Chapter 7




        Having looked at the rise and fall of the Chinese mining communities in West Borneo, the time has now come to conclude with what lessons can be learned from their experience, in particular, the way in which these immigrants adapted to their new life in the tropics and how their history was shaped through this adaptation. One could say that the Chinese mining kongsi as a particular institution was developed for and shaped by what must have been, for the immigrants themselves, a kind of “frontier” environment, which transformed their traditional social and political structures into something different from their original models.

     Without question the major causes that “pushed” the Chinese pioneers to go to Borneo were the dire economic situation back home, the quest for adventure and material gain. The desire to escape Manchu oppression should not be overlooked either. Too often, the pioneers are portrayed as destitute starving coolie labour, or, in the words of the Dutch officials, the “dregs of society”. In the preceding chapters we have seen that is not true and that among the Chinese immigrants there were many who, like Luo Fangbo, had enjoyed a good education back home in China. The profit argument was most often advanced to justify emigration by both Chinese and Dutch authorities. In China during the Ming and the Qing periods there was definitely something like the “call from afar”, a dream of the Nanyang (Southern Seas) and the great opportunities that awaited intelligent and hard-working Chinese there. If there had not been such a “call”, would there still have been the “Chinese Kings” in the Nanyang in the eighteenth century? In the homeland of the emigrants, Fujian and Guangdong, who had not seen, or at least not heard of the fabulous wealth of the Nanyang Chinese? To the Chinese miners who first crossed over to West Borneo on contracts with the Malay rulers, we have seen that the island was reputed to be a “gold mountain”, and that fabulous stories were told about the riches that were to be won there. In Borneo the mining enterprises were in Chinese hands and, in the course of time the mining communities outgrew the power of the sultan’s authority. The reason that so many Chinese came to Borneo has to be seen in this context: for a brief period, Borneo was, for the Chinese, at least a free country, and what is even more cogent, a country of their own.

     All this brings to mind the other “gold mountain” as the Chinese called it, California. The American gold-fields were discovered in 1848, and the gold-rush enticed tens of thousands of  immigrants to California, many of whom later settled there and became farmers. In fact, the settlement of  pioneer farmers and the arrival of gold-miners overlapped a great deal. [1] It has become an established usage to speak of  the westward American expansion [2] in terms of “the great American frontier” and the “frontier experience”. The notion of a “frontier” region was originally coined by the American census bureau which considered a “frontier” a region where the population was more than two and less than six inhabitants per square mile. Since the beginning of the seventeenth century, the American “frontier” was constantly moving from east to west. When the first colonist arrived, the frontier was the Atlantic coast, but over time that frontier gradually pushed back until, around 1850, it had reached California. The frontier moved steadily westwards through the promise of gold-mines, new pastures, and new cultivable land. Its progression corresponds to the history of the population of North America by settlers who emigrated from Europe.

The frontier thesis was first formulated by the historian named Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) in Chicago in 1893. Turner’s thesis includes a number of assumptions which have since been hotly debated and discussed but have generally become established in historical lore. Turner maintained that American culture and American institutions had not been imported ready made from Europe but were, by and large, the product of the interaction with the natural and human environment of America itself. This environment was characterized by the “frontier” – the divide between the settled and the unsettled “wild” lands of the Indian tribes – which advanced gradually from the east to the west coast. Preconditions for this “frontier society” were what Turner called free land and resources, few native inhabitants, the merging of the settler population from different cultural and ethnic origins, the need for co-operation and solidarity, and the development – in the absence of various Old World specializations – of multiple skills (farming, hunting, building, tool-making, fighting). This environment gave the pioneers a new sense of “rugged” individuality, while at the same time promoting equality among fellow pioneers. The institutions which were created to govern the new frontier society were therefore democratic in nature. According to Turner, this explains why America became the cradle of democracy in spite of the fact that it was built by immigrants who came from countries where absolutism and feudal class society were the rule.

     From America, the frontier thesis was taken by comparative historians to other areas where similar developments had occurred, such as South Africa, and their similarities and differences were explored. [3] Both the cases cited above can be seen as the result of European expansion in the wake of the commercial and industrial growth of its nations. The frontier became the outlet for the overpopulation of Western Europe, and a sanctuary for those persecuted in their home countries for religious reasons (the Quakers, the Shakers, and the Mennonites, for instance). In the frontier thesis, the religious and cultural background of the emigrants are always supposed to be Christian. It seems that Turner never bothered to look at what the Jews, the Mexicans, the Chinese, or the Indians (from India, not the Amerindians) or even the French might have contributed to the new American culture. [4] Stripped down to its essentials and freed of  its ethnocentric prejudices, the “frontier thesis” may be reduced to the hypothesis that when groups of people from more developed, industrialized,  urbanized, and overpopulated countries of a so called “old world”, emigrate to less developed, sparsely inhabited, and unexploited lands of a “new world”, a “frontier society” will take shape with some (or all) of the above-mentioned characteristics. For the large groups of Chinese immigrants who moved from the “old world” of China abroad, Borneo with its gold-fields must have appeared as a “new world” offering unlimited opportunities. With that in mind, it is useful to try to apply the “frontier thesis” to this case.

