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Islam in China: the Sultanate of Yunnan (1/2)

Today is May 19th. It marks a dreadful day in history oft forgotten. It marks the Kunming Massacre of 1856. A three-day period that claimed the lives of thousands of Muslim Yunnanese. It saddens me to say this was only one of the massacres in a series of massacres, albeit the one that directly sparked the rebellion, each more atrocious than the last, that led to the founding of a Sultanate in the Southwest of the Qing Empire.

The Sultanate existed from 1856 to 1873 and was known as Pingnan Guo 平南国. It was led by Sulayman Ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahman, a.k.a. Du Wenxiu 杜文秀, the Sultan of Dali.

To the lay reader it should be noted that Islam is not exclusive nor isolated to the Uyghurs of Xinjiang in Northwestern China. Indeed, Islam has a long and extensive history in China. After all, Islam has been practised in China for 14 centuries. Currently, of China’s 55 recognised ethnic minorities, 10 of them commonly practise Islam. They include the numerous Hui, the highly visible Uyghurs, the Dongxiang, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Salar, Tajik, Bonan, and the Tatars. Also, contrary to popular belief that all Tibetans are Tantric Buddhists: there are also communities of Tibetan Muslims.

In order to understand the establishment of the Islamic Sultanate in China, it is necessary to first survey the political and cultural landscape of Yunnan and China leading up to and during the 19th century. To this end, I will first start by exploring how Muslims first arrived in Yunnan and how their society developed. Then, a brief timeline from their first arrival in Yunnan until the time of the founding of the Sultanate will be given.

The second part of the article, which will be released at a later date, will then seek to briefly explore the political and religious system and military affairs of the Sultanate and discuss the major events of its seventeen years of existence and the events leading up and the subsequent aftermath of its fall.

Note: Great scholarly works have been written on this topic, all the information presented in this article will be drawn from these sources. Although, the author will certainly voice his own opinions from time to time. This article in no way claims to contribute original research to extant scholarship. The purpose of this article is merely to give a relatively obscure, but nonetheless fascinating piece of Islamic and Chinese history some spotlights it actually deserves.

Islam in Yunnan

According to the Islamic Association of China, Islam was first spread to China Proper during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in 651, through an emissary sent by Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan (RA) (中国的伊斯兰教). He extended the well wishes of Caliph Uthman (RA) and described Arabia and the wonders of Islam to the Gaozong Emperor and, through this gesture, constructed a solid foundation for trade both in ideas and goods between Tang China and the Arab Empire (Yang 3). According to the oral history of the Muslim Chinese, Islam was spread to China by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (RA). It is said that the Huaisheng Mosque 懷聖寺 in Guangzhou was founded by him as well (Yang 6). In the Tang, Song and subsequent Yuan period, merchants from the Islamic world visited China in great numbers. By sea, Muslim merchants would flock to coastal cities such as Guangzhou. By land, Caravans would pass through the steppes of Central Asia, cross the Taklamakan Desert until they reached the green pastures of Lingzhou 靈州, Lanzhou 蘭州 or Xiaoguan 蕭關 (present day Guyuan 固原). After washing off the dust from their arduous trek, they would proceed onto the great cities of Chang’an or Luoyang (Yang 4).

Jiayu Pass 嘉峪关, the “gate” of China, an important station on the Silk Roads.

The Muslims present in China during the Tang and Song Dynasty (960-1279) were usually centred around important trade hubs, but did not enter the countrysides and rural areas (Yang 7). This changed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Not only was the Silk Road reinvigorated under the Pax Mongolica, the Mongols also relocated many Central Asian, Arab and Iranian craftsmen, soldiers and intellectuals to China. The Mongols were a distinct minority in each of the lands they conquered, so they needed help. They preferred to employ foreigners in each of the conquered lands, since they lacked local political ties, and were therefore loyal to the Mongols (Allsen 5).

When the Mongols annexed the Kingdom of Dali in 1253 (later known as the province of Yunnan), they deemed the Yunnanese and Chinese too untrustworthy to administer the province. As such, they brought Muslim administrators to govern Yunnan. Muslim Governor-General Sayyid Ajall Shams-al-Din Omar al-Bukhari was put in charge of Yunnan after which the province began to develop as “one of China’s centres of Islam” (Atwill, Islam in the World of Yunnan 12). Sayyid Ajall is credited with bringing Islam as well as Confucianism to Yunnan. Under his governance, Sayyid Ajall constructed at least two to a dozen mosques in Shanchan 鄯闡 (present day Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan), he permitted Islamic education and sanctioned the open practise of Islam. He was a legitimising force for Islam in Yunnan (Yang 8; Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 35). The Hui still recognise him for his ideal leadership qualities.

