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The Black River Runs Red: The Massacres in Northeast China.

Click here to access the appendix with handy map and timeline.

Precisely 119 years ago on July 17, 1900, and the following days until July 21, the Russians carried out several massacres against the native people of Northeast China (Manchuria) that occured during the mass exodus of Manchus, Daur, Solon and Chinese from Outer Manchuria. The exodus was a result of the Russian order to expell all Qing subjects still living in what had then become Russian land. In English, these incidents are known as:

  1. The Hailanpao Massacre 海兰泡大屠杀 (a.k.a. the Blagoveshchensk massacre)
  2. The Sixty-Four Villages East of the River Massacre (Jiangdong Liushisitun Canan 江东六十四屯惨案)
  3. The Burning of Aigun (Aihun Dahuo 瑷琿大火)

This article contains accounts of people who survived these tragedies; their stories deserve to be told. Their pain, their suffering and their agony are not figments of someones imagination. They are real. Yet, are hardly known in the world. Perhaps the distant and frigid winds of Manchuria have carried away the frozen tears of the fallen. Today we shall thaw them, and tell the dead that we remember.

This is a long article, take a cup of tea and prepare for some serious reading. Alternatively, if you just want the details of the massacre, you can scroll or swipe down and skip the context.

To the right, the Russian military in Manchuria.

The Context: Russian interests in China

The Russians had long coveted Manchuria, it was a cherished dream of the Russian Tsars to give Russia access to an ice-free port by annexing Qing land. Even in the time of Kangxi, the Cossacks entered Manchuria to pillage and conquer. The Manchu Qing Empire was not so weak (yet) as to allow foreign invaders to run amok so close to the Manchu heimat. Indeed, the Kangxi Emperor beat back the Cossacks, thereby setting in motion the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk (Nibuchu Tiaoyue 尼布楚条约) of 1689. This treaty would determine the Russo-Chinese border for a century and a half.

When China grew weak, Russia sensed it was their opportunity to strike again. In 1858 and 1860, the Qing Empire and the Russian Empire signed the Treaty of Aigun (Aihun Tiaoyue 瑷琿条约) and the Convention of Peking (Beijing Tiaoyue 北京条约) respectively, as a result of the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Between these two treaties, the Qing Empire gave away in total 1,000,000 square kilometers (equivalent to France and Germany combined) to the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire, however, had an insatiable appetite, they wanted all of Manchuria. Indeed, Russian interests in China were continuously threatened by an ever encroaching Japan, the UK and Germany ever racing to gain more concessions in China. Manchuria, however, seemed to belong to Russia alone.

In March 1898, Russia’s dream of an ice-free port came true with the acquisition of Port Arthur (Lüshunkou 旅顺口) in Shandong Province. The construction of the Trans-Siberian railway also shifted the balance of power in the region in favour of Russia. With these acquisitions all Russia had to do was to consolidate its newly gained advantages and privileges. By 1900 it could be said that Russian influence rivalled or had even exceeded British influence in China. Russia had a strong position, however, it wasn’t so strong that it could resist a powerful shift in the balance of power in China such as the Boxer Rebellion.

Alexey Kuropatkin in 1904

“We shall turn Manchuria into a second Bukhara.”

Imperial Minister of War, Aleksey Kuropatkin (1848 – 1925)

The construction of the Trans-Siberian railway and the acquisition of Port Arthur were not the end of the story. In order to properly exploit the Chinese market, more tracks needed to be laid into the heart of China. The opportunity for the Russians arose when China lost the First Sino-Japanese war, and according to the Treaty of Shimonoseki (Maguan Tiaoyue 马关条约) of 1895, had to pay immense sums in indemnity to the Japanese.

In 1896, a secret deal was struck between Li Hongzhang 李鸿章 (1823-1901) and Prince Alexey Lobanov-Rostovsky (1824-1896), aptly called the Li-Lobanov treaty, that gave Russia permission to construct railways in the provinces of Amur (Heilongjiang 黑龙江) and Kirin (Jilin 吉林) in exchange for a military alliance between Qing and Russia in case Japan attacked and by loaning money to Qing China in order to pay the Japanese.

