Guangzhou: Islam in Tang China

Guangzhou, a city of 15 million souls, a metropolis in every sense of the word with a long and winding history is situated on the Southern Chinese coast, making it the primary harbour into China for many centuries and a crucial hub in the maritime Silk Road. When we think of Guangzhou, we think of food and dim sum, of Cantonese, of commerce and perhaps of the 13 factories and the Opium Wars. But there is a hidden history of Guangzhou that is easily overlooked. Nowadays this history is represented by a small community of Muslims numbering 120,000 in 2016 (Su, 7). It is perhaps easy to lose sight of 120,000 people in a city of millions, yet the impact the Muslim community has made in Guangzhou is undeniable.

Afakv - Location of Guangzhou in the Tang Dynasty.
Click to enlarge.

Those having hailed a didi taxi in Guangzhou around Xiaobei have no doubt noticed the many halal restaurants plastered with bold Arabic signs on their shopfronts. The countless stores selling modest clothing in Arabic style. Those who have gone out late at night, peckish after working overtime, have no doubt noticed those Northwestern Muslim street vendors on Zhongshan Road selling their cumin-infused roast lamb on skewers. Even those going to Guangzhou as tourists must have visited the oldest mosque in China – the Huaishengsi, which looks more like a regular Chinese temple. When observed closely, one notices it is not Chinese that is written on some plaques overhanging the doorways, but Arabic calligraphy. If not, then the sturdy minaret, erected in massive stone, a lighthouse to guide the way for believers, would signal to the visitor that this was no ordinary Chinese temple.

One is left to wonder, how come the oldest Mosque in China is located in Guangzhou? What hidden history has conventional history neglected to teach us?

When Muslims settled in China

In the Western calendar, the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) began to receive revelation in the year 610 C.E. The Tang Dynasty was established in 618 C.E. During this time, while no formal embassies had been sent yet from the Prophet’s (ﷺ) side, Arab Muslim traders would soon frequent the city of Guangzhou alongside Persian or Indian merchants heading to China (Dillon, 12). Indeed, it was the Persians who dominated the maritime silk route in this era. These merchants would often settle in the Tang Dynasty’s coastal cities, mainly Guangzhou, as well as the capital Chang’an. As such, Li argues it wasn’t as much of a case of the message of Islam reaching China through proselytising or by conversion as much as it was Muslims arriving in China and bringing Islam with them, thereby bringing all the necessities to lead an Islamic life (Li, 63-64). Indeed, even in Arabic descriptions of China at the time, there is nothing “that would hint at any concern with proselytising the Chinese” (Chaffee, 70). The presence of Islam in China therefore is a result of the need for the Muslim diaspora to pray in a masjid or to have access to halal raised and butchered meat.

According to legend, Islam first reached China when Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (رضي الله عنه) came to China as early as 627 C.E., merely 5 years after Hijra. However, there are no Tang Dynasty or any Arabic sources that corroborate this claim. As such, Chaffee labels the presence of Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas in China as “highly unlikely” (Chaffee, 46). The generally accepted date for when Islam first made its way to China is in 651 C.E. in the time of the Rashidun Caliphate. This is when the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman (رضي الله عنه) sent his first embassy to the Tang Emperor. This marked the beginning of Islamic diplomatic activity in China as well as the first time the message of Islam was recorded to have been spread to China. During the audience with the Emperor, the emissaries were expected to prostrate themselves before the Emperor, as was customary. Just as Ja’far ibn Abi Talib (رضي الله عنه) explained respectfully to the Abyssinian Negus why Muslims should not bow to anyone other than Allah, so do the Tang records show that the Muslim emissaries explained respectfully to the Emperor that Muslims bow only to Allah and no one is worthy of worship beside Him (Li, 64). In this way, the tawhid, the oneness of Allah, that He is the only one worthy of worship was made known to the sovereign, courtiers and ministers of Tang China.

The Chinese called the Islamic Caliphate Dashi. The term Dashi probably comes from the word Tajik. Yet, Dashi definitely refers to the Caliphate, as the Chinese specify that the capital of Dashi at that time was Medina. From 651 to 798, Chinese records speak of a total of 39 missions sent from the Dashi rulers (Li, 64). I use Dashi here because 651 to 798 spans across the Rashidun Caliphate, the Umayyad Caliphate and some decades into the Abbasid Caliphate.

Most of the ships from “Dashi” would come to China from the port of Sohar on the Arabian Peninsula or Siraf, Basra and al-Ubulla on the Northside of the Persian Gulf (Ma Jianchun, 36). It would take them 6 months to reach Guangzhou via Kollam Malay in South-West India, the Nicobar Islands, Kalah Bar (i.e. Kedah) , Tiyumah, Sanf and Sanf Fulau. One such voyage was recorded by the traveller Sulaiman al-Tajir (a.k.a. Suleyman the Merchant), who departed from Siraf and ultimately landed in Guangzhou. The journey from Guangzhou to Baghdad was likewise also documented well by Jia Dan. Here, he describes the itinerary trough Sumatra and Ceylon and then on to Basra and finally Baghdad (Chaffee, 53). Israeli writes it is likely that Sulaiman didn’t make the journey himself and that the work Akhbar a-Sin wal-Hind was a summary of various travellers’ eyewitness accounts or hearsay (Israeli, 7). Nevertheless, it was a book full of practical advice and rich descriptions of the lands visited, no doubt invaluable to merchants headed to China. In this book, the city of Khanfu (taken from Guangfu, an old name for Guangzhou) receives the most attention.

1. There is some dispute about the location of Kanduranga. Scholars have suggested the Côn Sơn Island off the Southern Coast of Vietnam. 2. Sanf Fulaw is also an Island off the coast of Vietnam. 3. Basra and Ubullah share a marker due to their vicinity.

By the reign of Empress Wuzetian (690-692), the coastal cities of Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Yangzhou numbered tens of thousands of Muslim inhabitants, in addition to Muslim merchants living in the historical capital Luoyang and the capital Chang’an (Li, 65). As is evident, coastal cities weren’t the only cities in China inhabited by Muslims. Chang’an and Luoyang are cities located in the North of China, far away from the coast. The way Muslims arrived in Chang’an was likely not through the maritime Silk Road from China’s coastal cities, but rather they would have crossed into China by land (Han, 61). In Chang’an, merchants from the Islamic world, Persians, Central Asians and Arabs would establish business and settle. Yet, not all who settled in the splendid city of Chang’an were traders, a great number of them were military personnel, sent to China by order of the Abbasid Caliph. These Muslims would settle, marry locally and established one of the earliest footholds of Islam in Northern China.

Military Contact between the Tang and Abbasids

In spite of the relatively peaceful trade relations between the Arab Empire (to the Tang, this was a continuation of its trade relations with the Sassanid Persians) not all contact was peaceful. This story takes place half a world away from Guangzhou and the splendid Pearl River. Indeed, as traders came and went in the pleasant South, another contact point between the Chinese and the Arabs emerged in Central Asia.

In the time of the Umayyads, the Arab conquest of Central Asia was well on its way. Indeed, the Arab armies had reached Herat by 661. With great speed, the Caliphate took the plains of Afghanistan. By the eighth century, everything from the Northwest India to the Caucasus Mountains was under Arab control (Li, 65). In 713, Emir Qutayba marched on Samarkand. The various kingdoms of Central Asia panicked as they saw an unstoppable tidal wave approaching. In their desperation, they called for aid from the Tang Empire.

Many Arabs chose to settle in Tukharia (modern day Afghanistan) rather than the Iranian plateau. It was here that they waged war against the Sogdians and managed to subjugate them. The Sogdians converted to Islam in their defeat. Part of the Abbasid power base originated from Khorasan and the newly acquired Central Asian domains, for Abu Muslim operated from Transoxiana in Central Asia. This power base factored in how the Abbasids managed to seize power from the Umayyads (Liu, 68). Meanwhile, Tang China maintained control of the Hexi corridor and its influence extended over the Sogdians and various other kingdoms in Central Asia, the Islamic world now brushed shoulders with the Chinese world.

According to Tang records, the Tang Empire’s military made contact five times with the armies of the Caliphate (Li, 65). Of these five encounters, four were hostile (Ding, 14). Two of these battles were of large scale. The first is the renowned battle of Talas. A Tang general of Korean descent, Gao Xianzhi (a.k.a. Go Seonji 고선지/高仙芝), betrayed the ruler of Tashkent, the ruler of Tashkent fled to his neighbours, where the treachery of the Tang was made apparent to all.

In response, the Central Asian states allied with the Muslims against the Tang army. The battle occurred at Talas, near the border of present day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Tang Empire lost this battle. Gao Xianzhi lost his life. While it seemed to have had little diplomatic effect between the Tang Empire and the Abbasids, the captured Central Asian and Chinese soldiers present in the Tang army proved to be a great boon to the Abbasid Empire, for they brought technology like paper making to the Islamic world (Liu, 68).

Moreover, the victory of the Arabs ensured that the influence of the Tang Dynasty over Central Asia never again reached former heights (Li, 65). One of these Chinese prisoners of war, Du Huan 杜環, landed in Guangzhou after 12 years of living and travelling in the lands of the Caliphate. He wrote a book called Jingxingji 經行記. It was the most accurate description of the Islamic world available in Chinese during the Tang Dynasty, at the same time, it was the first book in Chinese that described the religion of Islam. Sadly, most of the book is lost.

The second important battle was the Battle of the Lu River Crossing 渡泸之役. The Tibetan Empire was long at odds with the Tang. Through alliances, the Tibetan Empire managed to enlist the aid of the Arab army against the Tang. The Tang Empire was supported by the Nanzhao kingdom of modern day Southwest China. This battle saw the defeat of the Tibeto-Arabic allied forces. The captured soldiers were taken into the Tang and settled in Sichuan and Yunnan. (Yunnan to this day remains a centre of Islam in China, a thousand years later it even separated from the Chinese Empire to become an independent sultanate.)

As can be seen, it is not the active proselytising of Muslim missionaries, or the sword, that spread Islam to the Tang Empire. Once more, it is the fact that Muslims settled in the Tang that facilitated the spread of Islam. The Battle of the Lu River Crossing was the final conflict between the Caliphate and the Empire.

Military Cooperation

As mentioned previously, not all military contact between the Tang Empire and the Abbasids was hostile. Indeed, in 757, the Tang Empire called for aid from Abbasids. The Abbasids, Ferghana and the Anxi Protectorate sent armies towards the Chinese heartland. The Abbasids helped in quelling the An Lushan Rebellion, a tumultuous event in Tang history that severely weakened the Tang Empire. The rebellion was successfully quashed, which made the Tang Empire grateful for Abbasid help (Ding, 15). Of the soldiers that were sent to aid the Tang Dynasty, a number of them desired to stay in the Tang Empire. These were the soldiers that ultimately decided to stay in Chang’an (Han, 62).

Islam in the City of Five Sheep

Guangzhou served as an important destination for the Silk Road trade. The Tang government established a commission for trading with foreign ships, an honour only reserved for Guangzhou and Jiaozhou. It is no surprise that many foreign merchants would settle in such a port. Consequently, Islam would come to Guangzhou as well. To get a glimpse of Guangzhou’s Arab population, the historian al-Mas’udi writes: “there were buildings [with occupants] from Basra, Siraf, Oman…” (Chaffee, 63).

According to legend, Guangzhou’s Guangta Mosque 光塔寺 (translated, Mosque of the Light Tower), a.k.a. Huaishengsi 懷聖寺 (translated, Mosque of the Remembrance of the Prophet ﷺ) was established in 627 C.E., 5 years after Hijra, by Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas (رضي الله عنه). As previously mentioned, researchers regard this as unlikely. Nevertheless, the mosque is indeed old. There are records that refer to the mosque from the Tang dynasty. Indeed, the earliest claims that the mosque was built in the Tang dynasty stems from 1206 (Zhao, 221). Yet, the current plan of the complex dates from 1350 and has since undergone a series of renovations and additions in 1695 and 1935 (Steinhardt, 335).

While the Guangta Mosque was certainly the oldest and most well known mosque in Guangzhou, it wasn’t the only one. Xianxian Mosque was built in 630 alongside the Muslim graveyard outside the Northern gate of Guangzhou. Over the ages, other mosques were established in Guangzhou.

Note that Guangta Mosque and Haopan Mosque are located within a very specific area of Guangzhou. In the Tang and Song dynasties, this district of Guangzhou was known as Fanfang, roughly translated this means “Foreign streets”. How daily life was organised is well described in Akhbar a-Sin wal-Hind:

“Guangzhou, called Khanfu, was the commercial port where the Arabs gathered. There was a Muslim clergyman and a mosque… The Chinese emperor had to appoint a Muslim judge to conduct the Hui [ergo, Muslim] according to the Hui customs because most of the Muslims resided in Guangdong. The judge spent a few days in praying together with the Hui and reading the scriptures. At the end of ritual prayer they would bless the Sultan of Hui. The judge who was honest and just dealt with everything in accordance with the rules in the Quran and the Hui convention.”

As quoted in Jian-Zhao Ma, “The Role of Islam in the Formation of the Culture and Economy of the Hui Community in Guangzhou,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 16, no. 1 (1996): pp. 31-39,, 31-32.

The Fanfang quarters were built around the Huaisheng mosque. The Muslim lifestyle necessitates access to a mosque for the Friday prayers and other religious gatherings. Yet, the mosque fulfilled more than strictly religious purposes, it would also serve a communal centre for other gatherings.

The Fanfang were established because the Tang Empire believed it was easier to manage foreigners if they were housed in their own sequestered neighbourhoods. In Guangzhou, the Fanfang were located on the Westside of the city, on a separate island, separated from the rest of the city by canals. Their physical isolation from the rest of the city resulted in social isolation as well. The Muslims in the Fanfang had their own world and communities, while the Chinese in the rest of the city had their own. The isolation of the Muslims ensured that contact with the local population as well as the spread of Islam to the locals was minimal. Su argues that the Tang Empire did not view Islam as a threat and therefore did not purge Islam like it did other foreign religions (Su, 4).

Arabs and Persians sacking Guangzhou

The Muslim army that entered China after helping the Tang Emperor suppress the An Lushan Rebellion chose one of three options. The first was to remain in China and settle in various cities, such as Chang’an. The second was to return to Central Asia the way they came along with the Uyghur Khanate’s troops who also helped to suppress the rebellion. The Hui Muslim historian Bai Shouyi argued that the circumstances forced some Arab soldiers to choose a third option; to return the Middle-East by sea. For that, the Muslim troops would travel to Guangzhou, where they planned to embark upon the voyage back home.

The Jiutangshu 舊唐書 records that Guangzhou was sacked by soldiers from Dashi and Bosi (Arabia and Persia) in September 758. The Xintangshu as well as the Zizhi Tongjian corroborate this as well. Some scholars say that it was the returning Muslim army that plundered Guangzhou out of convenience before embarking on their voyage. Aside from the fact that the Sassanid Persians no longer existed as a separate political entity, there are other serious problems with this assertion and therefore should not be taken at face value.

Firstly, if Abbasid troops really did sack Guangzhou, arguably the most important trading port of China, surely we could expect diplomatic repercussions between the Tang and the Abbasids. This was not the case, there were no diplomatic repercussions. In fact, in the following years from 759 to 762, many embassies were sent to the Tang Empire by the Abbasids, all received amiably. Clearly, diplomats came and went as normal. Surely, if there was such an act of hostility, such as sacking the largest port in the Empire, the diplomats would have been treated differently.

Secondly, how did the Abbasid army make their way from Northern China all the way to the Southern Chinese coast? It is a long and arduous journey, one which requires time, resources and logistics depending on the size of this army. The historical records offer us no explanation.

Thirdly, September is not the correct season for sea travel leaving Guangzhou in a South-Westerly direction. This is because the direction of the wind during September predominantly blows the other direction. Those leaving China for India, Persia or Arabia in those times would have to wait for Summer. Since there was a prevalence for North-East to South-Westerly winds in the Winter months and a prevalence for South Western to North-Easterly winds during the Summer months (Chaffee, 52). It is unlikely that they would have embarked upon their voyage in September. Moreover, it is unclear where they would have obtained so many ships as to be able to transport an army.

However, the city was indeed sacked. If not by the Abbasid army, then by someone else. The perpetrators were pirates and slaves commanded by Feng Ruofang (Li, 66). Feng was a well known pirate and slave master who made a habit out of commandeering Persian ships and making their crews his slaves. These Arab and Persian pirates likely had a base in Hainan, after raiding the warehouses, deposing the governor and burning the houses of the wealthy port, they retreated to their pirate lair via the sea (Schafer, 16). This would explain why there were enough vessels to transport the Arabs and Persian, it was because they brought their own. This would also explain why there were no diplomatic repercussions for the Abbasids, since this matter had nothing to do with the Abbasid army sent to China.

As a result of the sacking, Guangzhou’s commerce was severely damaged. For half a century, commerce would be redirected to Hanoi instead of Guangzhou, leaving Guangzhou to lick its wounds slowly.

The Massacre of the Muslims

While commerce between the Islamic world and the Chinese world thrived despite its remarkable distance of over 6000 miles, it should not be viewed through a rose-coloured lens. Unfortunately, as is often the case with diaspora communities, the Muslims faced some degree of discrimination from the Tang government. For example, early trade in Guangzhou was relatively unrestricted. Arab and Persian merchants likely mingled freely and acted as one community (Chaffee, 45). They were given freedom to buy property and marry locally without much restraint (Chaffee, 67). In Guangzhou, however, during the appointment of a particularly ethnically puritanical governor, the government henceforth restricted the freedoms previously available to the foreign merchants.

Moreover, due to the long-standing trade relations between the Iranian people and the Chinese, Iranians had gained the stereotype of being exorbitantly rich. As the Arabs and Persians lived among each other and were difficult to distinguish for the Chinese. From this conflation of identities, it can be assumed that the stereotype of “rich Persian” applied to both the Iranians and the Arabs. As we see in our current day, diaspora Chinese have the reputation of being rich as well. This is one of the reasons that Chinese diaspora (and by other East-Asians by association) are targetted for burglary and robbery. Well, just as rich Chinese sparks jealousy among the lower social classes, so did rich Arabs and Iranians spark jealousy among the Chinese of Guangzhou and Yangzhou.

The Yangzhou Massacre of 760

Not to be confused with Yangzhou Massacre of 1645.

Afakv - A map of important cities in Tang China.
Click to enlarge.

Yangzhou was another important destination for the maritime Silk Road trade during the Tang Dynasty. In fact, there are four ports in total that are mentioned frequently due to their importance: Jiaozhou, Guangzhou, Quanzhou and finally Yangzhou. Of these four, Guangzhou was most oft mentioned, however, Yangzhou was the northernmost port open to the Silk Road trade, and in addition to housing merchants from the Middle-East, Yangzhou would also be frequented by Korean and Japanese tradesmen. Yangzhou, as such, was no less of an important trade hub than Guangzhou. At least, that was the case until the Yangzhou massacre of 760.

In 760 a rebel force led by Liu Zhan operated in the vicinity of Yangzhou. A local garrison led by Tian Shengong, ordered to crush Liu Zhan, instead besieged the city of Yangzhou. As the city was taken, its merchant population was put to the sword. No doubt spurred on by their imagination of Persian riches. Yangzhou was a city of booming commerce and Silk Road trade. Perhaps not surprisingly, the merchant class had amassed considerable wealth which became an attractive target for plunder to Tian Shengong’s soldiery. Much else is not known about the massacre, but we do know that not all Muslims had found their death in this incident, for the records from the 9th century show that Muslims were still present in Yangzhou.

Huangchao’s Massacre of Guangzhou

In the late 9th century the Huang Chao Rebellion broke out. His military misfortune in the North of China forced him Southward. After marching through several cities, he reached Guangzhou. The governor of Guangzhou refused to give up the city, so Huang Chao besieged it. The city fell and was sacked by Huang Chao. Its effects on the Muslim community and the West-Asian trade was profound. Huang Chao murdered the Muslim, Christian and Zoroastrian inhabitants of the city. Abu Zayd’s account from 914 claimed that 120,000 foreign inhabitants lost their lives. This number is corroborated by the official Tang records, though Chaffee argues that there likely weren’t as many as 120,000 foreign inhabitants given the number of ships, 40 annually, travelling the route (Chaffee, 82).

Additionally, Huang Chao destroyed the mulberry trees around the city. Silk worms survive only on mulberry leaves, the killing of the trees resulted in the starvation of the silk worms and therefore the death of the silk trade from Guangzhou toward West-Asia.

Sulaiman also mentions that due to Huangchao’s massacre, the commerce in Guangzhou with the Western world was greatly affected. The famed historian Al-Masudi noted that after Huangchao’s rebellion, the days of fair dealings and justice were over in Guangzhou. Abu Zayd mentions that Arab merchants would be dealt with unfairly, goods would be confiscated, trust would be violated. It appears that the Huang Chao Rebellion had killed the West-Asian trade in more ways than one. The Arabs felt betrayed and wronged, Guangzhou was no longer a desirable trade destination.

When Muslims become Chinese

The massacre of perpetrated by the villain Huangchao was devastating to the Muslims in Guangzhou, yet, by no means did it end the presence of Islam. The Huaisheng mosque was still led by its imam, and the muezzin still sounded the call of prayer over the roofs of the Fanfang. Amidst the tumult of history, the Muslims of Guangzhou remained steadfast in Islam, and they held on to their identity as a people.

Yet, slowly, but surely, the Muslims that settled in Fanfang mellowed to the Chinese culture that surrounded them, without compromising their religion (Jones-Leaning and Pratt, 313). As the Muslims intermarried with the Chinese, and as political realities of the time demanded participation in the Imperial apparatus, so did the Muslims begin to immerse themselves. They learned Chinese, they studied Confucianism -and found much of it to be compatible with Islam- and even became officials in the government. One such Arab Muslim by the name of Li Yansheng passed the Imperial Exams in 848 and became a holder of the Jinshi degree. Despite the increased participation in the Chinese system, the Muslims still considered themselves to be foreigners.

As time went on, so too did the Tang fall. Other dynasties took the place of the Tang Emperor and the sun continued to dawn and set. Countless governors, emperors and conquerors came and went. By the time of the Mongol conquest of the Song Dynasty centuries later, Guangzhou had lost its status as the main port open to the Muslim world. Though, the Mongol conquest of Central Asia, Iran and parts of the Middle-East created the Pax Mongolica and reinvigorated contact between China and the Islamic world once more. The Yuan dynasty saw a rise of Muslim activity in China. Soldiers, administrators, scientists and merchants from the Middle-East once more made their way to China in large numbers, this time by land. There was no longer any doubt about Islam in China: it was here to stay for good.

During the Yuan, Muslims spread to all corners of the earth.


Islam in the Tang Dynasty was not a concerted effort by the any of the Caliphates to spread Islam to China. While the Abbasids had once set their eyes on the conquest of China, once they gained Central Asia, it appeared that desire had waned. Instead, the story of Islam in the Tang Empire appears to be inextricably linked to the fate of the Muslim mercantile diaspora who created a remarkable and intricate trade network spanning the breadth of the Old World. When these trader Muslims did settle in China, they were at times welcomed peacefully and other times were beset by the inequities of evil men.

Despite the hardships, Islam managed to take root in the soil and the heart of the people. Indeed, we see that Muslims settling in China, by virtue of the fact that our daily lives are interwoven with faith, required that certain religious necessities be available in China. The result of Muslim presence in China is the presence of Islam. This is visible in Guangzhou, where the historical relics of this first generations of Muslims in China stand as a testament to the resilience of the religion of Allah.

As time passed, these Muslims in China, while holding on to Islam, slowly adapted and acculturated to the Chinese culture around and within them. China became their home. No longer can we speak of these people as Muslims in China but rather we must call them Chinese Muslims. Clearly, these are not identities that mutually exclude each other. Islam is not just for Arabs. As the ancients have shown, one can be Chinese and Muslim. The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said: “Every Prophet used to be sent to his nation only, but I have been sent to all mankind.” Indeed, the Qur’an reveals to us (an interpretation of the Qur’an): “This is no less than a Message to (all) the Worlds. (The Noble Quran, 38:87)”


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Hakka-Punti Armed Conflicts: A Violent History

It was 1854, in the fourth year of Xianfeng, when the Red Turban Rebellion was beginning to sizzle out. Out of the ashes of this conflict rose another, the bloody Hakka-Punti Armed Conflicts (more commonly known as the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars). It is a war that has been erased from our collective memory. Only those who study the Qing Dynasty and those with a particular interest in the Hakka past seem to remember this tragic series of events. It appears the conflicts have become yet another victim of collective historical amnesia. Do not be fooled into thinking its obscurity is any indication of its importance. Indeed, it was far from insignificant: one million people lost their lives in these conflicts. To give you an idea of the scale, the American Civil War, sometimes dubbed the bloodiest civil war in history, claimed upwards of 700,000 (by liberal estimates) military deaths and 50,000 civilian deaths.

19th century China was marred by endless misery due to the unremitting onslaught of floods, famines, plagues, revolts, rebellions, imperialist incursions, invasions and colonisations which ultimately, among other reasons, led to the collapse of a dynasty and ended the Imperial institution of China. During the mid 19th century, many rebellions occurred contemporaneously in different areas of the Empire. The most famous Taiping Rebellion ravaged the South-Eastern and Central provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Anhui and Hubei. The Nian Rebellion ravished northern China in the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, Henan and Shandong. The Qian Uprising rampaged through the province of Guizhou. The Panthay Rebellion broke the Yunnan province away from the Qing. The Dungan Revolt raged on in the North-West of the Empire in Gansu, Shaanxi, Ningxia, Qinghai, Mongolia and Xinjiang. It is no wonder that the relatively small, but still catastrophic Red Turban Rebellion and the subsequent Hakka-Punti Armed Conflicts in the Guangdong province paled in comparison in terms of size, scope and impact.

Who are the Hakka and the Punti?


Hakka 客家 (Mandarin: Kejia) generally refers to a subethnicity of the Han whose ancestors were not native to the Southern provinces of China. The name literally means something along the lines of guest family or guest people.

Let us start off by enumerating a number of famous Hakka. They include Deng Xiaoping, Zhu De, Chen Yi, Ye Jianying, Hu Yaobang and Wang Zhen. Anyone familiar with modern Chinese history or politics will recognise these major players in the formation of the modern Chinese state. Aside from them, Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew, Taiwan’s recently deceased former president Lee Teng-Hui, the Phillipines former president Corazon Aquino, as well as China’s pater patriae, Sun Yat-sen and his wife Song Qingling, as well as her sister, Song Meiling (Soong Mayling), the eloquent Madame Chiang Kai-Shek were all of Hakka descent (Erbaugh 937-940; Christiansen 1-2). It certainly is an impressive pedigree, but who are they exactly?

Liu Ping and Luo Xianglin argue that the Hakkas have unique cultural characteristics that set them apart from other Chinese. These characteristics are enumerated as follows: entrepreneurship, hardiness and stubbornness. While it is true that the Hakka exhibit these characteristics, they are also to be found commonly among other Chinese, perhaps none more so than the Punti Cantonese. These assumptions underlie a greater issue in Hakka studies. It appears that the need for the Hakka to construct a subethnical identity, distinct from other Han ethnicities, is such that some details about their history and culture have been embellished. While the focus of this article is not to dissect or debunk the Hakka identity, it is expedient for the reader to keep in mind that the distinct Hakka identity was not the leading cause for the conflicts (as much will be made clear in the following sections). On the contrary, the conflicts have contributed to the formation of a stronger Hakka identity.

Hakka Genealogy

Hakka of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent era take great pride in their Chineseness, so much so that there is a slight degree of chauvinism emanating from their side, claiming to be more Chinese than other Chinese. In this definition of Hakka, we can see there is a clear ethnic/racial element to set the Hakka apart from the other Han Chinese.

More recently, several studies on the genetics of Cantonese people from Guangzhou and Hakka people from Meizhou (the purported Hakka heimat) have pointed out that the two populations are remarkably similar genetically. Huang concludes, for example, that the Hakka, Guangzhou and Chaoshan populations all exhibit significant Southern Chinese characteristics. With Hakka and Guangzhou populations sharing the most characteristics (Huang 31). Additionally, a study on mitochondrial DNA on the origins of Hakka suggests that the Meizhou Hakka are actually overwhelmingly genetically related to other Southern Han Chinese rather than the Northern Han Chinese (Wang et al. 129). Indeed, it would appear that the Hakka have not shied away from marrying locals, further confusing the distinction between guest and host.

While the Hakka are generally seen as part of the greater Han ethnicity, they do maintain a distinct language and culture different from the other Han Chinese of their host provinces. This is remarkable, some Hakka bloodlines have lived in their host provinces for as long as two millennia, yet, they are still called guests. In fact, their separate and unique language and culture combined with the low socio-economic and immigrant status othered them (Li G. 118). Their language has been frequently ridiculed in local gazetteers from various counties in Guangdong, reflecting the stigmatised Hakka identity (Li G. 118). Not surprisingly, the Hakka were subject to centuries of systemic discrimination from the Punti.

It is from this oppressive environment that the Hakka developed a strong basis of resistance through the emphasis on ethnic and ancestral pride that counteracts the stigmatised low-status identity of the Hakka. In their own perception, they went from lowly and uncultured labourer immigrants to legitimate successors and descendants of the proud Han people. Thereby claiming to be the true core of Chinese civilisation. Therefore, the classification of guest and native is more so a marker of ancestral origin, shared experience and culture rather than racial or ethnic differences based on phenotype or other biological characteristics.

Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, the identification with the ancient history of the Hakka from as far back as the Jin Dynasty, while interesting, are not desperately relevant to the discussion of their role in the Hakka-Punti conflicts. While a brief survey will be given on the migratory patterns of the Hakka, the precise nature of their ancestral origins before they moved into the Huichaojia area is beyond the scope of this article.

The Great Migrations of the Hakka

According to early 19th century writers such as Lin Daquan 林达泉, Hakka were people who emigrated South centuries ago in order to eke out a living due to war, famine or other calamities in the Central Plains of China around Luoyang and Hebei (Zhili during the Qing). They were therefore pure descendants of the Han people before the influx of various nomadic tribes from beyond the Great Wall. The Hakka intellectual and founding father of Hakka studies, Luo Xianglin (Lo Hsiang-lin) 罗香林 (1906-1978), while he did not pioneer the idea that the Hakka were a subethnicity of the Han, did first concisely elaborate on the five major migrations of the Hakka.

