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

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

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

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

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

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

To the right, the Russian military in Manchuria.

The Context: Russian interests in China

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

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

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

Alexey Kuropatkin in 1904

“We shall turn Manchuria into a second Bukhara.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Massacres

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

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

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

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

From left to right: Solon, Manchu and Daur.

The Hailanpao Massacre

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

A Russian Officer, as quoted by Louis Livingston Seaman

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

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

Then, the order was given to open fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 64 Villages East of the River Massacre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern rendering of the massacre at the 64 Villages.

The Burning of Aigun

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

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

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

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

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

Wu Lan 吴兰, a Manchu woman from Aigun

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

The Shakee Massacre

On June 23rd 1925, a hundred thousand Cantonese labourers and students had taken to the streets to show support for the May Thirtieth Movement (Mandarin: Wusa Yundong 五卅运动) and outrage at the subsequent Shanghai Massacre, in which the British Shanghai Municipal Police opened fire on the protesters. In an unsettling kind of parallelism, the British would enforce the same colonial justice in Guangzhou as they did in Shanghai. The British, French and Portuguese opened fire on the Chinese protesters and killed 52 and wounded over 170 people.

never forget this day

The British reports on the incident blame the Chinese fully for the massacre that occurred during the protests -even though they could have called for the ceasefire at any time. Indeed, the European powers remain adamant that it was the Chinese who opened fire on the foreign concessions in China, which caused the Europeans to retaliate with Lewis gun fire and sharp ammunition (a type of light machine gun used in the first world war instead of rubber bullets and tear gas as is the case in the current Hong Kong protests.) In light of this, it is perhaps good to learn about why these protests were taking place in the first place, and what the British, French and Portuguese were doing inside Canton (henceforth to be referred to as Guangzhou).

Background

The 20’s in China were characterised by the inhumane conditions the people had to work under, especially under supervision of the colonisers; extremely low wages (in Shanghai it was reported that a labourer in a Japanese cotton mill would make 15 cents a day, a pound of rice cost 6.2 cents), child labour (children under 12 had to work to support the family), work days exceeding 12 hours a day, just to make ends meet. This era was also marked by the remarkable resilience of the people as they rose up en masse, as they yearned to be free of the yoke of western imperialism and rampant capitalism.

The tension between the Chinese people, the Chinese warlords and the colonial powers was mounting. While the exploitation of the Chinese people continued, the colonial powers sought to safeguard their enterprises by tightening down their laws. On the 19th of June 1924 in Guangzhou in the foreign concession Shameen (Mandarin: Shamian 沙面) the Vietnamese activist and revolutionary, member of the Đông Du Movement, known as Phạm Hồng Thái attempted to assassinate the governor-general of French Indochina, Martial Merlin. His attempt failed, and he drowned himself in the Pearl River (Mandarin: Zhujiang 珠江). While his assassination had little to do with the Chinese government, and more to do with the horrible conditions in Vietnam, the colonists were spooked. They imposed new regulations on the Chinese population. All Chinese servant entering and exiting the foreign concession were required to carry with them their official papers. After 9 o’clock in the evening, any Chinese not carrying a pass would not be allowed to enter the concession territory twice. However, all Europeans, Japanese, Indians or Vietnamese were free to go as they pleased. Indeed, the Chinese were restricted movement in what should be their own land and own territory.

The outrage of the Cantonese people at British Imperialism manifest itself in strikes. With the support of Sun Yat-Sen and the Chinese Communists the 3000 or so Chinese servants frequenting the foreign concessions went on strike. Indeed, the perseverance of the strikers was such that the British concession asked the Guangzhou government to put an end to it. The Cantonese government did not acquiesce to their request.

By the end of 1924, a hundred labourer’s unions had joined in on the movement. The numbers had then swelled to 150.000 people, the majority of all unionised labourers of Guangzhou. In 1925 the movement spread to Hong Kong. The Cantonese government offered free passage to those Hongkongers who wished to return to China to escape the oppressive conditions under British rule. Many chose to move to Guangzhou. Within a very short period Hong Kong was depopulated. The movement grew… millions of hearts yearned for one word in unison: Freedom.

This entire movement came to be known as the Canton-Hong Kong Strike (省港大罷工). A moment in history where Chinese, no matter a subject of the Queen or a citizen of the Republic, clasped their hands together, united against injustice and oppression.

