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War in China: a Symphony of Resistance (3/3)

Both part 1 and part 2 of this article focused on the pain, the suffering and the wrongs that were done to the inhabitants of Qing China. This part will retrace the events already discussed in the previous parts from the perspective of the many actors involved in the conflict. One should never forget the many heroes and heroines who rose against all odds, stood face to face with the devil and chose to stare it down in dastardly defiance. These are the stories of those who chose to become hope, even though there was no hope to be found.

Like the previous part, this one is also longer than usual. In order to aid in navigation there will be a clickable contents menu on the right. Each of the historical figures covered in this article can be read seperately, as this part doesn’t necessarily form a coherent unit from start to finish. Unit 6 should be read in its entirety for a more complete picture of the Yihequan movement. Feel free to read this part out of order, or pick out the stories that appeal to you, the reader. I shan’t hold you any longer: read!

Painting by master figure painter Yao Xiangfa 姚祥发 (1947-present)

6. Yihequan Boxers: the Divine Fist


The Militia United in Righteousness, risen from Shandong, before three months, everywhere the revolution.

A popular saying during the Boxer War, as quoted in Sun Qihai, Baguo Lianjun Qin Hua Jishi, (Beijing: Huawen Chubanshe, 1996): 38

The Yihequan movement went by many names. The Imperialist invaders called them the Boxers. The Imperial Court called them Quanfei 拳匪 (Boxer Bandits) and later dubbed them the Yihetuan, the Righteous Harmonious Militia. Under the common people they were known as the Divine Fist (Shenquan 神拳).



Men should study Righteous Harmony, women Red Lantern; Killing all the Oceanics will calm the seas and the skies; When the day comes that swords and spears are of no use; Try to watch the beauty of rosy clouds and rising steam.

A sea of suffering with no ford in sight;
The lesser gods haste and hurry in the dust;
Eighthundred million divine soldiers will rise;
To purge Oceanics and renew the world.

Now, the Yihequan movement didn’t start at the turn of the 20th century. Actually, the name Yihequan existed even as far back as during the Wang Lun Rebellion of 1774 and the Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813, as both these groups identified themselves as Yihequan (Esherick 42). Later, the movement expanded rapidly when the Western missionaries and their Chinese converts continued to provoke Chinese society. The Christians, mainly the Catholic Missionaries, would interfere frequently in China’s domestic politics and justice, much to the dismay of the disadvantaged (Esherick 84). Indeed, as Esherick puts it “trade and Christianity formed the inextricably linked engines of Western empire-building” (Esherick 74).

Click here for more information on the specific tresspasses of the missionaries.

Ultimately, the tensions reached a boiling point. The fact that the peasant class of the inland plains of Shandong and Zhili were extremely impoverished meant that the extreme flooding of the Yellow River was a devastating blow to the livelihoods of these people. The exact origins of the Yihequan uprising is therefore a complicated subject, as many factors played into the desparation of the people. While Imperialist expansion was one of the greater causes, it cannot be denied that the failed Imperial project of the Manchus was also an immense contributing factor leading to the misery of the common man.

A young Yihequan warrior carrying a spear with a traditional red tassel. On his forehead is a talisman with the character “qian”乾. It was believed that this would grant them invulnerability to bullets.

The Yihequan movement, while it acted for the right reason, sometimes went about it the wrong way. Aside from their heroic actions against the devillish invaders, they also murdered and robbed many of their fellow Chinese. The origins of the Yihequan had always been one of famished and impoverished peasant-turned-bandits. Their belief in the idols of their polytheistic pantheon (which included mythical warriors, characters from popular novels and gods from folk religion) and their magical invulnerability to bullets showed that they were highly fanatical and superstitious. It is not for naught that the Qing government decided to suppress them, as their fanaticism and criminality threatened anyone who disagreed with them and could easily be turned against other Chinese and the Manchu government.

Yet, for all their flaws they were one of the few forces who actually defied foreign aggression and stood against foreign invasion. One should also not forget that most of the Yihequan warriors were teenagers, ranging from 12 to 20 (Esherick 277). These young boys and girls, leaving behind everything they knew, would carry their swords and spears against machineguns, poison gas, artillery and repeating rifles manned by well trained soldiers of the most technologically advanced nations of the world. For that, they deserve praise and admiration.

To prevent misunderstanding, it should be noted that there were several bands of Yihequan who went by the same name, but otherwise differed in ritual, practise and character (e.g. some Yihequan units did not believe in invulnerability at all). There was no one organisation that governed all the Yihequan cells.

Boxer Leadership

Master of Martial Arts

Zhao Sanduo memorial statue in Wei County, his birthplace and place of death.

In town called Liyuantun (梨園屯) Italian missionaries were endeavouring to demolish an old Temple to the Jade-Emperor and an adjacent school for charity in order to build their church there. They faced heavy resistance from the locals. The local magistrate had sided with the locals initially. However, the missionaries, using diplomatic pressure in Beijing, had overturned the local ruling on the matter so that the site was handed over to the Christians. Some influential locals had vigorously protested the ruling of the officials, and were imprisoned six months for impertinence, others were stripped off their state issued degrees (Esherick 147).

