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Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire


Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England


Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America

Cataloging-in-Publication Data available from the Library of Congress

ISBN: 978-0-674-72531-7 (alk. paper)






1. Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises




2. The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands

3. The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea





4. Court Politics and Imperial Visions

5. The Inner White Lotus Rebellion

6. The Jiaqing Reforms

7. The Piracy Crisis and Foreign Diplomacy





Conclusion 253



List of Abbreviations and Primary Sources












O n Lunar New Year’s Day of 1796, a much anticipated ceremony of abdication and accession was staged in grand style at the Forbidden

City. This was certainly a day of triple happiness. After sixty “glorious” years on the throne, a full calendrical cycle by Chinese reckoning, the eighty- five-year-old Qianlong (r. 1736–1796) carried out his well-publicized prom- ise to step down and became China’s “Supreme Abdicated Monarch / Grand Emperor” (Tai Shang Huangdi). In China’s two thousand years of imperial history, this Manchu ruler had both the longest life span and the second longest reign of any monarch. He proudly bestowed the imperial seal on his fifteenth son, Yongyan, the designated heir apparent, and made him the

fifth emperor of the Great Qing (1644–1911), with the reign title Jiaqing (officially 1796–1820 but in fact 1799–1820). 1 Such a smooth, voluntary exchange of power (neishan) between two liv- ing rulers had not occurred since the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). Missing no opportunity for self-aggrandizement, Qianlong wished to turn his well-orchestrated retirement into what he envisioned as “one of the most remarkable events in the annals of history.” Three days later, the aging emperor hosted his second “Banquet of Thousands of Elders” (Qiansou Yan) in the imperial palace, joined by 3,065 imperial relatives, senior offi- cials, and ordinary subjects above the age of sixty from throughout the empire. Special tributary envoys from Korea, Annam, Siam, and Nepal also attended the festivities and offered congratulations. Apparently the



abdicated monarch used this “single grandest act of showmanship” to symbolize his exceptionally long reign and, moreover, to celebrate his ex- traordinary life of achievements. 2 Despite the appearance of harmony and prosperity, clouds of crisis were gathering over the empire. Just ten days into the Jiaqing reign, a rebellion inspired by traditional China’s most influential popular religion—the White Lotus Sects (Bailian Jiao)—flared up in the borderland of western Hubei. It quickly spread to four other central-western provinces—Henan, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Gansu—and persisted for nearly a decade. The White Lotus rebellion not only was the largest uprising in Qing history before the Taiping crisis (1850–1864); the protracted campaign against it also was the most costly military operation ever undertaken by the Man- chu regime. The contemporary official Gong Wensheng sighed in his war- time diary: “no calamity in history has been as disastrous as this one.” 3

Misfortune did not come alone. Exploiting the government’s difficulties during this inland strife, large, well-organized pirate fleets intensified their collaboration with the newly unified Vietnamese state (under the Tay Son regime, 1788–1802) and ravaged the coastal frontier of southeast China. The secret sponsorship of maritime violence by a long-term tributary vassal state presented an unprecedented challenge to the Qing suzerainty, making these incursions qualitatively different from earlier problems of seaborne raiding. The pirate leaders, moreover, had also conceived a scheme to join forces with their White Lotus “brothers” to overthrow the alien Manchu dynasty. As if the piracy disturbances were not enough, Britain used them as a partial excuse to invade Macao in 1802 and 1808, hoping to grab a much-needed foothold in East Asia. For almost two decades, the Qing regime faced its gravest maritime threat since the conquest of Taiwan in

1683. 4

From a much broader perspective, these clustered upheavals in China can be seen as part of a global upsurge in sociopolitical unrest around the turn of the nineteenth century. Jack Goldstone characterizes this phenom- enon as a parallel wave of state breakdowns similar to the general crisis of the mid-seventeenth century. 5 Conventional studies suggest that such world- wide dislocations contributed to the divergent patterns of historical change in China and western Europe circa 1800. From that point on, according to the standard interpretation, these patterns in Europe “secured liberal de- mocracy and overturned traditional obstacles to economic development,” while those in China led it to sink into an abyss of irreversible decline and dynastic collapse. 6 Against this familiar backdrop of “great divergence,” 7 there has been a strong tendency to accentuate the destructive aspects of the Qianlong-



Jiaqing transition by linking its compounding upheavals to the Qing’s final breakdown in 1911. Undoubtedly, the White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy dealt a heavy blow to the Manchu regime by draining its treasury and exposing its long-standing problems. Many scholars thus depict the dual crises as a convenient watershed, which not only provided a tumultuous ending to the “prosperous” high Qing period but also prefig- ured an even greater wave of “internal calamities and foreign disasters” in the mid-nineteenth century, most notably the two Opium Wars (1839– 1842, 1856–1860) and the Taiping rebellion. This simple interpretation seems to contain some measure of truth; but, in effect, it fails to capture the complex dynamics and full significance of the Jiaqing reign, much less its intricate links with both the preceding and succeeding eras. This inter- pretation obscures the important fact that the 1790s crises actually pro- pelled a major reorganization of the Qing state that initiated an extended period of consolidation that better prepared the dynasty for its last cen- tury of great challenges and unpredictable possibilities. Thanks to these undervalued reforms, the Jiaqing state was able to recover from the global wave of disturbance sooner than many other powers at the time. So the road from the Qianlong-Jiaqing upheavals to the final collapse of the mo- narchical system was a long and tortuous one, fraught with exciting twists and unexpected turns. To develop a more nuanced and dynamic under- standing of late Qing history, one needs to reexamine previous notions of state failures and successes from both an evolutionary and a forward- looking perspective. As its etymology suggests, the Chinese term “crisis” (weiji) connotes two interchangeable meanings—parlous situations of intensive disruption (wei) and potential opportunities for constructive change ( ji). Extraordi- nary political leaders could transform the former into the latter through resolute crisis management and decisive reforms, thus providing a key en- abling force for China’s historical development. In the case of the White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy, it is worth asking how the new emperor seized opportunities within the concomitant upheavals so as to reform the political system and put it on a sounder footing. To describe this process solely in terms of state decline would overlook the positive aspects involved, thus failing to capture the dynamism of the Jiaqing reign and its significance in Qing history. Such an incomplete or even misleading picture stems largely from a lack of historiographic respect for the Jiaqing reign. Qing studies, both inside and outside China, have long focused on either the splendid eighteenth century or the chaotic post-Opium War period. Looking for explanations of the dramatic shift from high Qing to late Qing, many scholars find it



convenient to blame the Jiaqing and early Daoguang reigns sandwiched in between; yet few of them have taken an in-depth look at this ambiguous period of transition (1796–1839). The Jiaqing reign in particular has be- come a very neglected era of Qing history that occupies a rather awkward position in the narrative of China’s last dynasty. 8 On the one hand this crisis-ridden interregnum marked a clear disjuncture between the two well-studied epochs of great transformation; on the other it has long been taken as a lackluster period when nothing really important happened: nei- ther the dynastic collapse that could have occurred nor a radical, “mod- ernizing” transformation from within following the mid-nineteenth-century crises. Hence the Jiaqing reign has become little more than a dead middle period that was meaningfully connected neither to the preceding nor suc- ceeding eras, making it the weakest link in the study of Qing history. My overarching goal in this work is to restore continuity to that inter- rupted narrative by reconceptualizing the place of Emperor Jiaqing and his seemingly unremarkable reign. 9 Much of the prevailing interpretation of this period is premised on a teleological way of thinking about Qing history in general and social protest in particular. As a classic saying goes, “Those who win become emperors; those who lose become bandits.” Un- der the influence of such outcome-based analysis, official imperial records often view failed social movements as merely destructive acts of commu- nal violence with no positive bearing on sociopolitical development. Mod- ern scholarship, likewise, has tended to reinforce such stereotypes by glossing over the aftermath of unsuccessful collective mobilizations, while focusing on large-scale insurrections that overthrew dynasties or set up rival political entities. Such unbalanced treatment, albeit natural, has ren- dered it difficult to ferret out key elements of endogenous, constructive changes that became increasingly overshadowed, in terms of both the his- torical narrative and actual events, by Western aggression in the final cen- tury of Qing rule. To rediscover China’s internal dynamism, one should thus broaden the spectrum of analysis by studying the less visible side of popular protest. Toward this end, this book examines the dramatic conjunction of the White Lotus uprising and south China piracy as well as their neglected ability to bring forth larger sociopolitical changes. In both cases of thwarted pro- tests, it is well worth asking how the extraordinary processes of dealing with them shaped contemporary development and altered later possibili- ties. To use Sidney Tarrow’s words, it is through collective actions, whether successful or failed, that different local forces “organize their relations with the state, reconcile or fight out conflicts of interests, and attempt to adapt politically to wider social pressures.” In his landmark book Rebel-



lion and Its Enemies, for instance, Philip A. Kuhn has studied how sup- pressing the Taiping rebels contributed to the rise of gentry-led militariza- tion and to the devolution of central state power to local societal forces. 10 Yet many of those momentous changes, as Kuhn acknowledges, can be traced back to the Qianlong-Jiaqing crises. I argue that the White Lotus and piracy upheavals, in particular, had exerted a profound impact on how the Qing state coped with later disturbances. With the rise of the “new social history” and “cultural studies” in the last four decades, China scholars have generally shifted their focus from top-down studies of political history to bottom-up examinations of local society. Inspired by this downward turn, most recent studies of social pro- test have focused on the local origins, grassroots bases, regional develop- ment, and mobilizing networks of collective actions, while to some extent neglecting their broader transformative effects on state and society. Due to this unidirectional treatment, as Charles Tilly rightly suggested, we know a great deal more about how historical transformations lead to violent con- tention than we do about the opposite direction of causal mechanism. 11 When it comes to the White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy, a number of scholars, including Suzuki Chusei, Dian H. Murray, Robert J. Antony, and Cecily McCaffrey, have examined one of the two events in terms of its nature, origins, and development in discrete regional settings. 12 These single-case and bottom-up studies have provided an important foundation for understanding the two upheavals themselves yet pay inad- equate attention to the parallels and connections between the two crises as well as their macro-political influence and supraregional repercussions.

In an effort to bring together the perspective of sociocultural history with that of high politics, this book shows how the two upheavals were related to each other through an interlinked process of crisis management and reform. More specifically, it delves into the politics of social protest by in- vestigating how the White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy contrib- uted to the Jiaqing regime’s “inner state-building” and its impact on local communities. 13 This study complicates the conventional view that the ex- orbitant cost of crisis management left the Qing state with a diminished capacity, fiscal in particular, that sent the dynasty on a downward spiral culminating in its final demise. The Jiaqing regime did not just wind up with less capacity and more challenges; it also adjusted its governing priorities and strategies in order to create more sustainable emperor-bureaucracy and state-society relationships. Such pragmatic efforts at “inner state- building” were manifested in Jiaqing’s reforms, a miscellany of moderate but decisive modifications in policy-making and bureaucratic organization,



which in turn shaped the Qing’s responses to the White Lotus and piracy upheavals. My central contention is that the two catastrophic events propelled the Jiaqing state to reorganize and reposition itself, thus producing a critical conjuncture in the structural transformation of the Qing empire as well as its place within the Sino-centric tributary system. The resulting changes included reforms of the central bureaucratic establishment and local mo- bilization under gentry leadership, as well as more flexible, rational ap- proaches to popular religion, social protest, the maritime world, and foreign diplomacy. These consolidation efforts did not represent steps toward in- evitable dynastic decline; they instead initiated a strategic state retreat that pulled Qing empire-building away from a vicious cycle of aggressive over- extension (which bred resistance) and back onto a more sustainable track of development. This deliberate striving for political sustainability, though unable to save the dynasty from its ultimate collapse, represented a dura- ble, constructive approach to the overarching structural problems facing the late Qing and the early Republic.

Sustainable Political Development

As a key concept in my argument, “sustainable development” merits more explanation here. Borrowing a definition from the World Commission on the Environment and Development, it refers to “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 14 So the concept has to do not so much with the current state of affairs as with how the situation will impact the future. Besides economic growth and ecological stability, in my view, the issue of sustain- ability also has a political component that can be employed to measure the process of state-making. Unlike its economic and ecological counterparts, political sustainability is not about humans’ relationship to their resource bases and supporting natural environment; it hinges, rather, on (re)creat- ing a viable and stable set of relations among major sociopolitical forces at different levels. As a problem mainly for state leaders, this general concept means organizing individuals and groups to achieve shared objectives, keeping existing tensions in balance, and making cost-efficient negotiations when conflicts slip out of control. Key to this definition is the political sys- tems’ ability to maintain a coordinated and compatible relationship among the various performance arenas or submechanisms of state-making, like those outlined by Sidney Verba (penetration, participation, legitimacy, distri- bution, and identity), Joel S. Migdal (state image and state practice), R. Bin



Wong (challenges, capacities, commitment, and claims), and Kenneth Pomer- anz (service provision and resource extraction). 15 Sustainable political development, furthermore, should be studied in the context of a longer historical process wherein each stage inherits problems and opportunities from the earlier phases while also exerting influence on what comes later. Only in this evolutionary and interconnective milieu can we fully understand the essence of sustainable politics, a compatible state- society relationship that can be reproduced on a long-term basis. This line of reasoning allows us to reconsider the process of Qing empire-building by adopting a more balanced analysis of what state leaders accomplished versus what they could not achieve, given that the possibilities for change were bounded by inherited conditions in a highly structuralized historical setting. On the basis of this criterion, it can be argued that a major bottleneck for sustainable politics appeared during the last two decades of the Qian- long reign. This period witnessed an overloaded Qing state working near the limit of premodern empire-building, largely because its minimalistic governing apparatus, including its administrative and military systems, could hardly contain China’s dynamic, expanding society, which encom- passed a huge population and territory. To overcome this worsening structural predicament, the hard-pressed Qianlong took what proved to be counterproductive and unsustainable steps in empire-building. On the one hand he strengthened his imperial supremacy over the bureaucracy by em- powering his inner-court (neiting) agencies and most trusted confidants, a convenient strategy that backfired and created an unprecedented institu- tional crisis within the court. On the other he fostered a heavy-handed ap- proach to social control through a series of uncompromising policies and campaigns that overtaxed the state’s resources and pushed its power to a breaking point. For instance, Qianlong’s unrealistic efforts to root out het- erodox sects (White Lotus) and secret societies (Triads, Heaven and Earth) had the opposite effect of radicalizing these challenging groups, rendering them even more powerful and dangerous. This precarious combination of aggressive empire-building and defensive popular resistance was further aggravated by uncontrollable social transformations like demographic growth, frontier expansion, and commercialization. Together these transformations greatly undermined the traditional mech- anisms of state control over officialdom and local society. Facing unpre- dictable pressure from both above and below, more and more bureaucrats resorted to official patronage, factional struggle, corruption, and power abuse as key strategies for political survival. Thanks to such dysfunctional practices, they were able to reduce imperial control and deflect central



demands while entrenching themselves in bureaucratic protection. Conse- quently, local governments became increasingly ineffective, predatory, and costly to run during the late Qianlong reign. This deterioration of civil administration, together with misguided imperial policies, directly fueled an intensifying wave of frontier protest that overstretched the Qing army and overwhelmed its coercive power. The resulting campaigns of repres- sion, not surprisingly, turned out to be increasingly difficult, wasteful, and expensive. All these changes foreground the questions of political sustain- ability and governability, the latter of which refers to the state’s capacity to deal with the increasing demands of society and to regulate sociopolitical conflicts, which became especially acute toward the end of the eighteenth century. Many recent studies recognize that the Qianlong reign, especially its lat- ter part, might not have been as glorious as previously thought. Building on such revisionist literature, I propose labeling this period an era of po- litical dividend that owed its success largely to propitious timing and fa- vorable legacies. Qianlong had the good fortune to inherit the “great en- terprise” from his Manchu forebears at a favorable historical juncture, which in turn helped him carry the dynasty to greater heights of accom- plishment. This aggressive ruler greatly expanded the state’s territory and increased its penetration into local society, both of which facilitated ex- traordinary growth in his power, and vice versa. Such a big leap forward in empire-building, however, was by no means sustainable because it involved a long-term cost, as shown by the many-sided crises during the Qianlong- Jiaqing transition. This study highlights a major but often neglected “discontent” of Qian- long’s “prosperous age.” By the end of his long reign, the emperor had ex- hausted the potential of sustainable political development in premodern times as his policies and campaigns often ran up against the state’s dwin- dling capacity to control society. This structural limitation, dictated by the worsening ratio of organizational resources (most visibly in the form of administrative and fiscal ones) to population size, was further exacerbated by the emperor’s flamboyant governing style and inflated personal goals. Qianlong’s fixation on self-aggrandizement and short-term goals was es- pecially evident in his peculiar patronage of Heshen, a rapacious Manchu courtier, and his increased collection of self-assessed fines (yizuiyin; dis- cussed later). Both arrangements most clearly epitomized the tragedy of late Qianlong politics because they not only demoralized the bureaucratic system but also blinded the emperor to the importance of long-term politi- cal sustainability. His remarkable success in empire-building, viewed from this perspective, was often achieved at the price of overexploiting already



strained state resources and prematurely reaping political dividends some of which should have been left to his imperial successors. Consequently, Qianlong became a victim of his own resplendent rule while creating many headaches for his imperial successors. Jiaqing had the misfortune to ascend the throne at this juncture of acute crisis. He inherited a host of daunting challenges from his father, but with fewer options and less room to maneuver. Whereas the late Qianlong up- heavals exposed the state’s fragile grip over society, the aging emperor’s ineffectual responses to them aggravated the long-term problem of principal- agent relations: how to exercise and sustain control over the complex ma- chinery of bureaucratic establishment. Qianlong’s counter-rebellion efforts, in Peter M. Mitchell’s words, “fostered a ‘credibility gap’ as the sheer size of required mobilization starkly contrasted with lack of results beyond protracted and devastating campaigns.” 16 These dangerous signs, all in all, suggest that the Qing Empire had en- tered into an era of political debt, when sustainable development was ex- tremely difficult if not impossible. Jiaqing realized that to save the over- burdened regime he had no choice but to pull back from his father’s strong emperorship and aggressive state-making. This entailed relaxing pressures on the officialdom and the society, which could only be done through the interlocking efforts of pragmatic crisis management and controlled politi- cal reforms. As the first step of his reforms, Jiaqing exploited the clustered crises to eliminate Heshen, the abusive “regent” and the biggest upstart in Qing politics, which turned out to be one of the most pivotal events during his reign. Building on this momentous move, Jiaqing made a series of re- balancing adjustments to keep government policies and institutions in line with deteriorating social reality. These conciliatory efforts not only helped stem the rising wave of protest but also toned down the repressive charac- ter of the Qianlong reign, thereby initiating a process of state retreat that contributed to a conservative but more sustainable sociopolitical order. This decisive reorientation in Qing statecraft was not only the essence of Jiaqing’s reforms but also laid the groundwork for some successful empire- building strategies of the late Qing and the early Republic. Thus, looking at the Jiaqing reign through the dual lens of social resistance and sustain- able politics throws new light on the last century of Manchu rule and the native origins of China’s modern state.



All-Encompassing Contentious Crises

Most historians and social scientists tend to focus more on the explana- tory power of structures while remaining less informed about the signifi- cance of events. Yet, as Marshall Sahlins and William Sewell suggest, an in-depth analysis of key events is indispensable for a proper understanding of enduring structures. 17 This study treats the White Lotus and piracy up- heavals as historically connected incidents that had a mutually reinforcing impact on the Qing state and society. Furthermore, this study aims to cre- ate a systematic methodology to explain a series of pivotal events as mani- festations of one integrated process that tied popular violence to the push for structural changes in empire-building. 18 This conceptualization of events complements current paradigms of social movements by providing a historicized revision to their analytical scheme. It seeks to propose a more comprehensive explanatory model around the concept of what I term “all-encompassing contentious crises” that can explicate how converging, many-sided upheavals interact to bring about key historical changes. This interpretive template postulates the existence of a multidimensional relational field within which multi- faceted struggles and changes play out directly or indirectly at different spatiotemporal levels. By no means exclusive to a certain sphere, all- encompassing contentious crises arise from an overall disruption of rou- tine, “balanced tension between state and society”; on the other hand, such crises create the space and dynamic for a “decisive intervention” that determines a new set of state-society relations on a more workable and sustainable basis. 19 This totalizing and interactive viewpoint allows us to use a coherent ap- proach to relate seemingly scattered episodes of collective action to each other through a shared conjunctural process of structural change. More- over, it brings the central state, local society, and popular and elite culture within a common discourse, thereby uncovering new elements of dyna- mism in their complex interactions. I consider all-encompassing conten- tious crises as variegated sites of negotiation, through which different strategic actors mediate their pressing concerns and legitimize claim- making while pushing for different patterns of change. This template ori- ents toward a series of common patterns of interaction across manifold spheres, thus providing a cross-section of the chief issues pertinent to the different performance arenas and submechanisms of state-making noted earlier.



Situating the Dual Crises

As two major cases of all-encompassing contentious crises, the White Lo- tus rebellion and south China piracy reflected much larger and more pro- found crises that occurred in a multiplicity of spatiotemporal contexts. Both upheavals were not merely explosive events of social dislocation; they should also be conceptualized as a mediated conjuncture of “decisive intervention” in the interlocking structural transformation of state, society, and culture. The tripartite temporal framework of the French historian Fernand Braudel provides a very appropriate means for contextualizing the two crises. This framework highlights three durations of historical change—event, conjuncture, and structure—each of which has its own dif- ferent yet related dynamics and impacts. 20 The first time frame refers to the extended Qianlong-Jiaqing transition:

the two tumultuous decades (c. 1790–1810) that encompassed the White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy. This “internal temporality of event,” as my main focus, resembles what Sahlins terms the “structure of the conjuncture”—the particular micro conditions that shape events. 21 Such dynamics of the events both arise from and transform longer processes of historical change, so it is necessary to situate them in the second time frame: Emperor Qianlong’s sixty-year governance from 1736 to 1796, es- pecially its latter half. As a supporting narrative, this temporality of the conjuncture forms a baseline against which to locate and evaluate the changes the two upheavals precipitated in the subsequent Jiaqing reign. Last but not least, an adequate understanding of the role of event and con- juncture must be based on the concept of structure. The longest timescale in this study is the longue durée defined by the topographical and histori- cal heritage of a period spanning centuries or even millennia. This work makes no attempts to assign explanatory primacy to any of the three chron- ological parameters. Instead, by looking at extraordinary events through the prism of all-encompassing contentious crises, I hope to offer a new understanding of how the Braudelian tripartite framework can better fit together in a Chinese historical setting. 22 In addition to the tripartite conceptions of historical time, this multi- case, multiregion study proposes an analysis at various levels of spatial interactions across the Sino-centric tributary world order. This analysis, I hope, captures the dialectic between historical processes at different scales, illuminating how local stories hide regional, national, or even global dy- namics, and vice versa. By highlighting a supranational but non-Western context, in particular, this research aims to foreground the indigenous



dynamism of East Asian history and to provide a useful way of supple- menting the China-centered approach.

Structure of the Book

I organize this book into three parts, in addition to the introduction and conclusion. Part I sets the stage by providing a critical overview of the historical context—the long eighteenth century—and its major dynamics of change. Consisting of one short chapter, this part considers a broad range of structural, conjunctural, and personal developments that over- burdened the high Qing state and set in motion the crises of the Qianlong- Jiaqing transition. The main body of the book consists of two interlocking parts (Parts II and III) corresponding to society and state, respectively. Part II, comprising Chapters 2 and 3, takes a distinctly local, bottom-up ap- proach by placing the two upheavals in their frontier contexts. These two chapters focus on the internal borderland of the Han River highlands (astride the provincial border of Hubei, Sichuan, and Shaanxi) and the ex- ternal maritime frontier of the South China Sea (across the Sino-Vietnamese water world), exploring how fluid ecology and socioeconomic patterns in- teracted with rigid and weak political establishments to create a sort of nonstate space that precipitated the dual upheavals. Not merely two failed frontier protests, the White Lotus uprising and south China piracy also signified a sharpening crisis of the Qing state and, furthermore, provided golden opportunities for political reforms. Part III, the major portion of this work, shifts the focus from popular protest to high politics and brings their interaction to center stage. Consisting of Chapters 4–7, this part explores the most important question of this study:

how did the dual crises conjoin to shape Jiaqing’s efforts of “inner state- building”? More specifically, this part delves into the top-down processes of crisis management at different levels and investigates the intertwining imperial, bureaucratic, and foreign responses to the clustering upheavals and their profound impact on late Qing history.

A Disclaimer

Before ending this introduction, a disclaimer is in order. This study seeks to challenge the conventional narrative of incorrigible state erosion by re- thinking the significance of the Qianlong-Jiaqing transition. In emphasiz- ing the constructive ramifications of Jiaqing’s crisis management and



political reforms, my analysis seems to conflict with the self-evident fact that China slid into even greater disasters during its “Century of Humilia- tion” following the first Opium War. This revisionist work is therefore open to the charge of overstating the positive contributions of Jiaqing’s “inner state-building” while neglecting its adverse consequences. I certainly do not claim that every part of the Jiaqing reforms was effective, beneficial, and significant. Neither do I argue that the White Lotus and piracy crises had game-changing impacts that brought forth unprecedented reorganiza- tions of the state and society. At most, I would maintain, Jiaqing was a monarch of his times, not an epoch-making ruler. The pragmatic emperor did not make a revolutionary break with the past, nor could he rise up to the unexampled challenge of modernizing the empire in time to forestall Western intrusion. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Jiaqing’s reforms, albeit far from a full success, did prevent the simultaneous disturbances from esca- lating into an uncontrollable threat to the Qing. Looking at the empire as a whole, the frequency and intensity (scale and duration) of popular pro- test dropped quickly in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. This sharp decline in protest activity offered the dynasty a precious respite from nationwide calamity; it also gave the regime more breathing room to alleviate the deep-seated crisis that had precipitated the disturbances in the first place. Consequently Jiaqing’s reforms inaugurated an extended period of consolidation and restoration that lasted to the end of the monarchical system. This was an impressive achievement, considering the state’s decay- ing capacities (domestic and international) as well as the tremendous chal- lenges it confronted, including an unprecedented monetary crisis prompted by the abrupt decline in global silver supplies during the early nineteenth century. 23 Yet a key question remains: if Jiaqing’s reforms represented so signifi- cant a change, how are we to reconcile their positive elements with the dismal shift in dynastic fortune after the 1840s? I argue that the throne’s decisive interventions steered the overburdened empire to a more sustain- able track of political development. Whereas such consolidation efforts created a period of midcourse restoration (zhongxing), they could not make the dynasty the master of its own destiny and guarantee its long- term stability, considering the increasingly challenging context in which the state had to operate. No single factor dictates historical development, to be sure; neither do all variables move in the same direction. The legacy of Jiaqing’s sustainable empire-building depended not only on China-centered factors and processes but on contingent interactions embedded in a larger world system. The Qing’s final collapse should therefore be attributed less



to declining state power or deteriorating leadership qualities than to an inexorable process of transdynastic, transnational, and global transfor- mations. This lethal combination of crises included long-term structural predicaments within the system as well as a bewildering array of unex- ampled challenges borne out of China’s growing contact with the West and its repositioning within the Sino-centric tributary world order. 24 Such a “perfect storm” would have overwhelmed even the ablest ruler and the strongest government in the premodern world. The complex making of this storm and its impact on imperial breakdown remain a very puzzling question in Chinese history that awaits further study.


Contextualizing Crises



Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises

T he last quarter of the eighteenth century witnessed a crescendo of upheavals that rocked the Qing dynasty and engulfed much of the

empire. The White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy were merely the climax to this escalating tide of protests, which also included the Wang Lun revolt (1774), the Lin Shuangwen uprising (1787–1788), and the Miao rebellion (1795–1806). These interacting, simultaneous crises are best understood not as discrete events but as part of a revelatory conjunc- ture that showcases the structural limits of the Qing state and its failures of social control during the late Qianlong reign. This distinct conjunc- ture, from a historiographical point of view, both divided and united the

prosperous high Qing and the tragic post–Opium War eras. Before dis- cussing the sectarian and piracy upheavals, it will be helpful to briefly review the preceding three crises by emphasizing their major differences and connections.