The Day of the Massacre

Many of the protesters during the movements were labourers from the unions, but also present were students of various Cantonese colleges, middle schools and elementary schools and cadets from the Whampoa Military Academy. The protesters carried banners with slogans such as “打倒帝国主义” (dadao diguozhuyi – overthrow Imperialism), “取消一切不平等条约” (quxiao yiqie bu pingdeng tiaoyue – annul all unequal treaties), “协助上海五卅惨案” (xiezhu Shanghai wusa canan – show support for the Shanghai Massacre). The protest would proceed in an orderly fashion as the marching route was planned beforehand. There however was one road the protest would march through that spelled trouble, it was the road that faced the Shameen concession directly: Shakee (present day Liu Er San Road 六二三路 – literally 623 road, named after the incident which occurred on June 23rd).

The protest in an orderly fashion.

The Europeans on Shameen had already prepared for battle, as if expecting an assault. The ships were readied, the perimeter of the island of Shameen was barricaded and the French even went as far as moving their valuables onto a ship, for fear of their headquarters being looted. By 2 p.m. the protesters had reached Shakee, when the Lingnan Students and the soldiers of the Xiang army reached the middle of the street, the European troops suddenly opened fire on the protesters.

The Ling Nan Students carrying their flag “Ling Nan Xuexiao” (Ling Nan School)

This is where the reports differ, according to the English reports, it was the Chinese who had premeditated this assault and opened fire on the British (personally, I find this unlikely, as none of the Chinese positions were fortified, Guangzhou was in no position in terms of military strength to challenge the concession on Shameen, and there was little resistance from the armed forces present among the protesters when the massacre commenced). Regardless of who shot first, upon hearing gunfire, all of the other European troops opened fire on the unarmed crowd with support from the nearby battleships. The panicked crowd attempted to disperse, and many were forced into the water. It is said that on this day, the canal between Shameen and Shakee ran red. The barrage of bullets continued until 3:15 p.m., the European troops had seen little resistance from the Chinese troops and therefore ceased to fire.

The first responders came from the Guangzhou Guanghua Hospital. They reported arriving to a nightmarish sight. About 40 corpses riddled with bullets were strewn across the street. Some with torn open bellies, others with holes in their heads. Some had exit wound greater than the entrance wounds and others vice versa. In the end the official report claimed a total death toll of 52 people and 170 wounded, it is very likely that more were killed and even more died from their wounds later.

Indeed, the Shakee Massacre is a true massacre, quite different from the one that unfolded at Tiananmen and, luckily, very different from how the Hong Kong government is currently handling the large scale protests in Hong Kong. Indeed, through this incident we can see how Europeans deal with peaceful protests. It is yet another example among many others of the horrors of Western Imperialism in Asia and indeed the world. The blood of the innocents that stains the hands of these colonisers proves their evil and inhumanity. This is the result of not strengthening the people, this is the result of disregarding threats and treating foe as friend and friend as foe.

A memorial stele was erected on the site of the massacre with the inscription: never forget this day. That too is the message I would like to impart upon the reader today. This atrocity occurred not even a hundred years ago, yet many people have forgotten about this incident. How can we face the victims of these crimes when they ask us what we did to make sure something like this will never happen again? What will we say when they ask us if they died for nothing? Well, did they? Did we rid the world of exploitation, of Colonialism, of Imperialism? No, instead, we forget they ever marched, and we forgot they ever died for our liberties.

No longer. Today we remember.

The memorial stele erected in memory of the massacre with the inscription: 毋忘此日 (never forget this day)

References

Jia Qianjun 贾仟军. “Shaji canan yanjiu” 沙基惨案研究. Master’s thesis. Shandong shifan daxue 山东师范大学 (2016).

June twenty-third : the report of the Shakee massacre, June 23, 1925, Canton, China. Canton: The Commission, 1925.

Wang Fuchang 王付昌. “Shaji canan shangwang renshu dingzheng” 沙基惨案伤亡人数订正. Zhongshan daxue xuebao 中山大学学报 no. 1 (1994).

China and France at War: Treaty of Tientsin (1885)

Today on the 9th of June we remember the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin of 1885 (not to be confused with the Treaty of Tientsin of 1858 that ended the first phase of the Second Opium War). This treaty marks the end of the Sino-French war, often referred to as the Tonkin War. It was a war fought over the dominion over Tonkin (Đông Kinh 東京), the north of present day Vietnam under control of the Qing Dynasty at the time.

