LIVELIHOOD CHOICES IN THE MID-EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Imperial authorities hoped that the reforms of the Yongzheng reign would transform the Zhongjia into compliant subjects. Instead, local residents continued to make decisions based on the flexibility and pragmatism that had sustained them for centuries. Rather than submit uncritically to the state’s demands, the Zhongjia made livelihood choices that best suited their needs. This chapter explores the nature and consequences of these choices by examining three money-making schemes recounted in palace memorials (zhupi zouzhe) from the mid-eighteenth century. These schemes typically revolved around the sale and purchase of good-luck charms, sometimes embossed with slogans like “the Qing will fall next year,” or “a new king will rise up in northern Guangxi.” Itinerant salesmen traveled from village to village, spreading prophesies of natural disasters and plagues, or even predictions of the end of the world. These vendors promised salvation and eternal prosperity for those who bought the charms, and certain death for those who did not.
Qing officials generally viewed these schemes as precursors to rebellion and thus acted with all possible speed to prevent local unrest from escalating into widespread insurrection. The government’s response followed a template with slight variations according to the timing and location of an incident. As soon as local authorities caught wind of suspicious activities, they launched an investigation and rounded up participants and witnesses. The resulting testimony would eventually point to the ringleaders. After further inquiries, the authorities would distinguish the guilty from the innocent, punish the former, and allow the latter to go free. Once the local officials had neutralized the most recent threat, they would express dismay over the frequency of such events in their region. But their reports usually concluded that such incidents could be expected in a place like Guizhou, given the province’s large population of indigenes mired in poverty, ignorance, and superstition.1
As far as Qing authorities were concerned, the participants in these schemes were foolish rustics who had failed to embrace the benefits of Confucian culture. Zhongjia participants, however, were more likely to see themselves as creative and flexible individuals who seized opportunities as they arose and made the best possible use of all the religious, social, and economic resources at their disposal. In other words, they opted for livelihood choices that made perfect sense to them, even if imperial authorities considered these choices to be wrong-headed.
To review the definition set forth in chapter 1, livelihoods encompass not just the activities that people use to make a living, but also the social, ethnic, and religious resources available to them, and the ways livelihood decisions relate to local conditions and external forces. These decisions entail “a range of reactions from acceptance, reluctant compliance, to diverse forms of everyday resistance.”2 Although the discussion in this chapter focuses primarily on individuals whose activities fell into the category of everyday resistance, it also turns an occasional spotlight on local residents who accepted—or who at least reluctantly complied with—Qing legal norms. Law-abiding peasants make less colorful research subjects than their more daring counterparts, but their actions must be given due attention in any discussion of livelihood choices. It seems reasonable to assume that the overwhelming majority of Zhongjia behaved within legal bounds. Indeed, the cases discussed in this chapter found their way into the historical record thanks in large part to the villagers who first observed and reported suspicious doings.3 Illicit activity in remote corners of Guizhou often came to light only when and if local residents alerted community leaders, such as chieftains or Han local elites, who then notified the nearest provincial authorities. What impelled these men to report the illegal doings instead of turning a blind eye or even joining in? The palace memorials do not include direct testimony from the informants, but we can hazard some educated guesses about their motivations. Perhaps they acted out a genuine sense of civic duty, or even out of loyalty to the dynasty. Perhaps it was a simple instinct for self-preservation. Failure to report questionable activities was tantamount to aiding and abetting the perpetrators; and if someone else notified the authorities of such activities, the consequences could be deadly for a person who had turned a blind eye. In other words, it was safer to stay on the side of the law than to appear complicit with criminal elements. Perhaps, as Jean Michaud says, they were “keen to give the appearance of conformity simply to avoid problems.”4 Whatever the case, the decision to follow the law was as much a livelihood choice as the decision to break the law.
Why, then, might someone decide to break the law? In the estimation of Qing officials, many criminals were drawn to illegal activity because they lived in “abject poverty with no source of income” (chipin wulai). However, this was little more than a “documentary signpost” meant to assure higher officials that a crime was economic rather than political in nature.5 It also failed to account for the range of livelihood choices that might or might not have been available to the criminal. In central and southwestern Guizhou, these choices were quite limited. Farming was the predominant economic activity, but as noted in chapter 2, unfavorable environmental conditions made agriculture a precarious livelihood choice at best. Mining offered another possibility, although Guizhou’s metal and mineral reserves could not compare to those in neighboring Yunnan. Moreover, many of the jobs in mines went to immigrants from other provinces rather than to local Han or indigenes.6 It is true that small pockets of commercial activity flourished throughout central and southwestern Guizhou. Salt was probably the most important commodity, as the province lacked reserves of its own and relied on imports from Yunnan, Sichuan, or Guangdong.7 Small markets were held at regular intervals throughout the region—here, indigenes could barter forest products, medicinal plants, and livestock for salt, fish, cloth, and tools from Han merchants.8 For most local residents, commercial activities provided little more than a means to supplement household incomes and acquire necessary goods; but the markets themselves did not constitute a viable livelihood.9
Returning to the notion of chipin wulai, many Zhongjia criminals did live in poverty, though not necessarily in abject poverty, and many did have sources of income, though perhaps not enough for all their needs. Farming and commercial activities most likely provided only a bare subsistence, with few opportunities for social or economic mobility. Zhongjia who wanted more from their lives had to use a little ingenuity to carve out their own niches. The three cases examined in this chapter revolve around individuals who did precisely this. The first case, recorded in two sets of palace memorials dating from 1743, centered on an intricate transprovincial network of religious practitioners and self-styled magicians who devised an assortment of schemes to extract silver from caves or to transform base metals into precious ones.10 The second case occurred near the central Guizhou town of Langdai in 1766 and centered on a Daoist monk who swindled money from Miao and Zhongjia villagers by purporting to ensure aid from the spiritual realm and protection from harm.11 While local authorities were investigating this case, another plot came to light in Guiding, just south of the provincial capital of Guiyang. In this third case, an educated Zhongjia villager extorted money from his illiterate neighbors by enticing them to attend an audience with a man posing as the Son of Heaven.12
THE HUANG SAN CASE (1743)
The first case is the most complex of the three, and arguably the most interesting from an ethnohistorical standpoint. 13 This study refers to it as the “Huang San case,” after the man whose arrest alerted provincial officials to an intricate web of plots involving vague millenarian notions and a variety of schemes to find or fabricate silver. More than the other two cases, it illustrates how Zhongjia culture and religion shaped local livelihoods and responses to Qing rule. It is also the only instance of cross-border crime examined in this chapter. Whereas the other two cases were mostly confined to small areas within Guizhou, this one spilled into Guangxi and Yunnan, thus highlighting the free flow of people and ideas across a permeable tri-provincial frontier.14 Not coincidentally, perhaps, the criminal activities originated in the newly constituted prefectures of Nanlong and Sicheng, a sign that ethnic and religious networks were far more important to local residents than administrative boundaries.
