Wretched Rebels

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

Wretched Rebels
by Lucien Bianco
Harvard University Press, HK$431

Of the 15 million soldiers enlisted by China during the second world war, eight million disappeared - deserting or abandoned by the army. 'A conscript's life usually ended on the day he disappeared down the road, shackled to his fellows.'

This is the most startling revelation in Wretched Rebels - Rural Disturbances on the Eve of the Chinese Revolution, written by Lucien Bianco, a French scholar. It is a condensed translation of his prize-winning book on unrest in the Chinese countryside. It is an academic work, which does not make it easy for the general reader, and deals with protests by the peasants, not those instigated by the Communists, the Nationalists or activist intellectuals.

The most interesting sections deal with resistance to conscription during the war with Japan from 1937 to 1945. Since the Japanese had conquered the major cities and provinces of the east and southeast, conscription was concentrated in the provinces still controlled by the Nationalist government, especially Sichuan, which alone provided three million of those enlisted.

The system of conscription was corrupt and unfair, one reason why farmers resisted it so strongly. 'For a Chinese peasant, conscription is a scourge comparable to famine or floods, except that it strikes them more regularly - twice a year - and leaves more victims,' was the excellent description by United States General Albert Coady Wedemeyer.

There were many ways to avoid the draft: study, work in a government office or enterprise considered to be more important than serving at the front, paying the recruiting officer in money or kind, or going to work in coal and salt mines - occupations also exempt. Others cut off their index fingers so that they could not pull the trigger or even removed an eye so they could not aim. Others fled, taking refuge in remote regions, joining secret societies or going to work as rickshaw pullers or domestic servants in the cities.

The government instituted a lottery, which was rigged; the rich could pay for their names to be withdrawn and, if it were drawn, could buy stand-ins.

For the family, conscription was a disaster. They lost one or several workers during their prime of life; and, since there was no leave, they would not see them again until the end of the war. If they survived.

This resistance produced large-scale rebellions. One in eastern Guizhou lasted 10 months from August 1942 and involved 20,000 insurgents. Officials rounded up two out of three sons per family, instead of the official one, as well as only sons, who were supposed to be exempt. The rebels took over 14 counties and defeated the local militia. An army division was sent in, with great loss of life.

Another rebellion in southern Gansu, between December 1942 and July 1943, involved up to 80,000 people. It was also crushed by the army, who killed 14,000 rebels and took 18,000 prisoner.

The book also covers other forms of peasant revolt - resistance to collection of taxes and goods for the military, churches, schools, suppression of opium and a ban on praying for rain and wearing pigtails. In one village in Shaanxi in 1913, residents killed three militiamen who had come to discipline two sets of parents: they had insulted the teacher of their children for removing their pigtails. This snowballed into a revolt. In revenge, the militia killed hundreds of the rebels, burned homes and confiscated property.

The book is good for scholars and enthusiasts of Chinese history. But if you want to know the major historical events of China in the 20th century, read another book.