It’s hard to say when China found its first beggars. Documents do not exist before the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), and in those days, the face of begging was far different.
In the ancient past, begging was not merely a career for people on the margins of society – it was the retreat of famous statesmen and spiritual hermits.
One of the earliest recorded beggars was Guan Zhong (720-645 BC), a Legalist chancellor and reformer from the State of Qi who was found begging in Qiwu after being released from prison in State of Lu. Before Chong’er (697-628 BC) would be crowned Duke Wen of Jin, he spent some 19 years on the run as a fugitive and beggar in and around the villages of present-day Shanxi province.
The career also captured the imagination of frustrated scholars such as Wu Zixiu (559-484 BC), who left the State of Chu for the State of Wu where he lived on the streets and begged by playing the xiao, an end-blown bamboo flute.
Beggars were usually lone actors with no organization in early Chinese history. That changed during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) with the organization of many of the begging gangs that survived into the modern era.
To the modern imagination, the people of China’s begging societies are often romanticized as chivalrous and freewheeling heroes. But that image is drawn almost entirely from popular wuxia fiction rather than historical fact.
Gangs of the Song Dynasty
The Great Song marked a turning point in Chinese feudalism, and the era’s prosperous economy affected city life, creating stronger social groups and room for social activities.
Trade guilds and associations became popular in Lin’an, the capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty, according to Zhou Mi, author of Tales of the Old Capital. Beggars too had their own associations: beggar gangs.
Beggar gangs were called tuan (团) and their chiefs were known as tuantou (团头). The Song Dynasty book Ancient & Modern Wonders was the first to depict a tuantou: Jin Laoda, the seven-term leader of a Hangzhou beggar gang. Jin controlled all the beggars in the city took a cut of their money. He also lent other beggars money at usurious rates,and so became one of the city’s richest men.
Beggar gangs of the Song Dynasty held their gathering in large cities and towns, and each region was lorded over by its own leader.
Gangs of the Modern Era
By the latter half of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), beggar gangs were everywhere. Many were related to criminal gangs and founded by rich individuals. Their names varied by region, but some of the most notorious were the Luokuang Society (箩筐会) in Hubei province, the Bianqian Society (边钱会) in Jiangxi province, the Xiangyi Society (孝义会) in Guizhou province and the Honghei Society (红黑会) in Hunan province.
Many beggar gangs were involved in theft and robbery, and their organization took on a political slant and secret society style organization.
But many of the more common beggar gangs formed naturally.
In Beijing, the Yellow Pole (黄杆子) and Blue Pole (蓝杆子) gangs were dominant. Yellow Pole beggars were primarily fallen nobles or their offspring. Most of them were masters of some form of folk art and only begged on important holidays. Blue Pole beggars included lower-class people, the poor, the old, the orphaned and the disabled.
Beggar gangs in the provinces of Shandong, Hebei and Henan were known as Qiongjia Hang (穷家行), or the assembly of the poor. Their groups were led by a ganshang, who would always be invited to local weddings or funerals to set off the firecrackers in exchange for significant pay.
Branches of the Qiongjia Hang ensured that working beggars kept out of one another’s territories. New beggars entering a region were required to bribe the local chief for a place.
The Dakuang (大筐) and Ergui (二柜) were the top beggar gangs of Jilin province. Dakuang consisted entirely of disabled people and its chief was called the kuangtou (筐头). Members usually lived in towns but went to villages to beg for grain every spring and fall. The practice was rubber stamped by the local government. The Ergui were similar to Hebei’s Qiongjia Hang and mostly consisted of common vagrants.
During the Republican Era (1912-1949), the Guanditingrenma (关帝厅人马) was one especially well-organized beggar gang in Guangzhou. Nearly all the beggars in the city were members, as were many beggars in neighboring cities.
Beliefs and Worship
However, among all the patriarchs of the beggars, Fan Ran was the most influential.
According to the legend, Confucius and his students ran out of food while traveling from the State of Chen to the State of Cai. The sage asked his student Zilu to borrow grain from the wise man Fan Ran, but Zilu returned empty-handed. He then asked another student, Yan Hui, to borrow food. Yan returned with two goose quills: one stuffed with rice and another stuffed with flour.
When Yan returned to the camp, a mountain of rice and a mountain of flour poured out of the quills, saving Confucius and his students. Confucius thanked Fan and promised to repay him, but Fan didn’t hurry to get his reward. He said he wanted his descendants to be repaid by those of Confucius, generation after generation. Confucius agreed, and from that day Fan’s descendants were allowed to beg at any household that had decorative couplets pasted on its door.
During the Qing Dynasty, Beijing’s beggars would gather every year in the Shihu Hutong by the old Xidan Pailou (the present-day Xiaoshihu Hutong) to commemorate Fan and cherish the influence of his legend.