GUIZHOU AND THE LIVELIHOODS APPROACH TO ZHONGJIA HISTORY
China’s imperial officials seldom had anything positive to say about Guizhou province. In his account from the mid-eighteenth century, Guizhou governor Aibida offered this blunt analysis of the region’s harsh terrain, limited economic prospects, and unruly non-Chinese inhabitants:
The [Guizhou] countryside is gloomy and impenetrable. Heavy rains are frequent. The fields must be terraced [because] the soil is stony. Slash and burn agriculture prevails. The paddies and marshes yield no abundance, and the mulberry trees and hemp do not yield much profit. The annual tax revenue does not equal that of a large county in China Proper (neidi). . . . Miao, Zhong, Ge, Luo, Yao, and Zhuang tribes swarm like bees and ants. Many of them still believe in ghosts and spirits. They are addicted to violence, whether it be major retaliatory attacks or smaller acts of banditry and plunder. They are easy to incite and difficult to pacify. As a result, it is not easy for the imperial court to find steadfast and competent local officials. Those who are appointed place little importance on their positions. They disdain and neglect Yi barbarians and Han alike. They are dissolute and let matters drift; nothing is of consequence to them. In this way, poison brews and becomes thick. Once released, it cannot be stopped. . . . Thus it is that no benefit can be derived from Guizhou.1
Aibida’s pessimistic assessment obscured a fundamental reality. The imperial ambitions of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644–1911) extended to Guizhou and beyond. However much government officials disdained this remote corner of southwestern China, they had to create some semblance of order there. During the eighteenth century, the Qing drive for expansion, centralization, and social stability encountered a tenacious effort by Guizhou’s local residents to defend their autonomy and livelihoods. This book investigates the resulting tensions in three contiguous prefectures (fu), Guiyang, Nanlong, and Anshun, during the period from 1725 to 1797.
Although this study strives to create a panoramic view of all three prefectures, its focus is most often limited to Zhongjia ethnic communities in Nanlong and Guiyang. A Tai-speaking people concentrated in central and southern Guizhou, the Zhongjia are now called the Buyi (also spelled Bouyei in the People’s Republic of China) ).2 Today, the Buyi are one of the lesser-known ethnic minorities (shaoshu minzu) in Guizhou, at least relative to such groups as the Yi, the Miao, or the Dong, but this quiet existence in contemporary China belies an eventful past. Throughout the eighteenth century, Zhongjia communities and individuals challenged the imperial enterprise in Guizhou with striking regularity and creativity. Indeed, two major Zhongjia clashes with Qing authority provide both the starting point and the endpoint for the narrative in this book, as well as many of the intervening episodes. At one end of the time frame are the reforms implemented in southwestern China during the reign of the third Qing emperor, Yongzheng (r. 1723–35). In an effort to exert greater control over non-Han communities in Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, and Sichuan, the central government implemented a program known as “reforming the native and returning to the regular” (gaitu guiliu).3 Under this policy, Qing officials used a combination of moral suasion and military force to depose hereditary native rulers (tusi) and incorporate their domains into regular administrative units. The ultimate goal was to bring hitherto autonomous communities under direct imperial rule and transform non-Han peoples into law-abiding Qing subjects.
Long considered the most intractable of Guizhou’s non-Han populations, the Zhongjia became the first targets of this campaign. In 1725, Zhongjia communities in the Guiyang region served as the proving ground for the earliest prototypes of the Yongzheng-era initiatives. Reforms in the Nanlong region followed two years later. Many Zhongjia acquiesced to the new order and settled into quiet lives centering on agriculture, textile production, and small-scale commerce.4 More enterprising individuals developed illicit business ventures that mixed local religious beliefs with anti-dynastic slogans and millenarian rhetoric. These schemes sent a clear signal that the state’s presence was not altogether welcome in the Zhongjia heartland, and that Qing priorities were seldom compatible with the needs and values of local residents. In 1797, a half-century of sporadic unrest culminated in full-scale rebellion when Zhongjia insurgents from Nanlong laid siege to every major town in central and southwestern Guizhou. This book provides the first Western-language account of this rebellion, which Chinese historians usually call the Nanlong Uprising.