These grievances outraged the local youth. As soon as the Christians began constuction, the church came under attack by the Eighteen Chiefs (Shiba Kui 十八魁). The Christians and the rest of the village came in a deadlock which lasted for years during which neither side gained a distinct advantage over the other. The Eighteen Chiefs knew they could not fight the Christian alone forever. Knowing this, they looked for allies. They sought out a martial arts teacher who lived five kilometers away in the next village over. His name was Zhao Sanduo 趙三多 (1841-1902). Zhao Sanduo was a master of the Plum Flower Fist (Meihuaquan 梅花拳). He was widely known for his sense of innate righteousness and justice. As a man of some social standing, he would frequently use his influence to right wrongs.

Zhao Sanduo became involved in the fight of the Eighteen Chiefs. In the spring of 1897 he organised a martial arts exhibition right in Liyuantun as a show of force for the Eighteen Chiefs. On April 27, a large and fuming band of men numbering 500 or 2,000 rushed in and attacked the Christians as they were once again preparing to build the church. The Christians struck back, but the hammer of “justice” could not be halted so easily. The Christian homes were looted, the Christian attackers wounded and all Christian families were forced to flee their homes.

They could not enjoy their victory for long, as developments elsewhere in China caused Christians to gain privileges all across the province. Moreoever, the Imperials wanted to avoid trouble with the foreign powers at all costs, leaving Zhao Sanduo and company in the dust. Yao Wenqi, at this time, had joined Zhao Sanduo. Wenqi brought a radical spark to their struggle and the first seeds of revolt took root. Zhao Sanduo, initially reluctant, but ultimately forced by circumstance and his character to do what was right, soon walked the path of rebellion. The elders and masters of the Plum Blossom martial sect could not agree with this kind of “troublemaking” and did not allow him to use the name of Plum Blossom Fist. So, Zhao changed the name to something else: the anti-Christian movement would henceforth be known as the Yihequan 義和拳, fists united in righteousness (Esherick 153-54).

Young warriors of the Yihequan movement. This picture is quite representative of the social composition of the Yihequan. Most of them were teenagers, the town of Chiping even had a “Baby Brigade” (娃武隊 wawudui). In this image they carry single edged sabres known in Chinese as dao 刀 and a large polearm which is called a big sabre, known as a dadao 大刀. It is a weapon similar to the European glaive and the Japanese naginata.

Unbound by the traditional master-disciple relations, the Yihequan was far more volatile than the Plum Blossom Fist ever could be. The Yihequan was a heterogeneous group, this meant that Zhao Sanduo, while powerful, did not wield enough influence to control the group. Similary, if he died, it would not have meant the end of the Yihequan.

The Shandong officials in an attempt to weaken the Yihequan, arrested a few of the Eighteen Chiefs. This angered the Yihequan, and caused a string of violent attacks in 1898. Christians and churches were usually the targets of violence. Zhao Sanduo was involved in these attacks. It was rumoured that the Yihequan were planning to rescue the arrested members of the Eighteen Chiefs from jail. The Yihequan gathered horses and for the first time raised banners with the famous slogan “support the Qing, destroy the foreign” (扶清滅洋 fu qing mie yang).

The Qing government, aware of the diplomatic ramifications this would have, sent militia leaders and local gentry to reason with the Zhao Sanduo and other prominent figures. The sincerity of their begging and their kowtowing in public moved the Yihequan. They agreed to disperse according to the wishes of the government. However, the dispersal was of no use at all. On the way back, some Yihequan fighters were verbally abused and harassed by Christians. They banded together immediately and began burning churches and killing Christians. The Qing government deployed the military and ended the Yihequan disturbances of 1898.

Zhao Sanduo did not participate in the large scale battles and direct confrontations with the Western invaders of 1900. He did emerge again in 1902. Zhao Sanduo got into a direct anti-government protest because the government failed to grant tax relief in Guangzong County during a year of extreme drought. The government arrested Zhao Sanduo. He was put in jail and starved to death. They beheaded him after his death and hung his head in Wei county, the place of his birth.

All information regarding Zhao Sanduo has been extracted from Joseph W. Esherick’s “Boxers United in Righteousness” in The Origins of the Boxer Uprising.

The Travelling Healer

Zhu Hongdeng was known for his red attire. He would wear a red cap and full red clothes to battle.

Zhu Hongdeng 朱紅燈 (?-1899) (lit. Red Lantern Zhu) gained fame as an itinerant healer who refused payment for treating the sick. He was born in a small village in Shandong. In 1898, the Yellow River flooded and forced many Shandong residents out from their homes; Zhu Hongdeng was one of those forced to move away. He went to live with his uncle, who happened to be a doctor. 1898 was merely a few years after the humiliating loss against Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. Christian missionaries encroached upon Chinese lands and Chinese rights. Under this oppressive environment, Zhu Hongdeng began studying martial arts; the only way he knew to defend his faith and family. This was when he came in contact with the Yihequan, which outsiders called Dadaohui 大刀會 (the Big Sword Society). They claimed their practise would render one invulnerable to bullets (Esherick 96).

Soon, he began to establish martial arts training grounds. Using what he knew about medicine, which he had picked up from his uncle, he traversed the countryside as an itinerant healer. He used his healing as a cover what he really intended: to spread his anti-Christian philosophy. His hard work propagating his ideas soon cast off its fruits, as the movement grew quicker than ever before. Soon, he became the “leader” of the movement in the area of Changqing. Do take leader with a grain of salt, as there was no real organisation to speak of. Zhu Hongdeng was widely recognised to have greater martial and magical abilities and was therefore able to rally a great number of Yihequan warriors to his cause whenever there was a conflict to be had with the Christians and foreigners (Esherick 234).

