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  • Rebels, Rent, and Tao Xu: Local Elite Identity and Conflict during and after the Tai Ping Occupation of Jiangnan, 1860–84
  • Jeremy Brown (bio)

Between 2004 and 2009, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee issued six consecutive “number one directives” (yi hao wenjian) about reducing the peasant burden and increasing rural incomes.1 In response, several Chinese scholars have suggested that the writings of an obscure late Qing grain shop owner named Tao Xu (1821–91) can be applied to the rural problems of the twenty-first century. According to Chen Yue of Anhui Normal University and Chen Shaohua of the South-Central University for Nationalities, implementing Tao Xu’s plan to bolster rural incomes would help increase China’s overall consumer spending and expand the domestic marketplace today.2

This is not the first time Tao Xu has been mentioned during national debates on rural issues. Tao’s writings first circulated widely in 1927, when his son republished them in support of a Nationalist proposal to reduce rural rents by 25 percent.3 Tao felt ignored during his lifetime, but he may not have appreciated being invoked in Nationalist or Communist proposals. Tao, who was from a merchant family in Zhouzhuang, a town in Jiangsu’s Yuanhe county, distrusted urban efforts to reshape the countryside. Rescuing Tao’s story from [End Page 9] the narratives of China’s modern political parties requires close attention to his context and biography.

Tao is best known for his authorship of Zuhe (Inquiry into Rents, first published in 1884), a reform tract that attacked the advantages seized by city-based landlords in the post-Taiping period. In Zuhe, Tao expressed moral outrage that wealthy elites from Suzhou, twenty miles northwest of Zhouzhuang, depicted themselves as the bearers of benevolent postwar reform while mercilessly exploiting poor tenant farmers. Tao wrote passionately about cruel rent collectors acting at the behest of oppressive absentee landlords from Suzhou, beating indigent tenants until their “flesh and blood flew everywhere.”4 Wherever Tao looked he saw “depression and withered wasteland.”5 In Tao’s mind, nobody cared but him. Only he was willing—or qualified, for that matter—to speak up on behalf of poor tenant farmers and offer a striking proposal that aimed to keep the agricultural surplus in the countryside and out of the hands of city landlords.

Tao Xu’s perspective on the Taiping occupation and its aftermath complicates our picture of late Qing local elites. During the years of Taiping control (1860–64), many elites from Suzhou fled to the relative safety of Shanghai. Tao Xu stayed behind in Zhouzhuang, coordinating and financing local defense efforts, forging alliances with gunboat bandits, and reaching an uneasy accommodation with the Taiping occupiers. As a result, Zhouzhuang stayed intact while surrounding areas were burned and pillaged. During the Taiping years in Zhouzhuang, a town of about four thousand people, Tao Xu was able to play an important leadership role and considered himself part of a military team linked to Li Hongzhang. Yet after the Qing victory over the Taiping in 1864, Suzhou gentry returned from exile and reasserted their control over the region. This angered Tao Xu, especially when representatives of city-based rent collection bureaus demanded rice and cash from the Zhouzhuang area. His response to city extraction was to write Zuhe, which proposed more equitable compensation for tenant farm labor.

Tao Xu self-consciously presented himself as consistently grounded in local, agricultural concerns (one friend wrote that Tao was a recluse who never went to the city).6 Tao sought the moral high ground against such Suzhou luminaries as Feng Guifen, who departed when the Taipings threatened but then claimed credit for lessening peasants’ burden in the 1860s.7 In one sense, Tao’s writings [End Page 10] and experiences are unsurprising, given Philip Kuhn’s still-convincing picture of a devolution of state power during the Taiping Rebellion, when local elites assumed enhanced military and political leadership roles and state influence declined.8 Tao’s family was prominent in Zhouzhuang before 1860, became more involved in local leadership during the Taiping years, and continued to thrive afterward. Yet Tao’s description of urban gentry...


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