He Yin emphasises the first three migratory waves and specifies that the earliest phase of Southward migration from the Central Plains of China occured around the year 290 (War of the Eight Princes) to 310 (Disaster of Yongjia) during the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Luo explains that the Xiongnu, Diqiang and Donghu uprisings in areas previously inhabited by the Han people, especially during the War of the Eight Princes were a primary motivation for the first major wave of Southward emigration (Luo 40). In a similar vein, during the Disaster of Yongjia, the Xiongnu monarch Liu Yao sacked Luoyang, the capital of Jin China. The anarchy that ensued allowed for the Donghu, Xiongnu and Diqiang people to enter freely into Han settled areas. Many of the Han previously living in the Northern provinces of China proper were forced to migrate Southwards (Luo 41). According to Luo, the streams of migration split into three branches. The first of these went toward the direction of Jingzhou (modern day Hubei) to Hunan, finally ending up in the East of Guangxi. The second of the branches passed through Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Jiangsu, finally settling on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi. The final branch settled in Jiangsu and the North of Zhejiang and Hubei (Luo 41).

The First Hakka Migration Wave:The Chaos of the Five Barbarians(places and borders based on 1900 ce)This map depicts the first wave of Southerly migration of the Han people who later came to be known as the Hakka

The second migration wave occurred during the final years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) following Huang Chao’s Rebellion toward the end of the Five Dynasties from 875-960. Huang Chao’s army rampaged through many of the Tang Dynasty’s provinces, pillaging and massacring cities as far South as Guangfu (Guangzhou). He did manage to conquer the Tang capital and proclaim himself Emperor of Qi. This rebellion was wide in scope and caused great upheaval in China. Whereas during Jin Dynasty, people could flee South and find safety, during Huang Chao’s rampage even parts of the South were dangerous. Nevertheless, the South still had relative safety. So, the people moved South through Jiangxi and finally settled in South-West of Fujian and North-East of Guangdong, an area which was unaffected by the war. The Southward migration continued for some time during the tumultuous years of the fall of the Tang Dynasty and the following era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Once the country settled through Zhao Kuangyin’s re-unification of China as the First Song Dynasty Emperor, the migrations slowed.

The third migratory wave occurred during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), when the incursion of several Northern powers, the Liao Khitan, the Jin Jurchens, the Tangut from Xixia and the Mongols drove the people of the Song towards the South (He 1-2). As the Mongols gradually annexed more of China proper, they inevitably reached the boundaries of the provinces of Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong. This area was stubborn in its resistance against the Mongol invasion and became a hotly contested battlefield. The devastation of the area caused many Hakka to move further South, into the North-East of Guangdong (Luo 51). This wave began at the end of the Song, all the way throughout the century of Yuan Mongol rule and lasted until the middle of Ming Dynasty. It is perhaps of no surprise that in terms of absolute numbers, the third migration far outweighed the previous two major waves. (Luo 57). This is made apparent in Luo’s research, as it points out that pre-Yuan population censuses of Guangdong settlement speak of a minority of Hakka migrants. After the Yuan, the number of Hakka had grown so much that it overwhelmed the local government’s ability to tell guest and host apart (Luo 58).

The fourth took place during the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911). The main reasons for this migration wave can be explained by the population explosion of this period. The previously scarcely populated areas which the Jin Dynasty Han people settled were a thing of the past. The people were many and the lands were few. Fate would have it that the infamous genocidal Zhang Xianzhong (1606-1647) had engaged in massive extermination campaigns in Sichuan, nearly depopulating the entire province. The Qing Dynasty mandated Sichuan to be repopulated from the other provinces. The Hakka were one of the groups that came to fill the void.

What needs to be known about the fifth migration is that the overpopulated Huichaojia 惠潮嘉 area; a portmanteau that refers to historical Huizhou, Chaozhou and Jiayingzhou (present day Meizhou), gave incentive for the Hakka to migrate to the Pearl River Delta in the South of Guangdong during the Qing Dynasty (Wei 167-168). It ultimately led to the Hakka-Punti Armed Conflicts which set in motion the fifth great migration of the Hakkas and is the very topic of this current article. As such, I shan’t reveal anything about the effects and the aftermath of that terrible war.

Map of Hakka Homeland in the Early 19th Century. Hakka living area based on findings from Antony’s research in “Ethnic and Religious Violence in South China” Map based on the 1900 George Philip & Son map of China.
All Chinese names on this map, except for the colonial settlements Hongkong and Macao, are spelled according to the Hanyu Pinyin system. Cities that are sometimes known by their Cantonese spelling may therefore appear unfamiliar. E.g. Kaiping is Hoiping in Cantonese. The names are also 19th century names and may therefore appear unfamiliar to some readers. E.g. Jiaying is the historical name for present-day Meizhou.


On the other hand you have Punti. Punti is a romanisation of the Cantonese pronunciation of the word bendi 本地. It literally means local/original ground and translates to something like local or native. Punti is not a term useful for determining an ethnicity, because the people it refers to naturally shifts whenever one refers to a different area.

To outsiders, such as the Northern Chinese, the people of Guangdong have always seemed a breed apart. They have been characterised as belligerent, wild and uncultivated, typical prejudiced stereotypes associated with the Nanman 南蠻 (Southern Barbarians). The Cantonese, for obvious reasons, deny these accusations and instead claim to be the true descendants and successors of Chinese and Han culture. They argue, for example, that the pleasant tones and sounds of the Cantonese language are much closer to ancient Chinese than the Northern Chinese tongues are. To prove this, they argue that ancient poems from the Tang dynasty rhyme in Cantonese, but not in Mandarin. Indeed, there is much linguistic evidence to prove that Cantonese (as well as Hakka) is closer to ancient Chinese than Mandarin. In this way, they flip the idea that the Cantonese are the barbarians, instead, they say that it is the Northerners who are Beidi 北狄 (Northern Barbarians), who have been influenced too much by the various Northern nomadic incursions and the more recent Manchu invasion.

It is often seen that people who live on the frontier of a certain culture are constantly confronted with what is and isn’t part of their own culture. For this reason, those living on the frontier are acutely aware of their cultural identity, much more so than those living in the centre would be. After all, in the centre, everything around you is by default part of your own culture. The frontier forces them to draw clear boundaries and distinguish one culture from the other. Their culture is therefore in competition with other cultures. Since the culture is not ubiquitous, nor self-evident that it will propagate itself without the active support of its members, it becomes a priority for its members to preserve the culture. This is part of the reason why we see that diaspora and immigrant communities away from their “homeland” are often more conservative than those back home. For example, Afrikaans has preserved more old Dutch features than Dutch spoken in the Netherlands. (I’ll have to be careful here) Modern Scots is closer to Shakespeare’s English than Received Pronunciation down South. Finally, Cantonese, having been on the peripheries of the Chinese Empire for the longest time, being closely related to the Baiyue people and culture, have compensated for their remoteness by reinforcing their embrace of central Chinese culture.

Liu argues that Cantonese Punti chauvinism was actually one of the causes for the conflicts between the Hakka and the Punti. It is true that the Cantonese have often disparaged the Hakka for speaking a language that sounds like birds chirping (Liu 14). (Ironically, other Chinese say the same about Cantonese, watch this video for evidence). It was also not widely known that the Hakkas were migrants from the Central Plains of China, and therefore, the Cantonese usually characterised the Hakka as wild barbarians who were just short of being Chinese and therefore perhaps of being human, akin to the Miao 苗 and the Baiyue 百越 (12-3 Luo). Wei points out that Liu emphasises the cultural prejudices and differences as main causes for the conflict, but criticises this idea since it seems to subscribe fully to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, in which it is proposed that cultures clash simply because they’re different (Wei 167). While the prejudice and cultural differences certainly exacerbated the existing economic conflicts with the Hakka, they cannot be seen as leading causes. To assume as such would be to deny the possibility of peaceful coexistence between different cultures. It would also be ignoring the fact that Punti Cantonese and Hakka are living side by side peacefully now. The mutual prejudices haven’t disappeared, but the economic circumstances that pitted the groups against each other have.

As is evident, both the Hakka and the Punti Cantonese claim to be descendants of the true Chinese and to be the true successors of Huaxia 華夏 (literally: Beautiful Grandeur, it refers to the Chinese civilisation). Doing so, perhaps, for very similar reasons. Naturally, even though the Cantonese are referred to as locals, whether they are genetically more local than the Hakka is still a point of contention. Historically, it appears that much “native” Cantonese blood and culture actually also is from the North. The Cantonese culture is seen as a blend of the native Yue (Baiyue) culture with influx from Han culture from the North (Huang 30). The original Yue tribes who inhabited the area are not seen as the ancestors of the Cantonese Han. Therefore, the matter of who is guest and who is local is merely a point of who got there first.

Because they got there first, the local ties of the Cantonese Punti were much more robust and integrated than the Hakka. The Cantonese Punti people had many familial connections and placed much importance in their clans. These clans were large and had the means to organise into coherent units, fit for feuding against outside competition. Such clan-like thinking and organisation led to the proliferation of various powerful militia warbands drawn from these clans, they proved to be formidable both against Hakka forces and English invasion forces as was demonstrated at Sanyuanli in 1841.

In the Hakka-Punti conflict, Punti refers to the Cantonese people who lived in the areas of Ngyap, present-day Jiangmen City, before the arrival of the Hakka from North-Eastern Guangdong.


In the 17th century, in an effort to solidify Manchu control over Southern China by trying to prevent smuggling, piracy and insurgency, the Empire depopulated a 25 km deep strip of land adjacent to the Southern Chinese coast. Those people that were driven away did not come back to inhabit those lands in 1684 when the Qing court decided to repopulate the coastal areas (Heggheim 18). Instead, most of the people attracted to come live in this new frontier were Hakkas stricken by natural disasters or who were otherwise impoverished. In the Qing dynasty, the Hakka from the Huichaojia areas suffered from overpopulation and therefore lack of arable land (Li G. 117). It was a great motivating factor for emigrating away from North-Eastern Guangdong. This large scale migration led to friction building up between the Hakka and the Punti, largely due to disputes over economic resources in which cultural differences served as oil on fire.

Initially, the Hakka arrived as tenants who worked on the farmlands owned by the Punti. The Punti were generally tough on the new immigrants and viewed the Hakka as a lower class, slave or servant like. At times, the taxes levied from the Hakka farmers were outrageous (Zhao 184). Their treatment of the Hakka people was therefore of an exploitative nature. The Hakka, once they started immigrating into new areas previously inhabited by a majority Punti population, would multiply quickly and invite many relatives over from other areas. To the Punti, these Hakka were like locusts, swarming and taking over Punti town and territories in no time (Antony 541). These circumstances fostered no small degree of badwill between the Hakka and Punti.

During this period, the Hakka were economically, socially and politically disadvantaged. For example, Li Gongzhong points out that the Hakka, due to their immigrant status, were classified as vagabond population. This meant that they were not incorporated in the household registry. In practical terms, the Hakka lacked a legal status, something which was vital in Imperial China to obtain upward social mobility, because only legal status holders were allowed to participate in the Imperial exams. In order to be registered in the household registry, they were required to jump through several stringent hoops, one of which was at least 20 years of local residence. Many Hakka tried to circumvent this law by having ‘anchor babies’ who they tried to register as locals, but their attempts, both the legal and illegal ones, were often thwarted by the Punti. To illustrate the under-representation of Hakka people in the state apparatus, the Zengcheng County’s 增城縣 total of 376 villages, 71 (19%) were Hakka. The entire county had a total of 358 examinees for the Imperial exams, only 7 (2%) of whom were Hakka (Li G. 117). The Punti therefore had many more lower officials and bureaucrats working in the local governments. This resulted in an enhanced ability to seek legal aid and justice from the government because of a more robust network (Li G. 122). Something which the Hakka were unable to do due to their low social mobility.

As the Hakka lacked the local ties and kinship bonds that the Punti did have, they formed into multi-settlement/clan organisations. These organisations served to protect the Hakka and to gain more socio-economic advantages. The systemic oppression of the Hakka could only be counteracted if the Hakka stood up for themselves. Some of these Hakka organisations grew so strong that they simply refused to pay rent or taxes to their Punti landlords. Or, they would apply social or violent pressure on the Punti landlords to sell the lands to the Hakka permanently and at a reduced price. Naturally, the Punti were less than pleased. As conflicts escalated, so too did these organisations form their own militias and build their own strongholds in order to defend themselves and to protect their properties. The Punti in the area soon followed suit, resulting in a high degree of militarisation of the area.

The problems of poverty and overpopulation also resulted in a third problem: banditry. The mountainous areas of Huizhou were already known for its banditry, the impoverished Hakka who lived in these mountains to mine or to eke out a living in other manners were quickly associated with the local banditry. That is not to say the Hakka didn’t become bandits themselves. To the contrary, during times of famine the already impoverished Hakka would form into roving bands that raided and pillaged the plentiful Punti granaries and markets (Antony 543).

In summary, there is a long history of Hakka-Punti struggles within the Guangdong province. The area of Huizhou especially was long known for its inter-group violence already in the 17th century. As is clearly visible, the resentment that arose from either side was a result of the economic relationships between the two groups, which escalated into inter-ethnic violence.

Tiandihui Uprising of 1802

The Hakkas joined the Tiandihui 天地會 (Heaven and Earth Society) in great numbers. Tiandihui were secret societies with a heavy religious element infused through its structure. They would normally draw religious concepts from Daoism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religions. It is unsure when they started appearing, but the Tiandihui spread rapidly through Southern China during the Jiaqing era (1760-1820). The growth of the Tiandihui was directly linked to the growth of what Kim calls the “migrant community” (Kim 5). While Kim does not mention the word Hakka specifically, it seems clear that the majority of migrant population moving into Guangdong during this era were the Hakka. These new migrant Hakka came into contact with the marginalised Hakka who had settled in Guangdong earlier.

That the Tiandihui were so attractive to the largely economically and politically marginalised migrant communities of Hakka is not surprising due to the nature of the Tiandihui. These Tiandihui typically upheld justice and virtue as their primary slogans. In reality, however, justice to one, means injustice to the other. Nevertheless, the organisations consisted of a close-knit band of brothers who invariably had to undergo some kind of bonding ceremony, an example of which is where they would cut their fingers, mix the droplets of blood into wine and then drink it. This ritual would transform unrelated men with different surnames into blood brothers, perhaps in imitation of the immensely popular story of the three sworn brothers, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei (Murray 38). For young men, looking for a living in an environment largely unwelcoming to them, this was a blessing. The resulting hierarchy is reminiscent of a traditional family hierarchy, with patriarchs, brothers and uncles. As the Tiandihui grew in size and power over the course of the Qing Dynasty, the hierarchy grew to become more complex; to illustrate, additional ranks such as Grand Marshall were added, as is exemplified by the Tiandihui rebel Grand Marshall Lin Shuangwen 林爽文 (1756-1788).

Tiandihui Organisation

According to the Enping Gazetteer, in the province of Guangdong, the Tiandihui 天地會(a.k.a. Sanhehui 三合會- Triads) would propagate some kind of religious, sectarian text and employ the use of code language. The one spreading the teachings would be called ama 阿媽 (mother), the recruiter would be called jiufu 舅父 (maternal uncle), the literatus or administrator would be called the baizhishan 白紙扇 (white fan), the liaison officer would be called the caoxie 草鞋 (straw sandals), and last but not least, the leader of the fighting force would be called the honggun 紅棍 (red pole).

Each initiate entering into the fold had to undergo a ceremony which they refer to as chushi 出世 (birth). During ceremonies, the ama would wear a red ze 幘 (a Chinese style turban) and white robes, he would prepare a five-coloured flag with the characters biao 彪 (intrepidity), shou 壽 (longevity), he 和 (peace), he 合 (unity) and tong 同 (equality). The flag would be present in five locations, each of the flags would be raised separately according to requirements of the ceremony. A sanchongmen 三重門 threefold gate would be established, each gate made up by two men opposing one another and crossing their sabres to form the shape of the Chinese character ba 八. The initiates would enter, crawling along the ground, naked and with hair worn down and crawl underneath the crossed swords. They would call themselves zai 仔 (son). They would proceed to crouch down and prostrate themselves to the polar star, recite the 36 curses and let blood from their fingers to perform the bonding ritual. Upon this, they would receive the triangle talisman, inside of which would be written cantianhonghua 參天宏化 (reach into the sky and become great). The hair would be fastened with two strings and then coiled into a bun. Of the initiates, the leader, know as the tianpai 天牌 (heavenly card), would coil the bun straight on the forehead. The others, called the dipai 地牌 (earthly card), would coil the buns on the back of the head. The seniors, those who joined the brotherhood earlier were called renpai 人牌 (human card) and would coil their hair on the left ear. Juniors, called hepai 和牌 (peace card) would coil their hair on the right ear. They would then all put on a short jacket, a coloured sash and blue hoses, pointed xi 屣 (a type of sandal) and bared weapons. Following this, the members would ask each other about their backgrounds, names, origins and all other details, all to identify those who had now joined the fold (Liu 71).

Note the symbolism of naming each of the four groups heaven, earth, human and peace. The convergence of the three elements, heaven, earth, and human creates the result of peace – thus giving meaning to the meaning of a Sanhehui (society of three convergences) and tiandihui (heaven and earth society). Also crawling underneath the crossed swords have their symbolic meaning; if the initiates were ever to renege on their vows and oaths, the swords would fall and kill them (Murray 70).

In 1802, a large scale conflict between Hakka led Tiandihui and the Punti militias as well as government troops broke out. The government discovered that the Tiandihui were growing increasingly active in the Northern regions of Guangdong as well as the neighbouring provinces of Fujian. So, they had arrested hundreds of Tiandihui members who were planning to rob Punti villages. Punti organisations also had a hand in apprehending these hundreds of Hakka Tiandihui members.

Elsewhere, a Punti organisation called the Ox Head Society (Cantonese: ngautau wui 牛頭會), decided to aid the government by capturing a Hakka leader of a Tiandihui cell. More cells of the Tiandihui rose up, and began to exact revenge upon villages associated with the Ox Head Society. The fighting escalated, which prompted the government to call in the army, which was aided by the Punti militias in order to exterminate the Hakka Tiandihui rebels. Pockets of resistance continued to simmer until they were all extinguished a year or so later. The aftermath was devastating. Over 240 villages and markets, both Punti and Hakka, had been burnt, looted or razed (Kim 2). By the end of it all, Antony speculates that as many as tens of thousands of lives had been lost in this episode.

News soon reached other cells of the sizeable Tiandihui, of which most of the members were Hakka, and they chose not to go down without a fight. To the government, these Tiandihui were subversive and dangerous, so even being a member of a Tiandihui was a serious crime (Antony 559). So, a prominent leader from a Hakka family, Chen Lanjisi 陳爛屐四, decided to take his chances as an outlaw and moved into his mountain base of operations, from where he launched raids on Punti villages. Eventually, their operations were dissolved.

Red Turban Rebellion

This section draws heavily from Kim Jaeyoon’s research on the Red Turban Rebellion.

The province of Guangdong was in dire straits during the Late Qing Dynasty. As Kim calls it, the province was “chronically disturbed.” The large scale influx of drugs, courtesy of the British Empire, was troubling the overpopulated, impoverished and increasingly lawless Cantonese society (Kim 1). As mentioned before, the ranks of the Tiandihui were originally mainly drawn from the migrant and marginalised Hakka population. Yet, as time passed, the Tiandihui gradually entered Punti society as well. Gradually, the once significant Hakka composition, at least among the leadership, made way for more of the Punti. Luo Baoshan’s research points out that among the 28 major leaders of the Tiandihui in this era, only one was Hakka (Citation to be found in Kim 17).

The Tiandihui became organised crime syndicates which made drug trade, prostitution, human trafficking and piracy its main business (Kim 5). By 1804, Ye Mingchen 葉名琛, the renowned stubborn Governor-General of Guangdong and Guangxi, reported of Tiandihui connections with pirates. By 1836, the Tiandihui had spread all throughout the Pearl River Delta. A memorial substantiates the idea that the Tiandihui had involved themselves in opium smuggling.

Afakv - Viceroy of Liangguang, Ye Mingchen, He kept the British out of Guangzhou. The Viceroy of Six Nots: Not moving, not defending, not surrendering, not making peace, not dying and not fighting. 葉名琛. 體仁閣大學士兩廣總督. 六不總督. 不戰、不和、不守、不死、不降、不走.

In 1854, Tiandihui engaged in open insurrection against the Imperial government. This rebellion is known by many names, the most common one used in the west is the Red Turban Rebellion, but they called themselves Hongbing 洪兵 (great soldiers) and were sometimes known as Hongbing 紅兵(red soldiers). The Red Turbans wore red headbands, which they were named after (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 3). Their rebellion occurred contemporaneously with the more famous Hakka led Taiping Rebellion. The two rebellions could be seen as having a mutual enemy, the Manchu Imperial Regime. The Red Turban Rebellion were initially a series of mutually inspired smaller insurrections rather than a united insurrection led by a single leader or organisation from the onset. The rebellion aimed to restore the Ming Dynasty. But, because of the disorganised nature of the rebellion, the motives for each of the cells that joined the rebellion varied greatly. Some joined with grand political motives, others joined purely for economic reasons (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 6).

Divided though they were, these societies still wielded considerable manpower. In 1854, 50,000 of these outlaws captured Qingyuan, a city in Northern Guangdong, proclaiming to restore the Ming Dynasty. The capture of Qingyuan sparked the Tiandihui in Conghua to rise up as well. Some of the forces raised were actually also Taiping affiliated. Some leading figures in the Red Turban Rebellion where both members of the Tiandihui and involved with the Taiping. It should be clarified that we cannot speak of an alliance. The Christianity influenced leaders of the Taiping Rebellion regarded the Tiandihui as devil worshippers. Though, it cannot be denied that the two rebellions were closely involved with one another.

At the end of 1854, the leaders of the Tiandihui gathered in a temple in Foshan. The separate groups of the Tiandihui made a sacrifice to the flag of rebellion here. It signified an alliance between the previously scattered and disorganised Tiandihui. With their newfound unity, the Tiandihui laid siege to Guangfu (Guangzhou). The failure to coordinate their assault on the city gave Guangzhou valuable opportunities to organise a defence. Ye Mingchen was able to convince a British warship to deploy on the Pearl River, preventing the planned naval assault of the Red Turbans. Another assault was thwarted by Qing Bannermen and militia organised by the gentry. The assault that did reach Guangzhou could not find a foothold within the city and were subsequently beaten by the Qing Bannermen.

As little headway was made by the Tiandihui, the splintered clusters of rebellion began to spread out and head North into Hunan, where they joined the Taiping Rebellion under a new name: the Flower Standard. Other splinter groups travelled west into Guangxi and established a kingdom there called Dacheng (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 8). A third branch moved South along the waters and established a foothold on the Leizhou Peninsula (see map), where they became pirates (Guangdong Hongbing Qiyi 7).

This is when the White Terror began. The government troops (militia organised and funded by Cantonese gentry who wore white headbands and turbans) engaged in a province wide hunt for Red Turban rebels. 70,000 rebels in the area of Guangzhou alone received the cold embrace of death (Liu 77).

End of Part 1

Thus far we have briefly surveyed the Hakka migration history and touched lightly upon Hakka genetics and identity. Evidently, the Hakka and the Punti of this era were intertwined in heavy conflict. We zoomed in somewhat on the Tiandihui, the Tiandihui uprising and the subsequent Red Turban Rebellion, all, in a way, precursors to the Hakka-Punti War. In the next part we shall discuss this war in its minutiae, painting a picture and timeline of the war that — to my dismay — isn’t accessible on the internet and is difficult to come by in print.

The Hakka had a history of constant violence, being driven from their homes by force and facing numerous hardships in a kind of exile from their own homeland once they made their exodus. The threat to their livelihoods, identities and even existence forged a strong need to preserve and protect that what is theirs, forming the basis of a people suited for battle and efficient at wartime organisation and mobilisation. A simple truth can be extracted from their history: hardships strengthen a people. A sense of danger, a sense of unease, a constant looming threat keeps a people vigilant and ready to rise up for their rights.

“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”

Peter Marshall


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  13. Wei, Minshu. “Meizhou qiaoxiang xingrong kejia yanjiu zhong de ‘wenming chongtu lun’ yi du bei yiwang de zhangzheng: xianfeng tongzhi nianjian guandong tuke da xiedou yanjiu.” The Periodical of Hakka Research, no. 1 (2007): 165-8.
    魏明枢. “梅州侨乡形客家研究中的“文明冲突论”一读《被遗忘的战争—— 咸丰同治年间广东土客大械斗研究》.” 客家研究辑刊 , no. 1 (2007): 165-8.
  14. Zhao, Liren. “Zhixue qieji cushu: ping bei yiwang de zhanzheng: xianfeng xongzhi nianjian guandong tuke da xiedou yanjiu.” The Periodical of Hakka Research, no. 2 (2009): 183-190.
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The Conquest of Xinjiang

Xinjiang has over the past few years frequently reached the headlines as China is questioned over the treatment of its inhabitants and China’s legitimacy over the area. While this article shall not directly discuss those highly controversial and politicised topics, I do hope that my attempt to survey the history of Xinjiang will give the reader some insight into the area. This article will explore how the area that is now called Xinjiang came to be a part of the Manchu Qing Empire. I will do so by giving a brief survey of the Dzungar Khanate, which ruled over the Xinjiang area before the Manchus took over and continue by describing the process and aftermath of the Manchu Conquest.

The conflict between the Qing and the Dzungars began long before the actual conquest of the province and spanned the reign of three Manchu khans. Several conflicts, collectively known as the Dzungar-Qing Wars, ultimately led to the downfall of the Dzungar Khanate and the annexation of Xinjiang. Part one of this article will cover the first Dzungar-Qing War fought between the Dzungar Bushuktu Khan (Galdan) and the Manchu Kangxi Emperor.

Note 1: This article is mainly based on the works of Peter Perdue, James Millward, Mark Elliot and Christopher Beckwith. As for spelling conventions: terms were chosen for their recognisability and not their accuracy in transcription. For example, I chose Dzungar instead of the Zunghar (which the New Qing historians such as Perdue and Spence favour) because it seems to be the more common and recognisable name. Similarly, the specific spellings of Mongolian, Tibetan and Uyghur terms were chosen based on commonality. Chinese terms are spelled according to the Hanyu Pinyin system and Manchu transcriptions are based on the Abkai system (except for the word Manchu and khan). I apologise in advance to readers who expect consistency, for none is to be found here.

Note 2: Please note that the term Xinjiang is anachronistic when referring the area before 1760. The term Xinjiang means new territory and was only established after the Qing conquest of the area. The usage of this term, as much as the term Turkestan, is somewhat politically charged and should therefore be used with a degree of caution. In this article, the term will be used for its convenience rather than to signal any political alignment.

The Dzungar Khanate

The Dzungar Khanate, otherwise known as the Zunghar Khanate or the Jungar Empire, incorporated present day Western Mongolia, Eastern Kazakhstan, Eastern Kyrgyzstan, parts of Siberia and Xinjiang. The core of the Empire was located in Dzungaria, which is the Northern half of Xinjiang. The Dzungar Khanate was founded by a people known as the Oirats (also spelled Ölöd), the Forest People of West Mongolia.

The Four Oirat

The Oirats were an extremely fragmented people. In this period the Oirats were divided in four tribes: the Choros (these would later lead the Dzungars) led by Kara Khula, the Khoshot led by Baibagas, the Torghut under Kho Urluk and the Derbet under Dalai Taiji. These four Oirat tribes would constantly compete amongst themselves for resources and vie for power. In addition to their internal struggles they would also be beset on all sides by the Eastern Mongol Khalkha under the Altyn Khan as well as Kazakhs and at times the Russian Cossacks. In 1612-1613 the Oirats were forced to retreat South due to an attack from the Cossacks. Shortly after, a terrible winter weakened the Oirats and left them vulnerable. The Eastern Mongols took advantage of their weakness and dealt the Oirats a terrible blow, one that forced them out of the their original territory of present-day Northern Xinjiang (Dzungaria/Moghulistan).

Afakv - These borders are based on Kallgan's Map-Qing Dynasty 1616 and Map 4 from Peter Perdue's China Marches West. It was a tumultuous time in Asia as three great Empires were emerging as major powers in the region: the Tsardom of Russia, the Jurchens of the Amaga Aisin Gurun (Later Jin) and the Dzungars from the Derben Oirat (Four Oirat). This map illustrates their 17th century starting positions.
Map 1: Inner-Asia ca, 1616 (click on map to enlarge)

In the 17th century, there were efforts to unite the Oirat tribes against external threats. Though, the rivalry and disputes between the princes were not so easily overlooked. Any unity they achieved was, sadly, short lived. Finally, in 1620, the four tribes formed a coalition to march against the Altyn Khan of the Eastern Mongols. By 1625, however, the tribal confederation fell apart again, this time through a bloody civil war.

Tibetan Buddhism among the Oirats

Afakv - Namkha Gyatso Zaya Pandita
Source of Painting:

By the end of the seventeenth century, Tibetan Buddhism also became a powerful force among the Oirats, as was already the case for the Eastern Mongols. The Oirats converted to Tibetan Buddhism and were devout believers. To illustrate, many Mongol noblemen had their sons take Tibetan names and enter into Tibetan monasteries. One particular such Mongol, Zaya Pandita, the adopted son of Baibagas of the Khoshot, arranged an alliance with Tibet. This act strengthened the unity of the pious Oirats. Zaya Pandita spent twenty two years studying Buddhism and the tantric arts.

After his studies, he returned to Mongolian pastures, where he spent the rest of his years travelling from one tribe to the other, performing rites, preaching, founding tempels and translating scripture. The khans greatly respected Zaya Pandita. As a result, he had gained great political influence on the steppes. His efforts ensured the dominance of Buddhism among the Western Mongolians.

