Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Guest blog: The logic of bandit life: From 20th century Chinese bandits to the contemporary Afghan insurgency

Deedee Derksen 10 min

Chinese bandits never cleaned their guns before noon. That could lead to an attack by the enemy. They didn’t say ‘tiger’ or ‘spirit’, as these words would bring bad luck. Socks were ‘smelly tubes’, bullets ‘white rice’, and they called giving up banditry ‘washing their hands’. Deedee Derksen reads ‘Bandits in Republican China’ by Phil Billingsley.* The book was published in 1988 and covers a period fifty years before, and it offers discussions still relevant for researchers on the Afghan insurgency.

The intricacy with which Billingsley describes the dreams, fears, superstitions and daily life of bandits in rural China between the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 conjures up incredibly vivid images. You can picture them: a motley crew of poor peasants, village bullies and adventurous youngsters riding together to raid wealthy towns and loot opium, gems and women’s attire – to prance around that night’s campfire in.

But Billingsley’s account is not a swashbuckling adventure tale. He shows that the life of a bandit was tough and not one people chose lightly. Banditry was usually a rational path for peasants whose alternative was starvation. During the warlords’ reign between 1911 and 1928 a quick succession of some 140 wars led to massive economic disruption and social dislocation over the countryside. Many peasants saw joining the bandits as the only way to survive.

In the eyes of Chinese intellectuals these men were Robin Hoods, ‘with an irresistible aura of mystery and masculine romance’. Chinese authorities, however, dubbed them ‘bandits’ to discredit them and draw attention away from their grievances and onto their predation. Billingsley, in contrast, avoids romanticising or demonising, but examines the bandits’ activities from their perspective. Without justifying their violence, he shows the logic of bandit life.

Of course, contemporary Afghan insurgents vary greatly to their counterparts in early twentieth-century China. But Billingsley’s work provides useful points for reference for research on Afghanistan. His questions on the organisational structures of bandit gangs, of the motivations of individual bandits and commanders, and their connections with the wider world are especially relevant – even if the answers to those questions would differ enormously.

Moreover, seeing those questions asked in a different context to that of the war on terror is refreshing. The narrative imposed on the world by the United States and its allies after 2001 created the notion that Taleban were irreconcilable terrorists, alien to Afghan society. On the other side, insurgent propaganda that the Taleban were noble fighters defending the true religion against a venal government backed by foreign crusaders did little to demystify the movement.

Billingsley stresses the ambiguity and wide divergence of bandit activities, much like those of the Taliban. Some bandits – driven by social motives — vented their rage against injustice and oppression; others ‘undoubtedly fitted the traditional stereotype of men bent on murder, rape and mayhem’. Bai Lang (‘White Wolf’), for example, a commander who headed an enormous bandit army in his home province Henan, enjoyed massive support among the peasantry there for fighting injustice and oppression was regarded elsewhere as ‘a bad man’. Not only did he maintain strong ties with the peasants, but he also enjoyed cosy relations with the authorities, often switching loyalties.

Bandits should not, therefore, be viewed simply as the armed representatives of the local peasant community, writes Billingsley. In the first place they were interested in their own survival. They were not revolutionaries, as the Communists would discover in the 1940s, when the bandit gangs proved too unruly for their revolutionary movement dominated by intellectuals which formed the backbone of the Red Army.

Although the value system the bandits created was a rebellious opposite of those of the wealthy towns they raided – with a premium on honour, masculinity and strength – they remained conservatives, deeply wedded to the status quo. This is, of course, a fundamental difference with an insurgency which aims to overthrow the state and introduce a new order – such as the Taleban, with its professed wish to establish an Islamic Emirate. Yet the manner in which the bandits generate income – taxing peasants on opium production, taking toll on roads, trafficking illicit goods and selling opium – clearly parallel activities undertaken by the Taleban, as well as government officials and allies in Afghanistan. Presumably the Taleban leadership are desperate to steer well clear of being tarnished with criminality, an image which twenty years ago tainted the mujahedin’s claim to moral superiority. Indeed, according to AAN senior researcher Kate Clark the layha (rulebook) issued by the leadership tries to limit ‘jihadi entrepeneurship’, ‘using the fight as cover to exploit people and make money’.**

Billingsley’s chapters on the daily life of the bandits and their organisation suggest questions relevant to Taliban life in Afghanistan. Like the Afghan insurgents, the Chinese bandits spent so much time together on the road (especially in their mountains hideaways – joining the insurgency was dubbed ‘climbing Mount Liang’) that the gangs became a substitute for family life. Commanders like Bai Lang were chosen democratically and had to have a combination of ‘brain, brawn, luck and charisma’. Scheming intellectuals were usually more successful as commanders than bullies, provided they were willing to fight, especially in more complex gangs or armies, which consisted of component groups pledging obedience to the overall chief ‘while maintaining their own identities and owing ultimate allegiance to their original leaders’. Successful chiefs knew how to manipulate the rank and file and to create myths around themselves.

