Davis, Imperial Bandits - Outlaws and Rebels in the China-Vietnam Borderlands, 2017

Bradley Camp Davis's book was reviewed for the History of Asia network by Joshua Herr. It is reprinted here via Creative Commons license.

December 31, 2017

Bradley Camp Davis.  Imperial Bandits: Outlaws and Rebels in the China-Vietnam Borderlands.  Seattle  University of Washington Press, 2017.  288 pp.  $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74205-2.

Bradley Camp Davis's book, Imperial Bandits: Outlaws and Rebels in the China-Vietnam Borderlands (2017), has much to offer to scholars, policymakers, and readers interested in issues of insurgency, informal political power, and violence. While Davis's book is focused on the nineteenth century, the China-Vietnam border today remains a fascinating space of global connections.

In Hanoi in 2011, I was introduced to a man visiting from London who was of Vietnamese heritage. Over local beer, he told me his family had fled their home near Vietnam's northern border when PRC forces invaded in 1979, and eventually settled in London. He was back to see the home country and, when he found out that I spoke Cantonese and was doing research on the China-Vietnam border, he told me more about his family. Growing up in London, his family spoke Vietnamese and a bit of Cantonese within their wider social circle as well as a language they only spoke at home. He did not know what that language was called but it was neither Vietnamese nor Chinese. I was fascinated by their story: a family from the China-Vietnam borderlands, forced to flee because of the clash of national ambitions, traveling halfway across the world, and speaking multiple languages found on both sides of the border. I suspect the home language to which the man referred was one of the several Tai languages spoken in these borderlands, closely related to what is spoken by the Nung, Tay, and Zhuang peoples today.

_Imperial Bandits_ gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of this border in the nineteenth century, through a focus on the fluid and violent world of bandits, and helps us understand the continued volatility and complexity of borders today. Davis tells the story of the rise of a powerful bandit movement, the Black Flags, on the northern frontier of Vietnam, how it confronted and became entangled with Vietnamese, French, and Chinese states, and what its legacy is today.

The Black Flags were a large bandit organization that had origins in the volatile borderlands of southwest China in the mid-nineteenth century. Drawing membership from a variety of ethnic groups in the area, the Black Flags created a base across the border in northern and northwestern Vietnam, supporting themselves through control of the opium trade and customs revenue as well as violent intimidation of the populations in the area. In addition to their success in seizing local power, the Black Flags are significant historically for building alliances with, first the Nguyen Vietnamese court and then the Qing Chinese court, and most famously, confronting French colonial designs in northern Vietnam in the Sino-French War of 1883-85.

This book will prove to be a valuable and engaging read to many people interested in contemporary foreign affairs, geopolitics, and the future of state and nonstate power, as well as historians interested in Vietnam, China, French colonialism, transnational movements, and the global nineteenth century. Davis's bandits, in fact, resonate with several recent hot topics of international politics, including US use of military contractors in the Iraq War in the 2000s and the rise of ISIS in the past decade, and touch on issues of informal power, the outsourcing and legitimacy of violence, and the relation of these to state power and state-building.

Historians will find the Black Flags interesting when considered as a parallel case to the role of nonstate actors such as the Hoa Hao in the Mekong Delta in the twentieth century, as another example of the "ambiguous colonization" of the French (Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, _Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954_, 1994), and in relation to the transition from margin to center of groups such as the Ottomans, the Qing, the Safavids, and the Tay Son.

Davis does several things in this book. First, he makes an important argument about the relationship between state and informal power. Extending Eric Hobsbawm's classic study (_Bandits_, 1969), Davis argues that groups like the Black Flags were not garden-variety outlaws. Rather, they were "imperial bandits," meaning that they became an intrinsic part of imperial Nguyen frontier policy. More broadly, the symbiotic relationship between Nguyen imperial rule and the Black Flags was part of the game of empire that Qing China and France also played. France won the round in the 1880s but it was only by incorporating this repertoire of imperial banditry into their own designs while at the same time camouflaging it in the language of the civilizing mission.

Second, Davis questions many colonial as well as anticolonial nationalistic narratives about the Black Flags through a brilliant use of oral accounts of the Black Flags. He rejects French colonial accounts of Black Flags that exaggerate their violence and foreign origins. At the same time, he questions Chinese and Vietnamese nationalist hagiographies of the group by presenting oral narratives from the borderlands that clearly speak of the violent, cruel nature of banditry. Ultimately, the oral history that Davis has collected shows the Black Flags as a highly organized political force, rooted in multiethnic borderland society, and having a stark impact on local society with a lasting legacy.

Third, and this is not the least of its achievements, Davis's book provides a cogent account of the Black Flags, Nguyen imperial rule, and French colonial projects in the late nineteenth century in highly readable, well-integrated, and insightful prose. It replaces several earlier works that focus on only one of these three elements.

Some of the highlights of the individual chapters are as follows. Chapter 1 provides a revisionist account of the origins of the Black Flags in the 1860s, rejecting a common myth that it was a splinter group from the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64). Rather, Davis pinpoints the origins of the Black Flags in the volatile power vacuum of borderlands society in southwest China, as Qing state power receded following the rise of the Taipings. Furthermore, he traces the Black Flags' rise as closely tied to the control of the transborder opium trade between the upland interior and the coast.