The story began in the winter of 1743, when a Zhongjia farmer named Lu Quan provided lodging to five peddlers passing through his hamlet near the southwestern Guizhou town of Yongfeng. The leader of this small gang was Huang San, a Nong from Xilong, in northern Guangxi.15 Two of Huang San’s companions were also Nong and the other two were Zhongjia.16 In today’s ethnic terminology, Lu Quan and the other Zhongjia would most likely be classified as Buyi, and Huang San and the other Nong would probably be considered Zhuang. As noted in chapter 1, the Buyi of southwestern Guizhou share many linguistic and cultural traits with the Zhuang of northwestern Guangxi. Huang San and his fellow Nong would have fit easily into a Zhongjia community where the dialect, customs, and religious beliefs were similar to their own.17 Before long, the quintet was conducting a brisk trade in good-luck charms. As a self-proclaimed master of the magical form known as duangong, Huang San personally guaranteed the efficacy of every amulet he sold. For the right price, he would also chant spells and perform rituals that were supposed to provide additional good fortune or further protection against disease or natural disaster.18
If his guests’ activities had stopped here, Lu Quan might have been content to let them stay with him indefinitely. Many of his neighbors put great faith in good-luck charms, spells, and incantations, so it seemed natural for Huang San to tap into this ready market. Lu Quan became concerned only when he learned of a mysterious new twist in Huang’s sales pitch. Huang San began telling customers that he knew where to find silver in the nearby forest. When Lu Quan pressed for an explanation, Huang San gave a cryptic reply: “I pasted a sign on the entrance of an old cave so that I’ll know where to look. When I find the silver, I’ll share it with whoever supplies the new king with weapons and money. Everyone who helps will enjoy good fortune in the end.”19 The reference to a “new king” led Lu Quan to the unsettling realization that he might be harboring a criminal gang, or, even worse, members of an incipient rebel movement. He decided to report his suspicions to the nearest local authority, a Zhongjia chieftain (tingmu) named Wang Ling. For good measure, Lu Quan brought along one of the good-luck charms.20
At first, Wang Ling did not consider the charm anything out of the ordinary. The front was printed with the modified Chinese characters that practitioners of the Mo religion used to write prayers and poems.21 Although Wang Ling could not decipher the texts—only Mo priests and their disciples could—he assumed that they were the usual prayers for good fortune.22 However, when he turned over the charm to inspect the reverse side, he found an unwelcome surprise. There, written in a bold hand, were the unmistakable ideographs for “son of heaven” (tianzi), one of the Qing emperor’s many titles. Wang Ling’s suspicions deepened as Lu Quan described Huang San’s talk of a “new king.” He agreed that the visitors might be engaged in criminal activities, perhaps even a plot to challenge the dynasty and proclaim their own “son of heaven” or “new king.” He urged local residents to use all means necessary to capture Huang San and his gang. Wang Ling also reported his concerns to a member of the Han local gentry named Wang Li, who duly notified the Yongfeng department magistrate.23 Several weeks later, villagers waylaid the gang and staged a citizens’ arrest. Two suspects were beaten to death when they tried to escape; but Huang San and the other two were captured alive, and were escorted first to the Yongfeng prison, and then to the prefectural seat at Nanlong.24
Lu Quan, Wang Ling, and Wang Li all exit the story at this point, but it is worth pausing to discuss their roles in the capture of Huang San. As noted above, all three men were alert to the possibility that Huang San might be involved in anti-Qing activities. Even so, notifying imperial authorities was not their only option. They could have aided or abetted Huang San, or simply turned a blind eye to Huang’s activities. When Lu Quan heard of Huang San’s plans to prospect for silver in the forest and wait for a “new king,” Lu might have decided to join in the scheme. Instead, Lu Quan went to the tingmu, Wang Ling. When Wang Ling learned of Huang San’s peculiar doings, he might have looked the other way—or even joined the scheme himself—but instead, he reported the matter up the chain of command to Wang Li. For his part, Wang Li, a member of the Han local elite, could have dismissed the whole affair as foolishness typical of the Zhongjia “barbarians,” but instead, he notified district officials in Yongfeng.
What, then, impelled Lu Quan, Wang Ling, and Wang Li to report the suspicious activities instead of turning a blind eye or even joining in? The answer may lie in the positions the three men occupied within their respective communities and their desire to preserve a status quo that worked to their advantage. Although Yongfeng district was administered by regularly appointed Qing officials, governance at the village level remained in the hands of indigenous elites like the tingmu, Wang Ling. Although they enjoyed some degree of autonomy, they were also expected to function as adjuncts of the Qing state and thus bore responsibility for maintaining stability in their communities. If Wang Ling had failed to report Huang San to higher authorities at the first sign of trouble, he would have been held responsible for any ensuing unrest and would have been punished accordingly. The tingmu also commanded great respect and loyalty within their fiefdoms. Lu Quan was probably a farmer, or sizhuang baixing, on Wang Ling’s estate.25 In exchange for his fealty to Wang Ling, he received a small parcel of land to farm. Any transgression on Lu Quan’s part would have threatened this arrangement. It is possible that he flirted with the idea of joining Huang San’s scheme, but decided against it. His livelihood, although hardly luxurious, was at least stable, and perhaps, in his eyes, preferable to the life of a vagabond like Huang San. Equally important, Lu Quan did not want to risk punishment for harboring a criminal. Wang Li represented a liaison between rural residents—Han and non-Han alike—and the imperial state. Therefore, Wang Li found common cause with the tingmu, Wang Ling. The desire to preserve stability took precedence over ethnic distinctions. Wang Li also had to consider his own reputation and status. The palace memorials identify him as a student-by-purchase fourth class (jiansheng). This title was reserved for men who contributed grain or money to gain admission to the National University (Guozijan) and who became eligible for low-ranking government positions without passing any level of the civil service exams.26 It was in Wang Li’s best interests to support the state that had awarded him a degree and the commensurate prestige. Thus, for Lu Quan, Wang Ling, and Wang Li, anything less than cooperation would have undermined their entrenched livelihoods.
