The Newsletter 78 Autumn 2017

Bandits and the State

Robert Antony

Reviewed title:
Bradley Camp Davis. 2017
Imperial Bandits: Outlaws and Rebels in the China-Vietnam Borderland
University of Washington Press
ISBN 9780295742052

If clothes make the man then we can say that the clothes of bandits came in all shapes and sizes. There was no such thing as the typical bandit, no one size fits all. Some bandits neatly fit Eric Hobsbawm’s formula for social bandits who robbed the rich and gave to the poor and who lived among and protected peasant communities. Others, and probably most, simply looked out for themselves, plundering both rich and poor. Some bandits were career professionals, but most were simply amateurs who took up banditry as a part-time job to supplement meagre legitimate earnings. While some bandits formed large permanent gangs, even armies numbering into the thousands, other gangs were ad hoc and small, usually only numbering in the tens or twenties. Most small gangs disbanded after a few heists. Many of the larger, more permanent gangs tended to operate in remote areas far away from the seats of government, but some gangs, usually the smaller impermanent ones, also operated in densely populated core areas. Although some bandits had political ambitions and received recognition and legitimacy from the state, most simply remained thugs and criminals throughout their careers. None of these categories, however, were mutually exclusive, as roles – like clothes – often changed according to circumstances.

Bradley Camp Davis’s book is a detailed, well-written study of one type of brigand that he calls ‘imperial bandits’. They were, for the most part, large permanent bandit armies referred to as the Black Flags and Yellow Flags who operated in the highlands on the nebulous Sino-Vietnamese borderland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were ‘imperial’ because they were frequently sanctioned first by the royal Vietnamese or Chinese governments and later by the French colonial government, which in all cases attempted to tame and use the bandits for carrying out their own expansionist agendas. The Vietnamese, Chinese, and French governments bestowed official titles and ranks on bandit leaders in efforts to transform their unruly bands into disciplined armies to fight their enemies and control borderland areas nominally outside the reach of the state. The results were mixed. Under such conditions the categories of bandit and official became quite flexible.

Both the Black Flags and Yellow Flags took advantage of state weaknesses in the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands. These bandit armies were a motley throng of poor Chinese refugees, Vietnamese peasants, and highland aborigine groups, but their leaders were almost always Chinese. The most famous leader of the Black Flags was Liu Yongfu who hailed from south China’s Qinzhou area in what is now Guangxi province. A charismatic figure and skilful manipulator Liu worked his way up the ranks from common bandit to high ranking official in both the governments of China and Vietnam. Imperial bandits were predatory entrepreneurs of violence, who showed no loyalty to any one party but rather sold their military skills to the highest bidder. In this way, as Davis explains, bandits and officials assured the continuance of a ‘culture of violence’ in the borderlands for nearly a century.

All sides – Vietnamese, Chinese, and French officials as well as the various bandit groups – remained suspicious of one another. There was constant fighting in the highlands between rival bandit gangs and state armies. The Black Flags and Yellow Flags, in fact, were bitter enemies and each side tried, with varying degrees of success, to ally with one state or another in its bid to overpower its rivals. As for the states themselves, they too played the same game by supporting one or another bandit group. But it was the mountain communities of Hmong, Tai, and Yao who suffered the most from the constant raids, wars, kidnappings, rapes, and murder. In fact, local residents – the victims – made no distinctions between bandits and officials; to them they were all the same and equally bad.

Besides the large-scale bandit armies there were also a large number of petty bandit gangs operating in the borderlands who took advantage of the fighting and chaos. Sometimes as one gang was defeated the survivors joined other gangs and in this way banditry and violence in the area was perpetuated. One small-time bandit was a man named Ong That, who in the wake of the defeat of the Yellow Flags in 1875, recruited his own band to plunder villages on both the Vietnamese and Chinese sides of the border, in areas outside the reach of either state. For the most part, such petty bandits as Ong That never became imperial bandits, but instead remained outlaws and wanted criminals.

The expansion of the French into Vietnam and southern China at this time greatly complicated the situation in the borderlands. Whereas a number of scholars, such as Lloyd Eastman (Throne and Mandarins: China’s Search for a Policy during the Sino-French Controversy, 1880–1885, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), have depicted the Sino-French War (1883-85) as an outgrowth of the Westphalian system and power struggles in Europe, Davis brings the story back down to the local level, emphasizing the important struggles between bandits, officials, and merchants from China, Vietnam, and France for control of commerce and mining in the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands. During the war Vietnam and China tried to coax Liu Yongfu and other bandit leaders to help them in the fight against French imperialism. And after the war, unable to defeat the bandits, the French too had to compromise with them by incorporating surrendered bandit leaders into its colonial bureaucracy as commissioned officers. The seemingly endless cycle of imperial bandits continued for several more decades. 

In weaving his story Davis skilfully combines Vietnamese, Chinese, and French documentary evidence with the oral traditions of highland aborigines about the Black Flags and Yellow Flags and their conflicts and relationships with Vietnamese, Chinese, and French governments. As the author concludes, we cannot fully understand the interconnected histories of Vietnam, China, and France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries without recognizing the important roles that imperial bandits played in making that history. Imperial Bandits is an important, well-argued book that should be essential reading for scholars and students interested in histories of modern Vietnam, China, and Western imperialism.