Seize the Oceanic faith; Save our Rivers and Mountains

It was this period, under the pressure of extreme poverty, that the Yihequan movement began to change. Indeed, “there were Spirit Boxers [here] before the flood, but they only studied [boxing] and established a boxing ground. After the flood they started acting up [nao-qi-lai-le]” (Esherick 223).

Zhu Hongdeng led his first attack on a Christian church in June 1898. The Yihequan movement grew. In the area of Changqing, the local landlords banded together to expell this new, charismatic leader with his dangerous ideas. He was forced to take his followers and flee elsewhere. Huaping County would hence become his base of operations. The cause spread rapidly from Changqing to Huaping County, Sanshili Pu, Yaojiazhuang, Balizhuang, Mashawo and many more.

Subsequently, Hongdeng laid waste to the churches that were established in all of these places. The corruption brought by the missionaries reached far and wide, but luckily, it was not deep yet. The cleansing fire of righteousness purified the unclean temples to debauchery of the evil missionaries, who misused the name of the Christian faith to further their wordly agendas and fulfill their worldly desires.

In the summer of 1899 some local Yihequan fighers had requested help from Zhu Hongdeng for a small local dispute. This escalated the whole affair. His appearance alarmed the authorities, causing the government to dispatch troops from Jinan to fight Zhu Hongdeng’s force. This marked the first major battle between the Yihequan and the government. After the battle, Zhu Hongdeng continued to raid Christian homes and churches.

A flag of the Yihetuan
“Righteous Harmonious Militia”

On the 24th of December 1899, Hongdeng was captured by the infamous Manchu official Yuxian, later dubbed the Butcher of Shanxi. Hongdeng was beheaded in Licheng. Yuxian’s strategy of suppressing the Yihequan movement by executing the leaders without persecuting the followers failed due to the heterodoxy of the Yihequan movement. After the death of Hongdeng, the Yihequan members, now officially the Yihetuan 義和團 (Militia United in Righteousness or Righteous Harmonious Militia) movement, simply selected new leaders.

Lord of the Altar

By the time the Yihequan entered the great cities of Zhili Province, Tianjin and Beijing, a “tan” or altar would denote a cell of the Yihequan. The hierarchy of the Yihequan was not very complex. There would be a Lord of the Altar (壇主 tanzhu), under him would be the Elder Brother-Disciple (大師兄 da shixiong) and the Second Brother-Disciple (二師兄 er shixiong). The Yihequan resistance fighters would refer to each other as Brother-Disciples. The organisation was light on the top down hierarchy and relatively egalitarian because of the lack of master-disciple relations.

The power of the Yihequan could be maintained by keeping a set of strict rules. This purity was a pre-requisite among the Yihequan fighters:

A depiction of Zhang Decheng. Note that the boxers are not wearing all red in this image. This is accurate. While Zhu Hongdeng and the Red Lanters might have famously worn red, other units of Yihetuan did not necessarily wear red.
  1. Do not covet wealth
  2. Do not lust after women
  3. Do not disobey your parents
  4. Do not violate Imperial laws
  5. Eradicate the foreigners
  6. Kill corrupt officials
  7. When you walk on the streets, keep your head lowered, looking neither left nor right.
  8. When you meet a fellow member, greet him with hands clasped together.
    (Esherick 295)

Zhang Decheng 张德成 (?-1900) was born in a city called Gaobeidian to a canal boatman’s family. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a boatman as well. When Zhao Sanduo stirred up the fires of rebellion, Zhang Decheng joined and created the Best/First Brigade Under Heaven (天下第壹團). This regiment consisted of 5000 warriors, and were the most powerful and influential unit of the Yihetuan movement. Zhang Decheng and Cao Futian 曹福田 were prominent figures in the resistance against the invasion. They were most renowned for the battle of Zizhulin and the battle for the Laolongtou railway station in Tianjin. Zhang Decheng died in an ambush in August; his corpse was tossed in a river.

The first major battle that Zhang Decheng was involved in was the battle of Zizhulin 紫竹林 (Purple Bamboo Forest). This battle took place on the 17th of June 1900 at the foreign concession area of Tianjin, when Nie Shicheng, along with his well trained Wuyi Jun 武毅軍 (Tenacious Army) and a portion of Song Qing’s Yi Jun 毅軍 (Resolute Army) discovered the Wubeitang 武備堂 (the Chinese miltary academy that housed 200 cadets, mentioned in part 2) was destroyed, its students murdered and burnt to cinders. The fury of the Qing soldiery could not be quelled. The Qing military, now working together with the Yihetuan, laid siege to the concessions. The first assault took place on the morning of the 18th. Before the battle 500 torch-bearing warriors gathered under Zhang Decheng. They wore red turbans, protective talismans on their chests and billowing blue pantaloons with big curved swords hanging from their waists. Here they offered their respects to the gods and spirits they would invoke during battle. Zhang Chengde held a speech:

[…] The foreign devils have sucked our blood dry, devoured our fertile fields, stolen our valuable treasures. They have extended their demon claws into Jiaozhou, Lüshunkou and Haishenwei. Now, the time for great retribution has come! […]

An excerpt of Zhang Decheng’s speech as quoted in Sun Qihai, Baguo Lianjun Qin Hua Jishi (Beijing: Huawen Chubanshe, 1996): 124

The 500 men stormed onto the fields before the concession perimeters. The signal was given for the 500 to march toward the barricades. Akin to the Napoleonic times, these “red coats” marched 50 to 60 men abreast. They believed their charm, incantations and talismans would make them invulnerable to bullets. As they approached the barricades, the first thundering shots were fired… and the first warriors began to fall. The volleys fired from the barricades felled more and more warriors, and the men began to drop, left and right. Yet, the courage of the warriors never faltered. The old grandmaster (only referred to a such) led the warriors from the front. Fifty meters from the barricades, he took off his clothes, revealing his muscled torso, scarred, rippling, formed like rugged rock by decades of martial arts practise. The remaining 400 or so warriors followed his example and bared their chests. The warriors charged.