Other positions in the bandit gangs included subchiefs (usually family members of the commanders), military tacticians, accountants, chiefs of operations, barbers and cooks. Secretaries wrote the ransom demands, proposals and other letters for the mostly illiterate bandits. With opium an important source of revenue, bandit gangs would even employ opium treasurers.

A bandit’s daily life usually lurched from one crisis to the next. Many fell ill or were wounded in battle. Harder still was the anxiety of being permanently on the run. They usually lived for the moment, smoking opium when they could, talking about guns and horses, telling smutty stories, playing mah jong and tormenting their prisoners. They were ‘in the game for what they could get out of it, whether it was wealth, prestige or a high position’. The chiefs might pose as Robin Hoods but for the rank and file the ‘prospects were gloomier, and many became despondent and nihilistic’. Thirty was a critical crucial age: ‘Those who were not bandits but had yet to marry and settle down were reckoned to have little else before them but a life of outlawry or living by their wits; those who had been in banditry since their youth would be urged to “wash their hands” before it was too late, find someone to marry and care for their parents during their old age’. Banditry was a way of life in China in the first half of the twentieth century as it is today in some other parts of the world. Billingsley’s book is a great guide for researchers studying armed groups.

A number of excellent studies examine the ideological, political and tribal outlook of Taleban fighters and their command structures. Thanks to the great work of a few researchers we know much more now than even a few years back about the range of motives driving men to join the insurgency: from petty rivalries, coercion or government predation to the presence of foreign troops and religious fervour. We know that over time fighters become ideologically, socially and financially embedded in the movement. We know that insurgent groups scattered across Afghanistan are bound together by flexible but resilient ties – both to each other but also to their Pakistan-based leadership.

As yet, though, less is known about the daily lives of the insurgents and the personalities of their commanders. Is their professed religious zeal genuine, or are they in it for the money, or even adventure? How are relations with their families? Do their mothers pressure them on turning thirty to marry? How close are the bonds within insurgent groups? Does the extreme violence some perpetrate simply mirror the violence committed by their enemies, or the violence entrenched in society after decades of war, or does it instead stem – as with the Chinese bandits (and Sicilian mafia, according to Billingsley) – from ‘a combination of insecurity and strength’, a desire to defend honour and ‘hold their heads high amidst humiliating conditions’? Although conducting such a study into the Taleban movement now would obviously be difficult, it would be interesting. Not only could it make for great reading – like Billingsley’s book – but, more important, it would help to further demystify the movement. Perhaps a research project for some time in the future?

* Bandits in Republican China by Phil Billingsley, Stanford University Press, California, 1988.

** The Layha: Calling the Taliban to Account, by Kate Clark, Afghanistan Analysts Network: Kabul, 4 July 2011.

Chinese bandits never cleaned their guns before noon. That could lead to an attack by the enemy. They didn’t say ‘tiger’ or ‘spirit’, as these words would bring bad luck. Socks were ‘smelly tubes’, bullets ‘white rice’, and they called giving up banditry ‘washing their hands’. Deedee Derksen reads ‘Bandits in Republican China’ by Phil Billingsley.* The book was published in 1988 and covers a period fifty years before, and it offers discussions still relevant for researchers on the Afghan insurgency.

The intricacy with which Billingsley describes the dreams, fears, superstitions and daily life of bandits in rural China between the revolutions of 1911 and 1949 conjures up incredibly vivid images. You can picture them: a motley crew of poor peasants, village bullies and adventurous youngsters riding together to raid wealthy towns and loot opium, gems and women’s attire – to prance around that night’s campfire in.

But Billingsley’s account is not a swashbuckling adventure tale. He shows that the life of a bandit was tough and not one people chose lightly. Banditry was usually a rational path for peasants whose alternative was starvation. During the warlords’ reign between 1911 and 1928 a quick succession of some 140 wars led to massive economic disruption and social dislocation over the countryside. Many peasants saw joining the bandits as the only way to survive.

In the eyes of Chinese intellectuals these men were Robin Hoods, ‘with an irresistible aura of mystery and masculine romance’. Chinese authorities, however, dubbed them ‘bandits’ to discredit them and draw attention away from their grievances and onto their predation. Billingsley, in contrast, avoids romanticising or demonising, but examines the bandits’ activities from their perspective. Without justifying their violence, he shows the logic of bandit life.

Of course, contemporary Afghan insurgents vary greatly to their counterparts in early twentieth-century China. But Billingsley’s work provides useful points for reference for research on Afghanistan. His questions on the organisational structures of bandit gangs, of the motivations of individual bandits and commanders, and their connections with the wider world are especially relevant – even if the answers to those questions would differ enormously.

Moreover, seeing those questions asked in a different context to that of the war on terror is refreshing. The narrative imposed on the world by the United States and its allies after 2001 created the notion that Taleban were irreconcilable terrorists, alien to Afghan society. On the other side, insurgent propaganda that the Taleban were noble fighters defending the true religion against a venal government backed by foreign crusaders did little to demystify the movement.