The Wang Lun Uprising of 1774

Like the great rebellion of 1796, Wang Lun’s uprising also was inspired by the White Lotus religion and precipitated by local misadministration. It began on August 28, 1774, in western Shandong, not far from Beijing, along the strategic transportation route of the Grand Canal. Although the



uprising lasted for just a month and involved no more than a few thou- sand people, its significance should not be underestimated. As the only major instance of social protest occurring in China’s heartland during the late Qianlong reign, Wang Lun’s revolt greatly alarmed the emperor and the Manchu court. Susan Naquin calls it not only “the first crack in the smooth façade of the high Ch’ing [Qing] empire” but also the real begin- ning of White Lotus millennialism during the eighteenth century. 1 Hence- forth this largely peaceful cult in the Qing came under increasing govern- ment suppression that transformed it into a key organizational vehicle for anti-state uprisings, a trend which continued into the subsequent Ji- aqing reign. As a tipping point in this dramatic transition, the Wang Lun rebellion initiated a wave of sectarian rebellions during the ensuing four decades. It convinced Emperor Qianlong that the White Lotus religion was “the most heterodox of the heterodoxies” (xiejiao zhong zhi xiejiao) which should be extirpated. Thereafter, unprovoked persecution of the sectarian organiza- tions seems to have greatly intensified, first in north China and then in many other parts of the empire. It reached a pinnacle in the 1790s, bring- ing about violent reactions from White Lotus congregations throughout central-western China. Wang Lun’s uprising, in short, can be regarded as a preview and prototype of the much larger rebellion of 1796; it also prompted the government to launch a vicious pattern of repression that ultimately provoked the later sectarian uprisings. 2

The Lin Shuangwen Uprising of 1787–1788

Whereas Wang Lun’s rebellion was a religiously inspired movement near the political center, Lin Shuangwen’s revolt was organized by China’s most famous secret brotherhood association, the Heaven and Earth Society (Ti- andihui: the Triads), in the maritime periphery of Taiwan. This revolt was not just the largest antidynastic insurrection on “this fast growing but weakly administered frontier island” but also the first significant manifes- tation of Triad activity that attracted the Qing government’s attention. Although the early history of Tiandihui is still shrouded in mystery, most scholars agree that this clandestine association originated on the margins of coastal society in Fujian and Guangdong provinces during the 1760s. In the next two decades, it remained largely a loose affiliation of mutual-aid organizations with little political aspiration and no centralized leadership. Similar to the earlier Wang Lun and later White Lotus uprisings, the Lin Shuangwen rebellion was directly precipitated by increasing state persecu-

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


tion. In addition, it also involved an ethnically charged confrontation be- tween Han Chinese settlers and aboriginal tribespeople in Taiwan who tended to side with the Qing authorities. 3 This uprising started on January 16, 1787, and quickly spread all over the island. It nonetheless was stamped out within a year, with Lin Shuan- gwen himself captured by imperial forces, led by the famed general Fukang’an. While Qianlong lauded this hard-fought campaign as one of his ten great military achievements, the succeeding emperor, Jiaqing, deemed it, in William Rowe’s words, “a turning point in the empire’s string of glorious expansionist victories.” 4 The reason is not far to seek: this short- lived revolt was the first rebellion in Qing history that the regular imperial army failed to put down. The hard-pressed state, in fact, had to recruit a large number of informal local militiamen to supplement its ineffective troops. This unprecedented remedy signaled the unsustainablility of Qing war-making and empire-building during the late Qianlong reign. A similar strategy of local militarization was replicated throughout the late Qing period and became increasingly important in the campaigns against the Miao, White Lotus, Taiping, and Nian rebels. Notwithstanding that it was a brotherhood association, Tiandihui was not deemed illegal prior to the rebellion of 1787. Four years later, however, the increasingly vigilant Qianlong formally outlawed the organization as seditious and sought to exterminate it through ruthless persecution. The ambitious monarch, according to David Ownby, went so far as to try to eradicate the “very practice of hui (secret society) formation” in Fujian and Guangdong, which makes his regime “the first in Chinese history to ban sworn brotherhoods” as Wen-hsiung Hsu asserts. This unprecedentedly harsh policy, together with the White Lotus rebellion in central-western China, greatly politicized Tiandihui and gave a powerful impetus to its growth at the turn of the nineteenth century. The government’s interdictive measures, meanwhile, provoked desperate resistance from the secret-society members, some of whom joined sea bandits in the hope of fleeing govern- ment repression. Consequently, the 1790s saw protracted conflicts between the Manchu state and brotherhood organizations off the southeast coast, which aggravated the piracy problem in the region. The rise of Tiandihui, like that of sea robbers and mountain bandits, suggests that sporadic non- state violence was converging into large-scale, antistate protests organized by voluntary associations in the late eighteenth century. 5



The Miao Uprising of 1795–1806

The Miao uprising broke out on the Hunan-Guizhou border in 1795 and was not fully suppressed until 1806. It was the largest, longest, and most influential Miao uprising in the history of both the Qing dynasty and this ethnic minority. 6 Essentially, this revolt was a violent response to a large influx of Chinese settlers, or “guest people” (kemin), that was exerting great pressure on the indigenous Miao highlanders (miaomin). A con- temporary handbill attests to their strong animosity toward these unin- vited outsiders: “The Miao fields are now completely occupied by the Han people. If you help us to burn and kill the guests, we can recover our lands for cultivation and become officials.” 7 Unlike Lin Shuangwen’s rebellion, this ethnically charged uprising was not carried out by Han Chinese immigrants. Lacking religious overtones, however, both events can be seen as defensive frontier protest against increasing state control and local maladministration. Seen from this perspective, the Miao revolt was deeply rooted in the process of administrative regularization (gaitu guiliu), which forcibly re- placed the native chieftain system with direct central rule. This policy of political integration, first implemented by the eminent Manchu official Ortai in the early eighteenth century, fueled the rapid Han Chinese migra- tion to thinly populated minority areas, thus directly provoking the wide- spread ethnic collision that touched off the rebellion. Hence the Miao uprising can be characterized as a “delayed response” to the aggressive state-making efforts that occurred throughout much of the high Qing pe- riod. This crisis became so formidable that the government had to hur- riedly mobilize almost all available military forces, numbering as many as 180,000 soldiers, from seven surrounding provinces, most notably Hubei, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. 8 This large-scale diversion created a military vac- uum in central China, thereby providing a golden opportunity for Hubei’s White Lotus insurgents. Shocked by the growing tide of the sectarian re- bellion to the north, the state began to shift its priority from the Miao re- volt in late 1796 by demobilizing most of its temporary military laborers in the Hunan-Guizhou border area. They quickly defected to the Miao side and started fighting against the imperial army, a pattern that was re- peated in the White Lotus campaign. 9 Rebellion, to be sure, was a recurrent theme running through the long history of traditional China. Yet it took a particular matrix of structural changes, conjunctural developments, and individual initiatives to produce such a strong wave of popular protest during the Qianlong-Jiaqing transi-

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


tion. So a key question needs to be addressed first: what drove disparate social groups to rebel against the state at around the same time? The an- swer lies primarily in a combination of social, political, economic, and ecological changes that fed on each other during and beyond the first half of the Qing dynasty. Such an unusual synchronicity of disturbances cannot be understood without reference to China’s deeply ingrained problems and the long-term challenges that undercut the foundations of the Man- chu regime. This short background chapter, necessarily broad-brush and selective, presents a three-dimensional analysis of the general historical context. It not only elucidates the structural and conjunctural origins of the upheav- als, from both state and societal perspectives, but also identifies Qianlong’s aggressive governing style as a key motivational force behind the com- pounding problems. His misguided policies and impractical goals, I argue, significantly affected the timing and severity of the late-eighteenth-century upheavals.

Qianlong as a Fortunate Emperor

Times could not have been better to this high Qing ruler. He had the for- tune to grow up and rule in one of the most affluent periods in China’s imperial history. The fiscal success of his grandfather Kangxi and his father, Yongzheng, put the economy on an upswing, which, in Seth L. Stewart’s words, “allowed him a gigantic fortune to play with.” When Qianlong as- cended the throne in 1736, the state treasury surplus had already reached 33 million taels of silver. 10 The phenomenal spurt of empire-building un- der his predecessors, furthermore, enabled him to preside over and de- velop a highly centralized bureaucratic state. From a structural point of view, this was one of the most critical political changes in Qing history. As Harold Kahn sums it up: “K’ang-hsi (1662–1722) in his long reign consoli- dated Qing dynastic grip on the country, Yung-cheng (1722–1736) tightened up the imperial control of administration, and Ch’ien-lung (1736–1795) profited from their success.” 11 Together, the three masterful empire-builders created an age of flourishing prosperity and enduring stability known as the high Qing. Unlike previous Manchu rulers, Qianlong was “handed empire on a platter,” thanks to the adoration of his grandfather and the predetermined secret succession institutionalized by his father. Nor did he face the cut- throat factional rivalries among royal princes and within the banner system that had plagued the Manchu regime since its establishment. Consequently,



his early reign saw little of the power rivalries that had consumed the ener- gies and treasuries of Kangxi and Yongzheng. In solidifying his authority over bureaucratic and hereditary power, Qianlong seemed to “personif[y] the civilized autocracy of the eighteenth-century Qing court more than any other Manchu ruler.” 12 With all the power he had mustered, Qianlong was unable to overcome a fundamental limitation to premodern political development: the worsen- ing ratio of organizational resources to population size. As a result of this structural dilemma, the ability of his government to regulate local life and mitigate social tensions actually deteriorated over the late eighteenth cen- tury. Meanwhile, the aging emperor was increasingly beset by an eternal principal-agent problem as his ability to tame the officialdom declined, which in turn exacerbated the state’s administrative disarray and fiscal weakness. Whereas Tuan-Hwee Sng ascribes this issue largely to China’s extraordinary geographical size, I place more emphasis on Qianlong’s per- sonal impact in aggravating the paradox. 13 The emperor found it expedi- ent to play up the role of “inner-court” institutions in order to strengthen his own arbitrary authority while curtailing the routinized influence of the “outer-court” bureaucracy. In so doing, he transferred power from the ex- ecutive branch of the government to a small coterie of most trusted aides who acted in his name. No official could match Heshen when it comes to imperial favor and patronage. Within a period of six months, this political upstart ascended from minor Manchu bodyguard to Qianlong’s personal favorite in 1776 after a string of important appointments, including vice president of the Board of Revenue, grand councilor, and director of the Imperial Household Department. 14 In the next twenty-three years his notorious abuse of power and rapacious appetite for wealth made him one of the greatest villains in imperial history. Qianlong, assisted by a strengthened inner court led by his surrogates like Heshen, maximized his imperial authority and became arguably “the strongest ruler in Chinese history.” How, then, was such highly centralized imperial control dissipated during the last quarter of the eighteenth century? Furthermore, why did the last decade of Qian- long’s “prosperous” reign turn out to be one of the most chaotic periods in Qing history? 15 To answer both questions, it will be helpful to start from the general interplay between state and society that is critical for the long-term repro- duction of any sociopolitical order. The essence of this interplay is a never- ending process of conflicts and negotiation that strives for an optimal dis- tribution of power, wealth, and prestige amid different strategic actors. 16 The Qing monarchs, to be sure, played the most important role in this pro-

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


cess of negotiation since it was their responsibility to create a dynamically stable set of relations among key sociopolitical forces at various levels. As Richard L. K. Jung points out in his study of the Wang Lun and Lin Shuan- gwen uprisings:

The ideal context of imperial control involved a certain amount of equilib- rium, a state of symbiosis, between the throne and those elements on whom the emperor was dependent for carrying out the imperial will. Under this balanced state, those who served the empire as officials and as informal lo- cal leaders, the gentry, were granted compensation-titles, positions, financial reward, including tax exemptions—commensurate with the contribution each made to the extension of imperial control in the empire. As long as such compensation was adequate to the needs of the bureaucrats and the gentry, there seems to have been little recourse to abuse of position or privilege, and the overall aspect of peaceful tranquility in the empire during the early Qing period seems to bear out that there was such a working equilibrium. 17

This kind of political balance nonetheless broke down late in the Qianlong reign, causing the emperor to lose much of his control over the officialdom and local society. Jung singles out two sets of precipitating factors responsible for this momentous change: the prevalent sense of politico-economic insecurity among bureaucrats under Qianlong’s arbi- trary, autocratic rule and the growing economic insecurity felt by all so- cial strata as a result of unprecedented transformations during the high Qing period. 18

Population Growth

As China moved into the mid-eighteenth century, the empire faced a host of wide-ranging but interrelated challenges on many fronts. On the soci- etal side, explosive population growth remained “the most striking feature of Chinese social history in late imperial and modern times.” 19 The Qian- long reign, in particular, saw a doubling of China’s population, which reached 313 million in 1794. The peak period of this accelerated growth, according to Ping-ti Ho’s reckoning, was between 1740 and 1775, only one generation predating the Miao, White Lotus, and piracy distur- bances. 20 Ramon H. Myers and Yeh-chien Wang locate the highest rate of annual population growth in the years between 1779 and 1794. Susan Naquin and Evelyn Rawski, more specifically, contend that the demo- graphic growth rate reached its apex around 1800. Their different data notwithstanding, most scholars may well concur with Ho’s argument that “by the last quarter of the eighteenth century there was every indication



that the Chinese economy, at its prevailing technological level, could no longer gainfully sustain an ever-increasing population without overstrain- ing itself.” 21 The Qing Empire certainly overworked itself in order to pay the bill for the unprecedented demographic boom. Many significant sociopoliti- cal developments, including transregional migration, frontier reclama- tion, and territorial expansion, had combined to “put the expanding population to productive use.” 22 The spread of New World crops like maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and yams, in particular, brought about a revolution in highland utilization that played a key role in creating greater subsistence security. 23 These important efforts, however, did not create “the new kind of economic and political growth whereby that population might be absorbed.” Since the amount of arable land failed to keep pace with demographic growth, per capita acreage dropped quickly in the latter half of the eighteenth century and reached a precariously low point by the end of Qianlong’s reign. Philip Kuhn takes it as one of the most notable causes of peasant misery and the “prime mover” of the 1790s crises. 24 This land hunger also led to ecological degradation due to its unprecedented pressures on accessible natural resources. Growing market demand, fueled by the development of more efficient domestic and international trading networks, further speeded up the exploitation of frontier resources, which rendered this process unsustainable and en- vironmentally damaging. Just in this sense, Robert B. Marks recently has argued that much of the Qing Empire had reached its ecological limits by 1800. 25 Such a resource crunch was nevertheless not a uniquely Chinese prob- lem. Premodern economic and population growth, as Mark Elvin sug- gests, often pushed beyond the limits of a sustainable coexistence with the natural world. 26 Owing to the resulting ecological strains, different parts of the early modern world sooner or later faced the same fate of labor intensification and environmental crisis. Without a great influx of resources from the New World, England could hardly have escaped the “Malthusian population trap” and taken off into sustained industrial growth. The rise of a modern economy, to be sure, could not take place merely by means of expanding market exchange. As Kenneth Pomeranz argues, overseas colonization and fortuitous location of domestic coal also played a crucial role in the development of western Europe. This is one of the key characteristics that distinguished early modern England from Qing China. 27

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


Inward Colonization and Malthusian Impasse

To alleviate the resource crunch, the Qing state generally encouraged “in- ward colonization” in the sparsely populated peripheral areas within China proper. The eighteenth century, in particular, saw “China’s greatest age of internal migration.” 28 By absorbing an influx of immigrants from over- crowded lowland cores, such mountainous frontiers as the Han River highlands offered a safety valve for pressures that might otherwise have been directed toward the central government. This expedient solution was mostly successful in mitigating the ecological crisis in the lower Yangzi valley and the southeast coast. Without a transformative technological breakthrough, however, ex- panding cultivated acreage via internal migration could hardly get the state out of its “Malthusian impasse.” This impasse does not imply that most Chinese people were struggling on the brink of starvation during the Qianlong-Jiaqing transition and that economic strain was the major factor responsible for its clustering crises. Rather, it refers to a decreasing land- to-population ratio and limited organizational resources for constructive social mobilization amenable to the goal of state-making. The process of internal migration, to be sure, could not overcome this basic structural limit to premodern economic and political development. After the close of China’s northwest frontier during the 1770s, new arable land was mostly obtained from the reclamation of internal peripheries in the upper and middle Yangzi highlands. This type of upland settlement, due to its initial high return to capital and labor, provided much of the frontier vitality and economic growth in the Qianlong reign. Toward the century’s end, how- ever, the previously “underexploited niche” of mountainous borderlands had begun to become saturated. 29 The huge influx of Han Chinese immi- grants into those peripheral areas, moreover, provoked the ever-intensifying competition with indigenous ethnic minorities that led directly to such disturbances as the Lin Shuangwen and Miao rebellions. One can understand the implications of this new assault on internal borderlands in two ways. From the local people’s vantage point, they needed more social-administrative services than the Qing authorities could pro- vide in such remote frontier zones as the Han River highlands. Given their sparse, drifting populations (yimin or youmin) and low taxpaying capac- ity, the state strove to govern these peripheries without great expenditure and thus kept their junxian (centralized local bureaucratic systems) ex- tremely small. The shorthanded officialdom, not surprisingly, could hardly meet its basic obligations in the lands of big mountains and deep forests.



Exploiting the state’s feeble presence as well as its inability to keep law and order, a wide range of nonstate and antistate groups sprang up to fill the vacuum and exerted great control over the dispersed upland communities. This development partly explains why most violent protests during the late Qianlong reign tended to break out in the newly settled frontier regions rather than in the densely populated river deltas and lowland valleys. 30 These borderland crises were caused not by a collapsing state but often by the government’s heightened attempts to eliminate the nonstate or anti- state forces that had long evaded or resisted official control. The Qianlong-Jiaqing transition, on the orthodox side, saw the prolif- eration of pro-state forces like subbureaucratic agents (local gentry), ex- trabureaucratic personnel (yamen underlings), and elite-controlled local militias. These irregular groups, notwithstanding their major intermediary role between central authorities and local society, could also become key organizational vehicles for popular protests by readily “degenerating” into groups of bandits and rebels, as happened in the White Lotus uprising. So the boundaries between local militias, insurgents, and brigands were often ambiguous, slippery, and overlapping, which exemplifies the “intrinsic logic of the state-society continuum” in imperial China that was a far cry from its European counterpart. 31 The interacting structural problems mentioned earlier had posed unpre- cedented challenges to a limited and minimalist state by the end of the high Qing period. Susan Mann Jones and Philip Kuhn contend that a key “dilemma of the Chia-ch’ing [Jiaqing] administration was an underlying complex of social problems that overwhelmed the organizational capaci- ties of the Qing bureaucracy. Central among these was the ratio of re- sources to population.” 32 This deeply rooted contradiction, in effect, had already loomed large by the late Qianlong reign.

Territorial Expansion

Besides “inward colonization” and rapid demographic growth, territorial expansion was another striking structural change of the high Qing era. Joseph Fletcher held that Manchu military expansion was one of the three eighteenth-century changes (together with population upswing and increas- ing European presence) that set the course of China’s subsequent history. Thanks to Qianlong’s much celebrated “Ten Great Military Campaigns” (Shiquan Wugong), the territory of Great Qing expanded dramatically and reached its pinnacle in the 1770s. His conquest of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia, one of the largest territorial expansions in world history,

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


brought all these inner Asian regions under the sovereignty of one central government for the first time. 33 Such growth in Qing population and territorial size, however, was nei- ther accompanied by a corresponding expansion in the number of field officials nor supported by a commensurate increase in the administrative resources allotted for local authorities. The enlarged empire therefore faced ever-mounting challenges to effective imperial control and central coordination, a situation that was especially apparent in the border re- gions of various kinds. An enduring dilemma of Chinese frontier-making, as Owen Lattimore suggested, was that “the range of military striking power exceeded the range of ability to conquer and incorporate.” 34 This structural limitation, in my view, became all the more acute during the late Qianlong reign, as demonstrated by its mounting wave of frontier crises. Even the once invincible imperial army could no longer sustain the Qing’s expansionist drive into the borderlands, not to mention the state’s low capability to administer them. Generally speaking, one can identify two types of interrelated border- lands in Qing China. External ones like Xinjiang were recently incorpo- rated into the empire but did not receive much immigration until the last century of the dynasty. Strategically located on the far-flung edge of the empire, these frontiers of conquest grappled with neighboring polities and marked the limits of Qing sovereignty. In contrast to such changing politi- cal interfaces between states, internal frontiers like the Han River high- lands had long been governed as the outskirts of China proper which symbolized the outer limit of its agricultural heartland. Many of these mountainous peripheries, as essentially frontiers of settlement, only began to receive large numbers of immigrants during the eighteenth century. Af- ter securing the northwestern borderlands in the 1770s, Emperor Qian- long gradually shifted the focus of his frontier-making to those internal peripheries where governmental power was only intermittently projected. Consequently, his policy toward the highlands between Hubei, Shaanxi, and Sichuan provinces changed from laissez-faire to a tightening grip on drifting populations and freewheeling resources (like smuggled salt and privately minted coins). Increasing government control pushed various frontier groups to ally with the similarly hard-pressed White Lotus sectari- ans and to join their antistate operations across this mountainous border- land. Similarly, the south China pirates were forced to seek outside support by collaborating with the Tay Son regime in Annam. The cost of sustaining politico-military power in remote peripheries was often unacceptably heavy for a premodern agricultural state. This is especially true for the Qing regime, given its strong commitment to light



taxation (in comparison with both the previous Chinese dynasties and most of its European and Asian counterparts). With administrative re- sources remaining largely unexpanded, the local authorities found it in- creasingly difficult to secure more than a tenuous control of the internal borderlands, let alone improve basic services to them. Under such circum- stances, Qianlong’s unrealistic ambition to tame the frontier societies po- liticized their disgruntled segments and, furthermore, pushed them into transregional or even transnational rebellious movements. Thus when in- ternal borderlands became the target of increasing state regulation, they served naturally as the center of almost every episode of major disturbance in the late eighteenth century. The seemingly expanding imperial rule, con- sequently, became weakened or even paralyzed in China’s many peripher- ies during the Qianlong-Jiaqing transition. It should be emphasized that, as the early-nineteenth-century statecraft official Wei Yuan noted, more urgent problems appeared in the long-settled internal borderlands than in the external ones recently acquired by the Qing. 35 Following the disastrous frontier war with Burma (1765–1770), Qian- long seems to have grudgingly decided against further military adventures beyond the means of the Qing Empire. In a slight change of attitude, he emphasized the importance of civilian rule (wenzhi) and reaffirmed the conservative goal of “sustaining the prosperity and preserving the peace” (chiying baotai). 36 What remained unchanged, however, was the emperor’s burning desire to perpetuate his image as an unparalleled sage-ruler. Late in his reign, Qianlong actually maintained the momentum of empire- building by insisting on stringent imperial control over the bureaucracy and local populace. This was evidenced by his foolhardy invasion of An- nam and his relentless campaigns to root out the White Lotus sects, Tiandi- hui, salt smuggling, and coin counterfeiting. All these aggressive efforts backfired disastrously as Qianlong extended the reach of the state beyond a supportable point. Such failures, as Joel Migdal describes them, created a serious disjunc- tion between the two interlocking yet somewhat contradictory elements of the state: image and practice. Whereas image denotes a singular picture of what ideal regimes should be, practice refers to the actual performances of political actors and agencies in the governing process. The disparity between the two had reached a startling magnitude in Qing China by the 1790s, placing great pressures on both local bureaucracies and frontier societies. In response to such heightened pressures, sociopolitical actors at all levels sought to fashion their own strategies of survival—usually at the expense of others less capable of defending themselves. Building on Migdal’s approach of historical anthropology, which dissects the state and

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


society into their key components, one should study the different pres- sures that the aforementioned strategic forces encountered and their major sources of conflict. 37 The worsening ratio of organizational resources to population size had inflamed a wide range of socioeconomic crises that undermined the high Qing order. This structurally determined problem, by generating an inten- sified pressure on upward mobility, was applicable to the political realm as well. Even though the civil service examination system provided the pri- mary “ladder of success” in mid- and late imperial China, it proved unable to bridge the widening gap between “the relatively small and almost static size of the formal bureaucracy and the continuing expansion in numbers of educated degree-holders who wanted positions in that bureaucracy.” 38 This growing disparity released more and more frustrated degree-holders into society as what Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt termed “free-floating re- sources” that could be used for different purposes. Some of them, like the “evil sheng-yuan [shengyuan; the lowest formal degree holder who passed the county-level civil service examination] or rotten chien-sheng [jiansh- eng; students of the Imperial Academy in Beijing ],” often became trouble- makers who organized a range of nonstate or antistate activities. As C. K. Yang points out, it was “the ruling stratum and its supporting forces”— like disaffected gentry and landlords—who “led most of the incidents of social unrest during the nineteenth century.” 39 The latter half of the Qianlong reign was especially plagued by this crisis of upward mobility. As Jones and Kuhn explain, “pressure upon existing channels of social mobility undoubtedly contributed to the characteristic pattern of political behavior in Ch’ing China, the patronage network, in which patron-client relationships were made to bear more than their usual burden in the workings of the government.” 40 Bureaucrats at all levels en- gaged in a sort of survival politics, which spurred a further expansion of patronage systems that were locked in perpetual competition over shrink- ing state resources. This anxiety reached a zenith during Heshen’s de facto regency (1780s–1799) when “virtually no official appointment was made without a ‘contribution’ ” to the powerful minister or his cronies. Under such circumstances, contemporary political culture called for a high de- gree of self-defense on the part of the bureaucrats as they engaged in faction-building, bribery, and embezzlement to secure political survival. In most big corruption scandals during this period, for instance, beleaguered officials had little choice but to peculate under the extortion of Heshen. 41 Such malfeasance, in practice, had become an accepted rule of official life operating at all government levels by the end of the Qianlong reign. As the emperor himself admitted in 1795, “only two or three-tenths of the



governors are absolutely clean-handed and realizing the value of high principles actually live up to them.” The assessment of the French mission- ary Pere Amiot in 1782 was even more pessimistic: “it is rare among the Chinese to find anyone in an official post who does not enrich himself.” Yet this does not mean bureaucrats at that time were especially corrupt and evil. Instead, as the late Qing officials Xue Fucheng and Feng Guifen argued, it was largely top-down pressure from the court that forced them to be greedy and abusive. 42 Such official malpractices, needless to say, undermined the image of a Confucian state and eroded its moral foundation. In his famous letter to Emperor Jiaqing, the scholar-official Hong Liangji lamented the widespread political demoralization that had emasculated ethical standards, adminis- trative regulations, and the judicial system. In previous years, the Qing court was able to prevent such problems from becoming a grave threat to the political system. The Yongzheng emperor, for example, succeeded in alleviating official dishonesty by instituting a system of “nourishing-virtue allowances” (yanglianyin) that provided a special supplementary salary for civilian bureaucrats. Late in the Qianlong reign, however, population explosion and its inflationary effect had put a growing strain on the fiscal system and largely canceled out the benefits of yanglianyin. 43 The old em- peror’s heavy-handed exercise of imperial power, furthermore, rendered this incentive system burdensome and meaningless, as it could no longer nourish integrity among the hard-pressed bureaucrats. Most indicative of this effort is Qianlong’s collection of self-assessed “fines” (yizuiyin) via his personal favorite, Heshen. This extrainstitutional form of imperial extortion compelled lower-ranking officials to use yanglianyin as fines for inadequate performance or nonroutine compensation for poor local administration, which indirectly amplified the problem of corruption. County (xian) magistrates, as the lowest officials, were especially trou- bled by the lack of funding. This problem became all the more acute dur- ing the late Qianlong reign as the state increased its fiscal centralization by integrating more local taxes into the center. As a structural feature of Qing politics, the burden of county administration far exceeded the fiscal re- sources (retained taxes) earmarked for this first level of government. 44 To cover the widening financial gap, understaffed local officials had no choice but to rely on all sorts of extrastatutory funding sources like the off-the- books fees (lougui) levied by a growing number of yamen clerks and run- ners. They were hired to perform various essential functions to keep the local governments running, thereby becoming the most direct intermedi- ary between state authorities and grassroots communities. Notwithstand- ing their indispensable service, these underlings were despised and ex-

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


cluded from the government payroll, which forced them to live on the collection of the extralegal surcharges mentioned earlier. The contradic- tion of their low status but significant de facto power gave these extrastat- utory agents strong incentive to abuse their authority and maximize their material return. Like its Republican counterpart, the late Qianlong re- gime depended largely on this expanding group of “entrepreneurial bro- kers” to carry out its administrative tasks and political campaigns at the local level. Yet, ironically, it proved unable to rein in these unsavory agents, who became more and more rapacious under excessive imperial and state pressure. 45 This worsening dilemma turned the yamen staff into the most uncon- trollable and contested link of the minimalist Chinese imperial system. Their exploitative coalition with local authorities contributed directly to the privatization and commercialization of public services, which pro- vided ample opportunities for corruption and maladministration. All of these became galvanizing points of social protest; they also made the ex- trainstitutional and personalized system of local administration increas- ingly difficult and costly to operate. 46 Under such conditions, fewer and fewer people employed peaceful petitions to elicit state support during times of need. Consequently, Ho-Fung Hung argues, the last third of the Qianlong reign saw both a sharp drop in nonantagonistic “state-engaging protest” and a rapid surge in “state-resisting violence.” In addition, “the conflict between outlaws, such as smugglers and bandits, and agents of the state attempting to curb their illicit activities” proliferated and became a major form of social disturbance that shaped the nature and dynamics of this period. 47 The crescendo of violence and protests finally boiled out of control, pro- voking the massive wave of armed rebellions that peaked in the 1790s. Many contemporary political actors like Hong Liangji, Prince Zhaolian, and even Emperor Jiaqing himself expressed sympathy for the White Lotus believers and found resonance in their inflammatory slogan “Guanbi min- fan” (It was the officials who forced the people to rise up). All of them concurred that the true root of this uprising lay not in seditious teachings but in local misrule, as shown by the abusive persecution of alleged sectar- ians. Hong bitterly observed in 1798 that “nowadays, the evil of local prefects and magistrates is a hundred times what it was one or two de- cades ago.” In fulminating at this rapid degeneration of civil administra- tion, he blamed it almost wholly on Heshen, who had abused imperial power for two decades. But the proliferation of official venality and cor- ruption, I would argue, was largely a structural problem aggravated by ag- gressive empire-building during the late Qianlong reign. It was a defensive



survival strategy on the part of the bureaucrats in reaction to a worsening political economy characterized by both systemic resource (fiscal and ad- ministrative) scarcity and unpredictable imperial pressure. 48 In addition to officials and their yamen staff, the third major personnel component of local administration was gentry, who played a key role in mediating the relationship between state and society. With educational degrees, rural background, and considerable wealth, these subbureaucratic elites were taken as the natural leaders of local communities from the Song dynasty onward. As Hong saw it, however, most of them had lost their sense of integrity, responsibility, and compassion by the end of the eigh- teenth century. 49 They used bribery to obtain various privileges like tax exemptions, leaving the commoners to bear the brunt of growing official rapacity. As gentry failed in their leadership roles, local maladministration and brutality reached their pinnacle during Heshen’s dominance at court. Albeit heading in the right direction, Hong’s firsthand observation and astute analysis does not go far enough, to my thinking. He castigated Hes- hen’s regency and local misrule as the root of escalating revolts but under- standably overlooked an even deeper origin of the sociopolitical tensions— the supreme ruler himself. Besides the major structural challenges examined earlier, Qianlong’s overblown attempts to master the officialdom and local populace contributed to a pervasive sense of politico-economic insecurity, which in turn created forces inimical to monarchical and central authority during the late eighteenth century. His excessive efforts at imperial con- trol, as Jung contends, “failed to guarantee survival to those responsible for implementing them, and the officials and gentry consequently used whatever privilege and prestige they received to empower them to secure their own economic and social survival.” Not surprisingly, the old emperor was increasingly beset with partisan conflicts and political dysfunction caused by insubordinate factions and “disobedient” officials, most of whom were Han Chinese. This acute challenge compelled Qianlong to rely on inner-court confidants of Manchu origin in order to regain central con- trol and to ensure what Michael G. Chang calls “ethno-dynastic domi- nance of the throne.” 50 Yet this effort had unintended consequences, as Heshen’s meteoric rise caused serious disequilibrium in court politics and pushed the Grand Council, the major institutional handmaiden of Qing autocracy, into deep crisis. Consequently, relentless imperial pressure spawned more bureaucratic corruption and malpractices, which translated into an increasing burden on those lower down the sociopolitical ladder. Eventually this pressure reached the heterodox cults and secret societies, which had no alternative for protecting themselves other than to rise up in outright revolt. Seen from this perspective, most late-eighteenth-century

Origins of the Qianlong-Jiaqing Crises


protests were essentially local defenses against aggressive state control, precipitated by a “degenerating imperial center” rather than by notorious officials like Heshen. 51 Though characterized by the most developed form of monarchical des- potism in Chinese history, the late Qianlong state proved incapable of containing the forces that resulted from the inexorable social transforma- tions through the high Qing period. Neither was it effective in controlling its vast bureaucracy bent on corruption, factional struggles, and political patronage. The aging emperor tried to strengthen his vertical control of the officialdom through Heshen’s regency, but this was achieved at the expense of deteriorating local governance and horizontal political coordi- nation that fueled more disturbances. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the combination of social protests in different parts of the empire as

well as the secret struggles at all government levels that hiked the cost of repression campaigns. Herein lies a strong irony in Qianlong’s engagement

of the all-encompassing contentious crises during his later years. “The im-

perial impetus toward control,” as Jung terms it, “led in unexpected ways

to the breakdown of imperial control, despite the successful suppression of

the rebels.” 52 The power and image of the state, in brief, were partly crip- pled by the old monarch himself through his self-indulgent efforts to cen- tralize power and his feverish attempts to control an increasingly ungov- ernable society.