     Can West Borneo be termed a Chinese frontier? We should perhaps first answer the question of how Chinese culture has treated the problem of “ frontiers” in its history. Traditionally the Chinese “tianxia” (generally translated as “empire” but in fact meaning “all under Heaven”) had no clear borders. Wherever Chinese settled outside the Eighteen Provinces of “China proper”, they avowedly tried to create “little Chinas”, and some of them, like Luo Fangbo, apparently wished to make Borneo part of the Chinese empire proper. How far this was a genuine ambition remains to be seen. Certainly there is no evidence that the Borneo Chinese ever petitioned the imperial throne to extend its influence over their mining districts. Yet, those among the leaders of the different zongting who rose to wealth and power very often bought “a mandarin’s button”, and even in the sweltering heat of tropical Borneo enjoyed putting on their official robes whenever the occasion seemed to call for it, for instance, when Tobias visited Mandor and Montrado.

     More fundamentally, however, the political worldview of the Chinese empire must be termed expansionist, and this again can be said to be linked to some very ancient characteristics of Chinese culture. To quote the Book of Songs (Shijing 詩經): “Under the vault of heaven, there is no [place] that is not the king’s land; on the shores that can be reached, there is no one who is not the king’s subject” (普天之下莫非王土﹐率土之濱莫非王臣). [5] This may seem rather far-fetched, yet we have to note that major dynasties, as soon as the central key regions of China were under control, pursued expansionist politics. These actions were often prepared by the settlement of Chinese colonies in regions that the Chinese emperor wished to control. Colonist settlement implied the building of temples linked to national fenxiang networks or lineage systems. In this way, the emigrants maintained multiple links to the central home region. 

     In the past, the expansionist policies had often meant moving the Chinese frontier further outward. Places outside the Chinese empire such as Taiwan, to which Chinese pioneers had emigrated earlier, had over time become incorporated within the Chinese

empire. But ever since Chinese emigration to the Nanyang had begun (perhaps as early as the ninth century) and in spite of close relationships such as that between the “king of Borneo” and the Yongle Emperor (see introduction), no new overseas territories were acquired by the imperial state. Although early Chinese settlements – really commercial posts within the wider framework of the intra-Asian trading networks – may have thought of themselves as outposts of the Chinese empire, they in fact had to adapt to their foreign surroundings, and by so doing changed considerably the original social structures they had brought with them. The case of the Chinese mining communities in West Borneo is a very good illustration of this process.

     Indeed, in Borneo the process of adaptation went further than in most other Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Here the Chinese Hakka miners had not only to adjust, as they always had done in China itself, to their new surroundings in terms of daily life, survival skills, and economic strategy, they also had to create political structures which allowed them to maintain themselves in a generally hostile environment. This, as we have seen, contributed to the evolution of the mining associations towards a democratic political institution, in which the means of production as well as the government were at least in principle controlled by the people. From the combination of the basic association institutions of the cult group (hui) and the economic co-operative (kongsi) sprang the government of the democratic zongting, the Chinese republic. If we want to understand the process which occasioned this evolution, we should first discuss the different ethnic communities on the West Borneo scene in their relationship to the immigrant mining communities. Thereupon we can look at the institutions the Chinese brought along with them and see how they changed and were adapted to the new surroundings. Finally, we shall try to set out the salient characteristics of the new culture which developed under these circumstances.

     The first remarkable thing about the Borneo scene where the Chinese miners arrived was the fact that it was neither a uniform nor a primitive society, but a varied and developed one, at least in the coastal settlements. Before the influx of Chinese Hakka miners, other Chinese had arrived and set themselves up in the ports, mostly as traders. After the tribal aboriginal people, these Chinese merchants may well have been among the earliest settlers, as traces of commercial links have been found to date from the ninth century. Certainly Chinese trading posts existed in the early Ming period. At that time, the merchants lacked the protection of the Chinese empire or of any other larger political body. They did not develop strong mutual help and assistance structures among themselves, at least not between settlements. Inside the merchant communities, a general solidarity was the rule, especially among members with the same surname or belonging to the same cult group. Outside the small community, however, there was not only no true solidarity but in fact fairly furious competition and strife. Hence, as we have seen, for the newly arrived Hakka miners, the Hoklo merchants of the bazaars of Pontianak and Kulor were not always friendly allies, but instead often merciless exploiters.

     The counterpart of the miners were the Malays. Here there was no previous relationship or any common background between the two groups. The Malays were immigrants themselves. They had not established polities of their own in West-Borneo until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These Malay rulers had recruited the miners to come and work on what they considered to be their territory, on a shared profit basis. This, at least in the first years, established a fairly regular contractual relationship, which might have lasted longer if the sultans had stuck to their part of the deal. They did not do so because – and I think we may here trust the Chinese side of the story – they sought to exploit the miners beyond the initial covenant by squeezing them when they needed to buy supplies and also by not providing them with enough protection against the Dayaks. Although there was much contention and strife among the different rulers, at least the Malays had both the solidarity of a strong Islamic religious tradition and their common interests as reasons for maintaining Malay supremacy. For them too, Borneo was a “frontier” in their expansion throughout the archipelago, but in a different way than the Chinese. These differences did not necessarily create conflicts between Chinese and Malays for social, economic, or political reasons. In fact their co-existence in Borneo was, generally speaking, a very peaceful one. Only very rarely do we see Chinese and Malays at war with each other.