A bullet struck the old grandmaster. He swayed and raised his sword high in the sky, and collapsed onto the dirt. And like him, many others were felled by the bulletstorm. The bodies began to pile up in front of the barricades. So many fell until, of the brave five hundred, mere dozens remained. They retreated. The fire and the torches they had carried onto the battlefield slowly dimmed… then went out. The Yihetuan had been soundly defeated in this first battle. Superstition is no substitution for superior firepower.

Carry out the Way on behalf of Heaven

The Saintly Mother

Lin Heier 林黑兒 (1871-1900?) was the leader of the Red Lanterns (Hongdengzhao 紅燈罩/紅燈照) during the Yihetuan uprising. Lin Heier’s origin story is steeped in mystery. There are many accounts, both oral and textual, that claim one or the other. Most sources agree, however, that she was a prositute and a street performer. The legends also never fail to convey her proficiency with witchcraft and medicine. As for her youth, the story usually relays that her father, Li You 李有, was a boatman who operated on the canals of Tianjin. Heier became a good pugilist under Li You’s tutelance. She was described as being conventionally beautiful. Also important to note, you’ll see why later, is that she has been described as “sexually promiscuous since youth” (Lu). One time, Li You got into a dispute with Christians, and trespassed on a restraining order. He was arrested, and beaten to death in captivity. Her life was dramatically changed after the death of her father. With no source of income she was forced to work as a prostitute.

It was Christianity that killed her father and forced her into prostitution, and so, she was determined to destroy it. She joined the Yihequan movement.

First study Yihequan, then study Hongdengzhao
Kill the foreign devils, destroy the Catholic faith

She approached Zhang Decheng with a proposal to enter into open armed resistance against the foreign invaders. Her proposal was accepted through display of her sorcery. It was believed there was power in sexual and moral purity, and that a woman’s body had special powers. She became the leader of 3,000 girls, aged 12 to 18 who chose to live by the sword rather than to die by inaction. She led the Red Lanterns and was dubbed the Saintly Mother of the Yellow Lotus (Huanglian Shengmu 黃蓮聖母) (Spence 223).

Her Red Lanterns were a group of Boxers who played a great role in the defence of China and the resistance against foreign incursion. In combat, her Red Lanterns functioned as vanguards and scouts. Her Red Lanterns were also dubbed Guizishou 刽子手 (Executioners), since they were usually the first to kill foreigners wherever they could find them. The other Yihequan warriors attributed many magical powers to the Red Lanterns. Their belief that normal women were filthy and polluting was perhaps countered by the Red Lanterns, who should then be pure and clean, and from that cleanliness and purity awakened great magical powers.

When Tianjin was lost, she was captured by the enemy. When they held her in jail they humiliated her, she never lost her composure and dignity.

Lin Heier as portrayed in the Peking Opera Red Lantern.

It is uncertain what ultimately became of her. Some say she was raped and killed, some say she was executed by the Qing government, others say she was tortured to death and that her corpse was treated with formalin by taxidermists to be paraded around Europe as a curiosity. What is certain is that she was a true warrior. Her steadfast strength and influence inspired many others, from her era and since, to follow in her footsteps and cast off the stifling coils of oppression by our own two hands.

Her simultaneous prostitute and saintly “virgin” status might seem baffling. However, according to Lu Yunting, the image of sexual promiscuity through prostitution and moral and sexual purity are not incompatible with each other in the realm of popular imagination. Indeed, to a certain degree Lin Heier was idolised and deified. In Confucian China, women often only had high influence and power in private spaces. Women who had high influence in public spaces were either witches/sorceresses, prostitutes or performers. All three of these identities were given to Lin Heier. Her duplicitous identities developed over time as different eras and different groupings saw fit to interpret her legend in different ways. I am acutely aware of my own historicity in writing this article. Nevertheless, there is one constant in every reading of her story: she is irrefutably a hero. In my pursuit to spread the story of this titan, that is all I need to know.

7. By Any Means Necessary

Sleeping with the Enemy

Sai Jinhua

Sai Jinhua 賽金花 (1872-1936) was a heroine, who contrary to Lin Heier, did not attempt to save China by fighting on the battlefield by leading a band of deadly warriors as battlefield executioners. Instead, she attempted to save lives by seducing the enemy commander and urging him to take off the iron boots he was crushing the Chinese with. She is most famously known as Sai Jinhua, but had many aliases (in her childhood she was called Zhao Lingfei and Zhao Caiyun). Sai Jinhua was a courtesan on a floating brothel. Her beauty caught the sight of her first husband, Hong Jun. Hong Jun was a high ranking mandarin, and took her as his concubine. Later, Hong Jun was appointed diplomatic duties and travelled to Russia, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany. He was accompanied by Sai Jinhua during this three year long journey. It was allegedly during this journey that Sai Jinhua became acquainted with Alfred von Waldersee (Alfred von Waldersee’s journals, unfortunately, do not once mention her name.)