Qing Forces in Tonkin during the Sino-French War

To the surprise of many, including the Qing court, which went into the war with a mind to appease France and to make compromises, the Chinese armies did markedly better against the French army than they did typically against other Western powers at the time. This can be owed in particular to Liu Yongfu’s command of the Black Flag Army and Tang Jingsong’s Yunnan Army. The combined Chinese and Tonkinese efforts succeeded in damaging the French armies and sapping their morale, it finally caused General de Négrier to suffer defeat in the first time of his illustrious career. Despite the occasional victories, the Chinese still suffered heavy losses. Toward the end of the war, due to a strategic blunder by Lieutenant-Colonel Herbinger, the Chinese armies gained a strategic victory in Tonkin and maintained control over the region. Despite their best efforts, however, the victory was to no avail as it was mitigated by French victories elsewhere which include the humiliating annihilation of the Fujian fleet and the destruction of the Foochow Navy Yard, the taking of the strategically important Pescadores (Peng Hu Xian 澎湖县/澎湖縣) off the coast of Taiwan and the subsequent naval blockades facilitated by France’s naval superiority. France also attempted to invade Formosa (Taiwan 台湾/臺灣), yet the well-equipped and experienced Huai Army under Liu Mingchuan stationed there was effective in halting the French, preventing them from advancing and bogging them down in a long and fruitless stalemate as the French invasion force had difficulty advancing beyond Keelung (鸡笼/雞籠, present day 基隆).

The French on the Pescadores posing with the townsfolk.

France’s naval supremacy off the Chinese coast can be owed to the factionalist splintering of Chinese power. The Beiyang fleet, which contained China’s most advanced ships, was held off from fighting. Furthermore, besides the rather systematic approach to the defense of China in a total commitment to the war as proposed by Zhang Zhidong, there seemed to be a reluctance coming from the Empress Dowager and her court. There is a lesson to be learnt here about full commitment and unity. If China had been less divided into factions and committed fully to the idea of defeating the French and thereby driving them out of the region once and for all, chances were that China would have succeeded in winning the Sino-French war. Alas, internal struggle manifest like an illness in the Qing empire and it was never cured, and the people suffered its consequences.

For fear of escalation the Qing commenced negotiations and acquiesced to most of France’s demands. The Qing acknowledged French suzerainty over Tonkin and agreed to retract all Chinese forces from the area. Liu, having lost much of the Black Flag Army’s strength in the war against the French, had no choice but to obey the terms and leave Tonkin. He only left with his elites, however, and disbanded the rest of his army without confiscating their weapons. These disbanded Black Flags remained in Tonkin and continued to resist French control in an arduous campaign of guerrilla warfare under the Cần Vương (勤王) Movement, whose aims were to expel the French colonisers from Vietnamese territory and to put Hàm Nghi (咸宜) on the throne. Their efforts to expel the invaders failed, though not for lack of effort. Hàm Nghi was betrayed, captured and exiled, only to die on foreign soil, where his body remains to this day.

Captured female freedom fighters against French Colonisation in 1886 (labelled as pirates by the French)

The results of the war rippled through China, France and Vietnam:

  • It gave pause to the Self-Strengthening Movement in China but simultaneously sparked a wave of nationalist sentiment in the South of China.
  • The difficulty of French campaign had an impact on the momentum and enthusiasm of French colonial expansionism, which in turn gave pause to their planned invasion of Madagascar as the war-mongering Prime Minister Jules Ferry was sacked.
  • The treaty effectively meant the Qing gave up its suzerain status in Vietnam by acknowledging its status as a French protectorate. It allowed for the complete colonisation of French Indochina.

French Colonialism in Vietnam

Why was France in South-East Asia in the first place?
France justified its taking of French Indochina under the excuse of giving the savages civilisation. Regardless of how arrogant and supremacist this idea is on its own, it was also nothing but a badly hidden excuse for their real purpose in the area: the worship of the colonist’s one true god known as money. The colonisers’ motives are revealed through their treatment of the locals; the following segment shall seek to illustrate this point.

