Aug 29, 2022
Last time we spoke, the Qing Dynasty faced the last real death throes of the Ming Dynasty. What is known as the Revolt of three Feudatories resulted in a war against Wu Sangui, Geng Jingzhong & Shang Zhixin. One by one each warlord fell to the Qing dynasty’s vast armies and with each defeat brought more territory and populace under the Qing yolk. However one last major enemy loomed, the Kingdom of Taiwan established by Koxinga. Koxinga’s descendent Zheng Keshuang would eventually be defeated and with his submission it seemed the Qing Dynasty would have eternal peace. However, the Qing’ enemies remained within and outside its borders at all times. Holding the new empire together would not be easy. The Qing empire, much like the great wall of China could be destroyed, brick by brick and only time would tell how that wall would hold.
This episode is the White Lotus Rebellion
Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on the history of asia and much more so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.
The revolt of the 3 feudatories had ended, Wu Sangui, Geng Jingzhong & Shang Zhixin were all defeated. The grandson of Koxinga, Zheng Keshuang was defeated, Taiwan was conquered and brought under the fold of the Qing dynasty. The Qing also managed to defend its borders from the external threat of the Tsardom of Russia. The Russians had ventured into border skirmishes around the Amur River valley, first in 1658 with the Battle of Hutong, in which a force of Manchu and Koreans overwhelmed a force of 500 Cossacks aboard 11 ships, sending them fleeing to Albazin. Albazin was a Russian settlement on the Amur River right along the Qing Dynasty’s border and it remained a point of conflict in the late 17th century. Since their defeat at the battle of Hutong, the Russians began a campaign of persuading nearby populaces to their cause rather than the Qing which became such a nuisance by 1685 that the Qing sent a force to lay siege to the settlement. In just one day the settlement garrisoned by 450 men surrendered, however a year later the Russians would return to the settlement looking to re-establish themselves. The Qing yet again besieged the settlement in 1686, however this time it was much bloodier. The Qing threw around 3000 men at Albazin which was garrisoned by 800, by the end of the ordeal it is said just 24 men survived within Albazin and the Qing lost perhaps 1500 casualties. In the greater scheme of things, it was just a small border clash, but the result was rather significant. The Russians had been acting rather boldly, because of all the strife going on between the Qing and Ming, but now that the Qing had consolidated their new empire they were more than capable of defending any encroachments, especially those in Manchuria,their native homelands. After defeating the Russians again at the Siege of Albazin, the Qing government sent letters to the Tsar suggesting they sign a peace treaty, because for quite a long time now, the Qing were dealing with an age old enemy, the Mongols, to be precise the Dzungar Mongols. Emperor Kangxi wished to rid the Russian nuisance from the Amur area which was the northern border so he could focus his army on the north-western problem that was the Dzungar Mongols. The Russians knew they could not hope to defend outposts as far as the Amur region and the idea of peace talks perked their interests as trade would be far more beneficial to them then border skirmishes. A treaty would be signed called the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which established trade between the 2 empires and relative peace for quite a long time. This was also the first treaty between the Tsardom of Russia and the Qing dynasty, so a bit of legitimizing for the new-ish regime.
The Qing would have a hell of a time with the Dzungar Mongols which accumulated into what is known as the Dzungar-Qing war which almost went on for a hundred years. By the time the Qing would effectively end the wars with the Dzungar mongols, and all culminated in what is known as the Dzungar genocide. By the end of the wars in the 1750’s it is estimated that around 80% of the Dzungar population, something like 500-800 thousand people were killed. During the early 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor gave a directive stating “"Show no mercy at all to these rebels. Only the old and weak should be saved. Our previous military campaigns were too lenient. If we act as before, our troops will withdraw, and further trouble will occur. If a rebel is captured and his followers wish to surrender, he must personally come to the garrison, prostrate himself before the commander, and request surrender. If he only sends someone to request submission, it is undoubtedly a trick. Tell Tsengünjav to massacre these crafty Zunghars. Do not believe what they say."”. As you can imagine such directives led to the massacres of countless people. On Top of the killings, the remaining Dzungar peoples were forcefully relocated to places all over China. Reports from a QING scholar named Wei Yuan who lived almost 100 years after the events state that 30% of the Dzungar people were killed by the Qing military, 40% died of disease such as a smallpox epidemic, 20% fled to other places like Russia and modern day Kazakhstan. There are quite a few historians who argue the Qianlong Emperor simply engaged in a genocidal campaign. Regardless after this rather horrible and bloody ordeal, for the most part the Qing dynasty undergoes a period of relative peace, and I mean the word peace should be taken with a grain of salt, for all Chinese history I don’t think there is a single year some revolt or rebellion is not occurring.
