In an interesting article on the gun trade and state control of weapons in Guangdong province in the 1920’s Qiu Jie and He Wenping make an interesting argument about the role of guns in Chinese politics. The article as a whole attempts to get at the level of armament in the province, which is of course difficult to do. Weapons came in from all sorts of places, military weapons, local production, the British in Hong Kong trying to stir up trouble. Guangdong produced a lot of overseas sojourners (the article focuses on the Pearl River delta) and they liked to help out the folks back home by buying them guns. Although guns flowed into the province throughout the 20s prices kept going up, (locally made rifles went from 40 yuan apiece in 1912 to 170 in 1928. Prices of handguns rose more slowly) indicating that there was still lots of demand. After some speculation on total numbers of guns the authors focus on the Guomindang Canton government’s attempt to license and tax weapons. This was initially a revenue move. During the warlord period states taxed almost everything and guns were a particularly attractive thing to tax. Gradually attempts to license guns came to be more focused on denying weapons to opponents of the state, most notably the Merchant Corps of Canton, which was always difficult to control.
The most interesting thing about the article is the conclusion. The authors conclude that Guangdong did not see the emergence of really serious local oppressors, (土皇帝) or of large-scale banditry because as a fairly prosperous area it was a well-armed area. As a result it was hard for any one family to dominate a local militia and hard for the state to control the people. Thus local independence grows out of the barrel of a gun.
I’m not sure I entirely buy this. I’m not sure things in Guangdong were really that good, or that this single explanation really explains it. Guangdong does seem a good deal less disastrous than many other areas during the warlord period, but then so does the Shanghai area, and I suspect this has more to do with the presence of a major urban area than with guns per se. What I do find interesting is the almost libertarian emphasis on guns and popular power. Chinese scholarship usually seems pretty state-centered, i.e. looking from the point of view of the state at the problem of controlling the people. (Or regarding the Nationalist state as evil and assuming the existence of a Communist counter-state) I don’t have much problem with a state focus, since the process of state-building was one of the most important parts of China’s 19th and 20th century, but it is nice to see civil-society type ideas being applied outside Shanghai.
邱捷，何文平“1920 年代广东的民间武器” in 一九二0年代的中国，社会科学，北京， 2005