Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945

By Elizabeth J. Perry | Go to book overview

1. Introduction

Why do some peasants rebel?* Scholars have argued at length over issues of peasant personality, class identity, social organization, and political proclivities. Yet any search for universal answers must bow before the undeniable fact that only some peasants rebel. Furthermore, only in certain geographical areas does rebellion seem to recur frequently and persistently.

Students of China have long recognized the importance of regional differences in rebel behavior. Although China lays claim to an exceptionally ancient and colorful history of rural insurgency, the turmoil tended to cluster in particular geographical pockets. The bandits of the Shantung marshes, the pirates off the Fukien Coast, the brigands of the Shensi hinterland--all are local figures of long-standing fame. Yet despite widespread recognition of the existence of local traditions, very little scholarship has been directed at solving the mystery of why particular regions tended consistently to produce such patterns.

This book seeks to answer the question of why peasants rebelled for one key area of China: Huai-pei, site of the first recorded popular uprising in Chinese history and of countless subsequent rebellions down through the ages. By examining a century of rural violence in one notably rebellious region, the

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*
The term peasant here refers to a rural cultivator living within a state system, the fruits of whose labor go primarily for family consumption, rather than for marketing. Since the household is the basic accounting unit in a peasant society, members of a household whose basic livelihood is derived from agricultural work are referred to as peasants, even though many of these individuals engage regularly in nonfarming occupations to augment household incomes. (Numeral superscripts refer to the Notes, pp. 274-93, used primarily for source citations.)

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