The purpose of this study, then, is twofold. One goal is to introduce the Zhongjia to a wider readership and illuminate their role in the history of late imperial China. A related goal is to show how members of this ethnic group created viable livelihoods and maintained their identity while negotiating the imperial state’s plans for standardization and centralization. My understanding of livelihoods draws inspiration from Jean Michaud and his colleagues in anthropology and human geography. It encompasses not only the activities that people use to make a living, but also the social, ethnic, and religious resources at their disposal, and the decisions they make in view of local conditions and external forces.5 An exploration of livelihoods can reveal “the unexpected ways in which people on the margins do not just get onboard and accept . . . modernization but, rather, use their agency to maintain direction over their lives and livelihoods despite current and far-reaching changes to economic conditions and political authority.”6
Thus far, the livelihoods approach has mostly been applied to twenty-first-century communities in the Southeast Asian Massif, an area defined as “the highlands of all the countries sharing a large chunk of the southeast Asian portion of the Asian land mass. These lie roughly east of the lower Brahmaptura River, in India and Bangladesh, and south of the Yangzi River in China, all the way to the Isthmus of Kra at its southernmost extension.”7 This is the same region that James Scott defines as “Zomia,” a refuge for stateless people and populations seeking refuge from surrounding “civilizations.”8 Michaud and other scholars engaged in livelihoods research seek to expand on Scott’s analysis with a “more refined reflection from the ground up and a more dynamic understanding of the relationships between (marginal) local subjects, (global) market forces, and (national) states.”9
Christine Bonnin and Sarah Turner have shown, for example, how Hmong and Yao farmers in northern Vietnam resist or selectively implement Hanoi’s attempts to project modernity into their communities. In recent years, the Vietnamese government has sought to increase grain production by introducing hybrid rice and maize varieties to upland areas. Although the new strains yield larger crops, Hmong and Yao villagers often reject them in favor of indigenous varieties that produce superior rice, both as a food product and as material for distilling alcohol. Villagers acknowledge that the new seeds might be more profitable, but local tastes and cultural preferences clearly outweigh economic considerations. Moreover, families with land to spare use it not to plant hybrid rice and sell the surplus, but instead to continue planting the indigenous varieties. Less well-off farmers purchase or barter small quantities of the traditional rice, especially for ritual purposes. In this way, a lively informal trade in indigenous rice flourishes beyond the confines of the state-directed market economy.10
In this book, I suggest that the livelihoods approach can be applied to historical settings as well as modern ones. It offers a particularly fruitful way to examine Zhongjia interactions with the Qing state. The Zhongjia heartland is, after all, located on the northeastern edge of the Southeast Asian Massif. Its eighteenth-century inhabitants confronted many of the same ecological and economic challenges now facing modern-day inhabitants of China, Vietnam, and Laos, and they responded to these challenges in similar ways. Like the Hmong, the Yao, and many other communities living in the Massif today, the Zhongjia did not submit uncritically to state demands. They weighed all of their options and made livelihood choices that best suited their immediate needs and accorded with their understanding of the world.11
In order to provide a full understanding of Zhongjia livelihood choices, I seek to give equal voice to imperial and indigenous perspectives on the events described in this book. The Qing state’s perspective is easy to locate and analyze, thanks to the abundance of archival sources and other official and semi-official writings. It is more difficult to find indigenous voices. Unlike other non-Han groups in southwestern China such as the Nasu Yi and the Tai, the Zhongjia did not maintain written records of their encounters with China’s rulers.12 They did, however, cultivate a rich oral tradition to preserve and transmit memories of important events. This study utilizes Chinese translations of Zhongjia poems and folk songs, treating them less as accurate historical records than as selective historical memories, or a way communities have chosen to perceive and remember their past.13 Although the Zhongjia did not commit historical events to writing, they did use modified Chinese characters to produce religious texts such as creation stories, prayers for the souls of the dead, entreaties to various spirits, and incantations to dispel evil and bring good fortune.14 Many of these scriptures are available in Chinese translation, and a few have been published in English.15 Throughout this book, I use some of these texts as a window on the beliefs and rituals that shaped Zhongjia worldviews and informed their livelihood choices. When indigenous sources are unavailable, I follow the advice of James Scott and Peter Perdue and read against the grain to glean local voices from official Qing documents.16
The sources reveal a complex dynamic between state entities and local residents. Despite its sophisticated bureaucracy and technologically advanced armies, the Qing could never claim a total monopoly on political or cultural space in the Zhongjia heartland. Even after the gaitu guiliu reforms of the Yongzheng reign, regular administrative rule was largely confined to prefectural seats and a few smaller administrative centers. Much of the countryside remained under the control of indigenous landlords who, though nominally subordinate to the provincial bureaucracy, nevertheless enjoyed considerable autonomy in day-to-day affairs. Equally important, indigenous beliefs, customs, and priorities did not melt away with the arrival of Qing officialdom. Imperial rule did not deprive the Zhongjia of the capacity to think and act for themselves—that is, to choose the livelihoods they considered optimal. Local residents accepted, adapted, circumvented, or rejected state