When Emperor Kangxi took the throne from 1661-1722 this began what is called the Qing Golden Age. His successor Emperor Yongzheng continued the golden age from 1723-1735 and was further succeeded by Emperor Qianlong who would rule from 1735-1796 which is seen as the peak of the Golden age. During this period China annexed most of Mongolia, northeast China, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, aside from Taiwan, its basically the borders of the very China we know today. China at this time amounted to over 32% of the worlds industrial output, its population soared past 100 million for the first time in history and soon grew to an enormous 300 million, hell I live in Canada and we barely have 38 million right now! Despite being such a colossus, China for the most part was quite isolated in its market. China allowed foreign trade through places like Macau, but it was quite limited in scope. Eventually it would be expanded upon.
When the Qianlong Emperor took the throne he began numerous projects including the Ten Great Campaigns, which was a series of military campaigns that enlarged the empire to the extent I had mentioned previously. He put together the largest collection of books in Chinese history to that point known as the Siku Quanshu, “complete repository of the Four branches of Literature”. The exploration of the new world also brought riches in the form of new foods to China. The potato and peanut dramatically improved food supplies allowing for China’s population to boom.
Now the upcoming episodes are going to specifically look at the emergence of European powers mingling with China. But this episode is going to be directed at an internal story, and one that is not often talked about. Stating that I will be glossing over some very very important events such as the journey of James Flint and the mission of Lord George Macartney, but rest assured those stories will be the very forefront after this one.
In the spring of 1794, the HMS Lion departed from Macau for its long voyage back home to England and a rumor spread amongst its crew that in the mountainous counties of Shanxi province, that a “true master” had appeared. This so-called Master was said to be marked with the character for the sun upon his left hand and the character of the moon on his right. Together these characters formed the character “Ming”, dun dun dunnnn. According to another rumor, a giant boulder in the village of where this master was born had suddenly split open revealing a hidden scripture inside thar read:
“A black wind will blow for a day and a night.
It will destroy men beyond number.
White bones will be piled into mountains, and
Blood will flow to become an ocean”
It was the telling of an apocalypse, and rumors sprang all through China that the only way to escape the destruction was to memorize that scripture from the boulder and to chant it. Oh and to begin stockpiling guns and other weapons and be ready to support the great master’s uprising against the Qing. It was said the “black wind” would hit in the spring of 1796 and it would destroy the world and usher in a new age. Zhang Zhengmo, a peasant living in Hubei province was one of many who believed the prophecy. At 32 years of age he had heard it told to him by a sect leader named Bai who explained to Zhang and many others that the True Master’s doctrine was part of the White Lotus teachings.
The White Lotus sect had been around for hundreds of years, it was something like a marriage between Buddhism and Daoism. For the most part, the White Lotus sects amounted to nothing more than harmless people practicing a faith based on healing and protection from misfortune. The founder of the Ming dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang, joined a White Lotus Revolution that took shape in 1352 in Guangzhou. The revolution saw him taking firm control over the head of a rebellious army and he would go on to conquer Nanjing and take the title of Emperor Hongwu ushering in a new age. His title also held religious sentiment of the White Lotus. This religion however like many others held a prediction of an apocalypse and its followers believed that with it would come the second coming of Buddha who would return in the form of a bodhisattva named Maitreya to rid the world of corruption and suffering. Maitreya would destroy the corrupt government and the non believers and a utopia would be formed for those who helped bring upon the apocalypse.