Graf Alfred von Waldersee in und um Peking während der Kriegswirren 1900-1901

Alfred von Waldersee, as mentioned in part 1 and 2, was appointed Field Marshall of the Eight Nation Alliance. He and his German forces, however, arrived late to the fighting. By the time they reached Beijing, the siege was over and no glory was to be had. He vented his frustrations at the Zhili countryside. In a bid to humiliate, undermine and pervert Chinese society, he launched as many as 75 punitive expeditions. It was the Kaiser’s wish to avenge the death of the envoy Von Ketteler, who was killed by Enhai.

Sai Jinhua and third husband Wei Sijiong

Jinhua is sometimes portrayed as hero and other times as traitor, a controversial character. Her conduct during the Boxer Rebellion is oft disputed. According to her own autobiography, however, she denies having had any improper relations with the Generalfeldmarschall. She claims they were no more than good friends. Legend, however, has it that she became intimately acquainted with the Count in the bed of the Empress Dowager Cixi. She used her charms to plea for him to show mercy and refrain from being more brutal in his extermination campaigns. His punitive expeditions certainly caused many innocents to lose their lives. Perhaps Sai Jinhua managed to convince him to lay off even one expedition. A life saved is a life saved, and if Sai Jinhua was willing to sacrifice her name and pride for human lives, then she can be counted among the heroes of this era.

The Red Beards

This section is based on research done by Sun Yue 孙越, a renowned translator and author from China, residing in Russia. His blog can be accessed via this link (Chinese). Any opinions I might add do not reflect his views.

In 1629, when the Ming Dynasty resistance hero general Yuan Chonghuan executed general Mao Wenlong for smuggling, Mao’s marines and soldiers disbanded and melted into the countryside of Northeast China (otherwise known as Manchuria). These men “can be seen as the genesis of the Red Beards” (Sun Yue). Some chapters of the Red Beards (Chin. Honghuzi 红胡子) were made up of typical bandits who robbed anything and anyone to survive, others would rob the rich only, and adhere to some kind of chivalrous code. Generally speaking, the Northeast of China by the late 19th century had become a lawless place, where bandits, ruffians, outlaws and other fugitives from Qing jurisdiction would escape to and wreak havoc upon.

When the time of the Taiping Rebellion came in the 1850’s, the chaos and tumult gave rise to much turbulence in all of China. The Eight Banner forces stationed in the homeland of the Manchus in the Northeast of China were sent toward the South, in order to squash the Taiping Rebellion. As a result, a vacuum was left in Northeast China, giving the Red Beards a period of great freedom and providence.

After being defeated by the Empire of Japan during the First Sino-Japanese war in 1895, a great many of the defeated Qing forces in Northeast China deserted and were recruited by the Red Beards. The numbers of the Red Beards swelled to about 100,000. They were a great plague to the people of Northeast China. Although, I must confess, I feel a bit of fondness for these people, as my own family line descends from Manchurian bandits.

Honghuzi during the Battle of Mukden.

P. F. Collier & Son, 1904, Russo-Japanese War: A Photographic and Descriptive Review of the Great Conflict in the Far East

They were a controversial band of men. By 1900, the residents alongside the banks of the Sunggari Ula (Songhua River) had become regular prey for the Red Beards. However, when the Russians came the Red Beards suddenly became one of the last lines of defense. When the Russians came to kill innocents in Hailanpao, the Honghuzi came to their defence. When the Russians established their railways, it was the Honghuzi who sabotaged the railway. When the Russians came to conquer Manchuria, it was the Honghuzi who fought guerilla warfare against the Russian forces.

The Red Beards had the means and the men to resist, and in fact, were the one of the reasons the Russians didn’t commit to full extermination campaigns in the Northeast, like the other Europeans did in Zhili. It was not in the Russian interest to fight a counter-insurgency war, as it would drain their resources and prolongue the war. The Russian Tsar was relieved when the war ended as quickly as it did.

“We cannot thank God enough for such a speedy and unexpected end to our actions in the Far East.”

Tsar Nikolai II in E. J. Bing, ed., The Secret Letters of the Last Tsar (New York, 1938), p. 138, quoted in Malozemoff, Russian Far Eastern Policy, p. 144.

If the Russian antagonised the innocents and the Honghuzi in the same way that the Germans antagonised the people in Zhili, there would be no doubt that the full commitment of anti-Russian resistance from the Honghuzi it would have destroyed the already precarious Russian position in China.

As we can see. The Red Beards weren’t truly motivated to fight against foreign invasion. I see them more as opportunistic band of bandits trying to survive in a time of turmoil. The thing is, however, that fate decided they would serve the cause of the people. Their story serves to remind us that not all actors that aid your cause have to necessarily agree with your views, or even think they are working for your cause. A good strategist does not merely control his own forces, he steers all actors, including the enemy. Resistance by any means necessary.

A Japanese depiction of the Honghuzi bandits during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.

Source: Impressions of the Front: Woodcuts of the Sino-Japanese War
Okamoto, Shumpei,
 Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1983, p.31.

8. Paladins of the Military

Singing of a Daring Song

Song Chunhua 宋春華 (1866-1900) was an officer in the Qing army from a village in the Shaanxi province. He had passed the martial exams and served as a one of the so called Blue Plume Imperial Guards (藍翎侍衛 lanling shiwei) among the Imperial Bodyguards for a time. He served his office and was promoted to the rank of Shoubei 守備, a fifth degree military rank. He was then stationed in the Green Standard Camp in Tianjin. At the time of the impending invasion of Tianjin, Viceroy Yulu had appointed Chunhua to guard the Southern gate of Tianjin.

