Friday, September 4, 2015

To the Brethren of the Big Sword Society

I’ve been hard at work researching for my paper and I came across a very interesting document. It was written by the Communists in Jiangxi province in 1933. This was written in the midst of the final encirclement campaign that expelled the Communists from the province.  The document urges members of this secret society to leave their “bad landlords” (or the tu hao lie shen, “evil gentry”, as compared to the upright gentry). If they joined the Communists the party was willing to forgive their past mistakes.[1] 

There is a ton of meaning associated with this short document.  I’ve argued elsewhere that the Gadianton Robbers represented contested power centers.  In Nephite history the central government increasingly lost control, as represented by a rise in ethnic others and competing power centers. We see that here with the definitions of “bad” and “upright” landlords represented local power holders. Every society has bandits, but then some of these power holders had private groups of soldiers to protect themselves from bandits. They also used those personal soldiers to extort locals through tolls and taxes or even counter raids. The Book of Helaman is replete with condemnations against “getting gain” and examples of political fragmentation.[2]  At some point it seems every leader in Chinese society relied upon local bandit leaders to provide muscle, yet those in power had relatives or friends in positions of higher power that could legitimize these groups as militia. Stephen Averill even said that line between bandit gangs and official militias, brigand chiefs and local power holders was so often indistinct as to be nonexistent.[3]  In the Book of Mormon you might consider how fully half of Nephite lands were returned to their possession upon the conversion of a few elites.  That makes sense well connected local elites suddenly shift their allegiance.  (Compare Helaman 4 with 5:32) Huang Li Rui for example had extensive land that produced a large yearly income, 20 armed retainers that protected and promoted economic activity on that land (including bandit like activity), a son that was a militia leader, a grandson that was a government official in the main town, another son in the provincial assembly, he controlled numerous companies that traded across provinces, and he had numerous other familial connections.  In the shifting alliances of power forced by the Communist insurgency and Nationalist counterinsurgency,  a personal conversion or statement of loyalty to one side or the other could shift a great deal of power.

The brotherhoods then actually acted as a way to replace familial connections among the poor youth (those most likely to become bandits) provide protection, and enhanced their ability to coordinate strategies in their fight for economic and political power against people like Huang.  Thus the line between bandits, militia of a hated rival, private bodyguards, deputized law enforcement officers, or insurgents, became incredibly blurred. Moreover, I wrote in my second book, that the letter from the leader of the Gadianton Robbers, was pre-invasion propaganda designed to enhance his strength.  So it doesn’t surprise me that Communists who need strength to resist nationalist invasion send a letter to their “brothers’” that promises to forgive them if they joined forces.  The Communists were engaged in a multifaceted battle with the Nationalists that included military force and political persuasion.  On the local level that meant there were competing groups vying for power. Labels are very powerful, and labels like bandit were used to stigmatize. Yet early Communist forces had large components of bandits, including the entire forces of the two largest bandit groups nearest the Jinggangshan mountain base.  So when Chiang Kai-Shek labelled his campaign as bandit suppression and encirclement, it reflected an overt political attack on Communists, but it also reflected the way a political military fight can blur the boundaries with and reflect lawless banditry.  And its why a letter written by the Communists in 1933, can use almost the same words as a letter in 3rd Nephi chapter 3.

As you can see, I have many great ideas that I’d like to discuss further. I hope to be able to organize all of my fascinating research into a compelling article or presentation soon. Thanks for reading.

[1] CCP Kwang-Chang Central Committee, A Few Words to the Brethren of the Big Sword Society, December 22nd, 1933. Chen Cheng Collection, Reel III, no. 16, Hoover Library, Stanford California.
[2] This post focuses more on my research into Chinese insurgency, but interested parties can click the links and find scriptures that support my assertions.
[3] Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: The Jinggangshan Base Area 1927-1929. (New York, Rowan and Littlefield, 2007), 57. 

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