Tibetan Buddhism gave the Western Mongols a legitimising factor that reached beyond the usual military superiority and descendancy from Chinggis Khan. Indeed, they could now claim to be reincarnated khans. The lamas were also giving Mongol leadership resources such as a writing system. It greatly empowered the fragmented Oirats.

The Rise of the Dzungar Khanate

The Torghuts remained fervently opposed to a united Oirat nation and were the greatest obstacle in achieving unity. The disgruntled Kho Urluk then arranged for his people to migrate to the Volga as they entered a in a tributary relationship with Emperor Mikhail Romanov of Russia. Subsequently, fifty thousand Torghut families migrated to the lower Volga and the North Caucacus Steppe. These people are known today as the Kalmyks. This migration weakened the Oirats as a whole, but allowed for the remaining Oirats to unite (Perdue, 103).

The other Oirat tribes united and with their newfound unity crushed the Altyn Khan in 1628-1629 (Beckwith, 227). Dzungaria was returned to Oirat control. In 1630, Baibagas, who held the title of Khan, died and passed his title to Gush Khan. Gush Khan would establish the Khoshot Khanate in modern day Qinghai (Amdo) and Tibet. Gush Khan married his daughter to Batur Hongtaiji of the Dzungars, who was the son of Khara Kula, both of whom were heavily involved in the unification effort. Batur Hongtaiji in particular sought to centralise power among the tribal chiefs. Some scholars even claim that Batur Hongtaiji declared himself sole leader of the Oirats, however, he could not yet officially hold the title of Khan, because he was not of the Chinggisid dynasty, unlike Gush Khan and Baibagas. Nevertheless, through the marriage, the close relation between Gush and Batur Hongtaiji was cemented. The united Oirats invaded Kazakh territory in 1634-1635, commencing the Kazakh-Dzungar Wars.

Afakv - Batur Hongtaiji erdeni Batur was of the House of Choros. The title of Hongtaiji was given to him by the 5th Dalai Lama. His rule lasted from 1634 until his death in 1653. He was the son of Kara Khula. Through vigorous leadership, the Four Oirat saw a marked increase in strength and unity.
Source of Painting: 巴圖爾琿台吉《新疆歷史畫叢》新疆社會科學界聯合會主編 新疆人民出版社

In this period, it was clear that Batur Hongtaiji did much of the work in uniting and strengthening the Oirats. For example, he strengthened ties with the Russians by sending 33 embassies to Moscow. He got the Kyrgyz to pay iasak (tribute) to the Dzungars. As a result of Batur’s efforts, trade in Central Asia was greatly bolstered as Bukharan merchants (Bukharan merchants probably refer to Turkic merchants from Altishahr or the Turpan area) prospered. He also attempted to strengthen his state by asking for a great many things from the Russians, such as firearms, sedentary cattle and Russian artisans. He only ever received the cattle, which he raised on farms in Southern Xinjiang (Altishahr a.k.a. Turkestan), parts of which were recently annexed. He also built a capital city, with stone walls and Chinese cannon. More importantly, Batur secured a peaceful and steady means of acquiring salt for his people, an essential nutrient which was not naturally available in his Empire.

While his efforts were great, upon Batur’s death in 1653, his efforts fell apart. Batur was succeeded by Sengge, one of his nine sons, but Sengge was killed by his brothers since they disputed his control. This internal fighting and Sengge’s animosity toward Russia before his death weakened the Dzungars. When his people needed a leader desperately, Galdan, another son of Batur, who was sent into a Tibetan monastery, renounced his monastic vows and returned a Khan. His legitimacy came from the Dalai Lama. He executed the brothers who killed Sengge, defeated the Ochirtu Khan of the Khoshot, who was his father in law through his marriage to Anu, and supressed the subsequent rebellions. Galdan also completely annexed the rest of Altishahr, the Muslim area South of Dzungaria, as he took Hami and Turpan as well as the prosperous Oasis cities in Eastern Altishahr. With these moves, he stabilised and expanded Dzungar power, thereby transforming the Dzungar Khanate into the greatest steppe khanate since the Mongol Empire.

The Conquest of Altishahr

Altishahr (Uyghur: آلتی شهر) means six cities and refers to the area which is now called the Tarim Basin. The reason it is called the six cities is because they are thought to refer to six cities in the area, but which specific cities they refer to is debated. The areas of Turpan and Hami are not included in the term Altishahr. At this point in history, the area of Turpan and Hami were under rule of the Turpan Khanate.

The Muslim areas of Altishahr were ruled by Chagatayyid Mongol Khans (named after Chagatai, a son of Chinggis Khan) who had long since converted to Islam. The Turkic population of the area had also become increasingly Islamic since the time of the Karakhanids (ca. 840-1211), who set off the Islamic conversion of the previously Buddhist, Manichaeist and Nestorian Christian Uyghurs (Millward and Perdue 41). By the time of the devoutly Buddhist Galdan’s rise, the area had already become predominantly Islamic through the efforts of the many Sufi orders who converted tribes like the Kyrgyz with miracles, healing and other feats of faith.

Altishahr was under control of the Yarkand Khanate. Since the 16th century, the Yarkand Khanate had succumbed gradually to the influence of the Khoja (Uyghur: خوجا). The Khoja of Altishahr claimed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and had long served as administrators in the region. Originally, they were the branch of Naqshbandiyya Sufis whose missionaries were responsible for converting the nomadic tribes to Islam. Now, their secular political influence exceeded that of the Chagatayyid Khans.

At one point in the 17th century, the Khoja split into two factions, the Aq Taghliq (White Mountain), or the Afaqiyya under Afaq Khoja, and the Qara Taghliq (Black Mountain), also known as the Ishaqiyya under Ishaq Wali (Tyler 53; Millward and Perdue 47-48). The reason they split was due to the recent successes the newly arrived Khoja Muhammad Yusuf made in the Altishahr and Turpan areas. It sparked jealousy among the Qara Taghliq. They poisoned Khoja Yusuf, which left his son Afaq Khoja (Uyghur: ئاپاق خوجا‎) in charge of the Aq Taghliq. Afaq Khoja gained much power in Kashgar, however, when ‘Abdullah Khan went to Mekka on hajj, Afaq Khoja was driven out of Kashgar by Isma’il Khan (Millward 86). He took refuge in Tibet under the protection of the 5th Dalai Lama. He told the 5th Dalai Lama that he was the rightful ruler of Kashgar and that Isma’il had usurped his throne. The Dalai Lama was convinced, so he played “the Mongol card” (Millward and Perdue 48).

The 5th Dalai Lama set the conquest of Altishahr in motion. He asked Galdan to intervene on his behalf. The Tibetan Buddhist Dzungar war machine was set into motion. Afaq Khoja would collaborate with the Dzungars as they conquered Altishahr between 1678 and 1680, after which Afaq Khoja was put on the throne as a puppet ruler under Galdan. While the Aq Taghliq were now in power, it by no means ended the bloody rivalry between the factions. Regardless of which rulers held power in Altishahr, it was from this point onwards that the Dzungar Khanate was cemented as the dominant power in Central Asia, using Altishahr as an important resource that fuelled the economy of the Dzungars.

Afakv - Afaw Khoja Hidayat Allah Afaq Khoja Mazar Pictured is the tomb of Afaq Khoja which is located near Kashgar. It was built originally for Muhammad Yusuf and now houses many generations of A Taghliq. The tomb is famous as an alleged resting place for the legendary concubine Iparhan, who refused to serve Qianlong, even after marriage.
The photograph has been altered from the original which is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 es,

Life under Dzungar Rulership

Galdan extracted many crucial resources from the newly acquired Altishahr, Turpan and Hami. The Turkic farmers and merchants provided him with food and gold. The mines of Altishahr gave him iron, saltpetre and nitre with which he crafted firearms. The metallurgical know-how of the sedentary Turkic people, through contact with Iran, gave him superior steel. These were all invaluable to the pastoralist rulers.

The Muslim elites of the area were largely left to their own devices, until it was time for the Dzungar to collect tribute. To support Galdan’s military campaigns, one third of the male population of Altishahr was conscripted to serve in his army. The Dzungars were burdened by famine and poverty. In order to alleviate the burden, it was perhaps the only choice left to the Dzungars to impose heavy tax burdens upon the sedentary farmers of Xinjiang. To illustrate, it is reported that the Dzungars extracted an annual levy on Kashgar of 48,000 ounces of silver. Injustice during tax collection was widespread, the Dzungar bands would often demand extra payments of cotton, grain, labour corvée, additional taxes, the company of willing and unwilling women, alcohol and livestock (Millward 92).

The oppression of the common people by the Dzungar elite was rather severe, needless to say, this fuelled no small degree of anti-Dzungar sentiments among the Muslims of Altishahr. This sentiment would later come to bite the Dzungars in the back.

The First Dzungar-Qing War

Galdan and Kangxi

Afakv - Erdeniin Galdan Bushuktu Khan Elhe Taifin Khan The Kangxi Emperor Aisin Gioro Hiowan Yei
Source of Galdan Statue Photo:

Both Kangxi, the Khan of the Manchus and Emperor of China, and Galdan were interested in maintaining good relations. Indeed, much of that is shown in the lavish feasts thrown by Galdan in order to receive Qing envoys. Kangxi’s policy in receiving the Mongolian tributes in turn was lenient and took into account Mongolian customs. Indeed, the First Embassy from Kangxi to Galdan indicated “the flexibility of both sides and their mutual interest in good relations” (Perdue, 142).

Though, the relations between the Dzungars and the Manchus was marred by some troubles when breakaway former vassals of the Ochirtu Khan who refused to join Galdan, began raiding the Qing borders out of desparation. Kangxi demanded that Galdan take care of the rebels or the Qing would take matters into their own hands. Galdan took care of the rebels, but the troubles didn’t end here.

The tribute missions sent into the Qing Empire were getting increasingly chaotic and unmanagable. Many of the envoys sent into the Qing by Galdan did not carry his official seal, this clashed with the Qing Dynasty’s bureaucracy. Furthermore, the embassies that entered the Qing became increasingly large and began to plunder and pillage the pastures within Qing borders. For any ruler, this would clearly be unacceptable. So, Kangxi began to crack down on Galdan’s missions. Tribute missions were important Galdan since it was a form of trade and therefore brought resources. Kangxi now established strict controls by sending headmen to watch over the actions of the Dzungar missions. The size of the embassies was henceforth to be restricted to a maximum of 200 people, whereas before they there was no set limit. Finally, he pardoned all the previous crimes committed by the missions, but anyone breaking the laws in the future would be punished under the full extent of Qing law.

The following year, perhaps testing Kangxi’s edict, Galdan sent a mission of three thousand men. Kangxi’s edict was no bluff, all but 200 men were turned away at the borders. While the Qing did maintain that Galdan was the only leader of the Western Mongols who had rights to trade in the Qing capital, these recent restrictions put pressure on Galdan’s authority and political capital. Kangxi knew this, by controlling the valve, either allowing or denying Galdan valuable resources, Kangxi could leverage his own demands in any kind of negotiation. Naturally, Galdan was less than pleased with this development. It pressured him to be more aggressive.

Galdan continued to expand. With his expansion, other Oirat leaders who did not fall or refused to fall under his authority were forced to attack the Qing borderlands in order to survive. An example would be Erdeni Qosuuci, a powerful Oirat lord who commanded ten thousand tents. He would continue to harass the Qing frontier for food and resources, but due to Kangxi’s initial pacificst attitude towards Central Asia and the realisation they were plundering out of starvation, he chose to only drive them out instead of killing them. Some people like the son and nephew of the Ochirtu Khan, Lobzang Gunbu Labdan and Batur Erke Jinong respectively chose to seek refuge in Tibet. Lobzang and Batur were settled somewhere by the Dalai Lama. Batur was later found to have been pasturing along the Yellow River in Qing territory, which prompted Kangxi to send Galdan a letter, asking him to deal with Batur, as Batur was an Oirat. Galdan said he would deal with it later. Finally, Prince Gandu, a grandson of Ochirtu Khan, also was raiding along the frontier of the Qing Empire.

In 1684, Batur, Erdeni and Gandu requested that Kangxi pardon them and in return, they would swear loyalty to the Manchus. Kangxi responded by making it clear that he could have had them all killed for their crimes as mere bandits and criminals. However, he recognised the long-standing tribute from the Ochirtu Khan and on his merits, decided to pardon Batur, Erdeni and Gandu. He emphasised the fact that Galdan had left his people to die of hunger and that he would not take them back, thereby highlighting his own mercy in deciding to pardon them and settling them on Qing soil. With that, Kangxi began to win over the hearts of the Tibetan Lamas as well as the Oirats who for the first time had sought Qing protection.

Rising Tension

While the Southern Mongols, the Chahar, had become subjects of the Qing, many of the Eastern Mongolian Khalkha north of the Gobi desert were still independent (Heilong and Haichunliang 48). At one time, the Khalkha split into two factions and conflict ensued between them. The Jasaktu and Altyn Khans on the one and the Tüsiyetü and Chechen Khans on the other side. The Tüsiyetü Khan’s faction held the most power and also formed as the religious centre of all Khalkha Mongols. The schism between the Khalkha Mongols caused the disadvantaged Jasaktu Khan to seek allies outside of the Khalkha. Galdan was one such power. As the Jasaktu Khan strengthened his ties with the Dzungars it became abundantly clear that the internecine struggles between the Khalkha was a weakness that Galdan could take advantage of, to the detriment of the Qing. The Qing saw fit to become peacemakers among the Khalkha. If the Khalkha were united, then Galdan would have no opportunities to gain power in Khalkha land. Therefore, Kangxi urged the Khalkha to make peace.

Alas, both the Dalai Lama’s and Kangxi’s effort to promote peace among the Khalkha fell on deaf ears. The internal conflicts escalated and culminated in an invasion led by the Tüsiyetü Khan against the Jasaktu Khan in 1687. The Tüsiyetü Khan struck hard and fast and plunged into the heart of the Jasaktu Khan’s forces. He captured the Jasaktu Khan and drowned him in a river. Furthermore, he openly declared war against Galdan by killing one of Galdan’s younger brothers. Galdan swore revenge.

From Galdan’s perspective, if he had ambitions to unite all Mongols, a true peace among the Khalkha would make it difficult for him to do so. Whatever Galdan’s intentions were, his younger brother’s death gave him a direct casus belli against the Tüsiyetü Khan. War between Galdan and the Tüsiyetü Khan was nigh but inevitable. In 1688, Galdan launched a 30,000 strong punitive army into Khalkha territory (Heilong and Haichunliang 50). He assaulted the seat of the Jebzongdanba Khutukhtu at the temple complex of Erdeni Zu, which he pillaged. He continued his relentless pursuit of the Tüsiyetü Khan. His invasion force seemed unstoppable as it drove away and defeated the Khalkha. In doing so, the Khalkha were shattered and scattered. Khalkha refugees fled into three directions: Russia, into Galdan’s fold or toward the Qing Empire.

Afakv - Өндөр Гэгээн. Занабазар. Жавзандамба хутагт. རྗེ་བཙུན་དམ་པ་ཧུ་ཐུག་ཐུ. Jebzongdanba Khutukhtu. Zanabazar. 札那巴札爾. 哲布尊丹巴 呼圖克圖. Son of the 5th Tüsiyetü Khan and the one who cemented the Gelugpa Sect among the Mongols. He was the first of the Bogd Gegeen.

Apparently, the Jebzongdanba Khutukhtu, a son of the 5th Tüsiyetü Khan and therefore a brother of the then reigning Tüsiyetü Khan, had disrespected the authority of the Dalai Lama, this did not sit well with Galdan who had spent years in Tibet as a lama. So, Galdan claimed that his attack on the Tüsiyetü Khan was to punish the Khutukhtu for his insolence. The defeated Khalkha Mongols continued to flee into Qing domain and put severe pressure on the borderlands, so much so that the Qing had to take action. They sent an army to protect the Khutukhtu.

Galdan approached Hulunbuir (please refer to Map 2). Kangxi prepared ten thousand soldiers at the borders of the Empire to be commanded by the Khorchin Tüsiyetü prince Shajin. Yet, when Galdan refused to come near the borders and instead focused his attention on the Tüsiyetü Khan, Kangxi refused to give chase to Galdan. In 1688, Galdan and the Tüsiyetü Khan fought a three-day long battle in which Galdan won a crushing victory.

As Galdan scattered the Khalkha, their leaders had no choice but to seek aid from the only place close by and willing to aid them: Kangxi’s Manchu Qing Empire. The Tüsiyetü Khan and Jebzongdanba Khutukhtu crossed the Gobi desert Southwards and submitted themselves to the Qing Empire. With this move, the Dzungar invasion of Khalkha lands was no longer an issue between the Mongols.

Galdan continued Eastward to further involve himself with the Khalkha. However, back home, Tsewang Rabdan, the son of Sengge, one of Galdan’s late brothers, was stirring the flames of rebellion. Galdan knew Tsewang Rabdan was becoming a threat, so he tried to have him killed earlier in 1688, but Tsewang Rabdan escaped with his life. While Galdan was away fighting in Eastern Mongolia, Tsewang Rabdan assaulted the city of Hami. Galdan had to return home to deal with Tsewang Rabdan, giving the Khalkha and the Qing some much needed relief.

T’sewang Rabdan’s Rebellion continued in the winter of 1689-1690, which pinned Galdan’s forces back home Dzungar territory, delaying his ambitious plans for the Khalkha. While in Dzungar lands, Galdan was still collecting men to ride against the Khalkha at a later point in time.

Afakv - This map depicts the state of Inner-Asia during Galdan’s intervention in Khalkha territory and his sacking of Erdeni Zu. Notice the rapid Russian and Qing encroachment upon ‘independent’ Mongolian and Siberian territory. • Taiwan is in Qing colours because Kangxi annexed Taiwan in 1683. • Albazin was destroyed by Manchu forces in 1685, but reoccupied by the Russians in 1686. • Orda means encampment.
Map 2: Dzungar Khanate and Qing Empire ca. 1688 (click on map to enlarge)

Kangxi’s Resolve

Galdan marched East and violated the Qing’s borders, as he sought revenge against the Tüsiyetü Khan for killing his brother and the Khutukhtu for insulting the Dalai Lama. These men were now under Qing custody and the Qing refused to extradite them.

Kangxi grew weary of Galdan’s exploits and his repeated violation of the Qing borders. The ever increasing flow of Khalkha refugees hardened Kangxi’s heart. The Chechen Khan of the Khalkha made an offer to Kangxi, he would attack Galdan if Kangxi gave him support. Kangxi, now beginning to be eager to see Galdan’s defeat, approved the sale of military supplies to the Khalkha Mongols. Meanwhile, Galdan requested 20,000 troops from Russia. Russia refused to answer his call for aid, due to the fact that the Manchus convinced the Russians that Galdan was dealing with revolts and famine, that Galdan was a lost cause (Perdue, 152). More importantly, by this time, the Russians had signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk with the Manchus. To give Galdan military support against the Khalkha, who were Qing subjects, would be a violation of the treaty (Perdue, 171). Russia was no longer a potential ally for Galdan.

On 27 July 1690, Kangxi’s resolve to finish Galdan culminated in his announcement that he would personally lead the campaign against the Dzungar leader. He took three armies with him, taking different routes to reach Mongolia. An estimated 60,000 men left on this expedition.

At this point, Galdan’s forces dwindled to a mere 10,000 men, his food and supplies were all but used up and they were even eating their horses in order to survive. As such, Galdan was serious about making peace with the Qing. He wanted to keep his wars between Mongols. Still, Kangxi knew that if Galdan united the Mongols, the threat to the Qing empire would be greater than ever before. His decision to crush Galdan, even though Galdan sought peace with the Qing at this point was likely motivated by the desire to prevent an independent and powerful Mongolian Empire right on his doorsteps. The historical trauma left by Chinggis Khan was still too fresh a memory.

Was Kangxi justified in thinking this? I would summise there was from his perspective as the ruler of the Qing. Galdan’s invasion of the Kazakh Khanate, the Dzungar Khanate’s conquest of Altishahr and Galdan’s aggression in Eastern Mongolia all pointed toward the idea that Galdan was not going to be peaceful for long if he were given the chance to consolidate his power. In other words, Galdan was a serious threat.

So, Kangxi took no half-measures. He prepared his armies for a full-scale expedition. He brought with him his uju cooha (his heavy troops, his artillery). In his edicts that Kangxi sent to Galdan, he claimed to be only acting for defensive purposes. But in his secret missives to his commanders, Kangxi told his other forces to hold off on fighting until he arrived. It was apparent that he wanted to keep Galdan from escaping in order to take him out in one fell swoop.

However, one of Kangxi’s commanders, Arni, engaged Galdan’s 20,000 men by accident when Galdan was pursuing the Chechen and Tüsiyetü Khans in Ujimchin territory. Arni had with him 200 Mongolian elite troops and 500 Mongolian riders. Obviously, they stood no chance and were forced into retreat. In Chinese sources, this is recorded as the Battle of Ulgain (Urhui), named after the Ulgain river at which it was fought (please refer to Map 3 down below). The diplomatic ramifications were great. Kangxi had to cover for the unexpected assault, so he wrote Galdan that Arni’s actions were illegal and that he had not been given permission to attack the Dzungar army. He even tried to persuade Galdan that he never intended to attack him. Indeed Kangxi claimed the huge army marching for Mongolia was “not to punish you, but to establish discussions” (Perdue, 154). This was obviously a barefaced lie, as he was leading a full-scale expedition to defeat the Dzungars. Kangxi had to convince Galdan the Qing armies did not come to fight, in order to prevent him from fleeing.

At this point, the campaign was fraught with problems. The horses were tired and the extreme weather conditions had done a number on the men (Perdue, 160). In the desert, water was scarce and difficult to find, the men nearly succumbed from the thirst. On the steppes, they would nearly drown in the heavy rainfall and muck. Moreover, the food supplies were running low, as Kangxi had prepared supplies for only a short campaign. Galdan moved North, further away from the Qing armies. Prince Shajin, who led 10,000 men, even gave up the pursuit of Galdan as the scarcity of supplies were becoming more of a concern. Despite the difficulties he faced, Kangxi was determined to take on Galdan.

The Battle of Ulan Butong

In August, Galdan requested a meeting at Ulan Butong, a place which was a mere 350 kilometres from Beijing, in present day Hexigten Banner, Inner-Mongolia (please refer to Map 3 down below). He requested the meeting in order to discuss the extradition of the Tüsiyetü Khan as well as Jebzongdanba Khutukhtu. The various envoys of the Dalai Lama, Galdan and the Qing had actually been able to reach a fairly satisfactory resolution that was acceptable to all parties involved. The Tüsiyetü Khan would go wherever he pleased, while Khutukhtu would be sent to Tibet where the Dalai Lama would handle him. At this point, however, he was only 23 kilometres removed from the nearest Qing army, and the Qing was in reality not interested in a peaceful resolution, since Galdan would remain a threat if not destroyed (Heilong and Haichunliang 56).

Fuquan, the commander of said Qing army, approached Galdan’s camp at Ulan Butong and spotted his enemy on the 3rd of September. He opened fire with a cannon and commenced the attack. The Dzungar soldiers hid themselves in the forest. In order to protect themselves from the artillery, they proceeded to build a wall out of camels by binding the legs of the beasts and then covering them with felt. They constructed it in such a way that they could still shoot arrows through arrow loops left in the camel wall. The left wing of the Qing army cornered the Dzungars in the mountain, and could inflict casualties on the Dzungars. The right wing of the Qing army, however, fared less well. By nightfall, the Qing had not managed to gain ground and the losses inflicted on the Dzungars were not sufficient to disperse or rout them. Galdan had plenty of strength left to continue the battle come daybreak. Fuquan was faced with a problem. The artillery Kangxi had ordered to go along with the armies as a trump card against the Mongols was useless since the Dzungar had erected a camel fortress inside the forest. Both the trees and the camels prevented the Qing from employing the artillery to their full potential. Similarly, Galdan had lost many men and horses (and camels), and could probably not win a decisive victory against Fuquan. As such, a stalemate was reached.

Afakv - Galdan's actual face when the combined might of Qing cannonry was thwarted by a fortress made of camels. Ulan Butong, 1690, colourised. Original photograph by Han Chengli titled Mongolian Child.
I normally don’t do memes, but Galdan’s pro-gamer move of “camel fortress” was too good to pass up.

Both commanders decided it was best to refrain from attacking for a while. On the 7th of September, Galdan sent emissaries to talk peace with Fuquan. Galdan conceded on the issue he came to Ulan Butong for. He no longer demanded the Tüsiyetü Khan and Khutukhtu to be extradited. In turn, Fuquan demanded that Galdan move far away from the Qing frontier and never raid it again.

Moving far away, that was something Galdan could do. He fled as fast as he could in the deep of the night. Kangxi, eager to end Galdan once and for all, had urged his commanders to give chase, but the logistical problems of the Qing army paralysed the troops. Realising the logistical limitations of his armies, Kangxi refrained from pushing his generals too much. As September progressed, the Qing armies withdrew to frontier garrisons, where they could be provided for. During this time, Galdan, under Qing military pressure, swore an official oath to leave the Qing borders alone. Kangxi accepted his oath but vowed to destroy Galdan if he ever so chose to violate it.

A Lull in the Fighting

Galdan licked his wounds and attempted to convince the Khalkha who had submitted to Kangxi to join his side, he also attempted to find allies among the Russians, neither the Russians nor the Mongols responded favourably. Still, he did make sure that the Dalai Lama stood on his side (by this point, the 5th Dalai Lama had died, but it was kept a secret to the outside world). Kangxi grew increasingly frustrated with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s actions seemed to support Galdan instead of professing peace like the Dalai Lama claimed. This was because the sDe-pa, who made the decisions on behalf of the late 5th Dalai Lama, was a staunch supporter of Galdan. As a result, Kangxi stopped to respect the authority of the 5th Dalai Lama in matters regarding Galdan.

Kangxi was trying to get Tsewang Rabdan to cooperate with the Qing in order to put a threat at the back of Galdan whenever he fought the Qing. Tsewang Rabdan was receptive of the Qing. He continued to send secret memorials and tribute gifts to Kangxi. In this period, both Galdan and Kangxi claimed they wanted peace, but secretly were making all manners of moves to weaken the other party. Neither force was capable of launching another major campaign, so they took their time to recover strength.

Kangxi was faced with the problem that he could not penetrate into the steppes deeply enough to reach Galdan all the way in Khobdo (Hovd), logistics simply did not allow for such an extended campaign beyond the passes with this much equipment and this many many. His armies faced shortages, but the Dzungars were also facing severe shortages. On the other side, Galdan’s nomadic force struggled to replenish their strength. If Galdan’s strength were to be recovered by the grain of Altishahr and the reocovery of pastures, Dzungar strength could be reinvigorated. Nonetheless, as it stood, the Dzungars were exhausted and starved. Moreover, Galdan was unable to concentrate Dzungar power, preventing him from launching any kind of assault on the Qing. The Mongols were simply too divided for that to happen.

Uniting the Mongols at Dolon Nor

Kangxi made good use of the internal division among the Mongols. In Galdan’s absence he knew the time was ripe for the Qing to consolidate their power among the Eastern Mongols. The Khalkha were disorganised and needed economic and military support. These were all things that Kangxi could provide. Kangxi called for a great gathering of all the prominent leaders of the Khalkha at Dolon Nor.

He seated the Mongols according to rank and prominence and organised lavish banquets and great spectacles to show off the might of the Qing Empire. He granted the lords that were gathered noble titles in accordance to Qing customs, even the Tüsiyetü Khan and the Khutukhtu. These Khalkha were subsequently organised into banners and each banner was designated pastures with strict boundaries in order to avoid border conflicts that had plagued them for so long. Food, livestock, noble titles and therefore legitimacy granted by the Qing that confirmed their individual authorities were given to the Khalkha lord in exchange for their loyalty, freedom and autonomy.

In one fell swoop, Kangxi had gained a firm hold over Mongolia, ended the last vestiges of autonomous Chinggisid Mongols and assumed the mantle of a Chinggisid Khan himself. These were unprecedented accomplishments by any Emperor ruling from China.

Kangxi’s Second Expedition

Preparing for Battle

In the next few sections,
please continue to refer to Map 3
for further clarification.

Kangxi received reports that Galdan was moving East, potentially to a location where the Qing armies could reach. The Khorchin prince Biliketu, loyal to Kangxi, lured Galdan East by saying that the Khorchin wanted to submit. Kangxi mobilised his forces and this time, he would eliminate Galdan once and for all.

Galdan had indeed moved closer to the Qing borders, but he had no intention of attacking the Qing at all. With his 5000 to 6000 men, he camped at the Kerulen-Tula river area, waiting for winter to pass. Kangxi wanted to reach him, but would have to march across half of Mongolia to get to him. At court, Qing officials had no desire to trek through the desert and winter all the way to Kerulen. Nonetheless, Kangxi’s determination to exterminate Galdan was not to be underestimated. He believed the failure at Ulan Butong occurred because he didn’t command the battle himself. This time, he would make sure that he led the attack on Galdan personally.

Three armies set out to attack Galdan. The West Route Army led by Fiyanggv boasted 30,000 men. The East Route Army, led by Sabsu, boasted 10,000 men. The Capital Army led by Kangxi himself boasted 32,970 men. Finally, a fourth army led by Sun Sike would dispatch from Ningxia in order to join up with Fiyanggv’s West Route Army as well, increasing its numbers by another 10,000. In a pincer maneuvre, Fiyanggv was to approach from the West as Kangxi approached Galdan from the East. For this plan to work, Fiyanggv had to reach the Tula river before Kangxi reached the Kerulen river. From Guihua (Hohhot) to the Tula river was 1,160 kilometres with the Gobi desert in between. Fiyanggv had a long march ahead of him.