A closer look at the actions taken by the three Zhongjia men, Lu Quan, Wang Ling, and Huang San, also yields further insights into Qing-era portrayals of this ethnic group. Taken as a whole, the activities of this trio support the contradictory portrayals of the Zhongjia found in Qing-era ethnographic writings. That is, contemporary observers characterized the Zhongjia both as sinicized and as intractable, depending on the circumstances. Huang San and his gang embodied the notion that the Zhongia (and the Nong, their ethnolinguistic kin) were rotten to the core. Lu Quan and Wang Ling, by contrast, lent credence to the idea that some Zhongjia had “advanced toward culture” (xianghua) and had “developed awe and respect for the law.” However, compliance with Qing legal norms should not be mistaken for acculturation, let alone uncritical or reflexive obedience to the imperial state.27 The decision to cooperate was a rational and conscious one for these Zhongjia men. It was a livelihood strategy in its own right, founded in the understanding that each action carried consequences.28
The narrative returns to the prison in Nanlong, where Huang San now faced the consequences of his actions. Prefectural officials in Nanlong interrogated him for several days until his story came together in a series of rambling confessions. Huang San’s adventures had begun five years earlier, when he began hearing rumors of “spirit silver” (gui yin) buried in caves and disused mines. Everyone he encountered near his Guangxi hometown seemed to know about the silver, but no one knew exactly where it was, or how to get it. After several months of fruitless searching, Huang San met a man called Wang Zuxian, who boasted of great expertise in finding spirit silver. Wang Zuxian claimed to know of a vast silver reserve in a defunct mine in Guizhou, and he invited Huang San to join him on an expedition there. Huang San urged him to go ahead and promised to catch up later.29
By the time Huang San arrived in Guizhou several months later, Wang Zuxian was nowhere to be found. Huang San hunted for the silver on his own, only to meet with the same frustrations he had experienced in Guangxi. Once again, he encountered many local residents who knew about the “spirit silver,” but had no idea how or where to find it. He finally enjoyed a minor breakthrough when he met a Zhongjia ritual specialist (bumo) named Baomu Bai, who boasted of exceptional skill in duangong magic.30 Huang San visited Baomu Bai’s home to watch the magic in action, and he was impressed enough to ask if he could stay on as a disciple. Baomu Bai readily agreed.31
At this point, it is helpful to supplement the Qing sources with more recent work on Zhongjia religion. The palace memorials offer little information on the role of the bumo in Zhongjia society, or how the Daoistinflected practices of duangong fit into Mo beliefs and rituals. To begin with, the bumo generally fell into two categories: those who acted on behalf of the dead, and those who acted on behalf of the living. Bumo in the former category performed ceremonies at funerals to expiate the sins of the deceased, while those in the latter category prayed for good fortune or conducted rituals to stave off natural disasters and drive away evil spirits and pestilence.32 Duangong, with its emphasis on prayers to dispel evil and bring good fortune, seems to fit comfortably into the second category. But to complicate matters slightly, duangong has often been associated with Maoshan Daoism, a sect that entered Guizhou from Sichuan at least a thousand years ago.33 Maoshan Daoist priests have traditionally worked alongside the bumo, and although some of their functions overlap, they play distinct roles in their communities.
In light of this, it is not clear if Baomu Bai was a bumo whose repertoire included Daoist rituals, or if he was a Daoist priest who embraced Mo practices. Perhaps he was both, or perhaps such distinctions were not finely drawn in his community.34 Even more to the point, it appears that Baomu Bai walked a thin line between legitimate religion and chicanery. He was one of many bumo involved in the region-wide quest for “spirit silver.” Some bumo, like Baomu Bai himself, relied exclusively on prayers and incantations to lead them to the right spot, while others dabbled in alchemy and crude forms of cupellation in their attempts to transform base metals into precious ones.35 Huang San was eager to learn all the tricks of the trade. If any of the magico-religious methods proved effective, he might find the silver, or even learn how to conjure it up from a long-abandoned pit or lonely forest cavern.36 If the magic failed, he would at least acquire the textual knowledge and persuasive powers needed to convince others of the same rumors that had enticed him.