Concluding Observations

A critical yet often slighted dimension of the late Qianlong crises, in my

view, is that the transaction costs of imperial and central control had reached unacceptable heights due to the aforementioned structural and conjunctural transformations. What is more, the emperor’s flamboyant governing style exacerbated these deep-seated problems, which not only weakened the social glue between state and society but also undercut co- operation and compliance from both the bureaucracy and the populace. The time-hallowed mechanism of moral persuasion and “probationary ethic” thus lost its effectiveness in disciplining officialdom and ensuring

political loyalty. All these changes showcased the startling lack of conso- nance between the goals of the throne and his unresponsive bureaucrats. As the internal cohesion of the imperial system began to decline, its func- tion and reproduction had become increasingly contingent on the capacity

of the power brokers at various levels to use scarce resources (like material

and political incentives) to reduce grievances and enforce acquiescence.



This all-consuming process of negotiation, apart from widening the gap between state image and state practices, also grossly inflated the opera- tional costs of Qing empire-building, thus rendering it utterly unsustain- able as the Qianlong period came to a close. This dangerous trend was fi- nally brought under control by the Jiaqing emperor, thanks to his successful management of the 1790s crises.


A View from the Bottom



The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands

P art II approaches the dual upheavals from a bottom-up perspec- tive, giving centrality to the local and supralocal logic of collective ac-

tion and frontier politics. This approach of “history from below,” as noted in the introduction, is a long established one in the study of Chinese social movements. It falls broadly into four types—class struggle, local politics, moral economy, and millenarian protest—according to Daniel Little’s clas- sification. 1 Building on a combination of the four models, my methodology of all-encompassing contentious crises situates different explosive events in a common relational field of state-society interactions. Since both the White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy represented frontier protest against the centralizing state, it also is necessary to situate this study within the growing body of research on borderland and space. In this part, I shall in- vestigate the distinct frontier environments of the two crises as well as how they together shaped the intertwined processes of social mobilization and empire-building during the Qianlong-Jiaqing transition.

Official Frontier Construction and Its Discontents

Through its late imperial history, the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo) was characterized by a dominant spatial logic that revolved around the Sino- centric tributary relations. From the state’s vantage point, this tributary



spatiality rested on a continuum of three discrete zones with blurred boundaries among them: the inner zone, the middle region, and the outer circle. The inner zone was China proper, the Han-dominated, densely populated heartland area under Confucian influence. As the central part of the multiethnic empire, this territory required direct, close, and sustained politico-military control through an elaborate system of centralized local bureaucratic administration ( junxian). The middle region was what were called the “outer provinces” of non-Han ethnic groups, including Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia during the Qing time. Imperial control found its furthest limits in these sparsely populated and ecologically challenging areas, conflicting and cooperating with indigenous patterns of power and governance. The outer circle consisted of a hierarchy of tributary polities such as Korea and Vietnam, wherein very little Chinese state authority ever existed. We should view these three zones as shifting space of interaction and tension rather than part of a simple, static hierarchy presided over by an all-powerful center. 2 The state’s tripartite construction of spatial hegemony, while not as effective as it was intended to be, offers a starting point for developing a more subtle conceptualization of the Qing Empire. In concrete terms, it helps define the two basic kinds of frontiers introduced in Chapter 1:

first, the internal borderland that separated China proper from the outer provinces or marked the peripheries of lowland cores due to its tough terrain and low population density, and second, the external borderland (land or maritime) that demarcated the territory between the Middle Kingdom and its neighboring states in terms of geographical convenience and / or geopolitical conditions. The South China Sea, to be sure, belongs to the latter category. It is worth noting that the distinction between in- ternal and external frontiers was not stable or rigid. During the Eastern Zhou period (770–221 b.c.), for instance, the Han River highlands were considered an external borderland that marked the outer limits of early Chinese civilization. Centuries of territorial expansion, however, gradu- ally transformed this area into an internal frontier within the “land of the interior” (neidi). Different frontiers of the empire produced distinct types of social pro- tests, which illustrate not only significant instances of state weakness but also the major characteristics and functions of various borderlands. When it comes to the White Lotus and piracy disturbances, the Han River high- lands and South China Sea shared the common features of rough ecology and ambivalent social constructions. Constantly swarmed with disorderly elements and contentious forces, these areas provided fertile ground for popular resistance that conditioned the nature and extent of central power.

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


Most important, both of these fringe areas had long been part of an inter- active “nonstate space” within the overstretched and overburdened Qing Empire. The concept of “nonstate space” was first proposed by Edmund R. Leach and later developed by James C. Scott in their studies of upland Southeast Asia (especially Burma). It refers to the largely uncontrolled and uncontrollable frontier zones that define the limits of state power through their contentious tradition. 3 This general notion is most useful in analyz- ing the interrelations of empire-building and frontier-making, which con- stituted the core dynamics of Qing historical change. The frontier process of empire-building, I would suggest, was also the process of frontier-making (practices) and frontier construction (image). As the Chinese state expanded its territory, besides creating new border- lands while consolidating old ones, it also constructed these peripheries in a hierarchical way, so that they could serve different functions in the Sino-centric tributary world order. 4 This conceptualization was best en- capsulated in the following political statement of the Qing: “the border provinces are China’s gates; the tributary states [wai-fan] are China’s walls. We build the walls to protect the gates, and protect the gates to secure the house. If the walls fall, the gates are endangered, if the gates are endan- gered, the house is shaken.” 5 Whereas internal frontiers like the Han River highlands were governed as a buffer zone to protect China proper against incursions from the outer provinces, outer maritime frontiers like the South China Sea served as the first fence shielding the empire from more danger- ous foreign barbarians (waiyi) beyond the Middle Kingdom. Besides this military-strategic function, borderlands also offered an outlet for land- hungry migrants, dispossessed single males, and other contentious groups from the core regions. Thus, as Peter C. Perdue points out, borderlands could become “an early diagnostic of pressures that would strike the rest of the empire.” 6 According to Confucian political culture, frontiers signaled the interface or meeting point between civilization and barbarianism. Many of them played an important role in justifying the “Middle Kingdom’s” expansive power, as they were considered moral beneficiaries of the civilizing im- pulse from the center. Extraordinary disturbances in the fringe areas, con- versely, might suggest moral decay at the political center, thus jeopardizing its legitimacy in the eyes of China’s tributary states and, furthermore, pre- cipitating reform on the highest levels. Seen from this perspective, some frontiers stood at the core of empire-building because any major chal- lenges from them might affect the image and practices of the center. 7 This reflexive relationship entails that the seemingly orderly process of official frontier construction could neither obscure the internal contradictions of



empire-building nor overshadow the significance of social protest. It was precisely in the making and unmaking of the government-stipulated bound- aries that sectarians, smugglers, bandits, and pirates found their agency as pesky border trespassers or even enemies of the state. These unruly forces, compelled by their own logic of survival and emboldened by weak official presence, often refused to follow the neat, rigid construction of the border- lands imposed by the authorities. Furthermore, Part II shows that the Han River highlands and South China Sea served as “fruitful locuses for social contestation” that set in train a multiplicity of historical changes. 8 Such nonstate space empowered different local forces to come together for the common purpose of surviving particularly trying times and fighting for favorable sociopolitical changes. 9 Taking different borderlands as similar nonstate space, in addition, provides a unified perspective that allows interconnective consideration of simultaneous events and processes occurring in different parts of the empire. Peter Perdue brings to the forefront the correlation between mili- tary and commercial interests on both inland and maritime frontiers. James Millward also stresses the necessity of embracing “the Qing frontier” as a more inclusive unit of historical inquiry. 10 This study seeks to examine the Han River highlands and South China Sea as an integrated whole by allowing geographically distant events to illuminate each other. The interac- tion between internal and maritime borderlands, furthermore, contained a primary locus of dynamism in Qing frontier-making, especially after the empire’s conquest of central Asia during the 1770s. One cannot adequately understand both border regions without taking seriously the social pro- tests they produced, how the state dealt with such disturbances, and most important, how the process of crisis management changed both empire- building and frontier development. To answer these questions, it is necessary to study large-scale ecologi- cal worlds shaped by mountain ranges, river basins, and maritime zones, as well as their apparent contradictions with local politico-military ap- paratus. William Skinner portrayed the social geography of late imperial China as the intersection of two central place systems: one was the bottom- up formation of regional market hierarchies based on social ecology, manufacturing, and long-distance trade; the other was the top-down imposition of politico-military control that hinged on coercive state infra- structure. 11 Furthermore, Skinner highlighted a crucial problem between the two systems: whereas huge mountain chains crosscut by long river basins provided convenient boundaries for China’s political map, regions linked by such geographic determinants as well as the market networks they supported manifested an economic, social, and cultural integration

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


often lacking in administratively defined units like counties, provinces, and countries. Instead of fitting our analysis into a strict administrative framework, we should therefore recognize that fluid historical processes often move across stable political boundaries, driven by considerations like commercial de- velopment, military survival, and cultural transmission. The approach that considers mountain range, river basin, and maritime space, with its strong basis on natural formations, emphasizes those “systematic and long-term interactions” within and across large ecological zones. In Jerry Bentley’s words, this approach “has strong potential to dissolve artificial and some- times absurd distinctions among supposedly coherent and ostensibly dis- tinct regions.” Such tensions capture the very essence of the contradictions between the two kinds of central place hierarchies noted earlier. 12 Such tensions also helped prompt and sustain such all-encompassing conten- tious crises as the White Lotus rebellion and south China piracy. I propose that both upheavals can be better understood when viewed in light of the contradiction deeply rooted in the Skinnerian spatial framework.

White Lotus Ideology and Transgressive Political Violence

There were great affinities between social protest and sectarian religion throughout Chinese imperial history. The White Lotus tradition, in partic- ular, was responsible for a striking amount of sociopolitical violence in middle and late imperial times. To make sense of this contentious tradi- tion, one needs to study how the interplay between state and society con- ditioned the rise and fall of sectarian revolts in specific historical contexts. This chapter first explores the ideological impetus behind White Lotus sectarianism, focusing on its core apocalyptic beliefs, which—combined with government hostility—directly motivated the uprising of 1796. This chapter then considers the revolt within its environmental setting by ex- amining how the sectarian ideology fitted into the highland society and its insurrectionary subculture. The long tradition of the White Lotus religion (Bailian Jiao) can be traced back to the salvationist teachings of Pure Land Buddhism during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420 a.d.). Its first historically verified organi- zation, however, did not appear until the twelfth century. As a form of lay Buddhist devotion, this folk religion initially advocated universal salvation through rebirth in the western paradise, as well as peaceful worship via sutra-like chanting that did not rely on priestly hierarchy or authorized



institutions. With no distinguishable clothing or hairstyle recognizable by the government, its believers could easily blend into local communities while propagating their ideology in accordance with grassroots needs. Their emphasis on egalitarianism and mutual aid, as well as special medi- cal and fighting techniques, made this religion popular among lower-class people. 13 By the end of the Song dynasty, Bailian Jiao had developed into an independent locus of empowerment that appealed most to the margin- alized people at the bottom of society. Its growing grassroots influence and mobilization power, unsurprisingly, invited increasing government suspi- cion and repression that drove the practice of the religion underground. The White Lotus religion, to be sure, was not a homogeneous entity devoid of internal variations and endogenous strains. First of all, like the Heaven and Earth Society, it had neither a unified organizational network controlled by a sole leader nor a coherent textual tradition predicated on a single authoritative canon. 14 Due to this structural disadvantage / advantage, the White Lotus religion remained regionally diverse and ideologically syncretic throughout most of its history. Under the pressure of state perse- cution, furthermore, it underwent a localized process of multiplication and transmutation that inspired a plethora of derivative sects that went by different names. To avert government scrutiny, these sectarian groups refrained from using the forbidden name White Lotus (Bailian), which had become a signifier of heterodoxy by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Widely dispersed, many sects were unaware of others’ existence, while those in proximity squabbled with each other over local resources and sectarian leadership. The exceptions occurred during major rebellions, when hith- erto unconnected networks were mobilized and integrated by charismatic itinerant preachers. It is important to note that such overriding features as decentralized organization, diversified naming practices, and inter-sect competition had a paradoxical effect on the development of the White Lotus religion. While contributing significantly to its remarkable survival power, they also constrained the destructive potential of this popular reli- gion as a nonstate or antistate force. 15 A hallmark of the transition from the Song to Ming dynasties was the increasing synthesis of Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucianist teachings (san- jiao heyi, the three teachings unite in one), which profoundly affected the evolution of the White Lotus creed. This relatively peaceful, meditative religion gradually took on violent and rebellious characteristics as it incor- porated elements of Daoist magical techniques, Manichaean theologies, and folk shamanism. 16 The most distinguishing and subversive feature of this sectarian conglomeration was the rise of an eschatological belief that predicted an intensifying series of cosmic calamities and advocated salva-

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


tion through different messianic figures. Such dramatic supernatural inter- vention presaged a complete demolition of the extant world order and its violent replacement by a utopian, alternative one. This insurrectionary trend was given new impetus in the mid-fourteenth century when it blended with the popular doctrines of Maitreyan eschatol- ogy. Taking the kalpa ( jie) as a catastrophic but constructive turning point in human history, this eschatology advocates the successive alterations of the world in the name of different Buddha-saviors, of which Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future) was the ultimate. Under this new influence, the White Lotus religion finally became a well-established millenarian sect that was deeply involved with antidynastic revolts. As a key organizational vehicle for violent protest, it fueled a great many of the uprisings that, di- rectly or indirectly, brought about the final demise of the great Yuan (1271– 1368) and Ming regimes. The White Lotus sects thus became, in Richard Shek’s words, “the most feared and notorious of all sectarian organiza- tions since the Yuan dynasty.” They were steadfastly condemned for het- erodoxy and suppressed through most of the late imperial period but still survived actively underground and branched into even more congrega- tions with changing names. 17 Given the persistent nature of government repression, how, then, are we to explain the tenacity and dynamism of the White Lotus tradition as a principal form of Chinese popular religion? A major reason was its highly flexible sectarian teaching, especially the powerful eschatological messian- ism. The Bailian ideology was premised on a series of obscure conjectures— the sequential arrivals of different Buddhas to save the world—each of which represented an approaching change of kalpa. Such eschatological chronology later developed into the full-fledged doctrine of three succes- sive world stages (past-present-future) that constituted the basic salva- tional scheme of White Lotus belief. The onset of the new stage entailed both an unstoppable change of kalpa and impending cataclysmic destruc- tion throughout the temporal world. 18 This sectarian ideology is thus most powerfully conveyed by its messianic prophecy and the intervention of immediate disasters. Such doctrinal production of social anxiety was an indispensable tool in mobilizing great masses of followers against the state when sociopolitical conditions were at their nadir. This potentially explosive millenarian message, as Robert Weller argues, resonates with the orthodox theory of the “Mandate of Heaven,” a core ele- ment in traditional Chinese political philosophy. As the primary means of explaining dynastic changes, this theory justifies revolt against an unworthy emperor by deeming it a divinely ordained mission reflecting Heaven’s su- preme will. It should be noted that most of the time, White Lotus adherents



accepted the state’s authority and engaged in peaceful, devotional religious activities that posed no direct threat to the imperial system. To enshroud their eschatological worldview in a legitimate and secularized veneer, some sectarian texts, like the “Precious Scrolls” (Baojuan), explicitly made Con- fucius a god and incorporated him into the Bailian pantheon. Still others couched their teachings in such conciliatory language as “Long long live the emperor” (Huangdi wansui wanwansui). 19 When agencies of the state became so oppressive that they transgressed local standards of acceptable behavior, however, the Bailian sects could become much more violent and politically active by translating their promise of eschatological salvation into a battle cry for social protest or even military insurrection. The idea of successive kalpic changes, as Shek notes, was “predicated on the assumption that the existing order, with its ethical norms and sociopo- litical institutions, was finite, mutable, and destined to be replaced” in a violent way. 20 When exactly this transition would come about, however, was a highly contingent question depending on contemporary sociopolitical con- ditions. In normal times, it remained an obscure issue that concerned few White Lotus members. During periods of great crisis, however, the timing of the cosmic disaster could become both an overriding and a highly con- tentious matter among major sectarian leaders. When most of them agreed that the kalpic change was rapidly approaching, how to respond to it and its accompanying catastrophe became an issue of life and death for all believers. Like most sectarian cults, the White Lotus religion claimed an exclusive monopoly on the way to eschatological salvation. It was this esoteric knowledge that empowered Bailian adherents to claim that they were the elect who would survive the ineluctable cosmic calamity unscathed. When this final day of judgment arrived, they would become the sacred soldiers in the apocalyptic battle against the impious state and all nonbelievers. Only through relentless attack on the doomed could the faithful clear their way to true salvation. For those hard-core sectarians, the imminent escha- tological holocaust was a bloody catharsis that was to be welcomed rather than feared, since it was their final opportunity to purge all nefarious ele- ments from society in preparation for a new life. Seen from this perspec- tive, violent response to conditions that were perceived as kalpic disasters not only heightened people’s sense of personal efficacy but shaped their sense of participation in sociopolitical and cosmic transformations. It can be argued that White Lotus sectarianism internalized violence as an indis- pensable part of both sectarian development and individual redemption. Whenever the external environment was appropriate, agitated congrega- tions could become quickly radicalized and politicized, in the process

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


greatly increasing their numbers of participants and mobilization power. I see this violent, transformative tendency within the White Lotus ideology as a key intervening variable that affected the timing, scale, and intensity of antistate Bailian movements. The discourse of impending cosmic crisis, as a defining tenet of the White Lotus doctrine, directly shaped the sects’ changing relationship with the state as well as their recurring cycle of political violence. Analyzing kalpic change and its accompanying catastrophe, more specifically, draws attention to the powerful cultural practices by which the state was sym- bolically represented to its people and constructed by local society. 21 At times of harsh government persecution, Bailian believers imagined the state in an all-out destructive way while taking themselves as the Buddha’s designated helpers in destroying this world and greeting the new millen- nium. This radical conceptualization not only helped transform sectarians from pacific worshipers into militant rebels but also provided them with a powerful tool to make sense of their deteriorating condition and, further- more, to save the world through state-resisting violence. Foregrounding the link between sectarian discourse and social protest allows us to see the hidden mechanism by which the state comes to be marked and imagined in local culture. From this vantage point, White Lotus messages and activi- ties can be seen as a barometer of sociopolitical order at any given histori- cal time, conditioned by the extent of politico-military control imposed by the authorities. In particular, I consider the shifting discourse of kalpic crisis as a situational, bottom-up diagnostic of the state that changed largely according to different levels of governmental repression. Thanks to such flexibility and contingency, the White Lotus tradition became a criti- cal means of constructing the imperial state in Chinese popular religion. Despite its substantial organizational growth during the Song period, the White Lotus tradition did not develop into a full-fledged messianic re- ligion until the mid-sixteenth century. This period saw the rise of its su- preme deity, the Eternal Mother without Birth (Wusheng Laomu), who superseded the Maitreya Buddha “as the ultimate source of eschatological salvation.” This doctrinal development became “the most distinctive fea- ture of Chinese sectarian millenarianism” during the Ming-Qing period. According to the vernacular scriptures of Baojuan, the Eternal Mother not only controlled the kalpic turns but also created all humans and the whole cosmos. 22 When the ultimate cosmic disaster occurred, this all-merciful mother would save her suffering children through the hands of her agent— Maitreya. Only in this way would they be able to survive the calamities and return to the paradise where the Eternal Mother resided—True Empty Native Land (Zhenkong Jiaxiang). The rise of this supreme matriarch and



bodhisattva-like savior, not surprisingly, promoted a “feminization of compassion” in Chinese popular religion. Consequently, as Richard Shek has written, White Lotus groups were especially appealing to women and became “the only voluntary organization in traditional China that had a sizable female membership.” The primacy of the nurturing Eternal Mother directly challenged the patriarchal hierarchy and the moral universe on which Confucian society rested, adding another radical dimension to the subversive appeal of the White Lotus sects. This core mythology injected vigor into the millenarian ideology by integrating its previous components into a more systematic whole. The reconstituted Bailian tradition “began to inform the religious content of most Ming-Qing sectarian groups” while becoming a “mature and coherent version of heterodoxy in late imperial or early modern China.” 23 Such heterodox maturity reached its peak following the dynastic transi- tion in the mid-seventeenth century. The Manchu conquest of China en- dowed White Lotus adherents with a further motive for political activism, as epitomized by their slogan “Overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming” (Fanqing fuming). In subsequent times of great crisis, radicalized sectari- ans used such ethnically charged slogans to exploit latent anti-Manchu sentiment and to cloak their subversive activities in the robes of dynastic restoration. They preached that the Maitreya Buddha would transmigrate to this world as the Eternal Mother’s emissary for the purpose of saving her estranged devotees and supporting “Niuba” (a term they cleverly cre- ated by splitting into two the character “zhu,” which represented the Ming dynasty since it was the family name of its royal house). Niuba, congrega- tions were taught, was the reincarnated divinely justified political leader of China. Resonating with the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, specifically, Niuba was both Maitreya’s earthly agent and the scion of the Ming ruling house usually held to be present in the form of a young boy 24 As a new backbone of the Bailian doctrine, the supposed reincarnation of this pow- erful duo—Maitreya and Niuba—at the behest of the all-powerful goddess presented an even more formidable “competing hierarchy of authority” to the Qing regime. While serving as a focal point for mobilization, these “apocalyptic political symbols” proved both a blessing and a curse for the White Lotus movement. Different Bailian sects in the rebellion of 1796, for example, could not settle on the urgent question of designating the divine leaders in whose form Niuba and Maitreya were incarnated, which partly explains their ultimate failure in coordination and mutual support. 25 The White Lotus sects, as Susan Naquin points out, manifested them- selves in two principal ways: as docile, scattered congregations in normal times and as a powerful vehicle for overt uprising at the time of the new

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


kalpa. Along the same line, Richard Chu differentiates between a quiet, “purely religious” phase and an active, “rebellious” stage of Bailian ac- tivity. 26 It is helpful to make such distinctions from the state’s vantage point, but one should also conceptualize the two different stages of sectar- ian development as complementary and interchanging attributes of the same belief system. Therefore, White Lotus sects “could be at once inward- looking and devotional, and aggressively, militantly revolutionary.” 27 Their highly flexible millennial message was perpetuated through a normally diffuse but potentially cohesive organization, thereby making believer and rebel merely different phases of the same salvational process. It can be argued that White Lotus believers were engaged in an eternal, transgressive game of contentious politics that occurred at the blurred boundary of tolerated and forbidden sectarian activities. They could read- ily transform peaceful claims for salvation into violent ones for self- preservation, and vice versa, depending on their discursive construction of the state (image and practice). In coping with the changing political pres- sure, the Bailian Jiao thus demonstrated, probably more than any other Chinese popular religion, tremendous adaptability, with which it empow- ered itself in both occasional antidynastic uprisings and routine sectarian reproduction. The greatest power of this sectarian tradition lay in its extraordinary flexibility in mediating between the universality of abstract millennial ideas and the specificities of particular local contexts. Thanks to their vol- atile articulation of social anxiety and their eschatological justification of popular protest, White Lotus adherents had an especially strong capacity to perceive the predatory nature of state penetration and mobilize people for self-defense. Sectarians sought a delicate balance as they peacefully practiced their seemingly innocuous popular religion while not forsaking the last resort of rebellion during times of great hardship. The dynamism of the Bailian tradition, put another way, was mostly grounded in the ac- tual or, most of the time, threatened use of violence for the purpose of re- sisting government persecution and defending its sectarian existence. As a result, different White Lotus congregations “could survive as if dormant without entirely losing their capacity to mobilize believers to drastic ac- tion.” 28 This tenacious nature was a long-term adaptation to hostile state policies and tough social environments. Scholars have long noted the striking ability of the traditional Chinese state to regulate popular religious beliefs across the huge Chinese empire. Arthur Wolf contends that the imperial government was so potent that it “created a religion in its own image” by promoting a bureaucratized ver- sion of heaven and hell that reflected China’s sociopolitical landscape. 29



Thanks to this parallel between religious and temporal officialdom, the state co-opted popular yet nonthreatening deities into its pantheon of pop- ular worship while promoting traditional morality, social mores, and po- litical loyalty. 30 Yet it must be noted that in some cases even the bureaucra- tized heaven had subversive potential, not to mention the fact that many popular deities remained outside the heavenly officialdom. The White Lo- tus religion, for instance, could never reflect or confirm the extant power hierarchies, because much of its ideology was antithetical to both the Confucian high tradition and the political system it supported. Thus the Bailian sects did not lend themselves to being standardized, superscribed, or gentrified as part of the state-sanctioned religious system. In effect, ac- cording to B. J. ter Haar, the name “White Lotus teachings” was little more than a convenient label used by the Ming-Qing governments to represent all varieties of heterodox religions. 31 Alternating between compliance, subtle critique, and outright insurrection, this sectarian tradition was an independent source of nonstate political legitimation that could give direc- tion and hope to those who were marginalized in the existing society. Therefore, it held great attraction for “individuals for whom the normal paths of salvation were unappealing or unattainable or for whom ordi- nary community structures were unavailable.” 32 The White Lotus teach- ing, in particular, had a special resonance for frontier migrants, who often derived strength and identity from this sectarian tradition. In what follows, I shall examine the uprising of 1796 by situating it in its frontier context.

