A Bandit Chief (Yi ge da Wang) by Shen Congwen, 1934

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A BANDIT CHIEF (Yi ge da Wang)
by Shen Congwen, 1934

"Yi ge da Wang" serves as chapter 16 of Shen Congwen zizhuan (title means "Shen Congwen's Autobiography"). It was titled "Ta Wang" by Ching Ti and Robert Payne in their translation of Shen's work The Chinese Earth (1947), and "A Bandit Chief" by William L. MacDonald in his translation for the Anthology of Chinese Literature (vol. 2, 1973).

The establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912 brought to China a long period of instability. Droughts, floods, starvation, and lack of modernization played havoc with the nation's economy. Both the government and the army fell apart. Bandit armies ravaged the countryside until political organization lapsed into warlordism. "A Bandit Chief" takes place during this unsettled and disunified period.

The story is a memorable one—a story of character presenting Liu Yunting, the reformed bandit chief, and two lesser characters: the confessional narrator "I"/"we," who in reality is the author as a fictional character; and Wang Yao-mei, the attractive female bandit chief captured and held prisoner by the Sichuan army. The details of characterization in the short story must be more selective and brief in extent, more exploited and intensified than in the case of the novel. Although short fiction pieces often focus on character in terms of some single character trait, it is rare that a short story presents a more or less fully developed characterization. "A Bandit Chief" is outstanding in this respect, rivaling Robert Louis Steven-son's character drawing in "A Lodging for the Night," a characterization of the criminal-poet François Villon.

The character of a person is illuminated especially in conjunction with a circumstance that involves complication, causes action and reaction, and demands resolution. In "A Bandit Chief" Liu Yunting has had his life spared by the commander of the Kan army. He serves the commander "with the loyalty of a slave," having the rank of a sergeant with "the salary and status of a captain." Although of small stature, he is strong, courageous, and a veritable daredevil. He has killed 200 enemies with his bare hands and has had 17 wives. He is familiar with such crimes as arson, rape, and murder and subtly conveys how the commission of "such crimes, intolerable to society," still nurtures "such a strong and violent soul."

The story centers on the Kan army of West Hunan undertaking a pacification campaign in conjunction with the Sichuan army against the numerous bandits in Sichuan. As the Kan army advances the command post has to stay in Lungtan. Meanwhile the Sichuan army pulls out of the garrison area but stations a platoon at a Buddhist temple on the other side of the river. It is at this temple that the bandit chief finds himself unable to resist temptations. This leads to Liu's tragic downfall—but his choices are made freely. The Sichuan army holds an unusual prisoner—an attractive 18-year-old girl bandit chief, Wang Yao-mei. Several young Sichuan officers had gone mad over her and two junior officers "had even killed each other over her." When she was brought to brigade headquarters all the officers had wanted to possess her, but they were stopped. Liu Yunting, however, apparently already known to her, visits her in company with the narrator. The narrator finds the female bandit enclosed by a fence and sitting on a bright red rug. On their appearance she arises and walks towards them. She is wearing leg irons. The narrator judges her figure superior to her face and indicates that she has a reputation for brutality. He also learns that she and the great bandit chief have woven a plot together.

The Sichuan commanding officer would have decapitated Wang Yao-mei by this point in the story, except that she has buried 70 rifles somewhere. (At this time in China rifles were scarce and sold at a premium.) After gaining access to the woman, Liu Yunting tells her that he has 60 rifles buried on the Hunan border. He convinces her that he is trying to bring about her release so that they can recover the rifles and resume their bandit lives—together.

The next morning the Sichuan officers and soldiers learn that the sergeant spent the night with Wang Yao-mei. What the sergeant had done was taboo in the military. A noncommissioned officer, he had taken something that had been forbidden to commissioned officers. Furthermore, he was an outsider, not a member of the Sichuan army but of the Kan (Hunan) army. The Sichuanese persuade themselves that the sergeant is guilty of rape—a horrible taboo in a society trained in Confucian principles.

The troops of the platoon proceed to block the gate so that the sergeant cannot pass through and return to his Kan unit. He buckles on his cartridge belt and draws his two pistols, so they let him go. Then they drag the girl bandit from her quarters and decapitate her. While awaiting the blow of the sword on her neck, she is calm and utters no word: "When her head fell to the ground, her body did not fall over." Her bravery in the face of death would give her "face" with her kin and her village. In facing decapitation, she knew how to kneel so that her headless corpse would face up and thus benefit her reincarnation, an idea fully developed by Chinese Buddhists. A pool of blood and a pile of white ash was left at the spot where she had been beheaded. The white ash resulted from the burning of paper money, otherwise known as "spirit money." According to Chinese folklore religion, the living are obliged to protect the spirits of deceased family members. The passage from this world into the next involves many expenses for guides, passports, visas, even for bribes, since the bureaucracy of the spirit world is believed to be as corrupt as the bureaucracy of this world. Hence, when a person dies "spirit money" is burned to assure that the person's spirit will be able to meet all the expenses occurring in the spirit world.

When the sergeant learns of Wang Yao-mei's fate he is downcast and guilt-ridden. He says to the narrator: "Yao-mei died because of me, so I wept for seven days, but now it's all right." It is not long, however, before he covets a launderer's wife, which gets him in trouble with the commander. When Liu Yunting begs the commander for mercy, the commander replies: "Don't say anything to make you lose more face." While the narrator watches, the great chief is pushed out, and he never sees him again.

In Chinese society a person guilty of doing something socially unacceptable is said "to lose face" (qui mian zi). A person who behaves correctly (according to society's view) is said "to save face" (bao quan mianzi). The loss of face is a serious matter in China, and the great chief's loss of face in a variety of ways causes his personal tragedy. Any military organization requires its members to subordinate their personal wishes to those of the whole.

"A Bandit Chief" ends with a kind of moral based on the theme that "those who live by the sword die by the sword." The narrator points out that following the execution of Liu Yunting by Commander Chang, Chang himself is assassinated by Captain Tian. Then the Hunan chairman, Ye Kai Yin, assassinates Tian. All this implies that the warlords of this period in the early 1920s were little better than bandits themselves.

—Richard P. Benton