The Tomb of Sayyid Ajall Shams-al-Din Omar al-Bukhari.
Muslim Yunnanese to this day still travel to his tomb to celebrate Eid al-Fitr.

During the Ming conquest of the Yuan Dynasty, more Muslim soldiers came to Yunnan under the Muslim generals Lan Yu 藍玉 (died 1393) and Mu Ying 沐英 (1345-1392). During the Ming dynasty, the Islamic community enjoyed a steady period of growth in China. To illustrate, in 1392, Sai Hazhi 赛哈智, the seventh generation descendant of Sayyid Ajall, heralded the Imperial decree by the Hongwu Emperor to safeguard the religious customs and the way-of-life of the Islamic community (Yang 9). Muslim Yunnanese even reached prominent statuses in the Imperial apparatus, with Kunming born Zheng He 鄭和 (1371-1433), the famous explorer who visited dozens of Asian and African nations in his voyages, reaching the highest rank. Even during the Qing Dynasty, Muslim soldiers were sent to Yunnan to quell indigenous uprisings (Notar 67). Evidently, Muslims have been a constant in Yunnan ever since the Yuan Dynasty. These Yunnanese Muslims became known as the Hui 回 (the same name other Muslim Chinese identify with).

Note: It should not be assumed that Muslim Chinese and Hui are interchangeable terms. A Hui is likely, but not necessarily, a Muslim. The Hui refered to those who follow the teachings of Islam as Mumin 穆民 (from Arabic مؤمن), while they refer to their own cultural identity as part of Huijiao 回教 (Hui-teachings). Finally, there is the distinction Huizu 回族, which is homonymous with present day nomenclature for the Hui ethnicity in the PRC. The usage of this term by historical sources suggests an ethnic consciousness among the Hui of the 19th century which is separate, albeit strongly connected, to their religious identity (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 40). Hui, therefore, is not to be seen as solely a religious identity, but as an ethno-religious identity (38).

Zheng He’s Hui style tomb with Arabic inscription. This particular tomb only contains his personal possessions. His body was buried in India.
権作, 24 April 2004

Yunnan was a periphery to the Chinese Empire which had its centre in Beijing, and looked upon Yunnan as a fairly unimportant part of their domain. Similarly, Yunnan was also a periphery to the Islamic world. Though, the Muslims in China always regarded themselves as part of the Islamic umma (Israeli 308). In this way, the Islamic community in Yunnan was a double periphery (Atwill, Islam in the World of Yunnan 10).

The Hui’s religious identity as Muslims, according to Israeli, caused them to maintain a distinct cultural and religious identity that separated them from the other Chinese (Israeli 296). They maintained a separate identity despite the similarity of their physical features, Davies states that “in some cases one can tell a Mohammedan by his features, but very often they are indistinguishable from the Chinese” (Davies 53). Practises such as ancestor worship and the consumption of pork were strictly prohibited by the Hui Muslims. As Notar puts it: “Although Muslim settlers joined local communities, religious and culinary practices often kept them at a remove” (Notar 68). In other words, the Hui Muslims could not fully incorporate some Confucian and other Han Chinese traditions into their own traditions.

The Donglianhua Mosque just South of Dali.

Nevertheless, while differences existed, it should not be assumed that the Islamic identity and the identity as subjects of the Qing Empire were in conflict with each other. In Yunnan, the Hui were never a closed off entity or separate from the complex tapestry of Yunnanese society. The Hui were insiders, involved with the complex workings of the Chinese state, as well as outsiders, being intrinsically linked to a world that stretched beyond China (Atwill, Islam in the World of Yunnan 11). Neither the Qing state nor the Hui considered their dual identity of being Chinese and being Muslim to be mutually exclusive (Atwill, Blinkered Visions 1083). Therefore, the assumption of a strict dualism should be avoided. It isn’t as much of a case of choosing between being Muslim or Chinese as much as the Hui were both Muslim and Chinese.