     Finally there were the Dayaks. The Chinese miners initially found themselves in conflict with them because of their intrusion into the Dayak territory and mining grounds. Despite the strained relations the Dayaks provided wives for the Chinese, thereby entering into a sort of family relationship with them. As can be seen from later events, a certain solidarity developed between Dayaks and Chinese, and Andresen had to learn to his surprise, that the Dayaks were by no means set on avenging themselves on the Chinese when the Dutch military supremacy allowed them the opportunity, and even encouraged them to do so.

     All this combined to create a very complex social context where “the frontier” was not merely an open space sparsely peopled with Dayak populations. The Chinese pioneers themselves are not easy to characterize in terms background either. Certainly, the Hakka miners who came first from Brunei and later directly from the Chinese mainland appear to have been a fairly homogeneous group, although people from other Chinese ethnic groups such as Hokkien and Hoklo were integrated into the mining communities. The problem is that we know so little about their political and religious background. Even if we know something about the Qing imperial administration of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this knowledge is of little help when it comes to assessing the political structures of the Banshanke. The imperial administration did not reach far into the local systems of places such as the backblocks of Chaozhou and Huizhou. What ethnic relations were like in these mountain areas where large groups of aborigines still (in this case the She and the Miao ) lived about we do not know. What we do know – and only recently have learned – is the importance of cult organizations and temple networks, about Taoist liturgical traditions and Buddhist monastic holdings among Chinese settlers. Yet this is not yet generally recognized in Sinological research. In other words, the Hakka and Banshanke societies are still practically unknown in their homeland, let alone on the Borneo frontier! All this makes it very difficult to say whether the characteristics which came to the fore in the mining communities in Montrado and Mandor were generated by the circumstances of their new surroundings or whether they had already existed among pioneers in China.

     There are reasons to believe that many of the characteristics of the mining communities and their social and political organization were also to be found in China. Many private mining enterprises were in operation in spite of official opposition in the region from where they came. This private and illegal mining, where at times more than one hundred thousand miners were involved, caused the Qing government a great deal of trouble, and the question of how to deal with it was a recurrent subject for debate.[6] To date there has been no study about how these vast mining enterprises were organized. We only know that their patron saints were the Three Mountain Kings (Sanshan guowang) of Jiexi and that this cult organization was politically and economically important to them. It can also be argued that the social and political conditions which these miners found in Borneo were not so different from what they were accustomed to back home: for “Dutch government” just read “imperial government”, for “Malay sultans” read “local strongmen” and for “Dayaks” read “She and Miao”. Even the Hokkien and Hoklo traders were very familiar to the Hakka and Banshanke people. The analogy may in some respects appear rather imperfect, yet it is undeniable.

     Here, I am obliged to leave these considerations for what they are: very imperfect assessments of situations which are by no means clear or well-studied. Chinese local cultures and political structures are not well enough known to allow for any precise evaluation of the heritage the miners may have brought with them. I can only say something on the institutions and culture they created in West Borneo and then, from that point of departure, look at the question of what this may mean in terms of heritage and background.


Characteristics of the Chinese Immigrant Communities and their Democratic Institutions

      Referring to what we have seen in the previous chapters, we may explain the success of the Chinese mining communities by several factors, some of which appear to be interrelated, while others are not. The Chinese miners were invited to Borneo because they had experience in mine work. Indubitably they were able to withstand great hardships and there is no question that their mining methods represented a considerable advance on the primitive river-panning which the Dayaks used.

     The Chinese appear to have been well organized from the beginning. This was not a lawless “each man for himself”, gun-touting mob of wild American gold-panners, but groups of skilled Hakka mineworkers who had a long experience in team work. They not only knew where to find gold and how to extract it from the soil through complicated hydraulic systems, but they understood how to co-operate and share benefits. Most importantly, they knew how to stand solidly up to harsh, exploitative overlords, be these imperial bureaucrats or Malay rulers. They also had clear goals. Every man, in principle, had a family back home to support and to return to. The idea was to go to Borneo to make a fortune and then leave, but in fact most of them remained to build a new Chinese society. Having once survived the great dangers of the crossing, few were inclined to risk their lives again on the high seas. Added to this aversion to sea travel, more often than not the reason for their going to Borneo was because, either because of political, religious or purely economic reasons, they no longer had any place in the society of their home country. This being the case, they set about to create a home away from home, to build a new Chinese society in the wilderness. Later, when Andresen wanted them to submit themselves to the Malay rulers and the Dutch authority, the leaders of Montrado pointed out that it was they and no one else who had developed the region of Sambas and turned it into a prosperous country.

