April 4, 1931, Old Gada (Lao Gada 老嘎达) and his guerilla
troops were surrounded by the Fengtian (Manchurian) army on
three sides and the Shar Mörön River on the fourth. With his
brothers-in-arms falling before him, Gada lead his horse
into the churning waves (Chen and Saiximang 1979: 100).
Unwilling to surrender, Gada gave his life to the waters of
his homeland instead of to his enemies. He is called Old
Gada as a term of endearment; when he died he was not yet
forty years old.
meiren (commander) of the Darhan Banner militia in Jirim
League (now Tongliao Municipality in eastern Inner
Mongolia), Gada became a hero for his defiance of the
corrupt authorities. He fought to regain the ancestral
homeland of his Khorchin Mongol tribe, which the wang 王
(prince) of Darhan sold to the Manchurian government in 1929
as the "Liaobei Wasteland" (Lu 1979: 564). The story of his
struggle and ultimate defeat is immortalized in song,
symphony, narrative poetry, and film. A television series
was released in 2011. Gada Meiren (whose Mongolian given
name is Naadmed) is considered an Inner Mongolian hero, and
as such is sometimes viewed warily as a potential symbol of
separatist sentiment, a threat to Chinese sovereignty in the
region (Bulag 2004: 105). Yet he may also be a powerful
rhetorical tool of the Chinese state, a man who defied the
Manchurian imperialists and the oppressive aristocrats in a
"revolutionary fight" (geming zhandou 革命战斗) (Lu 1979: 565).
Moreover, at the time of his struggle, Inner Mongolia had
ceased to exist as a political entity; the territory of the
fallen Qing Empire was divided into newly-drawn provinces,
nominally controlled by the Republic of China but actually
in the hands of various warlords. The significance of Gada
Meiren’s fight has expanded far beyond its local and
temporal situation, and has become a symbol of all of Inner
Mongolia and their "revolutionary" spirit.
is written about Gada Meiren, and what is written leaves
many questions unanswered. The narrative poem about Gada
Meiren is said to have been composed sometime in the 1950s,
but so far I have found no text which traces its exact
origins, nor anything to clarify authorship. It is even
unclear whether the poem is oral or written in origin. Its
connection to the "facts" of the rebellion is also a bit
murky, although certain "artful untruths" stand out: for
instance, in a 1979 published version of the narrative poem,
Gada Meiren faces the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin 张作霖,
even though Zhang was assassinated before the sale of the
Darhan lands (Seal 1996: 185; Bonavia 1995: 84). I will
argue later that Zhang serves as a political foil to the
"proto-revolutionary" Gada. Nonetheless, the oral and
written traditions which memorialize his rebellion clearly
constitute "invented tradition" used to establish a
"national memory" of this hero (see Hobsbawm and Ranger
1992; Noyes and Abrahams 1999: 77). We may not be able to
trace the folk origins of Gada Meiren the hero, but those
origins are evident in the officially-sanctioned tellings of
1979 Chinese-language version of the Gada Meiren poem
arranged by Chen Qingzhang 陈清漳 and Saiximang 赛西芒 from
written materials in both Mongolian and Chinese represents
the simultaneous traditionalization of the Gada Meiren story
and its generalization for larger Inner Mongol and national
audiences (Hymes 1975: 11, Bauman 1992: 128). Switching from
prose to poetry and back in each episode, the poem gestures
towards the idiom of bensen üliger, a Khorchin narrative
poetic genre. This study begins with historical background
on the Khorchin, a once-powerful tribe intimately connected
with the Qing government, and on the changes wrought in
eastern Inner Mongolia through Han Chinese migration, the
sale of land, and the ensuing banditry of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The poem is then
analyzed through comparison with this historical backdrop.
Connections are drawn with bensen üliger. The general
absence of local specificity expands the poem’s appeal
beyond the Khorchin, while the role of Gada’s wife Peony and
Zhang Zuolin add complexity to the legend. The local,
regional, and national significance of the poem is explored.
Noyes and Abraham’s study of the formation of national
memory (1999), as well as Seal’s work on outlaw narrative
and its "convenience" for both marginal and official
interests (1996), inform this analysis. Gada Meiren’s legend
flourishes because of its malleability: it can at once
represent a struggle to regain a by-gone era, and a
harbinger of the communist revolution.