Being Chinese, however, did not mean there were no distinctions between the Han and the Hui. This distinctiveness made them highly visible in Chinese society. To the Han people, a Hui was a Hui, no matter how much they adopted the material culture of the Han (Israeli 307). The Han regarded them with distrust and suspicion through a thick lens of misinformation. For example, it was believed, and sometimes is still believed, that Muslims do not eat pork because the pig is supposedly holy (Israeli 306; Ma, 00:05:17-00:05:25). For those unfamiliar with Islam, the pig is regarded as unclean and therefore unfit to be consumed. Nevertheless, in the multi-ethnic province of Yunnan, a relatively peaceful balance was struck between the Han, the Hui and the Yi.

Note: Yi 夷 is an oppositional term which refers to every ethnicity that is neither Han nor Hui (Atwill, Blinkered Visions 1081). The Yi 夷 included many ethnicities such as the Bai 白, the Yi 彜 (Luoluo 玀玀), the Hani 哈尼 (Woni 窝泥), Lisu 傈僳, Achang 阿昌, Miao 苗, Zhuang 壮, Dai 傣 (Baiyi 擺彜), Wa 佤 (Kawa 卡瓦), etc. The Yi 夷 were actually the majority of Yunnan’s population throughout most of its history. The non-Han still formed the majority of the population well into the 19th century. Indeed, an 1860 estimate claims “the Yi were roughly 50 to 60 percent, with the Han at 30 to 40 percent and the Hui only 10 to 20 percent” (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 28). It should be noted that of these 30 to 40 percent Han, many were recent immigrants as the population surged from 4 million to 10 million between 1775 and 1850 (27).

The multiple ethnicities (the acculturated Han, the various Yi peoples and the Hui) lived in relative peace until a great influx of new Han immigrants arrived in Yunnan during the Qing Dynasty. These new Han people were highly assertive and disrupted the former balance. When the urban centres of Yunnan became saturated, the new Han immigrants began to move into the countryside. This is when they moved in to illegally seize Hui and Yi lands and force them out of their mines (Spence 182). The Hui were skilled in certain occupations that allowed them to work in teams, they excelled especially at the caravan and mining trades (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 43). Their excellence at these trades generated no small degree of jealousy among the new Han arrivals. The Hui were therefore more hated in the eyes of the Han than the various groupings of the Yi. Needless to say, this caused no small amount of friction and led to large-scale Han instigated attacks on the Hui.

Mounting Tension

The following piece of history was extremely painful, confronting and infuriating for me to learn about. One should try to look at history with a detached heart, but sometimes it’s difficult not to get involved emotionally when confronted with such rampant injustice, inhumanity and indifference to the sanctity of human life. Nevertheless, I hope spreading knowledge about the tragic incidents involving the Muslim Yunnanese will not be used by anyone to fuel any particular political agendas or to foster hate against any particular groupings. I implore the reader to view this through an objective lens and, most of all, undo yourself from the shackles of ignorance. Don’t react emotionally, but take the time to check your sources and make conclusions based on evidence. May the peace, blessings and mercy of Allah be with you.

Xiyi and Baiyang Incidents

The first of the recorded Han-Hui conflicts occurred in 1800, at the Xiyi Silver Mine 悉宜厂 in Shunning 顺宁府 (present day Fengqing 凤庆), located in Western Yunnan. The Xiyi Silver Mine was a prosperous mine with several thousand employees (Jing 23). A Hui and a Han man from Hunan were involved in a physical altercation which escalated into a brawl between Hunanese and Hui. In the chaos, 10 or more Hunanese shops were damaged or destroyed (Jing 24). Two-hundred Hunanese banded together to hunt down Hui. At least 19 Hui were murdered. For these murders, the magistrate arrested two men, once was sentenced to death by slicing and subsequent beheading and the other to one hundred strokes.

Twenty years later in 1821, the Baiyang Mine 白羊厂 Northwest of Dali, another conflict erupted. The Baiyang incident was construed to have been about payback for the Xiyi murders. This incident started out small but quickly escalated into street battles between bands of more than 200 Han and Hui. After a week of fighting, 100 perished, 90 percent of them Hui. The prefectural magistrate conducted an investigation, but his verdict was biased and unsatisfactory. Ma Xingyun, spurred by the death of his relatives and the destruction of his mine, travelled to Beijing (that’s about 2200 km as the crow flies) to present his case to the court. Ma Xingyun exaggerated the casualties on the Hui side. The Emperor demoted the investigators one grade for their lacklustre investigation and urged the province to reopen investigations. The other Hui, however, were not out for revenge or retribution and attempted to mitigate the deeds of the Han (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 66).