Chinesischer regulärer Infanterist

The fires of chaos raged on as the Western powers waged their war. Soon, the Southeast Tianjin Ordnance Factory was lost to the invaders. Song gathered a crowd of his men and spoke to them: “the preservation of the ordnance factory is a matter of life or death for Tianjin. We must take it back. Those of you who are courageous, follow me and sally forth out of the city!” His men agreed. At midnight, a hundred men snuck away from their posts and attempted to retake the factory. Alas, the invaders had a heavy presence and a tight defence at the ordnance factory. After an exchange of fire, Chunhua was shot in the leg. After his failed foray, he returned to the city. Not long after, when the fall of Tianjin seemed imminent, he spoke to his wife: “The city stands alone and our men are few, in the end it will be lost. Take our son and find a life elswehere. I have sworn to defend this city to my death!” His wife and child fled the city. He remained at his post, holding his ground at the Southern gate of Tianjin. The invaders lost 750 soldiers trying to enter. His commendable courage was not enough to stem the doomtide. In the end, he and his men were overrun (Sun Qihai, 163). Before dying, he uttered these final words:

Song Chunhua before his death: “I have not completed my aspirations; so I am ashamed of the merits my country has granted me! Since the start of the war, I have slain many enemies, the number of which are higher than the ones I have lost. Although I will die today, I do so without regrets.”

Noble men like Chunhua make the difference in this world. It is men like him who safeguard our rights and our way of life. If only he and his men did not stand alone. If only there were more of him. Learn from history, I say! Do not forget what Chunhua sacrificed! He could have fled with his wife and child, and lived a happy life somewhere away from the war. He could have, but he didn’t. He had a duty. He knew that if he didn’t stand and fight, no one would. And if everyone thought of fleeing and living a good life, nobody would be there to guard the gates against death and destruction. A man should face chaos, so that those behind him can live in peace.

Infantry of the Late Qing Dynasty

The Last Arrows

Defending Manchuria

The Manchu defenders of Manchuria felt a heavy blow when the Russians murdered thousands of innocents in Blagoveshschensk on the 17th to 21st of July. Despite being aware of the disparity in power, Chang Shun and Shou Shan, commanders of Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, could no longer stand idly by while the Russians slaughtered Qing subjects by the thousands. The Hailanpao massacre could be seen as nothing but a declaration of war. (Glatfelter 181)

Even though the Northeast of China had been drained of Qing Bannermen, those who stayed behind fought with tooth and nail in order to defend their homeland. The Manchus were always a warlike people. Manchu bannermen, holding on to their homelands, holding on to their dying traditions, facing certain doom, held on to what they knew: war.

Manchu bannermen
Source: photographed by John Thomson c. 1868-72

Historically, the outstretched plains of Manchuria used to favour the Manchurian horsemen and their dreaded composite bows with the power to affix men to their horses. The Eight Banners of the Manchus could once have been considered the most formidable cavalry force in all the world, so strong that even the most elite Guanning Iron Cavalry of the Ming could not stand up to them. The Eight Banners were now reduced to not even a shadow of its former self.

A Manchu bannerman in full draw position.
Source: H.R. Kress from, found via

The terrain now favoured the advanced gunpowder armaments and artillery of the Russians. The long range bombardments and long range volley fire of the Russian infantry was simply not to be countered by the Qing armies, either modern rifle infantry or traditional infantry. Due to the absence of the Boxer rebels, The war in Manchuria much resembled a more conventional war, where most of the military actions were carried out by Imperial regulars. The Russian campaign was swift and effective. It took the Russian three months to occupy all of Manchuria. The Manchus of Northeast China: once, feared conquerors; now, brave martyrs.

Guardians of Beijing

After the humiliating defeat of the Qing dynasty during the Second Opium War, China attempted to reform its military through the Self-Strengthening Movement. Out of this movement arose several new armies. The Manchus established the Shenjiying 神機營 (Divine Engine Division, a.k.a. Peking Field Force) in 1862, it’s men drawn from among the Manchu Eight Banners.

After the humiliating loss against Imperial Japan in 1895, the Manchu Prince Zaiyi 载漪 (a.k.a. Prince Duan) endeavoured to increase the Imperial defenses around the capital. There was a recruitment drive which caused the Shenjiying to be reformed. The extant 25 foot and horse battalions in the Shenjiying were transformed into modern fighting forces, numbering 15,000. The reform had given the Shenjiying a unique identity, they had now ceased to be a burlap doll stitched together from different sections from the other parts of the Qing military.

Yuan Shikai’s Right Division of the Wuwei Corps, escorting the Empress Dowager and entrouage back to safety in 1902.

Additionally, they established a new army called the New Army (新軍 Xin Jun). Their command was handed over to Yuan Shikai shortly after its creation. This Xin Jun was then incorporated into the Wuwei Corps 武衛軍 as the Right Division (scroll down to see image below for clarification).

In 1898, the Shenjiying underwent another major change. The encroaching foreign powers drove the Court to emphasize the modernisation of its military. 10,000 exceptional men were drafted from the entire Qing military apparatus. These men were drilled with the latest doctrines and armed with the latest weaponry, all in an effort to create an elite corps at the beck and call of the Court. The main purpose of the Shenjiying actually wasn’t just to defend Beijing. The Shenjiying functioned as major training institution tasked with training the other parts of the Eight Banners. They were also tasked with acquainting themselves with and mastering newly invented weaponry. For these reasons, the Shenjiying was the cutting edge for the modernisation of the Eight Banners (Wang 88).