While the French Republic was active in the region of South-East Asia, taking Cambodia, Laos, Annam and Cochinchina before taking the area of Tonkin, the end of the Sino-French war marked the beginning of an era of French dominance over the entire region. Up until 1897 the French rule in Vietnam was marked by resistance and the slow consolidation of French power by pacifying the various pockets of Vietnamese resistance. From 1900 onward, the French colonisers began their serious attempts at submitting the Vietnamese in heart and mind as well as beginning to devise the most efficient methods of exploiting the local resources.

Realities of Colonial Rule

The people of Vietnam, famous for their extraordinary history of resisting and defeating foreign invaders, did not sit idly by while the France continued to sully Vietnamese pride. Indeed, anti-colonial sentiments grew into a more systematic organisation that manifested itself in movements like Phan Bội Châu’s Đông-Du. Naturally, the anti-colonial organisations did not emerge out of thin air. The lived experiences of the Vietnamese people under the realities of the French “reign of terror” proved time and again that change needed to come. The severity of their suffering fuelled the engines of resistance. I have taken the liberty of using Truong Buu Lâm’s and Rydstrom’s research on the Vietnamese Experiences of Colonialism to sketch a glimpse of Vietnam under French colonial rule.

Economic Exploitation
From 1880 to 1939 the land dedicated to rice production in Vietnam quadrupled in size, yet in the same period not only did the average peasant not get a share of the increased rice production, his rice consumption actually dropped. Not because he had now began to eat bread, there was no substitution of other food.

Another form of exploitation comes in the form of forced labour for public works only the French and collaborators benefitted from. These labourers were forced to work in mines and rubber plantations, the inhumane treatment of the workers, while severely underpaid, and a lack of medical care in abysmal working conditions is only one step removed from slavery; this parallel to slavery is only made more apparent as the punishment for running away was torture and death.

“Working at a rubber farm is easy: Go as a strong man, return a walking corpse.”

A rough translation of Vietnamese poem on French exploitation

The Government
Needless to be said, all high positions in the French colonial government were reserved for French officials. While the traditional monarchies of the protectorate states of Laos, Cambodia and Annam/Tonkin still existed underneath the French administration, the rulers and their courts were reduced to not much more than ceremonial figureheads and puppets on strings. Instead, true power in French Indochina rested in the hands of the Governor-General and the various councils that replaced each other over time as well as Paris itself. Any attempts at the inclusion or promise of “uplifting” the indigenous in the colonial administration, such as what was attempted by Sarraut and Varenne, was met with immediate backlash and resistance. Similar to the colonial administration, the police forces and the armed forces stationed in French Indochina were invariably lead by Frenchmen, though much of the rank-and-file was made up of indigenous soldiers or foreign soldiers from other French colonies.

Worsening Education Levels
By 1939 about 80% of the Vietnamese population was illiterate. Contrasted with pre-colonial times when the majority of people had some kind of literacy. Moreover, in a country with more than 20 million inhabitants, how is it possible that the only university in the country only has 700 students? Indeed, even the secondary schools, built for the ethnically French, only rarely accepted Vietnamese students. Simply said, French rule seems to have retarded the progress of Vietnam, and if you were to ask me, it almost seems to have been a deliberate obscurantist attempt to keep the people uneducated.

Police and Military Terror
It was generally ill-advised to speak ill of the French colonial government. There was a great fear among the Vietnamese to be overheard by security agents. The French would employ these “agent provocateurs” to evoke any lingering seditious sentiments in political debate, after which they would promptly be arrested and interrogated. In fact, to this day it is said that at quiet nights near the old Saigon police station on Catinat street one can still hear the cries of terror, the wailing, the moaning and the trembling voices of anguish of those tortured by the security force.

The French army would hunt down any voices, any party involved in the anti-occupational movement deemed a threat against French sovereignty and they would torture them and kill them to leave an imprint on their friends and family. They would do these acts of terror in order to scare the Vietnamese into submission, so that they would never attempt to resist France again.

‘If you do not comply with French colonialism, a ghoulish theater of murder will be back, for new victims’

Quoted in Rydstrom

Gendered atrocities
While the brutality of the sexual violence that occurred in the American invasion of Vietnam decades later has often been highlighted, the equally as brutal and longer lasting French sexual violence designed to dehumanise, to strip-naked of its human identity, to submit and to “civilise” the Vietnamese people has escaped such attention.

