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Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven

David Robinson

Publication Year: 2001

On a spring afternoon in 1509 a local bandit found himself in the emperor's private quarters deep within the Forbidden City and in the presence of the Son of Heaven himself. This bizarre meeting was the doing of the eunuch Zhang Zhong, the emperor's personal servant and companion. In time court intrigue between competing palace eunuchs would lead to the death of this bandit-turned-rebel, setting off a massive uprising that resulted in China's largest rebellion of the sixteenth century. To understand how this extraordinary meeting came about requires a consideration of the economy of violence during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Here, for the first time in any language, is a detailed look at the role of illicit violence during the Ming. Drawing on court annals, imperial law codes, administrative regulations, private writings, and local gazetteers, David Robinson recreates in vivid detail a world where heavily armed highwaymen and bandits raided the boulevards in and around the Ming capital, Beijing. He then convincingly traces the roots of this systemic mayhem to economic, ethnic, social, and institutional factors at work in local society.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

"I would like to express my sincere thanks to the ever helpful staffs at the Gest Library of Princeton University, the collections in Kyoto University and its affiliated Institute for Research in Humanities, theHarvard-Yenching Library, the Beijing University Library, and the Beijing Capital Library."

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Introduction: The Economy of Violence

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pp. 1-26

"With a lunge and a mighty kick, the slight sixteen-year-old boy sent the leather ball hurtling skyward. Uttering a cry of admiration, a strapping young Mongol dressed in a red riding tunic scrambled to keep the ball aloft. Among those who watched the athletic play was a small knot of sturdy men whose sharp eyes darted back and forth between the boy..."

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The Capital Region

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pp. 27-44

"In 1500, Beijing and the surrounding area, the capital region, were simultaneously very old and very new. The region’s chief topographical features had formed nearly one million years before, and finds of Homoerectus in the area date from 500,000 b.c. Agriculturists had practiced inthe region for roughly ten thousand years, and important walled..."

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Banditry during the Mid-Ming Period

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pp. 45-68

"By midsummer 1468, the clerk Shi Huizong had begun the last leg of a1,000-mile journey from his hometown, Fuqing County, in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, to Beijing. Shi, like hundreds of other clerks and assorted minor functionaries, was making an annual delivery of tax silver and other tribute items. However, misfortune struck when..."

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The Management of Violence

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pp. 69-98

"Besides yin and yang, male and female, inner and outer, China and the barbarians, another binary pair frequently appeared in imperial records and private writings of the late imperial period: wen and wu. Wen connotes culture, letters, education, and civil order; wu refers to the military and the martial. As with many other pairs of complementary opposites,..."

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Men of Force and the Son of Heaven

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pp. 99-120

"Such labels as 'bandit' and 'man of force' were products of social negotiation in at least two senses. First, societies—or, more accurately, ruling elites—define the formal parameters of criminal behavior, through the creation of official law codes. Ever shifting considerations of private profit, personal prestige, local security, official duties, and political..."

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From Banditry to Rebellion and Back Again

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pp. 121-162

"Flamed by the winds of latent discontent, widespread drought, military incompetence, and government hesitancy, the small sporadic sparks of armed conflict grew into a mighty conflagration, spreading from Beijing in the north to the Yangzi River in the south, from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Taihang Mountains in the west.1 In the process, the..."

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Conclusion: Implications for the Study of Late Imperial China

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pp. 163-172

"Inseparably tied to the area’s demography, military institutions, economic structures, ethnic composition, and political dynamics, illicit violence constituted an integral element of the capital region’s social order during the middle Ming period. Given that violent crimes like banditry and highway robbery posed perennial problems in the heart..."


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pp. 173-240

Character Glossary

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pp. 241-246


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pp. 247-278


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pp. 279-284

About the Author

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pp. 285-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861544
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824823917

Publication Year: 2001