Mianning Massacre

Mianning 緬寧 was a city on the Western border of Yunnan (present day Lincang 临沧). It was traditionally an area inhabited by various ethnicities and also home to the Hui. In the 19th century, more Han began to settle in that area. In 1838, a dispute arose between Zhang Xunzheng, a local magistrate, and Ma Wanju, a local Hui. Zhang Xunzheng owed Ma Wanju a sum of money, yet, Zhang felt insulted when Ma went to collect on the debt. Out of spite, he ordered the construction of a pavilion commemorating an imperial edict on a seemingly vacant spot in front of the local mosque. The Muslim community urged them to build the pavilion elsewhere. They believed that the local officials would side against them if they went through the official channels to protest the pavilion, so they constructed a decorative wall in the designated spot for the pavilion. Indeed, the local officials did side with Zhang and immediately ordered to cease the construction of the wall.

Following this, two local gentry asked the Hui community to donate forty taels of silver to honour Rui Lin, a regional commander. The Hui despised this official and scoffed at this expensive request. The local officials retaliated by claiming that the mosque encroached on the public road and took this case to the magistrate. The Hui community provided proof that the land was waqf, and therefore owned communally by the mosque. The Muslims were exonerated. The local gentry were humiliated publicly. These men, bearing immense hatred for Muslims, arranged with community leaders of the Han immigrants to “join forces and destroy the Muslims” (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 69).

The Hui heard of this plot and turned to Rui Lin to try and defuse the situation. Rui Lin told them they should pool together some money to try and pay the plotters to call off the attack. They returned with the cash, however, unbeknownst to the Hui, Rui Lin was one of the co-conspirators in this plot. Rui Lin told them it was too late and that the forces were already gathered. The Hui were terrified and sent people to the prefect in Shunning for help. The rest went into hiding. The local magistrate was concerned for the safety of the Hui, so he ordered those living outside the city walls to move into the city. Sadly, this was of no help. On July 18th, Zhu Zhanchun led the Han militia into the city on Rui Lin’s signal. The militia attacked on all sides and massacred the Hui. 700 Muslim Yunnanese were murdered in the city. In the following two weeks 1,700 more Muslim Yunnanese were murdered in the Muslim villages around the city of Mianning. Their houses and Mosques were razed to the ground. This was the first time the local government wasn’t just incompetent at preventing hostilities, but actively participated in said hostilities.

I have to add that this is just the first of many massacres to follow. I have never seen such a one-sided piece of history where all wickedness is consistently coming from one side (the newly settled Han). It only serves to point out the putrid, disgusting nature of all tribalism. This belief that the one kind of human is superior to the other. I am writing this as objectively I can, but it’s difficult to conceal my emotions.

The Mianning Massacre was passed off by the local officials as a community feud due to competition for land and lineage rivalry, which were quite commonplace. Yet, Ma Wenzhou observed that the massacre could not qualify as such. This is what drove Ma Wenzhou to go to Beijing to petition for an investigation into the matter. Ma refuted the claim that the Mianning Massacre was merely a communal feud. He also accused the local officials in Mianning of shielding the ringleaders of the massacre. He admitted that the Hui were also capable of “burning and looting,” however, the way events unfolded at Mianning were of a distinctly different nature than a badly escalated local rivalry. Indeed, in communal feuds, the hatred would not be so deep as to warrant the killing of pregnant women and small children. Moreover, communal feuds are not targeted against single ethnicities, but are targeted at the entire commune. In Mianning, only Hui homes and villages were targeted while the Han were left completely alone, indeed, not a single Han was killed. All of these factors were atypical of communal feuds. Thus, the conclusion was reached that it was not a communal feud, but premeditated violence encouraged by the local government.

The Daoguang Emperor immediately sacked the responsible officials Rui Lin and Zhang Jingyi for their failure to prevent the massacre. The new Governor-General Gui Liang from then brought the local officials under intense scrutiny. However, the Qing soon forgot about the massacre as the First Opium War captured the attention of the court. The Mianning Massacre, however, was an alarming start of the growing anti-Hui sentiments along the Han and the increasing willingness of the local Qing officials to support it.

The Baoshan Massacre

Yongchang 永昌 is the historical name for the city of Baoshan 保山 and is therefore referred to in Chinese as the Yongchang Hui Massacre. Jing and Atwill refer to Yongchang as Baoshan.