Rebellion in Hubei

On January 11, 1796, the White Lotus uprising erupted in Zhijiang and Yidu counties of Jingzhou prefecture, Hubei. Within two years it swept through a large part of central-western China; but rebel forces proved un- able to control the lowland core—the Jianghan plain—in the northern part of the middle Yangzi River basin. By the end of 1797, most of the rebel forces had retreated to the Han River highlands across the provincial border of Hubei, Shaanxi, and Sichuan. Thereafter, this mountainous fron- tier became the major center of operations for the roving insurgents until their final defeat in 1805. The White Lotus uprising occurred in Jingzhou prefecture due to the conjunction of several contentious events and circumstances. A major pre- cipitant was the escalating “religious cases” that occurred through the late eighteenth century. From 1794 to 1795, in particular, Qianlong launched an all-out dragnet to ferret out and apprehend Bailian leaders in six prov-

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


inces of central-western China. As “one of the old emperor’s last cam- paigns and the most ruthless,” this crackdown rendered a deadly blow to the sectarian organizations in Hubei, Sichuan, and Shaanxi and threatened their very existence. 33 Several hundred White Lotus adherents were rounded up and executed, while many more were imprisoned or brutal- ized. Local officials and their yamen underlings, to make it worse, took this ferocious manhunt as a license to victimize and extort payments from the populace. They carried out a family-by-family search; those who did not pay the required bribe were arrested as Bailian converts, and many were tortured to death. Injustice and cruelty reached such an extent that it provoked widespread popular discontent, which enhanced the sects’ ap- peal and confirmed their prediction of an impending kalpic change and disaster. 34 Making haste to profit from this dire situation, White Lotus leaders stepped up their proselytizing efforts and called for outright revolt against state persecution. Forced to pay or die, many people became so desperate that they rose up for self-preservation during this time of great hardship. 35 The second major incitement to armed rebellion can be attributed to the Miao uprising of 1795, which overtaxed the state’s coercive capacity in Hubei, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Subduing this ethnic revolt required the Qing to mobilize almost all available military forces in the three provinces, meaning that only a ludicrously small number of imperial soldiers were left in central-western China when the sectarian uprising broke out. This startling lack of regular troops was especially clear in the nine rebel-afflicted counties of Hubei, including Yidu, Yunxi, Zhuxi, Fang-xian, Baokang, Laifeng, Donghu, Yuan-an, and Dangyang, whose average number of sta- tioned soldiers did not exceed seventy in January 1796. 36 The governments’ military weakness was compounded by the extor- tionate practices of local officials and yamen staff who utilized the Miao campaign as another good opportunity for personal enrichment. Because of its strategic location and proximity to the Hunan-Guizhou frontier, Jingzhou prefecture bore an especially heavy burden of provision and cor- vee labor. What was more disturbing was that some rapacious state agents even increased military surcharges by tenfold in the name of supporting the Miao campaign. Such unscrupulous exploitation exhausted the local communities and created great suffering among the people. The depressed conditions were aggravated by a string of natural disasters that hit Jing- zhou in the last decade of the Qianlong reign. All these produced a tinder- box of frustration and hatred toward the authorities that spawned a re- ceptive audience for the White Lotus teachings. Making active use of the agitated situation, sectarian congregations in Hubei underwent a rapid



growth in size and influence as they radicalized their salvation messages and enlarged their activities. On the pretext of fending off the Miao at- tack, some even started making weapons and called for mutual support by forming various self-defense organizations. The Miao uprising, in sum, created a power vacuum in Hubei that in- vited antistate militarization, thus presenting a splendid opportunity for the sectarians to rise up. The White Lotus leader Zhang Zhengmo even seized the occasion to claim that “the Miao people are sent [by the Buddha- savior] to assist us.” The “interconnected synchronicities” of the two in- land rebellions, along with the simultaneous piracy crisis, overextended the state’s coercive capacity to a breaking point. This was a clear sign of the unsustainability of late Qianlong empire-building. 37

The Staging of the Rebellion

Big river systems, as William Skinner maintained, play a key role in the “functional integration” of Chinese physiographic regions. 38 Hubei prov- ince is crisscrossed by the Yangzi River, the longest waterway in China, and its largest tributary—the Han River. While the Yangzi runs into west- ern Hubei from Sichuan via the prefecture of Yichang, the Han enters the province from southeastern Shaanxi via the highland prefecture Yunyang. The two eastbound rivers intersect at Hankou, the central metropolis of the Middle Yangzi macroregion, creating the Jianghan alluvial plain with thousands of lakes. For the sake of analysis, the rebel-afflicted area in Hubei can be divided into three major sections in terms of topographic and socioeconomic variations. 39 The first was the crowded river valley on the Jianghan plain that took up the central part of the province, consisting of Jingzhou pre- fecture, Jingmen department, and Anlu prefecture. Wet-rice cultivation had long been the dominant form of agriculture in this lowland core, which exhibited great socioeconomic differentiation. The second subre- gion consisted of the less populated and relatively unstratified highland peripheries in the northwest (Yunyang prefecture) and the southwest (Shi- nan and Yichang prefectures). Dry-land farming predominated in local agriculture. The third subregion was the strategic crossroads prefecture of Xiangyang, located in the transitional zone dividing the Han River high- lands in the northwest from the lowland cores of the Jianghan plain in the south and southeast. These three areas can be taken as what R. Keith Schoppa calls “microregions” due to their unique internal environmental conditions and socioeconomic structures. 40 These interacting ecological

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


and socioeconomic variables mentioned above created distinct strategies of local survival, which directly shaped the different regional dynamics and trajectories of the White Lotus rebellion. Let us begin with Xiangyang prefecture, which was situated at the con- fluence of the Han River and its largest tributary, the Bai River. These two great waterways made Xiangyang a natural transit point for traveling from west to east. This hilly prefecture also served as a convenient demar- cation between the Yangzi River and Yellow River basins, connecting the south with the north via a labyrinthine network of upland roads and passes across China’s Central Mountain Belt. Thanks to these favorable physical conditions, Xiangyang had long been the geographical center of China proper and a key nexus for interlocking commercial systems. As a sort of “middle ground,” it received an uninterrupted flow of goods, peo- ple, and ideas across much of the empire while also extending its influence in all directions. 41 Due to this highly unique and strategic location, Xiangyang became the focus of intrasect contention for the White Lotus religion, though this area had not developed a strong tradition of Bailian sectarianism before the late Qianlong reign. As Shaobin Li points out, a Hubei man, Li Conghu, learned the teachings of the Shouyuan (Return to the Origin) sect, a de- rivative Bailian group, from his Henanese cousin Xu Guotai in 1767. Thereupon he brought the sectarian messages to Xiangyang through his local disciple Sun Guiyuan, a peripatetic mason in the prefecture. In con- trast, Blaine Gaustad lays greater emphasis on disciples of Li like Yao Yingcai, Ai Xiu, and Wang Quan, whose proselytizing efforts in the 1780s represented the first major exposure of Xiangyang to White Lotus religion. Shortly thereafter, Liu Zhixie, the Anhui leader of another Bailian offshoot and the disciple of the banished Henanese patriarch Liu Song, also came to this prefecture and actively recruited followers for his Hunyuan (Primal Chaos) sect. The resulting competition intensified as he successfully won over Yao’s major local disciple Song Zhiqing in 1789, bringing Song’s Shouyuan converts into the fold of Hunyuan. Three years later, however, the cooperation between Liu and Song ended because of their conflicting claims regarding the overriding issue of designating Maitreya and Niuba. Song branched out and set up his own sect, named “the Greater Vehicle of Western Heaven” (Xitian Dacheng). A variation of the Return to the Ori- gin teachings, it became the most successful sectarian group in the Han River highlands. 42 Despite such intersect rivalry, the three masters’ mis- sionary efforts transformed Xiangyang into the heartland of White Lotus activities in Hubei toward the end of the century. Sectarians from this prefecture, according to official investigations, played a predominant role



in motivating and organizing the uprising of 1796. As the most active and powerful sectarian participants in the revolt, they were collectively called the “Xiangyang congregation” (Xiangyang jiaotuan) or “Xiangyang origi- nal sect” (Xiangyang laojiao). Among the hundreds of Bailian leaders, moreover, Xiangyang natives constituted the majority group. 43 The White Lotus teachings, once having reached Xiangyang from the north China plain, spread upstream and downstream along the Han River. 44 Thanks to different “messengers” like wandering migrants, mer- chants, laborers, and priests the sectarian culture climbed up the high mountains and flowed down into the low river valleys. However, the up- rising of 1796 first broke out in neither the strategic Xiangyang prefecture nor the recently settled, hard-to-reach Han River highlands. How to ex- plain this rather surprising outcome? The answers lie mainly in the two different socioeconomic structures that the White Lotus leaders faced in developing their bases of followers in different regions. One of these structures was the populous and tightly clustered clan-villages on the Jianghan plain; the other being the sparsely populated and scattered mountain communities in the highland area of Hubei. The former often had developed strong lineages closely tied to lo- cal authorities. Along with the baojia system of household registration and mutual surveillance, such lineages provided an effective means for bottom- up social control and top-down official management. Fertile agriculture and flourishing commerce, furthermore, supported a network of commit- ted gentry and wealthy landlords to dominate local affairs and safeguard social stability. All these features made the Jianghan plain more tightly knit and less accessible to sectarian influences from the outside. 45 The White Lotus insurgents did manage to win over a handful of disaffected landlords like Nie Renjie, but such piecemeal effort could not challenge the paramount power of orthodox social formation in the lowlands. In response to intensifying official persecution and venality, White Lotus leaders in Hubei began to “introduce greater urgency” into their messianic propaganda during the late 1780s. Besides predicting forthcoming cosmic catastrophes, some of them even contemplated the idea of insurrection in their cultural production of anxiety and terror. Further pressed by the fe- rocious campaign of 1794, Liu Zhixie, Bai Peixiang, Yao Zhifu, and Wang Cong-er finally decided to act in Xiangyang on March 10, 1796. 46 But the vigilant gentry in Zhijiang and Yidu got wind of this plot and notified au- thorities immediately. The local officials apprehended some of the planners and launched a fierce manhunt for the rest. To escape destruction, sect leaders like Zhang Zhengmo and Nie Renjie were obliged to strike prema- turely in Jingzhou prefecture on January 11. Consequently, the “scheduled

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


uprisings went off like badly timed firecrackers” that started an immediate chain reaction. 47 The initial Bailian uprising was therefore shaped by a contingent situation rather than by careful planning. Because most gov- ernment troops in Hubei were sent to squash the Miao aboriginals, the rebels had little trouble seizing such cities as Dangyang, Baokang, and Zhushan. But wealthy local elites, especially the civil and military shengjian (shengyuan and jiansheng) like Luo Siyong and Luo Siqian, took the initia- tive of organizing militia to defend their communities against sectarian attack. 48 So the rebels could not “mobilize the wealth and manpower of lowland society, and thus never gained the momentum needed to challenge the regime successfully.” 49 According to the depositions of the Bailian leaders Nie Renjie and Xiang Yaoming, the rebel forces prepared to first seize the county seats of Zhijiang and Yidu, followed by the prefecture cities of Jingzhou and Xiangyang. They then planned to cross the Han River and push north- ward to Henan. This bold plan was later abandoned as the insurgents proved unable to defend conquered urban centers like Dangyang, due largely to the resistance of the gentry and other orthodox groups. Sect leaders came to realize that they could no longer base their operations in the lowlands and directly confront the Qing forces. Starting in September 1796, the focal area of the uprising gradually shifted northwest as rebels swarmed into the Hubei-Shaanxi-Sichuan border region, relying on its rugged terrain to resist the government attacks. They gathered followers and supplies along the way while pillaging the local communities like rov- ing bandits. 50 In contrast to the close-knit clan-villages on the Jianghan plain, the upland counties of Yunyang, Shinan, and Yichang were characterized by atomized mountain communities and myriad frontier forces with a high degree of autonomy. Yunyang, the easternmost part of the Han River high- lands, was especially impoverished and sparsely populated, with fewer elites and less developed agriculture. Despite relatively weak economic in- tegration with the outside world, local people supplemented their low in- comes by exporting mountain products like timber, bamboo, and tea. The diverse populace and the lack of strong elite networks hampered the devel- opment of self-defense organizations under gentry leadership. All these made the highland society more egalitarian, violence prone, and open to outside influences. Its general lack of social control provided a hotbed for the development of White Lotus sects. Scholars like Cecily McCaffrey and K. C. Liu have already examined the initial phase of the White Lotus rebel- lion in western and central Hubei. So this chapter focuses on the Han River highlands, the epicenter of the uprising from 1797 to 1805. 51



The Highlands in Rebellion

The land surface of China, like a three-step staircase, gradually slopes down from the west to the east. Located along the transitional causeway in this staircase topography, the Han River highlands had occupied a unique and crucial position in Chinese historical geography. This quintes- sential frontier zone, however, has been somewhat overlooked by existing historiography in English, which tends to focus on external borderlands outside China proper. Recent scholars, including James Millward, Daniel McMahon, and William Rowe, have called for more study of internal frontiers on the peripheries of China’s cultural, economic, and political heartlands. This chapter moves the Han River highlands to center stage by investigating how local people turned their mountain societies into a crucial site of border-crossing and contentious politics. 52 Physical geography, to be sure, constrains the social, political, and eco- nomic structures that can be constructed in a given region. Such interrela- tionships shape the “unique personality” of this area by weaving “the ‘seam- less robe’ existing between humans and their immediate natural context.” It is therefore necessary to examine the social ecology of the Han River high- lands by discussing their “localized human-natural interdependencies.” 53 To begin with, here are the basic geographic conditions. Extending about 1,530 kilometers, the Han River (Hanshui) is the longest and most volatile tributary of the Yangzi. Known as the “sacred river” by local people, Hanshui rises from the Bozhong Mountain in southwestern Shaanxi abut- ting the Sichuan-Gansu border. 54 Then it surges eastward across southern Shaanxi and flows southeast through a large part of Hubei before joining the middle Yangzi at Hankou near the provincial capital, Wuchang. The merging of the two great rivers in central Hubei, as mentioned earlier, cre- ated a huge fertile lowland—the Jianghan plain—dotted with a panoply of lakes. In its upper reaches, the Han River alternates with and meanders through two tremendous mountain chains running from west to east in central China: Qinling (or Nanshan) to the north of Hanshui and Daba to its south. This unique topography of “one river enclosed by two moun- tains” (liangshan jia yichuan) created a huge internal frontier known as the Qinba Laolin (Han River highlands). This topography also modulates the monsoon climate in terms of temperature and precipitation, thus sepa- rating the dry, wheat-growing north, dominated by the Yellow River, from the humid, rice-producing south, dominated by the Yangzi River. For this reason, the Han River highlands have been viewed as the natural water-

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


shed between the north and the south. They also served as a transregional corridor that connected China’s western plateau, central basins, and east- ern plains. 55

A local phrase aptly summarizes how the highland inhabitants under-

stood the ecological world they lived in: “nine parts mountain, one part water and farmland” ( jiushan banshui banfentian). Except for a few en- closed agricultural basins like Hanzhong, the Han River highlands were predominantly covered by two thick, primeval forests (laolin) along the Qinling and Daba mountain belts in the early nineteenth century. Accord- ing to a description by Zhuo Bingtian, a Jiaqing-era local official, the northern stretch of these highlands was called the Nanshan Old Forest (Nanshan Laolin, also referred to as Qinling Laolin). It extended eastward across various counties and departments in southern Shaanxi, including Lu- eyang, Feng-xian, Baoji, Mei-xian, Zhouzhi, Yang-xian, Ningshaan, Xiaoyi, Zhen-an, Shanyang, and Xunyang, until reaching Yunxi in northwestern Hubei. As for the southern stretch of the highlands, it encompassed the Bashan Old Forest (Bashan Laolin), which extended eastward across Ningq- iang, and Baocheng of Shaanxi; Nanjiang, Tongjiang, Bazhou, Taiping, Dan- ing, Kai-xian, Fengjie, and Wushan of Sichuan; and Ziyang, Ankang, and Pingli of Shaanxi; until finally arriving in Zhushan, Zhuxi, Fang-xian, Xing- shan, and Baokang of northwestern Hubei. 56 Between the Qinling and

Bashan primeval forests lay the Han River, which cut through southern Shaanxi’s major valley basins, including Hanzhong and Ankang. The two heavily wooded areas, albeit divided, belonged to the same ecosystem called Qinba Laolin (the Han River highlands). With altitudes ranging from two thousand to three thousand meters, they were among “the last remaining original forest areas within China proper.” 57 Few offi- cials understood these highlands better than Yan Ruyi, a capable adminis- trator who served there in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. In his eyes, this internal frontier on the edge of China’s heartland was akin to the external borderland wilderness far beyond it. A place where raging rivers were often juxtaposed with deep gorges and dense forest, Qinba Laolin extended over 1,600 kilometers and occupied an area of 310,000 square kilometers, straddling the border of Shaanxi, Hubei, and Sichuan. From the state’s standpoint, such exceedingly difficult terrains, like the Great Wall, provided an “insuperable” barrier safeguarding the “three provinces” (sansheng baozhang) in central-western China. 58

A tangle of provincial boundaries divided this complex mix of mountains,

forest, and rivers into three separate administrative areas that “interlocked like the teeth of a dog” (quanya xiangcuo). These prescribed, rigid, and bounded jurisdictional spaces, more of an artifact than natural necessity,



The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


did not correspond to the region’s fluid and malleable ecological-economic systems, which defied clear-cut demarcation. 59 This top-down political construct, furthermore, often contradicted bottom-up utilization of the frontier spaces by local people. Consequently, as Skinner noted, some areas had much greater resemblance to or closer contact with their bordering provinces than with the other parts of their own province. 60 A prime example of this is southern Shaanxi (Shaannan), which con- sisted of Pingli, Ankang, Ziyang, and Xixiang counties, lying south of the Han River. Although it had been an administrative part of Shaanxi since the Yuan dynasty, this mountainous frontier area was largely cut off from the rest of the province by the Qinling highlands. Most of it belonged to the Middle Yangzi macroregion, whereas central and northern Shaanxi lay in the northwest macroregion. Due to shared topographical and climatic con- ditions, southern Shaanxi had great socioeconomic affinities with both northeastern Sichuan and northwestern Hubei. 61 As the modern historian Ts’ui-jung Liu writes:

although administratively, the upper Han River area belonged to Shensi (Shaanxi), geographically, this part was different from northern Shensi. The climate and soil along the upper Han River were more similar to those of the Yangzi valley than the loess plains to the north. More significantly, the influx of immigrants into the upper Han River highlands in the late eighteenth cen- tury made this part of Shensi all the more closely related to Hubei. One local official remarked in the early nineteenth century, “now I come to Qin (Shaanxi) as if I were still in Chu (Hubei). The mountains of Qin are mostly tilled by people from Chu.” 62

According to the provincial official Taibu, for instance, half of the popula- tion in Shaanxi’s Xing-an prefecture, many of whom were the White Lotus converts, migrated from neighboring Hubei. 63 The opening up of the Qinba highlands during the Ming-Qing dynasties led to an expansion of cultivated land and the simultaneous shrinkage of forest-covered areas. This process of frontier-making connected major agri- cultural areas along the upper Han River, such as Hanzhong, with the other three key river valleys in central-western China: the Wei River valley (or Guanzhong plain) of Shaanxi to the north, the Jianghan plain of Hubei to the southeast, and the Chengdu plain of Sichuan to the southwest. This process of highland development also linked the Hanzhong basin with Nanyang, its western counterpart in Henan. Such transregional integration accelerated over the eighteenth century as a massive wave of in-migrants moved to the Han River highlands from all directions. Some reclaimed the unfertile upland as pengmin (shack people); the others worked in the scat- tered mountain factories (shanchang) that produced wood, charcoal, iron,



paper, and salt for regional or national markets. 64 The three-province border region thus became an intersecting hub of the five major agricul- tural zones in central-western China. It was crisscrossed by a labyrinth of river-borne and overland trading routes, migration pathways, and pil- grimage itineraries, carrying a brisk flow of goods, ideas, and manpower into this central transitional zone. 65 The thickening network of economic, social, and cultural links intensified border-crossings that further inte- grated the seemingly inaccessible highlands into the empire. Here one can deem the internal frontier not merely a dividing zone between China’s lowland cores but a “middle ground” bringing people, commodities, and ideas together. According to Skinner’s spatial framework of traditional China, the Han River highlands also formed the boundaries of four macroregions: the Up- per Yangzi, Middle Yangzi, Northwest, and North China. Peppered with large mountains and deep forests, not surprisingly, this vast borderland had long been a natural hideout for outlaws and a hotbed of revolts since the mid-Ming. It therefore was in many respects an archetypal frontier re- gion: a topographically rugged, ecologically challenging, politically di- vided, economically strained, and violence-prone region with a reputation as an inviting bandit lair. All these aspects made the Hubei-Shaanxi- Sichuan highland area one of the largest administrative black holes in late imperial China. A separate governorship had been created in the Yunyang area to control the “floating people” from Jingzhou and Xiangyang during the Chenghua reign (1488–1505). Invoking this mid-Ming historical pre- cedent, two leading nineteenth-century statecraft officials—Yan Ruyi and Wei Yuan—suggested that instead of splitting the Han River highlands between Hubei, Shaanxi, and Sichuan, a “special province” (xingsheng) should be established to govern the unruly frontier as one integrated juris- diction. They felt that only through such drastic administrative restructur- ing could peace and security be ensured for centuries to come. But this re- form proposal was not put into practice because the court considered it too radical and hardly realistic. 66

Topographic Limitations on the Politico-Military Structure

While big mountain chains conveniently delimit a political map, they stub- bornly resist the penetration of state power into frontier society. The Han River highlands, cut by steep slopes and blanketed by dense forests, had long been an ungovernable borderland in the geographic center of traditional

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


China. Although its limited junxian (centralized local bureaucratic system) administration fostered a semblance of centralized rule, there was actually no effective, routine state control across this far-flung frontier zone, partly due to the fact that the state generally established fewer jurisdictions in areas further away from Beijing. 67 The resulting “span-of-control” problem was aggravated by the sparse, unsettled nature of the highland population and their extremely low taxpaying capacity, which made it even more difficult to sustain a strong administrative and military presence in the three-province border region. Hence local officers were spread dangerously thin, and most government centers were located outside the mountainous area, thus creating serious difficulties for communication and political control. It is not surpris- ing that the understaffed administration could hardly govern those frontier territories “where even the long whip of the state could not reach” (bian- chang moji). 68 Highland people thus customarily took the law into their own hands to redress local grievances. During times of crisis they did not hesitate to rise up against the state, as happened in the White Lotus uprising. While attempting to suppress such rebellions, field officials complained bitterly about the inordinately large size and hostile topography of the area for which they were responsible. 69 The Shaanxi governor Ma Huiyu grumbled in his memorial to Emperor Jiaqing that “because this region [the High River highlands] is stuck in the middle of ten thousand moun- tains [wanshan zhi zhong], its land is indeed barren and unproductive. The state machinery is also spread much thinner in comparison with that in lowland cores. Some frontier departments or counties govern an area ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 li. So the local officials can hardly keep close control over these regions.” Xixiang county of Hanzhong prefecture, in particular, was troubled by this problem of undergovernment: “its jurisdic- tion extends over 1,000 li, which is the largest one in Shaanxi. Yet there are only one magistrate, one xiancheng [deputy magistrate], two xunjian [inspectorate], and one dusi [army commander] in this county. The Shaanxi governor had requested to have it partitioned into three counties, but the Board of Personnel rejected this proposal. As a result, our local govern- ment control is extremely thin.” 70 Limitations imposed by geography greatly weakened the state’s military presence in the Han River highlands as well. The Sichuan governor-general Lebao complained that this borderland was really not the place to fight a war (fei yongwu zhidi). Due to the shortage of soldiers and military provi- sions, government troops could only be stationed at a small number of widely dispersed strategic areas like district and prefecture cities. They of- ten had to operate in outsized territory and impassable terrain, which made it impossible to control or even monitor local disorders. 71



While creating insurmountable difficulties for state control, the high- land topography proved a boon to the people who inhabited the three- province border area. Its river-linked mountains and intricate footpaths not only provided a primary means of regional transport but also afforded the best natural protection for various antistate and nonstate forces. The social ecology of the highlands made it easy for sectarians and bandits to rise up against the state; the highlands’ sheer size and rugged inaccessibil- ity also gave insurgents plenty of room to maneuver. In the words of Yan Ruyi, “there is so much violence and so little order in the three-province border region partly because it is hard to attack and easy to defend.” 72 This situation even persisted into the 1930s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang armies were trapped fighting the Communists in the same area. Chiang considered this region the most difficult strategic area to take and occupy in the whole country. 73 The segregating effect of high mountains and long forests (gaoshan chan- glin), furthermore, created a multitude of murky jurisdictional interstices that undermined and even escaped state control. Highland forces made regular use of these ill-defined administrative boundaries to evade taxes, engage in illegal activities, and escape government punishment. White Lo- tus insurgents, in particular, deliberately conducted their activities astride two or three mountainous jurisdictions that were not in good communica- tion with one another. The rebel leader Hu Mingyuan described his strategy as follows: “in northwest Hubei many huge mountains and intricate paths straddle the border of Shaanxi and Sichuan. When there are more govern- ment soldiers in Sichuan and Shaanxi, we scatter into Hubei territory. When more soldiers are stationed in Hubei, we then slip back into Sichuan and Shaanxi. The officials never know our whereabouts.” 74 Unable to deal with the increasing workload within their own adminis- trative purviews, shorthanded local authorities often turned a blind eye to border issues and tried to shift responsibility to neighboring counties, pre- fectures, or provinces. This parochial vision was certainly not shared by the emperor at the distant Forbidden City. In the midst of the White Lotus campaign, Jiaqing often chided his field officials for failing to act beyond their jurisdiction, thus thwarting horizontal collaboration and slowing down suppression. He complained vehemently about such rigid political boundaries (cijiang bijie zhi jian), since in his eyes, the three provinces were no different from each other. But the emperor also admitted that it would be impossible to govern the huge empire without such strict admin- istrative demarcations. 75

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


Highland Development in the Late Qianlong Reign

To understand the highland area as well as the crises it produced, one must go beyond a brief overview of the slow-to-change ecology and fragile state infrastructure to get a real sense of local people and their border-crossing experiences. Unlike the Miao frontier in the Hunan-Guizhou border, the Han River highlands were not an ethnic borderland, as few aboriginal non- Han people lived in the area. This densely forested region, as Eduard Ver- meer maintains, was actually among the latest areas in China proper to be intensely colonized. Despite intermittent settlement since the Han dynasty, the first strong tide of reclamation did not start there until the 1420s. Over the ensuing two centuries, a large number of land-starved peasants from adjacent provinces streamed into the Qinba highlands, opened the virgin mountains for cultivation, and settled down as laomin (original residents). But this vast, persistent influx of “drifting people” was brought to an end by the late Ming peasant uprisings, which were centered in this area and decimated most of its population. The subsequent dynastic transition fur- ther turned the Han River highlands into a wild, unsettled territory of central-western China. But such a bleak picture started to change in the late Kangxi reign, when internal migration reemerged as a major force of fron- tier transformation under government encouragement. 76 This new assault on the highlands reached its peak in the closing decades of the Qianlong reign. From the 1770s onward, economic downturn, over- crowding, and natural disasters in the basins and valleys of central-south China provoked a huge exodus of indigent settlers into the three-province border region. The Shaangan governor-general Bi Yuan noted that these migrants first came to the upper highlands around the year 1773. In 1778 alone, over 100,000 refugees from Hubei and Hunan arrived in Hanzhong prefecture in southern Shaanxi as xinmin (new people). 77 According to Yan Ruyi’s on-the-spot investigation, 70–80 percent of Hanzhong’s popu- lation were immigrants in 1814. Some years earlier, this percentage had been as high as 80–90 percent in the Shaanxi-Sichuan border area. As for Sichuan as a whole, 85 percent of its population had been nonnatives dur- ing the early nineteenth century. Astounding as they were, these numbers might still be underestimations, for some newly arrived kemin (guest people) did not appear on the official registers due to their mobile way of life and scattered pattern of settlement. 78 Due to this massive wave of in-migration, the population of the Han River highlands expanded exponentially throughout the eighteenth cen-



tury, which in turn exacerbated the state’s span-of-control problem across this border region. In such long-settled counties as Xing-an and Xixiang the official data of registered population showed a sixfold increase from 1700 to 1823, a situation corroborated by contemporary observations.

The local Xing-an official Ye Shizhuo, for instance, noted that “after 1785, all mountains and valleys had been filled with people, every inch of land

had been cultivated, and all water had been used for irrigation

regard to the newly opened hill counties like Pingli, Xunyang, and Shi- quan, the increase was even more staggering, as their populations multi- plied as many as thirty to a hundred times. 79 Most of the upland migrants were rootless and jobless single men who lived perilously close to subsis- tence. They were also the most marginalized, mobile, and volatile elements in the mountain society. Due to its late development and diverse populace (wufang zachu), Yan Ruyi observed, the Han River highlands had few powerful lineages and wealthy landlords at the time of the White Lotus rebellion. 80 The weak- ness of local elite networks suggests that class antagonism played little part in shaping the uprising. Instead more attention should be paid to vari- ous highland forces and their manifold networks of border-crossing. In particular, it is worth asking why sectarian leaders met with unprecedented success in this internal frontier by gaining mass support from a wide range of immigrant groups. The ceaseless flow of population from lowland to highland intensified the commercialization and diversification of the local economy during the late Qianlong reign. Regional trade based on mountain products—including timber, bamboo, paper, coal, iron, salt, tea, and tree fungi—expanded, as did a large number of upland factories (paper and iron) that employed hundreds of thousands of family-less, violence-prone male workers. Such vibrant eco- nomic activities supported an elaborate network of periodic markets, rang- ing from permanent commercial towns to makeshift wilderness markets (huangshi or huangchang). 81 Besides mountain factory workers, the opening up of the highlands and the resulting growth of regional trade also attracted other least-rooted rural elements like pengmin, guolu bandits, salt smug- glers, and coin counterfeiters (all discussed later). These marginalized but obstreperous groups formed the backbone of the volatile frontier society, which made government control all the more difficult. The infelicitous combination of ecological fragility, economic hardship, sociocultural dislocation, and weak state apparatus proved conducive to the formation of various illegal and supralocal organizations, rendering this internal frontier a hotbed of popular protest. 82 Gong Wensheng, a fi- nancial officer who was dispatched to this area during the White Lotus

.” With

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


campaign, was shocked by the forbidding environment. He lamented in his wartime diary that: “some parts of the highlands are so desolate and inhospitable that no sparrow or bird can be seen throughout the year. When a person comes to those places, even though he might have a lot of land and money as well as many loving sons and beautiful wives, all he can do is sigh, lament, and cry.” 83 Since resources were in scarce and unpredictable supply, highlanders often used violence to cope with the unrelenting survival pressure, which further prompted them to fall back on mutual aid associations for protec- tion. The perennial struggle for land, water, and food, at the same time, resulted in a multitude of predatory and nonpredatory frontier groups devoted to smuggling, banditry, and feuding. The late eighteenth century, in particular, saw a tremendous upsurge in the strength of such organiza- tions across the three-province borderland.