The Russians commenced construction on the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria, from Port Arthur to Tieling (铁岭, 80km north of Mukden, modern day Shenyang 沈阳), Vladivostok and Harbin. The construction did not go smoothly, the working conditions were abysmal; thousands of Chinese construction workers refused to work under such conditions. The Russian presence in Manchuria caused for a lot of friction between the Russians and the locals, in 1899 and 1900 there were several clashes between the Russian personnel and the Chinese, the construction of the railway was also constantly harassed by the mounted bandits known as Honghuzi 红胡子 (Red-Beards).

Honghuzi sentenced to die. Photographed by A. Kuznetsov in the city of Chita 赤塔.

As the Boxer Rebellion spread to the Zhili Province 直隶, it was perceived as a threat to Russian assets in Manchuria. In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion spread to Manchuria and the display of open hostility from the Boxers in conjunction with the Qing regulars in Manchuria gave the Russians a perfect excuse to invade and occupy the region. It appears all the Russians were waiting for was an excuse to pretense to invade as by the end of May 1900, 70,000 soldiers had gathered at the Qing border. Even before the declaration of war, the Russians had moved in on several Qing towns and effectively turned the border river of Amur into an inland Russian river. Indeed, Aleksey Kuropatkin, the Russian Minister of War was reported to have said: “This has given us an excuse to occupy Manchuria” and “we shall turn Manchuria into a second Bukhara.” So it came to be that, in addition to the Beijing-Tianjin campaign, the Russians also invaded Northeast China under the guise of protecting the railroad and pacifying Manchuria.

On July 9, Kuropatkin ordered the invasion of Manchuria. A hundred thousand pairs of boots, split into seven routes, crossed into Manchurian territory. The Manchu Bannermen defended their homes bravely; many died defending their homes and families to the last man. The Cossacks became infamous for their pillaging, raping and burning of Manchurian towns. Thousands of Manchus fled south, away from their homeland. After several months of fighting, a Cossack reconaissance party entered Mukden under the command of Dejan Subotić in October; the invasion had officially ended.

The Massacres

On July 14, 1900, Qing forces and the Honghuzi bandits attempted to prevent the Russian man-of-war “Mikhail” from proceeding beyond Aigun. The “Selengge” fired on the Qing troops. The Qing forces returned fire and forced a retreat by damaging the ships and wounding and killing several Russian soldiers. The “Selengge” commenced bombardment on the city of Aigun. The Qing forces answered by launching an offensive across the river toward Hailanpao, they lacked the manpower to seize the settlement, therefore the assault amounted to long range artillery barrages.

Original caption: On the 18th of 6th moon there were four Russian men-of-war scouting about the Amur river with dangerous intention, but General Shou had detected out their traitorous movements and immediately ordered his soldiers to attack them. The Russians were badly defeated and two of their men-of-war were sunk.
Arresting a Qing subject in Hailanpao.

As a response, the Russians decided to expell all Qing subjects living North (and East) of the Sahaliyan Ula (Manchu for Amur, the Black river). This order affected not only those of the 64 Villages, but also the Qing subjects who lived in Blagoveshchensk, Irkutsk, Nerchinsk, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. In all of these places the “expulsion” of Qing subjects was really a euphemism for extermination and ethnic cleansing, no less than 20,000 Qing subjects were affected.

The first targets of extermination were the 64 Villages East of the River (Jiangdong Liushisitun 江东六十四屯) and Hailanpao 海兰泡 (Blagoveshchensk). These places were on the northside of the Sahaliyan Ula, and as such had been ceded to Russia in 1858. The Treaty of Aigun stipulated that the original inhabitants of the 64 Villages would retain their rights to live on this land in perpetuity, and its people would remain under Qing jurisdiction. The 64 Villages were traditionally inhabited by the Manchu, Solon and Daur, but had since gained a sizeable portion of Han Chinese settlers. By the time of the Russian invasion in 1900 the population had swelled to 35,000 people. Hailanpao counted 38,000 inhabitants, half of whom were subjects of the Qing Empire. These Qing Subjects were mainly labourers, merchants and farmers, keeping the economy of Hailanpao afloat.

From left to right: Solon, Manchu and Daur.

The Hailanpao Massacre

The execution of my orders made me almost sick, for it seemed as though I could have walked across the river on the bodies of the floating dead.

