And by looking at the semi-public discourse of a subordinate group, perhaps we can also hear the small voices of its members. The secret language and the canon of the Gowned Brotherhood developed out of a distinctive subculture in Qing China, and offers insights into the social and political structures that shaped that subculture.2 By looking at the canon and language of the Gowned Brotherhood, we are able to move toward an understanding of their thought, behaviors, organization, regulations, membership, internal dynamics, relationship to the state, and position in local society.

Linguists define argots as dialects "used by certain professions or by secret societies" that are "not supposed to be understood by outsiders," and "can be distinguished from 'private' languages, jargons and 'slang.' " Therefore, argots come from "a particular subculture that is marginalized in society" and "represent its main means of communication and survival." According to linguists, generally speaking, the use of argots was meant to protect the group, to hide it from the public, and to stabilize membership. Argots were less stable than standard languages because once they became publicly known, new argots had to be created to replace old ones.3 But the situation of the Gowned Brotherhood seems different from this universal pattern. Since the Gowned Brotherhood was widespread and decentralized, old words remained in use even after many of them became known to the public. Along with the expansion of their membership, new words were constantly being created. In addition, this argot paradoxically outlived its organization. The Gowned Brotherhood was destroyed by the Communists after 1949, but, to a certain extent, their language survived in daily life and became a part of the local popular culture. In today's Sichuan, many of the Gowned Brotherhood's argot words have become a part of the everyday spoken language.4 [End Page 78]

A secret language has a variety of social functions, which preserve secrecy within the inner community, provide "an expressive instrument where special needs can be fulfilled," and stabilize "membership in a limited group and control information flow and exchange."5 The development of the Gowned Brothers' secret language was based on two important factors: their organizational acumen and the social and political environment that facilitated their increased visibility and political involvement. I argue that the argot and secret signs helped create a common identity for the Gowned Brothers and established a boundary between members of the secret society and other people, underscoring both the value and distinction of in-group members. The secret language of the Gowned Brotherhood became part of Sichuan popular culture. During the nineteenth century, the secret language came to have an impact on society as a whole with...