Banditry and the Subversion of State Authority in China: The Capital Region during the Middle Ming Period (1450-1525)

By Robinson, David M. | Journal of Social History, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Banditry and the Subversion of State Authority in China: The Capital Region during the Middle Ming Period (1450-1525)


Robinson, David M., Journal of Social History


By 1500 or so, the principal dynastic capital of the Ming, Beijing, [1] had a population of between 800,000 and one million [2] and oversaw a China that had largely overcome the political, economic, and social dislocations attendant upon both the destructive battles of the dynastic founding of the mid and late fourteenth century and the civil war of 1399--1403. [3] Indeed, stretching some 1,200 miles from the Great Wall in the north to semi-tropical ricelands of the south and over 1,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the rugged wind-swept province of Shaanxi to the west, in 1500, the Ming empire was one of the greatest in the world at the time. It was the most populous country by far, with an estimated population of over 155 million at the turn of the sixteenth century [4] (compared with approximately 60 million for all of Europe). [5] Just as China's increasingly vibrant economy was poised for a century-long period of expansion, [6] the cultural realm too was emerging from a fifteenth century "s lump" to embark upon a brilliant florescence in printing, literature, painting, and thought. [7]

Ming government was among the largest and most sophisticated in the world. From his palace in Beijing, the emperor oversaw a bureaucracy of over 20,000 men and a subbureaucracy several hundred times that size. [8] They staffed the central government and the 1,200 or so prefectural, subprefectural, and county seats spread across the empire. [9] Although it may have been devilishly complex and often times inefficient, many European observers of the late sixteenth century described the Chinese bureaucracy with considerable admiration. The Augustianian monk Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza wrote in his very influential 1585 work on China, "this mightie kingdome is one of the best ruled and gouerned of any that is at this time knowen in all the world ..." [10]

For all the apparent power and glory of the Ming, there were, however, serious breaches in domestic security, even in the heart of the empire--the Capital Region. The experience of one lowly clerk is suggestive. By mid-summer 1468, the clerk, Shi Huizong, had just begun the last leg of a nearly thousand-mile journey from his hometown, Fuqing County, in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian to the capital in Beijing. Shi, like hundreds of other clerks and assorted minor functionaries throughout the Ming empire, was making an annual delivery of tax silver and other tribute items. However, misfortune struck when he reached Huoxian, a prosperous entrepot along the Grand Canal less than 25 miles south of the capital. There, armed bandits seized the silver, his luggage, silks, and travel money. Shi's fate was not an isolated incident. Many officials from the southern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangxi also complained that their residents were similarly robbed in the Capital Region while attempting to deliver taxes and tribute to Beijing. The officials took pains to point out that imperial troops from garrisons around the capital were often among the bandits who preyed upon their clerks. [11]

To students of early modern European history, the fact that such men as Shi could safely transport their cargo over nearly one thousand miles, roughly the distance between Paris and Cracow, may seem striking. Safe passage over such a distance suggests a strong central government with considerable political, economic, and military resources. For those who study China, perhaps it is the site of the robbery that is more surprising. Surely if Shi was to be robbed, it should have been in distant mountainous Fujian with its reputation for quick-tempered and unruly natives, not in the suburbs of the empire's capital.

Indeed, in his pioneering and widely-cited 1991 Disorder under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty, James Tong concluded that the overwhelming majority of outlaws were concentrated in southern China, far from the imperial capital. [12] Based on a statistical analysis of 131 prefectural gazetteers, Tong in fact discovered only one instance of predatory banditry in the Northern Metropolitan Area during the first half of the dynasty. …

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