Chapter 2 argues that French colonial propaganda about the Black Flags--which has strongly influenced the groups' image in the historiography--was shaped by French commercial designs on the overland trade to China and mines in the 1870s. The evolving image of the Black Flags as a threat to trade and local order was developed by French consular reports in Hanoi, in what Davis calls "consular optics" (p. 50).

Chapter 3 reconsiders the Sino-French War of 1883-85, which was provoked by renewed contention between the Black Flags and the French over access to trade. Davis's central argument here complements Lloyd Eastman's 1967 study of the war (_Throne and Mandarins_): Vietnamese mandarins were just as varied and divided in their positions on the Black Flags and the French as the Qing Chinese were about the war.

Surprisingly, there is rather less on the Black Flags themselves in this chapter. But Davis offers some intriguing new angles on the conflict. First, in parallel to the Black Flags and French figures like Jean Dupuis, Davis introduces us to Qing adventurers such as Tang Jingsong, who, while holding Qing office, sought out and supported the Black Flags on his own initiative, and Qing Vietnam hands such as Cen Yuying and Xu Yanxu who were tasked with liaising with the Black Flags and leading Qing forces in the 1883-85 Sino-French War. Secondly, Davis presents international views of the war and the Black Flags, ranging from the Shanghai-based Chinese-language newspaper _Shenbao_ to a metropolitan French play.

Chapter 4 argues that despite French triumph in the Sino-French War, the borderland and imperial dynamics that gave rise to the Black Flags continued unabated in the 1880s and 1890s and beyond. Like the Nguyen and Qing before them, the French attempted to simultaneously suppress and incorporate the remnants of the Black Flags and other bandit groups in the aftermath of the war. The French also clarified and strengthened the Qing-Vietnam borderline and established telegraph connections, but these were just as amenable to use and manipulation by borderland populations as they were to French colonialists. Davis's pioneering discussion of the uses of the telegraph in the borderlands, including by revolutionaries against the Qing and by Liu Yongfu, the former Black Flags leader, to seek aid for his former comrades, is particularly noteworthy.

The conclusion is really more of an epilogue, where Davis provides the obligatory first-person, present-day visit to the border, winks at the statist illusions of the fixity of a border, and gives the border-crossing borderlands' locals the last word. Of more substance here is his demonstration, through a reflection on Chinese and Vietnamese historiography and the potential of oral traditions, that the borderland context, rather than the national, is vital to understanding phenomena such as the Black Flags, and that, at the same time, there is a history of effacing and forgetting this context.

My main criticism of Davis's valuable work is that the Black Flags themselves remain relatively obscure. The book on the whole reads well as a counternarrative to both colonial and nationalist narratives of the Black Flags, and the deft use of oral traditions contributes to the revisionism. I am left with a pretty clear idea of how the Nguyen, French, and Qing representatives related to and represented the Black Flags, but the book offers surprisingly little information about so many questions surrounding the Black Flags, including, among others, their ethnic composition, their organization, how they controlled opium production and distribution, their ideology, and what society looked like under their sway. These aspects are all mentioned in the book but the details and the hows and whys are left unclear.

Having done research of my own on the China-Vietnam borderlands, I recognize the difficulties of finding primary sources that speak to these questions. Assuming the paucity of sources from the Black Flags themselves, I wonder if more could be done with the admittedly biased and fragmentary French, Chinese, and Nguyen sources, if read against the grain and with an eye to finding convincing integration of the information.

The still-shadowy nature of the Black Flags relates to some of the questions I am left with after reading the book: Did the Black Flags aspire to state-building; and if not, why didn't they? Were they more Blackwater than Taliban or ISIS, or at the end of the day, just opportunistic and successful bandits? Certainly, there are quite a number of interesting cases in Davis's historiographical backyard, including the Manchus in the early seventeenth century, the Tay Son in eighteenth-century Vietnam, and later, semi-state-like groups such as the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Binh Xuyen in the Mekong Delta in the early twentieth century, for comparison.

And from the point of view of empire, how does the case of Black Flags fit into the extensive imperial repertoires now known, for example, in the work of Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper (_Empires in World History_, 2010)? Can we consider the Black Flags as a kind of imperial intermediary or perhaps as an example of outsourced state power in the field of violence comparable to tax farmers in the fiscal field? Again, situating the Black Flags in some proximate examples would have been illuminating, for example, Sino-Vietnamese piracy in the South China Sea at the turn of the nineteenth century, or the halter-and-bridle and _tusi_ systems of imperial Chinese history.

However, I do not want to distract from the real contribution of _Imperial Bandits_. This is a brilliantly woven narrative of the intersecting imperial designs of the Nguyen, Qing, and French, at the center of which was the quintessentially borderland phenomena of the Black Flags. It is the standard work on the Black Flags now, replacing earlier work such as Eastman's, and will find a welcome place on the desks of political scientists and historians of transnationalism, colonialism, and Asia. As a plus, the book is compact (170 pages of main text), clearly written, and action-packed, making it an effective illustrative case study to assign undergraduates in courses on colonialism, political economy, and Asian histories.

Nineteenth-century Vietnam remains a remarkably understudied subject, especially given the rich, untapped sources from the period and the pivotal nature of this period. _Imperial Bandits_ succeeds in picking up the conventional focus on the French colonial project and going beyond to the role of Nguyen politics, local society, and a transnational history that does not assume an ultimate European destination. I have high hopes that this book will inspire further exploration of this vital and intriguing century in the history of Vietnam.