Afakv - Fiyanggv (1645-1701) of the Donggo Hala was a Manchu from the Plain White Banner. He was the younger brother of Consort Donggo, who was a favoured consort of the Shunzhi Emperor, Kangxi’s father. He was rewarded greatly for his efforts in the campaign against Galdan. Fiyanggv died from an illness a few years after Galdan’s death. He was laid to rest at Juzifangcun, Dongbaxiang, Chaoyang District, Beijing. His gravestone was moved into a nearby park in 2010. Photograph taken by Dayingwa 打鹰洼
Photograph taken in 2018 (Image sourced from

Such a long and arduous journey required excellent logistical planning. As we saw in Kangxi’s first campaign, logistics can make or break an expedition. This time, however, Kangxi made doubly sure to plan ahead. Yu Chenglong (the lesser, not to be confused with Yu Chenglong the greater), the Grain Transport Commissioner, was given the unenviable task of arranging them. The rations the soldiers needed would be far too many to carry with them. So, methods had to be devised in order to alleviate the supply problems, such as giving the soldiers money to purchase their own grain along the way, or having more cattle accompany the army (which was food that carried itself). Food, however, was not the only vital resource that needed managing. Horses were something that empires ruled from the Chinese heartland always have had trouble supplying. For this reason, all the horses this army used were supplied by the Qing’s Mongol subjects and allies.

A third issue were cannon. This time too, Kangxi did not refrain from bringing out the big guns. The Manchus won one of their first major battles famously without gunpowder weapons against the Ming gunpowder troops at Sarhv in 1619. The Manchus continued this trend in most of their major campaigns, the campaigns against Galdan being the great exception. Perhaps Kangxi knew that he could not leverage the strength of his mounted archers and cavalry tactics against the Mongols, who undoubtedly knew all about those. As such, he took great pains by bringing a total of 349 cannon on this expedition.

Come Rain or Shine

So, the Qing armies set out toward Galdan. On campaign, strict discipline was imposed on the troops. Careful attention was paid to the behaviour of the troops not to antagonise the Mongols. If the Mongols gained the impression that Kangxi had come to punish more than just Galdan, it might just be used by Galdan as a way to gather allies. Another concern was time. The troops did not have the luxury to take their time as they could not live indefinitely on their supplies, any officer shirking his duties of keeping pace would be punished. Nevertheless, the mud and bad weather caused cattle to die and carts to get stuck. Yu Chenglong’s supply caravans fell behind and cannon had to be abandoned. At one point, Fiyanggv’s cannon were stuck in the mud and snow. He nearly had to abandon all his cannon were it not for the camels he brought with him. Once again, the camels saved the day, allowing Fiyanggv to still bring 59 cannon with the army.

The exhaustion of his men, the burden of the supplies and artillery caused Fiyanggv’s forces to dwindle. He had to leave many men behind on the last leg of his journey. The army of Sun Sike faced similar issues. Their force of 10,000 had thinned out to about 2,000 Chinese soldiers. The trek across the Gobi desert was harsh and unforgiving. The cutting winds and icy rains for days at a time felled many a horse and man. When they arrived at Onggin, nearly all of their horses had died. What remained of his army joined Fiyanggv.

Kangxi’s armies also had difficulties finding water. Because they set out in the early spring, before the grass had a chance to come through, the cattle and horses would be weak. However, this was precisely the reason Kangxi chose to march during this time of the year, they had to prevent Galdan from regaining strength. Nevertheless, this time of the year meant that springs and ponds were still frozen over and many wells had to be dug at every step of the journey.

I will certainly kill anyone who hesitates, or withdraws from this campaign.

the kangxi emperor

While on the road, some reports came through that Galdan had gathered 60,000 Russian troops to face the Qing. High ranking Manchu officials urged Kangxi to stop and reconsider. Kangxi was furious. His pride as a commander and warrior could not be sullied like this. He admonished those who advised him to retreat back to safety and exclaimed: “I will certainly kill anyone who hesitates, or withdraws from this campaign” (Perdue, 186). Of course, Galdan had not gathered so many allies, it was, in today’s lingo, fake news. Galdan was a master of confusing the enemy with false information. One of the reasons Kangxi was hesitant to interfere with Khalkha affairs when Galdan first marched East to Erdeni Zu, was because Kangxi believed Galdan had gained the alliance of the Russians (Heilong and Haichunliang 51). This time, it seemed that Kangxi had wisened up to his strategem.

Crucial now was not the strength or size of Galdan’s army, but whether Fiyanggv could make it to the Kerulen on time. However, Fiyanggv had not yet arrived at his designated location. Kangxi’s Capital Army was closer to Galdan. They feared that if they faced him directly, that Galdan would simply retreat, just like he had at Ulan Butong. If Fiyanggv was not there to block Galdan, this entire endeavour had been for nothing.

Afakv - *The Ulgain river is the extreme end of the Khalkha river. Perdue refers to this river as ‘Urhui river’ in China Marches West. In Chinese sources this river is named Wuerhui. It is likely that Wuerhui refers to the Wulagai (Ulgain) river, which connects to the Khalkha river. Hung confirms this theory in The Brilliant Reign of the Kangxi Emperor. A translated version of Kallgan’s Map-Qing Dynasty 1689 (by GnolizX) calls ‘the Battle of Ulgain’ ‘the Battle of Orkhun.’ Orkhun might refer to Ergune (Argun) river, which is further to the North, or it might refer to Orkhon, which is far away in Central Mongolia. As such, this translation is most likely inaccurate.
Map 3: Dzungar-Qing battles of the late 17th century (click on map to enlarge)

The Battle of Jao Modo

Kangxi decided to stall for time. He sent envoys to enter in negotiations with Galdan. The Manchu Emperor pretended to vie for peace and that there could still be a peaceful solution. It appears Galdan did not realise that Kangxi was biding for time. Among the Dzungars, there was quite a shock when they realised that Kangxi had come to face them personally. It was even more of a surprise to the Dzungars that Kangxi had managed to bring three armies all the way out to Kerulen. These impressive military feats and the personal appearance of Kangxi awed them.

The following day, Kangxi drew his army out in ranks, in full display. This was war in all its glory. He hoped that the sight of his men, armies that filled the fields to the horizon, would shatter the morale of Galdan’s men. Kangxi advanced his troops to Galdan’s encampment. Perhaps to little surprise, Galdan was nowhere to be found. Galdan’s forces were numerically inferior and at that point had no intention of doing battle with the Qing. In the face of such an overwhelming force, Galdan’s only choice was to deny Kangxi his battle which he so desperately sought.

Galdan had evidently left in a hurry. The encampment was in a state of disarray, signs of panic were abound; old people were left behind, women and children had killed themselves. With Galdan having retreated West, Kangxi had no choice but to hope for Fiyanggv to catch Galdan in his flight. Kangxi’s army was at the end of its supplies and could scarcely give chase. At this point, he had no choice but to make the journey back to greener pastures.

Fiyanggv managed to block Galdan’s escape in the middle of the desert at a place called Jao Modo (Mongolian: Zunmood). Fiyanggv’s men were exhausted and weakened severely, for they had been living the past 10 days off of horse and camel meat to stay alive. They were in dire straits and on the verge of starvation when they met with Galdan. Though the Qing forces were starved and weak, there were still 14,000 soldiers between Galdan and freedom. Galdan himself commanded 5000 men and had a total of 2000 fowling guns. There was no choice but for Galdan to fight this enemy. So, the battle commenced.

Fiyanggv’s forces’ first move was to take the hill, an advantageous position from which Fiyanggv could leverage his artillery. The Mongols had positioned sharpshooters in range of the hill’s approach, so Fiyanggv’s forces had to face terrible gunfire in order to take the hill. The hill was hard fought, but Fiyanggv’s men wrested the position from their foes. From then on, they brought the full force of the Qing artillery to bear on Galdan’s army. This time, the camels were on the side of the Qing. The Manchu forces advanced on the Mongol position with great wooden barricades, used somewhat like pavises and wore thick padded gambeson to defend against the incoming projectiles. When they approached the front line of Galdan’s forces, they unleashed torrents of arrows on the Qing lines. The desperate Qing troops, who would starve to death if they didn’t capture Galdan’s supplies, stormed the Dzungar lines undeterred by the hail of steel.

The outmanned and outgunned Dzungars, already awed by Kangxi’s presence, being shelled by the thundering large caliber cannons, had completely lost their composure. In the face of the Manchu charge, the Dzungar warriors threw down their weapons and fled the field of battle. A few brave souls, led by a man named Arabdan, though he had abandoned Galdan before, now held their ground for Khan and country, but were no match for an unbridled cavalry charge of Fiyanggv’s army, composed of experienced Mongol riders and well-trained Manchus. They ran down and trampled thousands. The famished sabres of the Qing riders cared neither for the wicked nor the virtuous, men were cut down where they stood, indiscriminately. This was war in all its horror.

Galdan no longer had any means to control his men and had no means of escape. He was surrounded by enemies and surely, he would have either been captured or killed if not for Anu Khatun, his wife. His queen led a valiant charge from outside the encirclement to cut a path for Galdan to escape through. As Qing soldiers were struck down before the deadly determination of the Khatun, Galdan took the opportunity. As husband and wife made their dashing escape, somewhere on the battlefield, the gentle thrum of a bowstring resonated amidst the cacophonous chaos. An arrow had found its mark and felled the valiant Khatun. Though her life was extinguished on that day, her legend echoes on throughout the ages.

Afakv - She was the warrior Khatun of the Dzungars and daughter of the Ochirtu Khan of the Khoshot. She first married Sengge. After his assassination, she married his brother, Galdan. It is said that after Jao Modo, her body was buried at the foothills of the Khangai Mountains. That place is now named Khatant, the place of the queen. Ану хатан. Original artwork by Dolgoon. 阿努可敦.
This image has been altered from the original uploaded by Kaffiend / CC BY-SA (

Galdan fled Jao Modo with no more than 50 loyal retainers, including his nephew Danjila and kinsman Arabdan, no doubt stricken with grief and blinded by fury. Galdan lived, but losing Jao Modo lost him his wife, his army and his empire. Yet, he never lost his iron will.

Galdan’s Demise

Capitalising on Victory

The victory, despite the Qing’s overwhelming numbers, was not at all assured. Galdan could have easily moved away to a place where the grass would be plenty and his livestock could once again be fattened up, after which he could gather strength once more. For this reason, it was extremely fortuitous for the Qing that Fiyanggv was able to trap Galdan. After Galdan’s defeat, Fiyanggv captured all of his livestock, which saved his men from starvation.

It was a miraculous victory which led to much praise for Kangxi coming from all over the Empire, not just the Chinese and the Manchus but also the Mongol Khans, allies and bannermen sang songs of praise for this great feat. Kangxi’s great victory was recorded as the greatest achievement of any Emperor of China. And yes, the final wedge was driven between Dzungars and the Khalkha. Though Galdan was still alive, the followers and resources Galdan once held were all but scattered in the summer breezes of 1696.

That did not mean that Galdan could not rise from dead ashes. The Qing was still wary of a possible revival. They knew that Hami was held by Galdan’s enemy, Tsewang Rabdan, so they knew he would not go there. Nor would he seek aid from the Torghuts, who were on bad terms with the Dzungars. The only options left for Galdan were to return to Dzungar land, seek Muslim followers from Altishahr and find the sDe-pa in Lhasa, Tibet. Since he had ever been his loyal friend and ally. In the face of this possibility, the Qing decided to destroy the problem root and branch.

Meanwhile, Galdan had managed to gather over 5000 men. Unfortunately, they severely lacked livestock as it was all lost to Fiyanggv at Jao Modo. As a result, Galdan faced disloyalty among his followers. Arabdan, the man who had betrayed him before, disagreed with Galdan’s plan to attack Onggin, on the Westside of the Khangai province (Hung, 159). Galdan wanted to move on to take Hami afterwards. Arabdan, on the other hand, wanted to raid Russian territory. Finally, even Danjila had a different view on the matter, as he wanted to move into the Altai Mountains. Most of Galdan’s followers did not agree with his plans. Arabdan went as far as to break with Galdan and left with two thousand men. Danjila, despite not agreeing to Galdan’s plan, decided to remain, along with a thousand others. Severely weakened and having nothing, no clothes, no tents and nothing to eat, Galdan and his men headed for Tamir, a river in Central Mongolia, and plundered it. With no hope for a future, followers began to abandon the impoverished Khan further. They would rather join Tsewang Rabdan, or even submit to Kangxi than starve to death with Galdan. It is also in this period that Abdurashid Khan II (Uyghur: عبد الرشيد خان‎; Chinese: 阿卜都里什特/ Abudulishite) of the Yarkand Khanate vowed to Kangxi that he would use his 20,000 men to capture Galdan.

In order to root out the last vestiges of Galdan’s power, Kangxi ordered a third expedition, this time into Ordos. Galdan was still at large. The purpose of this expedition was to destroy Galdan’s power, not by killing him, but by winning over his potential allies to join the Qing. He leveraged the greatest advantage the Qing had over Galdan at this moment: wealth. With Galdan starving and his followers worrying about their next meal, Kangxi came to Ordos with herds containing sixteen thousand cattle and seventy thousand sheep. The Mongols were awestruck.

Galdan’s forces were raiding grain stores at Onggin. However, the Qing garrisons had destroyed the grain stores, denying anything the Dzungars could live on. Having exhausted his other options for food, Galdan was left with little choice but to assault Hami, or try to survive on what little food they had left for the winter. Kangxi, decided to wait until spring, giving ample time for his own horses to fatten up, all the while more and more of the Dzungars abandoned Galdan’s cause and submitted to Kangxi.

This is when an envoy from Galdan reached Kangxi. Apparently, Galdan wanted to surrender. Under pressure from his own followers and out of recognition of his unenviable position, he was forced to play this hand. Kangxi accepted his surrender, but did not expect it to be genuine. It was likely a ploy to buy more time and strength until spring. Kangxi sent the envoy back and gave Galdan seventy days to respond.

Kangxi’s expedition managed to block of Galdan’s escape into Kokonor (Qinghai/Amdo) or Tibet, it caused several thousands of Dzungars to submit to Kangxi and the Mongols who were already friendly to the Qing were only enticed further to remain with the Qing. Yet, Galdan remained alive and Ordos could not support the army Kangxi had brought over for the entire winter. He had no intention to stay any longer than he had, after a 91-day expedition to Ordos, Kangxi returned to Beijing.

Afakv - This map shows the final two expeditions Kangxi made against Galdan. The map also shows Khobdo (Hovd), where Galdan tereated to after the battle of Jao Modo near Urga (modern day Ulaanbaatar). This map is based on Perdue's Map 6, but also draws from various other maps sourced from the internet in order to determine locations of lakes, rivers, cities and the Great Wall.
Map 4: Kangxi’s final expeditions against Galdan

Tying up Loose Ends

Galdan was camped in the Altai Mountains. It was a very long way from Beijing. But as we saw earlier, Kangxi’s determination was not to be underestimated. His personal vendetta against Galdan was so strong that he decided to lead each and every one of these expeditions personally. The only reason he missed Ulan Butong was because of health issues, but even that expedition saw him riding in the army.

The beg (a Turkic term for lord or chieftain) of Hami captured Sebteng Baljur (also spelled Sevdenbaljir), the son of Galdan and Anu, who was 14 years old. The beg delivered the boy to Kangxi. Which was a blow not only to Galdan, but also to Tsewang Rabtan. Tsewang Rabtan demanded the boy be delivered to him, because he would be a powerful tool to leverage against Galdan. For this reason, the Hami beg feared Tsewang Rabtan would retaliate, so he decided to seek protection from Kangxi. With this, the first Turkic Muslim oasis city joined the Qing Empire. Tsewang Rabtan himself, eager to see Galdan’s end, decided to cooperate with Kangxi, for the time being.

In quick succession, the Princes of Kokonor also submitted to Kangxi. This was only the second of the two times ever before that this area had become part of one Empire together with the Chinese heartlands. Furthermore, the sDe-pa, Galdan’s long time friend and ally, had lost faith in Galdan’s chances. He denied having ever been a supporter of Galdan and attempted to appease Kangxi. So, Tibet, Kokonor and Tsewang Rabtan had all entered in an understanding with the Qing. Now, Kangxi did not have to worry about others interfering in his pursuit of Galdan. As can be seen, the defeat of Galdan had a profound effect on the balance of power in what are now the border regions of China. It was a watershed moment for the Dzungar Khanate as well as the Qing Empire.

At any rate, the Qing armies had no need to bring out the artillery. Galdan’s forces had shrunk to only 500 or 600 men. Kangxi planned to send 6000 fast travelling horsemen to deal with what remained of Galdan out from Jiayuguan and Ningxia. This time, he travelled within the Great Wall, he passed through the Shanxi province and Southern Ordos, passing through Yulin, until he reached Ningxia on the 17th of April, 1697, after 51 days of marching.

Here, Yu Chenglong, the Grain Transport Commissioner who had painstakingly supplied the previous campaigns as well, was preparing to necessary supplies to reach the Altai Mountains. Kangxi spent 19 days in Ningxia planning the logistics of the expedition. When all was set, he travelled by boat to Baita on the bend of the Yellow River north of Ningxia on the 19th of May. From there he would send off his troops. He expected the next time he would see them, they surely would bring Galdan with them, dead or alive. Things were coming to a head and Kangxi was eager to see the end.

Until the Bitter End

When Kangxi arrived in Ningxia mid-April, the Qing envoys sent to negotiate Galdan’s terms of surrender arrived in Galdan’s camp. At that time, Galdan and three hundred of his men still roamed in destitution in the valleys of the Altai. What little followers he had lost faith in Galdan. A man called Urjanjab told Galdan “We have followed you until the end… but now we cannot bear it anymore.” The envoys spoke of Kangxi’s generous offers, that those who surrendered would be pardoned. Galdan’s nephew Danjila was enticed by the stories he heard of Kangxi’s display of wealth in Ordos, Noyan Gelong, another follower of Galdan, was tempted by the prospect of remaining lords and prospering under Kangxi. It was clear to the remnants of Galdan’s forces that they only had two options: submission or death. Yet, for all their arguments and efforts, it seemed impossible for Galdan’s aides to convince their sovereign to surrender. The negotiations bore no fruit, so the envoys left. In low spirits, Galdan’s aides left for their own tents.

We have followed you until the end… but now we cannot bear it anymore.

Urjanjab, follower of galdan

Galdan was a proud Khan, convinced of the justice in punishing the Jebzongdanba Khutukhtu and avenging his brother. His name was Galdan, the Bushuktu Khan, by the will of the divine, son of the daunting Batur Hongtaiji, stalwart defender of the Dalai Lama and valiant leader of the Dzungars. He was the radiant star that would guide the path for all Mongols. He could not forsake the unwavering faith his slain wife placed in him. For Galdan, one thing remained certain, whatever his followers might decide: the Khan does not kneel.

On the 4th of April, 1697, between Khobdo (Hovd) and the Kara Usu (Khar Us) lake, Galdan passed away. There is speculation about his manner of death. Most likely he was betrayed by his followers and poisoned to death. It is recorded that before he died he lamented: “I believed that the Dzungars were a good people; I did not expect them to be so faithless” (Perdue 202).


The reader will no doubt notice that Galdan perished one month and a half before Kangxi even departed for Baita. The preparations and planning Kangxi and Yu Chenglong made were for naught. Nevertheless, the news of Galdan’s demise reached Kangxi on his way back to Beijing. When he returned to the capital city, he was welcomed not only as a hero, but as a triumphant Great Khan. People lined the streets and prostrated themselves in worship of the Emperor. The one who vanquished Galdan, the mighty conqueror of Altishahr and the great menace to the Kazakhs and the Khalkha.

As for the remains of Galdan. Danjila, his nephew, wanted to take his ashes to the Dalai Lama, but he was intercepted by Tsewang Rabtan. Kangxi, as per Chinese custom, wanted to crush both the material and spiritual remains of his rival, to rid his essence from existence. Kangxi also wanted him to hand over Galdan’s remaining children, his daughter Zunchihai. Tsewang Rabtan, though his uncle Galdan tried to murder him, was hesitant to hand over family to Kangxi, who wanted to execute Galdan’s children and pulverise Galdan’s remains. Kangxi was displeased with his hesitation and moved his weight around to froce Tsewang’s hand. Left with little choice, Tsewang Rabtan pleaded for Kangxi to show mercy to the children and conceded on handing over both the family and the remains of Galdan.

When the remains arrived, Kangxi ordered Galdan’s bones to be crushed and scattered to the wind. He reneged on his initial plans to execute his son Sebteng Baljur. Instead, in a magnanimous mood, he pardoned almost every single follower of Galdan. Sebteng Baljur was given a wife and a position in the Imperial Bodyguard and Zunchihai was allowed to live with her brother in Beijing, where they stayed until their deaths. Many of the Dzungars were allowed to settle with the Chahar Mongols. The Muslims from Altishahr who had marched alongside Galdan were spared as well.


1698 marked the end of an era. The ambitious hero-king Galdan had competed with what history would record as one of the wisest rulers in Chinese Imperial history and lost. One wonders where Galdan could have taken the Mongols if he had won at Jao Modo or Ulan Butong. Nonetheless, the death of Galdan by no means meant the defeat of the Dzungars. Tsewang Rabtan was left to assume the mantle of Galdan, and led the Dzungars to broader horizons than before. A new day was dawning on the boundless steppes and vast deserts of Xinjiang and Mongolia. As Galdan and Kangxi’s era faded, Yongzheng and Galden Tseren would emerge as the next titans of the battlefield, turning the wheel of destiny as their predecessors had before them.

What can be extracted from this history is the danger of separation and internecine conflicts. Neither the Qing nor the Dzungars could have made any significant headway into Khalkha territory if the tribes were but united. Why must brother fight brother, Mongol fight Mongol if danger is looming just beyond the Great Wall and lake Baikal? Taking a wider view of history, the idea of separation, people and tribes vying for more material wealth and power, that is what lay at the root of their pain and suffering. Of course, it’s easy to talk. The scarce resources of the steppes and the Russian and Qing closing in on valuable pasturing ground made the struggle for grasslands that much more severe. What to do when you can’t bear to watch your children starve or be enslaved by the next tribe over? So, instead of aiming their composite bows at the forces surrounding them and retaking their old pastures, they shot their arrows at each other. Galdan had the vision of uniting the Mongols to form a mighty power against the outside. Alas, fate had a different fate in store for Galdan.


  1. Millward, James A., and Peter C. Perdue. “Political and Cultural History of the Xinjiang Region through the Late Nineteenth Century.” Essay. In Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland, edited by S. Frederick Starr, 27–62. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2015.
  2. Millward, James A. Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  3. Hung, Hing Ming. The Brilliant Reign of the Kangxi Emperor: China’s Qing Dynasty. 2017.
  4. Perdue, Peter C. China Marches West. London: Harvard University Press, 2005.
  5. Beckwith, Christopher I. Empires of the Silk Road. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  6. Hai Chun Liang, Heilong. “kaerka menggu fuqing kaocha.” manzu yanjiu, no. 3 (2008): 48-61.
    海纯良, 黑龙. “喀尔喀蒙古附清考述.” 满族研究, no. 3 (2008): 48-61.
  7. Tyler, Christian. Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang. London: John Murray, 2003.

Hells Canyon Massacre

The date was May 27, 1887 when 34 Chinese miners were murdered, stripped naked, hacked to pieces and then thrown into the Snake River in Oregon. It was the worst massacre of Chinese in the history of the American West and the murderers got off unpunished. Today, 133 years later, we remember this atrocity.

This article is entirely based on the research done by R. Gregory Nokes for his book Massacred for Gold: the Chinese in Hells Canyon, whose dogged research brought to light an episode of history that was largely forgotten, ignored and covered up. The structure of my article shall also vaguely mimic the structure of Nokes’ book. All credits of the research go to him alone.

This article is part of the Asian Pacific American Heritage campaign. Check out the landing page to learn more about this, and to check the other articles in the line up!

Brief Context

Chinese labourers were initially welcomed in the United States due to a labour shortage. They were received with open arms as gold miners, farmhands, common labourers and domestic workers. When the labour shortage ended, the people wanted them gone. The Chinese contribution, specifically to the American West, was great. But it has largely gone underappreciated and unnoticed. One of the largest projects the Chinese worked were the Central Pacific Railroad. During the first two years of construction, white labourers had completed about 50 miles of track. The owners of the project were frustrated at the lack of progress and hired as many as eleven thousand Chinese labourers for the construction of the railway. Indeed, “Chinese workers heroically built a key section of track through California’s rugged Sierra Nevada range, working in tunnels under mountain snowdrifts, risking being buried alive, as some were. Others hung from baskets over sheer granite cliffs to drill holes for dynamite, with an occasional luckless man blasted from his perch” (Nokes 35). The Chinese also worked in large numbers on the Northern Pacific Railroad, Oregon and California Railroad, the Canadian Pacific and the Portland line that connected to the Northern Pacific.

During the 1870s and the 1880s there were some three hundred thousand Chinese present in the US. Violence against them was widespread. After the railroads had been built there was a violent scramble for jobs between all labourers. The whites resented the Chinese for their willingness to work for lower wages, they also resented the Chinese for refusing to join in strikes for higher wages and their role as strikebreakers. The whites were angry that the Chinese took jobs that they felt rightfully belonged to whites. Ultimately, in 1882, the American Congress pandered to the anti-Chinese sentiment which was gripping the nation and enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; an act that attempted to solve the Chinese problem by barring any Chinese from emigrating to the US for a decade, which was later extended well into the twentieth century.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was ineffective. The worst violence occurred after the act was passed – and arguably, the Hells Canyon Massacre of 1887 was the worst of these events.

The Victims

Eleven names are know of the 34 murdered victims:

Chea Po
Chea Sun
Chea Yow
Chea Shun
Chea Cheong
Chea Ling
Chea Chow
Chea Lin-chung
Kong Mun-kow
Kong Nhan
Ah Yow

The exact history of each of the victims is unknown. However, Nokes suggests that the most of the victims came to America by Portland (in 1882, 5000 Chinese arrived in Portland via Hongkong). He further suggests that they were then recruited to lay rails, clear land and grade track beds for the new railroads across the Pacific Northwest. If this was the case for Chea Po and his crew, then they would have also been laid off after the completion of the railway. It is probably that they then sought new opportunities to work as miners.

The miners were natives of Punyu in the city of Guangfu (present day Guangzhou, a.k.a. Canton). Chea Po and his crew were employed by the Sam Yup Company, one of the San Francisco based Chinese Six Companies, which were officially called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. The Sam Yup Company represented labourers from Shuntak 顺德, Punyu 番禺 and Namhoi 南海, all areas in and around Guangzhou.

Chinese miners were active since the 1860s in the US. Lewiston experiences a gold rush in the 1860s, but after most of the easy gold was mined out, it experienced a bust. The town began to grow only by the 1880s. The main way of sustaining themselves by this point was through growing wheat. Of the 782 inhabitants, 60 were Chinese. Regrettably, but not unexpectedly, the white miners viewed the Chinese as intruders and established white-only mining districts. Nokes gives the example of the Oro Fino mining district edict of April 14 which proclaimed “the complete exclusion of the Chinese and Asiatic races and the South Pacific Ocean Islanders from the mines” (31). However, the whites who settled Lewiston in the 1860s had a get-rich-quick mentality, after mining the easily accessible gold, they would be happy to sell their claims to the Chinese. It is then that the Chinese moved in in greater numbers, Oro Fino counted 550 Chinese miners as opposed to 120 whites in 1866. In fact, there were many Chinese miners: in 1870, in Idaho Territory, 4000 out of 6500 miners were Chinese. In Oregon, 2500 out of 4000 miners were Chinese.

My Beloved Wife:

It has been several autumns now since
your dull husband left you for a far remote alien land.
Thanks to my hearty body I am all right.
Therefore, stop embroidering worries about me.

Yesterday I received another of your letters.
I could not keep the tears from running down my cheeks when thinking
about the miserable and needy circumstances of our home,
and thinking back to the time of our separation.

Because of our destitution I went out, trying to make a living.
Who could know that the fate is always opposite to a man's design?
Because I can get no gold, I am detained in this secluded corner of a strange land.
Furthermore, my beauty, you are implicated in an endless misfortune.

I wish this paper would console you a little.
That is all that I can do for now...

An unsigned and undated letter found in the Kam Wah Chung store in John Day, Oregon. Translated in 1975 by Chia-lin Chen. This letter reflected the loneliness and destitution many of the Chinese labourers felt during their time in the US.

Chinese gold miners, Photograph by Haxeltine, M. M.

The leaders of the Chinese mining party were Chea Po and Lee She and were possibly veteran miners with decades of experience. In the Autumn of 1886, a party of miners led by Chea and Lee embarked on boats at Lewiston to travel down the Snake River to head south into Hells Canyon. They travelled upstream by dragging their boats with ropes and poles along the shoreline. On their voyage they would likely have stopped frequently to pan for gold. Such a voyage would have taken them weeks. The last leg of their journey would have been the most exhausting. Once they entered the Hells Canyon, the deepest Canyon in North America, the steep cliff sides would make it nearly impossible for them to pull their boats along with the ropes and poles.

Chea Po and Lee She moved separately after Chea decided to set up camp at Deep Creek. Lee She continued twenty miles upstream. Chea, however, appeared to have struck gold, literally. Chea’s crew remained in the area for the following eight months, extracting a considerable amount of wealth from that area.

The Murdering Bandits

Bruce “Blue” Evans was a murderer (he killed Thomas J. Douglas in 1883) and a rustler who operated on the Oregon side of the Snake River. He lived an outwardly honest life as a horse herder with his young wife. His crew consisted of schoolboys and small-time ranchers, some of whom were J. Titus Canfield, Hezekiah “Carl” Hughes, Hiram Maynard, Omar LaRue, Robert McMillan and Frank Vaughan. The area was newly settled by the white colonists, as the area, inhabited by the native Wallowa band of Nez Perce, were forced to leave in 1877 under the premise of a false treaty. The isolated fertile and newly conquered region was ideal for criminal pursuits.

Another important actor in the massacre was Frank Vaughan. He managed to convince everyone to believe he was a responsible, upstanding member of the community and was therefore appointed as a special constable while he was part of Evans’ gang.

This cattle-rustling gang remained undetected for over a year. However, by May 1887, the rancher Fred Nodine caught Canfield selling six of his horses with altered brands. Canfield was arrested on the 10th of May but was bailed out by his mother. Shortly after, Vaughan appeared in the Evans hideout with a subpoena ordering him to a court hearing for Canfield. At this point, Evans must have known his horse rustling days were numbered. Nokes speculates that Evans “may have seen the Chinese gold as his ticket out of the county” (Nokes 23).

