Private Gun Ownership in Modern China, 1912–1949

Lei Duan, History, Syracuse University

Dissertation Fellowship, 2015

This dissertation examines private gun ownership and its sociocultural and political implications in modern China from 1860 to 1949, a period characterized by foreign invasion, constant military conflicts, and political decentralization. During this period, foreign guns, along with their Chinese imitations, flooded society. In response to the social disorder, many Chinese civilians turned to this new class of weaponry for self-defense. While historians have understood the gun in China in terms of military modernization, this dissertation sets the privately owned gun in its social and political context, and studies why Chinese civilians chose to arm themselves with guns and how governments of different periods responded to their armed civilians.

This study argues that growing social violence and the state’s inability to respond to it led Chinese men and women to seek to obtain their own weapons. This demand was fueled by the gun’s powerful symbolism in public culture and social life, and by beliefs that guns were a source of social status and self-empowerment. Civilian ownership of guns contributed to persistent social violence, and also transformed power structures in local society and accelerated local militarization, impacting the balance between state and society. Both late Qing and Republican governments’ regulation and control over armed civilians was a dynamic and contingent process, hovering between two practices: the state’s resolute maintenance of its monopoly on the uses of guns, and its reliance on armed civilians in local defense.

This study chronicles both the state efforts to deal with armed civilians and the reactions from the bottom.

This study argues that the state’s dilemma over whether to control private guns or rely on them prevented the formation of an effective and consistent gun policy. In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted a different policy towards private gun ownership, by making the mobilization of an armed populace part of its mass line policy. The CCP’s private gun policy played an important role in strengthening the CCP’s presence and authority in wartime China.

Drawing from a variety of sources such as government documents, legal cases, social survey reports, and popular writings, this study chronicles both the state efforts to deal with armed civilians and the reactions from the bottom. This dissertation engages with and complements wider research on modern Chinese history in examining violence, social life, and the dynamic state-society relationship.

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