“Once, our gatekeeper signalled that the French enemy was coming. So we went down to the tunnels [beneath the pagoda], but some did not [manage to come along]. Then the French burned, and killed, and also raped about 10 [pregnant] women.”

Old Quyen as quoted in Rydstrom

Rydstrom notes that Vietnamese women were conquered twice, once as Vietnamese and once as women. French soldiers would rape women and girls, to extract information, to punish, to warn the rest of the community. During these episodes, pregnant women would be singled out as targets of sexual violence. She would be subject to extreme suffering because of her symbolic status as someone producing more enemies for France to worry about in the future. As such, pregnant women and their foetuses would often be killed as a projection of ultimate dominance over the conquered. There are many accounts I could relegate, but I could not bear to dwell upon them for too long for the sake of my own sanity, and I do not want to subject the reader to the same. I refer to Rydstrom’s article if you want to know.

The rape of women is an especially powerful and dreadful weapon frequently used in wartime, but occasionally also in peacetime. The attack on the reproducer of a population is an attack on the reproducers of the collective. The men who belong to the group of the raped collective are therefore seen as incapable of defending their own (in Vietnamese culture being unable to protect your own is a great humiliation), and are feminised in the process. This ruthless violence against women was used as a means to punish these seditious elements.

“They raped women, sometimes until they died.”

Quoted in Rydstrom

These facts all serve to show us that life in Vietnam under colonial rule was plagued by misery and is aptly described by many as hell. It speaks volumes about this French “reign of terror” that during their reign Vietnamese nationalism soared to new heights. Even though any sedition or resistance to colonial rule was usually sniffed out and put an end to, the Vietnamese people never did give up. Here too is a lesson to be learned: no matter how high the stakes, no matter what the odds, the Vietnamese fought for what was right. If the true worth of a human is measured by their virtues, then the Vietnamese freedom fighters of this era could count themselves among the richest.

In conclusion, if the regional suzerain becomes weak, other nations will start to pick at the borders. Vietnam could have been spared the abject terror that was French colonialism if the Chinese state were to have been more capable of defending its protectorates. The Sino-French War serves as a grim reminder that no matter how virtuous or vengeful your state is, none of it matters against ravenous predators with absolute power. The only way to resist such savage and overwhelming strength is to match them bullet for bullet, to be united against our common enemies and to be willing to win, whatever the means, even especially when the odds are stacked against us. We remember not for any country, or for any government, but for those who suffered, so that this level of human tragedy may never happen again.

Keep your eye on this blog if you want to remember.

References

  • Buttinger, Joseph, and William J. Duiker. “Vietnam.” Encyclopædia Britannica. February 07, 2019. Accessed June 09, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Vietnam/Effects-of-French-colonial-rule.
  • Feng, Pan 冯攀. “Zhong Fa zhan zheng shi qi Zhang Zhi Dong de jun shi fang lue” 中法战争时期张之洞的军事方略 (ZHANG Zhidong’s Military Strategies during the Sino-French War). Yi bin xue yuan xue bao 宜宾学院学报 11, no. 7 (2011): 31-34
  • Ji, Yun Fei 季云飞. “Zhong Fa zhan zheng qi jian Qing zheng fu de kang fa bao tai ce lue” 中法战争期间清政府的抗法保台策略. Li shi yan jiu 历史研究, no. 6 (1995): 87-95
  • Rydstrom, Helle. “Politics of Colonial Violence: Gendered Atrocities in French Occupied Vietnam.” European Journal of Womens Studies22, no. 2 (2014): 191-207. doi:10.1177/1350506814538860.
  • Trương, Bửu Lâm. Colonialism Experienced: Vietnamese Writings on Colonialism, 1900-1931. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2003.
Left a soldier of the Black Flag Army, right a French marine.

An Extension of Hong Kong Territory

Today we remember that exactly 121 years ago, on the 9th of June in 1898, the United Kingdom and the Qing Empire signed the lease known as the Convention between the United Kingdom and China, Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory (中英展拓香港界址專條).

The United Kingdom hereby extended its Hong Kong territory by another 300.000 square kilometres (115.831 square miles). The United Kingdom deemed an expansion of territory as necessary to protect its colony of Hong Kong. To this end, the United Kingdom “leases” (without paying rent) the New Territories from the Qing Empire for a period of 99 years until June 30, 1997, which was deemed “as good as forever.”