A Russian Officer, as quoted by Louis Livingston Seaman

On July 15, the Russians, unable and unwilling to provide the passage across the Sahaliyan Ula, instead carried out a razzia on the Qing subjects in Blagoveshchensk. They managed to catch 3,000 to 3,500 people, who they rounded up and coralled into a riverside lumberyard.

Early in the morning of July 17, the Qing subjects were taken to a precipice overlooking the Sahaliyan Ula. The Russian police encircled the prisoners. Slowly, with fixed bayonets, the Russian police closed in on the people, making the circle smaller and smaller. There was no way to go except for off the cliff, into the river. People fell into the river like strangely shaped snow, only to be swept away by the raging waters. In the scramble to escape the encirclement, the elderly, the ill, mothers and their children were trampled to death. Those who approached the Russians were bayonetted to the ground. Those who somehow got through the line were ridden down or axed.

Then, the order was given to open fire.

The sound of gunfire melded together with cries of despair. The mortally wounded died on the banks, the lightly wounded drowned in the river, the unscathed were hunted and killed. The Black river was painted red with the blood of innocents. As the slaughter neared its conclusion. Some surviving mothers desperately clung on to the banks of the river while holding up their newborns, and as the Cossacks approached, begged them to have mercy on their babies. The Cossacks bayonetted these babies and parted them into many pieces. Clinging to the banks of the river was a floating mass of bodies, many of whom still drawing breath. Some of the Russian volunteers who participated in the massacre denounced their comrades for their monstrosity, claiming that only “only beasts completely devoid of humanity could bear to endure such things.” (Xue, 1981)

The killings continued for four more days and concluded on 21 July. The massacre at Hailanpao claimed more than 5,000 lives. Reportedly, on the 22 of July, Hailanpao was “cleansed” of its 19,000 Qing subjects.

In the 1950s, several interviews were conducted with the survivors of the massacre:

“My paternal cousin, Sun Yide 孙翼德, was a bricklayer working in Hailanpao, he was just 20 years old when they pushed him into the river and drowned him. My cousin-in-law was widowed and had to live in widowhood at the age of 20.”

Sun Yihai 孙翼海 , a Han man who arrived in Heihe in 1918

“On the 20th of July there was a thunderstorm. The corpses in the river all floated to the surface. The corpses floated there for 4 or 5 days like so many sheets of ice. A layer of oil had formed on the surface of the water. We couldn’t drink from the river anymore.”

Jin Baichuan 金百川, a Hui man who worked in Hailanpao
Sheets of ice on the Sahaliyan Ula by Hailanpao.

The 64 Villages East of the River Massacre

Most people living in the 64 Villages had crossed the river to flee the Russians between July 14 and July 17, having received news of the coming calamities. However, not everyone had left.

A map of the 64 Villages East of the River. The Purple line running from North to South represents the Sahaliyan. On this map, everything East of the Sahaliyan was given to Russia in the Treaty of Aigun.

The people of Manchuria were hardy and stubborn. They took up arms and joined the Honghuzi in their resistance against Russian invasion. On July 17, 500 resistance fighters hid themselves in the 64 Villages with support from the locals. The resistance lay in ambush and were able to kill several hundred Russian invaders. Outnumbered and facing overwhelming odds against a better equipped and better trained enemy, the resistance was eventually defeated. The 64 Villages were captured completely by 21 July.

From 17 to 21 July, the Russian “cleansed” the area by fire. In each village they would gather the villagers they into a large house and set fire to this house. The killing was indiscriminate and the looting widespread; in Boerduo village 博尔多屯 alone, a thousand people were killed in this manner.

“I ran from Nanwobao 南窝堡 for an entire day until I reached Qiandongshan 前东山. Descending the mountain, I heard gunshots behind my back. I hit the ground immediately and crawled for the longest time, until I finally reached the river.

Wu Xiaolian 吴小连, a Han woman from Nanwobao, one of the 64 Villages

That year, I was nine years old. On the evening of the night we fled, I was still playing on the streets. I remember the moon was bright that night. We didn’t even have time to eat, my family fled for the river with nothing but the clothes on our backs.

