What can the fieldwork of a plucky sociology student reveal about rural Chinese history?
In 1939, residents of Hope Township, a rural village close to Chengdu, watched Lei Mingyuan, a leader of the local chapter of a secret society called the Paoge, execute his own teenage daughter on the strength of a mere rumor that she and a young tailor who worked for his family were having an illicit affair. Despite the brutal and brazen nature of his crime, however, Lei did not face any charges; lynching was prevalent and the rule of law was problematic at the time. Six years later, in the summer of 1945, Shen Baoyuan, a female college student in the Department of Sociology at Beijing’s Yenching University, arrived in Hope Township to conduct fieldwork and research on the social organization of rural secret societies. She met Lei and his family and documented rare insights not only about the tragic murder but about the inner workings of the Paoge. This work never became published or recognized—at least, that is, until now.
I had wanted to write a book on the Paoge as early as the 1980s when I worked on a social history of Qing Sichuan. About a decade ago, a friend of mine found Shen’s report and offered me a copy. I realized that Shen’s report was useful, but as I was concentrating on another project at the time, I gave it no immediate thought, and the report languished on my shelf for years. During the spring of 2009, while teaching history at Berkeley, I poured over all “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao) from provincial and county to district administrations in Sichuan on the shelves of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library. This provided me with rich background information on the Paoge, and in 2014, with another book nearing completion, I began to give serious thought to a project on this influential and longstanding secret society. That summer, I taught a graduate seminar at East China Normal University in which I used several classic works of micro-history such as The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. These works inspired me to attempt a micro-history of my own, based on Shen Baoyuan’s investigation.
Established in the seventeenth century as an anti-Manchu secret society, the Paoge was the most influential social organization in Qing and Republican Sichuan. On the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in 1949, the Paoge’s power swept through all classes of people and also infiltrated all levels of government, the police, and even the military, resulting in a mutually dependent relationship with local authorities. No other grassroots organization in China has exerted such a sustained and profound influence on local politics and everyday life. They had many branches but no unified headquarters. Lei Mingyuan was deputy chief of the local branch of the Paoge. When Shen conducted her investigation, Lei had gone into his own personal decline, not only an economic and political decline but also a physical one due to opium addiction. Shen considered Lei’s fading the result of a "metabolic force" within the Paoge organization.
Lei Mingyuan and Shen Baoyuan came from two very different worlds, but they did interact in the summer of 1945. The former was investigated and described, and the latter was the investigator and narrator of the former’s story. Ultimately, through Shen’s report we view the Paoge and one of their families through the eyes of a Western-trained sociology student, who exhibited youthful thinking, youthful influences, and a bit of naïveté. The topic Shen chose was quite challenging. Most fieldwork like this at the time concerned industry, economy, life, customs, and so on, in which the subjects were not sensitive to a certain social group or organization, much less concerned by having their conspiracy be revealed. Although the secret society was semi-public, after all, it was still explicitly banned. Furthermore, the Paoge maintained stringent rules to protect secrets and to punish violators. Her study involved problems and dangers.
Established in the seventeenth century as an anti-Manchu secret society, the Paoge was the most influential social organization in Qing and Republican Sichuan.
But before I began writing my micro-history, some questions needed to be answered if I were to use Shen’s fieldwork as a historical source: First, since Shen used pseudonyms in her report, there was the question of where exactly Shen’s investigation took place, not to mention the true name of Lei Mingyuan—the main subject whom Shen interviewed. Second, I wondered whether she knew anything of Lei Mingyuan’s situation after 1949, the year Communists took over China. If I could find Shen, these puzzles would be solved. In early July 2014, I started looking for her, and, after many difficulties, I was finally able to speak directly to Shen. But the result was disappointing: Our whole talk probably lasted only two or three minutes. After I explained why I was contacting her, Shen said, "I have been suffering Alzheimer’s disease and cannot remember anything in the past. I do not want to waste your time.” It was apparent that she did not want to be disturbed on this matter. If I had started to write this book ten years earlier, when my friend first brought her report to my attention, the situation would have been completely different.
The fact that I could not check the historical facts with Shen, however, might not have been entirely disadvantageous. We must recognize that even without the problem of her having lost memory, whatever she could tell me today about events in the 1940s might be a “reproduction” of history. Therefore, largely relying on Shen’s fieldwork report—which is indeed a contemporary record of her original investigation—while digging deeper into other historical sources, still furnishes us with a rich account of the Paoge’s history in rural China as well as offering some insight into the political climate of the country at the time.
Shen’s investigation into the Paoge was actually part of a movement prompted by leftist intellectuals.
Shen, for instance, was clearly a left-wing student, and an active member of the Sea Swallows Troupe of her university, founded in the fall of 1942 and named after the famous poem “Sea Swallows” by Maxim Gorky—the Russian writer who was famously devoted to the communist revolution. Furthermore, Shen’s name appeared on a statement titled “An Appeal from Chengdu’s Cultural Circle about the Current Political Situation” signed by 248 people on September 29th, 1945, including many celebrities in Chinese literature and the arts. They demanded the Nationalist government “immediately end the one-party dictatorship” and “unconditionally protect basic human rights, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion.” When the appeal was made, Mao Zedong had arrived in Chongqing for negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek concerning the ongoing civil war.
Shen’s investigation into the Paoge was actually part of the movement prompted by leftist intellectuals who regarded themselves as “rural activists.” Shen acknowledged that she did not have a clear idea what she would study, before she arrived in Hope Township. Subsequently, however, she recognized the influence of the Paoge everywhere and found that they occupied a central place in local power structures. This phenomenon caused her to gain an “interest in the study of such an organization and a willingness to take this opportunity to gather information about them,” which would only eventually become the “real motivation for [her] thesis.”
Shen Baoyuan’s rural investigations of 1945 reveals how early Chinese sociologists and anthropologists approached rural communities, how intellectuals in the Republican era tried to solve rural problems, and how the introduction of Western sociology and anthropology influenced them. We are also given rare access to an individual, Lei, and his family in a rural community that had little impact on the nation’s broader struggles, but was nonetheless connected to prominent scholars who did have an intellectual impact on China. A place as small as Hope Township was thus linked to the historical turns of Chinese society broadly writ as well as to intellectual trends that transcended the country’s borders.