The lease, however, did not last forever. On July 1st 1997 the entirety of the Crown Colony, including Hong Kong and Kowloon, was reverted to Chinese rule.

Whereas the UK only had control over Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula immediately due North of Hong Kong Island, this new treaty granted the UK a significant increase in colonial territory.

The Context

In the spring of 1898 the Qing was forced to sign several other similar leases with the Germans, the Russians and the French over the territories of Kiaotschou Bay ( 膠州灣/胶州湾) for the Germans, Dalian (大连/大連) and Port Arthur (旅順口/旅顺口) for the Russians and Kwang-Chou-Wan (廣州灣/广州湾) for the French, while also signing away Weihaiwei (威海衛/威海卫) in Shantung to the English.

It should be clear that the Qing Empire did not sign this lease out of free will. After all, which Empire would give away territory to other nations for free? It was the humiliating and unexpected defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War, known in Chinese as the 甲午海战 (jiawu hai zhan), that signalled the weakness of China (even with its now modernised military) to the predators and vultures circling above its head. Like sharks smelling blood, the various Western powers swarmed China and endeavoured to divide it among themselves. Indeed, the famous cartoon published on 16 January 1898 from Le Petit Journal says more than a thousand words.

British Rule in Hong Kong

One might think the British were “bringers of civilisation” who raised Hong Kong from a sleepy fishing village to a booming metropolis. One might even think Hong Kong was better off simply because of the “benevolent and progressive” British rule. Indeed, in this train of thought one might even think that Britain, “marching at the head of civilisation,” managed to justly subordinate Asia to Europe in Hong Kong. After all, civilising the dark Asian continent is the divine mission of all Europeans. This section shall serve as a reminder as to what kind of ruler the Briton truly was in Hong Kong.

A Brief Overview of Early Colonial Hong Kong until 1900

The area of Hong Kong came into British possession after the First Opium War (1839-1842), a war of aggression initiated by the United Kingdom when the Daoguang Emperor of China ordered Viceroy Lin Zexu in China’s own “war on drugs” to seize and destroy 1000 long tons of British opium. British merchants had for several decades been smuggling opium grown in India to China to balance the British trade deficit. As a reaction to the “insult” the Chinese had given by destroying the opium, the United Kingdom declared war, and brutally bombarded Chinese coastal cities, sailing up its rivers, blocking major ports and disrupting trade. The Chinese Empire was powerless against modern weaponry and utterly unprepared against a naval invasion. To end the war the Treaty of Nanking was signed; besides paying indemnities, opening trading ports and guaranteeing extraterritorial rights for British expatriates, Hong Kong was also ceded for an indefinite length of time. As is apparent, Hong Kong was a colony taken forcefully by British powder and lead in a war to open China’s markets and to facilitate the British drug trade in China.

19th century depiction of Viceroy Lin Zexu overseeing the destruction of the opium by lime, salt and sea water in June 1839

In the early days of the colony the British were unrealistically optimistic about the future of Hong Kong. They saw the colony as the centre of British power in China, the capital of Anglo-China as it were, and it would soon rival ancient Carthage, Tyre and even Rome in terms of population and magnificence. These romantic predictions did not come to pass, the colonisers had grossly overestimated the importance of Hong Kong as an offshore entrepôt. Instead of growing like they had wished, Hong Kong began to stagnate. In this stagnation and disillusionment the colonisers began to believe that in order to further secure and expand British power, the Chinese people as well as their government required further “chastisement” in the form of a good thrashing.

“The fewer Chinese inhabitants in the colony the less will be the trouble”

Friend of China 1848

Hong Kong attracted criminals, vagabonds, outlaws and all troubles they bring with them like moths to a fire. The colonists became increasingly outnumbered as more and more “undesirable” Chinese migrated to the colony. The Friend of China argued that “the fewer Chinese inhabitants in the colony the less will be the trouble.” It continued: “indeed, with the exception of those actively engaged in commerce, servants, and mechanics, we are better without Chinamen.” Personally, I would argue that if they didn’t want China in the colony, they shouldn’t have built the colony in China.

“…we are better without Chinamen.”