Wu Suo 吴锁, a Daur man of the Bordered Blue Banner

“On July 16, when we arrived at the river, having fled away from Qianduanshan 前端山, we saw that the riverbanks were full of wagons, horses and people, littered with abandoned things. […] The boats, they were only filled with people, if there was space, more people would go on, an extra life saved was an extra life saved. When my paternal uncle and cousin got the young and the old of the family aboard the boat, they flipped the three carts we had taken from home. They tied six of our horses to the back of these carts. The men of the family then sat atop the carts, and like that, risking our lives, we followed the stream of the river. From that moment on, we became a family who owned nothing. The horses at our houses, our land, our homes, we left them all on the Eastern side of the river.”

Xu Yonglai 徐永来, a Han man of the Bordered Red Banner

“When we reached the river, there were rows and rows of wagons and horses at the riverbanks. Many people drowned in the river due to the lack of boats. Whoever got on, got on. When it was our turn to cross the river, my cousins had tied the horses to the back of our boat. Our boat hadn’t gotten far into the river when the Russians appeared on the banks. Their gunfire sounded like they were stir-frying beans. My cousins quickly detached the horses, thanks to that we left with our lives.”

The uncle who lived nextdoor to us, Russian soldiers hacked him and his whole family to death.

Wu Yeshi 吴叶氏 , a Han woman from Nanwobao, one of the 64 Villages

“I had an uncle who was a police officer in Aigun. Before the incident he ran back home and scolded us for still tilling the land. He told us: ‘the Laomaozi 老毛子 [Ruskies] have gone mad, if we don’t leave now, we’re all done for.’ So, we packed up our things and left. He stayed behind alone, we left one horse for him to ride away when things turned sour. He never rode away, the Russians killed him.”

Guo Yunting 郭云亭, a Han man from Ergouzi Village, one of the 64 Villages

The people who lived in the 64 Villages were all either killed or driven away. Xue Xiantian concludes that of the people from the 64 Villages, the Russians massacred 2,000 and 2,000 died while crossing the river.

A modern rendering of the massacre at the 64 Villages.

The Burning of Aigun

Those who were expelled from Outer Manchuria arduously crossed the Sahaliyan Ula and settled South, in Qing territory. Those who fled from the 64 Villages crossed the river from the Eastside to the Westside and landed near Aigun. Scarce could the refugees rest as it did not take the Russians long to give chase. On August 2nd, the Russians came to the gates of Aigun. They aimed two cannons at the gates and blasted their way into the city. The Russians flooded through the gates, slashing their sabers and hewing their axes. The killing of the previous month could finally be resumed. This time, fire would be their main weapon of choice. They set fire to the houses in the city, soon, the entirety of Aigun was set ablaze. Many people perished in the inferno. Aigun was reduced to nothing more than a pile of ashes, the only building that remains is a temple building from 1755. In fact, when the Russians crossed the river they already started burning riverside villages, those living within were killed.

Those who fled the Eastside of the river had to flee once more, this time, together with those who lived on the Westside of the river. Most fled toward Qiqihar. However, not everyone had the strength or resources to make such a long journey, they fled into deserted places and into the woods. The journey was long and difficult. Some met their fate at the hands of pursuing Russian soldiers, others starved to death or died of exhaustion. Finally, there were parents with many children, yet did not have the strength to carry them all. These parents were often forced to leave their children behind.

At the time I was only two years old. In total, I had six brothers and sisters, I am the youngest. Afterwards, I heard from seniors that my mother was ill back then, and could not carry me any longer as her strength failed her. They abandoned me halfway on the road for up to three times. And each time they left me behind, my father, after walking ahead about a few dozen steps and hearing me I cry as if my life depended on it, took me with him as he could not bear to abandon me.”

Xu Caoshi 徐曹氏 , a Manchu woman from Houduanshan, one of the 64 Villages

According to my mother, our family lived in a camp of the Yellow Banners. At the time my father had been conscripted into the army. So, only my very old grandfather and my mother could take my four brothers to evacuate. On the road, grandfather and second brother were lost due to the crowd. Grandfather was never seen again. Mother took big brother (13 years old), third brother (6 years old) and my 40 days old little brother and fled with the crowd. The Russian soldiers were chasing us from behind and opened fire on the refugees. In the chaos the Russians took away my third brother. One time, my mother took my big brother and little brother and many other people to hide in a vegetable cellar. My little brother couldn’t stop crying. She feared he would cause everyone to be discovered, so, with tears in her eyes, my mother dropped little brother into a corn heap. After a while, my big brother went to find my little brother, he found him. When he returned to the vegetable cellar, he could see several dozen mounted Russian soldiers open fire at the cellar. He waited for the cavalry to leave before going into the cellar to take a look. Many had been killed. When big brother found mother, she was still breathing, but had sustained nine wounds. Afterwards, it took them two more months of walking to reach Qiqihar.