Khorchin Mongols: Shifting Centers of Power
Meiren’s ancestors were once among the most powerful people
of East Asia. They rose to power, however, through a sort of
devil’s pact. After the Ming expelled the Mongol Yuan
government from China in 1368, the Mongol tribes splintered
and fell into warfare. The disunited eastern tribes, ruled
nominally by the Northern Yuan government, were later
threatened by the Zhungar empire of the western Oirat
tribes. The rise of the Manchu offered a chance for peace
and stability. In 1624 the Khorchin made an alliance with
the Manchu. Later, Ejei Khan of the Northern Yuan submitted
to the Manchu, thus dissolving his empire. The Manchu
divided Mongol territory into Inner and Outer regions, and
integrated the Mongols into their military system of
banners, which organized locales and families (Atwood 2004:
451). These banners were organized into leagues, equivalent
in size to a county in a Chinese province. The Outer
Mongols, who were mostly of the Khalkha tribe and under
looser control from the Manchu Qing government, grew apart
from the numerous tribes of Inner Mongolia. The Inner Mongol
tribes were in turn isolated from each other by the
boundaries of their respective banners. The borders also
confined the livelihood of the Mongols, who as pastoral
nomads could no longer move camp wherever they pleased.
Still, the Mongols were privileged as bannermen, the
Khorchin particularly so. The Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722),
one of the greatest leaders of the Qing, was quite close
with his Khorchin grandmother (Atwood 2004: 309).
Geography and government policy changed the Khorchin way of
life dramatically. Jirim League, the traditional Khorchin
territory, is in present-day eastern Inner Mongolia and
neighboring Liaoning Province. Nestled along the Hinggan
mountain range, the region receives much more rainfall than
the Mongolian heartland. The inhabitants of the Jirim region
have practiced agricultural for at least centuries, if not
millennia (Hürelbaatar 1999: 192). In the mid-nineteenth
century, the Qing reversed centuries of protectionism and
allowed Han Chinese farmers to migrate north of the Great
Wall into Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. Eastern Inner
Mongolia experienced a particularly high influx of migrants.
The Khorchin thus evolved into a semi-agricultural and
semi-pastoral lifestyle and a sinicized folk culture
turn of the century, the Han Chinese migrant population in
Inner Mongolia had expanded enormously. The sedentary
agriculture of the Chinese permitted denser populations than
Mongol nomadic pastoralism. The Chinese thus overtook the
Mongol population; by the mid-nineteen-forties, the Mongols
were an absolute minority in the region (Hürelbaatar 1999:
195). The Han Chinese were not always unwelcome, however; in
the late nineteenth century, the migrants worked as tenant
farmers, working for the banner wang (princes).
greatest source of interethnic strife in Jirim and other
eastern banners before the communist era seems to have come
from the sale of Mongol land to the Qing government and,
after the fall of the empire, to northern warlords. Many
wang in the region squandered taxes and personal wealth on
luxury. When they had lost all other sources of income, the
wang sold their land. These sales displaced the native
Mongol farmers and herders as military personnel "reclaimed"
these "wastelands" for their own use (Lu 1979: 564). The
Mongol inhabitants lost their land and with it, their means
of survival. Some Mongol men chose to fight the reclamation
personnel, forming bandit gangs in the Hinggan mountains and
forests. The first prominent gang, led by the former herder
Bayindalai, turned Suluke Banner into "mounted brigand"
territory. Bayindalai waged a successful guerilla campaign
in the region from 1904 to 1907. An erstwhile farmer,
Taoketao, lodged his own campaign in Khorchin and Zhalait
territories in 1906-1907 (Yiduhexige 2002: 183).