The Structure of Frontier Society in the Han River Highlands

As Michael Mann has written, “societies are best seen not as unitary or bounded social systems or structures, but rather as multiple overlapping and intersecting socio-spatial networks of power rooted in ideological, economic, political, and military relations.” 84 By the late Qianlong reign, there were diverse nonstate and antistate groups across the Han River highlands that shared a common social ecology and contentious tradition. Despite their similar goal of escaping control by both the state and local elites, these frontier forces relied on different strategies of survival and of- ten contended with each other, thus creating endless social disruption that invited state persecution. For example, guolu bandits often found salt smugglers and coin counterfeiters easy prey. Yet these groups collaborated with each other during the White Lotus rebellion, galvanized by radical sectarian ideology and compelled by their urgent need for mutual support. The looming threat of state intrusion overshadowed their cleavages and necessitated a temporary, strategic alliance under sectarian leadership. Since the White Lotus congregations played a predominant role in inte- grating the nonstate and antistate forces, a close look at their makeup can shed light on the formation of the upland societies. Far from being a simple body of religious fanatics and coerced peasants, Bailian insurgents were socially variegated and horizontally mobile. In addition to hard-core sec- tarians, as the imperial commissioner Nayancheng discovered in his in- vestigation, they also included “such ruffians and outlaws as the guolu of



Sichuan, the laohu of Nanshan, the pengmin of Xiangyang and Yunyang in Hubei, and the salt smugglers along the Han and Yangzi rivers, as well as the counterfeiters of various provinces.” 85 The proportion of rebels who were die-hard sectarians must have been considerably smaller than one might suppose. According to the investigation reports of the Huguang governor-general Wu Xiongguang, White Lotus devotees accounted for only two- or three-tenths of the real rebels in Hubei. Another contempo- rary estimate was even more modest, claiming that no more than 10 per- cent of the insurgents in Sichuan consisted of genuine sectarians in 1800. 86


These were upland migrants who eked out precarious livings on marginal

fields carved out of forested hillsides. 87 Attracted by vast untilled land and low taxation rates, as Yan Ruyi observed, they filtered into the three- province border region from crowded lowlands and engaged primarily in

a sort of slash-and-burn agriculture. These “specialists in highland recla-

mation” felled trees to open fields while collecting branches, straw, or reeds to make rude shacks (peng) for temporary living. This is how they got the unflattering name “shack people.” With little property, most peng- min cultivated New World crops like maize and sweet potatoes; others became wage workers (changmin) in mountain factories set up by rich merchants and big landlords. Their specialized food production was not merely for self-sufficiency but also met the growing demand of the high- land workforce in the iron and paper factories. As the provincial official Changlin observed, shack people were scattered widely over the moun- tain ranges, and “there were usually no more than twenty households within ten li.” Owing to the quick exhaustion and easy erosion of defor- ested mountain soils, shifting swidden cultivation was crucial to the prof-

itability of highland reclamation. Hence the shack people often moved every three to five years, sometimes several times a year, to look for new fields suitable for farming. Such physical mobility, along with their market dependency, became the most distinguishing characteristic of the pengmin. Lacking villages or kinship organizations that could bind them together in

a precarious social ecology, these migrants had to establish sworn brother-

hood or patron-client relationships with other powerful highland forces like the guolu bandits and Bailian sects. It was extremely difficult for the local authorities to monitor, let alone rein in, these highly dispersed and mobile groups through traditional control mechanisms, like the baojia and gentry-led militia systems widely used in settled agricultural regions. 88

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


Without a stable community to fall back on, pengmin are thus “best understood as a transient phase of settlers on the shifting frontier, rather than as a permanent social class.” 89 They formed part of the empire-wide “floating population” of the Qianlong reign, whose main destination was mountainous internal peripheries like the Han River highlands. The origi- nal shack people, as Sow-Theng Leong and Stephen Averill asserted, had appeared in Guangdong and Fujian during the mid-sixteenth century. They were pushed out of the southeast coast into the mountainous regions of Jiangxi and the lower Yangzi. Leong focused on those highland special- ists of Hakka origin fanning out across southern and central China from the late Ming onward. 90 But this migratory wave rarely reached the upper Han River, which was mainly populated by a newer group of immigrants from Hubei and Hunan who accounted for about half of the highland population. 91 By and large, officials like Yan Ruyi viewed the shack people with am- bivalence. On the one hand their migration up into the sparsely populated hills eased the crowding in lowland areas. Their backbreaking work in swidden agriculture, moreover, turned hilly “wasteland” into a valuable resource and brought it onto the tax rolls. On the other hand excessive, unregulated highland reclamation not only caused ecological damage (like deforestation and landslides) but also posed a tremendous challenge for sociopolitical control. The development of mountain factories attracted various unstable elements into the highlands to work as hired laborers or pengmin. Unable to keep track of them, local authorities had the perpetual fear that these dispersed bands of mostly unaccompanied males would set off violent conflicts with nearby lowland communities. Still more worri- some was the possibility that they might shelter bandits and rebels or even join forces with them against the state. As the local administrator Yue Zhenchuan remarked, pengmin had turned the mountain factories into “the habitual hideout (chaoxue) of White Lotus rebels.” 92 Depending on their economic situation, like the south China pirates, the shack people fluctuated in and out of their legal occupations as opportunities arose. Due to such uncontrollable mobility, they played a vital role in transmitting sectarian messages to scattered highland groups and in facilitating their violent collaboration. During the late Qianlong reign, as Averill pointed out, the Qing government stepped up its efforts to control the pengmin, including following the Ming policy of closing off some mountain areas to any kind of settlement. Such heavy-handed measures had little chance of success due to the weak state apparatus in the area. Actually they had the opposite effect, feeding endemic unrest in the highlands by forcing peng- min to ally with the sectarians and guolu bandits. 93



Guolu Bandits

Growing disorder and limited law enforcement accounted for the perpet- ual existence of the guolu bandits, a well-organized and dangerous force in the three-province border region. The upland area of northeast Sichuan, in particular, was well known for these warlike, obstreperous brigands. Orig- inally deserted imperial soldiers, they first sprang from the stalled military campaigns against the Jinchuan tribes in western Sichuan (especially from the muguomu defeat in 1773) and later thrived in the hostile social ecol- ogy of the highland area. 94 As roving mountain outlaws, guolu bandits were largely unattached, property-less, and desperate youths united by fraternal ideology. More specifically, they consisted of erstwhile soldiers, unemployed pengmin, and local undesirables who had been driven to lawlessness by war, natural di- sasters, and governmental injustices. In some areas, even yamen underlings and salt smugglers were part of the guolu brotherhood association. Thanks to their military expertise and manifold constituency, the guolu bandits were an effective fighting force that coordinated disparate groups and ter- rorized the highland society: raiding stores, robbing traveling merchants, collecting protection money, and holding hostages for ransom. The audac- ity of these operations alarmed the Qing government and prompted it to implement a harsher policy toward this paramilitary organization in the 1770s. A decade later, Emperor Qianlong ratcheted up his repression cam- paigns, following the suggestion of the Sichuan governor-general Fukang’an that guolu bandits be completely eradicated. Facing increasing govern- ment pressure, these desperate brigands had little choice but to ally with other highland forces, like the sectarians, while stepping up their preda- tory operations. 95 Banditry in the three-province border region was a complex phenome- non. While disrupting local order, it offered many frontier people an ave- nue for survival in the turbulent environment. Sometimes highland people rejected and fought these robbers, but in most cases, as Yan Ruyi observed, they sought to negotiate and coexist with this necessary evil. Lacking adequate protection from the state, many merchants and landlords paid regular protection fees to guolu bandits to purchase immunity from their future depredations. Some local elites even established sworn-brother ties with this protection racket to enlist support in case of violent conflicts with other forces. 96 The guolu banditry, indeed, should not be viewed sim- ply as a criminal venture or security nuisance, for it performed some of the state’s functions by contributing to a viable order in the highlands—though

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


as is typical of such operations, the protection they sold was against the violence they themselves committed. (Such interconnection of predation and protection was also a characteristic of the piracy crisis across the South China Sea.) As a crucial means of survival, communal violence remained a constant feature of the highland social ecology. The White Lotus converts collabo- rated with bandits, ruffians, and outlaws in a pragmatic attempt to bolster their armed forces. The groups that specialized in violent action, rather than the salvation-oriented sects, formed the military backbone of the rebellion. In allying with such unsavory forces, the sectarians became addicted to their “roving bandit mentality” and engaged in ever more predatory behavior, which alienated local support. As for the guolu bandits, they used the cover of the White Lotus rebellion to undertake yet more robbery and extortion, further damaging the reputation of Bailian sects. 97

Salt Smugglers and Coin Counterfeiters

Two more groups that deserve mention are salt smugglers and coin coun- terfeiters. Unlike guolu bandits, they could be characterized as among the nonpredatory forces of the Han River highlands. Still, many of them had close ties with the former and sometimes became a part of the mountain bandit group. Partly for this reason, the late Qianlong state tightened its grip over smugglers and counterfeiters as well, forcing many of them to join the sectarian uprising for self-preservation. Eledengbao, a top army com- mander in the antisectarian campaign, reported that these two groups of troublemakers became the bulk of the rebel force in areas like southwest Shaanxi. 98 Due to the “privatization of trade” under the dual pressure of commercialization and population growth, the Qing government found it increasingly difficult to manage the commodities over which it had asserted monopolies. 99 In consequence, more and more smugglers and counterfeit- ers appeared in the frontier regions during the late Qianlong reign. By the early nineteenth century, the shipment and sale of salt was mo- nopolized by a small group of selected merchants belonging to different salt zones designated by the state. These privileged franchise holders worked closely with their respective salt administrators in setting the prices for the commodity. To compound the misery for local people, the demarcation line of salt districts tended to overlap with rigid, far-fetched political boundaries that were dictated by topography and overlooked such eco- nomic factors as production and transportation costs. This “conspicuous lack of market rationality” inherent in the system of salt administration



(yanzheng) turned out to be a disaster for highlanders in the three-province border area during the late eighteenth century. As prescribed by the state- sanctioned franchise system, people on the Hubei side of the Han River highlands were forced to purchase government salt shipped from the dis- tant Lianghuai salt zone headquartered in Yangzhou. 100 Partly due to the arduous upstream transportation along the Yangzi River, official salt prices were often set at levels so high that most frontier people could not afford to purchase it. Instead they preferred much cheaper and easily tapped sup- plies from the private salt wells in neighboring northern Sichuan. Gansu merchants also shipped contraband salt to the highlands from Shanxi and Mongolia along the Han River. Although strictly prohibited by the late Qianlong state, such private traffic in salt, as being an essential ingredient of local livelihood, was welcomed, supported, and practiced by most high- land inhabitants. To meet the demand of vast black market networks, smuggling groups mushroomed in this mountainous area and some even banded together for mutual military support. Since pengmin’s work in- volved crisscrossing mountain ranges and river valleys, they were ideal can- didates for this illicit business. Many salt smugglers also collaborated with the White Lotus rebels, and some of them, like Wang Sanhuai, even became key sectarian leaders. 101 Action against salt smuggling coincided with the campaign against pri- vate mintage of copper coins, a form of bimetallic cash currency (the other being silver) and the lowest denomination of money in imperial China. Its unauthorized production thrived in the three-province border region dur- ing the late Qianlong reign, partly due to the ready availability of various minerals. By this time, moreover, the highland economy had become in- creasingly commercialized due to a massive influx of in-migrants and their expanding settlement, which fueled the demand for this basic medium of exchange. From an empire-wide perspective, more significantly, the output of state casting agencies simply could not keep up with the needs of a huge and increasing population. The yawning gap between official supply and societal demand naturally encouraged the time-honored practice of coun- terfeiting. Aggravating the situation further was the declining mining in- dustry across the empire, especially in Yunnan, which led to a dearth of copper throughout much of the late eighteenth century. Consequently, government mints in the 1790s had to cut back on production by about 37 percent compared to the mid-Qianlong reign. They also began casting debased copper coins by adding more supplemental ingredients like tin and white lead (zinc). These jerry-built coins not only were brittle and wore out easily but also were easily counterfeited. Taking advantage of the unstable monetary situation, highland people scrambled to produce cheap-

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


ened counterfeits in outlying mountain factories, notably in the hardscrab- ble interprovincial region of Hubei, Shaanxi, and Sichuan. According to the local official Yue Zhenchuan, counterfeit coins proliferated after 1785 and flowed out of the Han River highlands like a raging flood. 102 They not only were widely used in this region but also filtered into the national mar- ket in exchange for various goods, thereby contributing to an expanding network of domestic trade. To alleviate the problem of currency scarcity, as Man-houng Lin points out, Qing authorities largely tolerated unauthorized casting of copper coins during the early and mid-Qianlong reign. 103 But this policy was gradually reversed in the late eighteenth century as the state began crack- ing down on private minting throughout the empire, especially across the three-province border region. After capturing over two hundred counter- feiters in 1794, the Qing court determined to further pursue their effort to extirpate this illegal business in the next two years. Avaricious local offi- cials and yamen underlings, turning this campaign into another opportu- nity to enrich themselves, extorted payments from frontier people in the name of searching for counterfeiters and their illicit products, driving the latter further into the arms of the sectarian rebels. It is worth noting that the state’s White Lotus campaign had a clear economic effect on this illegal yet lucrative mountain business. Due to the government’s skyrocketing spending on military suppression and on postwar reconstruction after the campaign, the early Jiaqing period saw a massive influx of silver taels into the Han River highlands. Consequently, as Jiaqing admitted in June 1802, it caused a depreciation of silver vis-à-vis copper coins in this area, making counterfeiting even more profitable and widespread. 104 Though difficult to quantify due to a dearth of sources, it seems that during the late eighteenth century a large portion of the highland populace had come to depend on salt smuggling or coin counterfeiting to make ends meet. The steady growth of the two illicit businesses was abetted by the state’s weak presence in the highlands as well as the incongruous boundar- ies between commercial and administrative structures. Sectarians made active use of the secret trading and marketing networks of smugglers and counterfeiters, thereby extending their influence throughout the border region. Increasingly strident prohibitions of these border-crossing activi- ties posed a dire threat to the highland communities because they directly impinged on the livelihood of the various nonstate and antistate groups. I propose that such nonstate activities as salt smuggling should be un- derstood in the context of the two interactive mechanisms of sociopolitical control: one was irrational political regulation based on the prescribed bureaucratic structure that sought to territorialize and monopolize the



essentially fluid frontier space; the other was open-ended commercial expansion growing out of the changing social ecology, which undermined the state’s attempts at spatial hegemony. The imposition of a rigid and far- fetched salt zone system and unsustainable official-merchant monopoly required a certain amount of tolerance on the part of the state for smug- gling. The illicit border-crossings, as a necessary evil, provided an essential means of survival for a large number of marginalized, dangerous, and mobile people who were beyond government control. For a premodern state with limited organizational resources and mobilization power, the realistic goal was not to eliminate salt smuggling altogether but to keep it under a certain extent of control. It was therefore of great importance to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between official monopoly (exclusion) and informal contraband (permeabil- ity). Qianlong’s overaggressive policy of repression threatened this balance, as it would deny the highlanders an indispensable option for survival. And such a policy was doomed to fail because the local authorities lacked a strong apparatus to enforce it in the hostile frontier environment. Conse- quently, contraband mushroomed into a full-fledged counter-system that menaced official trade and government rule. Such uncontrollable “en- croachments from private interests,” as Susan Mann Jones and Philip Kuhn contend, irreparably damaged the central government’s role in dominating and defining the sphere of public interest. 105 Worse still, Qianlong was most active in subjecting and subsuming the state’s agenda to his own personal interest.

The Dilemma of Late Qianlong Frontier-Making

The spread of the White Lotus rebellion across the three-province border- land reflects a general contradiction between the structural limitation of the late Qianlong state and the emperor’s aggressive empire-building ef- forts. Despite its weak infrastructure and weak elite network in the high- lands, the state’s efforts to enact unrealistic policies toward the pengmin, salt smugglers, and coin counterfeiters transformed this internal frontier into the epicenter of a major uprising. To stabilize the highland order, the government would have needed to fashion acceptable survival strategies for most of the nonstate and antistate forces there. Apparently, the late Qian- long state lacked the wherewithal to proffer such alternatives and thus could hardly dislodge these groups from their subversive means of survival. This paradox of frontier-making leads us to the conception of a mini- malist but flamboyant Qing state during the late eighteenth century. Its

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


failures in the Han River highlands underlined the limitations and vulner- abilities of the empire, forcing the court to retreat from its ambitious plans for frontier control and to accept a more conservative social order. During the White Lotus campaign, for instance, Emperor Qianlong grudgingly eased up on his draconian policies toward the guolu bandits and salt smugglers in Sichuan. Jiaqing, in his turn, acknowledged that the govern- ment could not continue to prohibit settlement in the Qinling forest of southern Shaanxi. Instead he employed a policy of encouraging and sup- porting more highland reclamation and economic transformation in the area. Such pragmatic policy changes, to be sure, were facilitated by capa- ble local administrators like Yan Ruyi and Gong Jinghan (discussed in later chapters). 106 Hence the highlands in crisis reinforced the negotiated nature of the Qing state by reconfiguring its relationship to frontier society. What hap- pened in these borderlands, furthermore, had far-reaching effects on how empire-building worked in other peripheries or even core areas. The Han River highlands and the Sino-Vietnamese water world thus played a more important role in the construction of the state than the conventional litera- ture portrays. Together, they forced the Jiaqing court to rethink its frontier policies, thus precipitating a timely retreat from Qianlong’s unsustainable efforts at state control over those unruly spaces. Such borderlands also carried an important symbolic meaning for the authorities. According to Confucian political culture, the lack of virtue at the imperial center would often unleash a wave of popular protest that was often strongest on the peripheries. 107 While a successfully executed frontier campaign aided empire-building, unsubdued borderland forces jeopardized the state’s im- age and even threatened its existence. In order to maintain its legitimacy and hegemony, ultimately the political center needed the compliance of fringe regions and those who lived there. On the whole, there were three distinct yet interacting forms of social resistance against the intruding state in the Han River highlands. Whereas such nonpredatory forces as salt smugglers and coin counterfeiters repre- sented the victory of economic survival over bureaucratic control, preda- tory groups like the guolu bandits signified a military challenge to the state’s monopoly of coercive power. The third form of resistance, a largely ideological one represented by the sectarian groups, could readily trans- form into the other two types of protest and ally with them, thus posing the most formidable challenge to the imperial state. These three kinds of frontier forces, most of the time, would not directly and openly challenge the state. How, then, are we to make sense of their increased collaboration during the White Lotus rebellion? Militant organizations and radicalized



sectarian ideas, to be sure, offered two major mechanisms of highland mo- bilization. But I maintain that intensified government pressure played a vital role in transforming such scattered, hidden resistance into a more organized frontier revolt against the state. The long eighteenth century saw tremendous expansion of the Qing state power into the border regions on all fronts. 108 For a long time, how- ever, the Han River highlands “had developed in relative freedom and resisted attempts by the government to increase its local administrative presence and to suppress unorthodox sectarian network.” 109 After incor- porating such external borderlands as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia in the 1770s, Emperor Qianlong gradually shifted his focus to unruly internal frontiers like the Han River highlands, attempting to tighten up central control of such nonstate spaces within China proper. In 1782, for instance, the authorities began to conduct a decade-long cadastral survey in five hill counties of southern Shaanxi, trying to bring their hidden land under govern- ment taxation. Meanwhile, as noted, the state also carried out more harsh policies toward guolu bandits, pengmin, salt smugglers, and coin counter- feiters that were intended to curb or even outlaw their activities. 110 Such intensifying efforts drove these highland forces into the arms of sectarians and galvanized them to rise up together against the state. By the same to- ken, William Lavely and R. Bin Wong note that the White Lotus uprising “was a defensive reaction to increased state efforts to assert political con- trol over this border region.” 111 To better understand this event, I shall briefly elucidate the proselytizing process of the Bailian sects across the Han River highlands.

Propagation of White Lotus Religion in the Han River Highlands

The White Lotus religion reached the highlands from nearby provinces like Henan, Anhui, and Shandong during the late Qianlong reign. This was a result of intensifying government suppression after the Wang Lun upris- ing that drove many sect leaders in north China to the upland communi- ties in western Hubei. From the 1770s onward, they carried the Bailian teachings to Xiangyang, traveling as itinerant traders while proselytizing among the newly arrived migrants. These outside masters found their best recruiting ground in the highland zone between Hubei, Shaanxi, and Si- chuan, thanks to its robust tradition of protest, ineffective government presence, and destabilizing socioeconomic changes during the high Qing period. With indispensable help from local disciples, these religious teachers

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


launched fervent crusades to convert the freewheeling population in this interprovincial borderland.

A case in point was Liu Zhixie, the most prominent White Lotus leader,

who held the name “Heavenly King” (Tianwang) during the rebellion of 1796. Before his final capture in 1800, this Anhui itinerant prophet had long been targeted as the chief sectarian leader by Emperor Qianlong. Ac- cording to his deposition, Liu traded cotton across the Han River high- lands and by the 1780s had gained many influential followers in Hubei. 112

But he was still unable to centralize leadership into his own hands, partly due to his simmering conflict with Song Zhiqing, an ambitious disciple and sect leader from Xiangyang who also traveled across the border re- gion as a merchant. 113

In his excellent study of the White Lotus religion in western Hubei and

the Han River highlands, Blaine Gaustad has discerned two major types of sectarian formation before the 1796 rebellion. One was the Hunyuan (Pri- mal Chaos) sects under the leadership of Liu Zhixie; these sects were cen- tered in the interprovincial zone of Shandong, Henan, and Anhui. The other was the Shouyuan (Return to the Origin) sects from Shanxi, intro- duced to Hubei by Xu Guotai and his cousin Li Conghu and expanded by local practitioners like Sun Guiyuan, Song Zhiqing, Ai Xiu, and Wang Quan. The two lines of sectarian transmission not only had similar north- ern origins but also drew their central doctrinal inspiration from the same Bailian teachings. Akin to what Susan Naquin has called “sutra-recitation sects,” the early Hunyuan and Shouyuan congregations all stressed the centralized leadership, congregational solidarity, and written scriptures that were the prime features of White Lotus movements in north China. Once introduced to Hubei, however, the Shouyuan sects gradually meta- morphosed into more volatile and less formal “meditational sects” that were prone to revolt. Aside from an emphasis on an eschatological mes- sage, they were characterized by loose organizations, flexible proselytizing strategies, and personalistic master-disciple relationships, all of which con- tributed to their remarkable survival power in the face of state persecu- tion. Little wonder that the Shouyuan sects succeeded in adapting to the tough frontier environment and made effective headway in the small, iso- lated communities of the Han River highlands. As for the more routinized Hunyuan congregations, despite some initial progresses, they failed to take hold in this internal borderland because of their inability to adjust in terms of proselytizing strategies and preaching mediums. 114

The proliferation of the Shouyuan teachings across the highlands was synchronous with the tremendous influx of refugees that was fueled by population explosion and various disasters during the late Qianlong reign.



To facilitate their proselytizing efforts, local sect leaders like Song Zhiqing, Wang Yinghu, and Bai Peixiang catered to the needs of the frontier people by emphasizing the radicalizing symbolism of White Lotus teachings and by adopting more flexible preaching strategies. Without centralized leader- ship and established sectarian tradition, for instance, they relied less on structured networks, unifying doctrine, and detailed written scriptures like Baojuan and sutras. Instead itinerant Shouyuan masters tried to minimize ritual and simplify religious messages by propagating a great assortment of sacred chants (lingwen), sect watchwords (koujue), and mantras (zhouyu) that reflected their own apocalyptic imaginations. 115 This word-of-mouth transmission of short, vernacular, and often rhymed scriptures was the central proselytizing tactic of local Bailian sects, which showcases their creative adaptations to volatile highland society and ex- cessive state persecution. 116 The eschatological conjecture of impending kalpic crises conveyed through these readily understandable chants consti- tuted the core teachings of White Lotus sectarianism in Hubei. For in- stance, one koujue circulating before the 1796 rebellion reads in part:

“On the tenth day of the third month, there will be a dark wind which kills countless people. Only sectarian members can survive the disaster.” Another koujue further depicted the horrible situation when the cosmic catastrophe came upon the earth: “At that time, both heaven and earth will be totally dark, neither the sun nor the moon will be shining anymore. People will die due to warfare, flood, fire, or strange diseases. Their wives and daughters will be raped. Great changes will take place under the heaven. Only those who join our sect can survive.” 117 By transforming abstruse messianic ideas into “vivid imagery and concrete objects of wor- ship,” these simple, creed-like incantations found a wide resonance among uncultured adherents and social malcontents struggling against state re- pression in harsh frontier environments. In reciting such sacred texts with awe, hard-pressed highlanders aspired to survive the cataclysm and enter a new millennium. While highlighting the imminency of eschatological calamities, sect leaders in Hubei showed a strong concern to make the way to salvation as simple, clear, and quick as possible. The captured Yunyang master Zeng Shixing testified that “whenever a lingwen is taught, a teacher-disciple re- lationship is formed.” Since the ritual of initiation often involved no more than a few people, it was relatively easy to join a White Lotus congrega- tion or to start a new sect branch in the highlands. Consequently, many sect generations could be created in a short time, which further contrib- uted to the centrifugal process of organizational fragmentation. 118 Pierre Trenchant, a French missionary who traveled extensively in central China,

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


noted that there had been a remarkable expansion of Bailian followers in this area during the late Qianlong reign. In one village of Shaanxi, for instance, 25 percent of the four hundred households joined this sect. 119 However, the highly adaptive features of highland sectarianism also re- inforced its localized and dispersed nature, which made large-scale inte- gration of White Lotus congregations less likely. In comparison with their lowland counterparts, highland congregations were more diffuse, so their horizontal ties were much weaker. The vertical relationship between mas- ter and pupil, moreover, did not have to be intimate; and the teachings in- volved were often brief and superficial. According to the depositions of Zeng Shixing and Qin Zhongyao, many sects strictly prohibited believers from divulging any information about their masters and disciples. 120 As a result, sectarians often did not know their cobelievers, much less collabo- rate with them. Teachers were geographically mobile and their disciples scattered about the highlands, appearing isolated from one another. The travels of peripatetic leaders like Liu Zhixie might have achieved greater coherence among the diverse White Lotus groups, but their coordination efforts, often overshadowed by intense competition, proved unable to overcome the pronounced centrifugal trend of sectarian development. Of- ten internal splits followed on a sect’s growth, and subsects or new sects were formed due to conflicts among ambitious leaders like Song Zhiqing and Liu Zhixie. 121 Throughout the rebellion of 1796, no Bailian master had established unified leadership or overriding authority over all sectar- ian branches, which greatly curbed their efforts of integration and under- mined their potential for success in the antistate struggle. In the short term, however, the features that made the White Lotus sects institutionally weak also proved a source of strength. The atomization of these sects into numerous small, scattered, and relatively independent groups facilitated their secrecy and proliferation across the frontier com- munities. Such development not only made the proselytizing process hard for authorities to control but also rendered useless the standard suppres- sion tactic of “executing leaders and dispersing followers.”

Nonstate Power in the Han River Highlands

To many officials like Yan Ruyi and Ye Shizhuo, the White Lotus rebellion represented a profound crisis of Confucian culture. Its ultimate origin lay not in scanty material welfare, as they saw it, but in the failure of moral indoctrination. 122 While the highland society had abundant cultural and organizational resources for social protest, there was little normative,



orthodox power to restrain or counteract these contentious impulses. The aforementioned nonstate and antistate forces, as a matter of fact, governed local life in the Han River highlands and dictated its political culture. Drawing on Stephen Averill’s study of the Jinggangshan base area, I pro- pose that these free-floating forces created a vibrant local counter-ideology that was infused with their psychological “dynamics of desperation.” 123 Seen from this perspective, most state-society tensions in the highlands involved an ideological struggle propelled by conflicting configurations of power and domination. The government’s dismal performance in manag- ing the first three years of the sectarian crisis had much to do with its in- ability to undermine, let alone replace, the antistate political culture in the three-province border region. More specifically, it failed to carry out a “Confucian agenda for social order,” like it did in the lowlands, which could transform rebellious beliefs into an acceptable symbolic framework of identification and communication between the state and the local soci- eties. 124 Besides the obvious military confrontation, in other words, an ideological battle was also taking place across the cultural frontier of the highlands. David Easton defines political process as the “authoritative allocation of values.” 125 The ideological strength of the imperial Chinese state, by the same token, derived largely from its ability to allocate orthodox values across society and to represent governmental authority at different levels. The efficacy of this value-allocation mechanism, like the other two means of state control (coercion and material welfare), tended to decrease from the well-populated cores to the recently settled peripheries. 126 Lowland soci- eties, for instance, contained many orthodox institutions like the xiangyue (community covenant or compact for lecturing the people about appropri- ate behaviors), schools, and lineages that served as local defenders of Con- fucian civilization and effective channels for moral inculcation. Together with the baojia, lijia (hundreds-and-tithings that handled household regis- tration for tax collection) and granary systems, which relieved famine by regulating the grain price, these sub-country grassroots institutions consti- tuted what Prasenjit Duara calls the “cultural nexus of power” protecting the state’s long-term stability. Largely under the influence of local elites, these organizations carried out tasks that contributed directly to the imple- mentation of the aforementioned “Confucian agenda for social order.” 127 In such distant and unruly peripheries as the Han River highlands, however, neither strong government power nor established gentry networks were present. The weak orthodox infrastructure could not serve as the “cultural nexus of power,” thereby making it difficult for the state to achieve its “authoritative allocation of values.”

