Local Heroes or Aboriginal Predators?: 土匪 or “Embedded Banditti” in PRC Lore

Marxism and Mao never DID get on well together. But this is no news.

What needs more attention is not who his first-phase constituents WERE NOT (urban workers/proletariat), but who they WERE. There is already a degree of evasion in the early-on use of the facile “Peasant Rebellion” (nongmin qiyi) designation. Starting with the chapter-opening “Autumn Harvest Uprising” 秋收起义 of Sept. 1927, a widely fragmented series of confiscatory and or revanchist acts of violence spread across seven pockets dispersed across three (?) different provinces – Hunan, Jiangxi and Hubei, there was a good deal of unorganized, truly spontaneous backcountry violence too widely discontiguous to be explained by any single command or plan.

The key tag in all of the narratives is the almost ubiquitous binome 土匪, lit. “territorially [embedded] banditti”, the more revealing word being “tu”. Like many but not all political descriptives used to identify a tension, it can be read, as it were, from top down (elite view) to bottom up (indigene view). From the elite or government point of view, it meant territorially confined and attached, always to small stretches of out-of-the-way, hard to reconnoiter terrain. The perimeter might or might not include settled villages, though it was only when such settlements were within the “territory” (tu) that the potential for insubordination became serious. There were also, however, standalone “embedded bandits” in the flatcountry of North China who took advantage of tall-stalk crops’ natural cover to plant themselves near lesser roadways or trails and waylay isolated travellers (merchants). In essence toll-collectors. These were (literally) The “heroes” of the brush/bushes (caomang), much storied in vernacular literature because, like the gunmen of the Ol’ West, they were true survivors.

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