Wu Lan 吴兰, a Manchu woman from Aigun

Fate, however, played a cruel joke on the refugees. Everywhere they went, the Russians were not far behind. After arriving in Qiqihar, the Russians did so too. They commenced the bombardment of Qiqihar and launched artillery shells into the city. The mother of Wu Suo (the nine year old Daur) died because she was hit by such a shell. In a sort of twisted parallelism of the Hailanpao Massacre, on the banks of the Sahaliyan near Qiqihar, 300 Russian soldiers encircled a group of 30 refugee women. Out of fear what might happen to them, they all threw themselves into the river and drowned themselves.

The last and only surviving structure after the burning of Aigun.

The survivors, united in their pain and hatred for the Russian invaders, never ceased to fight. The entirety of the Manchurian campaign was fraught with constant harrasment from the Honghuzi. Many of the Honghuzi ultimately went as far as to join the Imperial Japanese army in the Russo-Japanese war, just to see more Russians dead and thereby protecting their homeland.

Protect what is yours.
Retrieve which was lost.
Avenge those you love.

Finally, what can we take away from these painful memories? This article began by stating that Russia long harboured ill-intent when it came to the Manchurian territories. The one thing that prevented the Russians from invading earlier was the strength of Kangxi’s army. Obviously, violence and strength should not be the answer, but being a threat and a force to be reckoned with clearly will dissuade any potential predators from viewing you as prey. Ergo, speak softly and carry a big stick.


  1. Eskridge-Kosmach, Alena N. “Russia in the Boxer Rebellion.” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 21, no. 1 (2008): 38-52.
  2. Glatfelter, Ralph. Russia in China: the Russian Reaction to the Boxer Rebellion, 1975, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  3. Xue Xiantian 薛銜天. “Jiangdong liushisitun canan yanjiu” 江东六十四屯惨案研究 [A Study on the tragedy of the 64 Villages East of the River]. Jindaishi yanjiu 近代史研究, no. 01 (1981): 235-54.
  4. Xue Xiantian 薛銜天. “Hailanpao canan sinan renshu jiujing you duoshao” 海兰泡惨案死难人数究竟有多少 [What was the actual death toll of the tragedy of Hailanpao?] Lishi yanjiu 历史研究, no. 01 (1980): 173-76.
  5. Heilongjiang Jiangdong Liushisitun Wenti Diaochazu 黑龙江江东六十四屯问题调查组. “Sha E bazhan Jiangdong Liushisitun de qianqian houhou, qishisan wei laoren fangwen” 沙俄霸占江东六十四屯的前前后后——七十三位老人访问记 [The prelude and consequences of the Tsarist Russian occupation of the 64 Villages East of the River, records of interviews with 73 seniors]. Xuexi yu tansuo 学习与探索, no. 01 (1979): 68-78.
  6. Su Su 素素. “Zoujin Aihun” 走近瑷珲 [Approaching Aigun]. Renmin wenxue人民文学, no. 02 (1998): 83-90.
  7. Zhang Xuanru 张旋如, and Li Guang 黎光. “Di E chubing qinzhan Dongbei yu xuexi Hailanpao he Jiandong liushisitun ‘Yihetuan yundongshi’ de yi jie” 帝俄出兵侵占东北与血洗海兰泡和江东六十四屯——《义和团运动史》的一节 [Imperial Russia dispatching soldiers to conquer Northeast China and to wash Hailanpao and the 64 Villages East of the River in blood, a section of ‘the History of the Boxer Yihetuan Movement’]. Shehui kexue zhanxian 社会科学战线, no. 01 (1978): 203-08.
A modern depiction of the Hailanpao massacre when the people are driven off a cliff into the Sahaliyan Ula (Hei He 黑河/Amur River).

Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

3 thoughts on “The Black River Runs Red: The Massacres in Northeast China.

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