Although the Chinese miners certainly did not have this intention from the start, fairly soon they did have to fend for themselves and create their own government. The reasons for this evolution have been amply documented in the preceding chapters. If they had not strengthened themselves by creating their own defence system, their own political institutions and their own laws, they would have been despoiled, year after year, of the fruits of their hard labour. Yet it took them a long time to sever their ties of fealty to the Malay rulers altogether. Kielstra reports that it was only around 1810 that the Chinese finally stopped paying tribute to the sultan of Sambas. [7]

     Another reason for the success of the Chinese enterprise was the fact that to a large extent the immigrants upheld the principle of equality. The majority, but by no means all, of the miners were Hakka. In Mandor, Luo Fangbo had indeed installed some kind of Hakka rule, but this was not the case in Montrado. In fact, the chiefs (dage) of the Heshun zongting were recruited not only from among the Hakka and the Banshanke, such officials were also sought among the Hokkien, of whom the famous Hu Yalu is a case in point. This principle of equality also applied, more or less, to the other racial groups of Borneo. Nearest to the hearts of the Chinese were the Dayaks. Dayak women were not only appreciated for their beauty, their virtues were also extolled far and wide. Luo Fangbo’s Dayak wife was a perfect example of Confucian virtue, if we are to believe his biography in the Chronicle of the Lanfang Kongsi. Outside observers like the American missionary Doty and the English merchant Earl observed that many shops in Montrado and other bazaars were kept by diligent Dayak spouses, who worked hard while their Chinese menfolk were smoking opium or gambling. In this case we may suppose that these valiant ladies were in fact mixed-blood descendants of Chinese fathers and Dayak mothers, brought up according to the well-known Hakka custom that requires women work in the fields and attend to the shops. Whatever the case, it is sure that once the initial period of conflict between the Chinese gold-miners and the Dayak farmers was past, their cohabitation took on more stable forms, and many social and economic ties were established. This is not to say that the relationship was always peaceful, even if in some places, like the township of Montrado, a certain degree of integration was accomplished. Whenever the mining kongsis reached out to new areas, conflicts with the Dayaks were often the consequence. Yet the condemnation by some Dutch authors accusing the Chinese of systematic exploitation and oppression would seem incorrect. The story reported by Van Kervel about the slaughter of a great number of Dayaks on the occasion of a jiao celebration, ten years after the Chinese settled in Sambas is not substantiated elsewhere in the historical record and may therefore well be spurious.

Once the tutelage of the Malay rulers had been shaken off, the Chinese miners enjoyed freedom of enterprise and association, at least until the Dutch took it away from them in 1854. This freedom must have gone hand in hand with a profound aspiration for democratic autonomy, which is revealed in the way this freedom was readily put to use in establishing all sorts of new ways of organization and control. First and foremost it was now possible for miners to engage freely in mining, to create their own consortiums, to take up work wherever they wanted, and to decide on their own career. This equality of opportunity also engendered an equality of social rank and status. A man was worth what he could manage. All members of a community had an equal voice in the common management of the kongsi. The ancient institutions which had been imported from the home country, the “kongsi” mining society and the cult group (hui), soon evolved into the establishment of alliances and then into an autonomous government: the zongting. This was nothing less than a lawful and elected government.

The kongsis built temples, held large-scale religious rituals such as Taoist jiao, organized theatrical performances, and opened schools. In the eighteen-thirties Doty was surprised to find that so many Chinese miners could read and write, and that many Chinese boys of the age of ten to fifteen were at school. That the Chinese were keen on development is best shown by the rapid rise of  artisanship and agriculture. The Montrado bazaar was known for the presence of artisans practising all kinds of crafts. The Chinese were skilled weavers and tailors, and they could also make pottery and were masters of metallurgy. Many weapons used in the war against the Dutch were made locally.

Uppermost among the new skills acquired by the miners was agriculture. Even today, we can see at Montrado traces of the irrigation systems which were installed in the early years of the nineteenth century and made rice cultivation possible. A study of this development still needs to be done and unfortunately falls outside the scope of this work. [8]Even without such studies there is no doubt that the valley of Montrado was brought under cultivation at an early date by Chinese mining communities and that the same can be said of the regions from Sedau up to Singkawang, Selakau, and Pamangkat. In the eighteen-forties, that region became the rice granary of West Borneo.

     The development of West Borneo by the kongsis under the government of the zongting was remarkably rapid, so rapid in fact that not only the Malay rulers, but also the Dutch authorities were taken by surprise. “We had not thought”, avows Kielstra discussing the Dutch re-establishing their authority in the nineteenth century, “that the Chinese could have managed to create a well-ordered society in twenty years”. [9]

     Concluding this summary of the accomplishments of the Chinese settlements in West Borneo, we should pay attention to one of the reasons for their success advanced by J.J.M. de Groot. He stresses the fact that the miners belonged to the Hakka group of Chinese as one of the important reasons for their success. In South China, the Hakkas traditionally migrated as seasonal workers and miners, hence their designation “hak” or “guest”, the word for a temporary servant or farmhand worker. The true ethnic origins of the Hakka have not yet been pieced together properly, although many indications based on surname and genetic evidence indicate that they formed part of the Southern Chinese minorities related to the Yue and Miao ethnic groups. [10] Cohabiting with the settled farming and trading populations of Fujian and Guangdong as migrant farm-workers, miners, woodcutters and charcaal-burners, transportation workers, and other service-related occupations, the Hakka were greatly looked down upon by their employers. Resenting their low economic and social position, the Hakkas gave another meaning to their name; interpreting it as “immigrants” from the Central Plain in North China rather than “guest”, and they saw themselves as the descendants of the official gentry of former dynasties who had been forced south by the successive invasions of barbarian nomads from Central Asia. This “nobility myth” encouraged Hakka to abandon much of the original ethnic culture they had, except for some rather peculiar courting and marriage customs which seem to indicate a strong matrilineal tradition, and to espouse a “Han Chinese” identity. The tendency has been for them to identify very much with Chinese “elite culture”, claiming to be true “Confucians”, and other such fashionable persuasions. De Groot lays great emphasis on the importance of the miners’ Hakkas origins and explains their institutions as being inspired by the Confucian ideology of Filial Piety (xiao ). His conclusions are based on a comparison between the various Chinese ethnic groups present in Borneo: the Hokkien, the Hoklo, and the Hakka. The Hoklo were dominant in Pontianak. Luo Fangbo, having suffered from their discrimination, led the Hakka pioneers to Mandor where he founded the renowned Lanfang kongsi. In order to ensure the purity of this community, he also stipulated in his testament that only those who originated from a particular district of Jiaying could ever be the headmen of the Lanfang kongsi, while those of the surrounding districts could be his assistants. Because Luo Fangbo required a member of the new community to be pure Hakka from the very heartland of Hakka culture, it is natural to consider the kongsi institution as also being closely connected to its traditions as well.

