Beggar Gangs: History’s Earliest Groups of People with Disabilities

来源:有人杂志   作者:刘立中   2015.05.05 10:24  浏览1546
摘要:It is the diligent masters of kungfu novels like Louis Cha and Gu Long that first brought beggar gangs into our lives. Many popular classic kungfu novels, including The Legend of the Condor Heroes, and Dragon Buster, put this miraculous association at the heart of the narrative. It is these works that introduce the concept of the beggar gang, a mysterious association with a long history.

“As soon as the yellow flag is erected, over one hundred horses gallop to the hill. At the head of the procession are over one hundred disciples with six bags, followed by thirty or forty disciples with seven bags, and over ten disciples with eight bags. Before long, four elders with nine bags dismount from the horses silently and stand on both sides…”

I am sure that many fans of kungfu novels are familiar with this passage. It's an extract from Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, written by Louis Cha. In modern times, the ambitious organization described would presumably be made up of civil servants. However, at that time, it could only be one thing: a beggar gang.

When it comes to beggar gangs, the most common image is of a disheveled elder squatting in a humble corner, but he seems rebellious, with shrewd, sharp or contemptuous eyes. Generally speaking, he will casually hold a greasy and strange-shaped wooden stick in his hand, ready to launch an attack at any time.

It is the diligent masters of kungfu novels like Louis Cha and Gu Long that first brought beggar gangs into our lives. Many popular classic kungfu novels, including The Legend of the Condor Heroes, and Dragon Buster, put this miraculous association at the heart of the narrative. It is these works that introduce the concept of the beggar gang, a mysterious association with a long history.

So what were the real beggar gangs like in history?

According to The History of Beggars by Zhou Dejun, a mainland scholar, there have been groups like the beggar gangs since the Song Dynasty. Leaders of these groups similar to those in the novels can also be found in the historical record; the most classic example is Boss Jin, the leader of a group in Hangzhou in the Southern Song Dynasty, who is a character in Jin Yunu’s Beating the Loveless Lover, and collected in Wonders of China by Feng Menglong in the Ming Dynasty.

A man like Boss Jin had control over of a legion of beggars. On the one hand, he collected money from the disciples so as to accumulate his own wealth. On the other hand, he developed his power and authority to take care of those under his command, becoming a local overlord in the process.

Up until the Yuan and Ming dynasties, beggar gangs were mostly local organizations with distinctive regional features, managing their own affairs independently of one another. There was no national organization yet. It was not until the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic period that beggar gangs became a large national system covering and connecting nearly all areas of China.

There were some famous beggar gangs, such as the “Blue Pole” and “Yellow Pole” groups in Beijing and “Group of the Impoverished” in southwest Hebei and northwest Shandong.

In real life, beggar gangs were composed of large numbers of those living at the bottom of society, who were unable to make a living or improve their lives in agricultural civilization. (Of course, there might be some detached and otherworldly pseudo-philosophers who disdain wealth and glory and joined the groups to experience life.) Most of the beggars were disabled men.

In agricultural society, a low-status female with a disability was considered to at least be useful for reproduction. A male with a physical disability, however, would definitely be excluded from the labor force. As a result, he would be abandoned by his clan and reduced to be a beggar in a society with low productivity.

At the beginning, two beggars would probably fight when they encountered each other on the same turf. After fighting for the territory for many years, they gradually realized that both will benefit from solidarity and suffer from separation. If an observant person spots the “business opportunity” in this situation, a beggar gang will emerge accordingly.

In this way, beggar gangs can be regarded as the earliest associations of people with disabilities in history. Despite this, historical data show that most leaders of beggar gangs were people without disabilities. Although they protected members of the gang, they also exploited the beggars in order to lead an extravagant lifestyle.

In both their literary representation and in real history, beggar gangs were disciplined, hierarchical, and systematic organizations, with comprehensive codes of conduct and members treating another according to their rank. To put it simply, lower-level members were required to give “contributions” regularly to senior members. At the same time, the top leader had to provide shelter and material support for newcomers so that the whole organization and its membership will develop steadily. Lower-level members who were regarded as good-for-nothing due to their disabilities did not have the strong personality or social network to become a top leader (Hong Qigong acquires minor injury at level nine, and does not belong to this kind of people). But despite the limited opportunities for advancement, joining the gang was still better than the alternative of starving in the street.

As a highly disciplined organization that spontaneously arose out of nothing, the beggar gang provides a good example of a group that united in order to safeguard the rights and interests of its members. In my opinion, every social organization aiming to provide benefits for its members and protect their rights and interests can learn from the historical example of beggar gangs.

It occurs to me that the disabled leaders, including the current president of CDPF and regional Disabled Persons Federation, used to be the leaders of beggar gangs throughout China. It seems that history is mirrored!

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