Friend of China 1848

The period of stagnation ended in the 1850s. Hong Kong found its role as a depot for the opium trade as well as being a hub for the so-called “emigration business,” or in other words: the coolie trade. Both forms of trade were strictly illegal, and was accompanied by the same kinds of abuse as is often associated with human trafficking. The cruelty, the overcrowding and other abuses came to the light, and it forced the colony to regulate the trade. Furthermore, Hong Kong grew in importance as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), the single most bloody rebellion in human history, forced many Chinese merchants to migrate to the colony. Victoria Harbour grew to have “the largest annual turnover in tonnage of any port in the world.” In essence, the sickly, faltering colony was nursed to health by the United Kingdom on the twin teats of human trafficking and drug dealing and then raised to wealth by feeding on the sap of chaos, war and famine.

Nevertheless, the greed of the coloniser could never be satisfied, Chinese officials had undermined and circumvented the original concessions, the Cantonese people still had dignity and pride, an ill state of affairs that required rectification. Indeed, a second war needed to be fought to “engender the widespread conviction among the Chinese, of their inferiority in the warlike, or in any other arts, to the foreigners.” (Friend of China, 11 May 1843, 34)

The 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot at the Storming of the Fortress of Amoy (present day Xiamen),
26 August 1841 (First Opium War)

This war did come to pass, and is referred to as the Second Opium War. As the name suggests, this too was a war fought to secure the British Opium trade in China. This war was fought when China was in a state of Empire wide crisis as the horrors of the Taiping Rebellions swept through China. The British, sensing opportunity to strike, took advantage of the weakened state of the Qing and launched their assault once more on the Qing Empire. The Qing State lost and that resulted in, among several other demands, the cession of Kowloon to the British in 1860. In 1865, the HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) too began to have a role to play in the opium trade, the bank was founded for the purpose of managing the opium revenue. Hong Kong continued to exist and develop in a stable manner until 1898, when the colony gained the New Territories.

Being Colonised and Participating in Ones Colonisation

Chinese residents of Hong Kong were subject to nightly curfews, registration schemes, annual censuses and police searches. The British laws were fickle and increasingly criminalised daily activities, forcing many Chinese to come in contact with the uglier side of British law, especially since the prosecution rate in Hong Kong’s criminal courts was 3 times that of England and Wales. The abysmal conditions and the pervasive idleness of the British regiments stationed in the colony would result in the soldiers frequently unleashing their frustrations (violent, sexual or otherwise) against the local Chinese population. Their excessive violence remains a stark reminder as to who was master and who was slave. This relation is also made thoroughly apparent in how most interactions in the colony went, whether personal or printed. The Europeans communicated with the Chinese in a condescending, patronising manner, exacerbated by the fact that the Europeans communicated with the Chinese in English, making little to no effort to learn the language of the locals. As is the case in any colony, the more affluent colonists made good use of their status and took many Chinese coolie servants for cooking, carrying their litters, opening the doors and, of course, to bed. As many of the colonists were men, it was common to have relations with Chinese prostitutes, live-in mistresses and “protected women.”

Yet, one has to wonder, is the plight of the people of Hong Kong merely a result of Western Expansionism alone, or were the locals complicit in their own colonisation? A story of colonisation is often not only the result of the oppression of the coloniser, but also the collaboration of the colonised. The people of Hong Kong were complicit in the maintenance of the colony and all of its structures. It is not fair to see the people of Hong Kong merely as a passive agent to which bad things happened, in the same way it is unfair to say Hong Kong was built by the British. On the contrary, despite systematic barriers for people of Chinese descent in Hong Kong, such as being racially segregated and barred from high positions in the Hong Kong government, many gifted individuals succeeded in navigating the colonial system, and in one way or another, built great fortune for themselves and their descendants.

So, if one wishes truly to denounce colonialism, one needs to do more than to point the finger at the coloniser; one needs to realise that three fingers point back at oneself and reflect upon what we did to facilitate our own suffering. We must and will never make the same mistakes again… not as long as we remember.

Keep your eyes on this blog if you want to remember.

References

  • “Convention between the United Kingdom and China Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory.” The American Journal of International Law 4, no. 4 (1910): 295. 
  • Munn, Christopher. “Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong.” Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2013. National Library of Canada.
  • Wu, Yiching. “Prelude to Culture: Interrogating British Rule in Early Colonial Hong Kong” Dialectical Anthropology 24, no. 2 (1999), pp. 141-170
Sedan chair carriers and their English master
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