Moonlight Robbery: China 1938

William Empson

One of the ideas about China still often held by people in England is that China is full of bandits, and it seems worth offering a bit of out-of-date reportage on this topic; there is no moral except that the bandit situation had very intelligible causes and has been getting under control.

There was a fair amount of talk about bandits, when some departments of the Peking National University and the other Associated Universities, refugeeing in 1938, were sent about a thousand miles from their bases to Mengtze, just off the French railway in Yunnan. The term bandit is vague. In sufficiently remote districts a ‘bandit’ may consider himself a member of the local gentry, receiving rents. The presence of non-Chinese tribesmen in the hills rather complicated the problem for us; some students believed that these people needed a severed head for the autumn sowing, which was very unjust. However, a good deal of smuggling undoubtedly passed through Mengtze; indeed since the railway has by-passed it the place had hardly any other function in human affairs but to be a smugglers’ market town. One did not quite know what smugglers might think fair. Also the suppression of opium-growing and the wartime rise of taxes was believed to have made a number of simple farmers take to the road; though contrariwise many of these losers had been conscripted.

The local gentry sent in formal notes to the university authorities protesting against girl students bathing in the lake (naturally in smart Shanghai swimming suits). Then they objected to Mixed Walking of male and female students. Their next memo was on a different topic. They stated, clearly and at some length, that Mengtze was a market town to which caravans often came from a distance, so that traders had to be accommodated; that the price of their lodgings in the town had recently risen to an uneconomic level owing to the hiring of rooms by visiting teachers and students; and that if any further such hiring went on they would be obliged to shoot one male and one female student as a warning. It was a well-written letter. Of course we Peking chaps exclaimed a good deal against these barbarians and asked why they didn’t work through the officialdom; but I don’t think we took any more rooms in the town. In its way it was quite a rational bit of County Council work; and the same type of unofficial council further east would be equally ready to stand up against Japanese occupying forces.

Far up to the northwest along the Burma Road the bandit control used to be very complete, and there by a bandit you meant a ‘Faerie Queene’ baron with a castle on one of the passes. Parcels for the missionaries (so the older one told me) didn’t go through till a division of the provincial troops went through with a convoy, and the more prominent bandits would be pointed out to you as you went through, sitting armed on the cliffs. The interesting thing is that all that had been cleared up by about twelve years ago, not only well before the China war but well before there was any central government control over Yunnan. All that political work had to have been done first before the Burma Road could have been built at all. The point to get clear about the Chinese bandit situation is that it had been slowly and steadily improving.

However, I was in fact held up outside the gates of Mengtze. It struck me as unlike what one had heard about bandits. I mean from Chinese, of course. What a European Old China Hand said had to be listened to carefully for the bits absurd enough to be repeated. The town lies in a dry plain, and the surrounding hills seem much nearer than they are; on one of them you could see lights at night where a tin-mine was, and I set out to go there. By the time I got onto the main slope I found my legs actually wouldn’t push me up, and there was all the way to go back. I can’t tell you what a beautiful lost hope that ghastly tin-mine seemed in the evening, with the singing and the mule-bells; it is lovely country. Then on the way back after the all-day solitude and drought and heat the cramps began, and I would count a hundred paces and then drop and count a hundred and then go on. Luckily there was a moon, and I thought I can sleep on the road if this gets worse, but I will behave normally and meet my class at ten tomorrow. I remembered other walks a good deal. I was in severe pain. Thus the hold-up seemed very incidental; it came when I was having the last rest with the light on the gates of Mengtze looking reasonably near. In rubbing the back of one leg to remove cramp one was always being caught by the other leg suddenly going wrong owing to taking a strained position, and it was very exhausting to deal with both at once.

Seeing someone pass in the moonlight I felt it polite to express mild complaints because I might otherwise appear crazy. The figures slouched on without reply, and then three suddenly converged, with daggers, I assure you, flashing in the moonlight. Maybe if I had been more frightened or more angry the cramp might have solved itself, but as it was I had to go on rubbing my left calf. Two men held me with what appeared scientific efficiency while a third went through the pockets. Scientific efficiency however interfered with rubbing the left leg and threatened to bring on cramp in the right leg; I had to object, and a compromise was reached. The wrist-watch was taken without comment, the very small amount of money carried was a matter of course; the spectacles were taken, and I stopped rubbing my legs to represent the absurd injustice of this step – I suppose it would have meant being led down to Indo-China for new ones.

Then the important thing happened: the searcher found the cigarettes and matches. All three gasped with pleasure. I think it says a good deal for the local police that the boys couldn’t slip into the town and buy cigarettes. The sinister figures then melted into the night and I went on rubbing both legs. After a pause one sinister figure came back and asked if I wanted help up to the gate; he was sorry he couldn’t lake me in. I assured him I would be all right in a minute or two, so he melted back again. All this sounds as if I talk fluent Chinese, which I don’t, but there was no language problem.