Interethnic teasing, profanity and violent brawls were the order of the day in Baoshan for many years. The Han insulted the Hui by comparing them to pigs, the Hui insulted the Han by laughing and jeering at the pantheistic idols the Han worshipped. By the Summer of 1845, these heated exchanges between the Han and Hui grew to be more frequent and more violent, and they slowly devolved into small scale wars involving thousands of combatants.

Present day Baoshan, a holiday destination.

The reason for this increase in violence was the growing influence and activity of the Niocongs and the Xiangba Hui 香把會. The initiation ritual involved some incense and the swearing of allegiance to one of the Chinese folk gods. These brotherhoods were popular amongst young men of the Han immigrants. They somewhat resembled other societies in other provinces, such as the famous triads. They started out as a means to protect their cattle, but soon grew to be involved in honour and revenge killings. While they were not exclusively anti-Hui, the Hui did grow to be their primary antagonists. The growth of the brotherhood soon became a problem as they wielded their numbers to tyrannise the region. They settled disputes instead of the local law. It is not known to what degree the local officials supported these developments, but even if they were opposed, they lacked the resources to do anything about them. It is clear, however, that by 1845, the brotherhoods had completely intimidated the local authorities and had in effect taken over the area.

The Hui were obviously not part of these brotherhoods. Yet, they also had a hand in the mounting unrest. The fighting in these parts mainly occurred between the new Hui arrivals who migrated from Northwestern China in large numbers from the 1840s onwards. It was mainly these Hui newcomers and the Han newcomers who fought the most.

In April 1845, outside the walls of the city, the Banqiao Brotherhood (Banqiao Difang Xiangbahui 板橋地方香把會) began to sing vulgar and inciting song about the Hui. Ma Da 马大 and a few other Hui then engaged the Banqiao men, after which Ma Da was badly beaten. As a response, Ma Da and 30 others began to practise martial arts at a mosque in a nearby village in order to defend themselves and exact revenge. The county magistrate (Zhixian 知县) forbade such teachings and ordered to arrest these Hui. All but one escaped. The head of the Banqiao Brotherhood, Wan Lingui, was dissatisfied with the ineffective handling of the magistrate and made it a brotherhood matter. He took a few of his men and vandalised the local mosque. The magistrate again failed to arrest the perpetrators, so the Hui could do naught but conclude that the government was applying double standards in dealing with the Han and the Hui. Because of the devastation of the mosque and the bias of the local government, the Hui in Baoshan began to form their own self-defence force.

A view of the Grand Mosque of Shadian, Yunnan (built in 1684)

In May, Ma Da led a band of a thousand Hui, mainly from Northwest China, outside the city of Baoshan which he used to fight the Brotherhoods. He decided to have a showdown with Wan Guilin and his Brotherhood. At this point, the prefectural magistrate (Zhifu 知府) deployed troops to stop the fighting. Ma Da’s forces were repelled and retreated with a dozen losses.

From July to August, government troops and the brotherhood men joined together to eliminate the Hui forces. The combination of the government troops and the brotherhood was too powerful for Ma Da’s band to handle. During this period, the Hui inside Baoshan were careful to dissociate themselves with the militant band of Ma Da. The government subsequently began to distinguish between the local Hui of Yunnan and the outsider Hui (wai hui 外回). The local Hui forgot about the initial grievances and cooperated fully with the government in their efforts to persuade the outsider Hui to return to Northwest China and to maintain peace and stability.

At the end of August, according to Jing, or on the 30th of September, according to Atwill, Ma Da launched an attack on the Qing and brotherhood forces at Bingma 丙麻. The Brotherhood lost 200 men, Ma Da lost 270, the government lost an officer to capture and a hundred something men in this fight (Jing 34; Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 74-75). Ma Da’s forces never really recovered after this battle and were since then constantly chased by the government forces.

Back then, dangerous rumours were spread in Baoshan. Concerns arose over secret supporters of Ma Da’s roaming warband of militant Hui and that there were Hui collaborators within the walls of Baoshan. The people became convinced that local imam Mu Ruhe was working together with Ma Da in order to massacre the entire Han population of the city by opening the gates and launching an assault from the outside and inside simultaneously. The local brotherhoods and the city’s officials gathered and devised a plan to stop this alleged plan from hatching.