    Tempting as this may seem, on the strength of the evidence we have presented here, De Groot’s hypothesis concerning the ideology of the Hakka miners and their Confucian background is no longer tenable. It is impossible to determine if the miners really confessed to any particular “creed” in the same way as did the American Mennonites or Quakers. If they did posses anything of a religious culture which played a prominent role in their society, it was unquestionably Taoism, as is shown by the importance of their Taoist priests and Taoist rituals. Uppermost in their ideological and religious culture were the cults of the saints, the familiar Sanshan guowang, the great Guangong, the helpful Mazu, the compassionate Guanyin, and the wealth-fostering Dabogong who had been brought over from the motherland and for whom they built many temples. Since we have already examined this aspect of their culture in detail, we do not need to investigate this again here.


The Institution of the Zongting

     More important than any of the institutions inherited from the Chinese mainland was the new development of a political – and of course also partly religious – institution which was idiosyncratic to the Borneo Chinese, the zongting. We have translated this term as the “Assembly Hall”, but in fact the zongting combined the functions of a parliament, an executive council, a presidency, an army headquarters, and a public congress hall. Besides all this, the zongting was also a temple. The main hall had altars to the Dabogong and to Guandi. It was also the resting place, as we have seen above in Chapter Two, of the spirit tablets of the successive heads of the zongting.

     The importance of the zongting as an institution has perhaps been imperfectly understood, and therefore we need to return to this question once more and study its main features in some detail. The Dutch invariably referred to the social, political and economic organization of the mining communities as “kongsi”, a term which, as we have seen, covers so many different meanings it is difficult to use it with any precision. The differences between: a) the kongsi as a form of common management for assets of a mining enterprise, b) the cult group organized around a temple, and c) the overall political structure of the zongting, were often not clearly perceived. Hence some authors talk about the “kongsi house” of Mandor or Montrado when in fact they mean the zongting, and of “the kongsi” when they were referring to the leaders of the zongting or their delegates, the zhazhu. This has to be borne in mind when reading the account of Earl’s visit to the Singkawang office of the zhazhu in 1834. Perhaps the established custom was to call any official of the government by the title of “kongsi”. The zongting had been founded in 1776 as the governing and co-ordinating institution of the kongsis of the Heshun alliance. Its council was composed of the delegates of the fourteen founding kongsis. These were called tingzhu, “heads of the hall”. As we have seen, on the basis of the materials at his disposal, Schaank reconstructed how the zongting was organized. He tells us that the board of the Heshun zongting was entrusted with managing relations with the outside world. It handled matters pertaining to the relationship between the fourteen participating bodies themselves as well as other important matters. In short: it was the daily governing and executive organ for all important matters involving several kongsis. Each of the fourteen kongsi associations remained autonomous but had a more economic than political role. [11] The board of the Heshun zongting also collected the taxes and took care of the payment of  levies and other general expenses. The Heshun zongting issued its own money, engraved with the names of the fourteen kongsis.[12] They also used Mexican dollars cut into small wedges. The money of the Heshun federation was kept in the ting. Later it was deposited in the Shangwu of Dagang. As we have seen, the zongting established its own borders. The borders of  the territory, both land and water, were guarded by zhazhu who also levied duties on imported goods. The zhazhu were accompanied by armed guards. Willer was therefore correct when he considered the zongting the country’s government and wanted it to be recognized as such by the Dutch authorities. It was the Dazongzhi 大總制, or “presidential system” as Luo Xianglin termed it, that was the hallmark of  the Borneo Chinese democracy.

     Schaank states  that the head of the ting was elected by the entire population, [13] and that he held the title of Captain, a title which the general head of Heshun would bear until its disbanding in 1854.[14] This seems surprising since the title of Captain seems to have only entered into the different kongsi organizations with the administrative measures taken by the Dutch after 1819. He also notes that for the election of a captain the entire population was called up in order to deliberate on the new head to be appointed. Ineluctably it seems that the most influential and rich members of the community, at times seconded by a teeming crowd of ordinary people, decided in fact who was to be chosen. How exactly the voting took place we do not know. The text does mention such terms like “majority” and “minority”, “voted” and “outvoted”, but whether this procedure went by acclaim, a show of hands or the counting of ballots, remains uncertain. Based on what we know about the mass meetings and the shouting multitudes, it is likely that these gatherings lasted for as long as was required to reach a consensus. The “oracles” must also have played a role, as the patron gods had to confirm the crowd’s choice. Along with the secretaries (xiansheng), the priests were on the permanent staff of the zongting and the federated kongsis. On such an occasion there was an abundance of feasts, offerings, processions, and other pomp and ceremony, which might indicate that the installation of new leaders was the occasion for a solemn jiao ritual, like those still practiced in Taiwan today.