After several disappointing attempts to find silver, Baomu Bai and Huang San received some exciting news. A man in Luoping, just over the border in Yunnan, had discovered a way to transform copper into silver. His alias was Huang Zuxian, and he had recently established a smelter at the home of a bumo named Baomu Lun.37 Huang San and Baomu Bai pooled their resources with three friends, Wang Bujiang, Wang Bujiang’s son Wang A Jiang, and Bao Changding, and the group set out for Yunnan.38 When they arrived, local residents pointed them to Baomu Lun’s house, where they awaited instructions. Eventually, two assistants named Yi Gen and Yi Bao came to collect copper from Huang San and his friends for Huang Zuxian’s alchemy.39 Huang San and his companions were invited to watch as the purported alchemist poured the coins into a charcoal-fired brazier. After some time, Huang Zuxian reached into the brazier and came up empty-handed. The copper had disappeared into the brazier without producing a trace of silver. Huang Zuxian explained that the unusually large audience had rendered his magic ineffective. He offered to try again if Huang San and his friends had more copper. The visitors arranged to borrow some copper from a local resident on the condition that they would share some of the resulting silver.40
By this time, however, Wang A Jiang and Baomu Bai had had already begun to doubt Huang Zuxian’s abilities. They consulted with his assistant Yi Bao, who confirmed that his boss had never once succeeded in transforming copper into silver. Huang Zuxian relied upon sleight of hand for the ruse. On previous occasions, Yi Bao had watched Huang Zuxian place fake silver—probably chunks of lead alloy—into a cup, which Huang hid in a corner of the brazier until after the copper had been added. After a suitable interval, he withdrew the fake silver from the furnace and presented it to his customers.41
Wang Bujiang, Wang A Jiang, and Baomu Bai did not want to be cheated again, so they asked Yi Bao to help them spy on Huang Zuxian. Yi Bao agreed, and the four of them stood outside the smelter and watched through a window as Huang Zuxian buried silvery nuggets under a pile of charcoal in the brazier. Yi Bao whispered to his companions that the hidden pieces were made of the same lead alloy Huang Zuxian had used before. Soon afterward, Huang San and Bao Changding arrived with their newly acquired copper, which they handed over to Baomu Lun and Yi Gen. The two assistants passed the coins to Huang Zuxian, who dropped them into the brazier with a great flourish. After some time, Huang Zuxian dug out the concealed decoy silver and presented it to Huang San. A Jiang and Yi Bao stormed into the room and announced that Huang Zuxian was a fraud. Moments later, they were joined by Wang Bujiang, who demanded that Huang Zuxian repay him for the copper already lost in the brazier. Bao Changding soon added his voice to the chorus. Huang Zuxian responded to the attacks on his credibility by punching Wang Bujiang. A Jiang rushed to his father’s aid, and Baomu Bai and Bao Changding quickly joined the fray. Huang San, Yi Gen, and Baomu Lun all stood aloof from the melee. Huang San and Yi Gen had not witnessed the deception firsthand and may have preferred to go on believing in Huang Zuxian’s abilities. As Huang Zuxian’s host, Baomu Lun was probably well aware of the scam, but he was sharing in the profits and had a vested interest in keeping mum.42
Soon, the ruckus in the smelter attracted the attention of passers-by. One of them happened to be the villager who had loaned Huang San and his friends the copper coins. He demanded immediate compensation, and another fracas ensued. This time, Wang Bujiang, A Jiang, Bao Changding, and Baomu Bai took advantage of the chaos and slipped away, eventually making their way back to Guizhou. Huang Zuxian disappeared, seemingly without a trace. Huang San stayed at the home of Baomu Lun, scratching out a meager existence as a farm worker (bang gong du ri).43
Huang San remained in Yunnan until late 1742, when he decided to take to the road again. His wanderings landed him in Ceheng, a town near the Guizhou-Guangxi border. There, he had a chance reunion with his old friend Wang Zuxian, who had never given up his own quest for spirit silver. Wang Zuxian told Huang San that he knew of a promising cave near Yongfeng, a few days’ walk to the north. He also had new predictions for Huang San: Not only did the cave contain silver, but it was also where a new king would emerge. Wang Zuxian also told Huang San that on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of 1743, the skies would turn black for seven days and seven nights, everyone would fall ill, and a new king would rise up. Wang then gave Huang San several yellow paper charms inscribed with the characters “Son of Heaven.”44
After this encounter with Wang Zuxian, Huang San befriended four other men who were interested in prospecting for silver near Yongfeng. The group set out shortly before the Chinese New Year in 1743. Huang San began making good-luck charms to sell along the way. On the front, he inscribed the prayers that he had learned from Baomu Bai. Taking inspiration from Wang Zuxian, he added the characters “Son of Heaven” on the back. The good-luck charms provided a viable livelihood while he and his friends searched for silver. It was thus that the quintet landed on Lu Quan’s doorstep.45
After listening to Huang San’s confession, the authorities were satisfied that his only aims had been to find silver and sell good-luck charms. His ramblings about a “new king” were nothing more than a garbled and diluted version of Wang Zuxian’s ideas. He had been drawn to crime because he lived in “abject poverty with no source of income” (chipin wulai). Any wrongdoing had been an unintended consequence of his greed and ignorance. His worst offenses had been spreading false rumors and cheating a few dozen villagers in southwestern Guizhou.46
Although Huang San himself was relatively harmless, it appeared that he might have brushed shoulders with more dangerous criminals, especially Wang Zuxian. Provincial officials throughout the southwest launched a manhunt for Wang and eventually captured him in a town along the Guizhou-Guangxi border. After several days of questioning, the authorities determined that he had no more intention of challenging the Qing dynasty than Huang San did. His millenarian ideas were a product of an encounter many years earlier with two long-dead criminals.47 Like Huang San, Wang was motivated primarily by a desire to find easy riches. The case might have ended right here, but officials continued to receive disturbing reports about further attempts to find “spirit silver.” It appeared that Huang San and Wang Zuxian had inspired many imitators throughout the Zhongjia and Nong regions of Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan. The net result was not one, but several overlapping schemes that crisscrossed Guizhou’s borders with Yunnan and Guangxi. One scheme centered on rumors that it was possible to extract silver from disused mines or ordinary caves. An ancillary scheme involved the sale and distribution of good-luck charms embossed with anti-Qing propaganda, millenarian messages, and magical spells. These talismans not only protected their owners against misfortune, but also served as entrance tickets to ceremonies in caves or mines where self-proclaimed alchemists would attempt to transform various substances into precious metals. The ceremonies themselves represented another business venture, for the attendees were expected to provide either a financial contribution or some of the raw materials deemed necessary for the production of gold or silver. These materials ranged from the relatively mundane, like copper coins, to the more exotic, like semi-precious stones or the dried saliva and excrement of the Himalayan blue sheep, also known as the bharal.48 Because some of these items were not readily obtainable in southwestern Guizhou, a lively traffic in counterfeit goods also developed.