So put yourself in the shoes of the Manchu rulers of the new Qing dynasty. You hear these rumors going around and see the potential rebellion you might be seeing from this religious group. White Lotus groups had sprung uprisings countless times in history and hell the dynasty you just defeated was made by one of those uprisings! Back to Zhang Zhengmo, well he was a recent convert and Bai who was a traveling sect leader became his teacher who indoctrinated him in the True Master’s doctrine. Zhang donated money to the cause, not much, he was a peasant after all, but enough to start hoarding weapons. He then began to recruit other followers to become his students…you can see where this is going, think of a good old fashion MLM scam of today like herbalife or scientology haha except instead of toxic shakes or alien stories its people hoarding weapons to begin an apocalypse. So you can sort of get the picture, you become a follower, in the process you pay money to hoard weapons. Then you recruit other followers, rinse and repeat, soon you got yourself a rebellion cooking.
Zhang Zhengmo lived in a part of China considered to be an internal frontier, wide mountain ranges along the points where Hubei, Shaanxi and Sichuan pressed against another, same types of places all the bandit armies would run up into when the Qing came after them. This particular region was known as the Han River Highlands, which fed into the Yangzi river, not a very hospitable area and thus less developed. It was dense with forest, hills and such, perfect for bandits to hang out in. The reason I am describing this area is to emphasize something that is going on in China. I mentioned the population boom, from 100-300 million, it was enormous. With so many people, the necessity for agricultural expansion was enormous as well. Most of the southern and eastern parts of China were being cleared out for crops, literally everywhere was getting gulped up by farms. More and more people were forced to move into areas like the Han River Highlands and all of this culminated in more and more competition between settlers over natural resources. Like with most frontier societies, this got violent very fast. The Han River Highlands were a pretty scary place to live in the late 18th century, there was just about no security because the government officials were all in other areas. Thus without much intervention, who could step in to marshall such places? The White Lotus thats who.
The White Lotus promised safety for all of its followers and were more than happy to accept any settlers. By 1794 the Qing administration warily watched as regions such as the Han River Highlands had sects such as the White Lotus grow. Provincial authorities saw the potential risk of insurrection and began to work at dismantling such cells before they could cause trouble. A crackdown came in 1794 targeting groups based out of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Hubei. Emperor Qianlong made an edict in September ordering all captured sectarians to be punished according to the nature of their guilt. So for example, spiritual leaders would be executed by being cut into pieces, wozzors. Those who spread the White Lotus teachings would be beheaded. Mere followers, would be arrested and deported to Manchuria as slaves. All in all not a very subtle edict.
So the local Qing officials set to work, first it was village headmen who organized forces to round up White Lotus members. Within a few months time they had arrested 20 teachers and over a hundred followers, and as you can imagine their methodology was brutal and would intensify the situation. There was not enough forces to get the job done so the local officials began to hire local thugs to go house to house. As you can imagine the thugs began to run amok, many began to threaten to arrest people if they didn't pay them off. So those who paid them off or somehow managed to prove they were not White Lotus members received placards that they could put on their doors marking them as “decent people”. Everyone else were open targets for abuse as they were suspected White Lotus members. When Zhang Zhengmo heard the officials going house to house he quickly abandoned his home and fled before inspectors could get him. He returned to his native county in the same province where he continued his mission to recruit more followers. By the late winter of 1796, it is estimated that Zhang had more than 1000 followers. Only 2 months before the planned date for the apocalypse or better called uprising, Zhang found out that local officials were mounting a new crackdown now in his native county. Fearing his arrest, Zhang prepared for their arrival, calling upon his followers and telling him the time had come.
