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  • Dangers on the Road:Travelers, Laoguazei, and the State in Eighteenth-Century North China*
  • Huiying Chen (bio)

"I fear they harmed my father on the road!" On October 20, 1742, An Rong pleaded with the prefect of Shanzhou prefecture, Henan, for an official inquiry into an imprisoned laoguazei. Two years earlier, while at home to the north in Jiangzhou prefecture, Shanxi, An Rong had received a letter from the clerk working in his father's flower shop far to the northeast in Xinle county, Zhili, asking for his father to come as soon as possible. But his father had left home a month earlier and should have arrived by then. What had happened on the way? Was he stranded in some place, sick from eating the wrong food or incapacitated with a broken leg from falling off the mule? Had he been bitten by a snake, robbed by gangsters, or taken by bandits? With all kinds of dreadful possibilities rushing through his mind, An Rong had left home to look for his father. But two years of futile searching slowly drained his hope. Finally, upon learning of a recently captured gang who had murdered many travelers over the years across Henan, Shandong, and Zhili, An Rong rushed to [End Page 87] Shanzhou, desperate to find out if his father had fallen into the hands of laoguazei.1

The three-character phrase laoguazei, literally "old melon thief," probably comes from a local dialect or outlaw's argot, and therefore lacks official definition. In colloquial expression, lao could mean experienced; gua in underworld cyphers referred to fists and was used as a general term for martial arts performers; and zei in the legal context of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) may refer to thieves, robbers, bandits, or rebels.2 Together, the term laoguazei likely connotes experienced violent criminals threatening the security of people's goods and lives.3 Historically, laoguazei referred to a kind of robber–murderer that preyed on travelers and plagued the Central Plain of China during the first half of the eighteenth century. This article reveals the story of this extraordinary kind of crime happening to ordinary travelers, amid growing concerns about violent crime entangled with central-local government tensions over combating crimes, managing the circulation of information, and sustaining the flow of traffic on the roads of the Central Plain.

The saga of An Rong's quest to find his father is a story about the struggles of individuals and the challenges that laoguazei posed for the state in North China. More broadly, the story highlights important tensions in eighteenth-century China: the correlation between burgeoning commerce and increasing social conflicts and crimes, gaps between law and enforcement, divergent interests of localities and the [End Page 88] central government, and the free flow of people and information and the state's attempt to exert control over that movement. On the one hand, as increased travel bred opportunity for travel-related crime, the state's timely responses demonstrated concern for the well-being of certain individuals whom the state deemed legitimate travelers; on the other hand, the fluid nature of both legitimate travel and the crime that preyed on it transcended the local administrative units through which justice was normally administered. These new circumstances challenged the government to come up with strategies for exerting control in places that were betwixt and between. In the context of increased personal mobility, individuals required a new type of knowledge and reliable codes for safe conduct circulated through privately published travel guides, while the state needed to come up with new rationales for dealing with problems unleashed by the increased movement of its subjects—both the law-abiding and those with criminal intent.

Studies on laoguazei comprise only a handful of articles by Chinese scholars. In tracing their historical development, these studies focus on how the Qing state exerted control over local society when the security of the population was threatened.4 Based on newly discovered archival records and situated at the intersection of cultural studies of travel, social studies of banditry, and historical studies of Qing China, this article is anchored to the everyday experience of travel and the politics of culture...


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pp. 87-132
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