directives as they saw fit.17 Individuals could make risk-benefit analyses to determine when it made sense to follow Qing legal and cultural norms, and when it made more sense to bend or defy them. The decision to follow these norms had the advantage of keeping the state at a safe distance, as Qing officials rarely intervened in the affairs of law-abiding Zhongjia, but it could also mean passing up opportunities for social and economic mobility. Conversely, the decision to pursue illicit activities might bring greater prosperity and an enhanced sense of autonomy, but only if plans were executed well enough to elude detection by local authorities. If plans failed, the masterminds and many of their followers were likely to face imprisonment or even execution. Local residents were fully cognizant of all choices and their possible consequences.18 They exercised the sort of agency that Sherry Ortner describes as “the forms of power people have at their disposal, their ability to act on their own behalf, influence other people and events, and maintain some kind of control in their own lives.”19
The livelihoods approach to Zhongjia history adds a new dimension to the terrain charted by C. Patterson Giersch, John Herman, and Jacob Whittaker. Giersch’s work on southern Yunnan demonstrates how eighteenth-century Qing officials and Tai indigenous leaders established a relationship based on mutual respect and common strategic concerns. The Qing used the Tai polities as a buffer against potentially aggressive Southeast Asian kingdoms, while the Tai maintained some autonomy by playing regional powers against one another. Herman’s work on the Mu’ege kingdom of the Nasu Yi people in northwestern Guizhou illustrates how indigenous rulers took advantage of the Ming dynasty’s (1368–1644) political and economic institutions to enhance their own power. Whittaker examines another Nasu Yi state, the Lu-ho polity in Yunnan, to show how indigenous elites appropriated elements of Confucian culture for their own purposes while preserving rituals and institutions that distinguished them from the Chinese.20
The idea of indigenous agency is clearly at the heart of these stories, but it resides primarily—though by no means exclusively—with indigenous elites. The livelihoods approach in this book focuses on the agency of commoners such as farmers, vagabonds, disgruntled intellectuals, and self-styled magicians. These people all employed the resources at their disposal to engage the state in a meaningful way and assert their own sense of identity.
This book is organized chronologically, pursuing the twin trajectories of Qing expansion into Guizhou and the ways in which Zhongjia livelihoods adapted to changing political and economic circumstances. The discussion begins with an overview of Guizhou’s natural environment, followed by an introduction to Zhongjia history, culture, and socioeconomic organization (chapter 2). The next chapter describes the Qing state’s gradual penetration into central and southwestern Guizhou during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Qing conquest and reforms of the Kangxi period (1662–1722) mainly affected native elites and did not have an immediate impact on local communities. The social and political landscape of the region was forever altered with the ascension of the Yongzheng emperor in 1723. The new emperor took deep offense at what he perceived as endemic lawlessness in Guizhou and elsewhere in southwestern China. Together with a coterie of trusted officials, he engineered a plan to make the region tractable by eliminating native rulers and bringing local populations under direct Qing control. Among his first targets were Zhongjia communities in the central Guizhou region of Dingfan-Guangshun (Guiyang prefecture) and the Guizhou-Guangxi borderlands (Nanlong prefecture). Chapter 3 suggests that Qing reforms in these regions constituted an exercise in what James Scott calls “seeing like a state”—an attempt to transform peripheral territories into more governable spaces.21
Gaitu guiliu in southwestern Guizhou highlighted the imperial state’s ability to create new administrative spaces and staff them with functionaries, but it did not guarantee greater control over the human activities within those spaces. During the mid-eighteenth century, Qing officials found themselves confronting a series of criminal cases that underscored the fundamental discrepancies between imperial visions for the region and realities on the ground. These cases involved moneymaking schemes masterminded by individuals whose livelihood choices made perfect sense in the context of their own lives, but little sense from the perspective of imperial authorities anxious to maintain the hard-won order in southwestern China. Although these cases never involved armed violence, they did feature symbolic attacks on Qing authority that hinted at the potential for more serious unrest (chapter 4). These latent tensions erupted in late 1796, when government troops stationed in southwestern Guizhou were called away to quell rebellions in other provinces. Within weeks, a local religious leader from Nanlong took advantage of the sudden power vacuum and organized a rebellion against the Qing. Spurred on by their charismatic leaders and by supernatural beliefs, the rebels soon controlled all of central and southwestern Guizhou. Qing troops eventually regained control of the region, but sporadic unrest and illegal activities continued into the nineteenth century, an indication that local residents persisted in making livelihood choices that conflicted with state ideals (chapter 5).
The final chapter (chapter 6) situates Guizhou’s indigenes in the Qing vision of multicultural empire. James Millward has proposed a model called “Five Nations Under Heaven” in which the empire’s five major ethnic groups—Han, Manchu, Tibetan, Mongol, and Muslim—occupy parallel positions in relation to the Qing imperial house.22 Conspicuously absent from this model are the indigenes of southwestern China and Taiwan. Emma Teng suggests that this omission signals that the native Taiwanese were superfluous to the Qing conception of “great unity.”23 Chapter 6 will discuss whether or not this held true for the Zhongjia as well; and will also examine the legacy of Qing ethnic policy in contemporary China, with particular reference to the livelihood choices available to the Buyi.