Zhang’s followers took to the roads where they joined up with other cells that other recruiters had grown. In only a few days more than 10,000 White Lotus members converged under the leadership of Zhang Zhengmo. They brought with them, swords, guns, gunpowder and other supplies necessary for waging a rebellion. They plundered villages for supplies and began conscripting the local populace, coercing them with food. This all mattered not to the White Lotus believers who were taught that non believers would all be destroyed when Buddha returned regardless, so who cares if they harm any of these people in the meantime. The worshipers and their indentured conscripts soon swelled to 20,000 and they began to create blockades along the roads and pathways and made their way to the hills. Zhang Zhengmo’s first HQ was to be a mountain estate of a very wealthy believer, but Zhang worried it was to undefendable and thus brought his force further into the mountains where he knew they could hold up better. A campment was built with thousands of shacks, white banners were spread out and the force began to adopt white headbands to identify themselves as legitimate rebels. Their weaponry was mostly swords, knives, though they did have 300 matchlock rifles and 6 chestnut wood cannons. They also had a ton of crossbows and a lot of poison tipped bolts. The defense of the mountain was typical guerilla stuff seen to this day, booby trapped paths, watch towers, makeshift landmines and people hidden around every nook and cranny.
Despite all the preparation, Zhang Zhengmo was quite reluctant to take his newfound rebel army down the mountain side, fearing they would all be slaughtered by the Qing army who must surely be awaiting them. So they all dug in for months, only sending the occasional raiding party down to gather supplies. July came and Zhang received word the Qing were slowly closing in on the mountain. He had burned his name in the registers hoping that he might be able to make an escape and some of his followers began to see he was not the leader they thought him to be. They had been told he had met the True master, but many found out this was a lie. They looked to him for guidance, but all he could provide were cheap parlor tricks. When Zhang had called for the uprising he thought all of the White Lotus followers from miles all around would heed the cause. Yet after the first 10,000 flocked to him none others were found, he assumed everyone had been arrested and killed. They were trapped on this mountain, there was nowhere to escape to, there was no help coming. They held out another 2 months, but then in September the Qing broke their perimeter and arrested the lot of them. Zhang was to be executed, but before the deed a Qing interrogator demanded to know why he and his followers rebelled. “You are all peasants, you receive the blessings of the emperor. He relieves you of taxes and tribute grain. He relieves your debts. When there is a flood or a drought he gives you aid. You have a human heart, and you should feel gratitude and abide by the laws. So why, under the banner of these evil teachings, did you start a rebellion? In the end, what was it you wanted?”. Zhang replied “We have indeed received blessings from the emperor. We had warm clothes and could eat our fill. We were peasants, and we were grateful. It was at a time when I was ignorant, that I first began to practice this religion. It was only because I wanted to encourage people to do good deeds and to avoid misfortune. But then the investigations and arrests intensified, and I saw that when people who practiced our religion were captured, all of them were charged with heavy crimes. So I became afraid”. So he was nothing more than a peasant, who ignorantly was led astray and when the crackdown occurred he did what he did out of fear. It is the excuse given by countless peasant uprisings, reckless bursts of defiance towards an perceived malevolent empire, nothing too remarkable. Zhang’s force of 20,000 were brushed aside….and little did they know what had occurred all over China.
The “black wind” uprising spread like wildfire. The vast range and appeal of the apocalyptic rumors that had pushed Zhang and his followers had only increased exponentially. From word of mouth through the province, uprisings began to all explode spontaneously through the hill countries of the Han River Highlands. Zhang had no idea, but it was his movement that became the spark to see the entire forest ablaze. By the time the Qing officials had dealt with Zhang Zhengmo’s camp, all of Hubei was engulfed in a wave of rebellion, and soon it spread to the neighboring provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi. On february 9th of 1796, the first day of the lunar new year and just 6 days before Zhang Zhengmo began his uprising, Emperor Qianlong gave up the throne. The abdication had been planned for a very long time, all the way back to 1735 when Qianlong had given an edict that he planned to rule as long as high grandfather had. Emperor Kangxi had reigned for 61 years and Qianlong wanted to keep his word, but not entirely. While on the surface he did quote en quote abdicate on his 60th year as emperor, giving the throne to his son Jiaqing, in reality all he did was install a puppet. The calendars record the new year as Jiaqing Year 1, but within the capital it was truly Qianlong year 61. 2 calendars were kept, 2 sets of imperial annals with one referring to the supreme retired emperor Qianlong, who would continue to rule while his son kept the throne warm.
