- Violence and Order on the Chengdu Plain: The Story of a Secret Brotherhood in Rural China, 1939–1949 by Di Wang
Every once in a blue moon, this reviewer finishes a book and thinks: "Now this is the kind of book I aspire to write." Di Wang's Violence and Order on the Chengdu Plain is one of those rare books. This multivalent story is told through the prism of "a secret society with a long history that operated throughout Sichuan" called the Paoge, sometimes known as the Sworn Brotherhood Society (gelaohui) (p. 2). Full of pathos and interwoven with complex narratives, Violence and Order is rich in anthropological and sociological data collected in the 1930s and 1940s, and complete with entertaining and humanizing historical anecdotes. In this book, Wang meticulously interlaces a history of insiders and outsiders, state-society relations, rural governance, and everyday life in the Sichuan countryside. [End Page 57]
The book is at once a history of a Paoge branch in Hope Township (wangzhen) outside of Chengdu and at the same time an inquiry into the history of sociology and anthropology as academic disciplines in China in the 1930s and 1940s. Wang calls this "history in two voices," where he recounts the story of Lei Mingyuan, the patriarch of a Paoge Family, and of Shen Baoyuan, a naïve, female undergraduate student from Beijing who conducted sociological research on the family during the Second Sino-Japanese War (p. xii). Wang's own voice offers "a third layer of interpretation," which provides insights into life in and around the Chengdu Plain, and an analysis of state-society relations during the same period (p. xiii).
The Paoge had long been a part of the social fabric of Sichuan, but are often remembered for their secrecy and anti-Manchu agitation in the late imperial period. A turning point for the Paoge was the 1911 Republican Revolution, as they "played the important role of allies to the revolutionaries," and "their activities went from underground to public" (p. 37). This lasted through to the establishment of the People's Republic, when they were essentially eradicated by the new Communist state.
The book is divided into four parts, plus a short introduction, five appendices, and a character list. The most curious appendix is the last one, which serves as a commentary on the production of texts and using myths as historical sources. This section might have served readers better in the introduction, rather than hidden away after the translation of Chinese poems and texts, as Wang raises important questions about his sources and their pedigree here. For instance, he notes that although the "book is a study devoted to the lower classes and to marginalized people," the majority of his sources are "shaped by elites" who recorded them (p. 192).
After locating the reader in rural Sichuan, the first chapter begins with a public execution. Without divulging too much, the protagonist Lei Mingyuan kills his daughter after she runs off with her supposed-lover in a face-saving public murder. Although murder was a capital crime in China at the time, Lei never faced any legal consequences (p. 31). For Wang, the fact the Lei escaped conviction, let alone prosecution, "illustrates the social conditions in China at the time" (p. 31). In this instance, the Paoge exerted more influence over the local community, and, as the "head of a social organization" Lei "could arbitrarily execute his family member" without recourse from national laws (p. 31). Chapter 2 addresses this issue by considering the extent to which the Paoge were able to "influence Sichuan politics and local order" (p. 34) and concludes that the "dramatic expansion" of the Paoge "in the first half of the twentieth century was closely linked with the formation of the modern state and the process of China's modernization" (p. 45).
Part 2 delves into the customs...