Canfield was studying at a one-room school at the time. He proposed to his classmates for them to do their country a favour by killing the Chinese miners and get their gold for their trouble. Nokes notes that killing the Chinese was the primary motivation for these schoolboys while the gold came only second (24). Ultimately, it was Canfield who came up with the idea to murder the Chinese, and he was the one who convinced Evans to go along with the plan.

The Massacre

According to Findley (a friend of Vaughan and a contemporary who grew up with many of the gang members), the gang rode down to the Snake River on the 25th of May. They watched the Chinese miners from a hillside but did not commence the shooting. They retired to their hideout for the night, a cabin which belonged to the rancher George Craig.

The following day they some went down to murder the Chinese, others were position on the hillside with high-powered rifles so they could pick off the Chinese from a distance. The gang opened fire on the miners. The miners, according to most accounts, did not resist. After the Chinese were shot to death, the gang hacked the bodies to pieces. They put the bodies into the boat and then scuttled the boat. Some of the corpses that surfaced days later were half decapitated and had severed limbs. The bodies were also stripped naked.

According to Dr. David Stratton, the gang once again returned to the cabin and returned the following day when they shot dead another eight Chinese. They then got onto a boat to a river bar a few miles away, where they killed thirteen more Chinese. After satisfying their bloodlust, they disposed of the bodies by throwing them into the river.


The remains of the Cantonese miners started surfacing in June 1887. The two corpses that were found were horribly mutilated and stripped partially or fully and in terrible condition. Judge Joseph K. Vincent, one of the first to examine these bodies described the massacre as “the most cold-blooded cowardly treachery I have ever heard tell of on this coast” (Nokes 45). Other bodies fell deep into the canyon. George Craig, the owner of the hideout cabin, and his son later found skeletons which had been picked clean by scavenger animals washed up on gravel bars.

News had begun to spread of the massacre. A representative from the Sam Yup Company approached Judge Vincent and offered him a thousand dollars to find the culprits.

Two investigations were launched: one from Lewiston and the other from Wallowa County. Judge Vincent conducted his investigation from Lewiston on the behest of the Sam Yup Company. The Wallowa County investigation started after George Craig discovered the washed up remains on the gravel banks near his cabin. Nokes further explains that the two cases were paid little attention. The inaction of the local authorities spurred the Chinese to seek aid from the federal government. Nothing much happened afterwards either. There simply wasn’t much interest in seeking justice for the Chinese.

In February 1888, the Chinese legation in Washington D.C. told the Secretary of State about the massacre, and it came as news. Judge Vincent, an official U.S. Commissioner, who had been investigating this case since the beginning, apparently hadn’t reported the crime to Washington. Congress was now under some pressure and subsequently approved an indemnity for the Chinese of approximately 150,000 dollars on February 24, 1887. The Chinese legation was dissatisfied with this resolution. They wanted to ensure the protection of Chinese in America, as the Hells Canyon Massacre was far from the only case of violence perpetrated against the Chinese during this period – what comes to mind are the Chinese Massacre of 1871, the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885 and the many inequities and violent pogroms that transpired during the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act a few years prior. It was clear, however, that the United States authorities, whether they were national, state or territorial, had no intention to do anything at all (Nokes 85).


As for the investigation of the murder, Vaughan was arrested. He spilled the beans and confessed. He implicated Canfield, Hughes, LaRue, Maynard and MacMillan. Due to his confession, he was let off without a charge. The implicated gang members were arrested by the authorities. Some locals were much dismayed and attempted to free these murderers from jail. A petition was signed by, ironically, thirty-four prominent county members who claimed the gang members were being detained illegally. The petition was granted. Maynard, Hughes and MacMillan were released once their bonds were paid.

Contrarily, other locals could not abide by this injustice, such as the former U.S. Senator named James Slater. He wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney for Oregan, L.L. McArthur, in which he explained the case of the massacred Chinese. He requested that the state send men and resources to track down Evans, Canfield and LaRue. Sadly, his correspondence bore no fruit.

By this time, Vincent had ceased to investigate. The Chinese had given up on him as well, since he seemed less interested in achieving results than to receive payment from the Chinese. Like so, any hope that the gang would be punished for the murdering and looting of the 34 Cantonese miners was extinguished. Due to these developments, the Chinese authorities attempted to gain financial compensation in lieu of justice, but that is a story for another time.


Racism, xenophobia, greed. These are all powerful motivators that lurk beneath the veneer of civility. History tells us time and again that this veneer is ever so thin. Once scratched, it reveals the base nature of many a noble Anglo-Saxon or any other people that claim civilisational or racial superiority over others. Learning of such history forces one to pose whether the driving factors of the Hells Canyon Massacre are truly gone or not. The answer, sadly, is a resounding not. Recently, the COVID-19 induced panic has certainly scratched the civil veneers off of many previously civil or tolerant people. We see a rise in violence against Asian-Americans (and indeed Asian-Europeans as well as Asian-Australians) simply because they look Chinese. The anti-Chinese sentiment that is doing the rounds these days reminds of the grim days of the 1870s. What must we, as reasonable people, do to prevent history from repeating itself? I think we can start by remembering the Hells Canyon Massacre. It should not be forgotten, just as the Rock Springs Massacre, the Chinese Massacre and many other similar violent episodes must not be forgotten – they must all serve as grim reminders of what happens when ignorance and greed are allowed to triumph over reason and principle.


Nokes, R. Gregory. Massacred for Gold: the Chinese in Hells Canyon. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009.

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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Sunburnt Dragon: The Treaty of Shimonoseki

Today we remember 17 April 1895, the day Qing Empire and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki 下関条約/馬關條約. After losing horrendously against the Japanese Empire, The Qing Empire gave up its suzerain status over Korea. Liaodong, Penghu (the Pescadores) and Taiwan were officially ceded to Japan. Qing China was forced to pay 200 million taels (兩 liang/ryō; in total 8 million kilograms) of silver to Japan. Japanese merchant vessels were henceforth allowed to operate on the Changjiang 長江 (Yangtze River) and four more Chinese ports, including the inland river port of Chongqing, were opened to foreign trade. This marked the end of the Qing Empire’s naval capacities through the destruction of the Beiyang Fleet. The Qing boasted the eighth strongest navy in the world before the war. It also significantly lowered the Qing Empire’s prestige in the world and propelled Japan to the forefront in international politics as a new and serious contender for regional dominance. The abysmal performance of the Qing military had dire consequences. On the international stage, Western powers were beginning to adjust their attitude to the Qing Empire: it was clear that the Qing were not to be feared or respected.

The First Sino-Japanese War

Historical Context

The First Sino-Japanese war is referred to in China as the Jiawu Zhanzheng 甲午战争 (Jiawu War), in Japan as the Nisshin sensō 日清战争 (Japan-Qing War) and in Korea as the Cheong-il-jeon-jaeng 清日战争 (Qing-Japan War). Japan and Qing China of the 19th early century seem to be in similar situations. Both countries had largely agrarian economies, were based on feudal societies, most of their denizens were self-sufficient subsistency farmers, and the West sought an open door policy with both Japan and the Qing Empire, since both of them practised isolationism. In order to do so, the West used their specialty, violence, to blast open the door to both countries. Nevertheless, that is where the superficial similarities end. One will find that Japan and Qing China were in essentially different positions when the economical, political and societal background of the two countries are examined more thoroughly.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was the last dynasty in China to be ruled by an Emperor. China’s power was extremely centralised as absolute rulership rested in the hands of the Emperor. The country’s generated wealth was overwhelmingly agrarian and had been so for a very long time, therefore, the Qing believed acquiring wealth from land was the only correct way to generate wealth. As such, the Empire sought to contain any forms of diversification or free development of commerce. These ideas were closely guarded by the Empire’s officials. Government officials were selected from candidates who passed the Imperial Exams, who would be fully immersed in the Imperial ideals. Dissenting thoughts had little chance of taking root, making the Chinese Imperial system stable and resistant to change. There was little leeway for the incorporation of new ideas.

The Xianfeng Emperor (reign 1850-1861) absolutely despised anything Western and had therefore no desire to deal equally with the West. This “Dulimbai Gurun” (Land of the Centre), was the centre of the universe which had no need for trade with barbarous fringe lands such as France and the US. The Qing Empire stood high and mighty above all others. Receiving these countries as equals would have meant the lowering of prestige for the Xianfeng Emperor and the Qing Empire. The Qing gates remained closed.

The Opium Wars (1st 1839-1842; 2nd 1856-1860) were the first two of the thrashings the Qing Empire received for the belief that closing the border to the West was an effective strategy. Of course, being defeated in war says nothing about your inferiority or superiority as a civilisation. Might does not make right. Yet, the Manchu Qing, being conquerors themselves, did believe in “might makes right,” since they conquered the more culturally developed Ming Dynasty and defined the superiority of Manchu culture through military victory. Evidently, the High Qing had a highly militarised culture and placed immense emphasis on the might of arms (Waley-Cohen, 5). Their military prowess necessarily meant the superiority of their civilisation and culture (26). During the Late Qing, the Manchus had to deal with these humiliating defeats that were a historical anomaly rather than a rule for the expansionist Qing.

Naturally, the Qing Empire sought to strengthen their military to rectify this historical anomaly of being weak. They responded quickly, the Self-Strengthening Movement was born in 1861.

The Tokugawa/Edo period (1603-1868) can be characterised by harsh laws, strict authority and low social mobility, all of this to ensure the preservation of the Shogun’s power. De-facto power was held by the Shogun with his seat in Edo (modern day Tokyo) and did not lie with the Emperor in Kyoto. This Shogun was the liege lord of the regional daimyō, who were able to rule in relative autonomy with their own armies and right to carry-out justice. The daimyō commanded a class of retainers. This was truly a feudal system.

By the end of the 18th century a capitalist economy was budding in Japan. This period saw the rise of wealthy farmers and the merchant class. In Japan, the inheritance of land was hereditary and family status was hereditary. So, while the wealthy merchants were gaining wealth, there was little possiblity for them to gain much political power due to their inability to own land. As can be expected, this proved to be problematic for the stability of the Tokugawa reign. By the mid 19th century, the traditional agriculture based natural economy of Japan had changed.

The change in the economic structure of Japan gave the governors of Japan a new challenge: to resist or not to resist. Most of the governors opted to maintain the established order by protecting the established feudal system. One of the main ways they attempted to do so was by implenting the sakoku 鎖国 policy; secluding Japan from the rest of the world for 220 years. While peace in the land and stability of the regime was maintained, the West was striding ahead in industry and military technology.

This is when the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 and 1854 to force Japan open through gunboat diplomacy. Japan was humiliated, it was forced to sign two unequal treaties that would prove to be extremely unpopular with the clans that fought against the Tokugawa forces at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, who were already dissatisfied due to their systematical exclusion from influential positions in the Shogunate. Through the Emperor’s uncharacteristic involvement in politics, with orders being given to expel the foreigners, the sparks of rebellion were struck.

This set off a period known as the Bakumatsu 幕末, it sparked the Boshin War which spelled the ultimate end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or the Bakufu 幕府. It also saw the establishment of the Meiji government and the restoration of power to the Japanese Emperor.

Mizuno Toshikata, “Captain Awata“. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper. Published in 1895. (Image is cropped and mirrored)


Chinese Substance, Western Application

The Manchu military commanders of the late Qing dynasty attempted to strengthen their armies by adopting new technology. They thought that adopting new weapons while maintaining the old military structure and hierarchy was sufficient.

The influential Confucian scholar Feng Guifen 馮桂芬 (1809-1874) noted that although France and England were hundreds of times smaller than the Qing, they were much more powerful. He accredited their success to their great skill in four areas: utilising all human resources, exploiting the soil to the fullest, maintaining close bonds between ruler and subject and ensuring the accord of word with deed. The first task at hand for the Qing to grow stronger was that they had to learn one thing from the foreigners: to have “strong ships and sharp cannon” (船坚炮利) (Spence, 189).

Statesman and scholar Zeng Guofan 曾国藩 (1811-1872) was thoroughly convinced by Feng’s arguments. Machines and technology were imported from the West. They were installed in an arsenal in Shanghai. In 1868, the first Chinese built steam ship, the SS Tianqi, was launched. Soon, at the Shanghai and Fuzhou arsenals schools for mechanics and navigation were opened.

Yooningga dasan Hvwangdi
The Tongzhi Emperor
Japanese Spirit, Western Technique

The Japanese military commanders of the late Tokugawa period attempted to strengthen their traditional militaries by adopting new technology. They soon realised that adapting new technology required an organisational change as well (Jaundril 5).

The military reform and the attempt to modernise was initiated by the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, the efforts implemented by the Shogunate were too sporadic to truly modernise the Japanese military. Merely adopting Western “musketry” in existing military units was not thorough enough of a change. A sufficient change in organisation would have meant the revitalisation or disbandment of the old military system, needless to say, the stubborn forces behind the traditionalists made progress in this area difficult, even after the Shogunate fell.

The Meiji Restoration had as its goal not to abandon Japanese culture in favour of Western culture. On the contrary, the borrowing of Western technology was in order to strengthen the country and therefore to allow it to return to an idealised past. The Western models were tools to be used, the Japanese soul, or spirit, was to be maintained as the foundation of the Empire.

Meiji tennō

The Self-Strengthening Movement was effective. A period known as the Tongzhi Restoration commenced. New structures were developed for collecting customs and handling foreign relations. Modern ships and modern weapons were constructed, international law and modern science were being taught in schools. The Manchus and the Chinese worked together to preserve traditional culture by selectively choosing what Western learning to adopt. Things were looking up for the Qing Empire until the Qing lost its prospects for strong leadership when the Tongzhi Emperor died in 1875 at the age of 18 due to overindulgence in pleasure seeking among the Imperial Harem and imbibing too much alcohol (Spence, 208).

His mother, the famous Empress-Dowager Cixi, continued to take the reins, reigning the Empire. She appointed Guangxu, a nephew of hers, as the new Emperor. He was from the same generation as Tongzhi, and therefore violated Imperial succession laws. The Tongzhi Emperor was survived by his pregnant wife, Empress Xiaozheyi (the daughter of Chongqi, the Mongol Nobleman mentioned in War in China: the Ravishment of the North). 100 days after the death of Tongzhi, Empress Xiaozheyi and her unborn child died under suspicious circumstances, securing Guangxu’s position as Emperor and Cixi’s position as the regent.

The strength of the Qing waned. Many of the prominent and capable proponents of modernisation either fell out of favour, were preoccupied quelling rebellions or died. Henceforth, the Qing Empire’s modernisation efforts were largely initiated by one man; Li Hongzhang 李鸿章 (1823-1901). He continued to push for reforms in educational, entrepreneurial and diplomatic areas and made great strides doing so. Especially in his efforts buildings arsenals, railways, telegraph and educational systems.

Li Hongzhang managed to construct the state-of-the-art Beiyang navy funded by custom-taxes and new trade taxes. The Qing, by this time, had many soldiers, but no one commanded them centrally. The Qing succeeded in modernising the military equipment in the newly trained armies, but failed to modernise its organisation. Therefore, the problem with Qing forces wasn’t the hardware. The weakness was its political disorganisation and the conflicting interests of the many involved actors (Hayford, 100).

That said, the reforms the Meiji Restoration made to Japan were thorough and revolutionary. One of the first things to be tackled was the monbatsu 门阀: land reforms were enacted. The traditional Japanese domains ruled by daimyō were dismantled, liberating the government from traditional social structures. The land-tax reforms then provided the government with a steady stream of revenue. The government also implemented education and nationwide conscription. The latter of which caused no small degree of protest among commoners not wanting to go to war, and the traditional military not wanting to lose its positions and prestige. Nevertheless, these reforms formed the basis of Japan’s strength (Beasley, 8).

As for what the Meiji regime did to modernise the Japanese military, the transformation of the Japanese military from “an aspect of social status into a national obligation” was a 40 year effort initiated by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Tokugawa Shogunate failed to realise total reform because the traditional military system was inextricably linked to the sociopolitical order of the Feudal Bakuhan system 幕藩体制. So, these social structures formed as a barrier to modernisation of the military. The dismantling of the domains and their militaries paved the way for the Meiji government to implement their revolutionary Conscription Ordinance in 1873.

Becoming a soldier was now a patriotic duty and legal obligation for all Japanese men. This allowed for the maximum moblisation of Japanese subjects. Japan then faced the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. This rebellion forced the leaders to halt their reforming and modernisation efforts to focus on acquiring firepower to defeat the rebels. It was a also a “dress rehearsal” for national mobilisation and long-term campaigns. The victory over the rebels solidified the position of the universal military service (Jaundrill, 181).

After the rebellion, the Japanese military underwent a thorough campaign in modernising and restructuring their national army. The Japanese military administration was standardised, the language in the Conscription Ordinance was refined and a program of ideological education was instituted. This approach was extremely effective and made the Japanese army well-organised, well-staffed and well-trained, just in time for the First Sino-Japanese War (Jaundrill, 181).


The First Sino-Japanese war broke out over long brewing animosity between the Japanese and the Qing Empires over Korea. The Qing was emerging from a whole avalanche of problems including some of the bloodiest and most devastating rebellions in human history. To sum them up: the most prominent were the Eight Trigrams Revolt (1813), the Taiping (1851-1866), the Nian (1851-1868), the Panthay (1855-1873), the Dungan (1862-1873), and Xinjiang Rebellions (1862-1878). While the Qing regime proved remarkably resilient surviving for as long as it did, it had no real feasible strategies planned to resist the encroaching Western powers. The Japanese Empire had been making its moves, conquering places such as Ryukyu (present day Okinawa) and sailing to Taiwan in a punitive expedition. The next step in Japan’s grand strategy was to take Korea. They were aware of Russian ambitions and attempted to prevent the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway by seizing Korea, thereby thwarting Russian ambitions in East-Asia (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 17). Japan wanted to change the regional balance of power and come out on top. The Qing Empire refused to cede its suzerain status over Korea, refused to acknowledge Japan as equals even, while it held on to its pride and prestige as the regional suzerain. Alas, the superiority of the Qing was of a bygone era.

By this period, Joseon Korea was an extremely isolated feudal state ruled by the Korean king under vassalage of the Qing Empire. Their isolation policy was much more strict than either the Qing or Japan’s. It was strict to such a degree as to become known as the Forbidden Country (Olender, 14). Japan and Qing had long been engaged in a rivalry over Korean support since the 1870’s. The Qing backed the conservative Korean proponents, such as Queen Myeongseong’s (명성/明成) clan, and the Japanese backed the reformists. In 1885, a clash between Qing and Japanese troops occurred due to an attack on the Royal Palace, perpetrated by the Japanese aligned reformist Kim Ok-gyun (김옥균/金玉均), killing conservative officials. Kim Ok-gyun, however, had made a fatal miscalculation, the Qing troops stationed in Seoul outnumbered the Japanese troops 7 to 1. The Japanese were forced out the Korean capital. The rebellion achieved the exact opposite of what Kim Ok-gyun intended, reformers were exiled or executed, the conservative position was strengthened and Chinese influence expanded. In the same year, Japan and the Qing Empire agreed to withdraw their troops from Korea. Korea was now under combined protection from both Qing and Japan. In the ensuing years, the Qing slowly regained some of its lost influence, both economically and politically. Japan was at a disadvantage and had to act if it wanted to grasp Korea.

In March 1894, the Tonghak Rebellion (동학농민혁명/ 東學農民革命) broke out. It was a strongly religious anti-feudal, anti-foreign peasant rebellion which threatened the Korean regime. King Gojong of Korea (고종/高宗) called for aid from the Qing. The Qing, somewhat reluctant, sent a small detachment of troops to Asan in Korea and informed the Japanese of this move. The Japanese responded by sending some troops to Jemulpo (present day Incheon). The rebellion melted away upon hearing of the Qing intervention, but the Qing would only recall its troops if Japan did so too. Japan had no intention of doing so (Orlender, 16).


Japan initiated the war without a declaration of war, as seems typical for the Japanese Empire. On the 25th of July 1894, three Japanese cruisers launched a naval attack on two Qing warships sailing home from Asan. This battle, the Battle of Pungdo 豐島 (Ma. Fengdao; Ja. Hoto-oki), marked the beginning of the First Sino-Japanese War. While pursuing the fleeing ships, the Japanese cruisers stumbled upon the Gaosheng 高陞 (a.k.a. Kowshing), a British ship leased by the Qing to transfer 1,100 soldiers and officers to Korea. The Qing generals refused to listen to Japanese demands to follow them into port. The crew on the Gaosheng mutinied and demanded to return to Dagu 大沽. After some fruitless negotiations, Captain Tōgō Heihachirō ordered the Gaosheng to be sunk, drowning all Qing soldiery aboard. On the same day, the Japanese skirmished against Qing troops in the Battle of Soenghwan (a.k.a. Battle of Asan), just south of Seoul, which had now been occupied by Japanese forces. The 4,000 Japanese under Ōshima Yoshimasa 大島 義昌 (great great grandfather of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō) assaulted the Qing forces, also 4,000 strong, and won by outflanking the Qing forces. The Qing, under commander Ye Zhichao 葉志超, fled with the remainder of his forced to Pyongyang 平壤 . As a response to these hostilities, the Qing declared war on the 31st of July (Olender, 56). Japan then declared war on August 1st, 1894 (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 21).

Li Hongzhang had hoped to avoid war with Japan. His adopted son Li Jingfang had been minister of Japan from 1890 to 1892 and had just returned to reinform his adoptive father about Japan. Li Hongzhang was therefore well aware of Japan’s strength. Alas, Japan was well-prepared for war and had drawn up their battle plans long beforehand. Li Hongzhang, who was now in charge of the war efforts, was apprehensive. His plan was to draw out the war, as he knew the Japanese were at a disadvantage in a prolonged campaign, the burden would be too great on Japan’s economy. So, time was in favour of the Qing. Indeed, Li Hongzhang’s plan was to fight the Japanese on land in Korea, and if these failed, he would continue to fight them on land, so as to wear them down in a war of attrition. Even though his Beiyang Fleet was state-of-the-art, he opted not to use these ships in this war. He wanted to use them to defend the capital and prevent Japanese landing parties to threaten the Capital, but mainly, he wanted to preserve the navy to fight Japan another day.

Li Hongzhong: the man who fought an entire nation all by himself.
Image: Li Hung Chang in 1896. Mrs. Archibald Little (1903). Li Hung-Chang: His Life and Times. London: Cassell & Company.

The Battle of Pyongyang

By September, the Qing had sent 13,000 men of the Beiyang Army to Korea, well equipped armies with ample supplies in order to defend Pyongyang and seize the Korean peninsula from the Japanese. They had no contingency plan, and essentially hoped for the best. This was in stark contrast to the Japanese who had drawn up plans of action for each phase of the war and eventual worst-case scenarios, including homeland defence (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 28).

On the 15th and 16th of September, the Japanese army, 10,000 strong, under Lieutenant-General Nozu Michitsura 野津 道貫, launched a three-pronged assault on Pyongyang. Lieutenant-General Nozu led the Main Division which approached from the Southwest. Colonel Satō Tadashi was to lead the Wonson Column as a flanking force and to intercept retreating Qing troops to the Northeast. Major-General Tatsumi Naofumi was to lead the Sangnyong Column as another flanking force. Finally, Major-General Ōshima Yoshimasa was to lead the Combined Brigade in a frontal assault from the South (Elleman, 100). There were several Qing armies present at Pyongyang with ill-coordinated commanding generals: 3,000 under Ma Yuguan, 3,500 under Zuo Baogui and 6,000 under Wei Rugui and 1,500 under Nie Guilin (Elleman, 99).

The Main Division commenced the attack in the early morning of September 15th. The battle lasted for twelve hours. The Combined Brigade attacked as well and took some of the redoubts in the South. The Main Division was repulsed and the Combined Brigade was unable to hold those redoubts. Meanwhile, the Wonson and Sangnyong Columns had taken the Moktan-tei 牡丹台 fortress North of Pyongyang (Moranbong). This fortress was on an elevated position overlooking the city, and therefore perfect for artillery to be placed in. Eager to end the battle quickly, Major-General Ōshima ordered 54 field guns, now in Moktan-tei, along with Vice-Admiral Itō Sukeyuki’s naval artillery to bombard Pyongyang.

General Zuo Baogui 左寶貴, a Hui Muslim, was determined to die before he surrendered. He performed ablutions (ghusl) before the battle in preparation to meet Allah (swt). His Muslim troops offered stiff resistance to the Japanese. Zuo Baogui died to cannonfire while defending the Hyeonmumun 玄武門 (Ma. Xuanwumen, Ja. Genbu-mon), the Northern gate of Pyongyang (Lynn, 44). The improved artillery of the late 19th century made short work of the fortifications, the old veteran commanders who had gained their experience fighting in the Taiping and Nian Rebellions many decades prior, had not taken into account the different nature that artillery had taken on since then (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 29). The Japanese bombardment was too strong and the remaining Qing commanders contemplated retreat or surrender.

In the night following the bombardment, the Qing forces fled. The Battle of Pyongyang was over and the Japanese had won a decisive victory and with it, captured almost all of Korea. This battle was one of the most hard fought battles of the entire war as the Qing forces fought valiantly with Zuo Baogui being praised especially for his courage (Elleman, 101). Superior training, organisation and tactics, however, were not to be overcome by valiance and courage alone.

A popular imagination of the taking of Hyeonmumun (Genbu-mon) by private Harada Jūkichi 原田重吉氏. He was reported to have scaled the walls and opened the gates by himself, letting his comrades into the city. It is rumoured that the actual soldier who climbed the wall and opened the gates was Matsumura Aktaro. On the background the Chinese flag with the character bao 寶 can be seen. This is the second character in Zuo Baogui’s name, who defended this gate and gave his life doing so. Image: Mizuno Toshikata, The First to Reach Genbu Gate.

The Battle of Yalu

Ding Ruchang 丁汝昌, another hardened veteran from the Taiping and Nian wars, was the commanding admiral of the Beiyang Fleet. He had pushed for a more aggressive strategy, taking the offensive initiative in searching out and engaging the Japanese Fleet. Indeed, it might have been a sound strategy, as all Japanese troops and supplies had to be transported by sea to Korea, the Japanese army was most vulnerable at sea. Nevertheless, Li Hongzhang ordered the Beiyang Fleet not to go beyond the Yalu-Weihaiwei line, freely giving up dominance over the sea to the Japanese. And, much like how Li Hongzhang refused to aid the Southern Fleet during the Sino-French War ten years prior, the Southern Fleet refused to come to Li Hongzhang’s Beiyang Fleet in this war. There is an obvious moral to the story here, but I’ll spare you my preaching for once.

On 17 September, following the Battle of Pyongyang, during a patrol from Yalu to Lüshun, the Beiyang Fleet under Admiral Ding Ruchang was engaged by the Japanese fleet under Vice-Admiral Itō Sukeyuki. The Battle of Yalu commenced. It was a great naval engagement with 10 ships from each Empire facing each other on the open seas. On paper, the Beiyang Fleet had several advantages. The Ding Yuan and Chen Yuan outclassed any of the ships the Japanese possessed and the armouring on both these battleships were too strong for the small calibre Japanese ordnance to penetrate. The rest of the Beiyang Fleet consisted of cruisers smaller and slower than the Japanese cruisers, but with heavier guns 200mm guns that outranged the Japanese fleet. However, in reality the Beiyang Fleet had several weaknesses from the get go. The tactics adopted by the Ding Ruchang were flawed. He formed a line abreast with his ships, but placed the weakest ships on the flanks, this left them vulnerable to be eliminated one by one by the enemy navy. Vice-Admiral Itō capitalised on this error and sent out Rear-Admiral Tsuboi Kōzō and his Flying Squadron to destroy the right flank. Admiral Ding responded by changing the formation, putting his own flagship Ding Yuan at risk, but putting the rest of his ships in good position to fire.

Vice-Admiral Itō sent the Flying Squadron out in order to break up the Beiyang formation. The Flying Squadron was to pass the right flank of the Beiyang line. Vice-Admiral Itō then planned to attack in the rear, forcing the Beiyang fleet to have to make a 180 degrees turn, which in practise was impossible, thus throwing the entire formation into disarray. The Main Squadron would then move in to destroy the battleship while the Flying Squadron take care of the rest. In a stroke of luck, one of the shots fired destroyed the signalling mast on the Ding Yuan, crippling the Beiyang Fleet’s ability to give out orders. The various Qing vessels were truly on their own now. The Japanese cruisers sunk 4 Qing ships and got away without having lost a single ship themselves.

Deng Shichang

Many of the Japanese ships were heavily damaged, but had managed to stay afloat due to many of the Qing shots not exploding as they were filled with cement and porcelain. Also, many shots were of the incorrect calibre, making them unable to be fired. The fact is, much of the Beiyang ammunition had been condemned. The Beiyang fleet had a serious ammunition shortage caused by corruption as its funds were embezzled. Indeed, out of frustration, Captain Deng Shichang 鄧世昌 ordered to ram the Yoshino with his own cruiser, the Zhiyuan. Underway, his ship was torpedoed and sank. Deng Shichang was determined to go down with the ship. His dog swam to the Captain in an attempt to save him. They never surfaced. If the Beiyang fleet had proper ammunition, they “might have carried the day” (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 31). As it stood, Japan came away victorious and gained command of the sea. The morale of the Beiyang Fleet was shattered and never again took to open waters.

The Great Victory of the Battle of Haiyang Island (alternative name for the Battle of Yalu)

The Battle of Jiuliancheng

The first phase of the Japanese plan as envisioned by General Yamagata Aritomo 山縣 有朋, Commander-in-Chief of the 1st Army of Japan, was to quickly take Korea. The second phase would then be invading the Manchurian homeland of the ruling Qing Manchus and to threaten the historical capital of Mukden (a.k.a. Fengtian or Shenyang). Another Army would strike Shandong and then aim for Beijing and the 3rd Army, still in Hiroshima, would land at Dagu (near Tianjin) and strike directly at Beijing (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 32). This plan was mainly risky because it relied on their command of the sea, which was not guaranteed at all at the start of the war. Yet, after the previous two remarkably successful battles, both the sea and Korea belonged to Japan. It seems everything was going according to plan. Japan had achieved its operational goals within two months and taken very few losses while doing so. It was now time to launch the second phase.