In 1899, the anti-foreign Zaiyi decided to established another new army for the same reasons. This army was known as the Hushenying 虎神营 (Tiger Divine Division). 10,000 strong, it was established to defend Beijing from harm.

As for the Wuwei Corps, which was deployed in Zhili to fight for Imperial Court, they were mainly very effective against the Yihequan, but not so much against the West. Yuan Shikai’s Right Division was also stationed in the area, but he only deployed his troops against the Yihequan and never against the Western invaders. In the previous part, I mentioned how Nie Shicheng also was extremely effective at killing and dispersing the Yihequan, after all, his army was well trained and well armed. When his forces finally moved against the Western forces, he gave the Tianjin legations a thrashing. Regrettably, he was slain alongside as many as 3,000 of his soldiers while launching an attack against the Russians in Tianjin. Nie Shicheng’s weakened forces continued to struggle without him, but were annihilated at the battle for Baliqiao and Tongzhou.

Beijing seemed well guarded on paper, three of the most modern and well armed armies were garrisoned in and around the city. However, the truth of the matter was that these armies, despite their impressive reforms and modernisations, were unprepared to fight the well drilled and well armed armies of the world. As a result, the Shenjiying, the Hushenying and the Centre Army of Ronglu were decimated during the Battle of Beijing. The Rear Division of the Wuwei Corps was somewhat effective due to the ferocity shown by the Gansu Army, but with 3/5th of its main body absent from the battle, they too had no chance at victory.

Brave Ten-thousand

The Gansu Army (甘軍 Gan jun), otherwise known as the Kansu Braves, were vilified by the Western forces as 10,000 Islamic rabble. Indeed, the Gansu Army consisted of irregulars from the “savage” province of Gansu in West-China. The army was made up of mainly infantry and cavalry, although they also had a few squadrons of artillery and engineers. It’s members consisted of Hui, Salar, Dongxiang and Bonan Muslims. It was led by the legendary and daunting Dong Fuxiang 董福祥.

Zaiyi on Dong Fuxiang: “You are a true hero, if every marshall had guts like yours, it would not be difficult to pacify the Oceanics!”

The Gansu Army was feared in Zhili and in Beijing for they destroyed churches and killed Christians. They looted the homes of Chinese Christians as well, accusing them of being secondary devils (ermaozi 二毛子). The Gansu Army, alongside the Yihetuan, also went rioting and destroyed anything that seemed Western when Clemens von Ketteler killed a young Chinese boy. When they were called to Beijing, they were stationed in the Southern Hunting Park (南苑 Nanyuan), used by the Qing for military drills to organise hunts. It was conveniently close to the railway station, which caused no small amount of despair among the Europeans, who were harassed by the Gansu Army. One time, when the secretary of the Japanese legation Sugiyama Akira 杉山彬 attempted to leave Beijing through the Yongdingmen, he was halted by the guarding Gansu Army. After a brief exchange of words, they beheaded him.

In spite of these deeds of violence, even intelligent people still believed that the Kansu soldiery were a tower of defence for China, and would be more than able to repel any number of foreign troops.

Heng Yi, a man from Jiangsu living in Beijing as quoted in Sir Edmund Backhouse & John Otway Percy Bland, Annals & memoirs of the court of Peking: (from the 16th to the 20th century), 453-455

Indeed, they were a tower of defence for China. Most Imperial forces refrained from facing the Western armies of the Eight Nations Alliance head on. The Gansu Army had no such deliberations. Their singular purpose was clear: to defend the Empire and kill the enemy. Indeed, while everyone was marching away from Beijing, while most of China sat at home and signed the Mutual Protection of Southeast China Treaty with the enemy, the Gansu Army left their own homes, marched across half of China, headed to war.

While the general trend of the Chinese was to be helpless against Western agression, with a few notable exceptions of course, such as the impervious Sengge Rinchen and the immaculate Ching Shih, the impetuous Gansu Army proved to be a most formidable foe to rise against the tide of invasion, and the impending devastation of home and hearth. Frankly, the Gansu Army scared the invaders. The German Kaiser feared the Mohamedans so much that he convinced the Ottoman Caliph Abdul Hamid II to send Enver Pasha (not the Young Turk) to convince the Gansu Braves to stop fighting. The envoy arrived after the fighting was done, however.

The German Kaiser was right to be worried, for it was the Gansu Army that defeated Seymour’s expedition when he attempted to pass through Langfang. It was the Gansu Army that fought most ferociously against the foreign legations in Beijing. It was the Gansu Army that held the Zhengyang Gate against the British during the Battle of Beijing and even sacrificed its General Ma Fulu 馬福禄 and four of his paternal cousins in a dauntless charge against the invaders. It was the Gansu Army that protected the Empress Dowager and her entourage until they reached safety. General Ma Haiyan 馬海晏, in his loyalty, died of exhaustion after escorting the Empress Dowager.

