Chinese peasants campaign for food and price controls, Jiangsu Province, 1748

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Qing Dynasty China. The exact end date is not clear.
(20 April 1748)
1700's
to
(1748)
1700's
Location and Goals
Country: 
China
Location City/State/Province: 
Suzhou
Location Description: 
The most prosperous city in China at that time, victim of multiple natural disasters in 1747-1748.
Goals: 
1. The protesters were requesting that the government institute price controls to reduce the price of grain.
 

In the late 1740s most people were suffering for lack of food on the east coast of China, in Jiangsu province. Grain prices were escalating and the people demanded that local government officials step in and establish price controls. They expected relief from the government against the merchants’ price-gouging, because of a cultural change that was happening in China at the time.

During the 1740s, early modern China was undergoing a profound transformation. After decades trying to recover from the turbulent transition from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty, a new era of stability was descending upon the empire, allowing for healthy growth of the economy and the expansion of the market economy.

The newly ascended Qianlong emperor built on his father’s legacy by continuing to strengthen centralized state power. And, in order to bolster the moral legitimacy of this increased consolidation of power, the government headed a major resurgence in neo-Confucian orthodoxy, especially the highly respected value of filial piety (the loyalty and reverence a child shows one’s parents).

At the end of the seventeenth century, Qianlong’s predecessors had decided to make the Book of Filial Piety the state’s most widely printed Confucian treatise, a treatise that opens by explaining, “The gentleman’s service of his parents with filial piety produces a loyalty that can be transferred to the ruler.”

By the 1740s, measures such as that, which enhanced loyalty and legitimacy of the state, combined with the state’s increasing power, helped diminish the many state-resisting protests China endured during the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But this redefined relationship between the people and state also led to a rise in protests seeking redress from the government, given that neo-Confucian filial piety was coupled with the expectation of benevolent governance. It became common practice for subjects aggrieved by local officials to travel all the way to Beijing to appeal directly to the emperor for relief. This “process was often emotionally charged and involved dramatic displays of desolation, such as kneeling upon both knees, collective public weeping, and knocking one’s head upon the ground.”

Not all protests were so dramatic, but as the power and legitimacy of the state had risen, more citizens sought to influence government decisions and expected the government to intervene in times of turbulence or crisis on behalf of its loyal subjects.

In April of 1748 local peasants launched their nonviolent campaign in the Suzhou prefecture of the Jiangsu province. The area had a poor harvest in 1747, which increased rice prices. This was followed by a flooding of the district's patty fields in February 1748, and a terrible hail storm two months later (5 April), that devastated not only Suzhou, but a large portion of the whole province. This confluence of events led to a substantial drop in grain output and a 20-30% spike in prices. In an effort to deal with the emergency, the local government in Suzhou began to provide famine relief by delivering grain to the poor, but the granaries were quickly depleted and grain prices continued to climb. As the crisis continued to unfold, riots soon broke out across the surrounding region. However, the citizens in Suzhou remained peaceful, instead opting to petition the government to impose price controls on the grain merchants.

On 20 April 1748 a petty local peddler named Gu Raonian bound his arms behind his back and kneeled in front of the Jiangsu provincial governor’s office in Suzhou, with a placard around his neck that read, “No money to buy rice and livelihood of poor people is difficult” (an alternate account reported the placard read, “[My protest was] for the state and the people and not for myself”).

According to a local gazetteer, “People who echoed Gu’s call gathered like ants,” prompting the Changzhou county officials to arrest Gu and several of his supporters, who were then detained at the county office just a few blocks away. But other protesters followed them, blocking the entrance to the office and demanding that the county officials release the petitioners.

When their appeal was refused, they broke into the office and freed the prisoners themselves. The group then returned to the provincial governor’s office, but a local security force soon arrived to break up the protest. They arrested thirty-nine protesters, including Gu, and the rest of the crowd dispersed.

Perhaps fearful that the government would acquiesce to the protesters demands and/or that the food riots might spread to Suzhou, the wealthy responded to the incident by producing on 28 April an anonymous pamphlet blaming the local authorities for the crisis and claiming that the upper class and the merchants were, in fact, victims of their abuse.

According to the pamphlet, the provincial governor, An Ning, had interfered in the grain market during the previous winter by ordering merchants to sell their stocks at unreasonably low prices. When twenty-one of the merchants refused, they were beaten to death by government forces, scaring the rest into complying. But, by the beginning of 1748, the low prices had depleted the grain stocks of most of the wealthy families and merchants, and, according to the pamphlet, this was the true cause of the steep rise in prices.

The pamphlet went on to call for the resignation of Governor An Ning and request that his superior, Yin Jishan, the governor-general of Jiangsu and Jiangxi, come to handle the situation.

At this point the Qianlong emperor decided to intervene by sending Yin Jishan to mediate the grain price conflict between the peasants and the merchants. However, Gu Raonian and two other leading protesters were executed, and seven more were imprisoned. The rest of the arrested petitioners were flogged and released.

Afterwards, the emperor sent out an edict to his local officials instructing them to be neither too lenient nor too harsh in handling protests.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Hung, Ho-fung. Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Thomas Fortuna, 13/12/2011