The Qing troops retreated to the Yalu river, the border between China and Korea. Viceroy Li Hongzhang had restructured the army after the defeat at Pyongyang and made Song Qing the commander. Jiuliancheng guarded the Yalu river and were the headquarters of the Qing military in this region, it was widely regarded as impregnable. 28,000 Qing soldiers defended Jiuliancheng. General Song Qing fortified the Northern banks of the Yalu river for seven miles one way and ten miles the other.

In October, General Yamagata Aritomo arrived in Uiji, on the Southern side of the Yalu River. On October 24th, General Yamagata sent a small flanking force led by Colonel Satō upstream across the Yalu River. They faced heavy fire, but were successful in crossing. Satō’s plan was to attack the village of Hushan from the rear, where a number of the Beiyang troops were stationed. The main force of the Japanese would attack Hushan from the front. On the morning of the 25th, the Japanese forces constructed a pontoon bridge across a normally unfordable section of the deep and wide river. Hushan was attacked from two directions. The Japanese artillery again decimated the defenders inside the fort. General Yamagata laid siege to Hushan. The fort fell by noon. The rest of the day was spent in preparation for the assault on the city Jiuliancheng which would take place on the early morning of the 26th.

The Japanese forces divided in three columns to approach the city. To their surprise, they faced no resistance. The Japanese had scouts scale the walls and found out that the Qing had abandoned the defence on the night of the 25th. The Beiyang forces had slipped out of the city secretly, and therefore could not destroy the massive amount of supplies they had gathered in Jiuliancheng. The Japanese found 66 cannon, 35,000 shells, 3,300 rifles, three million rounds of ammunition and food supplies that proved to be crucial (Elleman, 105). General Song Qing likely ordered a retreat from this greatly defensible position due to fear of being outflanked by the Japanese 2nd Army. An actual pitched defence likely would have resulted in heavy casualties for the Japanese 1st Army (Paine, The Japanese Empire, 33). Instead, all he succeeded in doing was to give Japan uninhibited access to Manchuria and supplies to help them through the winter months.

Fukushima Toshimitsu, “The Fierce Battle on the Pontoon Bridge at Jiuliancheng,” Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, dated October 1894

The Battle of Lüshunkou

The Japanese 1st Army split into several corps and continued from Jiuliancheng to Fenghuangcheng and chased the Beiyang troops into the Motian Pass. The other took a Northwestern arc, also in in pursuit of the Beiyang troops. The 1st Army combined at Lianshanguan and took it on the 12th of November. The forces that were pursued by the 1st were now pinned here. Making them unavailable for the defence of Lüshun. The 1st Army continued towards Mukden, in order to divert the Qing forces from Lüshun further.

The 2nd Army under Lieutenant-General Yamaji Motoharu was responsible for the taking of Lüshunkou. They landed in the Liaodong Peninsula on the 24th of October, during the Battle of Jiuliancheng. The 2nd faced unfavourable odds against the Qing forces again in Jinzhou. Yet again, the Japanese forces surmounted those odds and defeated the Qing forces. The loss of Jinzhou was significant. The Qing forces previously pinned by the 1st, now moved out to retake Jinzhou. 8,000 men under General Song Qing marched from the Motian Pass to assault Jinzhou, but were defeated.

The Japanese continued to siege down Lüda (a.k.a. Dalian). When the Qing forces fled Lüda in a hurry, they failed to destroy sensitive intelligence, and left the plans for the minefields in Lüda and the defence of Lüshunkou for the Japanese to study. With the minefields circumnavigated, the Japanese had now converted Lüda into a naval base for themselves.

On the 21st of November, General Nogi Maresuke 乃木 希典 assaulted Lüshunkou (a.k.a. Port Arthur). Lüshunkou was well fortified; the fortifications were modern, well situated and well supplied. The fortifications of Lüshunkou took 16 years to build and were considered superior to the defences of Hong Kong (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 197-198). The Japanese, on the other hand, lacked even the proper ammunition for their siege guns. The advantage was once again on the Qing side. The taking of Lüshunkou was by all estimates a very daunting task.

Yet, the lack of communication between the defending forces positioned in the forts around Lüshunkou prevented any kind of co-ordinated defence effort. The Japanese were able to just capture these forts one by one, and used the captured artillery to rout the Qing forces. During the disorganised rout, the Qing left all of the fortifications intact and yet again neglected to destroy present supplies. The Qing Empire had now lost its most advanced naval dockyard and the remnants of the Beiyang Fleet had lost their home base. The Beiyang Fleet fled to Weihaiwei. The Japanese were well aware that in order for them to become the dominant power in the region, the Qing naval capabilities had to be nullified. This goal was now nearly complete.

The Massacre of Lüshunkou

When the Japanese troops entered Lüshunkou, they found that the Qing troops had most barbarously tortured and killed Japanese prisoners of war. Japanese soldiers were found disembowelled, had their eyes gouged out, their hands cut off and their bodies were mutilated in all kinds of ways. James Allan reports: “the bodies of the Japanese soldiers killed in encounters with the enemy as they closed on the place, were often found minus the head or right hand, sometimes both, besides being ferociously gashed and slashed. Corpses were still hanging on the trees when the fortress fell” (Allan, 67). He comments that “it is not surprising that their former comrades should have been maddened by the sight” (68). In total, there were 13 killed and 20 wounded Japanese soldiers (Lone, 158).

The otherwise disciplined and ordinary Japanese soldiery, relieved at their easy victory against the daunting defences at Lüshunkou, spurred on by their contempt of the Chinese and after being enraged at the sight of their many mutilated comrades, finally released all their pent-up frustrations and started a 5-day killing spree which spared no one. Unarmed men, children, women, all perished at the hands of the bloodlusted killer. The entire population of Lüshunkou was massacred. Lone states that “according to Japanese historian Fujimura Michio, up to 60,000 Chinese were murdered by the Japanese army” (Lone, 143). Lone caveats this number by saying that they appear to be inflated. Nevertheless, a large scale massacre eerily similar to the Nanking Massacre took place without a doubt.

As we entered the town of Port Arthur (Lüshunkou), we saw the head of a Japanese soldier displayed on a wooden stake. This filled us with rage and a desire to crush any Chinese soldier. Anyone we saw in the town, we killed. The streets were filled with corpses, so many they blocked our way. We killed people in their homes; […] it was unbounded joy.

Okabe Makio, a soldier in the 1st Army, as quoted in Stewart Peter Lone, Japan’s first modern war : army and society in the conflict with China, 1894-95 (Basingstoke; New York: Macmillan Press ; St. Martin’s Press 1994): 155

Their victory in Lüshunkou would for the first time to foreign observers, show the brutality of the Japanese Military; a grim prelude to the Second Sino-Japanese war. James Creelman, Thomas Cowan and Frederick Villiers were all reporters who became personal eyewitnesses to the carnival of death that followed the fall of Lüshunkou. Their reports on the massacre reached international news and blemished the prestige of the Japanese Empire in Western eyes.

The sign of the Red Cross was jeered at, and in the midst of the orgies of blood and rapine, with troops trampling over the bodies of unarmed victims who lost their homes, the fat field marshall and his generals paced smiling, content at the sound of rifle shots mingling with the music of the national hymn and the clink of wine glasses.

James Creelman, as quoted in Stewart Peter Lone, Japan’s first modern war : army and society in the conflict with China, 1894-95 (Basingstoke; New York: Macmillan Press ; St. Martin’s Press 1994): 163

The sheer scale of the murder and rape made the observers at the time wonder if Japan really had modernised. They claimed Japan was merely wearing the “outward garb civilisation, without having gone through the process of moral and intellectual development necessary to grasp the ideas upon which modern civilisation is founded” (Creelman as quoted in Lone, 163). This critique was hollow. The modern “civilisation” of America still upheld many inhumane institutions and, together with other Western “civilised” nations, wreaked havoc upon Asian, African, American or Australian nations.

The Japanese were well aware of this; a reporter from Shin Chōya News 新朝野新聞 wrote: “It is a regular habit with civilised Christians of the West to see no wrong in anything they do themselves to Oriental and non-Christian races, […] Civilised Occidentals have often slaughtered Orientals and other heretics or savages, as though they were no better than fattened animals destined to die under the butcher’s knife. During the past century, the history of savage nations that have come in contact with Christian Occidentals is all but written in blood” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 215). It once again points out the sheer hypocrisy the West practised. Nonetheless, ’tis a tu quoque, if ever I’ve seen one. Pointing out their hypocrisy doesn’t take away the fact that the massacre was, in every sense of the word, unadulterated evil.

I saw corpses of women and children, three or four in the streets, more in the water … Bodies of men strewed the streets in hundreds, perhaps thousands, for we could not count – some with not a limb unsevered, some with heads hacked, cross-cut, and split lengthwise, some ripped open, not by chance but with careful precision, down and across, disembowelled and dismembered, with occasionally a dagger or bayonet thrust in the private parts. […] I saw a junk stranded on the beach, filled with fugitives of either sex and of all ages, struck by volley after volley until – I can say no more.

Thomas Cowan, as quoted in Stewart Peter Lone, Japan’s first modern war : army and society in the conflict with China, 1894-95 (Basingstoke; New York: Macmillan Press ; St. Martin’s Press 1994): 156

It is important to distinguish modernity from civilisation. There is no guarantee that a modern industrialised nation is any more moral than the so called barbaric societies of the past. Modern industrialised nations have been just as immoral as “backward” states have ever been. Indeed, who can say that Attila the Hun was more brutal than Stalin. Who can say that Chinggis Qan was more methodical and ruthless than Adolf Hitler? Who can say that Timur the Great was more flippant in his disregard for human life than Winston Churchill? Evidently, it is absolutely not a guarantee that modernity leads to morality.

The Battle of Weihaiwei

It was this moment that the unity between the Japanese Military and Japanese politics fell in twain. General Yamagata Aritomo’s original plan to topple the Qing government was opposed by Prime Minister Itō Hirobumi, who feared that the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the subsequent civil war would trigger Western intervention. Japan would then have greater worries than dealing with the Qing. To prevent General Yamagata from defying the order not to attack Beijing, the Prime Minister arranged for General Yamagata to be relieved of his duties. So, now the strategy had been altered from its original. The 2nd Army, instead of continuing toward Beijing, would now focus mainly on completely annihilating the naval capabilities of the Qing. To realise this goal, taking Lüshunkou was not enough. Weihaiwei, the only remaining naval base of the Beiyang Fleet would have to be taken as well.

The 2nd Army remained in the Liaodong Peninsula to take Haicheng on the 13th of December, Fuzhou on the 19th of December and Gaiping on the 10th of January 1895. Haicheng is a city due North of the Liaodong peninsula, and sits at the crossroads connecting Beijing to Niuzhuang (present day Yingkou, an important treaty port just to the South of Haicheng), Mukden and Liaoyang. The city was so vital, in fact, that the Qing launched 5 offensives to retake the city. These were the only offensives the Qing launched during the entire war and all failed. The taking of Haicheng opened the land communication lines between the 1st Army and 2nd Army.

Migita Toshihide, Colonel Satō attacking fortifications at Niuzhuang, dated 1895

The Japanese armies continued to march West. The 2nd Army split so that a part of the army could feint an attack on Dengzhou. The real target, however, was Weihaiwei. Whereas Japan attacked Lüshunkou partially to gain a new base of operations, the attack on Weihaiwei was meant to utterly destroy the remnants of the Beiyang Fleet, thereby securing Japanese naval superiority for the foreseeable future. The main force embarked on the ships and landed near Rongcheng (located on the tip of the Shandong peninsula, opposite to the Liaodong peninsula separated by the Bohai sea).

The defence of Weihaiwei and the command of the Beiyang Fleet were the responsibility of Admiral Ding Ruchang, who had lost the Battle of Yalu. The defences of Weihaiwei were even more impregnable than those of Lüshunkou; 57 heavy guns, 20 of which on land fortification, guarded the fort. Additionally, around 6,500 men garrisoned the fort and those 6,500 men had additional cannon in the form of mountain guns as well as mitrailleuses. The defences at Weihaiwei were designed by German military advisors and widely considered impregnable. To illustrate, Captain William M. Lang, who trained the Qing naval forces for a while, said: “In my opinion Weihaiwei is impregnable” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895,235). Vice-Admiral Sir Edmund R. Fremantle and 100 other British officers, after inspecting Weihaiwei, unanimously pronounced it impregnable “if any real attempt had been made to defend it” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 236).

In preparation of the Japanese assault, Admiral Ding had closed the harbour with booms (3-inch thick steel cables spanned across the harbour on anchored buoys), so no one could enter. The Japanese objective was to destroy the fleet, so the Japanese reinforced the barricades by preparing contact torpedoes on the other side. Admiral Ding Ruchang assumed that the Japanese forces would attack from the sea in a naval assault. He was mistaken. General Ōyama Iwao and Admiral Itō planned to take Weihaiwei by land, just as Lüshunkou was taken. The Japanese army left Lüda (adjacent to Lüshunkou) between 19 and 22 January.

Toshikata Mizuno, “A suicide squadron of seven men came ashore under heavy fire in the battle of Weihaiwei. Shortly after landing they scaled the hills leading to the gate of the fort and threw the gate open for their companions,” 1895

The Japanese forces landed at Rongcheng between 20 and 23 January. It was a particulary harsh winter; yet, the frost, snow and winter gale did little to deter the determined advance of the Japanese army. They set out on lunar new year on the 26th of January. On January 30th, the Japanese launched a three-pronged assault on the forts surrounding Weihaiwei. The highest ranking Japanese casualty of the war occurred when Major-General Ōdera Yasuzumi was felled while storming one of the forts. The forts fell quickly and when a fort in the near vicinity of Weihaiwei fell, the morale of the Qing troops stationed in Weihaiwei shattered. The Japanese entered Weihaiwei on the 2nd of February, only to find it abandoned by the Qing military. Admiral Ding destroyed some of the forts near the harbour to deny their usage to the Japanese. However, most of the forts were captured by the Japanese. They used the heavy guns in these forts against the remaining Qing positions as well as Beiyang Fleet in the harbour. On the 12th of February the last Qing hold-out fell.

Utagawa Kunimasa V, “Death of Major General Odera at the Battle of Weihaiwei”, dated February 1895

Admiral Ding Ruchang, as the defeated leader, took responsibility for his failure and took his own life by drinking poison. Three of his captains followed his example and shot themselves. This particular act earned them the respect of the Japanese military and indeed the Japanese nation. According to the revived ideals of Bushidō 武士道, death was the only honourable action after military defeat. The Japanese fleet lowered their flags to half mast and fired a salute in his honour. After the declaration of surrender was offered the Japanese, they showed extraordinary leniency by releasing Ding’s men. Japanese schoolboys called Admiral Ding’s action “the noblest thing of which they had ever heard” (Paine, The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, 231).

Admiral Ding Ruchang was out of his element as a naval commander. His experience leading armies was as a cavalry commander. Perhaps this explained his blunders at the Battle of Yalu. It was probably not advisable to place army men in command of the navy, but this just serves to highlight the severe lack of eligible commanders the Qing dynasty had (moreso its inability to select effectively from its immense pool of talent). Admiral Ding also attempted to scuttle the remainder of the Beiyang Fleet and to blow up more forts guarding the harbour, lest they fall into the hands of the Japanese. However, his soldiers mutinied and refused to carry out these orders. The men under Ding’s command were not loyal to him, Ding was from the province of Anhui and his soldiers were largely from Fujian. That they were fighting for one cause made no difference, regional discrimination in China transcended loyalty to the Empire. More importantly, Imperial law dictated that the destruction of 20 or more firearms was punishable by death. Blowing up an entire fort and scuttling these expensive ships which took decades and years of revenue to build, would probably disgrace one’s entire clan for generations. As one can see, the questionable logic behind the Imperial reward and punishment system actively hindered the proper command of war in this new era.

“Admiral Ding Juchang of the Chinese Beiyang Fleet, Totally Destroyed at Weihaiwei,
Commits Suicide at His Official Residence” by Mizuno Toshikata, February 1895


Weihaiwei was the final straw. The naval capacities of the Qing Empire had been totally annihilated. The two forts that guarded the Bohai gulf which granted access to Tianjin and Beijing were captured and destroyed. The Japanese armies were almost at full strength as they hadn’t lost much more than a thousand men in the Korea, Manchuria and Shandong campaigns combined. What needed to be done was clear. Li Hongzhang tried to sue for peace with Japan. Li Hongzhang was sent to Shimonoseki and arrived on the 19th of March. What Li Hongzhang perhaps lacked in military strategy, he made up for abundantly in diplomatic skill. The negotiations did not go smoothly for the Japanese Prime Minister. As the negotiations were going on, the Japanese army bombarded and took the Penghu (a.k.a. the Pescadores) on the 23rd and 24th of March. On the 24th of March, a fanatical Japanese youth attempted to assassinate Viceroy Li. The Viceroy was hit below his eye. This was a blemish on the prestige of the Japanese Empire. To make up for this fumble, Emperor Meiji agreed to a three week armistice with the Mainland of the Qing, which excluded Penghu and Taiwan. Viceroy Li was wounded severely, but the man’s tenacity allowed him to return to the negotiating table two weeks later on April 10th. Seven days later, on April 17th exactly 125 years ago from today, both parties settled on the terms and signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Failure at Modernising

In terms of modernisation, why did Japan succeed where the Qing failed? In a sense, the Tokugawa Shogunate’s instability as a system and its inability to squash the development of budding capitalism is what quickened the downfall of its own stifling feudal institution and social order that made place for a vibrant new regime. The new regime could facilitate reform far better than the old regime ever could. We can see that during the coup d’état in Japan, the old Shogunate and its supporters lost their social privileges all to make way for the supporters of the new regime, who were previously the downtrodden. To contrast, the Qing’s talent in eliminating dissent and the preservation of the nobility’s privileges is what prevented the downfall of the established Imperial order. The Qing supported modernisation only as a means of preserving their own power. So, any reform that would go beyond purchasing better weapons and researching new technology, such as an organisational, social or economical reform, would be out of the question, since these reforms would almost by definition threaten the power and position of the Qing rulers. However, it was exactly those organisational, social and economical reforms that lie at the heart of modernisation.

“They had construed modernization narrowly in terms of technology and particularly military technology, failing to appreciate the extensive institutional, civilian, and human foundation required for modernization and laid by Japan through its westernizing reforms.”

(Paine, The Japanese Empire, 33)

Losing the War

So then, the Qing failed at modernising… however, the Qing stil had considerable hardware at its disposal. After all, at the start of the war, foreign observers including the Japanese themselves, concluded that the Qing had the advantage. Nobody, however, could have predicted the spectacular military incompetence displayed by the Qing. The reason for the Qing disastrous use of its military had several reasons.

Firstly, the Manchus were primarily concerned with maintaining their power and rule over China and not the defence of China. Incorrect usage of their material, giving too much military power to a Han Chinese general or pooling the Han Chinese forces together in a national army was akin to giving the Han Chinese an immediate means to topple the Qing government. The Qing government had to hold the Beiyang Fleet as a bargaining chip to maintain their hold on China. The Manchu were less afraid of the Japanese than they were of a Han Chinese revolution, which, even without the modern hardware, had almost toppled the Qing in the 1850’s. Simply said, the parts of the Qing Empire were not loyal to the center.

Secondly, the Qing Empire was fighting the war as if it were fighting its traditional Central Asian enemies (such as the Dzungars) and protected targets vital in those conflicts. Yet, Japan was a naval power that invaded China from the seas. The primary goal of the Qing should have been to prevent the Japanese troops from landing in China at all. For that to have been possible, they should have protected Lüshunkou, the only port capable of maintaining the Beiyang Fleet. Instead, the Qing spread its forces thin throughout Manchuria, made no use of the Beiyang Fleet and allowed Lüshunkou to be taken.

Through these examples we can see that the problems Qing China had, in my belief, were not necessarily due its failure to modernise. The ruling class of Manchus practised separatism, it was the only way to ensure the maintenance of Manchu supremacy in an Empire where they were in the absolute minority. It worked for two centuries, but by the end of the Dynasty there was so much distrust between the Han soldiery and the Qing rulership that it’s hardly surprising the morale of the Han commanders and soldiers was as low as it was. The Qing wasn’t for them and they weren’t for the Qing. If they were, the Southern Fleets would surely have rushed to the aid of the Capital, surely the soldiers would not have been so eager to abandon their posts and surely, generals like Wei Rugui, Song Qing and Ye Zhichao would not have displayed such blatant cowardice. Compare this to Japan, where soldiers were loyal to their country and loyal to their Emperor, owed in part to the impressive propaganda machine of the Japanese Empire. The only soldiers who matched the Japanese in loyalty and bravery in China appear to have been the soldiers who fought for something they believed in: whether those were the loyal Captain Deng or the Muslims troops under Zuo Baogui.

Perhaps the failure of the Qing simply rested on the fact that the people stopped believing in the idea of the Qing. After all, the Qing justified their rule by their strength of arms, but also the upholstery of the moral principles of Confucianism. However, once the people saw that the ruling class of Manchus did not uphold those lofty ideals, they stopped believing in the benevolence of the Emperor. Why should one care for an Emperor who doesn’t care for you? Moreover, once the foreign gunboats humiliated the Qing again and again, how can you expect the people believe in the military supremacy of the Empire when it is so abundantly clear they are not powerful at all?

Faith, principles, morals and ideas: these things are intangible and can never be destroyed by a bullet, but you can be destroyed by your failure to uphold them. It is therefore my belief that a man is not worth anything but his ability to uphold his principles. Losing your principles is the same as dying, it is your spiritual death and it is worse than a physical one. Zuo Baogui is respected because he never gave up his faith. Deng Shichang and his dog are remembered fondly because they never gave up their loyalty. Ding Ruchang was honoured even by his enemies because he kept his dignity as a commander and took responsibility for his failure. Betraying promises, betraying trust, betraying morals; that was the true failure and ruin of the Late Qing and anyone walking the same path.

Migita Toshihide, “Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive,” October 1894. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


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Defending Hong Kong against Britain: the Six-Day War of 1899

April 14th marks the day that the Six-Day War of 1899 (新界六日戰, Man. xinjie liuri zhan, Ca. sankaai lukjat zin) commenced between the Cantonese militia of the New Territories (to be referred to as Chinese Militia). The British had wrested free the New Territories in 1898 through an unequal treaty they signed with the Qing Empire. The British were planning to hoist their flag in Tai Po, a prominent village in the New Territories. The locals, unaware that the Qing Empire had given them away to the British, were staunchly opposed to this sudden change in regime. A conflict ensued. The British sent troops to crush the sizeable rebellion. In the interest of keeping the peace, the war was not highly publicised and subsequently forgotten. Hopefully, this piece of history will be remembered just that much more because of this article. The second part of the article will discuss Hong Kong under British Imperialist rule to show what exactly these militiamen were fighting against.

The information presented in this article on the events of the war are from Patrick Hase’s The Six-Day War of 1899: Hong Kong in the Age of Imperialism. The information about colonial rule in Hong Kong is taken from Ngo Tak-Wing’s Hong Kongs History: State and Society under Colonial Rule. Any opinions expressed by me do not necessarily reflect these authors’ opinions.


The Imperialist Attitude

The British believed so much in their own delusion that they were the superior culture, that they deemed any kind of insurrection of the natives as insanity or misguidance. Misguided beliefs and insanity both would have to be dealt with swiftly, so that the benevolent rule of the British could be implemented as soon as possible. Such arrogance is sure to be expected from the British. Especially in “the City of Victoria,” since Hong Kong, by 1899 was a supremely confident and prosperous city. Hong Kong, in mere decades, had been transformed from a dilapidated den of crime and sin into one of the most successful examples of the British Imperial enterprise with all the gadgets and comforts becoming of a modern city of that era. The British and those adhering to the Imperial belief system believed sincerely that the success of Hong Kong was a result of British governance while neglecting the very obvious truth that Britain was built on the backs of the people of Hong Kong. Nevertheless, as a result of this erroneous belief, the ruling British Imperial officers of Hong Kong had little reason to doubt the righteousness of the British Imperial project.

British Officers of the Hong Kong Regiment, 1902

The British Empire is, under Providence, the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen . . . In Empire, we have found not merely the key to glory and wealth, but the call to duty, and the means of service to mankind.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India

Indeed, the British in the 1890s were at the peak of their Imperialism. Most of the country whole-heartedly believed in the goodness of British Imperialism and that it would genuinely lead to the betterment of mankind and benefit humanity. The British race was seen as uniquely fit to rule, and its benevolent governance and rule of law would be a benefit to all the native people they conquered. If these native peoples didn’t want to be subjugated, then force should be applied to make them kneel, it is for their own good after all.

The British Empire, having had ample experience in dealing with local “savages” by 1899, had written many widely disseminated military guidebooks on how to deal with insurrections, small scale colonial wars and armed resistance. The short answer was to crush the indigenous combatants as thoroughly and speedily as possible. Indeed as quoted in Hart and Wolseley:

With all savages, to kill its warrior is . . . the most efficacious policy, and it should therefore be regarded as of primary importance.

Hart and Wolseley

The objective of any single battle was therefore not to defeat and rout the enemy as in most conventional wars. On the contrary, the objective of the battle was to defeat the enemy, rout him, then “follow-up” and inflict as many casualties as possible. Indeed, inflicting the maximum number of casualties and thereby thinning the enemy ranks was deemed the most efficacious manner of defeating any kind of local insurrection. Subsequently, the main objective in such small scale colonial wars had always been to kill as many as possible in order to instill fear and the belief that continued resistance will end in no other possible conclusion than certain death. The British believed that the undisciplined savage warriors and tribesmen would lose heart and cease to resist in the face of overwhelming military superiority.

This was the attitude and mindset of the British Imperialists in the period of the Six-Day War of 1899. It is inevitable that the colonisers acted from this self-righteous and arrogant attitude when they faced armed resistance from the people of the New Territories.

The New Territories

The New Territories are the stretch of land between Kowloon 九龍 and Shenzhen 深圳 (Ca. sam zan, or in conventional British spelling: Sum Chun). The area was mountainous and covered by dense forests. To illustrate the wildness of the area, tigers still roamed the lands in 1899. The more central valleys were occupied by the large Punti 本地 villages of Yuen Long 元朗, Kam Tin 錦田 and Tai Po 大埔. Smaller villages in more hilly areas were inhabited by the Hakka 客家. Generally the Hakka and Punti of this area had amicable relations.

Conflict in this area existed for reasons other than Hakka-Punti animosity. Top-soil farmers were expected to be like serfs to the sub-soil owners who were letting out their land. Top-soil farming communities that grew large had no wish to be subservient to others. Arable land was also becoming scarce in the area. As a result, inter-village warfare was a frequent affair. From 1855-1880 at least 30 of these inter-village wars broke out. The villages trained strong militias which frequently fought one another. Therefore, martial arts in this area was highly praised. As a result, the whole area was rather highly militarised. It was from these villages south of Shenzhen that most of the militia were drawn. A notable exception were the violent warriors from Ngan Tin 雁田 and Wai Tak 懷德. They hailed from the lawless mountains North of Shenzhen in the direction of Dongguan 東莞 and were drawn into the fighting due to close family ties with Ping Shan 屛山 and Ha Tsuen 廈村 in the New Territories.

These people were fervently opposed to being ruled by the British. One of the notes that were posted in the villages reads:

We hate the English barbarians, who are about to enter our boundaries and
take our land, and will cause us endless evil. Day and night we fear the
approaching danger. Certainly people are dissatisfied at this and have
determined to resist the barbarians. If our firearms are not good we shall be
unable to oppose the enemy. So we have appointed an exercise ground and
gathered all together as patriots to drill with firearms. To encourage
proficiency rewards will be given. On the one hand we shall be helping the
Government; on the other we shall be saving ourselves from future trouble.
Let all our friends and relatives bring their firearms to the ground and do
what they can to extirpate the traitors. Our ancestors will be pleased and so
will our neighbours. This is our sincere wish. Practice takes place every day.

As quoted in Hase, Extension Papers, Enc. in No. 135, pp. 138–139 (Despatches, p. 6). The notice was issued by Ping Shan villa

The War


On the 1st of April, workers from Hong Kong had come over to Tai Po to begin construction on the matsheds that would serve as a temporary police station and as the venue where the flag raising ceremony would be conducted. The locals were extremely displeased by this act and harassed the workmen. Concerned, the Hong Kong Governor visited the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi, to ask him to calm down the villagers. Five Chinese soldiers where dispatched from Canton in order to guard the matshed.

An example of a matshed.
Blake Pier (Temporary Matshed Shelter), January 1, 1904, Hong Kong

On April 3rd, Captain-Superintendant May, accompanied by 4 Sikh police officers and the 5 soldiers from Canton arrived on scene. May was immediately threatened by the villagers. After a brief meeting with the village elders, which turned violent, May and company were forced to leave the village. He retreated to the matshed and called for reinforcements. He hid in the foliage when he saw a small host of 200 men approach his position. The reinforcements, 125 Royal Welch Fusiliers, arrived on the morning of the 4th. The villagers seemed scared and apologetic due to this small show of force. The British, thinking this was the end of it, recalled the troops and rebuilt the matsheds.

Trouble returned on the 14th of April. The Governor of Hong Kong had received reports that the matsheds were under threat of attack. When Captain-Superintendant May arrived on the H.M.S. Fame with 20 police officers on the 15th, they discovered the matsheds had been burned again. This time, upon a nearby hill, a significant host had drawn up battle lines with flags, jingals and cannon. Upon investigation, they discovered that there were thousands more positioned upon nearby hills. Alarmed, May retreated to Kowloon. On the morning of the 15th, May and his police officers were dispatched to Tai Po to set up camp for the 125 men of the Hong Kong Regiment led by Captain Berger to crush the rebellion.

Battle of Mue Shue Hang

This marked the beginning of the Battle of Mue Shue Hang 梅树坑. The Chinese positions were dug out carefully and placed orthodoxly, as conventionally trained armies would. The carefully dug out trenches and the artillery batteries were all placed overlooking the site of the flag raising ceremony. The dozen or so jingals, twelve cannon and their excellent placement spelled trouble for the 125 men who were ill-supplied carrying mere 40 rounds of ammunition with them. The Hong Kong Regiment was outmanned and at a disadvantage. It would have been difficult to storm the entrenched positions of the Chinese militia if not for the H.M.S. Fame. The H.M.S. Fame carried the battle as its artillery made precise shots on the fortified militia positions. The positions were no longer tenable by the militia, so they retreated.

