Tiger, Tyrant, Bandit, Businessman: A Conversation with Brian DeMare

The rural county of Poyang in northern Jiangxi Province goes largely unmentioned in the annals of modern Chinese history. Yet records from the Public Security Bureau archive hold a treasure trove of data on the everyday interactions between locals and the law. Drawing on these largely overlooked resources, in Tiger, Tyrant, Bandit, Businessman: Echoes of Counterrevolution from New China (Stanford University Press, 2022), Brian DeMare follows four criminal cases that together uniquely illuminate the dawning years of the People’s Republic of China. 

Ivan Franceschini: Your book is based on four criminal casefiles produced by security officers in Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, in the early years of the People’s Republic of China, each of which is related to a different investigation into counterrevolutionary activities in the area. What challenges did these sources present and how did you deal with them?

Brian DeMare: The documents contained in the four casefiles are, by a wide margin, the most difficult and burdensome sources I have ever encountered in my two decades as a historian. Their authors often wrote in non-standard or incorrect characters, creating a continuous stream of textual problems. A mistake I found in the book’s third casefile, ‘The Case of the Bodhisattva Society’, provides a fine example: entering a wrong name into their records, security officers accidently obscured the identity of an important victim. Their mistake vexed me for years until I came across the victim’s correct name buried in a long list of local martyrs. As a historian, there is nothing quite like the rush of solving a longstanding archival mystery. These moments, however, are hard-earned.

The most challenging aspect of these documents is that none of them can be taken at face value as ‘true’. Every voice in this archive is suspect. Witnesses stressed their innocence at every turn. And security officers had rigid preconceptions about rural society and the citizens they charged as ‘counterrevolutionaries’. There is no way to truly solve these textual problems. My strategy was to bring the reader into the process of working with these documents and reveal a bit of insight into the craft of history. Navigating the casefiles is no easy task, but the reward is an intimate view of rural revolution through a multiplicity of fascinating and real-life characters.

IF: Why did you choose to arrange the book around the stories of four individuals (the tiger, tyrant, bandit, and businessman of the title), rather than a perhaps more straightforward chronological approach?

BD: My process of working with the individual casefiles led to the book’s unique structure. At the start of the project, my main goal was a comprehension of the basic contours of each case. This required putting together a timeline of events. The casefile narratives grew naturally through the process of writing, as archival finds enriched and challenged my understanding of the events of the four cases. Workshopping the book with my students confirmed my belief that the process of rural revolution was best told through a series of smaller stories centred on individual experiences. This also allowed me to put a spotlight on the amazing characters I discovered in the documents. Then one of my readers suggested that the book would benefit from a timeline that wove all four casefiles together. I quickly discovered that lining up the various dates of crimes, arrests, and executions revealed the contours of the arrival of Communist power in the countryside. This is an important story that I explore in the book’s conclusion. 

IF: In the book’s subtitle, you refer to ‘New China’. What do the stories included in the volume tell us about continuities and discontinuities between the new state established by the Communists and earlier regimes?

BD: When my modern China survey course reaches 1949, I always pause to discuss the many similarities between the Republic and the People’s Republic. But from the perspective of Poyang citizens, the local People’s Government was a radical innovation, starting with its promise to serve the people. Work teams brought the state ever deeper into the countryside through mass movements, political, and legal campaigns designed to root out the old elite. The power of New China caught some Poyang villagers by surprise. Big Tiger, a major player in the book’s second casefile, lived in a tight-knit mountain community. Far from the county government down in Poyang Town and surrounded by his influential and protective family, he had been used to getting his way. Bureaucrats serving previous regimes had long desired to extend the reach of the state to communities such as his but had been consistently stymied by families and other local networks. As readers will discover, Big Tiger would realise that the cadres of the People’s Government were able to flex their muscles in the most remote of mountain communities. 

IF: Regarding this issue of continuity and rupture, I was particularly intrigued by your discussions of the ‘weaponisation’ of language not only by the newly established Party-State but also by ordinary citizens. Old derogatory terms like ‘bandits’, ‘evil tyrants’, and ‘fake’ officials were now used in new ways, to support the Communist project to reorganise Chinese society from the grassroots. At the same time, ordinary citizens appropriated this new language in their petitions, accusations, and self-defences. However, you also mention that ‘the labels the party handed out were often ill-fits for the citizens who endured them, but all too often the label mattered more than reality’ (p. 52), and you argue that ‘the weaponized words of the revolution became especially dangerous as they became disconnected from the reality of the rural scene’ (pp. 77–78). How did a discourse that in many ways was so detached from reality manage to take root so quickly in Chinese society? What does this tell us about the relationship between language and power?