In short, Qing officials in three provinces had their hands full with this case. False leads and red herrings further complicated the investigation. In the summer of 1743, Guizhou officials arrested a Nong wanderer found carrying charms printed with anti-Qing slogans. When questioned, the man insisted that he was distributing the charms on orders from his landlord, who was organizing an armed insurrection in northern Guangxi. This accusation prompted Guangxi officials to raid the landlord’s home, where they found not a single weapon. Subsequent interrogations confirmed that the landlord had never asked anyone to sell charms, anti-Qing or otherwise, and that he had no plans to rebel. The focus of the investigation shifted back to the vagabond, who confessed that he had run away from the landlord several months earlier. The two men had a long history of animosity, culminating in the vagabond’s attempt to impersonate his landlord in an important commercial transaction. When the landlord threatened to hand him over to the authorities, he slipped over the border into Guizhou, where he eked out a hand-to-mouth existence. At some point, the vagabond acquired the anti-Qing charms, and he planned to resell them for some extra cash. When arrested, he made a desperate attempt to take revenge on his landlord by laying false charges against him. The attempt backfired, and he was imprisoned for slander and a host of other charges.49
The Huang San investigation concluded after six months with the arrest and imprisonment of several dozen criminals found guilty of “concocting fallacies with intent to instigate trouble” (yaoyan xitu shanhuo). The official verdict categorized the affair as a case of “mutual bullying and deception (huxiang qikuang), nothing more than a plot to earn money through unlawful means (wufei piancai zhiyi). There was no seditious intent (bingwu mouni zhixin).” Huang San and Wang Zuxian remained in jail. Huang Zuxian, the man who tried to turn copper into silver, was eventually captured in Yunnan.
Even after declaring the case closed, Qing authorities were unsatisfied with the outcome and its broader implications for imperial ambitions in the region. They remained unconvinced that they had caught all of the miscreants, or even the right ones. When interrogated, witnesses often claimed affiliation with criminals from much older cases. Sometimes they mentioned individuals who had died or gone to prison years earlier, and sometimes they identified men whose names matched those of long sought-after fugitives. It was rarely clear if the informants had in fact brushed shoulders with these criminals, if they had encountered men who had assumed the criminals’ aliases, or if they had simply heard the criminals’ names through local rumor mills and offered them up under interrogation. To further complicate matters, witnesses and suspects alike had multiple nicknames that varied with local dialects. As one Guangxi official wrote, “It is difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood, or to determine the names and hometowns of the criminals. . . . Even when [witnesses] recognize a face, the names and hometowns do not match.”50 More discouraging still was the knowledge that the Huang San case was not an isolated occurrence. Officials in the region had seen many cases like it before, and they could expect to see many more in the future.51 Even Yunnan governor Zhang Yunsui, a veteran of southwest China affairs, seemed to concede defeat when he wrote, “The Miao are poor and foolish, and easy to lure from the correct path. Each criminal starts rumors. . . . The disorder arising from the sale and distribution of charms began years ago, and we continue to deal with it today. It is like a wind that never stops, but lingers and spreads . . . [and] the Yao and Zhong suffer its ill effects.”52
Although the Huang San case stopped short of rebellion, local residents did not have to take up arms to tell Zhang and his cohorts what they already knew: The Nong and Zhongjia residents of this region had their own social, economic, and cultural priorities, cemented by linguistic and religious ties that transcended provincial boundaries. There was little the Qing could do to reorient these priorities.
Langdai, a subprefecture attached to Anshun prefecture, occupied a key strategic position in central Guizhou. Situated only about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the provincial capital of Guiyang, Anshun was the headquarters of the Guizhou provincial military commander (tidu) and home to five military units. Anyone who stirred up trouble in this area would have to confront one of the highest concentrations of Qing civil and military authority in Guizhou. The ethnic composition of Langdai’s population represented a microcosm of the entire province, with Han living interspersed among the Miao, the Lolo, and the Zhongjia. Each group tended to live in segregated, compact communities, but members of the different ethnic groups did mingle freely in public places, especially in the region’s many periodic markets.
In May of 1766, Guizhou Governor Fang Shijun learned of suspicious doings in the countryside around Langdai.53 Villagers had informed local authorities that five non-Han men54 were going from hamlet to hamlet ordering people to give them money. Some households gave only a few coins, but others gave up to three or four ounces, or taels, of silver. Those who did not pay were warned that they would face mortal injury in a deadly hailstorm. Officials quickly tracked down the men and found a variety of mysterious items in their possession, including small red flags, a bolt of fabric, turbans, a woman’s scarf, a red gown, a flowered skirt, and fifty multi-colored flags. When interrogated, two of the co-conspirators55 averred that a Daoist priest named Dong Zhengyuan and his disciples, Ran Jing, Ran Hua, and Ran Lang had conspired to spread falsehoods and swindle the guileless Miao. Officials hastened to the Daoist temple, where they arrested Dong Zhengyuan and confiscated twenty-eight taels from him. A thorough search of the temple revealed no traces of unlawful activity, and the three disciples were nowhere to be found. When authorities interrogated Dong Zhengyuan, he confessed that poverty had driven him to hatch a scheme with Ran Jing (one of his disciples) some months earlier.56 In desperation, he had asked Ran Jing to spread the word from hamlet to hamlet that a terrible hailstorm would strike the region the following summer. If people were willing to donate money for a sacrifice, they would be spared from harm. Ran Jing was the ideal person to carry out this scheme because he was well known to villagers as an itinerant medicine man, and he spoke several Miao dialects. After agreeing to Dong Zhengyuan’s scheme, Ran Jing bought a piece of red cloth and had eighty triangular flags made from it. He set out for the Yongning area, southwest of Langdai, and began to spread rumors of the disaster to come. Ran Jing had recruited two Zhongjia villagers to collect money for him.57 These two then recruited three more Zhongjia men.58 Eventually, the five men collected ninety-nine taels on Ran Jing’s behalf. Ran Jing then gave his first two recruits twenty-five taels to share.