Whatever happened, it does appear that the democracy of the Assembly Hall was a real one. All during the discussions with the Dutch authorities, with Tobias as well with Willer, the delegates of Montrado always insisted that any major decision had to be voted on by the assembly back home. It was precisely this democratic procedure which riled the Dutch. They wanted to deal with local rulers or strongmen whom they hoped to be able to subdue by force or persuasion and have them submit to Dutch authority. They did not want to be troubled with a democratically elected board of executives who remained responsible to their electorate. Hence the previously quoted outcry of an arch-authoritarian like Penning Nieuwland about the “ultra-democratic government” of the Borneo Chinese. [15]

     As we said above, the upper chiefs, dage, had a monthly salary and a number of other legal advantages; he was assisted by a secretary, called the dating xiansheng or kongsi xiansheng, who received a salary of a mere six reals without any additional prerogatives. He was a permanent administrative official. Each of the fourteen associations sent a delegate to the ting, and these carried the title of tingzhu. With the dage they formed the General Board of the Heshun. [16] The exact duration of their mandate is not clear. Judging from the list of  heads we have given in Chapter Two, their terms of office were different. We have no indications for those of the tingzhu. We are also in the dark as to the exact relationship between the tingzhu and the heads of the different kongsis. Were they one and the same person or delegates of the heads? For important matters, says Schaank, “the heads of the fourteen kongsis and the elders were also consulted. Sometimes decisions were made under the pressure exerted by a large teeming crowd of people.”[17]

     In spite of the incomplete data and the constant confusion between “kongsi” and “zongting” that haunts the Dutch reports, [18] the organizing principle of the zongting is clear. The zongting was the executive council of  the assembly of kongsis. The kongsis met in general assembly at least twice a year and more often as circumstances required. Thus the scheme of the organization can be expressed as follows:





        Schaank reminds us that the kongsis were originally, and remained throughout their entire existence, also hui, that is “vereenigingen” and cult groups. The hui were founded around a Dabogong and other patron saints, and these, especially as “kaixiang” structures, continued to play an important and influential role. In his discussion of the Heshun zongting, Schaank does not say anything about the military forces. It may be that the troops of “one-hundred and eight” braves continued to be organized by the temples and cult groups. During the conflict with the Dutch we see that the “troops of Guanyin” and other saints played an important role. Schaank specifies that whenever important decisions had to be made, it was not just the heads of the kongsis who had to be consulted, “the elders”  (oudsten) in the ting could not be overlooked. These “elders” must have been the laoda, the heads of the temple committees. The great difficulty here is to determine whether the kongsis were emanations of  the  hui  (Schaank  stresses  time                        

and again that the former evolved out of the latter) or that the temples and their militia belonged to, or if they were placed under the control, of the kongsis. Owing to the extreme confusion surrounding the term of “kongsi” at first glance, the matter seems by no means clear. However, whenever we look at specific instances, the relationship becomes more readily understandable. The Sanshan guowang miao, for instance, was founded in Budok by immigrants from Hepo. A kongsi was formed which took its name from the cult, and called itself Lintian kongsi (Lintian is the place of the founding temple of the cult). This kongsi then became a kaixiang kongsi and as such could directly recruit xinke from Hepo, who consequently came directly to Budok. The all-important kaixiang kongsis alone had the right to develop their enterprises autonomously, whereas the others fell under the control of the zongting. All fourteen founding kongsis were kaixiang kongsis, meaning that they were all based on a previously existing temple cult. This allows us to correct the previous diagram and replace it by the following:







        Circumstantial evidence for the fundamental nature of the temple and cult organizations is offered by the fact that when the zongting institution was abolished, the temples and cult groups continued to exist, and indeed still do up to present day. If they had been managed by the zongting kongsis, they would have disappeared at the same time as the latter.

     The fundamental importance of the temple organizations was  recognized by Willer, the only Dutch official who took pains to try to understand them. When he became acquainted with the workings of the Dabogong cults and their networks, he saw that they were the key to all matters relating to the political and economic organization of the Chinese in Borneo.

     Here again we must return to the original question concerning the frontier. Although the temple organization was carried with them by the immigrants, it did change in an important way. The traditional community structure produced something which was, as far as we know, never seen in China: a political superstructure that federated the different cult groups into an “assembly hall”, that is, a parliamentary and a presidential executive system. The pertinent question we should ask ourselves is how such a new institution was conceived. Even if it did not exist in this form in China, the idea must have come from somewhere. It is to this question we turn to now.