An appraisal from the Court and the People at the time: “The Gansu Army of Dong Fuxiang: valiant men, eager to battle”

The Gansu Army, brave and loyal, armed with nothing but their repeating rifles, cold steel and courage showed more determination and will to battle for what was right than many of the Manchu and Chinese soldiers. Why was this? I raised the problem of the “sick men of Asia” in the second part of this three parter article. The Manchus and the Chinese were notorious for their pursuit of pleasure. The Manchus believed that the “Chinese way” had corrupted their frugal Manchu warriors to fall into the trap of pleasure seeking. The Chinese by and large just want to live a good life where they are provided for. Rich Chinese and Manchus are like the rich anywhere, prone to debauchery and hedonism and that includes the consumption of intoxicants. While many of the Manchus and Chinese were addicted to opium, the Gansu Army was staunchly opposed to the opium trade. The Muslim Chinese served as a stark contrast to both the Manchus and other Chinese. Islam teaches to abstain from drugs, prostitution, alcoholism and gambling, and it is precisely these vices that weakened the Chinese and the Manchus. Is it any surprise then, that the bravest army to face down the West was Islamic?

The Muslim troops were “picked men, the bravest of the brave, the most fanatical of fanatics: and that is why the defence of the Emperor’s city had been entrusted to them.”

Arnold Henry Savage Landor (1901). China and the Allies. Charles Scribner’s sons. p. 194.

The Gansu Army, ferocious, loyal and powerful as they were, could not face the enemy all alone. During the Battle of Beijing, the force was decimated by the Western onslaught. They did what they could by escorting the Empress Dowager to safety, but not long after, their army was disbanded. The Western forces demanded the head of Dong Fuxiang for his role in the war. The Qing Empire refused to execute one of its most loyal commanders, but the Gansu Army was no more.

This image is frequently used to depict boxers overall, but are likely soldiers from the Gansu Army.
The most famous picture of the Muslim soldiers of the Gansu Army.

Concluding Word

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone can contribute to a cause in his or her own way. Sai Jinhua wasn’t good at fighting like Lin Heier, but she had other skills she used to help her people. Some fight for ideals, like Zhu Hongdeng, the Gansu Army and Song Chunhua, others because they don’t want to see their families murdered, their faith humiliated and their homes destroyed, like the Manchu Bannermen, the Yihetuan and the Red Beards. None of them forgot who their enemies were and where their loyalties lay.

What did all of these men and women have in common? They all fought a war they were losing. They all fought a hopeless battle they almost certainly knew they were going to lose. I talked about lackluster commitment in part 2. How many soldiers, generals and statesmen didn’t believe that victory was possible? Because of this one deadly assumption, they just opted not to fight at all. This is not the way. A just war must always be fought, even if there is no hope of victory, even if one thinks it is futile. The moment you forsake your principles is the moment you die spiritually.

Ah, but then Chinese heroes always were lonely. I sincerely ask my people why it has to be like this? Why must our heroes be lonely? Would the Yihetuan have lost if they gained full support of the Qing? Would the Gansu Army have been decimated if even the rest of the Wuwei Corps under Yuan Shikai joined in the battle? Would Beijing even have fallen if the neighbouring provinces sent their forces to Zhili? Would the Eight Nations Alliance have even dared to enter China if the entirety of China heeded the call of duty? I doubt it.

I implore the reader to make a choice. When you encounter trouble today, will you choose to stand by your brothers and sisters in a battle with hopeless odds? Or, will you stand by the sidelines, hoping that your brothers and sisters will win the battle for you? Let me tell you this: if the odds are low, and none of us join in, the odds will even be lower. Your passivity and inaction is directly contributing to the cause of your enemies.

Remember the sacrifice of our heroes.
Remember who they were and what they gave.
Remember how they struggled and who they fought.
Remember them and honour their graves.

  1. Esherick, Joseph W. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley (Calif.): University of California Press, 1987.
  2. Glatfelter, Ralph. Russia in China: The Russian Reaction to the Boxer Rebellion, 1975, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
  3. Lu, Yunting 路雲亭. “黃蓮聖母林黑兒形象傳播考論.” 太原師範學院學報, 社會科學版. 2010 (4).
  4. Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2013.
  5. Sun, Qihai. Baguo Lianjun Qin Hua Jishi. Beijing: Huawen Chubanshe, 1996.
  6. Sun, Yue. “东北盗匪红胡子之谜(一)-孙越-财新博客-新世纪的常识传播者-财新网.” 孙越. Accessed January 19, 2020.
  7. Sun, Yue. “东北盗匪红胡子之谜(二)-孙越-财新博客-新世纪的常识传播者-财新网.” 孙越. Accessed January 19, 2020.
  8. Wang Jingze 王景泽. “神机营──晚清八旗军事近代化的尝试.” 求是学刊, no. 03 (1990): 85-90.
  9. 赵尔巽. 清史稿·列傳二百八十二·忠義九

Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

3 thoughts on “War in China: a Symphony of Resistance (3/3)

  1. Dear friend, first of all I must congratulate you on this exceptionally well written blog and article. It contains lots and lots of engaging information that is deeply well researched.

    was wondering that since this blog is about Asian history and colonialism, you could do a writeup on the history of imperialism in the Indian Subcontinent? Although today China and India may not be the best of friends, I believe that their histories share much in common. For example, during the Boxer War many Indian soldiers deeply sympathized with the boxers, with Indian officers even complaining that it was entirely justified. In 2008 the Indian government even returned a set of bells which they had looted before, which is far better than what any of the “civilized” countries have done.

    Kindly let me know if you think this is possible.


    1. Hello John, thank you for the comment. I am not an expert on Indian history, so I do not foresee that I will do such an article anytime soon. But, I would love to learn more!


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