On the 2nd of October, the brotherhoods of surrounding villages organised into militias and marched into the city under the pretence of defending it against the impending Hui attack. However, instead of defending the city, they plunged it into chaos. The following seven days became seven days of carnage. The Muslim Yunnanese who had cooperated with the government in their efforts to calm Ma Da were murdered just like the rest of the Hui, not one Hui was spared. Official government reports initially claimed only a few had been killed in their efforts to stop the coming attack on Baoshan. A later report claimed that, in fact, the local brotherhoods were responsible for whatever damages occurred. In fact, 8000 innocents were slaughtered like stray dogs in the street and the local government was responsible.

So, the sole reason that the militias were let into the city which led to the subsequent massacre was the idea that the Hui were launching an attack, but was there any evidence for such an attack? The answer is no. There was no evidence to substantiate the idea that the Hui inside the city were ever in contact with the bands outside the city. Aside from that, Ma Da was thirty miles away from the city being chased by Imperial troops. His forces were loosely organised, few and badly armed. If he were to assault Baoshan, the present forces would have been more than enough to defeat Ma Da easily. Furthermore, the earlier captured officer reported that the Hui warband had no intention of assaulting the city, or even engaging government forces, for that matter. All evidence points to the fact that the massacre was carried out against an unwitting, innocent population who had nothing to do and wanted nothing to do with any attack against the city.

Once more, the Muslim Yunnanese remained faithful to the Imperial government and sent four people to Beijing to petition for a proper investigation on the Baoshan Massacre and compensation for the losses incurred during the massacre. The Daoguang Emperor responded by commanding Lin Zexu (the man who destroyed British opium which led to the First Opium War) to investigate the matter. The Emperor told him “it would not be enough to simply report that the case has already been dealt with, or dawdle and simply try to avoid responsibility” (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 77).

Lin Zexu (1785-1851)
By Lamqua (active 1830-60) or Tinqua (active 1840-70)

Lin Zexu’s investigation was the first investigation that concluded a massacre took place. He claimed the death count was around 4000. What he does not mention is that the local officials had, in fact, signed documents that gave the militia permission to go ahead and slaughter any Hui they could find (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 78). Instead, he claims “the events happened so quickly the military and civil officials in the city were unable to prevent them” (78). Here, he has failed to point out the complicit role the local government played in the massacre which makes his report flawed. What was even more flawed was his resolution of the problem.

Having concluded that the Hui were wronged, he rounded up nine leading figures of the Xiangba brotherhoods in 1847. These lawless bands had been left unchecked for far too long and had grown arrogant. The brotherhoods were obviously unhappy about this decision and expressed their contempt for the Qing government by organising a second massacre of the Hui in Baoshan. They once again led their militias into the city to kill what remained. They set fire to the district magistrate’s yamen (administrative office and residence of the local bureaucrat) in which more than a hundred Muslim Yunnanese had taken refuge.

Upon receiving this new, Lin Zexu personally rushed down to Baoshan riding at the head of an army ten thousand strong. Upon hearing of Lin Zexu’s impending arrival the cowardly murderers’ courage and resolve melted away like snow in the desert. They handed their leaders over to the authorities. As Lin Zexu arrived in the city, 329 prisoners awaited trial. The 9 leaders of the Xiangba brotherhoods were immediately executed, 137 others were sentenced to flogging and life transportation.

The Muslim Yunnanese now had to be recompensated for their grievances. The Han in Baoshan had seized the land and properties of the many slaughtered Muslim Yunnanese. The relatives of the slain were claiming a lot of this lost property. Lin Zexu doubted that these Hui were genuinely the relatives of those killed. Lin Zexu’s scepticism caused him to decide not to return the land to the Hui. Instead, he gave the Baoshan Hui some land one hundred miles to the West along the Nu (Salween) River. Lin claimed that this area was fertile with fruit trees and ripening grain and “a place free from sorrow.” This was far from the truth, however, as this area was a malarial zone far removed from any contact with the Han Chinese. The Hui were astounded by the decision to make them suffer more than they already had. From their view, not only would the Han be able to keep the lands and properties they had seized, the Hui would also be unable to maintain their economic well-being in this new area, since Baoshan was positioned on a lucrative trade route. The area which Lin Zexu claimed was fertile was in fact much less fertile than the land of the Baoshan valley. So, what Lin Zexu essentially managed was to banish the Hui from Baoshan to the benefit of the Han.