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


The three-province border region, furthermore, had its own grassroots mechanisms of value allocation, which strayed from “civilization” and went beyond state control. This vast area had become notorious for its long tradition of popular protest tracing back to the Tang dynasty (618– 907 a.d.), which gave the area’s subversive practices the “color of right.” 128 A striking example was the highly destructive peasant rebellion, led by Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong, that successfully toppled the Ming dy- nasty. Moreover, highland people had developed a rich repertoire of col- lective action (including banditry, smuggling, counterfeiting, heterodox sects, and armed insurrection) on which to draw when they dealt with lo- cal strains and outside pressures. All these strategies of social resistance, together with the radicalized White Lotus teachings, allowed the sectarian insurgents to gain a measure of popular acquiescence and grassroots sup- port in the face of official misrule and state intrusion. As evinced by their oft-repeated slogan “It was the officials who forced the people to rebel,” the insurgents understood this rebellious tradition and actively used it to confront the predatory state. Partly due to the harsh and unpredictable nature of the highland society, its local culture was especially colored with superstitious beliefs and sec- tarian ideas. As Yan Ruyi observed, frontier people’s thought-worlds were suffused with elements of myths and folk religion that resonated with the White Lotus ideology. The sects’ messianic vision offered them not only liberation and relief from harsh realities but also an imaginative respite from the entrenched hierarchical ethos that governed the lowland societ- ies. Most important, uprooted migrants drew sustenance and solidarity from the Bailian tradition, using sectarian networks and salvationalist promises to cope with the forbidding frontier environment and stringent state persecution. Thus it was little wonder that, as the high officials Nayancheng, Taibu, and Hengrui observed, half of the highland migrants from Sichuan, Hubei, and Anhui were alleged White Lotus converts. 129 Living at both physical and social margins, they used a common stock of sectarian symbols to protect their autonomy and nonstate space. The White Lotus sectarianism was therefore quickly incorporated into the highland culture and became a central part of it. This predominant popular religion functioned as the medium for the diffusion of unorthodox values to a variety of defiant subgroups, each of which might appropriate them in distinctive ways to enhance their own interests and power. The Bailian ideology thus shaped what James Scott calls “the moral logic of tradition,” in which shared ideas, custom, ritual, and norms defined a community’s meaningful roles or opportune expectations. 130 Seen from this perspective, participation in the 1796 rebellion was inextricably tied



to local conceptions of social justice and state legitimacy that were rooted in the highly autonomous frontier order. Thanks to these bottom-up allo- cations of values, the highland society had been successful in organizing the frontier people against state intrusion by foregrounding the issue of official repression and righteous resistance. It is necessary to further conceptualize the “legitimating universe” that various highland forces used to justify their autonomy and their local pat- terns of power. Inspired by Duara’s study of north China, I coin the concept “cultural nexus of nonstate power” to denote this constellation of cultural resources that promoted the attainment of negotiation and coexistence among various defiant groups. At the heart of this category lies the basic assumption that a standardized framework of state authority and its Con- fucian agenda for local rule were not accepted by most highland forces:

that is, the imperial government had failed to create any framework of identification and communication linking it with the border region. Conse- quently, the upland society was marked by the extraordinary degree to which antistate values and beliefs permeated popular consciousness and sustained frontier protest. By the end of the Qianlong reign, the Han River highlands had become a sort of nonstate cultural space in which heterodox ideas or rebellious ideology overshadowed that of Confucian orthodoxy. It is worth noting that White Lotus teachings played a vital role in enriching and strengthening the cultural nexus of nonstate power, which in turn fa- cilitated the propagation of sectarian ideas and the rise of frontier protest. The combination of various contentious forces and their cultural nexus of nonstate power constituted a highly autonomous zone of frontier poli- tics that was controlled by neither formal state power nor informal gentry authority. I label the Han River highlands “nonstate space” mostly be- cause neither of the two could successfully cope with the pressure of fron- tier transformation. Instead the White Lotus sects and their flexible mes- sages filled the interstices, providing guidance to the highlanders in handling the challenges posed by harsh social ecology and excessive state intrusion. To assert the existence of such a nonstate space, to be sure, is not to deny the tenuous presence of the state apparatus and its power but to point out how that space fostered a sense of uncontrollability, because it nullified whatever weak capacity the state had to penetrate border regions to effect change, thus highlighting the state’s acute dilemma of intensifying frontier control and rising social protest. To fully understand peasant politics, it is necessary, as Daniel Little maintains, to “provide an account of the local processes through which group identity is formed and through which members of groups come to identify themselves as political actors.” 131 There can be no doubt that

The White Lotus Rebellion in the Han River Highlands


frontier forces, relations, and networks came under severe pressure as the late Qianlong state ratcheted up assaults on sectarians, salt smugglers, counterfeiters, and bandits. In response, these highlanders strengthened the cultural nexus of nonstate power by expanding their border-crossing activities, most of which had been transformed from nonmilitant to vio- lent ones under deteriorating conditions. Growing imperial pressure, in addition, spawned increasingly predatory and unjust practices on the part of local authorities, further jeopardizing the state’s legitimacy. All these changes boiled over into even stronger antistate sentiment, which cata- lyzed the radicalization of White Lotus sects and facilitated their prosely- tizing process. Ultimately they paved the way for the rise of frontier pro- tests that “demanded” changes in the reckless state policies. The frontier people’s resistance to the centralizing thrust of the state needed organizational frameworks and cultural-religious justification, both of which were provided by highland sectarianism. The White Lotus ideology and congregations had become a key symbolic unifying force sustaining this frontier society, as well as its cultural nexus of nonstate power. In making sense of what was going on around them, highland people appropriated the cultural resources and religious symbols at their disposal to adapt to changing circumstances. 132 Apart from providing a social network of mutual support, White Lotus believers fostered a com- mon understanding based on their cultural production of social protest that resonated with the contentious tradition of highland societies. The sectarian ideology not only gave legitimacy to nonstate or antistate forces whose positions could not be defended through such conventional means as petitions and lawsuits but also provided a strategic basis for their politi- cal and military mobilization against the state. On the whole, one’s perception of the state matters greatly in formulat- ing strategies for political action. 133 This explains why the imperial Chi- nese state remained so obsessed with ideological control by attempting to impose its own “authoritative allocation of values.” The efflorescence of highland White Lotus groups indicates their growing sense of insecurity in the frontier environment and their disappointment with the worldly situa- tion in which they found themselves. This efflorescence also points up the more active role sectarian leaders played in addressing such urgent needs as how to survive state repression. Great crises, in turn, made the Bailian ideology more appealing, given its powerful eschatological messianism based on kalpic change and cosmic catastrophe. Extensively woven into the fabric of frontier society, I would argue, White Lotus beliefs served as a matrix where borderland people could reflect on local maladministra- tion, articulate their anxieties, and make demands for radical political



change. Popular understandings of the state thus were reconfigured in this discursive field where the sectarians played a central role, especially during times of mounting upheavals. The upland people, as James Scott’s moral economy approach suggests, did not passively react to “objective” conditions per se; instead they ac- tively interpreted these conditions as mediated by the White Lotus doc- trine and by the contentious repertoire of highland protest. 134 When state practices deteriorated beyond an acceptable extent, sectarian ideology and the local tradition of social protest fueled a prevailing sense of administra- tive injustice and government illegitimacy that shaped the way highlanders responded to social, economic, and political changes. Together, this sectar- ian ideology and local contentious tradition constituted the foundation of the cultural nexus of nonstate power that sought to minimize the deleteri- ous impact of those impersonal forces on the highland societies. Apart from emphasizing the destructive nature of state practices, White Lotus teachings also provided positive symbols, like Maitreya Buddha and Ni- uba, around which ordinary people could come together. They became a powerful tool in the harsh borderland environment where normal politics was not possible for one reason or another. This study underscores the symbolic unifying attributes of Bailian sects that helped integrate and empower the highland societies. These congrega- tions could capture the scattered sources of insurrectionary impulses and, furthermore, transform them into a more organized popular protest. To draw a metaphor, the sectarians played a role similar to “circuits for elec- tric current.” While sweeping across the agitated highland societies, they created a large “magnetic field” which assimilated diverse, unstable ele- ments and wove them into fairly coherent, massive protests. 135 With fron- tiers becoming the central stage of antistate and nonstate violence, White Lotus teachings served as a focal point for sociopolitical protest as well as a formidable means of empowerment for defenseless groups.



The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea

E xtraordinary crises tended to coincide and overlap with each other, creating some pivotal conjunctures in the history of imperial

China. The mid-Ming piracy disturbance, for instance, was largely over- shadowed by the simultaneous Mongol incursions on the northern border, thus precipitating an inward turn of Chinese maritime policy. During the early seventeenth century, the declining Ming state entered into protracted, concurrent wars against internal peasant rebels and external Manchu in- vaders. China’s last native dynasty eventually bled to death on two fronts. Not long after its establishment, the subsequent Qing regime faced a surg- ing maritime upheaval aggravated by its simultaneous war against the Three Feudatories (1673–1681). Through the course of its troubled nine- teenth century, more strikingly, the Manchu dynasty was beleaguered by an intensifying series of peasant uprisings and Western incursions. All these converging crises severely drained government resources and led to increasing flows of people, funds, and ideas across the empire. Such tran- sregional interactions suggested that the fortunes of China’s borderlands were intertwined with each other, since increased peril in one area often adversely affected the prospects of crisis management in other places. The White Lotus rebellion, likewise, should be considered alongside other concomitant crises that erupted elsewhere in the empire, the most sig- nificant of which was the dramatic upsurge of piratical violence in the South China Sea. As contemporary official archives suggest, the concerns



of the Jiaqing court over inland and coastal security were closely tied to- gether. This chapter, like the previous one, brings peripheries to central stage by highlighting the multiple constructions placed on the nonstate space as well as the active role of indigenous people in frontier-making and empire-building. Let us start with a captured pirate handbill submitted to the Jiaqing emperor by the Liangguang governor-general, Jiqing, who presided over the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi. The following excerpt af- fords us a rare glimpse into the perceived correlation between the south China pirates and White Lotus rebels:

[During Heshen’s regency], all the high officials flocked to him and asked for his patronage. As a result, people are still living in great misery. It is time that the True God descended to save the populace from the abyss of suffering. We should follow the Heaven’s will and rise up to restore the Ming dynasty. On May 1, 1801, the following order has been distributed to our brothers on the sea in Guangdong and Guangxi: we will gather together all the ships on April 15, 1802, and move to conquer the two provinces; then it is our plan to oc- cupy the Qing maritime customs and use their financial resources to support our great cause; later on we would join forces with the [White Lotus] broth- ers in Yunnan, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Hubei, and Henan provinces; thereupon we will take Mengjin (in Henan) and hold a grand congregation to commemo- rate our great victory. 1

This inflammatory leaflet suggests that pirates were aware of the many- sided crises confronted by the Qing and tried to manipulate them to their own advantage. They laid out an ambitious plan to join forces with their White Lotus “brothers” to overthrow the alien Manchu rule and restore the Chinese Ming dynasty. Even though such direct collaboration never materialized, it demonstrates the necessity of juxtaposing the two crises as a dramatic combination of challenges confronting the Manchu regime. The White Lotus uprising, along with the concomitant Miao revolt, al- lowed south China piracy to flourish by drawing the state’s gaze and re- sources away from coastal problems. The court was clearly less concerned about the faraway maritime violence than about the threat of inland rebels much closer to Beijing. It not only refused to spend money strengthening the navy but sucked funds from Guangdong to help pay soaring military expenses in the interior. 2 By October 1801, the province had sent several million silver taels to other crisis-torn regions in seven installments. Tens of thousands of soldiers were redeployed from the southeast coast to bat- tle the insurgents in central-western China. 3 As the British observed in 1802, “the [Chinese] authorities could give little attention to petty pira- cies, as they had for some years been engaged in the suppression of numer-

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


ous rebellions in many parts of the Empire.” Sea bandits were able to exploit the situation until the end of the sectarian uprising in 1805. 4

The Rise of Piracy Crises in Late Imperial China

For a better understanding of the piracy crisis during the Qianlong-Jiaqing transition, it is necessary to briefly examine the general forms and nature of seaborne raiding in the history of late imperial China. According to Qing law, “a pirate was someone who plundered on rivers and oceans, as well as anyone using boats to pillage villages and towns.” Therefore, mari- time predation was not necessarily carried out at sea. In terms of organiza- tional form, Chinese piracy may be classified into three general categories:

petty, professional, and political. 5 The most common type was petty piracy conducted on a part-time basis (occasional or seasonal) by hit-and-run, smash-and-grab outlaws or small, disorganized bands of marauders. For impoverished seafarers, such sporadic raiding was a necessary sideline ac- tivity and a rational survival strategy that was deeply integrated into the political economy of coastal China. 6 Such uncoordinated “parasitic pi- racy” could be largely contained by the existing defense and policing sys- tem and thus was more a minor irritant than a vital threat to the empire. When circumstances allowed, however, aggressive sea bandits could transform themselves into strong, unified, and professional-like forces. Forming large-scale bands or complex confederations, they carried out raiding on a routine, systematic basis. Predations were usually planned in advance and strictly executed according to prescribed procedures. Since costs and benefits were carefully weighed, such organized violence can be taken as a form of economic entrepreneurship or a regulated financial op- eration backed by military prowess. 7 Although “the prize of piracy is economic,” Anne Pérotin-Dumon main- tains, often “the dynamic that creates it is political.” As an important means of contentious politics, many frustrated coastal dwellers utilized maritime raiding to defend their interests and to challenge authorities without run- ning the great risks of outright rebellion. Interestingly, piratical violence could also be used by the state as a convenient tool in regional or global power struggles. Scholars have long noticed “the marketization and inter- nationalization of violence that began with the Hundred Years’ War” of 1337–1453 in Europe. As Janice E. Thomson asserts, “at the heart of these matters was the process of state-building. Privateering reflected state rul- ers’ efforts to build state power; piracy reflected some people’s efforts to resist that project.” 8 More specifically, early modern European powers used



the former to overcome the structural (fiscal and military) constraints of their states in the process of maritime expansion. In general, they were “better able to project a lethal combination of maritime force and eco- nomic enterprise than were most of their Asian counterparts.” Only in the nineteenth century was such official manipulation of nonstate violence delegitimated and eliminated in the West. 9 China’s imperial policy, in striking contrast, did not support government- sanctioned piracy or maritime military expansion. During the late Qianlong reign, transnational geopolitics and domestic upheavals transmuted the south China pirates into what could be called “free-floating resources” and speeded up their circulation across the Sino-Vietnamese water world. Not unlike their Western counterpart, pirates from the southeast coast sailed to neighboring Annam and fought for the Tay Son rebels as “naval mercenar- ies.” On behalf of their foreign patron, furthermore, they swarmed back to China and pillaged coastal communities and shipping for more than a de- cade. With official titles, ranks, and weapons from the Annamese regime, Chinese pirates took their brigandage as not merely a strategy of economic survival but also an important avenue for sociopolitical advancement. Robert Antony calls the period 1520–1810 “the golden age” of Chinese piracy and furthermore divides it into three great waves. 10 The first wave refers to the half century between 1522 and 1574, which can be deemed the takeoff stage for large-scale maritime raiding in Chinese waters. The most immediate cause of this development was the Ming government’s imposition of stringent prohibition of overseas trade in an effort to extir- pate petty, parasitic piracy. 11 The rapid upsurge of maritime violence that followed, however, was also instigated by international forces, for this was the age of the wokou (literally translated as Japanese pirates). As a matter of fact, these forces also consisted of Chinese and interlopers from other countries. Banding together as a Japan-based international confederation, these military and merchant adventurers searched for new trading routes and commercial goods in defiance of the Ming’s hegemonic policy. At the same time, they also served as a tool for interstate bargaining and colonial expansion. As Murray explains, “during the fifteenth and sixteenth centu- ries, bands of Japanese pirates assisted by Chinese recruits forced the two governments into negotiations in which Japanese rulers undertook to stop the pillage in return for trading privileges in China. The presence of pirates around the provincial city of Shangchuan and the offer of Europeans to assist in their suppression led to the Portuguese settlement of Macao in the middle of the sixteenth century.” 12 Following the Ming collapse in 1644, as the second wave, seaborne raiding once again escalated out of control along the south China littoral.

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


The renowned pirate leader and Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (Kox- inga) captured Taiwan from the Dutch East Indies Company, turning the island into a maritime trading state and the stronghold of anti-Qing resis- tance. 13 Under his capable command, dispersed petty pirates grew into a sophisticated, powerful organization that fused raiding with insurgency and commerce. The antidynastic character of these activities added a new sense of political urgency to the threat of the early-Qing piracy crisis. Go- ing even further than its Ming counterpart, the desperate Manchu court banned both overseas and coastal trade in 1652. This harsh but ultimately unavailing policy aimed to cut the Taiwan-based Zheng regime off from its support on the mainland. In 1662, the newly enthroned Kangxi em- peror instituted a draconian policy of forced evacuation, requiring littoral dwellers in south China to relocate thirty kilometers inland after destroy- ing everything behind them. This scorched-earth measure successfully pre- vented clandestine trade, thus cutting Koxinga’s supply line and undermin- ing the resource base of his commercial empire. 14 With the final collapse of the rebel regime, Taiwan came under Qing control in 1683. The unin- tended price of this harsh policy was the “Kangxi depression,” which re- duced the silver circulation, slowed down the coastal economy, and sev- ered China from the maritime world for two decades. 15 Soon after bringing Taiwan into his fold, the pragmatic Kangxi began dramatically scaling back sea restrictions. To encourage and institutional- ize maritime trade, he set up four customs administrations (haiguan) in the coastal regions of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu from 1683 to 1685. As both overseas and domestic junk trade increased, China’s coastal economy recovered and expanded greatly throughout the eighteenth cen- tury. These favorable changes, unsurprisingly, furnished ample opportuni- ties for small-scale, parasitic maritime predation. Yet such violent activi- ties, unlike their mid-Ming and early-Qing counterparts, rarely crossed the dangerous threshold from petty to professional piracy and thus posed little threat to either government or commerce. With trade open, legal, and pro- moted, piracy was no longer the most crucial and viable means for sea- borne commerce. Therefore, no great merchant-pirate like Zheng Cheng- gong emerged in this period who had the incentive and capability to integrate the free-for-all maritime predations. 16 The third and the last major wave of piratical violence came in the early 1790s and ended in 1810. After a century of relative peace and stability, this period saw the rise of large-scale pirate leagues that pillaged and ter- rorized the south China coast. For purposes of analysis, I further divide this upsurge into two phases, demarcated by the demise of the Tay Son regime in 1802. In the first stage, maritime predation in Guangdong and



Fujian was directly supported by the newly unified Vietnamese regime that emerged from the Tay Son rebellion of the 1770s. Secret sponsorship by this outside power integrated numerous bands of Chinese pirates into sev- eral large, well-equipped fleets operating from bases along the Gulf of Tonkin, a shared water zone between the Qing and Annam. On behalf of their foreign patron, these “naval mercenaries” swarmed back to China and pillaged coastal communities and shipping. This maritime upheaval stemmed above all from political changes within the broader tributary system and furthermore signaled a veiled Vietnamese challenge to the China-centered world order. 17 Detailed discussion will be provided in Chapter 7; for now, suffice it to say that these sea robbers, like free- floating resources, were used by foreign rulers to aid their state-making at the supranational level. After the breakdown of the Tay Son regime in 1802, Guangdong and Fujian pirates were driven back to China by the newly established Nguyen state (1802–1945). This dramatic change inaugurated the latter stage of the third piracy wave. Notwithstanding their loss of outside patron, pro- tector, and safe haven, the surviving Chinese pirates had gained invaluable military experience and political savvy from their decade-long mercenary fighting. This transnational collaboration, like a vigorous training pro- gram, united them into larger, more formidable confederations under the command of such pirate chiefs as Zheng Yi, Cai Qian, and Zhu Fen. The latter two even formed an alliance from 1806 to 1808, trying to set up a maritime regime in Taiwan. These efforts failed due to rising internal con- flict and government suppression. 18 Foreign captives furnished invaluable eyewitness accounts of the pirates as well as their organizations and activities. Richard Glasspoole, fourth of- ficer of the British East India Company (EIC) ship Marquis of Ely, was taken hostage by a fleet of pirates near Canton (Guangzhou) on September 17, 1809. According to his close observation, the sea marauders’ “number augmented so rapidly, that at the period of my captivity they were sup- posed to amount to near seventy thousand men, eight hundred large ves- sels, and nearly a thousand small ones, including row-boats. They were di- vided into five squadrons, distinguished by different coloured flags: each squadron commanded by an admiral, or chief; but all under the orders of A-juo-chay [Zheng Yi Sao, Zheng Yi’s wife].” 19 After the collapse of the Tay Son power, these pirates avoided the Sino-Vietnamese water world and es- tablished their headquarters in Canton, Xiamen, Macao, Chaozhou, and Taiwan. They even defiantly set up tax bureaus (shuiju) or financial out- posts in these politico-economic centers to collect the tribute (protection money) and ransom payments that became their major source of revenue.

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


In the meantime, sea robbers also used such agencies “to conspire with sol- diers, yamen underlings, and officials who were on their payrolls.” 20 An equally striking feature of these pirates was their ability to pene- trate littoral society by establishing protection rackets spanning both sea and land. They not only collected annual or semiannual set fees from merchant vessels and coastal communities but also issued safety certifi- cates (piaodian) or “tickets of immunity” stamped by pirate chiefs. These sea bandits used formidable military power to honor their guarantees, punish those who were noncompliant, and defend their territory of con- trol. Since all ships without “license” became fair targets, “scarcely a junk dared leave port without first paying the pirates protection money against attack.” Thanks to this routine, systematic, and terror-based monopoly of both protection and violence, the pirates successfully regularized their piratical-financial operations and made them an institutionalized profes- sional business. 21 In addition, through their outright use of terror and extortion they gained firm control over many sea lanes, coastal villages and even interior waterways. By the end of 1805, for instance, they had virtually dominated Guangdong’s salt trade by forcing 98.5 percent of its official salt boats into their highly regularized extortion racket. 22 As the British EIC official observed, “a fleet of Salt Junks arrived from the West- wards, having been convoyed by a squadron of the Ladrone Vessels; it is affirmed each Boat paid 200 Dollars for this protection and permission to pass unmolested.” Sir John Francis Davis, the second governor of Hong Kong, also commented: “At the height of their power they levied contri- butions on most of the towns along the coast, and spread terror up the river to the neighborhood of Canton.” The situation became so precari- ous that even European merchants were obliged to negotiate with the sea bandits for safety in this area. 23 Acting like a virtual state within the state, the formidable piracy con- federation, or “piratical republic,” as foreign observers called it, had its own fleets, officers, and tax bureaus in imitation of the Qing imperial regime. The confederation, moreover, openly infringed on the preroga- tives of the authorities by mimicking, usurping, and privatizing some of their functions. 24 Along with the White Lotus rebellion, the south China piracy greatly reinforced the negotiated nature of Qing state power in its various border areas, directly bringing about a state pullback during the Jiaqing reign. A contemporary Qing official likened the wide, constant existence of piratical violence to “the foam of the sea.” This existence resulted partly from a time-honored tradition of local tolerance, due to many coastal resi- dents’ need to rely on this tactic to survive in a harsh frontier environment.



By and large, professional sea bandits like Cai Qian and Zhu Fu seem to have been “scrupulous in abiding by the terms of their protection docu- ments.” It was said that whenever a fishing boat with a safe-conduct pass was mistakenly attacked, the pirate chief would have the plundered goods returned to the owner with a compensation of 500 Spanish dollars. 25 In such circumstances most merchants considered it more advisable to hand over ocean taxes (yangshui) to the sea robbers than to the similarly preda- cious but less reliable local officials. 26 The pirates thus kept a close rela- tionship with local maritime society, as well as the overland networks it relied on. As for the Qing officials, they were increasingly frustrated by this sort of illicit collaboration and by the lack of organized resistance at the grassroots levels. Maritime predation at this stage, furthermore, can also be called what John L. Anderson terms “intrinsic piracy.” Its wide scope and profound impact meant that piracy had become a pervasive force deeply integrated into the water frontier and maritime society. Whenever necessary, large numbers of sailors and fishermen became sea bandits, supported by local people from all walks of life. As Antony explains, “because tens of thou- sands of people on both land and water came to depend on piracy, either directly or indirectly, for their living, it quickly became a self-sustaining enterprise and, in fact, a significant and even intrinsic feature of south China’s seafaring world.” Like salt smuggling and coin counterfeiting in the Han River highlands, piracy provided work to countless people who could not be fully absorbed into the prevailing labor market. By this point, predation had become “de facto or de jure a part of the commercial or fis- cal functioning of an organized community.” 27 Any attempt by the state to interfere with that activity impinged not only on the autonomy of the sea frontier but also on the local people’s survival tactics. Such a symbiotic relationship between sea bandits and littoral society constituted the non- state nexus of power that in turn sustained maritime raiding. While piracy did apparently upset the normal operations of legitimate trade, it also fostered a vibrant “shadow economy” that contributed to lo- cal commercial expansion and the circulation of goods throughout the mid-Qing period. In particular, it supplied littoral people with scarce goods at affordable prices and expanded the network of distribution by opening up new markets, some of which were clandestine and illicit. 28 For just this reason, sea bandits themselves called their predatory practices only a “transshipping of goods.” By pumping sizable amounts of goods and money into local economies, piracy not only allowed marginalized coastal dwellers to make ends meet but also incorporated many of the poorer, isolated coastal communities into the larger commercial world. 29

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


Under the conjoined leadership of Cai Qian, Zhu Fen, Zheng Yi’s wife, and Zhang Bao, pirates dominated almost the entire Guangdong coast and reached the summit of their power in 1805. But their good fortune did not last long. Like the White Lotus rebels, sea bandits depended on links with the local populace to marshal necessary manpower and resources. Thus, when Bailing, the Liangguang governor-general, began enforcing a rigor- ous embargo in 1809, pirates were no longer able to observe their operat- ing codes and to honor their safety certificates. To procure food and other supplies, they had to raid deeper than ever into the interior waterways and carry out indiscriminate depredations. Such aggressive attacks in the heart- land of the Pearl River delta not only hammered a wedge between the desperate pirates and their overland supporters but also worked to unite local communities with the state in the campaign against sea bandits. 30 As a consequence, the long-established nexus of nonstate power was endan- gered and broken. In addition to the emergence of strong community defenses, the pirate confederation also was enfeebled by growing internal discord among its top leaders, especially that between Zhang Bao and Guo Podai. As the pi- rate captive Richard Glasspoole commented, “this extraordinary character [Zhang Bao] would have certainly shaken the foundation of the govern- ment, had he not been thwarted by the jealousy of the second in command [Guo Podai] who declared his independence.” Capitalizing on the internal discord, Bailing further divided pirates through a series of co-optation campaigns that offered gracious pardons and generous rewards to those who surrendered. Guo Podai readily capitulated, along with his flotilla of 126 pirate ships and eight thousand men. Overjoyed, the governor-general accepted Guo’s submission and made him a naval officer. By then, Em- peror Jiaqing had come to terms with the fact that his decrepit marine forces could never wipe out the pirate fleets and thus a nonmilitary solu- tion of compromise had to be found. On March 9, 1810, he issued a proc- lamation of great amnesty to the remaining sea bandits, pardoning all their crimes and welcoming them back as loyal subjects of the empire. 31 After weeks of tense negotiation, with the Portuguese serving as intermedi- aries, the Qing managed to secure the defections of 7,043 pirates—half of the remaining sea bandits—about 10 percent of whom later joined the imperial navy and fought against their erstwhile comrades. 32 This marked the end of the golden age of Chinese piracy.



The Maritime Frontier of the South China Sea

Having sketched the general forms, nature, and evolution of the piracy crisis, I shall describe its sociospatial framework by examining the mari- time frontier of the South China Sea. One cannot understand how this ocean space shaped the piratical violence merely in terms of its ecological features and socioeconomic patterns; it is also necessary to look at their connections and contradictions in relation to the weak political establish- ments. I will trace these intertwined processes and interactive structures so as to bring out the ingrained tensions and affinities in the multifaceted construction of the South China Sea. Frontiers of various kinds, I would argue, constitute a discursive arena in which the state-society relationship is contested and reconfigured in the interlinking processes of empire-building and popular protest. Like the Han River highlands, the South China Sea provided the dynamics for sociopolitical developments across different spatial levels. This ocean space not only was the geographic background against which the piratical disturbance took place but also gave rise to a series of events, processes, and structures that spanned the land-sea divide and transcended national boundaries. Hence any thorough examination of this water world needs to look be- yond its immediate coastal strip and probe the integrating relationship between the maritime space and its adjacent littoral communities. Yet tradi- tional studies of maritime Asia place each littoral country at the center of the story while putting the South China Sea at the margins of its historical inquiries. Consequently, this ill-defined maritime zone has been turned into the empty “nucleus” of Asia Pacific. Recent scholars, under the galvanizing influence of Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean studies, have sought to write well-integrated histories by focusing on the ocean space as an important supra- and trans-national unit of analysis. 33 This development encourages us to situate the South China Sea at the center of the periphery of littoral states by studying its relationships with neighboring coastal communities. 34 This chapter, like the previous one, investigates the human-environment interaction that shaped the social ecology of the South China Sea. Most important, it draws attention to the conflicting constructions of this ocean space by various maritime forces and how they utilized their local knowl- edge and uncontrollable power for distinct purposes during the late eigh- teenth century. This new accent on multiple frontier constructions, I hope, will help overcome the fragmentation of state-centered studies and restore the agency of borderland people in historical development.

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


The South China Sea is a vast body of water located between the south- ern coast of China and the northwestern part of Southeast Asia. This semienclosed sea connects with the Pacific and Indian oceans; 90 percent of its total circumference is taken up by land belonging to various politi- cal entities. From the Ming dynasty on, it became an increasingly integrated trading region woven together by the regular and irregular itineraries of the Chinese and foreign vessels. 35 The inherent unity of the South China Sea, therefore, long rested on its complex trading networks, which continued to prevail despite the increasing interference of political borders. My focus here is on the northwestern reach of the South China Sea as well as its complex interactions with the surrounding ocean and land space. In more specific terms, this area extends southwest from the Zhejiang- Fujian maritime boundary and then stretches across the Taiwan Strait down to the mouth of the Pearl River delta. Flowing around the Leizhou peninsula and China’s largest island, Hainan, the South China Sea further flanks the Sino-Vietnamese border in the Gulf of Tonkin down to the Me- kong delta. The Chinese section of this transnational water world, more specifically, is enclosed by the seaward parts of Guangdong and Fujian provinces that were located within the two Skinnerian macroregions of Lingnan and the Southeast coast. The following section will outline the basic social ecology of the two seaborne provinces. It focuses on people who took to the sea to fish and pillage, emphasizing their complex rela- tionship with the ocean space and with the government.