The 125 men pressed the attack and took the abandoned militia entrenchments. They finished off any remaining Chinese and managed to capture one of the militia flags. The British did not manage to capture any of the cannon or jingals as it was an orderly retreat which left little behind. The Chinese had now retreated out of sight of H.M.S. Fame, she could no longer be used to bombard the militia. The 125 soldiers were once again at a disadvantage. The Governor dispatched an additional 348 men (3 companies from the Hong Kong Regiment and 1 company from the Asiatic Artillery, which carried six 7-lbs mountain guns) to reinforce Berger.

The reinforcements and the Colonial Secretary James Stewart Lockhart had arrived at 2 p.m. on the 16th of April. It was decided by the Governor that it would be a good idea to advance the flag raising ceremony, since undertaking military action in an area that was not yet formally British was hardly justifiable under international law. At 2:50 p.m. they commenced the ceremony. Present were the all the available troop, who counted in total 530 men, including police and disembarked marines.

This is the place where the British flag is to be hoisted . . . This is an important epoch in your lives for to-day you become British subjects. All the world over it is known that the ways of my country in ruling other people are excellent. We simply aim to make the people happy, and my country is respected by all the nations of the world. Our dominions spread over the four quarters of the world and millions upon millions of people own our protection. From this day of hoisting the flag you and your families and your property enjoy full British protection.

Governor Sir Henry Blake to the elders of Kowloon villagers on April 17th, 1899

The militia, now having retreated into the mountains, did not suffer any losses. They neither had their guns destroyed nor expended their ammunition. There was a considerable risk during the flag raising ceremony in Tai Po for the British to have been attacked by the militia. Despite the opportune moment, nothing happened, and the ceremony was completed without further complications. No further hostilities would occur on the 16th of April.

Battle of Lam Tsuen Gap

On 17 April, Major General Gascoigne led a patrol, made up of all the available soldiers of the Hong Kong Regiment, to scout the area for any sign of the Chinese. It appeared the militia had moved to a different position and had entrenched at the head of the Lam Tsuen Valley (林村凹). However, Gascoigne had failed to notice their new position and ordered the patrol to return to camp. Upon seeing the patrol turn their backs to them, the militia took the opportunity and came up behind the British patrol. The British patrol and General Gascoigne remained unaware that they were being approached until the British signalling posts alarmed the British patrol that the Chinese militia was approaching from behind. As soon as the Chinese militia reached the crest of the She Shan (社山) ridge, they opened fire upon the British signallers upon Ma Wo Hill.

The British force was caught totally by surprise by the sound of gunfire. Gascoigne ordered his men to turn around and to disembark cannon from the ships. The soldiers of the Hong Kong Regiment moved against the Chinese militia. They split their counterattack in two, one to move against the Chinese militia frontally, the other to move through the Mue Shue Hang, in order to outflank the militia position. The British artillery fired shrapnel into the militia positions. Upon seeing their disadvantageous position due to the imminent outflanking, the Chinese militia fell back to their entrenched positions at the head of the Lam Tsuen Valley.

This entrenched position was a strong one. There was a narrow footpath that any approaching force would have to follow in order to proceed through the Lam Tsuen Pass. The pass was surrounded by elevated hillsides on which the Chinese militia had placed their jingals, overlooking the approach. Either side of the hill-slopes were very steep and rugged. The Chinese militia deemed this impassable. The cannon on the Chinese militia’s side were old-fashioned. These outdated cannon could not be aimed once placed. They had angled the cannon such that it aimed at the foot of the slope that the British forces would have to come up upon. The British advanced on the Chinese position, but could not take their cannon with them, as they didn’t bring enough coolies to move the cannon and apparently, the British soldiery did not want to do this work. The British decided to go all in on this attack and commit all available forces into the assault, 350 men in total. What the Chinese militia hadn’t anticipated, however, was that the Hong Kong Regiment was “formed of Pathans and others from the North-West Frontier of India.” These men were very acquainted with rough terrain and steep mountainsides. The hill-slopes that were deemed impassable were, in fact, passable.

Viceroy Commissioned Officers of the Hong Kong Regiment, 1902

The assault commenced, the British troops advanced quickly, and instead of approaching via the slope that the Chinese militia wanted them to approach from, the Pathans took the rocky hillsides. Due to the speedy charge of the British and the unexpected direction of approach, the Chinese cannon could not cover the flanks quickly enough. The outdated firearms of the militia were also quite inaccurate. As a result, many shots went overhead the charging forces. A great majority of the militia forces weren’t even armed with firearms, but had spears, swords and knives. The British reserved their fire until the final 200 yards, where maximum efficacy, and casualties, could be achieved. The shock of the overwhelming firepower was enough to bring the militia into disarray. Though the militiamen never stopped firing for a single moment, their positions were quickly overrun. Had the Chinese militia been drilled better and had their guns been more modern, the pass would have been very difficult to take. Most likely, the British would have taken many casualties. The Chinese militia suffered their first major defeat. They retreated and regrouped near Sha Po (沙埔).

Battle of Shek Tau Wai

The Chinese militia force, which initially numbered about 2,600, had now melted away due to desertion and was estimated to be about 400 strong. However, there were militia groups that hadn’t participated in the previous battle. These fresh militia groups were called to Sha Po. The numbers were replenished to about 1,600 men by the afternoon of April 18th.

Berger had about 350 men available. The British barely had any time to prepare before the attack began in the afternoon of the 18th at Shek Tau Wai 石頭圍. This time, the Chinese militia advanced in an orderly and regular formation, waving flags, letting out war-cries in a perfectly confident manner. Heavy fire commenced from the Chinese militia’s side as a slow and determined advance was made toward the British lines. The Chinese militia still outnumbered the British forces, and it was believed that there was strength in numbers. Alas, the Chinese side could not compensate their antiquated weaponry and poor-training with merely their exceptional courage and superior numbers.

This photograph was taken at the Pun Lun Photographic Studio, at the junction of Queen’s Road and Pottinger Street, Central, in the 1890s, and it can thus be assumed that the two young men in the photograph came from a Trained-Band in the near vicinity of Hong Kong. Since most of the Trained-Bands in the area were involved in the Six-Day War, it is likelythat these two young men were fighters in that conflict.
(Hase Plate 17)

Once again, the British forces withheld their fire until the militia was within 200 yards to maximise the damage. Once the Chinese militia entered in range, Berger ordered his men to fire as quickly as possible. The sheer violence and force of modern weaponry and adequate drilling could not be denied. The heavy casualties inflicted by these volleys were enough to shatter the morale of the men. The routing forces were chased down and killed. The pursuit continued until they reached Kam Tin. The British forces blew open the gates of Kam Tin 錦田 and Sheung Wai 上圍. What the British did after blowing open the village gates is not reported in Hase’s book (90). The British made camp at Sheung Tsuen 上村. The village of Fanling 粉嶺 surrendered.

The End of the War

On the 19th of April, the British forces took the surrender of Pat Heung 八鄉, Kam Tin, Yuen Long 元朗, Ping Shan 屛山 and Ha Tsuen 廈村. The people of the New Territories had been soundly defeated. Only the people of Ngan Tin 雁田 continued in their resistance against the British. They collected money and trained men to plan for another uprising in 1899. None of the New Territory villages shared their ambitions in kicking the British out of the New Territories, so the fires of resistance fizzled out.

In the end, the death count among the militia resistance of the New Territories was high. The British officers patted themselves on the back, claiming that not many had died at all, that it was an insignificant war with little loss of life. Hong Kong reporters took this statement with significant skepticism. Indeed, while the official statements claim little bloodshed, the Hong Kong media reported the opposite: the death toll on the side of the Chinese militia was high.

Indeed, the New Territory villages have written down every single name of those who died during these six days. The count was far from insignificant. Indeed, there is very strong evidence, by eyewitness accounts, that the battlefields were soaked with blood, and one had to wade through the blood to cross the field. The dead were so many that families could not handle the burials of their family members by themselves anymore, so that communal burial pits had to be dug in order to process the bodies.

The majority of the dead were men, however, about 25 women were killed as well. As to how, why or when they died, the sources remain silent. It is probable that they died while delivering supplies to their husbands on the front lines, but the complete story eludes us. Looking through the evidence, Hase concludes that the total death count must have been up to 600 with 450 dead at least (116). The memories of these martyrs have been recorded in their respective villages. May their souls rest in peace and be shown mercy.

The Communal Grave at Miu Kok Yuen in Sha Po.

Imperialist Rule in Hong Kong

For the history of Hong Kong and the political context the colony was founded in, I refer you to my first article. This section will cover the specific policies of the British Empire and the effects of said policy.

The myth that Hong Kong grew from a sleepy fishing village into a booming metropolis because of British benevolent governance based on a purportedly fair and impartial rule of law and an stand-offish attitude to Hong Kong’s mercantile actors is a stubborn and widespread misunderstanding of the complexities of Hong Kong as a colonial city. Of course, it is impossible to dispute the immense economic growth and development of Hong Kong during its time as a colony of the British Empire. However, the problem lies in the fact that there is a distinct “constructed belief,” as Ngo calls it, of what led to this development (Ngo 119). Indeed, the one-sided historiography claims that the success of Hong Kong can largely be ascribed to the laissez-faire attitude and the strong belief in free-market and good governance of the Colonial government. Any dissenting voices have been squelched because of the dominant colonial narrative. This section shall seek to give voice to the unvoiced and explain exactly why Colonial rule wasn’t exactly the cause for Hong Kong’s explosive growth.

Travelling in Sedan Chair
Published by M. Sternberg Wholesale and Retail Post card Dealer at No. 51 Queen’s Road Central Hongkong 

Hong Kong merely an entrepôt or more?

The conventional colonial numbers and historiography suggest that Hong Kong’s pre WWII economy was largely, if not almost entirely, based on its role as an offshore-entrepôt for trade with Southern China. The Colonial authorities saw Hong Kong’s role as an entrepôt as the raison d’être for Hong Kong. The question has to be asked, is this conventional understanding of Hong Kong’s economy accurate?

A different story presents itself when you observe the numbers and statistics. From the colonial historiography there appears to be a consistent underestimation of Hong Kong’s industrial sector while it was actually very powerful. Indeed “based on the entries in the Hong Kong and Macao Business Classified Directory, Leeming found 3,000 factories and workshops in 1927 and about 7,500 in 1940, while official records only registered 1,523 and 1,142 factories in those same years” (Ngo 122).

To further substantiate that trade and commerce in Hong Kong were overestimated and that the importance of industry was vastly underestimated by the Colonial authorities could be seen in the 1931 census of the population. Of the 470,000 working population, 111,000 worked in manufacturing, outnumbering those who worked in finance and commerce (97,000), and transport and communications (71,000). There were, in fact, many large-scale Hong Kong factories that thrived. Indeed, the Hong Kong factories were so competitive that “an inter-departmental committee set up in Britain in 1934 complained about the ‘invasion of the United Kingdom market’ by colonies such as Hong Kong. By the 1930’s, leatherwear, rubber shoes, torches and cosmetics produced in Hong Kong were displacing imports and capturing overseas markets.

Finally, the scope and importance of Hong Kong’s manufacturing is highlighted when compared to Mainland China’s manufacturing capabilities. Indeed, by 1937, there were 3,935 registered factories in the entirety of Mainland China. Hong Kong, by the most conservative estimates, had at least 1,000 factories. All these numbers serve to show us that Hong Kong was far removed from being merely an entrepôt to facilitate the trade of Southern China. Sadly, pre-war industry in Hong Kong is regarded as non-existent in the official colonial records (Ngo 128).

The Point

The reason for the neglect of Hong Kong’s industrial sector is because Britain acquired Hong Kong explicitly as a “foothold for British trade in the Far East, especially China” (Ngo 128). Consequently, the Hong Kong administrative system was set up to facilitate trade and commerce. Put very bluntly, Hong Kong existed to make money for Britain through trade. This trade was largely taken up by British merchant houses like Lindsay & Co., Jardine, Matheson & Co., and Dent & Co. They purchased great swaths of land in Hong Kong and constructed their business emporiums there. The extremely lucrative trade have caused them to become known as princely hongs and their bosses taipans 大班 (big shots).

Manufacturing happened largely outside of Hong Kong’s hongs. The hongs, per colonial policy, viewed trade as their primary concern. Because of the lucrative trade in Hong Kong, there was little need for the Hong Kong colonial government and its merchants to pay any heed to the factories. To illustrate, in a 1911 survey of non-Chinese owned establishments in Hong Kong, of the 7000 entries only 100 were reported to be manufacturers. So, the success and rise of Hong Kong’s sizeable industry was entirely due to the efforts and financing of the Chinese Hong Kongers with Chinese capital. Subsequently, the Colonial government did nothing to support or protect the Hong Kong industrial sector. On the contrary, in order to protect the British domestic market, the Hong Kong Colonial government even attempted to limit the export of Hong Kong goods to Britain.

Lai Afong, s view of Hong Kong in the 1880s.

The Colonial government refrained from investing in industry because they deemed the political situation in China as unstable. It was also uncertain what would become of the colony in the future. They deemed it unfavourable to invest heavily in industry, only for the British to be kicked out of the Colony, thereby “wasting” all those investments.

The exclusion of industrial history from Hong Kong’s historiography conceals the self-interest and short-sightedness of imperial and colonial policies in refusing
to develop the colony. By denying the significance of industrial activity, the economic policy pursued to serve imperial and colonial interests has been rationalized, post hoc, as a ‘good policy’ that contributed to the prosperity of the entrepôt trade.

Tak-Wing Ngo, “Industrial History and Laissez-faire,” in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule, ed. Tak-Wing Ngo (London, Routledge, 1999), 133.

To summarize, the industrial sector consumed the largest portion of the labour force in Hong Kong, yet the British only acknowledged trade. While Hong Kong developed, the success of Hong Kong was attributed to the effective manner of government in their laissez-faire attitude and dedication to Free Trade ideals. However, the Free Trade policies were maintained to safeguard the rights of the merchants and to prevent industrialisation of Hong Kong, which might have threatened to undermine British domestic industry. Free Trade in Hong Kong was therefore a policy enacted to protect British interests. In the end, it is very clear what their purpose was in Hong Kong, and it was not for the good of the Hong Kong people. If accumulating wealth for oneself counts as benevolent rule, then truly the British were the most benevolent of them all.

The Unfair and Malevolent Rule of Law

The British viewed indigenous justice as arbitrary and inferior to the British “rule of law.” Replacing these backwards indigenous practises with a superior system was therefore for the benefit of not only the rulers, but moreso for the people, who could now be judged and tried fairly. The British would have made a fair case, if not for the fact that their own system was gravely unfair to the indigenous inhabitants of Hong Kong.

Supreme Court of Hong Kong in 1915

Firstly, the jury in the Hong Kong courts were fully European. Indeed, the jury consisted of six men (as opposed to twelve in England) drawn from the European inhabitants of Hong Kong. Furthermore, all of the proceedings in court were conducted in English, a language the vast majority of defendants did not speak. Naturally, the services of interpreters were required. However, most trials in that period were interpreted by Daniel Caldwell, who was ousted to be corrupt and involved in piracy. So, what started out as a fair and benevolent attempt to “civilise” justice in Hong Kong, quickly transformed into a judicial system in which European men tried Chinese for crimes committed against other Chinese in the colony, but also well outside the bounds of the Colony. Needless to say, the inherent bias of such a court hardly constitutes as fair rule of law.

Secondly, in addition to being tried for offences and crimes they would be already be tried for under Chinese Imperial Justice, under Colonial law the Chinese inhabitants of Hong Kong would also be convicted for “offences unheard of in English law” (Munn 49). These offences include not carrying registration tickets, being out after curfew or simply being a “suspicious character” (Munn 49). In the period from 1846 to 1866, 134,000 people appeared before the lower courts. Two thirds of those who appeared before the lower courts for these crimes were punished by public flogging, queue cutting (which would render you an outlaw of the Qing Empire), prison sentences, deportation or being locked up in a cangue (a kind of Chinese stockade). It would perhaps be justifiable if these excessive punishments led to an improvement in law and order, but that simply wasn’t the case. The Supreme Court possessed only a vague understanding of the Hong Kong Chinese and “exerted little or no deterrent effect on crime” (Munn 50).

Thirdly, the court treated defendants differently on the basis of race. Newspapers report a high number of European violent offenses against the Chinese. However, only a small number of these were ever taken to court. In this period, merely 66 Europeans were taken to court and 43 of those for murder, manslaughter, wounding and assault. Four out of these cases were committed against Chinese. George Luscombe strangled a Chinese sailor, he was sentenced to life transportation. Denis Griffin murdered a Chinese caulker by throwing him overboard. The jury acquitted him because they saw it as a “harmless joke.” The other two were acquitted on other technicalities. Conversely, there were nine Chinese charged with murder or manslaughter against Europeans. Three were hanged, three were sentenced to death recorded and one for life transportation. None of these Chinese defendants had fair trials: the police offered large rewards for informants, gunboats were used to chase down fugitives outside of the Colony, important questions on evidence and jurisdiction were ignored, and only one of these defendants was granted legal counsel (Munn 53).

For the great majority of the Chinese population, however, English justice in Hong Kong meant intrusive policing, racial and class discrimination, and periodic campaigns of repression.

Christopher Munn, “The Criminal Trial under Early Colonial Rule,” in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule, ed. Tak-Wing Ngo (London, Routledge, 1999), 66.

To conclude, it is obvious that the British failed to establish a fair and benevolent rule of law in Hong Kong during this period. The importance of protecting European rights and British profits was put before the liberties and rights of the indigenous Hong Kong Chinese. The court systematically disadvantaged Chinese defendants. There was a double-standard where Europeans were looked upon leniently and the Chinese were tried harshly. Here too, the idea that British rule was non-interventionist is challenged. In fact, the harsh policing, the establishment of curfews and the need to carry registration tickets can not be described as “lightly governed.” It becomes abundantly clear that this idea of laissez-faire and benevolent rule is merely a baseless myth constructed by the dominant historiography established by the Colonists.


The convenient historical amnesia that surrounds the colonial history of Hong Kong is alarming to me, but beneficial to apologentsia of the Western Colonial enterprise. The conquered people of India, South-Africa, Egypt and other former Crown Colonies look back at the British occupation of their lands and the subjugation of their people with disgust and hatred. Contrastingly, the colonial era in Hong Kong seems to be looked at with nostalgia and an undignified yearning to return to a state of subordination to Britain.

In my article An Extension of Hong Kong Territory, I briefly touched upon the inequities of the British Empire in Hong Kong. Yet, I feel that the ground covered in that article was far too little to understand the full scope of British Imperialism in Hong Kong. I hope the reader understands that the subjugation of the people of Hong Kong to Britain by what was essentially right of conquest is something that deserves to be fought against and condemned. In my sincere opinion, the 600 militiamen who were martyred defending their lands against British annexation were heroes in the ongoing war to preserve the autonomy of the people.


  • Hase, P. H. The Six-Day War of 1899: Hong Kong in the Age of Imperialism. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
  • Munn, Christopher. “The Criminal Trial under Early Colonial Rule,” in Hong Kong’s History: State and Society under Colonial Rule, ed. Tak-Wing Ngo. London, Routledge, 1999.
  • Ngo, Tak-Wing. Hong Kongs History: State and Society under Colonial Rule. London: Routledge, 1999.

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

War in China: the Ravishment of the North (2/3)

This is the second part of the article “War in China.”
If you haven’t read the first one, please do so.
You can click here to get to part 1.
Click here to access the appendix.

Today is January 15th and marks the day that the 12 demands of 11 Imperialist nations were officially accepted by the Empire of China as Yikuang and Li Hongzhang sign the document, de-facto ending the war between China and the Eight Nations. This document formed the basis of what would later be stipulated exactly in the Boxer Protocol, which was signed in September 1901. This article will continue to elaborate in more detail on the proceedings of the Boxer War and attempt to shed light upon the topic of human suffering in this tragic episode of human history.

hiyooxungga gingguji iletu hvwangheo
Her Imperial Majesty Xingzhen of the Yehe Nara clan, a.k.a. Empress Dowager Cixi.

This article is much longer than my usual articles. Split it up in parts, read it how you like, I trust the clickable contents menu here will be of some assistance.

3. The Battle for Tianjin

The taking of Tianjin was a violent affair. Tianjin is a coastal city that, once taken, serves as a vital staging point which provides a direct connection to Beijing and the rest of Northern China. Simultaneous to the Tianjin-Beijing Campaign, the Russians were also invading Manchuria (read about the Manchurian Campaign here).

A depiction of Tianjin. The stone walls in the centre, built in 1415, formed the walled city of Tianjin. The mud wall on the outskirts protected the suburbs from assault.

There were foreign troops in China before any real hostilities commenced. The Opium Wars granted England and France concessions in Tianjin, which were therefore garrisoned beforehand. Tianjin, at this point in time, was divided into two parts, the historical walled city, which was governed by the Chinese Empire with a million Chinese inhabitants and the foreign concession area which was inhabited by 700 foreign merchants and missionaries with about 10,000 Chinese workers. When the foreign legations were besieged by the boxers, the foreign powers reacted by dispatching a portion of the Tianjin garrison to relieve Beijing. This force of roughly 2000 men, led by Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, left for Beijing on the 10th of June. On the 16th however, it became clear that he would not be able to proceed much further than the city of Langfang due to being blocked and harassed by Chinese defenders. On the 18th, Seymour clashed against the Gansu Braves, the Muslim-Chinese troops led by Dong Fuxiang. Clearly, more men were needed to breach Beijing to reach the foreign legations, reinforcements needed to come from overseas.

The First Shots: Battle of the Dagu Forts

This section draws from Xiang Lanxin’s chapter “Dagu: The Undeclared War,” Myakishev’s “The Capture of the Taku Fort” and Peter Fleming’s The Siege at Peking.

The entrance of China, however, was guarded by the heavily reinforced Dagu forts. These forts were built in the 16th century against Japanese Wako pirates, but were expanded, redesigned and modernised in response to the loss of the First Opium War in order to defend against modern pirates in the form of the Imperialist powers. The forts were state-of-the-art, armed with rapid firing Krupp guns and built with the latest German technology. 3,000 of China’s finest soldiers were garrisoned there. The forts were widely considered impregnable (Xiang 283). So, in order to land more troops in China, and to ensure Seymour’s foray to Beijing would not be cut off, it would be necessary for the invading navies to take control of the forts, but it would not be an easy task.

At 9 o’clock in the evening on the 16th of June, the invading navies issued an ultimatum to surrender the forts or be attacked directly to the commander of the Dagu forts, Luo Rongguang (罗荣光). General Luo Rongguang tried to reason with the Russian Lieutenant Bakhmetieff, who delivered the ultimatum, and told him he would not be able to come up with an answer before the deadline of 2 a.m. past midnight, since General Luo would have to contact his superiors. The Russian officer refused to budge. The ultimatum was delivered and the Bakhmetieff returned to his ship.

The invading navy consisted of 30 ships. 20 of which could not sail in the shallow waters at the mouth of the river. Of the remaining 10 ships that could sail in those shallow waters the American Monocacy, an obsolete wooden ship, decided not to participate in the battle. The Japanese Atago, an old iron gunboat with obsolete guns and was filled with explosives, decided not to participate due to the danger involved with having its explosive caches exploded. The eight vessels that participated in the battle are enumerated in the list below.

  1. HM.S. Fame (British), a modern destroyer with a speed of 30 knots.
  2. HM.S. Whiting (British), ”
  3. HM.S. Algerine (British), a slow three-masted sloop.
  4. The Iltis (German), similar to the Algerine with a slightly higher speed.
  5. The Giliak (Russian), a small but modern gunboat.
  6. The Bobre (Russian), an old steel gunboat.
  7. The Koreets (Russian), similar to the Bobre with heavier armaments.
  8. The Lion (French), an ancient gunboat with two cannons.
Note: the date above says 4 June, 1900. This map was translated from a Russian source from 1901, when they still used the Julian Calendar. June 4th is therefore actually June 17th in the Gregorian calendar.

Source: Myakishev. “The Capture of the Taku Fort.” Royal United Services Institution. Journal 45, no. 280 (1901): 744

By 12:50 a.m. past midnight of the 17th, an hour before the deadline, the first shot was fired from Fort No. 4 (please refer to the plan above), upon which all other forts opened fire too. The gunboats returned fire, the battle for the Dagu forts had begun. Two Russian vessels, the Giliak and the Koreets drew heavy fire from the forts. The fortune of battle favoured the Chinese in the early morning until dawn came. By 3:45 a.m. the invaders had landed a storming column on the Northern banks of the river, in order to storm Fort No. 4. During their assault on the fort, the invading navies managed to explode a gunpowder magazine in Fort No. 3.

The remnants of a Dagu Fort (a.k.a. Taku) in 2006 as viewed from below. Only a few smaller forts remain as of today, since the Imperialist powers demanded the destruction of the forts after the war.

With a violent explosion, the tide of the battle turned in favour of the invaders. At 5 a.m., invader flags were flown from Fort No. 4. The Dagu forts fell one by one as more and more gunpowder magazines were exploded until, finally, by 6:45 all the forts had fallen to the invaders. On 7:20 a.m. German ship Hansa signalled the successful capture of all the forts. Most casualties on the Chinese side fell due to the many explosions. The battle was hard fought, and the invading navies won a costly victory with 172 dead. The Chinese suffered a heavy defeat with an estimated 1,000 dead or wounded men (600 to 800 dead according to Myakishev). The Battle of the Dagu Forts marked the beginning of the Boxer War.

The fact that such a hastily assembled naval force, with but a mere 900 marines, could take a fortified position that was considered impregnable is surprising to say the least. Xiang accredits this military success of the invading navies to a combination of the dirty diplomatic trick concerning the nature of the ultimatum, “incredible luck” and “blind audacity” (Xiang 286).

The Siege of Tianjin

Early in the morning of July 15th, the Yihequan warriors (a.k.a. Boxers) had begun to attack the foreign concessions of Tianjin. During this attack, a group of Yihequan warriors had begun to attack the railway station. The station was guarded by a large number of Russians. The Yihequan, famous for their rejection of modern weaponry, attempted to face the Russian gunners armed with spears and swords. The casualties were high among the Yihequan. The Russians shot at the crowd indiscriminately, and, not surprisingly, shot and killed many innocent Chinese bystanders who were just curious about the situation.

At this time, the Imperial Chinese troops were standing by, awaiting orders whether to support the Boxers or to defend the foreign legations. This consideration existed because the Boxers were being used by the Manchu Court to put pressure on the Imperialists powers, but were careful not to allow the Boxers to grow too powerful as to be a threat to themselves (Ouellet 513). Upon receiving news that the invaders had assaulted the Dagu forts and that Russian were shooting unarmed and innocent Chinese denizens, the choice was quickly made. It had become clear that the invading armies did not intend to stop at quelling the Boxers, and that the clean-up of Boxers was a mere excuse to force China into another war. The Imperial Chinese armies, even thought they had been fighting the Boxers up until this point, reacted by supporting the Boxers in assaulting the Tianjin foreign concessions.

Adjacent to the foreign concessions was a Chinese military academy (The Wubeitang 武备堂). The academy housed some two hundred students and possessed such an amount of munition and weapons, eight large Krupp guns, that it posed a threat to the concessions. The authorities in the concessions decided to strike the academy pre-emptively. On the 17th of June at 3 p.m. the concessions launched an attack on the academy. The fifty Chinese military cadets inside the academy refused to surrender. They were promptly executed. (Shagren 25)

Map of Concessions in Tientsin (Tianjin) – German
Source: Maximilian Dörrbecker

The Chinese commander Nie Shicheng 聂士成, the infamous butcher of many Boxers, now having arrived on scene, began to bombard the foreign concession area with his artillery. He commanded a well-trained army and carried out the bombardments with precision. The concession remained under bombardment until reinforcements arrived. Many Chinese lived in the concessions during the time of the siege, and in fact, the Chinese had been of great help to the foreign communities as the women sewed clothes and pillows for the sick and wounded and the men washed 400 articles a day. They also helped, under heavy fire from the Yihetuan and Nie Shicheng’s troops, to place and set up machine guns for the foreign troops. Furthermore, the Chinese in the foreign legation built barricades against Imperial and boxer fire. Needless to say, the Chinese were a tremendous service to the Tianjin concessions. The foreigners, however, with all their prejudices, had become hysterical and were not only ungrateful for this help, they even grew suspicious of all Chinese. A court was set up to try these Chinese, and during the siege of the concessions, many Chinese were put behind bars (Shagren 30). After all, to these colonisers an Oriental is nothing more than an Oriental, and no matter how hard they try to help them, to signal friendship or submission, they remain but a tool to be used and discarded.

Dong Fuxiang, Commander of the Rear Division of the Wuwei Corps. His army was known as the Gan Jun: the Kansu Braves.
Ronglu, Supreme Commander of the Wuwei Corps and Commander of the Centre Division.
Nie Shicheng, Commander of the Front Division. His army was known as the Wuyi Jun: Tenacious Army.

The French, seeing the course of the wind, thought it was a good idea to clear the path ahead by setting fire to the suburbs of Tianjin located outside the city walls. The wind carried the flames further toward the city, the raging fires lasted the entire night from the 17th upon the 18th of June. Innocents were “sacrificed in hundreds if not thousands,” thousands of other civilians, who managed to escape the fires were seen fleeing away, with what belongings they could stuff in wheelbarrows in “the last extremity of panic.” For what purpose? It is perhaps akin to clearing a forest before a castle, to remove any cover for the enemy and to provide a clear line of sight, only this forest was home to thousands of people. Such disregard for Chinese lives, for human lives, is nothing short of monstrous and the very pinnacle of barbarity.

The now bolstered forces had the power to sally out and force the Chinese Imperial forces and the Boxers to lay off the siege of the concessions. The Imperial forces retreated into the ancient walled city of Tianjin. On July 9th, in one of the various skirmishes around Tianjin for strategic locations General Nie Shicheng gave his life protecting his nation. As the foreign armies gained more favourable positions, they also gathered enough strength to carry out an assault against the walls on the morning of July 13th. Based on the experiences of their previous wars in China, they did not expect to face much capable resistance during their assault on Tianjin. They were mistaken.

