Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945

By Elizabeth J. Perry | Go to book overview

5. Protectors Turn Rebels: The Case of the Red Spears

The Ch'ing government's encouragement of local defense measures, although an effective method for subduing the Nien, opened the way to alternative forms of resistance. Mid- nineteenth-century Huai-pei had witnessed a rebellion of predators. In the early twentieth century, by contrast, it was the protective strategy that launched an antigovernment assault. The Red Spear Society (hung-ch'iang-hui) was a rural self- defense movement well known for its success in combating bandits, warlords, and tax collectors alike. For virtually the entire Republican period ( 1911-49), intermittent Red Spear activities posed a major challenge to government control in North China.

Much of the explanation for this turnabout from predatory to protective rebellion lies in the development of local militia, which had mushroomed in response to the Nien and Taipings. The emergence of this institution altered the balance of collective action in Huai-pei, strengthening the hand of the protective strategy. Led for the most part by local notables anxious to defend their resources against outside incursions of any sort, the militia proved effective not only in combating banditry, but in resisting taxes as well. A second and related reason for this change in the form of rebellion was precisely the growing tax burden that accompanied the demise of the Ch'ing. As outside exactions increased in the form of higher land taxes and surcharges, rural property holders were quick to redirect their defensive energies in opposition to these new demands.

The unruly potential of the local militia had already been strik

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