The History of the Shed People in China
China is one of the few countries in the world that can boast not only an extremely long history, but also the vast number of different ethnic groups with her borders. Each of these ethnicities has their own histories, sometimes tangled up in the history of others, most notably the Han Chinese.
The Yangzi River region has been considered the cradle of the Chinese people and country. The river provides the necessary means to irrigate the fields here, which allowed the Neolithic cultures in the region to grow and allow the first early dynasties, such as the Xia, Shang and Zhou, to lay down their own foundations.
This area of China has been the home to mainly hunters and hunter-gatherers right up into the 16thcentury. The mountainous areas had not been opened up until then; when they were, the area saw a mass migration here. By the 18thcentury, the area had been transformed from a wild and untamed wilderness to a productive region for the country.
So who were the people that flocked to this region and why did they come here in the first place?
The Shed people are mostly known as peng min, migrants who “customarily built small rude huts in which to live while they cleared the mountain slopes of central China for agriculture. Even in normal times their relations with both the existing local population in the areas where they settled, and with Ming and Qing officialdom, were often stormy and violent. Moreover, the rapid economic and social changes their migration set in motion contributed significantly to the outbreak of a series of uprisings that occurred in the region during the Ming-Qing transition period”.
The Shed people were the migrants who settled on the flat and fertile land who were mainly involved in rice agriculture however, space for this was in great demand in the region and they had to make do with the hillier areas. The people who had lived here beforehand called them ‘the shed people’ or ‘guest people’, both derogatory names.
The Shed people were not from one ethnic group or even from the same region – “the movement of shed people into the mountains of the Yangzi highlands during the late Ming and early Qing, while involving people from Hubei and Hunan in some areas, was predominately a movement of people from Fujian and Guang-dong, and included both Hakka and non-Hakka people”.
The Shed people continued to migrate to the Yangzi River region right up until the late 18thcentury, with the previous Shed people continuing to till their farms. “But once established, the broad outlines of life in the highlands and of the patterns of antagonism engendered there remained relatively unchanged until well after the fall of the Qing”. There they remained, becoming part of the community.
The Shed People were seen as a people who caused problems for the area but despite this, they were able to create their own community and settle here among the forests and the rolling hills. Numerous aspects of the social character of the highlands here are directly traced and attributed to the shed people and how they interacted with the other people in the region.
Averill, Stephen C. (1983) The Shed People and the Opening of the Yangzi Highlands, Modern China, Sage Publications, Inc.