Asked about the flags and articles of clothing, the suspects stated that these belonged to Ran Jing. He had given the red flags to each of his money collectors as protection against the calamity. The bolt of fabric would be made into talismans for the people who had paid protection money. With the proper spells and incantations, the suspects had claimed, these talismans would ward off disaster. As for the turbans, scarves, and skirts, the suspects stated that a tailor from Jiangxi had made them for Ran Jing. Authorities then hastened to interrogate the tailor, who confessed that Ran Jing had planned to use the skirts and turban when he impersonated Nacha, a mountain-dwelling immortal. Thus disguised, Ran Jing intended to extract more money from people who asked him to chant incantations on their behalf. The tailor also stated that Ran Jing had promised him a ten percent cut of the profits, but he had yet to receive any money.
Governor Fang next sent urgent messages to provincial authorities in Sichuan and Yunnan encouraging them to find the three chief malefactors—the disciples Ran Jing, Ran Lang, and Ran Hua. Soon thereafter, the governor received word that the three Daoists had escaped to Sichuan.59 In a separate memorial, Sichuan governor Aertai reported on the threesome’s capture and interrogation. One of the miscreants was discovered with 184 taels of silver and two horses, and his personal effects included a variety of clothing, turbans, silver-plated hairpins, and paper charms. When questioned, the three criminals confirmed that they were all disciples of the impoverished Daoist, Dong Zhengyuan, who frequently sent the trio to Miao and Zhongjia hamlets to sell medicines that Dong had concocted. As a result of their travels, the three disciples were well acquainted with all the headmen in the area. About four months earlier, Ran Jing had fallen into a casual conversation with two Zhongjia headmen, who remarked that the area was in the midst of a drought. Poverty had driven many villagers to raid and plunder households in neighboring villages. One headman reasoned that after all, death was probably inevitable, so why not die trying to better one’s circumstances rather than die of starvation? He confided that he planned to gather a crowd of two hundred men for a massive raid on the prefectural seat of Anshun. Ran Jing warned the headman that he could not hope to get away with this, for Anshun had five military battalions (ying) and four guard posts (shao). The two headmen asked Ran Jing for suggestions, and it was thus that he began to spread fantasies of invincibility. He said that he belonged to a blood brotherhood of two or three hundred men in the large town of Zhaotong, several hundred miles away in Yunnan province. He also said that he knew of a spirit named Siniang, whose magical powers could be invoked to help the raiders. To bolster his own credentials, Ran Jing also boasted that he had studied magic. The two headmen invited him to visit their hamlet for a demonstration. Ran Jing accepted the invitation and apparently gave a satisfactory performance, for the headmen and the villagers accepted the veracity of his claims. They asked him to call upon the spirit and the blood brotherhood to come forward and protect them during the raid. Ran Jing agreed, but said that he would need four or five hundred taels of silver to complete the deal. The two gullible headmen talked him down to two or three hundred taels, and they arranged to meet a few weeks later.
When the rendezvous took place, the headmen gave Ran Jing 140 taels of silver, 60 of which Ran Jing turned over to Dong Zhengyuan. Within a few days, Ran Jing collected another 110 taels and acquired two horses. On the twenty-fourth day of the second month, as previously arranged, Ran Jing, Ran Lang, and Ran Hua set out for Yunnan and then fled to Sichuan, where patrolling troops captured them and extradited them to Guizhou. After faithfully recording the confessions in his memorial, Governor Aertai wondered if the raid on Anshun had truly been the headmen’s idea, or if Ran Jing had given a false confession.
The Qianlong emperor and his grand councilors wondered, too, and they expressed their thoughts in an edict to Governor Fang:
If Ran Jing and the others have fabricated evidence and laid a charge in a false confession, it should not be difficult to get the truth from them in a thorough investigation. If it was really the Miao headmen’s idea, he will be prosecuted according to the laws of the empire. . . . This may not amount to more than an ordinary case of raid and plunder, but we must raise our voices and assume a stern expression (dong shen se). Failure to make an exhaustive investigation, and to punish the criminals to the fullest extent of the law, may give rise to widespread and serious unrest.60
With these words in mind, Governor Fang interrogated Ran Jing upon Ran’s return to Guizhou in June of 1766.61 The story that emerged was slightly different from the confession extracted in Sichuan. In this version, Ran Jing admitted that he had used the headmen as scapegoats. Ran said the raid had been his idea, but he had planned to target the small market town of Dayanjiao, not the prefectural seat of Anshun. He explained that villagers around Langdai had believed his weather predictions and had spread his warnings far and wide to collect money on his behalf. Households that paid were given talismans for protection against the coming disaster. After about a month, Ran Jing returned to the temple with his earnings. He went to a tailor and asked for a padded coat, a robe, and a flowered skirt. These garments were to provide his costume for his reincarnation of the Nacha Immortal, who would save everyone from disaster. Ran Jing made the rounds of several other villages near Langdai and continued spreading rumors about the hailstorm. Wherever he went, people took him at his word and agreed to collect money on his behalf. As before, whenever the collectors turned in their money, Ran Jing gave them small red flags to protect their homes from harm.
One day, a Zhongjia villager visited Ran Jing’s temple seeking medical treatment for his son. After providing the requested treatment, Ran Jing tried to entice the man to join his scheme. The other two monks, Ran Hua and Ran Lang, happened to overhear, and, when they saw how easily Ran Jing deceived the visitor, they went to Dong Zhengyuan. It is not clear whether they wanted Dong Zhengyuan to stop Ran Jing, or if they wanted to share in the profits. In any event, several days later, the threesome paid a visit to the Zhongjia petitioner at home. After listening to the man lament his poverty, Ran Jing suggested that the villager gather a mob to raid a local periodic market to be held on the third day of the third month. When the man expressed concerns about local authorities, Ran Jing assured him that spiritual protection and aid from a blood brotherhood in Zhaotong could be arranged. The men then set a day to go to Yunnan to make a personal request for the brotherhood’s help. Ran Jing also announced that everyone who desired the brotherhood’s services would have to pay for them. Once again, his followers went from village to village collecting money on his behalf. In due course, Ran Jing had amassed slightly more than 228 taels.