In the eyes of Qing officials, Guangdong was the most important part of the empire’s maritime frontier, due to its unique topography, strategic loca- tion, and huge maritime territory. This southernmost province, as the Li- angguang governor-general Lu Kun wrote in 1828, “consists of hills and rivers blended together, and borders on foreign countries.” 36 A tangled mass of mountains and hills occupies the majority of the province’s terri- tory, except for the Pearl River delta in the center. The towering Nanling mountain range, running from west to east, separates central China (domi- nated by the Yangzi River) from south China (dominated by the Pearl River) and then falls to the edge of the vast coastal area. The resulting hilly surface is deeply cut and smoothed by the largest waterway system of the province, comprising the West River as well as its two tributaries, the North and East rivers. As they rush toward the South China Sea, these in- terconnecting rivers converge in the Pearl River estuary and help create the



only extensive alluvial plain in Guangdong. Most of the cultivated lands and agricultural production areas of this province were located in the Pearl River delta during the late imperial period. “The delta is so dissected by countless river channels that the geographical arrangement is like an inland sea dotted with numerous islands.” 37 Macao, leased by the Portu- guese, was at the southwestern corner of the broad estuary. Opposite Ma- cao, at the southeastern corner of the delta, is Hong Kong island. Another marked feature of Guangdong was its vast maritime territory. As the provincial navy commander Li Changgeng observed in 1807, the “provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangnan [Jiangsu] have merely outer ocean. By contrast, only Guangdong makes the distinction between outer and inner oceans. Its sea route is also the longest one in China.” 38 The cat- egories “inner ocean” and “outer ocean” are fundamental to understand- ing China’s piracy crisis. While their meanings will be dealt with later, suffice it to note here that it is because Guangdong had so much inner ocean that large groups of people could easily resort to piracy on the outer ocean when that became their best option for survival. Of all the Chinese provinces, Guangdong is best provided with well- endowed seaports that link the open seaboard with the landlocked inte- rior. As mountains and rivers jut into the South China Sea they not only create myriad cliffs, inlets, and coves along the elongated coastline but also produce numerous islands in the Pearl River delta. The web-like in- land waterways “were often indistinguishable from seas surrounding is- lands.” 39 All these conditions were of great advantage to the fishing and salt industries and to the development of long-distance transportation. They were the linchpin of the region’s economic success in the eighteenth century. One can divide coastal Guangdong into two seaward subregions demar- cated by the mouth of the Pearl River delta. The first, situated in the south- ernmost reaches of the empire, includes portions of four lower maritime prefectures south of the delta: Gaozhou, Leizhou, Lianzhou, and Qiong- zhou (today’s Hainan). This subregion was a long stretch of hilly land ex- tending to the maritime border of Vietnam, partly delimited by the water bridge of Jiangping (Vietnamese: Giang Binh) and Bailongwei (Bach Long Vi). Much of its mountainous interior was too rugged for the customary mode of agriculture. Yan Ruyi called these four southern prefectures an area of “myriad mountains” akin to the Han River highlands. Unlike the fertile Pearl River delta to the northeast, this peripheral area lacked arable land and thus could not produce enough food or income. This fundamen- tal ecological constraint forced local residents to turn to the sea, engaging in fishing and oceanic trade for subsistence. The limited choice of survival





tactics, combined with pressures exerted by overpopulation and rapid commercialization, spurred the rise of large bandit groups and secret soci- eties. All these trends made this coastal area increasingly pugnacious and competitive during the late eighteenth century. 40 For the most part, the Qing court paid inadequate attention to this maritime frontier in the extreme south of the empire. County officials were overwhelmed by such structural administrative problems as huge jurisdic- tions, scarce resources, and poorly demarcated boundaries. With violence- prone rival lineages overshadowing local gentry’s attempts to settle disputes, government laws and regulations had little force in those tough places, some of which became little more than a “political no-man’s-land.” 41 In addition, vast stretches of the poorly patrolled coastline were hemmed by countless islands, hidden coves, and scattered bays, some of which remained un- known and “illegible” to the state. This difficult topography offered excel- lent anchorage and safe retreats to pirates, ensuring their continuing exis- tence. 42 By the mid-nineteenth century, much of this subregion was viewed as a nonstate space where the government’s reach was extremely limited. These four lower maritime prefectures thus became an ideal environ- ment for pirates and one of their major headquarters until 1802. Sea ma- rauders established a system of strongholds on the offshore islands stretch- ing from Qiongzhou to the Gulf of Tonkin—a vast region buffering the waters between China and Annam. The most notable hideaway was Jiang- ping, a small Vietnamese port town on the ill-defined border with the Qing. Tra Co, also called Quan-Chan, was the land boundary terminus between the two countries. The coasts on both sides of the boundary were especially convoluted: ragged and with adjacent islands and deep indenta- tions. This complex geographic composition created a multitude of murky jurisdictional interstices at sea that often undermined or escaped govern- ment control prior to the late nineteenth century. Consequently, like the Hubei-Shaanxi-Sichuan highlands, the Sino- Vietnamese water frontier had long been a politically ambiguous area. This was true for Jiangping, in particular, as it was located near the mouth of a shallow waterway across Tra Co that could only be approached by vessels of a certain size. Jiangping, furthermore, was effectively cut off from the continent by nearly impenetrable mountains that rendered it eas- ily defensible against outside attack. This frontier town thus stood not only at the intersections of state borders but also at a topographical choke point and a natural outlet to the sea. 43 All these, together with its dearth of cultivable land, had turned Jiangping into an ideal rendezvous and a well- sheltered haven for transnational pirates by the late eighteenth century. Taking advantage of its unique topography and nonstate nature, both

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


Vietnamese and Chinese sea bandits used this border town as an impor- tant hideout and smuggling base. 44 Jiangping was bounded in the east by Bailongwei, an isolated, mountain- ous island lying in the center of the Gulf of Tonkin. Albeit incorporated into the territory of Lianzhou prefecture by the late Qianlong reign, this island was largely beyond the reach of Qing political or military control, as Baon- ing, president of the Board of War, conceded in 1804. 45 According to Jiqing’s investigation, it was mostly through Bailongwei that the Vietnamese-sposored pirates sailed to Chinese seas to pillage. For the sake of coordinating action and clarifying responsibilities, both China and Annam agreed that the hostile water between Jiangping and Bailongwei marked a recognizable natural bar- rier or a maritime boundary zone separating the two countries. 46 Coastal dwellers on both sides had little identification with this custom- ary political arrangement. In their eyes, “along a littoral of mountains and water, islands and peninsulas, Kwangtung [Guangdong] flowed impercep- tibly into Vietnam.” It was difficult to ascertain where the Gulf of Tonkin started and ended because central Vietnam, as Charles Wheeler notes, re- sembled China’s southern coast in geography. For centuries, an incessant circulation of people and goods across the water bridge of Jiangping- Bailongwei had rendered this demarcation even more porous and ill guarded. It also turned the South China Sea into “an integrative social space,” linked by local patterns of livelihood and affinities, like its inland counterpart across the Han River highlands. 47 The aforementioned contradiction between administrative control and socioeconomic development suggests that the state’s top-down construction of borderland often deviated from the bottom-up perception and utilization of this space. When this discrepancy was augmented by forceful external pressures, like the aggressive control of the late Qianlong state, large-scale protests tended to arise and spread across frontier regions. As the piracy crisis in the Sino-Vietnamese water world demonstrates, the presence of a transna- tional political boundary running through the middle of a natural, cohesive geographical region greatly complicated local governance for both states. The mismatch between sociogeographic realities and government-defined borders further “increase[d] the peripherality and ambiguity of the border- land as inhabitants [sought] benefits from both sides of the border.” 48 People learned how to survive and prosper by slipping back and forth across the patchwork of overlapping, fuzzy jurisdictions. As Murray writes, “So successful were Chinese pirates in playing borderland hide-and-seek that by 1790 piracy rather than fishing was the mainstay of Chiang-p’ing’s [Jiangping’s] economy.” Sea raiders from Guangdong, Fujian, and Guangxi swarmed to this border town to sell booty and buy provisions. Merchants



from these provinces also frequented Jiangping to purchase stolen mer- chandise, reinforcing its status as “the hub of a vast network of black markets.” Consequently, pirate booty quickly made its way back into the south China market and became an important part of the local economy. 49 In addition, hard-pressed Chinese outlaws streamed steadily across the porous border to seek asylum, thus becoming ready recruits for sea raid- ers. This chaotic situation continued until 1802, when the Tay Son rebels were finally wiped out by the new Nguyen power. The second subregion of maritime Guangdong consisted of the three upper seaward prefectures of Guangzhou, Huizhou, and Chaozhou. Guang- zhou prefecture was located on the Pearl River delta, one of the most pro- ductive regions of China. The other two lay along the coastline north of the delta stretching to Fujian. The provincial capital, Canton, sat astride the confluence of the West, North, and East rivers, dominating the Pearl River delta and almost the whole Lingnan macroregion. After 1757, Canton be- came the sole port open to Western shipping, which made the city the very heart of China’s richest trading area. As for Chaozhou, it served as the leading emporium in the Sino-Siamese trade network, according to Jenni- fer Wayne Cushman. 50 These three upper prefectures were also the most agriculturally rich and densely populated region in the province. Paddy- rice cultivation, with double and even triple cropping, was commonly practiced to take advantage of the fertile alluvial land, optimal weather, and long growing season. Thanks to ramified water transportation in the delta that linked the coast with the interior, Canton, Huizhou, and Chaozhou became the most commercialized part of the Lingnan macroregion. Lo- cated at the mouths of inland waterways, bustling ports like Canton and Macao were heavily involved in trade with Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Europe. It was through this enterprising region that the Qing’s foreign trade passed. Driven by the soaring demand for Chinese goods, in particu- lar silk and sugar, land use patterns changed greatly in the Pearl River delta as much of its arable land was given over to commercial crops. 51 These three upper seaward prefectures were well known for their un- usually powerful lineages, warlike villages, and swarming vagabonds. 52 In 1809, local gentry leaders stepped up their self-defense efforts by building fortresses and organizing militia when desperate sea bandits, pressured by the draconian embargo enacted by the Liangguang governor-general Bail- ing, penetrated deeper and deeper into the river plain to procure daily ne- cessities. Few areas in the delta had not prepared local defense works of some sort by that year. Such widespread local militarization, coordinated and supported by government officials, directly contributed to the final dissolution of the piracy confederation in the 1810s. 53

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea



Fujian is covered with a series of undulating mountain chains; the most important is Mount Wuyi. Their high ridges and sharp slopes give way to a highly twisted and complex coastline, second only to Guangdong in terms of length. To safely approach some parts of the rocky seaboard, it was imperative to enlist the service of local pilots, as the intruding Tay Son navy did in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. As the largest waterway in this province, the Min River and its tributaries traverse the northern half of Fujian before wending eastward into the sea, creating nar- row drainage basins facing out to the Taiwan Strait. The downstream lowland along the east seaside features superior, deepwater ports like Quanzhou and Xiamen. 54 These geographic conditions not only facilitated Fujian’s long history of commercial contact with the outside world but also contributed to a high level of lawlessness and disorder in the area. Nicknamed “mountain country of the southeast,” Fujian has the highest elevation among the coastal provinces. About 85 percent of Fujian is cov- ered with precipitous mountains, which cut it off from inland China, and only one-tenth of its land is lower than two hundred meters in altitude. This topography meant that a large part of the province, like Quanzhou and Zhangzhou prefectures, was unsuitable for paddy-rice agriculture, making its residents heavily dependent on imports of food grains from Taiwan and Southeast Asia. 55 The topography also explains why the Fuji- anese people have long oriented toward the sea. By the mid-seventeenth century, the two aforementioned highly commercialized prefectures had played a primary part in domestic and foreign maritime trade, linking dif- ferent parts of China with Southeast Asia. The cities of Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, along with Xiamen in between, dominated the southern part of the Fujian coast, while Fuzhou controlled the northern. These four ma- jor urban centers together made up the economic heartland of Fujian, thus becoming the most populous part of the province. In addition to mountainous topography and sea-oriented economy, Fu- jian shared many other traits with neighboring Guangdong: dense popula- tion, wealthy merchant groups, increasing rural poverty, feuding lineages, and strong sworn brotherhoods like the Heaven and Earth Society. Yet Fujian, as a major base for the Ming loyalist movement and the piracy operation centered on Taiwan, was even tougher than Guangdong to gov- ern in the early Qing. 56 Its maritime society suffered the most from the decades of stringent coastal prohibition described earlier, which artificially moved the empire’s southeastern boundary inward and turned its immediate



coastal zone into a land of humanmade desolation. This strictly bureau- cratic solution to maritime crisis, effective as it was, dealt a devastating blow to Fujian’s economy, with consequences that were felt even after the reopening of foreign trade in 1684. Fujian thus entered the eighteenth century at a low point in its regional fortune. Although the abolition of sea bans had brought the province some fifty years’ gradual resuscitation, its maritime economy was ultimately overshadowed by that of neighboring Guangdong with the establishment of the Canton system in 1757. Thenceforth, Guangdong monopolized the empire’s Western trade, which promoted the development of the Lingnan macroregion and “doomed the economy of the southeast coast [macro- region] to nearly a century of stagnation.” 57 Outside competition com- pounded by high custom duties and relentless government extortion re- sulted in the gradual decline of Fujian maritime shipping from the 1780s onward. To evade the notorious demands of the Xiamen officials, more and more junks moved their trade bases from Fujian to Canton, the Leizhou peninsula, and Hainan island. This southward shift contributed to the sudden rise of Hainanese and Cantonese trade, both licit and illicit, with Vietnam in the late eighteenth century, which in turn facilitated the dramatic upsurge of piratical depredations in the South China Sea. 58

Who Were the Pirates?

South China piracy sprang primarily from the social ecology of coastal Guangdong and Fujian, both of which were “kingdoms of water” with distinctive sea-oriented economies and frontier societies. In the eighteenth century, the sea furnished a large part of the coastal population with licit or illicit jobs that enabled them to make a living. As the Jiaqing-era navy commander Li Changgeng remarked, “Guangdong lives off the sea; 30 percent of the population tills the land, 40 percent relies on fishing”. In some agriculturally poor parts of eastern Fujian, like Fuqing county, fish- ing provided a living for almost 80 percent of the local populace. The hundreds of thousands of coastal people who became fishermen “took boats as their homes and made fields from the sea” (yi chuan wei jia, yi hai wei tian). Those at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder became “boat people” (danhu), who were not even allowed to live on shore. Other local residents became seamen who found jobs as hired sailors on merchant junks. Struggling on the edge of survival, these people accounted for 73.8 percent of the pirate population, according to Antony’s reckoning. By an- other estimate, fishermen alone made up 80.7 percent of all sea robbers. 59

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


Notwithstanding their numerical importance, fishermen were the most oppressed group in the maritime society. The Liangguang governor-general Jiqing lamented their sad plight in 1800: “in order to get their sailing li- cense, fishermen have to pay lougui [off-the-books fees] to the prefectural or county governments. Making matters worse is that soldiers who guard the fortresses or check points also levy guiyin [informal fees] or seafood from them. As a consequence, these downtrodden people have almost nothing left. No wonder they sail to the sea as pirates.” 60 In the same vein, the Fujian governor Wang Zhiyin asserted that people were not born pi- rates and it was poverty that pushed them to this illegal business. Echoing this realistic opinion, the Jiaqing emperor also acknowledged that seafar- ing people turned to maritime predation as part of their overall survival strategy. 61 Thus the state faced a thorny problem in its battle against piracy: most robbers at sea had no choice but to commit their crimes. Using the cover of fishermen or sailors, moreover, they easily oscillated between illegiti- mate and legitimate work or even carried on both activities simultaneously. Consequently, pirates often appeared out of nowhere, attacking passing junks and then disappearing without a trace. In this sense, their menace to law and order was largely an unseen, uncontrollable one. The hard-core professional pirates, in fact, accounted for no more than 30 percent of the sea raiders. Most of the others were lured, captured, or coerced into the business, as in the case of the White Lotus uprising. 62 In coping with the piracy crisis, many local officials believed that the ultimate solution was to expand the maritime economy by encouraging coastal trade instead of prohibiting it.

The Social Construction of the South China Sea

The formation of a maritime zone, according to Philip E. Steinberg, entails a complex process of “social construction” based on three interacting mech- anisms: external utilization, internal perception, and regulatory represen- tation. 63 Hence any in-depth analysis of the South China Sea requires not only an examination of its natural geography but also a history of how it was used, conceptualized, and controlled. In what follows, I shall investi- gate how various social forces attempted to have their interests repre- sented through different constructions of this ocean space and how those constructions contributed to the contentious politics within it. It is of vital importance to understand the general dialectic within this twofold con- struction of the South China Sea: on the one hand, as a nebulous maritime



zone for the state, it was subject to artificial administrative division and tenuous sociopolitical control; on the other, as a space of natural topogra- phy, it enabled the nonstate and antistate actors to reproduce their autonomy by carrying out routine frontier-crossing activities or extraordinary social protest. I shall explore how such bottom-up construction of this maritime zone differed from the state’s top-down perception of it and, furthermore, contradicted official efforts to partition it for the sake of better control. As an agrarian and continental empire, traditional China had long de- fined its territory as the Middle Kingdom—the center of “All under Heaven” (Tianxia). This Sino-centric view, together with its land-based notion of sovereignty, pushed the seafaring world to the margins of the Chinese cognitive frame as though it stood outside and beyond history. The vast, endless sea, dictated by unfathomable rhythms and swarming with pestering troublemakers, had invariably been an unpredictable ele- ment and untamable space in imperial political thinking. The intrinsic in- stability, exceptional mobility, and nearly incomprehensible scope of the South China Sea, as Yan Ruyi suggested, engendered a deep-rooted fear of it as a mysterious and hostile space. Crossing the ocean space was also deemed a dangerous venture haunted by vengeful ghosts. A safe journey through the rough waters, therefore, needed both heavenly blessing and appropriate appreciation, as the official patronage of the goddess Tianhou (Empress of Heaven or Mazu) shows. 64 Equally compelling was her strong appeal to sea bandits, who also adopted her as their protective deity. Thus, to most Chinese, the seas were associated with a terror-filled world of disorder and unknown possibilities. Like the internal frontier of the Han River highlands, the seas hindered government communication, military maneuvering, and economic extraction. After the dramatic in- ward turn following Zheng He’s seven maritime expeditions, Ming offi- cials tended to view the oceans as they did the Great Wall: both functioned advantageously as effective barriers to keep foreign barbarians out of the Chinese empire. 65 Through total closure, they reasoned, the maritime bor- ders would be easier to defend than the overland routes into China. This detachment from the sea gave the Ming regime additional reasons to scale back its maritime ambition by reducing its navy to merely a coastal defense force. In general, piratical violence was deemed a sporadic nuisance instead of the kind of genuine security threat posed by land-based insurrections. The subsequent Qing rulers largely inherited this long-term negligence toward the sea, intensified by their seminomadic origins and their preoc- cupation with the empire’s inland frontiers in the north and northwest during the high Qing period. The Manchu court did give some administra- tive consideration to maritime trading activities, setting up the four cus-

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


toms as mentioned earlier. From the 1720s onward, all interactions with Western merchants were delegated to their Chinese counterparts in the form of an authorized monopolistic guild known as the Cohong (Gong- hang). This specially licensed group of “ocean-trade dealers” (yanghang) needed to keep a close watch on the Westerners, be responsible for their behaviors on China’s soil, and guarantee their payment of all duties. This strict hierarchical model of state supervision and merchant management culminated in the rise of the Canton system. Partly as a measure of cul- tural protection, direct contact between Chinese and “alien merchants” (yishang) was strictly forbidden, except for the government-designated go-betweens, the Cohong, who served as useful buffers and middlemen between them. Thanks to the ingenious Canton-Cohong system, the Qing authorities largely skirted responsibility for day-to-day relations with the Western powers and for dealing with the seafaring world. 66 The south China water frontier, as Yan Ruyi suggested, represented a different set of cultural values that undermined the Confucian agenda for social order. 67 Its physical attributes deterred the development of farming and permanent habitation that were the foundation for China’s civiliza- tional development. So Ming-Qing states saw the ocean as an inhospita- ble, unclaimable space, somewhat as they perceived the original forests of the Han River highlands, as well as the high plateaus and vast deserts in the northwest. 68 The coastal waters, as the boundary between “familiar” land and “threatening” far-off sea, resembled the land in that they were susceptible to being civilized, controlled, and governed. The deep seas, however, were deemed both unnecessary and utterly impossible for offi- cials to administer or guard. This hierarchical perception helped shape the decisively land-centered, defense-oriented, and highly passive Qing coastal strategy. Chinese bureaucrats did not conceive of the sea as an undistinguishable watery whole. Instead, they had a vague understanding of the maritime space as a separate, divisible water world in its own right, different from the land in its movements, rhythms, and dynamics. Like their counter- parts in Tokugawa Japan, they refined cartographic strategies and made sense of ocean space not by conquering it but by dividing it into discrete places and partitioning its threat. 69 For a long time the Chinese thought of the South China Sea as a continuum of two vaguely separated mari- time spheres that should be utilized and conceptualized in different ways. As Murray writes,

offshore, as the open expanse of the South China Sea stretched from the bor- der of Guangdong and Fujian provinces, around Hainan island and the Leizhou peninsula to the Gulf of Tonkin, the saltwater realm of shallow seas



and inshore islands was referred to in Chinese sources as the “inner sea” (neihai) or “inner ocean” (neiyang). Once the shallows deepened, the inshore islands gave way to offshore islands farther from the land, and the South China Sea became the southern ocean (Nanyang). This region of deep seas, offshore is- lands and coral reefs constituted the “outer sea” (waihai) or “outer ocean” (waiyang). 70

This twofold construction was long the dominant geographical and po- litical discourse on the South China Sea. It entailed different state power and administrative responsibilities across the ocean space, exerting a pro- found impact on the Chinese statecraft tradition. Officials tended to per- ceive the inner sea as the farthest extent of their maritime authority, a le- gitimate arena subject to sustainable governance and state possession. The Qing’s sovereignty over its immediate coastal waters, for instance, was as- serted forcefully in the strong protests against the two British invasions of Macao in 1802 and 1808. 71 As the predictable territorial water deepened into the faraway outer ocean, however, it became a capricious and asocial domain increasingly beyond human comprehension, administrative gover- nance, and economic extraction. What is more, the state deemed this “end- less” blue-water region more distance than territory, rendering it outside any politico-military control. 72 Not unlike their counterparts in Tokugawa Japan, Qing mapmakers and officials surrendered the infathomable “high seas” to the “realm of the speculation,” “us[ing] the inventive power of the imagination to fill in the cognitive blank of ocean space.” The early modern Japanese conception, as Marcia Yonemoto describes it, “contributed to the development of pro- foundly ambivalent representations of ocean space, in which the friendly and sustaining seas” bordering the coastline “stood in constant opposition to the distant and threatening oceans, untamed and unknown.” 73 The Chi- nese epistemological division of inner and outer ocean, in a similar vein, suggests that the deep sea was a mysterious, nonterritorial void outside land-based society and beyond state possession. While towering mountain ranges and dense forests divided the Han River highlands, no clear physiographical boundary demarcated the two imagined zones of inner and outer ocean. The dissection of a natural and cohesive realm into two artificial, discrete parts, put differently, was a mat- ter of sociopolitical construction rather than unchanging topography and ecology. While making little sense to local seafarers, this dissection func- tioned primarily to set limits on the reach and responsibilities of the state and to regulate government operations across the fluid, dangerous ocean space. Emperor Jiaqing pointed out that the officials in coastal provinces did not dare to venture into the outer sea. They repeatedly wrote off inci-

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


dents in these waters as beyond their jurisdiction and thus of little concern. Some even ordered that official salt boats avoid routes passing through the outer ocean, suggesting the government give up policing this hazardous area altogether. 74 While the outer sea represented the place where maritime governance ceased, it was also the space where pirates sought to maximize their autonomy and power. By the mid-fifteenth century, most of the European powers had em- braced the concept of maritime prowess as part of their state ideal. Driven by incessant interstate competition, they viewed overseas expansion as a necessary route toward achieving politico-economic dominance. By con- trast, the Chinese empire generally shied away from asserting its authority on the ocean: it explicitly made “sea defense” (haifang) instead of “sea war” (haizhan) the cornerstone of its maritime strategy. 75 This long- established policy contributed to China’s general disinclination, unlike that of Europe, toward conceptualizing the ocean as a power base, a bat- tleground, or a springboard for oversea aggression.

The General Viewpoint of the Littoral Communities

Unlike imperial officials, the seafaring people in Guangdong and Fujian took the sea as the center of their world and the core of their self-identity. Their deep familiarity with the rhythms, dynamics, and movements of the sea served as a vital resource for their survival in their harsh ecological and sociopolitical environment. Maritime people constructed the South China Sea through their everyday activities like fishing and trading. They not only took this water world as “an area of sustainable economic exploita- tion” but also made routine use of its diffuse border to engage in illegal activities and to escape government punishment. As “weapons of the weak,” such survival tactics were among the most efficient strategies of bottom-up resistance against increasing state control. 76 For those living along the shoreline, the sea was the resource provider that constituted their “field,” their substance, and their living space. Going out to the sea was invariably the defining element of their lives because the confines of high mountains and narrow coasts made it simply impossible for them to live by agriculture. While the poor relied predominantly on the maritime space for survival, those who were better off constructed the sea as a trading route and money pond. For instance, merchants and ship owners went out to sea and returned home rich, reaping hefty profits from their arduous voyages. It also seems clear that, from the popularity of the



goddess Tianhou (Mazu), many seafaring people took the awe-inspiring and life-giving sea as an object of ritual worship. The seafarers’ mobile lifestyle and constant pressure to survive had di- rect influence on their construction of the maritime space and on the devel- opment of littoral communities. Like fish, wind, and currents, to be sure, merchandise and profit do not recognize political boundaries. Beginning in the early Ming, enterprising Chinese sailors and seaborne merchants, mostly from Fujian, went to Southeast Asia to do business. They established long-lasting patterns of exchange and resilient transnational networks, like the Nanyang trade, across the South China Sea. In this process they also built floating communities that covered large expanses of ocean space with no definable political borders. Whereas Western traders saw the South China Sea more as a well-traversed thoroughfare and a major access route to the Chinese market, local coastal dwellers saw it as a channel to link oceangoing communities, domestic or overseas, many of which re- mained beyond government control. 77 Like the Han River highlands, the Sino-Vietnamese water frontier functioned as a “middle ground” linking a wide array of people, goods, and ideas together. Under extraordinary cir- cumstances, these floating resources could be politicized and mobilized against the state, as occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century. In both peaceful and violent ways, local people ignored or rejected the officials’ perception of the South China Sea as a divisible political and cul- tural space. For them, it was an open and coherent water world that facili- tated transshipment of goods. 78 The ambiguous boundaries that differenti- ated the inner sea from its outer counterpart had little restraining effect on the seafaring people, whose livelihood hinged on their routine traversing of such humanmade demarcations. It is common knowledge that there are far more fish in the deep seas than in the shallow ones. The fishermen’s survival thus depended on their freedom to range back and forth across the imagined administrative boundary. Furthermore, they deliberately took advantage of this artificial demarcation to carry out maritime raiding and to flee justice, since the outer ocean, as the Liangguang governor-general Jiqing pointed out, was well beyond the state’s capabilities to monitor and control. 79 The sea bandits could easily escape government suppression by retreating to the blue-water areas where the Qing naval force refused to go. The Minzhe governor-general Yude complained in 1805 that, as in the case of the White Lotus campaign, search-and-destroy missions and other offen- sive strategies were of little use on the high seas, given their unpredictable environment and the pirates’ high mobility and extensive connections. 80 Some professional pirates even used resources from the supranational arena so as to survive government suppression and expand their autonomy

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


and power. Their collaboration with the Tay Son regime, for instance, helped erode the existing system of political control and facilitate large- scale sociopolitical coordination surpassing traditional boundaries. 81 Con- sequently, as the nonstate space of Jiangping-Bailongwei suggests, Chi- na’s enduring problem of maritime governance was greatly compounded by these new transnational factors. The centuries-old problem, however, was mostly shaped by the contradictory utilizations, representations, and regulations of the ocean space by the central state and the littoral society, epitomizing the ambivalence at the heart of Chinese maritime spatiality.

The Frontier Society of Coastal South China in the Late Qianlong Reign

The sea frontier of Guangdong and Fujian, like the Han River highlands, was long among the most violence-prone parts of the empire. Its tough social ecology contributed substantially to the chronic difficulty of achiev- ing stability in coastal south China. During the eighteenth century, a series of wrenching socioeconomic changes produced crises in this vast water frontier, pushing tens of thousands of indigent, marginalized seafarers into piracy as a means of survival and upward mobility. In Eric Hobsbawm’s words, bandits were “symptoms of crisis and tensions in their society.” 82 Thus sea marauders could also be taken as a microcosm of the strains and conflicts in China’s maritime society. Akin to the situation in the three-province border region, accelerating population growth was a pivotal force transforming the landscape of the south China coast. Yet, unlike that region, both Fujian and Guangdong were already highly commercialized and overpopulated by the late Ming. The maritime prefectures of Guangzhou, Chaozhou, Quanzhou, and Zhang- zhou, for instance, remained one of the most impacted regions in late im- perial China. Guangdong’s population, as Antony points out, increased from a little over six million to almost fifteen million during the eighteenth century. Fujian had fewer than eight million people in the 1750s, but this number had jumped to at least thirteen million by the 1790s, when the maritime predations began to surge. 83 It comes as no surprise that intensi- fying population growth pressed increasingly on the scarce arable land in both coastal provinces. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Guangdong and Fujian had only 1.67 and 0.98 mou of cultivable land per person, re- spectively, making them two of the most land-starved provinces of the Qing. To make things worse, partly because of its “mulberry tree and fish



pond” system, an estimated 30–50 percent of Guangdong’s arable land was devoted to commercial crops by the late Qianlong reign. 84 Such overpopulation and land scarcity led inevitably to reliance on mari- time trade. The South China Sea had traditionally been among the most intensively traversed of the Asian seas in pursuit of maritime commerce. The contemporary official Yuan Yonglun observed: “here trading vessels from all the world meet together, wherefore this track is called ‘the great meeting from the east and the south.’ ” 85 As the eighteenth century came to a close, south China’s maritime trading system was fully developed, such

that it “fell under the general rubrics of official tribute trade or private na- tive commerce carried out domestically and in Southeast Asia through the agency of Chinese junks manned by Chinese sailors, or internationally through the agency of foreigners, whose presence on Chinese shores after

1757 was restricted to Canton.” 86

This general picture is clear and well known, and I shall examine those aspects of the trade that illuminate both the maritime frontier of the South China Sea and the piracy crisis it gave rise to. Between 1735 and 1812, Guangdong and Fujian handled as much as 75 percent of China’s sea- borne foreign and domestic trade. The trade to Southeast Asia was charac- terized by Chinese exports of manufactured and processed goods, including ceramics, cloth, paper, sugar, and silk products, as well as imports of raw materials and food, in particular rice, spices, timber, and cotton. The bulk of this trade originated in east Guangdong and southeast Fujian. Xiamen had long been the most important port for private maritime shipping, even

busier than Canton, which was mainly frequented by foreign vessels prior

to the Opium War. Along with Chaozhou, Xiamen nonetheless suffered greatly during a brief restriction of trade and immigration after 1717; but the two ports quickly assumed the dominant role after 1727 as Emperor Yongzheng finally lifted the ban on junk trade with Southeast Asia. 87 Western trade with maritime Asia had long been overshadowed by the volume and flow of commodities within it. This situation dramatically changed when the Canton system supplanted the multiport trading system (1685–1757) as the sole vehicle of Western trade in China. The effect was almost immediate: more and more foreign trading vessels entered Canton harbor after 1760. As Murray explains, “the number of European ships alone rose from just under a dozen in 1720 to 60–80 per year between

1780 and 1800. The tonnage of the individual ships doubled as well.”