Muslim Yunnanese in Beijing, post 1949

Genocidal Warbands

The Qing was preoccupied with the raging Taiping Rebellion elsewhere in China. In Yunnan ethnic tensions were strung high. The ineffective and biased local government had done nothing to recompense the losses of the Hui and had done nothing to solve the ethnic crisis in Yunnan.

In 1850, in the prosperous Talang mine, a Han man gambled and lost a significant sum of money to a Hui man. However, the dishonest Han man had no intention of paying his debt and concocted a most heinous plan to kill the Hui in question. He was worried, however, that there would be some kind of revenge from the Hui. So, he looked for allies in Xizhuang, a village nearby. There he promised those who would come with him to the Talang mine a lot of wealth and an opportunity to drive out the Muslims. The people of Xizhuang and the local gentry agreed to mobilise 500 men to assault the Talang mine. Upon hearing of the attack, the miners of the Talang mine, Han and Hui alike, pledged to defend each other and the mine in the impending attack.

On the 14th of October 1850, the band from Xizhuang murdered a prominent Muslim. The Han miners realised they weren’t the target of this group from Xizhuang and subsequently broke the pledge they had made with the Hui. They turned their backs on the Hui as they were being slaughtered by the savage Xizhuang marauders. The Xizhuang proceeded to loot the mine and terrorise the locals in the fashion of true tyrants. The government responded by doing little more than nothing, they sent a grand total of ten soldiers to handle the matter. Needless to say, order was not restored and the Xizhuang marauders continued to wreak havoc upon the area for years to come.

Four years later in 1854, the Xizhuang group that had tyrannised the Talang mine was ready to move on to their next target; Shiyang mine. When the group arrived, the Han militia assigned to protect the mine turned on the Hui they were supposed to protect. Together with the Xizhuang marauders they murdered several hundred Muslims and burned their houses and the local mosque.

This is when Ma Rulong 馬如龍 (1832-1891) made his first appearance. Ma Rulong was from Lin’an (like the Xizhuang group), his brother had been murdered during the Han assault of the Shiyang mine. He organised a party of Lin’an Hui to go and clear the mine of the Xiazhuang marauders. They entered the mines, but could not work in the mine and defend it from the marauders simultaneously. Instead of letting the marauders have the mine, Ma Rulong and his men decided to flood the mine and block the entrances. They collected anything of value and returned to Lin’an.

The Xizhuang marauders had grown to be about a thousand strong. They found the mines abandoned and with no one there to extort, they became angry. These marauders decided to unleash their fury upon Hui villages in the area. For two years they slaughtered any Hui they encountered, they looted and burned six villages in succession.


We only kill the Huizi, this has nothing to do with the Han and the Yi [non-Han]! If you can kill a Hui and produce proof, you will be rewarded handsomely!

the chronicles of the talang and nan’an mine conflicts
as quoted in
Jing Dexin, Du Wenxiu Qiyi (Kunming: Yunnan minzu chubanshe, 1991): 53

In May 1855, the murderous Xizhuang marauders launched an attack on the Malong mine, which was defended by a mixture of ethnicities: Non-Han, Hui and Han. When the marauders attacked, they exclaimed they did not want to hurt any of the Han and the Non-Han. Their sole purpose for their attack on the Malong mine was to exterminate the Hui. Indeed, they even offered rewards to anyone who managed to kill a Hui and provide proof. The attack on Malong mine turned into a bloodbath, at the end, 80 Muslim Yunnanese were brutally murdered either for money or for hatred.

The death and devastation was allowed to proliferate. The entire summer of 1855 was marked by the destruction and pillaging of 13 Muslim Yunnanese villages near Laotian, its inhabitants massacred indiscriminately. In this period, these Xizhuang marauders burned down as many as eleven mosques and murdered thousands of innocents. In November, the Xizhuang murderers continued into Zhennan Department. Eight villages were ravaged, eight mosques razed, one thousand Hui lay dead. In February, they continued on to Chuxiong, were several thousand Hui were massacred. Atwill concludes that by conservative estimates, 8000 innocents were slain by the Xizhuang marauders simply for being Muslim Yunnanese (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 89).