The Background of the Presidential Zongting Institution (dazongzhi)

       Where did the institution of the zongting originate? Although we are not totally familiar with the history and culture of the Malays, we are confident that no such institution existed to federate the various sultanates in Borneo. The Dutch case is somewhat more complex. In the period that saw the founding of the two great Borneo zongting, Montrado and Mandor, Holland was still a republic consisting of a federation of seven provinces. Of one thing we may be sure, this republican spirit was not transplanted to Indonesia and propagated by the VOC. At no time did the VOC, or later colonial governments, appear to have wanted to install some kind of democratic system in the lands under their control. It seems, therefore, impossible that the West Borneo miners took Holland as their example. When we look at the period in general, we observe that during the last decades of the eighteenth century, republican systems had also emerged elsewhere. But, as Luo Xianglin has pointed out, the founding of the American and first French Republics all came later than the West Borneo zongting (he may have forgotten about the Swiss or Venetian Republics).[19] 

Looking at China, we also have no clear antecedent, or so it seems at first sight. One way to find a point of origin is through an examination of Chinese etymology: ting means a hall. By extension it is a place where a magistrate resides and exercises his mandate (ex.: guanting 官廳). During the Qing period, the term ting was given to administrative units in newly exploited regions, that is the Chinese frontier regions such as in Guizhou or Taiwan. This latter usage would therefore fit in well with the situation in West Borneo.

It is not impossible to think that the Hakka miners may have taken over the term ting from the Qing administration. As devil’s advocates we must point out that  the districts where they came from on the Chinese mainland was not located in a frontier region. Nor do they appear to have thought that their Borneo zongting should in due time become such an outpost of the Chinese empire. Admittedly, Luo Fangbo hoped that his Mandor republic might become a Chinese protectorate in the footsteps of Vietnam or Burma.[20] Furthermore, as we have seen, although many leaders of the Montrado establishment had purchased mandarin ranks, but this did not necessarily mean they hoped to transform their zongting into a imperial district. This can be seen much more pertinently as an endeavour to upgrade their family status to honour their own ancestors. The most definite argument against the thesis that the united kongsis of Borneo created a ting in imitation of the Qing government’s outpost administration is that beyond the identity of the name, the two institutions had very little in common. The Qing administrative ting was a minor prefecture, with troops for the keeping of order, a tribunal to deal with current offences, an office for recording real estate transactions, and other practical offices. It was by no means a place of deliberation and legislation. It did not have a council or a temple. Most certainly it did not hold solemn rituals for the installation of its heads.

Next we have to consider the second term that enters into the name of the institution: zong. Zong means “general”, or “comprehensive”, but it also means “to preside” and “to manage”. We find zong in the word zongting – “general office” and also in zongzhi – “general institution” or even better, “constitution”. The dazongzhi of Lanfang therefore meant that the land was governed according to a general constitution. There must have been a text containing the rules and regulations of the institution. In the case of Montrado, it stands to reason that such a document must have been drawn up with the covenant of the alliance of the fourteen kongsis. [21] Looking at Mandor, the Chronicle of the Lanfang kongsi specifies that some kind of charter and rules of law were written by Luo Fangbo himself. In this respect the “zongting” is something very different from the ting of the imperial administration, although it may have shared some of the latters functions.

In traditional China, federations of communities did exist. The Chinese populace was not divided into thousands of isolated villages and marketplaces as is so often maintained, but was organized into a large number of religious, commercial, and political networks. The most common network was the “division of incense” (fenxiang) which grouped together the temples belonging to the same cult in some kind of hierarchy. But next to these organizations, which structured the cult groups into some kind of large family network with seniority playing a very important role, there were also actual federations of temples and communities. These clusters of village and township communities in a “great assembly” (dahui) structure. There has been precious little documentation of these and our information is taken from the description of the Saigang Federation studied by Fiorella Allio. According to Allio, the federation consists of a number of communities that live in the same territory and often share responsibility for the defence, irrigation, and so forth. The federation and its leaders also perform defence and legal functions and have elected judges and their own militia. Since the members belong to different cult groups, the religious framework for their alliance is provided by the Taoist jiao, an offering to all the gods in the universe, encompassing all cults. We know from different sources, including the Xianshi gushi, that the Borneo zongting did regularly celebrate jiao, on the occasion of the great assemblies or whenever important celebrations, such as victories in war, had to be held.[22] 

It would be far-fetched to argue, however,  that the miners of Montrado hit upon the idea of founding a republic based on the practice of the Taoist jiao. We do not even have to seek so far. There is the novel which was no doubt very familiar to the miners, which spells out the whole programme: the famous Shuihu zhuan. As is well known, the Shuihu zhuan begins with the celebration of a jiao which calls the community of the one hundred and eight braves to life. It also concludes with a large jiao through which the same braves have worldly or other-worldly dignities conferred upon them. The organization of the free society of the heroes of Liangshanbo also closely resembles that of the Montrado zongting. From the beginning when the braves were assembled in the house of Zhao Gai, they were know as the “assembly of the braves”, juyi 聚義. And the place where they assembled was thus called juyiting 聚義廳. In fact, other chapters show that in the Liangshanbo as well as in the Taohuashan and other similar places already several juyiting’s which had formerly been occupied by other outlaws. On this evidence it would seem to have been a common institution for this kind of group. Chapter Nineteen of the novel describes the Juyiting as a place where juyihui 聚義會 were held when people were appointed to high posts, expeditions decided upon, cults for fallen heroes installed, and other such activities.[23] In the beginning of Chapter Twenty of the Shuihu zhuan we see “all the headmen” assembled in the Juyiting in order to deliberate matters of common concern.[24] I thus believe that the model of the Heshun zongting and the Lanfang dazongzhi was inspired by the Shuihu zhuan and similar texts. This is of course no more than conjecture. However, a detailed study of the “Water Margin” and its sequels might yield more elements for comparison. Among the different sequels which the vastly popular Shuihu zhuan inspired there is a Shuihu houzhuan 水滸後傳 written by a certain Chen Chen 陳忱 (1613 – after 1663) which describes the story of the hero Yan Qing and thirty-five of his comrades who left the brotherhood when they became disillusioned by the way they were treated after they had submitted themselves to the emperor and performed many great deeds for the country. The band left China and went to South-East Asia where they started a new life. One of them, Li Jun, later became the king of Xianluo (Siam).[25] To what degree we may consider the institutions described in the Shuihu zhuan reflecting similar institutions which already existed at another point. Only when more information on the non-official organizations of Chinese society becomes available, may we be able to elucidate this important question.

