Meet Lei Duan, LRCCS 2017 – 2019 postdoctoral fellow. In this interview, Dr. Duan told me all about his research on private gun ownership in China – from socially accepted violence to lady sharpshooters.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.
Couillard: Where are you from in China?
Dr. Duan: Tianjin. I grew up there and moved to the UMass Amherst for my Masters’ degree in 2009, then went to Syracuse for my PhD.
Couillard: When did you start studying Chinese Studies?
Dr. Duan: My undergrad major was world history, but in China that means something different than here. In China, that means any history besides China. But when I went to UMass Amherst that’s when I started learning Chinese history in an academic way.
Couillard: Much of your research is about guns. How did you get into that?
Dr. Duan: It’s a long story. My original dissertation topic was about private security companies (镖局) in China in the early 20th century. I couldn’t find much data on these companies, but during my search, I found a lot of these people and firms had gun licenses. I found that interesting, because there’s lots of research on military history, but almost none on private gun ownership – guns used by ordinary people. How the common people empowered themselves using guns and how the government responded.
I basically look from the 1860s – 1949. The 1860s was the first time foreign modern guns came to China on a large scale. And ending in 1949, because the new Communist regime quickly disarmed the people through mass movements.
Couillard: So guns were legal before 1949?
Dr. Duan: Yes, if you applied for a license. The government allowed people to arm themselves as a way for the state to extend its power into local society. The government relied on armed civilians to protect their locality.
Couillard: Are you talking about law enforcement or just regular people?
Dr. Duan: Both. As well as paramilitary forces. But this is only part of the story. Most people didn’t actually register their arms. So I’m looking at how and why they armed themselves.
Couillard: How did someone get a gun back then?
Dr. Duan: At this period, the government had very little direct control over local society. One way they could exert this control was by selling government guns to local militia forces. There was also the wealthy Chinese who could buy guns directly from foreign arms dealers. There were many western companies selling guns to China directly – such as Colt. They had sales representatives targeting the Chinese market.
But in rural areas, most guns came from the military. There were many civil wars among warlords, and guns were often abandoned on the battle field. After the fight was over, local people would find the guns and keep them or sell them. There were also self-manufactured guns – ‘foreign guns’ created in local workshops.
Couillard: How did people use the guns?
Dr. Duan: One use was for self-defense. You can see this by looking at ads targeting the Chinese market, which always marketed guns as a means of protection. But another reason was to elevate social status – especially for urban, wealthy middle class. Guns were a symbol of modernity.
Couillard: Would they carry the guns around?
Dr. Duan: Mostly they would display them in their homes, but there were also very small pistols that ladies would sometimes carry in their purses. In fact, there were some Shanghainese women who participated in shooting competitions. For some urban women, guns showed how women had equal power with men. For rural women, who protected their villages when men went off to war, guns were a symbol of participation in local politics.
It also showcased Chinese determination to arm against foreign invaders.
Couillard: It sounds very patriotic.
Dr. Duan: Yes. If you look at guns before this period, they were seen as a tool of violence. But by the 1930s, guns were socially acceptable. Guns had many meanings for different people. Guns lived in a colorful social life and exhibited themselves as tools of violence, labels of social status, and symbols of self-empowerment.
Couillard: What about gun crime?
Dr. Duan: Especially in the cities like Shanghai, we saw gun violence almost every day. Shooting, homicide, smuggling, etc. Mostly gangsters, such as the Green Gang (青帮). Many of these gangs focused their activities on gun smuggling.
Couillard: What did gun control look like?
Dr. Duan: There were many regulations, but they were often overlooked. And regulations looked very different for different locations. The Republican government’s policy was uneven and inconsistent. In some ways, the government tried to restrict private gun ownership, and in others recognizing the potential of armed civilians to defend localities. In contrast, in the 30s and 40s in northern China, the Communist Party in that area decided to co-opt gun owners into their fight. They mobilized the people who had guns to fight against ‘class enemies’ who were trying to take their guns away.
But after the communists already had power, they disarmed the same people who they previously mobilized.
Couillard: What’s important to you about this research?
Dr. Duan: First, most gun scholarship is focused on military modernization. But I want to place guns in a social and cultural context – why and how did non-military people arm themselves?
Second, this study also provides a new prism through which to examine state-society relations in modern China. How did gun owners challenge state power?
Third, I’m looking at the evolution of CCP policy about gun control.
Couillard: What sort of an impact would you like for your research to have?
Dr. Duan: I hope that we’ll have a better idea about the formation of socially accepted violence in modern China, and also the dynamics between state authority and social power.
Couillard: What will you be working on during your time at LRCCS?
Dr. Duan: I am currently working on revising my dissertation for publication. I am also working on another project which uses my dissertation as a baseline, exploring the complexities of the Chinese government’s disarming of civilians after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Couillard: Do you own any guns yourself?
Dr. Duan: No – the only guns I’ve ever used are water guns, haha.