- Street Criers: A Cultural History of Chinese Beggars
Writing a history of Chinese beggars during the late-imperial and Republican periods is not an easy task. As Hanchao Lu points out in his introduction to Street Criers, beggars themselves were often illiterate, leaving little evidence of how they regarded their own lives. Engaging in behavior that often bordered on the illegal, beggars moreover painstakingly guarded their trade secrets and social organization behind a wall of rags, myths, and beggar argot. Nonbeggar sources are more copious, but bring strong biases with them. Nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century foreign observers, for instance, often read the abundance of beggars on the street as sure evidence of a supposed characteristically Chinese lack of compassion. In short, beggars belong to a voiceless group of "subalterns" who leave very little in terms of textual traces themselves, whereas the documents written about beggars by others inevitably reveal more about the attitudes of the author who is writing than the beggars written about.
Faced with a lack of reliable data, Lu has chosen to employ as broad and variegated a host of sources as possible. Local gazetteers from the eighteenth century, sociological surveys from the 1920s, "timeless" vernacular sayings, seventeenth-century vernacular tales, political campaign materials from the 1950s, illustrations from the late-nineteenth-century Dianshizhai Pictorial, and biographies from the Han dynasty Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), to name but a few of the primary sources used, all intermingle to illustrate a history both colorful and entertaining. The amount of material uncovered is quite astonishing and easily proves Hanchao Lu's most salient point: beggars may have been socially marginal, but they did play an important role in the cultural imagination of late-imperial and Republican China.
Lu uncovers this role by structuring his work in a multifaceted manner, combining social and urban history, cultural history, and personal anecdote. The first four chapters offer in turn a broad sociological background of beggars, differing views on beggars by broader Chinese society, an investigation of some notably ancient beggar legends and the pantheon of beggar patron saints, and an institutional overview of both Qing government agencies such as the poorhouse and the baojia system. The following chapters offer more in-depth information on beggar organizations and life with a discussion of the infamous beggar guilds, a description of the different strategies beggars used to raise money on the street, a discussion of the gender politics of mendicant life, and finally a meditation on the changes and continuities of views on beggars after 1949, both in Taiwan and under [End Page 476] Communist rule. Read in isolation, each chapter sheds light on a different aspect of mendicant life; read together the eight chapters create a composite picture, which, despite the fragmentary nature of the sources, offers the readers an image of mendicant life that is quite well rounded.
When used properly, this multifaceted approach and use of widely different sources makes for a wonderful combination. In chapter 3, for instance, Lu shows how different late-imperial commercial establishments employed legends about the benevolence of the entrepreneurial founder and the mystical assistance of a mysterious beggar as ways of legitimating the success of the business as well as advertising the nearly magical qualities of the commodity sold. In retelling these anecdotes and investigating the link between late-imperial commercial entrepreneurship and mendicant myths, Lu is at his best. Employing different historical methods of inquiry and playing different textual sources against one another, Lu shows how widely held views on beggars could be strategically marshaled by beggars and nonbeggars alike. Indeed, when Lu takes care to situate anecdotes and popular views on beggars in a specific historical context, mendicant life and myths about beggars come alive and shed new and surprising light not only on beggar life itself but also on the broader commercial and social practices surrounding mendicancy.
Too often, however, Hanchao Lu does not succeed fully in making the transformation from social to cultural historian as...