BD: Poyang citizens were quite adept at using the Party’s rhetoric in the statements they made when dealing with the new regime’s legal system. They quickly understood that language and power were now inseparable. By mastering weaponised words, Poyang citizens appropriated the power of the state for their own aims. It is striking how easy it was for rhetoric to displace reality. In the book’s final casefile, an innocent man is nearly executed for a host of unsavoury crimes he never committed. In the end, the Communists got it right and released him from jail. But the fact he was so easily transformed into a counterrevolutionary underlines how the power of these weaponised words was rooted in their flexibility. Some weaponised words, such as ‘bandit’, had long been used with little regard for reality. And new terms like ‘counterrevolutionary’ and even ‘landlord’ found surprising applications in Poyang villages. As I argue in the book, this was not a phenomenon unique to Poyang, but in fact a defining feature of the Chinese Revolution. 

IF: From phantomatic secret societies coalescing around holy statues to ghosts of undead landlords roaming the countryside, from Daoist fortune-tellers predicting the death of Mao Zedong to rumours about an impending Nationalist return, another recurring theme in the book is that of superstition and ‘fake news’. How did the new Communist powerholders deal with that challenge?

BD: There is no doubt that during this moment of regime change, policing the line between true and false was essential for the Communists. But the scope and intensity of superstition and rumour in the Poyang countryside made this a challenging task. While I expected to find some rumours, such as the oft-told tale of the imminent return of the Nationalists, others surprised or even shocked me. The legend of a landlord coming back from the dead to roam the mountains and threaten the new regime was particularly fascinating. In response, Poyang security officers travelled to the landlord’s home village to dig up his grave, revealing his rotten corpse. This extreme commitment to dispelling rumours suggests that, for the Communists, command of the truth was essential to their command over the countryside.

IF: In all the casefiles on which you worked, only one woman is mentioned, and it is in a less-than-flattering way, in relation to an affair she had with the criminal Big Tiger. What does this absence from the official record tell us about the situation of women in those early years of the People’s Republic?

BD: The lack of female voices in the casefiles was a tremendous disappointment but not a surprise. The crimes at the heart of the cases—murder and counterrevolution—are typically male endeavours. That made the tale of Miss Zhao, who found herself entangled with Big Tiger, all the more fascinating. Her ability to navigate her lover’s downfall and criminal prosecution while divorcing her husband highlights both her personal agency and the centrality of women and sexuality in village China. She appears in the documents because her personal ties with Big Tiger helped directly lead to his trial, but there is nothing in the casefile that suggests she was otherwise noteworthy. I have come to believe that women played important but hidden roles in all of the book’s four casefiles and invite readers to think about the many women who helped shaped Poyang history. 

IF: In the gallery of characters you portray, is there one you favour? I found myself sympathising with Merchant Zha, the protagonist of the fourth casefile, a poor fellow who had terrible luck and made all possible wrong choices at the wrong time.

BD: The book starts and ends with two great characters. The first casefile features Scholarly Wu, a Confucian gentleman who nearly found himself marching with bandits to take on the People’s Liberation Army. And I close the book with the case of Merchant Zha, who as you mention was an outsider dogged by bad luck. These two men suffered no shortage of misfortune, but luckily Scholarly Wu and Merchant Zha both had their day in court. In their testimonies, they insisted on their innocence, and I was lucky enough to find their voices in the archives. Discovering and sharing the voices of these two fascinating but flawed rural citizens has been one of the highlights of my career as a historian. Perhaps that’s why these days I find myself most thinking about Kuang Number Four, the peasant who unwittingly played a decisive role in the downfall of what security officers called the Bodhisattva Society. Because his testimony is missing from the archives, his voice has been lost to history—a small tragedy in the epic story of China’s revolution, but a tragedy nevertheless.

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Brian DeMare

Brian DeMare teaches modern Chinese history at Tulane University. A cultural historian, he is primarily interested in exploring how Chinese citizens have navigated everyday life under Communist Party rule. His books include Mao’s Cultural Army: Drama Troupes in China's Rural Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Land Wars: The Story of China's Agrarian Revolution (Stanford University Press, 2019), and the latest Tiger, Tyrant, Bandit, Businessman (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Ivan Franceschini

Ivan Franceschini is an incoming lecturer at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Melbourne. His expertise lies in the field of labour rights, with a specific focus on China and Cambodia. His latest books include Xinjiang Year Zero (ANU Press, 2022), Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour (Verso Books, 2022), and Global China as Method (Cambridge University Press, 2022). With Tommaso Facchin, he co-directed the documentaries Dreamwork China (2011) and Boramey: Ghosts in the Factory (2021). He is a founder and chief editor of the Made in China Journal, The People’s Map of Global China, and Global China Pulse. He is currently working on a new book on modern slavery in the online scam industry in East and Southeast Asia, which will be published by Verso in 2025.

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