Consequently, Canton and the Pearl River estuary became one of the busi- est harbors in the world. By the end of the eighteenth century, as Robert Marks notes, “European trade had eclipsed the native coastal and Southeast Asia trade, easily reaching four times the Chinese trade.” 88

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


This momentous change in trade pattern had an interconnected rela- tionship with the dramatic surge in piratical violence during the Qianlong- Jiaqing transition. The junk trade between China and Southeast Asia, as already mentioned, was conducted almost entirely on Chinese or foreign vessels manned by crewmen from China. This trade’s considerable decline in the late eighteenth century put a large number of hired sailors and fish- ermen, the major source of pirate recruits, out of work. Those who had engaged in auxiliary water-related occupations—as peddlers, coolie work- ers, shopkeepers, and boatbuilders—also suffered, in a less direct way. Many of those displaced, pugnacious people were later hired by profes- sional pirates, who made effective use of their manpower and expertise. In addition, given the tremendous demographic growth, “although commer- cial opportunities along the south China coast were expanding by 1790, they were not expanding fast enough to absorb all those who sought or needed to make their living thereupon.” 89 Such employment was especially scarce because a higher percentage of the trade was no longer managed by Chinese seamen and boats. Coinciding with this change, China’s junk trade with its immediate southern neighbor was also in decline, but mainly for a different reason. As Murray points out, “the legitimate trade between China and Vietnam was a highly regulated activity conducted entirely by Chinese.” The Tay Son rebellion, which began in the 1770s, and the ensuing border troubles with the north greatly restricted trade opportunities for both sides. A new Vietnamese law, in particular, forbade the export of basic commodities, including rice, that were in great demand in coastal Guangdong and Fu- jian. In response, the Qing closed down the border markets and rigorously prohibited export of the copper coins, zinc, and iron that had long been greatly desired across the southern frontier. This disruption in normal trade was a shattering blow to the frontier communities and drove their people into smuggling and piracy. 90 As population explosion and shifting trade patterns aggravated rural poverty and resource constraints, the resulting unemployment and vio- lence placed mounting administrative pressure on local governments and brought disorder to a new level of intensity both at sea and inland. As early as 1780 Emperor Qianlong enacted the first ad hoc law to deal espe- cially with the deteriorating situation in Guangdong. Unlike similar stat- utes in other provinces, this law stipulated the same severe punishment— decapitation—for all bandits who were involved in robbery, including those acting as lookouts or informants. 91 This one-size-fits-all legislation thus criminalized large numbers of coastal people, especially those in the poverty- stricken areas, and subjected them to death sentences. As a Guangdong



official commented, “wherever there is a serious case, people in the whole

village are arrested, [and] only those who bribe can be released

the key reason for the rampant banditry.” 92 A local shengyuan named Wu Zhi lamented: “once a person makes some contact with bandits, he is treated as bandit himself. Sometimes hundreds of people are executed be- cause of this. Those who are alive have no choice but to become bandits. Therefore these outlaws are growing stronger and stronger. If nothing about this policy is changed, there is no way that the mounting banditry can be curbed.” 93 The Fujian finance commissioner Qiu Xingjian expressed similar sentiments even more bluntly in July 1803: “local people should not be blamed for the growing maritime disturbance; it was provoked by gov- ernment rapacity and suppression. If we think about this dispassionately, as the White Lotus rebels proclaimed, ‘it is the officials who forced the people to rise up.’ ” 94 Qian was noting a key parallel between the two cri- ses: both emerged from the people’s “protective reaction” against predatory extraction and perceived injustices on the part of the local authorities. It is no surprise that Qianlong’s draconian policy of criminalization and extermination backfired disastrously, as swelling numbers of people evaded unjust persecutions by fleeing to the sea and becoming pirates. The situation in Guangdong became so bad in 1810 that the Liangguang governor-general Bailing called the province the “spawning grounds for banditry.” 95 Pirates posted declarations in Macao and Canton that they were driven to predation “because officials had ‘tyrannical hearts’ and squeezed the poor out of all their earnings.” 96 The EIC Select Committee, which managed the British trade in China, observed on December 30, 1804: “the very considerable strength these Pyrates have attained, and the probability of their numbers increasing, from the tyranny & oppression exercised over the industrious inhabitants by the rapacious officers of this government, cannot but be a subject of serious consideration.” 97 In order to make this hard-line policy work, the imperial authorities would have needed a credible and strong naval force to enforce it. How- ever, much as in the Han River highlands, the state’s administrative and military presence along the south China coast was hopelessly overstretched. In the case of Guangdong, only 137 fortresses dotted the 2,500-kilometer coast in 1806, most of them guarding the seaward approaches to big sea- ports. These fortresses were insufficiently manned, poorly equipped, and loosely coordinated. Even more alarming, some soldiers even hired local peasants to serve their dreary military duty for them. After years of official neglect and mismanagement, coastal fortifications in the late Qianlong reign were often obsolete or dilapidated. Patrolling fleets were also spread hopelessly thin, given the sheer size of the area they had to cover and pro-

this is

The Piracy Crisis in the South China Sea


tect. According to Nayancheng, the governor-general of Liangguang, there were over 1,000 pirate vessels in Guangdong waters; yet the provincial navy had merely eighty-seven warships at that time. 98 Under this lamentable state of affairs, effective border control was simply an impossible task on a daily basis. As Emperor Jiaqing admitted, the vast expanses of the ocean, together with its rugged coasts, elongated peninsula, and scattered islands, rendered the pirates even more difficult to locate and subdue than the sectarian rebels in the Han River highlands. 99 To com- pound the problem, most of the Qing naval fleets were clustered around major cities like Canton and Xiamen, leaving ample room in the broad inte- rior waterways for illegal trade and other unlawful activities. Consequently, “naval forces were little more than prefectural water-police, scattered among the many coastal jurisdictions, poorly equipped and led, with an inefficient command structure.” 100 Exploiting the government’s military weakness, pi- rates could often overpower the Qing navy and challenge its fortresses on land. As the Guangdong naval commander Sun Tingmou bemoaned, “the pirates are too powerful, we cannot subdue them by our arms; the pirates are many, we only few; the pirates have large vessels, we only small ones; the pirates are united under one head, but we are divided, and we alone are un- able to engage with this overpowering force.” 101 By 1799 the Liangguang governor-general Jiqing had also reluctantly come to the view that the imperial fleets were woefully inadequate to deal with the piracy problem. Moreover, he submitted a memorial to the Jiaq- ing emperor saying that the ad hoc legislation in Guangdong had achieved little except for alienating much of the coastal population and polarizing the agitated maritime society. Following Jiqing’s request, Jiaqing reestab- lished the original, more moderate legislation in 1801, and routine bandit cases in Guangdong were once again handled the same way as in any other provinces. 102 This pragmatic policy retreat helped mitigate local tensions and normalize the maritime society, though it took almost a decade to achieve real pacification.


A View from the Top



Court Politics and Imperial Visions

P art II explored the local and supralocal logic of the two crises, ad- dressing how their rise and fall fed into broader historical changes

through the high Qing period in general and the Qianlong-Jiaqing transi- tion in particular. Chapters 2 and 3 have examined a variety of issues that mattered to the political center, but mainly in terms of how they were manifested in the localized contexts of borderland conditions. Such a bot- tom-up viewpoint is useful but incomplete because great frontier distur- bances were often a symptom of central dysfunction rather than the main cause of political debilitation. While the dual cataclysms brought to light problems plaguing the state and society, they also shaped the mutually

conditioning interactions between the two. Thus, in Part III, the major thrust of this book, I shall turn from the margin to the center by examin- ing the high politics of social protests and state retreat. The White Lotus and piracy upheavals, to be sure, were two critical challenges that loomed large in contemporary court politics. These dual explosive events generated voluminous government records, the single most important of which was the rich compilation of fanglue (official account of imperial wars) on the antisectarian military campaign. 1 These sources describe the Qianlong-Jiaqing protests as simple cases of disorderly mobs defying the state and are reticent about how this wave of disturbances affected the Qing sociopolitical systems. Historiographical discussions of the two upheavals, similarly, have paid little heed to the constructive



opportunities they offered for state reform or their positive legacy in Qing history. Richard L. K. Jung takes a different approach in his study of the Wang Lun and Lin Shuangwen rebellions. He recuperates the two failed revolts as agents of political change by reconceptualizing them as “a continuously ongoing struggle for freedom from imperial control by both the officials and the commoner society at all levels.” To further illustrate this conten- tious process, Jung likens it as “emanation of ripples from the point where

a stone tossed into a pool strikes the surface of the water, finally reverber- ating from the edges back toward the point of impact.” As this metaphor so vividly suggests, central to the Wang Lun and Lin Shuangwen uprisings were “ever-widening circles of impingement by one group on another” that sent shock waves to the highest levels of state machinery. From this perspective, it is apparent that the significance of popular protests often goes beyond the severity of their local ravages. Some great upheavals, even if they fail, can produce reverberating repercussions that stimulate con- structive changes across both society and state. In just this sense Thomas Meadows, a nineteenth-century British intelligence officer in China, ar-

gued that rebellion was “a chief element of a national stability

storm that clears and invigorates a political atmosphere.” 2 To recover the full history of momentous crises, one should identify the interrelation be- tween bottom-up disturbance and top-down control, which can be both conflictual and symbiotic. This study uses the model of all-encompassing contentious crises to ex- amine the “anthropology of the state,” that is, to deconstruct the state’s major components so as to study the different pressures that act on them as well as the different accommodations they make. In so doing, one can understand how each segment of the political system “pulls in multiple directions leading to unanticipated patterns of domination and transfor- mation.” 3 To trace such endogenous dynamics of change, it is crucial to elucidate how the ingrained tensions develop, play out, and resolve them- selves on a multiplicity of levels through the course of the many-sided cri- ses. Part III probes the intertwining imperial, bureaucratic, and foreign re- sponses to the conjunction of the two upheavals, as well as the conflicts and compromises that occurred as emperors and the officialdom adopted different visions and strategies for managing the crises.


The Emperor-Bureaucracy Relationship

Throughout the history of imperial China, Confucian ideology envisioned an ideal state governed by a heavenly mandated emperor, loyally assisted

Court Politics and Imperial Visions


by virtuous officials according to the principle of benevolent government. To comprehend the workings of the Qing state, it is essential to probe the interaction between the throne and his officialdom as conditioned by con- temporary political culture. As “a matter of the most immediate political exigency,” this pivotal yet volatile relationship exerted direct impact on the power of the state as well as its interaction with society and culture. 4 Research on this topic has produced three largely distinct bodies of scholarship that are rarely in conversation with one another. The first of these analyzes a particular political campaign whereby the emperor as- serted his autocratic power, disciplined the officialdom, and changed as- pects of governance through extraordinary mobilization of manpower and resources. A second body of work concentrates on the macro level: the long-term evolution of key state institutions and their transformative im- pact on the emperor-official relationship. Whereas the former kind of lit- erature points toward contingent events and political deinstitutionaliza- tion, the latter is inclined to see the triumph of bureaucratic routinization and administrative rationalization. 5 The third strand of scholarship, a middle ground, delves into politicocultural struggles at the center and their influence on local crisis management. By combining institutional and intel- lectual history through the study of key events, this approach foregrounds some structural features of bureaucratic apparatus and ideological orien- tation as a compromise between the personalization and institutionaliza- tion of political power. Three scholars can be identified as best representing these distinct yet interrelated lines of investigation. In his classic work Soulstealers, Philip Kuhn makes a convincing case that the strain between monarchical arbi- trary power and bureaucratic routine authority fueled a “silent struggle” between Emperor Qianlong and his high officials. The central axis of their relationship, Kuhn argues, “consumed raw material in the form of events.” 6 In hopes of asserting his untrammeled monarchical authority, Qianlong capitalized on an ordinary incident—a local queue-clipping scare in 1768—by exaggerating it into a major case of “sedition.” Bureau- crats at all levels had to meet this imperial challenge by waging or partici- pating in a massive political campaign against themselves and the elusive soulstealers. As a subtle form of self-protection and passive resistance, however, many uncooperative officials indulged in such “ingrained prac- tices” as withholding information and underreporting the problem at hand. In so doing, they not only deflected Qianlong’s heightened demands for imperial control but also reduced the deleterious impact of his unpre- dictable personal agenda. Beatrice Bartlett also addresses this troubled relationship in Monarchs and Ministers, one of the best works on Qing institutional history. This



book focuses on the Grand Council—the highest Qing decision-making organ, established in the 1720s—and provides a close-up account of its structural evolution through the eighteenth century. Bartlett illuminates a complex interplay between the central institutional establishment and its key political players, notably the emperors and their ministers. Traditional literature contends that the dramatic rise of the Grand Council during the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns greatly strengthened despotism by allow- ing for a much stricter imperial control of the bureaucracy. Bartlett’s revi- sionist study, however, shows that the expansion of this inner-court agency had the unexpected effect of curbing imperial autocracy by transforming it into “joint monarchical-conciliar administration.” James Polachek’s Inner Opium War represents the third major strand of scholarship on the emperor-bureaucracy relationship. In this critically ac- claimed book, he analyzes court politics, literati factions, and decision- making inside the central government during an extraordinary period of military and diplomatic crises. Finding agency among the high intellectual and official elites, Polachek makes the point that these politico-cultural ac- tors were bent on building up their own personal or group power to such an extent that they took unrealistic, hard-line positions on foreign policy. Consequently, a moralistic, domestically focused political agenda took center stage. This rigid stance, he asserts, is the key reason why the cata- clysmic confrontation with the British did not create a pragmatic overhaul of the political system (as happened in Meiji Japan), despite its consider- able impetus for change. 7 This study of the White Lotus and piracy upheavals brings together these three lines of interpretation. Its overarching goal is to examine how bottom-up events and processes interacted with the realm of high politics in producing key endogenous dynamics for what Pierre-Étienne Will calls Qing “inner state building.” More specifically, this study endeavors to open a novel way of studying emperor-official interaction from the perspective of crisis management, institutional reconfiguration, and policy changes. I shall first sketch out the general historical context in which this relation- ship worked. Three major contextual dimensions are worth noting: the political heritage of the traditional Chinese state (the structural and insti- tutional dimension); the pressing political realities during the transition from the Qianlong to Jiaqing reigns (conjunctural and situational dimen- sion); and the different temperament and political orientations of the two emperors (personal and psychological dimension). 8

Court Politics and Imperial Visions


The Mid-Qing Political System

Although the Chinese imperial institutions were generally too weak to re- strain the “Son of Heaven,” who was well above the law, one must dispel the myth of the omnipotent monarch as a given. 9 To protect his all-

inclusive authority, as Pamela Kyle Crossley notes, the throne often “used

the bureaucracy to battle the aristocracy and

sidered a private bureaucracy to battle the public one.” The gravest threat to China’s early emperors came from local sociopolitical forces embedded in powerful clans and large aristocratic families. These hereditary forces, however, were almost wiped out during the remarkable crises of the Tang- Song transition. Their residual power was further curtailed by the rise of a centralized bureaucracy and new local elites (gentry) as a result of the ex- panded civil service examination system. Henceforth, monarchs could rule “All under Heaven” by relying on the two interrelated groups with no inde- pendent bases of authority. Yet they found that “dependence on the bureau- cracy in the struggle against the aristocracy contributed to a secondary struggle between the monarchy and the bureaucracy,” as the bureaucracy could curb the trend toward imperial despotism. 10 An analysis of this “secondary struggle” reveals some key features of inner state-building in middle and late imperial China. Sociopolitical order is mainly created and maintained through a process of institution-making that dictates “the rules of the game” and shapes the patterns of human interaction. 11 Since the Chinese monarch always had to rule through his bureaucracy, he was indeed limited in what he could achieve by the sheer size and complexity of the political system. 12 This in turn gave some officials strong incentives to abuse their power and oppor- tunities to undercut imperial authority. To complicate matters further, some emperors often indulged in private desires that deviated from or even conflicted with the public interest of the state or the bureaucracy. Such hidden tensions or open struggles, as late Ming and late Qianlong politics show, greatly affected the internal workings of the Chinese empire and its governing capabilities. To sort out the emperor-bureaucracy relationship during the Qianlong- Jiaqing transition, it is necessary to examine a structural paradox that epito- mized the ambivalence at the heart of court politics. Throughout much of imperial Chinese history, crucial distinctions were made between two main spheres of government power, the inner court (neiting) and the outer court (waiting), which defined and competed with each other. 13 This uneasy pro- cess reached a new height with the full development of bureaucratic

used what might be con-



centralization during the Song dynasty. To reinforce absolute monarchical control over the unwieldy meritocratic officialdom, dynastic rulers often built up the neiting as their personal staff in order to keep the growing waiting in careful check. As a central dynamic in court politics, this trian- gular interaction became a key driving force behind Jiaqing’s reforms, alongside the escalating protests of the 1790s. Generally speaking, the outer court was the formal top of the official- dom, presiding over the major departments and regular agencies that managed the massive, routine business of administering the empire. Under the Qing, the outer court included a large and complex set of government agencies that had been inherited from earlier dynasties—the Six Boards, the Grand Secretariat, the Hanlin Academy (Hanlinyuan), and the Censor- ate (Duchayuan), to name only a few. 14 As a highly institutionalized hier- archy of official ranks and statuses, the waiting agencies operated accord- ing to a tight net of long-established rules and supplementary regulations outlined in the bureaucratic rulebook titled The Imperially Sanctioned Collected Statutes and Precedents of the Great Qing (Qinding daqing huidian shili). The emperor regulated tens of thousands of his public func- tionaries through such detailed disciplinary rules and clearly articulated written codes contained in this rulebook. Notwithstanding their indispensable role in government administration, impersonal bureaucratic norms could be an awkward or even self-defeating tool for the monarch to use. Rigid statutory prescriptions, which governed only the outer bounds of bureaucratic behavior, presumed no genuine, emotional connections between the throne and his “faceless” officials. The procedural straitjacket of bureaucratic routines also contributed to a slow- moving and precedent-bound administration that limited the monarch’s free will. 15 In this sense, the emperor was hampered by the very game rules he imposed on the officialdom for the sake of political efficiency and con- sistency. Other key factors that gave leverage to the outer court included the complexity of its functional specificity and the scope of its routine ac- tivities. The various waiting branches developed their own group identities as well as a collective sense of public responsibility, both of which might stand at odds with the throne’s private interest. In some extraordinary cases, a weak and cloistered emperor could be “dehumanized” into a “rub- ber stamp” in the hands of his well-entrenched officialdom. To escape the shackles of unwieldy bureaucratic decision-making, the throne often bypassed the cumbersome, unresponsive waiting while em- powering his most trustworthy confidants in the neiting. This small, infor- mal, and efficient coterie of imperial relatives and loyal ministers assisted monarchical control on a daily basis, offering consultation on all impor-

Court Politics and Imperial Visions


tant state affairs, processing memorials and drafting edicts, and supervis- ing the waiting’s work. 16 The emperor could recruit and dismiss them al- most at will, disregarding seniority, rank, and educational background as well as any procedural matters. At the full disposal of their imperial master, these private servants were expected to take his arbitrary whim as the su- preme law and to apply every possible means to facilitate autocratic rule. As a payoff, they received staunch imperial support while operating beyond the reach of regular legal restraints and bureaucratic supervision. 17 The power of the neiting officials thus lay in their “extralegal” status as well as their close, personalized association with the throne. Such unique privileges created “a new inner-court hegemony” during the high Qing pe- riod, as evinced by the successive establishment and development of neiting agencies like the Imperial Household Department, the Imperial Southern Study (Nanshufang), the Deliberative Council of Princes and Ministers (Yizhengwang Dachen Huiyi), and the Grand Council (Junjichu). 18 This extraordinary inner-court growth sharpened the boundary between the emperor’s private agents and public bureaucrats, which made the distinc- tion much clearer than it had been in the Ming. 19 It should be emphasized, however, that the distinction between inner court and outer court was by no means a hard-and-fast division. Neither was their separation absolute because, for better imperial control, the two interconnected domains of government power were built so as to tran- scend their narrow dichotomy. For instance, the neiting and waiting agen- cies did not have separate budgets in the modern sense. Neither did the Junjichu establish its own exclusive personnel, despite its status as a key part of the emperor’s private bureaucracy. All officials in this inner-court agency, whether the grand councilors or their secretaries and clerks (zhangjing), held concurrent positions in various outer-court agencies or even in the provinces as well. 20 With access to all kinds of information in- side and outside Beijing, the neiting functioned as the emperor’s eyes and ears for the purpose of expanding his dominance over the bureaucracy at different levels. Consequently, the neiting became the key intermediary linking the waiting agencies to the throne, helping make imperial rule ef- fective throughout the empire. To understand the full complexity of the emperor-bureaucracy rela- tionship, one should also look at another structural feature of imperial Chinese politics—the dual characteristics of the officialdom. Like the monarch, who had to balance his routine and arbitrary authority, imperial bureaucrats were also caught in the centuries-old dilemma of formal and informal power. To ensure uniformity and coordination of official action on a national scale, the early Chinese empires had already developed an



elaborate normative system of bureaucratic rules and formal procedures. Such a long-term emphasis on institution-building and legal-rational decision-making, as Max Weber stressed, helped the state achieve a high degree of efficiency in attaining specific goals. 21 Nevertheless, it is a commonplace that traditional Chinese government was based less on the rule of law than on the rule of men. After all, China’s state machine did not function in an isolated vacuum but as part of the general social system, to which bureaucrats had to make adaptations. 22 These officials, specifically, worked in a whole set of traditional relations defined primarily in terms of kinship, territoriality, and academic connec- tions. The different loyalty groups used a variety of informal sanctions, rewards, and symbols to induce people to behave according to their own rules of the game and to develop practices diverting or contradicting the state laws and government regulations. Such particularistic networks of mutual support provided a key founda- tion for the careers of most officials, giving them extralegal sources of power while also making them succumb to a range of informal rules and personal responsibilities. They tended to form patron-client ties or even factions by engaging in bribery, embezzlement, and gift-giving, which were necessitated by growing pressure on existing channels of social mobility, due to a perennial shortage of political resources. Increasingly thickening networks of patronage, faction-building, and corruption, as is clearly dem- onstrated in the late Qianlong reign, can also be understood as the officials’ defense mechanism against the arbitrary nature of monarchical power and its unpredictable pressure. These seemingly irrational practices had long been a built-in feature of the Chinese imperial system, which did not nec- essarily thwart its long-term running. If well regulated, they could even serve as the lubricant of political operation that moved the rusty wheels of the state machine forward. So the problem was not to get rid of them alto- gether but to limit them to a manageable scale so that a proper balance could be maintained between functional and dysfunctional forces within the officialdom. Qianlong’s exorbitant imperial control through the means of inner-court hegemony disrupted this dynamic balance and polarized the dual character of the bureaucratic system, in turn undermining its internal cohesion and heightening its operational cost.

Neiting Hegemony and Qianlong’s Dilemma

From a structural vantage point, the dramatic rise of the neiting’s power during the eighteenth century reflects another key organizational feature

Court Politics and Imperial Visions


of late imperial politics. During the Ming-Qing dynasties, most emperors sought to enhance their arbitrary monarchical power by tinkering with the easily controlled inner-court agencies while circumventing the influence of routinized outer-court bureaucracy. 23 The Qianlong reign, in particular, saw an unprecedented concentration of power in the emperor’s hands and its despotic use by such unscrupulous ministers as Heshen. Qianlong, due to his aggressive empire-building efforts and the growing personalization of imperial authority, needed a small and efficient neiting agency that could readily translate his ambitious goals into outcomes. To this end, he accorded enormous power to the Grand Council and made it a formidable “amalgamated organization” that coordinated a wide range of govern- ment affairs that used to be handled by different agencies. Consequently, this organ became the best tool of imperial power and the highest institu- tion in the Qing bureaucratic system. 24 The Junjichu’s phenomenal development brought some intractable problems. To put them in perspective, it is imperative to outline the shift- ing pattern of high politics during the Qianlong period. The emperor’s topmost echelon of officialdom, as Xiang Gao contends, underwent two major changes in the first two-thirds of his reign. He used young Manchu officials like Naqin and Fuheng, to lead his expansionist campaigns of frontier-making and, furthermore, to counterbalance longtime ministers like Zhang Tingyu and Ortai, inherited from his father’s reign. After the annexation of Xinjiang in 1760, Qianlong gradually shifted the focus of his emperorship from territorial expansion to political consolidation. As large-scale military campaigns came to an end, he found it necessary to rely more on highly educated Han Chinese officials like Liu Tongxun, Yu Minzhong, and later Liang Guozhi in the highest decision-making organs of the government. The latter two officials had been awarded the extraor- dinary title of zhuangyuan, the dux of the highest civil service examina- tions. All three served on the Grand Council and played a key role in its rapid growth during the mid-Qianlong period. 25 Liu and Yu even became the designated leaders of the agency—the “ranking grand councilors” (lingban junji dachen), who were essentially the heads or executive manag- ers of the ruling bureaucracy. Nevertheless, from the 1770s onward, Qianlong became increasingly wary of his dependency on the empowered Junjichu, fearing that it would thwart his free exercise of imperial will. This change of attitude can be at- tributed to his deep-rooted distrust of Han officials, who for the first time began playing a predominant role in this inner-court agency. The rising power and influence of Chinese councilors, as Wook Yoon points out, was largely achieved through faction-building based on teacher-student



relationships embedded in examination politics. 26 Qianlong’s uneasy feel- ing was also triggered and reinforced by the simultaneous weakening of his personal network of Manchu supporters between 1764 and 1779. Michael G. Chang calls attention to a “generational shift” that occurred during this short period of fifteen years as “an entire cohort of stalwarts at Qianlong’s court, most of them bannermen and bondservants, passed away.” Two principal examples were the deaths of Fuheng (1770) and Yin- jishan (1771), the emperor’s most trusted Manchu ministers and the lead- ing grand councilors. 27 In the following decade or so, the Junjichu was controlled by powerful Han Chinese cliques that clustered around the new head councilors Liu Tongxun and Yu Minzhong. Most of their members came from the larger “Northern Scholars Clique,” led by Liu’s students Weng Fanggang, Zhu Yun, and his younger brother Zhu Gui. Thanks in large part to academic patronage and regional affinity, these members emerged into political prominence through the conventional process of the civil service examination, which was heavily influenced at the time by the two Chinese councilors (Liu and Yu). 28 It is noteworthy that, ironically, Qianlong himself had promoted the rise of the Northern Scholars Clique, in an effort to undercut the sway of Zhang Tingyu, his father’s leading statesman of southern Chinese background. 29 Before long, however, Qianlong’s worries about the Manchu identity, as exemplified in his stalled campaign against the soulstealing scare of 1768, came back to haunt him. The emperor found himself increasingly threat- ened by the rise of Han officials within the Junjichu, whose shared experi- ence in the standardized examinations gave them not only strong personal bonds but also a common appreciation for routinized bureaucratic rule. Such routinization produced individuals with highly specialized knowl- edge, allowing government agencies to operate according to their own rational logic and to develop multiple spheres of competence beyond the emperor’s personal control. Left unchecked, Qianlong reasoned, these dangerous proclivities within the highest decision-making agency might undermine his arbitrary power and moreover endanger the “Manchu ethno-dynastic domination.” Put simply, the emperor feared that his loyal instrument of absolute rule had become a threat to him, with a triumph of bureaucratic routinization and administrative rationalization ingrained in examination-based politics. In a desperate attempt to circumvent this looming menace, Qianlong engineered the rise of his young imperial bodyguard, the Manchu banner- man Heshen, whose official career was the most spectacular one in Qing history. From the late 1770s on, the emperor encouraged this new political superstar to form a Manchu-led “hyper-faction” and pitted it against the

Court Politics and Imperial Visions


Han-dominated cliques led by Liu Tongxun, Yu Minzhong, and Liang Guozhi. This imperially created faction included intimate servants and loyal ministers of Manchu origin like Fukang’an, Fuchang’an, and Fengsheng’e. Most of them entered top officialdom by irregular paths, for example serv- ing as Qianlong’s bodyguards, thanks to their kinship or other special ties with the imperial family (like marriage). Most of these privileged neiting officials, not surprisingly, harbored ill-feelings toward those who gained high offices through examinations. By using one clique to counteract the other, the old emperor deliberately promoted and exploited the cleavages within the Grand Council. 30 This time-honored strategy of “divide and conquer” helped Qianlong secure his control over the Junjichu in the last two decades of his rule. It also transformed Heshen into the most formidable minister, interposed between the aging emperor and his outer-court agencies with both monar- chical and bureaucratic powers in his hands. 31 As a long-serving councilor and the imperial favorite, he was best positioned to reap profits from the Junjichu’s extraordinary growth and the tensions (factional and ethnic) within it. Generally, in the Qing official hierarchy, grand secretaries (neige daxueshi) enjoyed the highest honor and prestige; grand councilors wielded the greatest de facto power; grand ministers in attendance (yuqian dachen) and the directors of the Imperial Household Department were closest to the emperor. In his political career of twenty-five years, Heshen had the unbelievable luck to assume all these awe-inspiring posts that straddled the outer and inner courts. In addition, he also served as the presidents of the Boards of Revenue, Personnel, Punishments, and War. During “his tacitly accepted if not legally admissible regency,” this court favorite largely con- trolled the executive powers of the late Qianlong government, bolstered by a far-flung patronage network spanning the whole political system. He also was the father-in-law of Princess Gulun Hexiao, the old emperor’s youngest and favorite daughter. This marriage alliance put this imperial in-law under the ironclad protection of the emperor, fortifying his position to a point of impregnability. By the 1790s, Heshen had become so power- ful that he was taken to be the “second emperor” by Korean and British envoys to Beijing. Sir George Staunton, who accompanied Lord George McCartney’s embassy to China in 1793, thought that this minister “might be said to possess, in fact, under the emperor, the whole power of the empire.” 32 By orchestrating the meteoric rise of his untitled regent, Qianlong quickly regained Manchu dominance of the Grand Council and strengthened his control over the empowered inner court. This newly enhanced strategy of “checks and balances” encountered great difficulties in the 1790s, however,



as Heshen’s hegemony created great tensions within the Council and, fur- thermore, serious political disequilibrium in the officialdom. Tensions de- veloped to such a high pitch that the Junjichu ceased to meet as a body before Qianlong’s halfhearted abdication. The power of the regent reached its peak in the subsequent three years, since Qianlong was too old to exer- cise his power properly and the succeeding emperor, Jiaqing, was simply not allowed to rule. As for effective political counterbalance, it became virtually nonexistent after the death of the leading councilor Agui, a Liu Tongxun disciple and a longtime rival of Heshen, in August 1797. Albeit a Manchu minister, he had been the flag-bearer of the Han Chinese cliques established by his late teacher and the deceased Yu Minzhong. 33 Seen from this perspective, Qianlong’s strong empowerment of the neit- ing destroyed its overall balance with the waiting, provoking an acute in- stitutional crisis in the Qing court. This crisis brought home a profound dilemma bedeviling late Qianlong politics: the throne’s obsession with short-term, personal