These walls were manned by competent artillerists from the Imperial Navy, Chinese regulars equipped with Mausers and Remington rifles as well as numerous Boxers using obsolete weapons such as matchlocks. The Chinese resistance was heavy. It appeared the Chinese forces had increased in effectiveness and was “fighting well and more skillfully than ever before” (Shagren 29). During the assault for the walls of Tianjin, the Chinese resistance had on several occasion managed to pin down the siege forces. For example, the Americans, including Herbert Hoover, were pinned down in the open and used Chinese graves as cover (Shagren 37). The Japanese and the British faced similar heavy fire from the walls of Tianjin as they approached the city (Shagren 37). They got as close to the wall as they could by 9 a.m. of the 13th. They advanced slowly under fire until eventually, by 2 a.m. deep in the night from the 13th upon the 14th, the foreign troops reached the walls and the gate. They opened the first gates of the barbican with explosive charges. The Japanese sappers scaled the walls and opened the second gate of the barbican from within. The valiant defense of the city was to no avail. With a loud explosion, the way into the walled city of Tianjin was wide open, and the onslaught began.

By this time, one third of the city was on fire, another good portion was destroyed through the structural damage caused to the city by the explosives. Thousands of dead littered the streets, Boxers, Imperial soldiers, but also women, children and non-combative men. According to accounts of elderly survivors only an hour after the Western invaders entered Tianjin the dead must have been in the thousands. The western forces had also employed poisonous shells and the gas was killing many. There was many a house where the poison gas entered and the entire family, clutched together in fear, young, old, man, woman, died where they huddled. There were many Imperial Qing soldiers, lying in position, as if aiming their rifles, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Yet, upon closer inspection, they had already been gassed to death. The riverside near the legations had the most corpses. The pontoon bridge had to be opened so that the corpses could float away. (Sun 168)

American soldiers standing guard at a Tianjin gate.

The Desolation of Tianjin

The city of Tianjin fell to the invaders on July 14, 1900. Tianjin surrendered, after which many civilians were raped, more were killed. The Qing government never made an estimate on how many civilians died, the Allied forces have kept these numbers hidden. Only the Russians have given a rough estimate and claim that after the fall of Tianjian about a 100,000 residents of the original 1,000,000 remain. 90% percent of the city either fled or perished (Sun 167).

When Tianjin fell, the women were conquered twice, first as Chinese, then as women. The unbridled bestial lust of the Western soldiery cannot be understated. They barged into random homes and began raping. Women above the age of sixty, girls just past puberty, all were targets of this rapist alliance. Many women committed suicide by jumping into deep wells. After the fighting was over, they discovered one well which contained the remains of as many as six women. When the allied rapists could not find any women, they would proceed to rape young boys. The raping was not limited to the city, most certainly not. Young women were captured and brought onto ships to be gang raped. One ship was reported one time to have captured “20 Tianjin beauties alive” (Sun 169-170).

Unsurprisingly, if you have read part 1 of this article, the looting that took place was of epic proportions. Not only did the invading soldiers loot, but the foreign civilians who lived in the concessions came to take their pick, and the Chinese labourers and workers who felt disadvantaged by the wealthier citizens of Tianjin took their pick. The most heinous were perhaps the soldiers, who even forced many of these Chinese labourers to do their looting for them.

Do you see the pure hypocrisy of the “civilised” West to come to Qing China to tell the Boxers how to behave? The world criticises Japan for the Nanking Massacre, but conveniently forgets their own role in the desolation of Tianjin.

Tianjin remained under occupation until its liberation in August 15, 1902. During this period of occupation, the invading forces set up temporary institutions such as the Tianjin Provisional Government (天津都統衙門/天津都统衙门). The T.P.G. is the greatest example of the utter disregard for the Chinese customs, Empire and the ultimately, the Chinese people.

The draconic laws they established to catch any and all potential boxers caused the death of many innocent civilians. The tyrants would see the slightest evidence of insurgency as reason to execute the suspect. For example, men who had marks on their shoulders, which they would allegedly have gotten from the recoil of their rifles, were rounded up and shot. Women who were found wearing red clothes, a colour adored by Tianjin women, were accused of being Red Lanterns (a division of female boxers who always wore red) and subsequently tried and shot (Sun 167). While many Yihetuan members had already retreated, there were those who stayed behind. They removed their red sash or red clothes and blended in with the non-combatants. Those who were discovered by the Western invaders were dragged out an executed, along with any family who dared to harbour the Yihetuan members (Sun 169).

An anecdote speaks of a marriage in a village in the Hedong area. A T.P.G. patrol was curious and entered venue where the marriage was taking place. The Western soldiers, perhaps unaware of Chinese customs, were convinced that the bride was a Red Lantern and the groom was a Boxer due to their red clothes (traditional Chinese marriage attire is red). Following brief argument, neither side understanding the other, the soldiers shot the bride and bridegroom to death, turning their marriage turned into their funeral (Sun 168).

The T.P.G. made “improvements” to the city that benefited not the locals or the Chinese Empire, but to ease commerce with the West, much like what these Western Imperialist powers did elsewhere in the world in exploitation colonies. They also destroyed the ancient walls of Tianjin as they claimed the lean-to slums around the walls were a fire hazard. If they wanted to prevent fires, they could have simply demolished the slums, yet they removed the entire stone wall. It appears it was an act of spite, since the wall caused them so much trouble during their assault on Tianjin. Incredibly, despite all the horros they wrought upon Tianjin, the Western Imperialist powers still had the sheer gall to claim that the T.P.G. was meant to represent the interests of the Chinese Empire and the Chinese people.

A Japanese invader leading a Yihetuan warrior by the leash

4. The Ravishment of the North

Allow me to preface this section with a brief summary, from my limited understanding, of Claudia Card’s article to understand why the invading forces did what they did, what the long-term effects are of large scale, weaponised rape that occured in the North of China.

Rape as a Weapon

Martial rape domesticates not only the women survivors who were its immediate victims but also the men socially connected to them, and men who were socially connected to those who did not survive.

Dr. Claudia Card

Rape is a weapon of war. Mass martial rape first targets the women who are brutalised as objects of pleasure and serve the purpose of recreation. Martial rape also targets the countrymen of the raped women, it is a threat, a warning to the rest of the country. In essence, it is terrorism. The terrorist then seeks compliance from these people, in order to acquiesce to his demands.

Mass martial rape, at its core, is targeted against entire peoples. It communicates dominance, not only to the women and girls raped, but also to her male associates. Children born out of forcible impregnation in martial rape will take on the identity of his rapist father and undermine familial solidarity; this is an example of genetic domination. Even if no child results from the rape, the act of rape is often enough for a husband, son or father to reject her. Therefore, martial rape undermines “national, political, and cultural solidarity, changing the next generation’s identity, confusing the loyalties of all victimized survivors.”

As can be seen, killing people with steel, famine and disease are not the only way to commit genocide. The other method is by destroying a group’s identity by perverting its cultural and social bonds, as in the previous paragraph. Card argues that martial rape does both kinds of genocide, as “many women and girls are killed when rapists are finished with them.” Those who are not killed either become pregnant or become known as rape survivors, as a result, “cultural, political, and national unity may be thrown into chaos.”

The section above is based entirely on Claudia Card’s article. I refer you to her article if you wish to gain more understanding on the topic of martial rape.

War, rape, genocide are no joke. Could those who glorify war, idolise killers and propagate violence raise their heads if faced by a victim of all of these? I hope the reader can keep this in mind as you read through the rest of the article. I’m not going to lie, it will not be a pleasant morning read.

The Fate of Beijing and Surroundings

This section will be written with material from Sawara Tokusuke’s Miscellaneous Notes about the Boxers, Chai E’s Gengxin Chronicle, Peter Fleming’s the Siege at Peking, the Qing Shigao 清史稿 (Draft History of the Qing) by Zhao Erxun.

Suicide before the Storm

Westerners posing on the Dragon Throne (source unknown)

It is August 14th, the people of Beijing wait anxiously as the armies of the West stand at the gates. The sound of Mausers and Maxims resonate against the stifling walls of the capital. The people, acutely aware of what happened to Tianjin, prepare for the worst. Some officials, fearing they would face retribution for their steadfast loyalty to the Emperor and refusal to acquiesce to Western demands, decided to take matters into their own hands. It was better to die with your honour than to die at the mercy of invading troops. Xu Tong 徐桐, the Imperial Tutor, and his whole household wished not to endure the humiliation of capture. They chose honour. Him, his wife, children, concubines and servants swayed, like the leaves of a weeping willow, from the rafters of his manor. Stools were kicked about in the room, no doubt some had regretted their decision to hang themselves and had violently tried to regain a footing, but could not (Zhao section 465).

When the Capital fell, aside from the innumerable commoners who died, countless officials commited suicide with their families as well.

Sawara Tokusuke in an excerpt from “the Miscellaneous Notes About the Boxers” (266)

Near the Eastern Gate of Beijing, the preferred method was to cast oneself into the well of the house. Each well was filled with dead women and dead girls. So many wells, in fact, that there was a real fear for the poisoning of the Beijing water supply. This is how much they feared what would happen if the Europeans entered Beijing.

Captain Francis Brinkley wrote that when Tongzhou fell, no less than 573 women comitted suicide to prevent their honour from being sullied. Aside from those who chose death by their own hands, on their own accord, many others died at the hands of the invaders.

Some Horrifying Accounts

Reader’s discretion is advised for this section due to graphic descriptions.

The Allied forces would capture women, no matter virtuous, wretched, old or young, and would, as much as they could, displace them to Biaobei alleys and to live in row houses there as prostitutes for the soldiery. To the West end of this alley the path would have been blocked off, in order to prevent escape, the East end was the only way in or out. This way was guarded. Any person from the Allied forces could enter for pleasure and rape to his heart’s desire.

Sawara Tokusuke in an excerpt from “the Miscellaneous Notes About the Boxers”

Sadly, it appears those who hanged themselves could be counted among the lucky. The citizens of Beijing were subject to three days of unbridled savagery after the fall of the Beijing. The demonic behaviour of the armies was apparent, rape was ubiquitous, so much so that among the soldiery “venereal diseases were rampant” (Fleming). There are claims it was in the interest of both the Qing Imperials and the Eight Nation Alliance that the most excessive horrors and abominable actions would be kept a secret. According to these numerous sources (the veracity of which I have been unable to verify) the military advisor and journalist known as Captain Francis (Frank) Brinkley would expose the truth in the Japan Mail editorial.

Source of this image is unknown, hundreds of websites use this image and all agree this was taken during the occupation of Beijing or at least during the Boxer War.

One of Brinkley’s accounts relays the story of a marauding soldier who entered a palace complex. Upon entering some chambers he spotted one of the maids, naked and scratching at something. The soldier immediately proceeded to assail the maid. Upon penetration, he stubbed his genitals on a hard object inside the maid. It appears that the complex had been raided beforehand, and another soldier, having taken so many priceless artifacts with him that he could no longer carry them all, found it humorous perhaps to insert a golden buddha statue into the maid’s privates. Upon discovering this, he cut open the maid, took the statue, and left.

Author’s Note:
A few questions: with whom did the soldier communicate to find out about the previous soldier who inserted the golden buddha? It seems unlikely that the maid or the soldier could communicate effectively due to the language barrier. Moreoever, it seems highly unlikely a newspaper from 1900 publish such a vulgar act in graphic detail. A somewhat questionable account, yet nonetheless one widely spread.

It is also said that during the indiscriminate killings in Beijing and its surrounding areas, the soldiers were curious about the lotus feet of Chinese women. So curious, in fact, that some soldiers would cut off the feet of some women in order to take them home as a souvenir. Though, such a macabre account is too extraordinary to be believed without concrete evidence.

Another account tells of a Japanese officer by the name of Aoki (perhaps referring to Colonel Aoki) who would sever breasts from women and cook those breasts in his rice congee, which he would proceed to eat. There is, however, no way to verify this account, and shall therefore be treated as an urban legend.

It is hard to imagine a woman in an exceedingly conservative society would agree to be eternalised with bare breasts.
It is speculated that the photographer coerced her to take this photograph.

The horrors don’t end here. There are two striking anecdotes described in the Gengxin Chronicle. In the first, a family’s home was occupied by European invaders. They raped women there day and night. After they left, numerous volumes of pornography were strewn about on the floor. Chai E also reports that foreign soldiers are extraordinarily lustful. In their skirmishes against the Boxers, they had captured a number of young women of remarkable beauty. Three foreign soldiers waited until they returned to their camp before questioning these women. They found out the women had been abducted by the Boxers for the same reasons they were captured here now. Indeed, the foreign soldiers did attempt to rape them, but the women resisted with everything they had, until their clothes were torn to shreds. The soldiers asked them: “You have been ruined by the bandits already, so how can you even consider your own chastity?” The women replied in the same voice: “Even though Boxers are ruffians, they are still Chinese. You are devils, how dare you violate women from the noble lands?” The enraged soldiers beat the women to death and disposed of their bodies on the streets (Chai 317-318).

Indeed, it appeared common practise for the invading soldiers to capture women, regardless of class or creed, to rape them. This was done by forcing them to work as sex slaves in rape-manors they had established in the Beijing hutongs (alleys formed by siheyuan residences). This excerpt from the “Miscellaneous Notes about the Boxers,” written by Japanese journalist Sawara Tokusuke, describes one such rape-manor:

“The Allied forces would frequently capture women, no matter virtuous, wretched, old or young, and would, as much as they could, displace them to Biaobei alleys and to live in row houses there as prostitutes for the soldiery. The West end of this alley the path would have been blocked off, in order to prevent escape, the East end was the only way in or out. This way was guarded. Any person from the Allied forces could enter for pleasure and rape to his heart’s desire.” (Sawara 268)

Sawara also reports on the seven daughters of Yulu 裕禄, the Viceroy of the province of Zhili (present day Hebei). Yulu was on good terms with the invaders. He was a man who always sought to create good impressions, and due to this, the British Consul at Tianjin offered him asylum on board of one of Her Majesty’s ships for his loyalty to the British (Fleming 84). Later in the war Yulu perished in the battle for Yangcun. When Beijing fell, the Allies abducted all seven of his daughters and then sent them to the Heavenly Palace in Beijing where they were violated repeatedly. Then they were held captive as sex slaves for the soldiers in one of the rape-manors mentioned above (Sawara 268). His efforts to please the British ultimately exploded in his face which his daughters paid the price for; no good deed goes unpunished.

Another story relays the fate that befell the women of Chongqi’s household. Chongqi 崇绮 was a nobleman from the Mongolian Alute clan and scholar of high standing in the Imperial Manchu court. He was also the father-in-law of the previous Emperor. His wife and one of his daughters, much like Yulu’s daughters, were captured by the invading soldiers. They were taken to the Heavenly Temple, held captive and were then brutally raped by dozens of Eight Nations Alliance soldiers during the entire course of the Beijing occupation. Only after the Eight Nations Alliance’s retreat did the mother and daughter return home, only to hang themselves from the rafters. Upon this discovery, Chongqi, out of despair, soon followed suit (Sawara 266). He hanged himself on August 26st, 1900. His son, Baochu, and many other family members commited suicide shortly after (Fang 75).

A group of Western soldiers posing with prostitutes.

Deploying Death Squads in “Punitive Expeditions”

Then there were the Punitive Expedition. These death squads were routinely sent into the Chinese countryside. The main perpetrators of these atrocities were the German and Italian forces, who were relatively new to the game of Imperialism in China as compared to France, Britain and the United States. It would seem that the two nations had something to prove. Count Alfred von Waldersee reportedly worked with “feverish activity” by ordering 75 punitive expeditions, ergo: death squads, into the countryside (Mombauer 109).

These death squads murdered thousands of innocents, as “it is safe to say that where one real Boxer has been killed since the capture of Peking [Beijing], fifty harmless coolies or laborers on the farms, including not a few women and children, have been slain” (Lynch). Mombauer also confirms this as she writes that in these expedition “countless Chinese, including many women and children, met their deaths” (Mombauer 109). It appears Alfred von Waldersee was ahead of his time, as his countrymen some 40 years later would sent their Einsatzgruppen into the Polish countryside with “feverish activity” as well.

The German way of ensuring that no potential Boxer escaped their grasp was to kill every living Chinese they could see. Entire villages were shot, put to the torch and massacred, even villages who were cooperative with the Germans were brutalised by the German soldiery. The German method can be likened to a crazed inmate who attempts to appear impressive by beating everyone in his vicinity to prove he is the strongest, and to be feared. The French way was different, but not much better. They enforced their will by offering the villages they visited an ultimatum, either they would comply to every demand, or the entire village would be put to the sword, the choice, as it were, was given to the villagers. The more calculated French approach, which is the equivalent of a schoolyard bully who will threaten to beat you to a pulp if he doesn’t get your lunch money, was reportedly more effective in getting the villagers to comply as opposed to the German approach.

Should you encounter the enemy, he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, an excerpt from the “Hun Speech” on July 2nd, 1900
German postcards and various Chinese websites claim this was an image taken of executed Boxers.
(More reliable sources claim that this was the highly publicised execution of Namoa pirates by British authorities on May 11th, 1891, in Kowloon City)

5. The Weakness of China

The invading forces of the West were small armies by any measure. So, how was it possible that this hastily assembled and badly co-operating invasion force, which did not even have its Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshall) with it during most of the fighting, was able to breach China’s defenses and take the capital city, the impregnable Dagu forts and Manchuria, the heimat (homeland) of the ruling class of Manchus, so easily?

A Nation Divided

Firstly, part of the reason was the decentralised nature of the Chinese forces by this point of the Qing Dynasty. Due to the many rebellions and revolts since the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850’s the Manchu court had given many generals and governors permission to raise their own armies in order to quell these revolts. This policy had allowed the dying Qing Dynasty to continue existing for half a century longer, but it was a double edged sword. This was the rise of regionalism in the Late Qing Dynasty. The decentralised forces meant in reality that the governal-generals who commanded large and formidable armies, each in their own corner of China, enjoyed immense autonomy. So much autonomy that, when Empress Dowager Cixi declared war on the 11 of the most powerful nations at the time, half of China refused to heed the call of duty and signed an agreement with the Western nations instead.


I will sit securely in the Southeast and die before I heed the summons.

Zhang Zhidong

The agreement was called the “Mutual Protection of South East China.” This agreement, signed by Li Hongzhang (governor-general of Guangdong and Guangxi), Liu Kunyi (governor-general of Jiangsu, Anhui and Jiangxi), Xu Yingkui (governor-general of Fujian and Zhejiang), and Zhang Zhidong (governor-general of Hunan and Hubei) ensured that their provinces would not be invaded regardless of what happened in the North. This agreement and the refusal to obey a direct Imperial decree were nothing short of high treason. Yet, the Imperial Court was in no position to do anything about it. This is the reason why the majority of China (South and East China have the highest population concentrations in all of China) did not participate in the war.

Sick Men of Asia

Drugs, gambling, prostitution have long since weakened the fighting spirit of the Chinese. It clouded their judgement and melted their courage. Their pursuit of hedonism and pleasure led to cowardice. Indeed, even in the Second Opium War, the English, when they took the fortifications in Guangzhou, noticed the soldiers were too stoned to fight. The Manchu court was acutely aware of the lure of pleasure. They had forbidden their bannermen from attending theatre and opera performances, from visiting brothels, from gambling, from all manners of pleasure they had gotten used to. It was to no avail, even though the Empire had collectively pardoned the entire Manchu caste for a number of times for their debts incurred when gambling, living excessively or otherwise. Indeed, it was widely known that the Manchus often snuck out of their Tatar cities to take part in the vices offered to them by the Chinese. The addiction to hedonism had thoroughly corrupted most virtuous qualities of the Manchus as a collective. As such, the effectiveness of the Manchu Banners was a far cry from the time they fought in Kangxi’s campaigns and a further cry from the time of their conquest of China. Indeed, the Manchu armies had become nigh useless. Even attempts to strengthen the Manchu fighting forces were in the end for naught. The Hushenying (Tiger Spirit Battalion), a unit of 10,000 Manchu bannermen with modernised weaponry and the Shenjiying (Beijing Field Force), a mostly Manchu army, also modernised, were decimated in the Battle of Beijing.

This, for me at least, has made abundantly clear that alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution and gambling are absolutely not harmless forms of entertainment. They lead to the destruction of your body and soul and they lead to the death and defiling of your closest family members. Abstain from these vices if you know what’s good for you!

Lackluster Commitment

It appears the governor-generals of these Southeastern provinces were of the opinion that the war was lost before it began. They decided to preserve their own regional strength for the future. Their lack of faith in their own military capabilities caused them to opt for self-preservation instead of resistance. Perhaps they did not realise that if the Imperialists did away with the Beijing court, they would be next. And indeed, perhaps the south of China realised this in 1937, when the Empire of Japan launched its full offensive into all of China, not just the North.

There is no need to heed the Imperial decree from Beijing.

Ronglu, Supreme Commander of the Wuwei Corps

Among those who did obey the Imperial decree to fight, the commander of the Wuwei corps, Ronglu (a.k.a. Yung-lu), was actually opposed to fighting the Western invasion. He thought that battling 11 of the most powerful nations while having lost against Japan five years prior to 1900 was a fool’s errand. Indeed, it was recorded that he once uttered the phrase “There is no need to heed the Imperial decree from Beijing.” So, he fought the entire war with diplomatic damage control in mind. During the siege of the legations he prevented Dong Fuxiang from acquiring artillery to destroy the legations. He never directly committed his Wuwei Corps in full strength against the foreign armies. Nie Shicheng, commanding one of the wings of the Wuwei Corps was even fighting and killing many of the Boxers before the Western forces attacked Dagu. Yuan Shikai, the man who commanded the most well-trained and well-equipped wing of the Wuwei Corps at the time, decided to preserve his strength by not participating in direct combat against the invasion forces. His army remained at full-strength after the Boxer War. Among the Wuwei Corps, the only commanders who fought the Imperialist forces seriously were Dong Fuxiang and Nie Shicheng.

One should always have a realistic view of enemy capabilities. It is bad to underestimate the enemy, but it is equally as bad to overestimate the enemy. The Chinese troops were demoralised before the fighting even began. When the storming column of the invading navies stormed Fort No. 4, the defenders fled instead of resisting. When the Allied soldiers entered Tianjin, it is rumoured that the Imperial forces abandoned the Boxers to their fate. The Western Forces were few in number, the soldiers hastily assembled, the supply lines long and expensive. They would never have been able to justify a greater invasion force and a longer, prolonged campaign in China. A war of attrition by committing the full capabilities of the Boxers and the Imperial armies would have been impossible for the invasion forces to resist. It appears that very few of the commanders of the Imperial or regional armies believed they stood even a sliver of chance against the invasion forces. As such, their overestimation of the enemy forces prevented them from considering victory at all, leading to lackluster commitment.

No matter how strong they seem, 
they are not gods; 
even if they were, 
gods can bleed as well.

Concluding Word

Firstly, I apologise for the long time it took me to write this article. There was much research to be done and in the initial phase I fell into a minor state of depression after doing the research. I was demoralised and questioned even the purpose of writing these articles if all they bring to light is pain and a severe loss of faith in the goodness of humanity. But then, I do stand by my original point of departure for writing these, and that is to make sure that none of this is ever forgotten. To this end, I have once again picked up my pen. With that out of the way; my concluding words.

The West invaded China under the pretense of political and moral justice. They wanted to avenge the murder of Christians and western expatriates by punishing the perpetrators. However, their moral highground fell into a thousand pieces as their hypocrisy was revealed. How is it possible for the morally superior and civilised Western armies to commit crimes more heinous than the ones they were avenging? How can indiscriminate murder of innocents possibly be seen as justice for the ones they were trying to avenge? To this day it baffles the mind how deeply hypocrisy runs.

No, this is no crusade, no holy war; it is a very ordinary war of conquest . . . A campaign of revenge as barbaric as has never been seen in the last centuries, and not often at all in history; . . . not even with the Huns, not even with the Vandals . . . That is no match for what the German and other troops of the foreign powers, together with the Japanese troops, have done in China.

August Bebel in the Reichstag, 19 November 1900, cited in Roland Felber and Horst Rostek, Der
‘Hunnenkrieg’ Kaiser Wilhelms II. Imperialistische Intervention in China, 1900/01 (illustrierte historische hefte), East Berlin 1987, p. 43.

As for the goals that the Eight Nations Alliance set out to achieve with this war? They succeeded in their primary objective, which was to relieve the Foreign Legations in Beijing. They also succeeded in “punishing” the Chinese population by creating a nightmarish hell for the Chinese unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of their cruelties. As for their strategic goals, however, to perhaps put a ruler on the throne sympathetic to Western influence or to eliminate China’s most effective fighting forces at the time were not succesful. The Empress Dowager had escaped unscathed and a good portion of China’s modern armies were kept away from the fighting, leaving them at full strength.

On the Chinese side, it is also remarkable that the Emperor and the Capital were threatened and subsequently invaded while the rest of China just looked on and ate all the pies instead of rushing to the aid of their land and liege. Much like in the Sino-French War, the same message about unity can be shared here. If even the surrounding provinces of Shandong (Shantung), Henan (Honan) and Shanxi (Shansi) sent their armies to the aid of Zhili (Chihli), then the invading forces would have never been able to invade China with such ease and so few men. Never mind the odds of a succesful Western invasion if all of China rushed to Zhili and Beijing.

“Barbarie — Civilisation”
“It’s all a matter of perspective. When a Chinese coolie strikes a
French soldier the result is a public cry of ‘Barbarity!’ But when a French
soldier strikes a coolie, it’s a necessary blow for civilization.”
Le Cri de Paris, July 10, 1899
Artist: René Georges Hermann-Paul

So, I would have to echo Card’s exhortation. The best defense is prevention, and one of the ways to prevent the victimisation of women, is to reject the idea that women are perpetual victims and therefore easy targets. The idea that women should not be trained in martial arts and in the use of weapons should be rejected. That actually doesn’t just go for women. In fact, if you wish to deter an attacker, one must gain the reputation of being indomitable. Asians were seen as cowards, in fact “yellow bastard” still refers to cowards. Asian men are seen as meek and cowardly. Asian women as subservient and docile. These are the reasons why we are still being targeted by other groups for theft and robbery. This is why world media can insult us daily with impunity. This is why it seems like it’s just another tuesday when a man of European descent kills Asians. Irrational humans truly behave like animals. Humility, passivity and agreeability only communicate weakness, which incurs aggression. Dignity, assertiveness and perseverance communicate strength, which deters aggression.

Lastly, for your own sake, and the sake of our people: stop doing drugs, stop seeing prostitutes, stop gambling and stop drinking alcohol.

Remember, but bear no hatred,
for hate is a bottomless cup, I will pour and pour.

Learn from this history lesson. Be strong.

Read about the various heroes, Imperial, Yihetuan or otherwise, in the next part of our three part article. Stay tuned.

  1. Card, Claudia. “Rape as a Weapon of War.” Hypatia 11, no. 4 (1997): 5-18.
  2. Chai E, “The Gengxin Chronicle” (Gengxin jishi), in Compiled Materials on the Boxers (Yihetuan wenxian huibian), ed. Zhongguo shixue hui (Taipei: Dingwen, 1973), 1: 317–318.
  3. Chao-ying Fang. “Chongqi.” In Eminent Chinese of the Qing Period: (1644-1911/2), 74–75. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2018.
  4. Fleming, Peter. The Siege at Peking. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1959.
  5. 刘海岩. “八国联军占领期间天津若干问题考析.” 历史档案, no. 2 (2005): 76-83.
  6. “八国联军侵华大事记.” 中国天主教, no. S1 (2000): 47-48.
  7. Mombauer, Annika. “Wilhelm, Waldersee, and the Boxer Rebellion.” Chapter. In The Kaiser: New Research on Wilhelm II’s Role in Imperial Germany, edited by Annika Mombauer and Wilhelm Deist, 91–118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511496790.006.
  8. Myakishev. “The Capture of the Taku Fort.” Royal United Services Institution. Journal 45, no. 280 (1901): 730–44.
  9. Ouellet, Eric. “Multinational Counterinsurgency: the Western Intervention in the Boxer Rebellion 1900–1901.” Small Wars & Insurgencies 20, no. 3-4 (2009): 507–27.
  10. Roland Felber and Horst Rostek, Der ‘Hunnenkrieg’ Kaiser Wilhelms II. Imperialistische Intervention in China, 1900/01 (illustrierte historische hefte), East Berlin 1987, p. 43.
  11. Sawara Tokusuke, “Miscellaneous Notes about the Boxers” (Quanshi zaji), in Compiled Materials on the Boxers (Yihetuan wenxian huibian), ed. Zhongguo shixue hui (Taipei: Dingwen, 1973), 1: 266-268.
  12. Shagren, Glen, “Tientsin China in 1900” (1976). All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. 727.
  13. Sun, Qihai. Baguo Lianjun Qin Hua Jishi. Beijing: Huawen Chubanshe, 1996.
  14. Xiang, Lanxin. “Dagu: The Undeclared War.” In The Origins of the Boxer War: a Multinational Study. London: Routledge, 2015.

Appendix: A Timeline and a Map of the War in China of 1900

The Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent Western invasion/intervention is a complicated episode in world history with many moving pieces. In order to benefit the accessibility to the material in my articles, I have created a timeline which ties together most major events of the war. The timeline is based on the “八国联军侵华大事记” article from the publication Catholic Church in China. In addition to the timeline I have also marked a map with most relevant locations that are discussed in these articles and on the timeline.

Undoubtedly, the reader will recognise the events described my previous articles The Black River Runs Red: The Massacres in Northeast China and War in China: the Fall of Beijing as well as the more recent War in China: the Ravishment of the North. If one is unfamiliar with Chinese geography and Late Qing history, I would strongly recommend to pull this page up beside the articles for ease of access when the information is needed.

Scroll down for the map, it’s all the way at the bottom.
Click the timelines and press “view full size” to zoom in.

A map of Northern China and relevant locations

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