Zuolin, an ethnic Manchu from Liaoning Province and the
anachronistic villain of the Gada Meiren poem, was himself
involved in banditry as a youth. In 1900, four years after
Zhang began his career of outlawry, the gang joined the
imperial army in its fight against the Boxer Rebels. After
the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Zhang served the Qing
"on border patrol and bandit-suppression duties" (Bonavia
1995: 63). It was in fact Zhang who put down Bayindalai and
Taoketao (Yiduhexige 2002: 185). Parlaying himself to Yuan
Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China and
antagonist of the Kuomingtang (KMT), Zhang eventually
controlled all of Manchuria, including the former Inner
Mongolian territory Chahar and Suiyuan provinces (Bonavia
1995: 61). Zhang’s Manchuria flourished from 1917 to the
mid-nineteen-twenties, but succumbed to crop failures and
inflation around 1927. When Zhang failed to wrest control of
Beijing from the Zhili government, the Japanese Kwantung
Army planted a bomb on the railroad tracks along his route
home to Mukden. Except for Zhang’s death in the June 4, 1928
explosion, he serves as the perfect foil to Gada Meiren:
instead of fighting injustice, Zhang capitalized on it. Gada
Meiren went from military officer to outlaw; Zhang turned
against the very people he may have once fought alongside.
In Anglophone outlaw narrative, the outlaw breaks the laws
of man when the laws of men break higher moral codes (Seal
1996: 184). The same ethical theory applies to Gada Meiren:
he fought a corrupt wang who had undermined his legitimacy
with his own tribal kin, and a state which exiled Mongol
farmers and pastoralists off of their "barren" land and into
penury and starvation.
describes the "convenience" of outlaw narratives not only
for the marginalized, but also for groups antagonistic to
the one represented by the outlaw. Ned Kelly, a
nineteenth-century Australian bank robber and "bushranger",
has become a national hero. His story resonates for many
Aborigines in Western Australia and the Northern
Territories, who "see Kelly as an appropriate representative
of their own grievances and struggle" against the state
(Seal 1996: 179). This may seem improbable when Kelly’s
Anglo-Celtic ancestors were the cause of so much of that
grief. Kelly appears in books, films, television series, and
even on a government-issued postage stamp (Seal 1996: 177,
Parallels also exist between Gada Meiren and Owain Glyndŵr,
a 15th-century Welsh nobleman who lead a years-long fight
against British rule from 1401-1415. He is at once a
"redeemer-hero" of the Welsh nation, a "social bandit"
hiding in the mountains and on the margins, and in more
recent times a "national hero" of the Welsh people (Henken
1996: 20, 160). Beginning in the nineteenth century,
Glyndŵr’s localized rebellion morphed into a more
generalized "revolt against unjust treatment and the
struggle for freedom (168). As will be shown later, the
local particulars of Gada Meiren’s uprising have also been
subsumed into a narrative with broader appeal to Mongolians
across China, and to Han Chinese as well.
outlaw narrative supports the state’s self-portrayal as an
authority sensitive to a higher moral code and the needs of
its citizens. This again points to the necessity of pitting
Zhang against Gada Meiren, for Zhang was a staunch
anti-communist. Although Gada never speaks of the class
struggle in the 1979 poem, he does not have to. He opposed
the reactionaries, anti-communists, and feudalists; his is,
by association, a revolutionary.
Khorchin Narrative Poetry in the 1979 Gada Meiren Poet
1979 Gada Meiren poem is traditionalized through genre,
style, and imagery. The poem is divided into episodes,
including an opening song (xuge 序歌). Each episode begins
with prose, then shifts between prose and poetry. Speech is
always in verse. This prosimetric format is common in bensen
üliger ("book-based epic"), a Khorchin oral tradition of
retelling Chinese serial fiction (Heissig 1996: 90). Chinese
novels circulated in manuscript form and became popular
among educated Khorchin. These novels were then oralized and
performed by huurch’, storytellers who accompanied
themselves with a fiddle or huur (Wurenqimuge 1988: 22-23).