The ideology of the Shuihu zhuan is also reflected in the prose of the Xianshi gushi. There we see the fragments of a society of righteous braves (yi ) who are ready to give their lives for the sake of justice. The same spirit is evident in the posters which the Montrado zongting published during the war with the Dutch. That the goals of justice and independence were an enduring aspiration can be seen from the fact that some thirty years after the demise of the Lanfang zongting, the Borneo Chinese tried once more to found a republic. Kielstra writes that when China became a republic in 1912 “interest in the politics of the Chinese in Sambas and Mampawa (Montrado and Mandor) was revived.” In the course of 1914 a regular rebellion broke out in a region south of Montrado. This movement was spearheaded by a “Young China Party” which also succeeded in rallying the Dayaks. The movement spread to Singkawang, but was beaten down in March 1915 by the Dutch army.[26]

        As Willer acknowledged: “kongsi government and independence are synonyms”.[27] The freedom of the Borneo frontier allowed these ideals  to be expressed and, for short periods, to be realized.


[1] See Leonard Thomson and Howard Lamar’s “ Comparative Frontier History” in The Frontier in History, New Haven and London 1981, pp. 25-26.

[2] There were, of course, also Chinese who emigrated to California in this period, but they worked on the railways and later opened restaurants or laundries and are therefore generally left out of the “frontier” picture.

[3] Leonard Thomson and Howard Lamar’s “ The North American and Southern African frontiers” in The Frontier in History, pp. 14-40.

[4] This is of course only one of the minor flaws in the “thesis”.

[5] See Shi, “Xiaoya, beishan pian”.

[6] See Qingdai de kuangye (The mining industry of the Qing dynasty), Beijing 1982.

[7] Kielstra, “Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis van Borneo’s Westerafdeeling”, 1889, part 1, p. 342.

[8] Unfortunately, I was able to visit West Borneo only once in August 1997 and just for ten days.

[9] “ We waren er niet op bedacht dat in 20 jaren de Chinezen een welgeordende maatschappij hadden gevormd.” in Kielstra “Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis van Borneo’s Westerafdeeling”, 1889, part 1, p. 359.

[10] On the genetic particularities of the Hakka of South-East China, see Cavalli-Sforza, The History and Geography of Human Genes, Princeton 1994, pp. 234-235.

[11] Italics mine.

[12] See the description by Schaank on De Kongsis van Montrado, p. 26.

[13] Italics mine.

[14] Schaank, De Kongsis van Montrado, p. 72.

[15] See  “Verwikkelingen”, p. 356.

[16] Schaank notes that the description of the board of the Heshun zongting given by Van Rees (Montrado, page 76) is based not on the original situation but on that installed later by the Dutch.

[17] Schaank, De Kongsis van Montrado, p. 73.

[18]  A good example of this kind of confusion is provided by Veth, who gives a legend for his illustration of the Lanfang zongting headquarters the caption: “Het kongsi huis te Mandor”

[19] Luo Xianglin, A Historical Survey of the Lanfang Presidential System in West Borneo, p. 109.

[20] See the Chronicle of the Lanfang Kongsi, in De Groot’s Het Kongsiwezen van Borneo, p. 49.

[21] Elements of the laws and by-laws of the Montrado zongting can be found in Van Rees Montrado, pp. 78, sq.  It is most likely that Van Rees quotes what must have been written documents.

[22] See M. von Faber  “Schets van Montrado”, p. 478; Van Kervel  “De hervorming van de maatschappelijke toestand ter Westkust van Borneo” p. 188.

[23]  Shuihu zhuan, chapter 19, page 214.

[24]  Shuihu zhuan, chapter 20, page 221; compare also chapter 19, page 218.

[25]  Shuihu houzhuan, Shenyang 1981, chapter 30.

[26] THE Siauw Giap, “Rural unrest in West Kalimantan – the Chinese uprising in 1914”, in W.L. Idema (ed.) Leyden Studies in Sinology. Leiden 1981, pp. 138-152; and Kielstra, “West-Borneo” in Onze Eeuw, 16e Jaargang 1916.

[27] Willer, in Kielstra “Bijdragen tot de geschiedenis van Borneo’s Westerafdeeling”, 1889, part 4, p. 949.