Determined to give everyone a good show for their money, Ran Jing presided over an initiation ceremony for the prospective raiders about ten days before the planned event. He ordered someone to slaughter a chicken and mix the blood with wine. One by one, the raiders drank while Ran Jing murmured incantations. He promised everyone that the blood wine and the spells would protect them during the raid. When the ceremony ended, Ran Jing announced that he would go ahead to Zhaotong to arrange everything with the blood brotherhood. He told the crowd: “You go on to Dayanjiao and raid the market. Divide the cloth and rice among yourselves. In this way, you can all avoid poverty. Everyone must stand ready to do this.” Because the men had all taken the blood oath, no one uttered a word to prevent him from leaving. After borrowing two horses, Ran Jing and his two fellow monks slipped away and dallied in Yunnan for several days before they were finally apprehended in Sichuan.
In sum, Ran Jing capitalized on the villagers’ fear and desperation. For their part, the villagers probably felt they had nothing to lose. The raid represented their last, best hope. Ran Jing’s ceremony allowed them to nurse the fantasy that they could elude the authorities entirely, or, if pursued, that they would be invulnerable to the bullets and arrows of government troops. Perhaps Ran Jing nursed his own fantasies of invincibility. After learning of the case from subordinate officials, Governors Fang and Aertai maintained a steady correspondence with Beijing on the progress of the investigation. Every civil and military official in Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan was on the alert. To put it simply, Ran Jing’s fantasies were no match for the eyes, ears, and brushes of officialdom.
Nor, in the end, were fantasies a match for the penal code. Ran Jing, along with Dong Zhengyuan, Ran Hua, most of the money collectors, and even the tailor, were all found guilty of “concocting books or sayings of sorcery involving prophecies” (yaoyan yaoshu), “with the intention of plotting rebellion” (moufan).62 The penalty was immediate decapitation.63 Governor Fang also ruled that the heads of Ran Jing and Dong Zhengyuan should be transported from hamlet to hamlet and displayed on city walls. The Zhongjia villagers who had willingly paid Ran Jing were treated with leniency, for, as Governor Fang pointed out, they did not know they were being cheated. It should be noted that although several money collectors are identified as Zhongjia, they were all prosecuted according to the Qing penal code rather than native laws because they resided in areas long subject to regular administration.64
In 1740, the Qianlong emperor ordered the establishment of charitable schools (shexue) throughout Guizhou to provide non-Han students with a basic education in the Confucian classics. The schools quickly foundered, however, as provincial officials were hard pressed to find scholars and teachers willing to live and work in Miao territory. After only eleven years, the emperor ordered the closure of the shexue, convinced that their influence had been more harmful than beneficial. In a 1751 edict, Qianlong proclaimed that the few teachers who were willing to venture into Guizhou’s minority areas were “not only unable to lead [the Miao] toward good, but tended . . . to entice them into evil.” In the emperor’s view, the “Miao” were moreover stupid by nature and thus incapable of comprehending the Confucian classics. Even worse, after learning to read, many students perused novels and other “vile books,” which merely led them to depravity and villainy. Transformation through education was thus a practical impossibility, and the emperor thought it prudent to dismiss all shexue instructors and gradually disband the schools.65
It is difficult to say whether or not the teachers truly enticed Guizhou’s non-Han residents into evil, or if those who acquired literacy did indeed end up reading so-called vile books. The final criminal case to be examined in this chapter does indicate, however, that traditional Chinese education for non-Chinese populations had some unintended consequences. In 1766, Wei Xuewen, a Zhongjia man with some education, induced illiterate villagers to participate in a moneymaking scheme with a strong anti-Qing flavor. Although his scheme never escalated into an armed insurrection, Wei Xuewen did speak of overthrowing the Qing, and the idea seemed to hold considerable appeal for the Zhongjia in his hometown of Guiding. Equally important, he encouraged his adherents to participate in rituals which effectively—if only temporarily—negated state authority.
As a child, Wei Xuewen had learned to read and work an abacus. In spite of his education, he had few employment opportunities. During the fall of 1765, he met up with two of his friends, and they sat around lamenting their poverty.66 One of the friends asked Wei Xuewen to come up with a moneymaking scheme, but Wei was unable to think of anything. After mulling over the problem for several months, Wei Xuewen realized that he and his friends could capitalize on the Miao fear of future disasters and their reluctance to pay taxes. He gathered his friends again and suggested they make talismans to sell in Miao villages.67 He proposed they tell villagers that the “son of heaven” himself had commissioned the charms to bring the Miao peace and prosperity. Wei Xuewen’s friends liked the plan and asked him to make a prototype of the talisman. By the beginning of 1766, Wei Xuewen had produced several rough drafts, all of them inscribed with characters prophesying the fall of the Qing.