In the performance of bensen üliger, the huurch’ speaks the
prose and sings the verse while accompanying himself, in a
style akin to the tanci 弹词 tradition of Chinese chantefable
(Bender 2003: 3). The format of the 1979 poem invokes a
uniquely Khorchin oral tradition which grew out of close
cultural exchange with the Chinese.
the format of the poem may be localized, the contents appeal
to a non-local audience. Images and lines from the folksong
"Gada Meiren" appear throughout the 1979 edition of the
poem. The song says nothing of Gada Meiren’s actions, but
rather analogizes them with the migration of wild swans:
just as they must always rest at the Shar Mörön River, so
too Gada Meiren fought for all Mongols:
The wild swans flying from the south
Must rest on the Yangtze River
Gada Meiren’s revolt
for the land of all Mongols
the Mongolian version of the song and the 1979 poem name the
Shar Mörön, not the Yangtze. Still, the idea of a major
river should resonate for most readers. The image of the
Shar Mörön and the migrating swans appears in the opening
song and the final episode of the poem, and sporadically in
Although the Shar Mörön, Erlong Mountain 二龙山, and other
landmarks are mentioned, the land is always described as
pasture land (muchang 牧场) and grassland (caoyuan 草原).
Perhaps the inhabitants of Darhan Banner were exclusively
pastoralists. Given its location, however, one suspects that
a mixed economy of agriculture and pastoralism was
practiced. Gada Meiren may indeed have been fighting to
regain farmland. That possibility, however, has less appeal
to Inner Mongols to the west, where the drier climate almost
totally precludes agriculture. The picture of farming
Khorchin Mongols would also strike most Han Chinese as odd,
as they are accustomed to the image of Inner Mongolia as a
vast nomadic grassland. If the prosimetric format of Gada
Meiren constitutes traditionalization, then the insistence
on the imagined pastoralism of Darhan Banner constitutes
invented tradition. The reality of the Khorchin mixed
economy would simply not make sense to anyone outside that
the prosimetric format authenticates the Khorchin voice and
the invocation of the grasslands reaches out to non-Khorchin
readers, the story of Gada’s wife Peony marries Khorchin
bensen üliger with communist narrative. Peony was in fact
Gada’s third wife, but the other two are not mentioned in
the poem (Lu 1979: 563). According to the poem’s telling,
Gada would have accomplished nothing without his wife. It is
Peony who urges him to confront the wang about the plight of
their people. When Gada is stripped of his title, she tells
him this is just the opportunity he needs to truly devote
himself to his cause. With her encouragement, Gada and a
group of supporters travel to the capital, Mukden, to have
an audience with Zhang Zuolin himself. The evil Zhang throws
the men in prison and has them sent back to Darhan, where
they will await execution. As Peony prepares to rescue her
husband and his friends, she realizes the futility of her
situation. She knows that she and her people are up against
forces more powerful than their own. Assuming she will lose
everything in the fight, and so chooses to give up her
possessions before the army can take them from her. She
sells all her livestock and as much of her possessions as
she can. She begs Zhuri Lama to take her three-year-old
daughter, Tianjiliang, and raise her as his own. But,
beholden to the wang and his own backwardness, the lama
ancestors were loyal servants of the people.
oppose His Highness would disgrace my forebears.
Old Gada is already an unfilial traitor,
you must not join him in his misdeeds.
will happy take care of your livestock,
but I cannot accept Tianjiliang.
is not that I am heartless,
just cannot commit treason (62-63).
Without the lama’s help, Peony is sure her daughter will
eventually fall into the hands of her enemies. She has only
one other option to save her daughter from orphanhood and
capture. After hesitation and tears, Peony finally manages
to shoot Tianjiliang. After the child is dead, she sets her
house on fire. Now nothing remains to hold her back.
Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism in the seventeenth
century. Mongol intellectuals and Western scholars alike
have long held that this conversion pacified and weakened
the Mongols (see Elverskog 2006). By the nineteenth century,
approximately one third of all Mongol men became lamas,
contributing to population decline (Hangin 1973: 1). The
corruption of lamas was also no secret (Hangin 1973: 76).
Indeed, in Khorchin versions of the Gesar epic, which spread
from Tibet along with Buddhism, pit the pious hero Gesar
against evil lamas. In bensen üliger, lamas become manggus,
monsters with magical powers who face shamans in battle (Wurenqimuge
1988: 25). Zhuri Lama is a modern version of the lama
manggus. He has no magical powers; instead, his evil lies in
his refusal to contribute to the rebellion. Earlier bensen
üliger criticized the lamas for, among other crimes,
usurping the power of the Mongols’ native shamanism. In the
poem, the lama is not an enemy of the shamans, but of the
people. Zhuri Lama is bound to his feudal commitments,
unwilling to lose face for his ancestors, the wang, or
himself. The compilers of the poem had no need to inject
Communist rhetoric into the story; the Party message of
clergy as feudal reactionaries can be read in between the
blatant is Peony’s feminism. She does not simply act to help
her husband in his righteous cause. Rather, the revolt is
her own cause, which she initiates through her husband.
