Gun Control, Qing Style
In February of 2012, Hing Chao, the Hong Kong founder of the Orochen Foundation — an “NGO dedicated to the cultural survival of numerically small ethnic minorities in Northeast China” — published an article on HongKongTatler.com lamenting the disappearance of the practice of archery among the Solon, a Mongol-Tungusic people who actively participated in the empire’s eighteenth century campaigns in Xinjiang. Chao, who often writes about vanishing cultures and minority peoples, describes Qing-era Solon as possessing an “indomitable warrior spirit” and notes that their exceptional proficiency at archery made them an outstanding military asset. Following a visit to the Honghuaerji Forest Park (红花尔基森林公园) in Hulunbuir (呼伦贝尔), Inner Mongolia, Chao wrote: “with the greatest regret I learnt archery was all but dead even among the last Solon hunters.”
Hing Chao is not the first person to have expressed distress over the Solon abandonment of the bow, nor the first to have romanticized a disappearing ancestral way of life among them. On the dingchou day of the 10th month of the 15th year of the Qianlong reign (November 6, 1750), the emperor issued the following edict (found in the Shilu of that day):
In English, we get the following:
The original vocation of we Manchus focused on riding horses and shooting. Ordinarily, in hunting, we had no need for guns, and only used bows and arrows. Previously, when the Solon hunted in a battue, they never used guns. Now I hear that they do not do things using bows and arrows anymore, but instead seek what is convenient, and have generally become accustomed to using guns. The use of the bow and arrow in hunting is a longstanding custom, and a principle suitable to diligent practice. Moreover, the Solon are hunters, and certainly should be proficient in archery; for this reason, among our crack troops, they have always been especially commended for their skill. If they think only about obtaining game the easy way, with time their traditional archery skills will certainly weaken. Send this to General Furdan and order him to rigorously convey this edict to his Solon men. Henceforth when mounting a battue, they must abide by the old rules and use bow and arrow to hunt game. For each gun currently in their possession, give them one tael of silver; collect them all without exception. My thinking is that these guns must also come from their own sources, since [the soldiers] certainly do not make them themselves. Now, once the prohibition has been implemented, we must ascertain clearly the actual number [of these weapons] and store them securely.
Let Furdan take extreme care in counting and collecting them. After they have been collected, strictly prohibit their illicit purchase and production, and ferret out and promptly punish violators. In addition, issue explicit instructions to the Solon: “The reason we are now collecting your guns is particularly because in hunting too many of you do not use bows and arrows, but instead are learning to use guns. His Majesty desires that you not abandon your old ways, but return to your original vocations. You all should follow the example of His Majesty’s compassionate guidance and sincere intention: when you go to hunt in battue, do not use guns, but, as before, use bow and arrow; you must return to the old customs. Those who not only excel [at archery] but also adeptly shoot from horseback can receive the favor of being raised to official ranks like Imperial Guardsman.” Use this to clearly instruct them.
Qianlong’s edict was not merely idle fretting over the decline of the “Solon Way.” His genuine concern over a decline in martial skills among the “Five Tribes” – the banner affiliated groups from the Russo-Qing border region that Loretta Kim argues played a central role in the maintenance of Qing control over its northern frontier – who had been less affected by soft living in China than the Manchus proper, led him to the unprecedented step of declaring China’s first and only gun buyback program, with instructions to punish those who did not comply.
The emperor’s attitude seems remarkably similar to that of Hing Chao more than 250 years later; his worries were as much (if not more) about the abandonment of traditional, ancestral practices (本業, 舊習, etc) as about military preparedness. Though the emperor framed the change in Solon hunting practices as the venial pursuit of convenience (惟圖利便), it seems that the shift to guns (i.e., muskets, niaoqiang鳥鎗) may not have been because of laziness, but because this enabled the Solon to better support themselves. Are modern attempts to preserve traditional cultures, whether in northeast China or elsewhere, any more attentive to the actual needs of the people nominally being helped?