Wei Xuewen showed the talismans to his friends, and they were pleased. The group decided to test their scheme on a local villager, a young man named Luo Shirong, who had recently profited from the sale of his deceased father’s land. Wei Xuewen approached the youth and identified himself as a provincial examination candidate, thereby bolstering his credibility in the eyes of the illiterate young villager. He said that Luo Shirong had been chosen to overthrow the Qing dynasty and become the next “son of heaven.” When Luo Shirong demanded proof, Wei Xuewen told him to listen at his father’s grave. He would hear a tremendous roaring sound, evidence that a dragon had taken up residence there. This, Wei Xuewen averred, would offer conclusive proof that Luo Shirong was a member of the imperial lineage. Wei also sold him a bronze seal and a wooden seal to use in his new capacity as the ruler. Luo Shirong was immeasurably happy with his new prospects for wealth.68
But when Luo Shirong went to the grave and tried to listen for the dragon’s roar, he heard nothing. Realizing he had been cheated, he went back to Wei Xuewen and demanded his money back. Wei Xuewen then told Luo Shirong that they wanted him to impersonate the Son of Heaven in a ceremony to swindle money from the local Miao. They also explained the scheme to sell talismans to Miao villagers. After being promised a share of the profits, Luo Shirong agreed to join the scam. One of Wei Xuewen’s co-conspirators ordered his son and a friend to play the “heavenly spirit” (tianshen) and the “general” (jiangjun), respectively. Wei Xuewen dubbed himself “heavenly generalissimo” (tianshuai xiangzhu).69
Wei Xuewen commissioned a carver to produce enough talismans to sell to villages in a wide area near Guiding. When the work proceeded too slowly, he pitched in and made some himself. Once the talismans were completed, Wei Xuewen instructed two of his friends to recruit people to sell the charms. Wei’s two friends convinced three other people to assist them, saying: “The son of heaven will emerge into the world through a cave. . . . He will be accompanied by his protector, the heavenly spirit. The [son of heaven] has sent forth these charms. Miao who buy them and keep them in a safe place will enjoy peace and prosperity. A charm costs but one tael. Those Miao who wish to see the heavenly spirit in person must pay us four or six taels.”70
During the winter and early spring of 1766, Wei Xuewen and his assistants earned eighty-one taels from the sale of eighty-seven charms. Some of the profits were used to buy ceremonial garb for the upcoming pageantry in the cave. After a dress rehearsal, Wei Xuewen pronounced the performance ready for general audiences. Late one night, one of his assistants led a group of eight Miao men into the cave for their audience with the “son of heaven” and his attendants. Four nights later, another five men attended, and nine nights later, another ten. The audiences were short affairs, during which Luo Shirong and the others would utter incantations promising the fall of the Qing dynasty and lifelong prosperity for all those in attendance. The miscreants earned one hundred and fifteen taels from the pageantry.
The audiences continued for about a month before a local resident realized that something illegal was afoot. This man went to Luo Shirong’s home and tried to blackmail him for information. Luo Shirong gave him a small amount of hush money and then, fearing that the entire scheme would be revealed, burned all the paraphernalia from the audiences in the cave. Wei Xuewen and all of his conspirators soon agreed to cancel any further appearances in the cave.
But some of the talismans, inscribed with anti-Qing slogans, were still circulating in the villages near Guiding. An illiterate villager named A Ji, curious about the writing on his talisman, showed it to a literate friend named Pan Youlin, who immediately recognized the words “heavenly commander” (tianshuai), “emperor” (huangdi), and “jade son of heaven” (yu tianzi). Pan realized that they had stumbled upon a case of lèsemajesté and warned A Ji that this was a very serious matter. They hastened to turn in the talismans to the local headman, who reported the matter to the district magistrate. Following a comprehensive investigation, Wei Xuewen and his conspirators were apprehended and brought before Governor Fang.71
In one of his reports on the case, Fang noted in despair that Zhongjia were often identical to Han in their clothing and eating habits, and many could speak, read, and write Chinese. In extreme cases, he wrote, Zhongjia even behaved like wicked Han (Han jian).72 In a responding edict, the emperor indicated that any Zhongjia who behaved like a wicked Han was to be punished like a wicked Han: “The Miao are simple-minded and childish. If not for the wicked Han inciting and deceiving (people), matters would not reach the point of such disorder. The case of Wei Xuewen ranks among the crimes of wicked Han. It must be treated as a heavy crime.”73 Literacy had, in effect, transformed a Zhongjia into a wicked Han. Wei Xuewen’s education, however rudimentary, had equipped him with the cultural and cognitive tools to resist the Qing state.
Governor Fang meted out punishments accordingly. In his estimation, the statute on disloyalty (moupan) was too light for Wei Xuewen and Luo Shirong.74 He ordered them punished under the statute on high treason (mou dani).75 Fang ordered that Wei Xuewen and Luo Shirong be decapitated, and that their heads be displayed in every hamlet. Other conspirators were prosecuted under the statute on rebellion, the punishment for which was also decapitation with the heads to be displayed in every hamlet.76 Lesser participants faced one hundred lashes and exile.
As for the Miao villagers involved in the case, Governor Fang ruled that those who purchased talismans were unaware of their seditious content. Because they were illiterate, they had been unwittingly duped. Most Miao involved in the case were ordered to wear the cangue for a month and received forty lashes on the day of their release from this yoke. A Ji, the illiterate man who had taken the suspicious charms to his literate friend, Pan Youlin, was exempted from punishment. For his part, Pan Youlin received all the major criminals’ property as a reward for bringing the case to light.77
The masterminds behind these three cases had no pretensions to power, no plans to mount armed insurrections, and no intention of challenging Qing rule in Guizhou. Their goals were expressly economic rather than consciously political. Yet many of their actions carried political import in their flagrant disregard for Qing authority. Moreover, if anti-Qing sentiments were indeed brewing in the region, then these swindlers might have inadvertently spurred them on. Men like Huang San, Wang Zuxian, and Wei Xuewen—all of whom possessed varying degrees of literacy in Chinese and at least a passing familiarity with imperial institutions—represented a unique threat to the Qing state. They had “advanced toward [Chinese] culture,” only to seize upon elements that best served their interests and to twist these elements into a mockery of the Qing state. The Wei Xuewen case in particular suggests that literacy and education carried a certain economic value, although hardly the sort envisioned by Qing authorities.
Zhongjia individuals like Wei Xuewen viewed Confucian schooling as a strategy to protect and promote their own economic interests, and not as a means to advance toward the state-imposed ideal of civilization.78 Wei capitalized on his literacy in order to take advantage of his illiterate neighbors. By posing as a provincial examination candidate, he gained the trust of Luo Shirong and other uneducated members of his community. He also appropriated symbols and rituals of imperial authority in such a way that suggested a lack of respect for—if not an outright rejection of—Qing rule. In this way, he engaged in a variation of what James Scott calls “state mimicry.”79
The Huang San case also carried an insidious message for Qing authorities. Until his arrest, Huang operated within a sphere of autonomy defined by his own interests and needs, bounded not by Qing provincial borders, but by the fluid, transregional matrix of his master-disciple network. In many respects, Wei Xuewen and Huang San prefigured leaders of the Nanlong Uprising, who built their rebel movement on a similar foundation of religious networks and indigenous traditions shot through with reinterpretations of Chinese culture. This rebellion will be the subject of chapter 5.