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Eastern Professor Authors Book on Banditry and Borderlands

Published on January 26, 2017

Eastern Professor Authors Book on Banditry and Borderlands

After more than a decade of research and travel throughout China and Southeast Asia, Bradley Camp Davis, assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University, has authored “Imperial Bandits: Outlaws and Rebels in the China-Vietnam Borderlands.” The book describes banditry and the culture of violence in the mountainous borderlands between China and Vietnam.

In the mid-19th century, bandits from southern China made their way into northern Vietnam, seeking control of commerce, specifically opium. Using violence and coercion, as well as crucial drug-trading networks, they were able to establish positions of political power in the borderlands of the two countries.

“When Vietnam fell under the authority of the French Empire,” explained Davis, “some of these bandits were woven into the colonial administration—providing security, collecting taxes and doing other services for the French—while others joined the anti-colonial resistance.

“In contemporary Vietnam and China, there’s a clear division in how people remember these groups. You have heroes and villains; those who collaborated with the French and those who supported the anti-French resistance.”

What is a bandit?

“For me, a bandit is someone who’s able to negotiate with formal political power, but is not necessarily beholden to formal political power,” said Davis, relating the imperial bandits to powerful criminal organizations such as the Mafia. “Even though they may have cooperated with formal political authority, they may have had no real allegiance to the state.”

By delving into official archives in France, China and Vietnam, as well as the oral traditions of the remote communities within the borderlands, Davis sought to understand the history of violence in this region.

“I like to think of archives as buildings where documents go to die,” admitted Davis. “They get housed in boxes, you read them and come up with your own stories about them, but I discovered early on that not all things that happened found their way into documents.” He added, “Documents can lie. Just because it’s written down doesn’t mean it’s accurate. There could be implicit bias; the accounts of things could be massaged or left out.”

Armed with research visas and training in Chinese, Vietnamese and French, Davis carried out research several times in those countries between 2004 and 2011. He did not limit himself to archival documents: “I got on a motor bike and went into the mountains to as many villages as I could and talked with as many people as possible.”

Bradley Camp Davis, assistant professor of history at Eastern

In total he coded approximately 200 conversations with distinct individuals—predominantly village elders with historical memories of the bandit groups. “The stories I included in the book were those I was able verify against other accounts.

“I saw a great deal of consistency, but sometimes the lies were more interesting,” he said, explaining that some stories were embellished or off topic altogether. “In a way I was learning parallel stories; I was learning about the 19th century, but even more about the 21st century.”

Among his findings, Davis discovered that in many ways borderlands are not divided; they follow their own order after the border is drawn. “Borders sometimes mean more to those who live in the political capitals than those who live in the mountains. To those at high altitudes, the border is negotiable.”

In route to a highland village in the Lao Cai Province, Vietnam (photo credit: Bradley Camp Davis)

“Imperial Bandits” was published in January 2017 by the University of Washington Press, and with support from the Office of the Provost and the Office for Equity and Diversity at Eastern Connecticut State University. It was on display at the American Historical Association 2017 annual meeting in Denver and will be on display at the coming Association for Asian Studies annual conference in Toronto.

Written by Michael Rouleau