Women and other marginal peoples sometimes make their way
into the folklore of revolt as strong, courageous heroes.
There is a certain democracy to folklore, albeit not total
equality (Beiner 2007: 1997). Her bravery suits not only the
Khorchin folklore, but also the communist lore, which gives
women a more active role in the revolution.
government suppressed the story of Gada Meiren during the
Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), fearing it would spread
"ethnic seperatism" (minzu fenlie 民族分裂) (Wu 1979: 566).
After Mao’s death and the conviction of the Gang of Four,
Gada Meiren was rehabilitated as a revolutionary hero
(ibid.). He is a "convenient" outlaw figure for the
communist Chinese state, which itself began as a band of
outlaws rejected by the KMT. Taken at face-value, Gada
Meiren’s struggle was simply for the repossession of land.
He did not seek to overthrow the class system or communalize
all private property. Perhaps he simply lead a movement of
social banditry, a peasant revolt designed to return the
Khorchin world to its traditional order, not to create "a
new and perfect world" for all Mongols (within the context
of a new China) (Hobsbawm 1959: 5). We do not know if Gada
Meiren supported the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary
Party, nor if he would have applauded the founding of the
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1947 by the Chinese
Communist Party (two years before the Party wrested control
from the KMT) (Atwood 2004: 247). Yet the folklore
surrounding him, as that surrounding other outlaw heroes,
has been imbued with political meaning (Seal 1996: 197). In
order to maintain its status quo, the Chinese Communist
Party harks back to its early days as an outlawed entity.
This casts the Party not as a stodgy hegemon, but as a
youthful underdog, fighting other hegemons in order to bring
justice to the Chinese people. "National memory" is built
most solidly on folk tradition, in dialogue between the
periphery and the center (Noyes and Abrahams 1999: 92).
Since the Party could not suppress Gada Meiren’s story—just
as it failed to suppress most folklore in its purge of the
"four olds"—it wisely allowed scholars to revisit the
narrative, and read into it a story of incipient communist
questions of the Gada Meiren legend’s origins and
development are left unanswered here. To fully explore the
meanings of Gada Meiren to various Mongolian groups and to
the Chinese state, research is needed on the authorship and
historiography of the narrative poem, song, and other extent
texts concerning Gada Meiren, as well as their variation,
evolution, and interpretation by different ethnic and
political groups. For example, is Zhang Zuolin the villain
in all versions of the Gada Meiren poem, or do the wang and
other characters receive more of the blame? How did Zhang
become such a central figure? Also, what, if any, connection
is there between the Gada Meiren story and the Inner
Mongolian independence movement? I am also curious as to the
performance of the Gada Meiren poem. Is it ever told in the
story-song format of bensen üliger? Just as the
interpretation of the past says as much about the concerns
of the present it does as about the past itself, so too the
1979 poem analyzed here speaks to the concerns of Inner
Mongols emerging from the Cultural Revolution as much, if
not more so, than to concerns of the Darhans of the 1920s (Vansina
1985: xii, 119). The 2002 film adds another presentistic
twist: director Feng Xiaoning 冯小宁 has moved the story
forward to World War II and pitted Gada against the
Japanese. A thorough study of all print and manuscript
materials, as well as ethnographic fieldwork, are necessary
to answer the many questions surrounding Gada Meiren and his
many symbolisms. This study offers a beginning look into the
complexity surrounding the Gada Meiren legend.
Special thanks to Dr. Erdenebat Jamaa and Dr. Uranchimeg
Borjigin for their help in transcribing and translating the
Mongolian version of the "Gada Meiren" folksong, and to
Prof. Christopher Atwood for research guidance.
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Henochowicz is the translation coordinator at China Digital
Times. Her writing has appeared in the Cairo
Review of Global Affairs,
The China Beat,
She studied Mongolian folklore and ethnic minority issues in
China through masters programs at the
University of Cambridge
The Ohio State University.