Billingsley stresses the ambiguity and wide divergence of bandit activities, much like those of the Taliban. Some bandits – driven by social motives — vented their rage against injustice and oppression; others ‘undoubtedly fitted the traditional stereotype of men bent on murder, rape and mayhem’. Bai Lang (‘White Wolf’), for example, a commander who headed an enormous bandit army in his home province Henan, enjoyed massive support among the peasantry there for fighting injustice and oppression was regarded elsewhere as ‘a bad man’. Not only did he maintain strong ties with the peasants, but he also enjoyed cosy relations with the authorities, often switching loyalties.

Bandits should not, therefore, be viewed simply as the armed representatives of the local peasant community, writes Billingsley. In the first place they were interested in their own survival. They were not revolutionaries, as the Communists would discover in the 1940s, when the bandit gangs proved too unruly for their revolutionary movement dominated by intellectuals which formed the backbone of the Red Army.

Although the value system the bandits created was a rebellious opposite of those of the wealthy towns they raided – with a premium on honour, masculinity and strength – they remained conservatives, deeply wedded to the status quo. This is, of course, a fundamental difference with an insurgency which aims to overthrow the state and introduce a new order – such as the Taleban, with its professed wish to establish an Islamic Emirate. Yet the manner in which the bandits generate income – taxing peasants on opium production, taking toll on roads, trafficking illicit goods and selling opium – clearly parallel activities undertaken by the Taleban, as well as government officials and allies in Afghanistan. Presumably the Taleban leadership are desperate to steer well clear of being tarnished with criminality, an image which twenty years ago tainted the mujahedin’s claim to moral superiority. Indeed, according to AAN senior researcher Kate Clark the layha (rulebook) issued by the leadership tries to limit ‘jihadi entrepeneurship’, ‘using the fight as cover to exploit people and make money’.**

Billingsley’s chapters on the daily life of the bandits and their organisation suggest questions relevant to Taliban life in Afghanistan. Like the Afghan insurgents, the Chinese bandits spent so much time together on the road (especially in their mountains hideaways – joining the insurgency was dubbed ‘climbing Mount Liang’) that the gangs became a substitute for family life. Commanders like Bai Lang were chosen democratically and had to have a combination of ‘brain, brawn, luck and charisma’. Scheming intellectuals were usually more successful as commanders than bullies, provided they were willing to fight, especially in more complex gangs or armies, which consisted of component groups pledging obedience to the overall chief ‘while maintaining their own identities and owing ultimate allegiance to their original leaders’. Successful chiefs knew how to manipulate the rank and file and to create myths around themselves.

Other positions in the bandit gangs included subchiefs (usually family members of the commanders), military tacticians, accountants, chiefs of operations, barbers and cooks. Secretaries wrote the ransom demands, proposals and other letters for the mostly illiterate bandits. With opium an important source of revenue, bandit gangs would even employ opium treasurers.

A bandit’s daily life usually lurched from one crisis to the next. Many fell ill or were wounded in battle. Harder still was the anxiety of being permanently on the run. They usually lived for the moment, smoking opium when they could, talking about guns and horses, telling smutty stories, playing mah jong and tormenting their prisoners. They were ‘in the game for what they could get out of it, whether it was wealth, prestige or a high position’. The chiefs might pose as Robin Hoods but for the rank and file the ‘prospects were gloomier, and many became despondent and nihilistic’. Thirty was a critical crucial age: ‘Those who were not bandits but had yet to marry and settle down were reckoned to have little else before them but a life of outlawry or living by their wits; those who had been in banditry since their youth would be urged to “wash their hands” before it was too late, find someone to marry and care for their parents during their old age’. Banditry was a way of life in China in the first half of the twentieth century as it is today in some other parts of the world. Billingsley’s book is a great guide for researchers studying armed groups.

A number of excellent studies examine the ideological, political and tribal outlook of Taleban fighters and their command structures. Thanks to the great work of a few researchers we know much more now than even a few years back about the range of motives driving men to join the insurgency: from petty rivalries, coercion or government predation to the presence of foreign troops and religious fervour. We know that over time fighters become ideologically, socially and financially embedded in the movement. We know that insurgent groups scattered across Afghanistan are bound together by flexible but resilient ties – both to each other but also to their Pakistan-based leadership.

As yet, though, less is known about the daily lives of the insurgents and the personalities of their commanders. Is their professed religious zeal genuine, or are they in it for the money, or even adventure? How are relations with their families? Do their mothers pressure them on turning thirty to marry? How close are the bonds within insurgent groups? Does the extreme violence some perpetrate simply mirror the violence committed by their enemies, or the violence entrenched in society after decades of war, or does it instead stem – as with the Chinese bandits (and Sicilian mafia, according to Billingsley) – from ‘a combination of insecurity and strength’, a desire to defend honour and ‘hold their heads high amidst humiliating conditions’? Although conducting such a study into the Taleban movement now would obviously be difficult, it would be interesting. Not only could it make for great reading – like Billingsley’s book – but, more important, it would help to further demystify the movement. Perhaps a research project for some time in the future?

* Bandits in Republican China by Phil Billingsley, Stanford University Press, California, 1988.

** The Layha: Calling the Taliban to Account, by Kate Clark, Afghanistan Analysts Network: Kabul, 4 July 2011.

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