- Violence and Order on the Chengdu Plain: The Story of a Secret Brotherhood in Rural China, 1939–1949 by Di Wang
A scholar of the social history of Chengdu and its environs during the late Qing and Republican periods, Di Wang has long wrestled with the specter of the Paoge (跑歌) or “Gowned Brotherhood.” Now, in Violence and Order on the Chengdu Plain, Wang has produced the first monograph dedicated to the Paoge, also known as the Gelaohui (哥老會 Elder Brother Society), a “sworn brotherhood society” whose influence by the first half of the twentieth century had become pervasive throughout the region. To do so, he has marshaled an impressive array of sources, including official reports, newspapers, local gazetteers, novels and other literary sources, wenshi ziliao (文史資料 literary and historical materials), and the canonical text of the Paoge, the Haidi (海底 The Bottom of the Ocean), as well as contemporary scholarly research. Most prominent among the last category is a previously unknown undergraduate thesis that forms the cornerstone of the book. An investigation of an otherwise unremarkable Paoge leader named Lei Mingyuan (雷明遠 dates unknown), the study was written in 1945–1946 by a female Yenching University student, Shen Baoyuan (沈寶媛 1924–). Despite repeatedly noting the author’s academic inexperience and left-leaning political naïveté, Wang states the view that, “no other source brings us so close to [Paoge members] and their organization—to their culture and their real, complicated motives and actions” (164).
In Wang’s hands, the two voices, one a representative of “sociological investigators in 1940s China,” the other “a local ‘master’ of a secret society,” blend to “explore larger concepts of morality, laws, governance and disorder, fairness and oppression, and the meanings that these realities projected onto individual lives” (1). Divided into four parts, Wang’s study starts with a particularly sordid affair: Lei’s extrajudicial execution of his eldest daughter and her paramour. In a microhistory consciously crafted in the tradition of Carlo Ginzburg, Wang uses Shen’s description of the unpunished incident as a first foray into a host of topics central to the social world of the Chengdu Plain in the late Republican era, including concepts of social justice, gender norms and transgressions, and the role of actors outside the state in both managing and threatening social order. From here, Wang delves into the history and structure of the Paoge, channeling Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of “invented traditions”1 to briefly outline how an anti-Manchu secret society born of the chaos of the mid- to late nineteenth century morphed, after the fall of the Qing dynasty, into a largely open, loosely affiliated self-protection-cum-criminal organization “innately embedded in Chinese society and rooted in the usual ways of life in the Chengdu Plain” (49).
Some of Wang’s most fascinating chapters can be found in part 2, which describes Paoge myths, customs, and practices. Steeped in the folklore of the protector deity Guandi (關帝) and other “specialized rites and customs” (49) of the Chengdu Plain, members of the Paoge, Wang suggests, were considered legitimate actors and mediators of social order when acting within unwritten parameters of behavior and morality in a world in which the state often could not be trusted. Particularly insightful is his analysis of the Paoge’s use of secret languages and symbols, including coded terminologies, secret characters (隱字 yinzi), hand signals, and esoteric but semipublic rituals such as the “arranging tea-cup [End Page E-8] formation” (擺茶碗陣 bai chawan zhen). Previously the “argots” of an underground organization “meant to protect the group at large, to hide it from the public, and to stabilize its membership,” the Paoge’s secret languages, Wang contends, “became more symbolic than practical” after 1911. Even so, he continues, they offer insight into Paoge beliefs and behavior, as well as into “aspects of their organization, regulations, membership, internal dynamics, and their effecting of order both within their ranks and throughout the surrounding locale and state” (61).
Wang returns to...