The Kunming Massacre

In 1856, reports of the Chuxiong massacres appeared in Kunming and a rumour started to spread that the Xizhuang murderers were on their way to Anning, only a few miles from Kunming, to finish off the Chuxiong Hui who had escaped the massacre. During this time, while the governor-general Hengchun was away, the Manchu Xunfu 巡抚 (provincial governor) Xuhingga ᡧᡠᡥᡳᠩᡤᠠ (Chi. Shuxinga 舒興阿) was the ranking official in Kunming. Xuhingga had served in the Northwest of the Empire and, while defending a Muslim town against insurgents, cowardly fled away. The townsfolk he was supposed to protect mobbed him, stripped him naked and nearly lynched him. Xuhingga had developed a deep contempt for Muslims. Additionally, several other high ranking officials present in Kunming at the time bore deep prejudice and hatred against Muslims. The provincial judge, Qingsheng, for example, claimed the Hui were evil and likened them to a disease. He was even rumoured to resort to extreme torture when dealing with Muslim Yunnanese. Naturally, when the Xizhuang were marching for Yunnan, they saw it as an opportunity to rid Yunnan of the Hui and Islam once and for all (Fu 113; Atwill, Blinkered Visions 1086).

The Muslims were massacred without pity… The old and the young for whom escape was impossible did not find mercy before the butchers.

An Eyewitness speaking to Émile Rocher

Official notices were posted in every prefecture, department and district in Yunnan calling for the extermination of the Hui. Qingsheng authorised the Han militias to “slay all without being held accountable” (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 91). May 19 to May 22 will forever be stained as those days that the goodness of humanity was found wanting, when malice was allowed to fester and spread.

The Kunming Massacre had commenced.

For three days the Hui people of Kunming were subject to the most wretched wrongs known to mankind; women were raped and ravished – men murdered and massacred. Communities were obliterated, mosques utterly burnt to cinders. The only reason the massacres ended when they did was because Qingsheng’s mother demanded her son to stop the slaughter of innocent people. By conservative estimates, “Han townspeople, local militia and Qing officials methodically slaughtered between 4 and 7 thousand Yunnan Hui” (Atwill, Blinkered Visions 1079). He Shiqing, an elderly Hui from the area recalls from stories that those Hui who did survive, survived because they were hidden away by Han who wished to protect them (Jing 63).

The barbarism did not end there. Over the next few months, the notices sparked province wide pogroms against the Muslim Yunnanese in which many settler Han participated gleefully to express their depraved hatred of the Muslims. In the towns and cities of Chengjiang, Zhaotong, Lin’an, Qujing and especially in Tengyue, Wuding, Heqing, Jianchuan and Lijiang numerous Muslim Yunnanese were put to the sword or worse. In these places, some local officials attempted to stop the violence, but they were rebutted by those murderers saying that “pacifying the Hui was not heaven’s intent” (Atwill, The Chinese Sultanate 91). Other officials joined in the violence and betrayed their allegiance to justice and any semblance of goodness in their hearts.

Xuhingga, the cowardly man, reported none of the horrors that occurred in Yunnan to the Emperor. Instead, he wrote that the Hui were conspiring against the Empire and that he was simply taking “preventative measures.” He claimed thirty Hui were making nitrate devices to start fires in Kunming. Deceitfully, he claimed that only seventy Hui had been killed in his actions to maintain the peace. In later memorials to the Emperor, he did claim that more was happening than just a small incident. He continued to lie by saying that the Hui were fierce and dangerous, killing innocents and looting villages. Finally, he blamed the widespread violence in the province entirely on the Hui.

“Slay all without being held accountable!” Qingsheng’s command to the Han militia, endorsing the murder and rape of thousand of innocents.


Islam is not a religion of lamb, ripe for the slaughter. It is a religion which teaches to protect yourself and your community if you are oppressed, but should be done so through peaceful or diplomatic means before resorting to violence (Shah 344). Evidently, the Hui tried to be peaceful. As we can see, every time the Han militias, secret societies or bandits, with or without government support, killed Muslims and destroyed mosques, the Muslim Yunnanese would invariably place their trust in the Imperial system and seek justice via peaceful and lawful means. Indeed, Yunnanese Muslims travelled the entire breadth of the Qing Empire to visit Beijing to appeal to the Qing Emperor for a peaceful solution to these hostilities (Atwill, Blinkered Visions 1087). Nevertheless, the trust was apparently misplaced. Not only had the Qing done nothing to change the situation, in Kunming they had an active hand in fanning on the hate and resentment which led to widespread death and despair during which once again the Muslim Yunnanese got the worst of it.

To be continued.


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Published by Afakv

Keeping the memories of those who went before us.

2 thoughts on “Islam in China: the Sultanate of Yunnan (1/2)

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