It probably would have been better for China if Emperor Qianlong really did abdicate, for while his reign was impressive, his effectiveness was deteriorating with his age. A Korean diplomat in 1794 reported to his superiors that Emperor Qianlong had acted in a bizarre manner. He stated that the Emperor ordered breakfast immediately after eating breakfast on some occasions. Thus the implication here was that the Emperor was going senile. Later in 1797 a different Korean envoy reported that the Emperor seemed to be unable to remember what occurred during the morning of their meeting nor what they had done the day prior. With the emperor in a weakened state, factions within his court began to vie for power. One of Emperor Qianlong's closest court officials a man named Heshen began to act out in the emperors name. The more the Emperors mental health declined the more Heshen would speak on his behalf. As observed by the western George Staunton in 1790 “Heshen enjoyed, almost exclusivity, the confidence of the emperor. He might be said to possess, in fact, under the emperor, the whole power of the empire”. It just so happens, Heshen was one of the most corrupt officials in Chinese history during a particularly corrupt ridden time in Chinese history. Heshen treated large amounts of the Qing governments bureaucracy as his own personal patronage network. For example, he began to appoint officials into positions and expected them to pay him handsomely for such appointments. This led the officials to embezzle money to pay him back. In one example he appointed a man to the Yellow River Conservancy, which controlled the funding for flood control over China’s second longest river and the man embezzled over 6 million tales of silver each year to pay back Heshen. That money of course was required to help prevent the Yellow River from flooding and by the end of the 18th century about 1/10th of the government funds were actually used for flood prevention. As Heshen and others sucked up the money, the peasants on the floodplain suffered tremendously as the appointed official at the Yellow River Conservancy found it was in the best interests of everyone to allow the river to breach its dikes periodically, just to make sure the government funds kept pouring in. Heshen’s corruption was widely apparent to the court, but to make any accusations against him was a death sentence as he had the mouth of the emperor.
Now back to the White Lotus rebellion, it was spreading as I said with great speed and this was greatly aided by government corruption. With the rampant corruption came a huge lack of government forces to respond to the initial uprisings. Skeleton garrisons in key locations such as Hubei allowed for the uprisings to spread like wildfire. The officials were caught off guard and massively unprepared. Across Hubei overwhelmed government forces tried to resist the rebels with whatever weapons they could muster, but soon began pleading other provinces for reinforcement. With such a lack of governmental forces to protect the common people, landowners resorted to raising private militias called “Xiangyong” (means local braves) which in turn began to simply plunder areas. As one witness reported “the so called militia soldiers just continued the work of stealing everything the refugees had left behind in their houses. There wasn’t an empty hand anywhere…if the White Lotus rebels are like an ordinary comb, the private militia are the fine-toothed one”. These militias killed, robbed and caused further havoc. To the government all of them were rebels and in turn this caused all the rebels to find common cause. The slogan “the officials oppress, and the people rebel” spread across multiple rebel groups, and at the forefront was the White Lotus. The Qing government began a cycle of violence, redoubled its efforts to extinguish the White Lotus sects, only to give justification to them to increase their rebellious activity.
It is interesting to note the hiring of these militia’s will play a crucial role in the downfall of the Qing dynasty. Many scholars attribute the adoption of hired militia’s by the Qing government to being something like cutting off your limbs and eating them during starvation. The idea being that while the Qing could raise such militia’s to try and stamp out the endless rebellions that will occur during their dynasty’s reign, these were short term solutions and only hurt them in the long run. Hiring civilians in war showcased how the Qing standing armies were losing their fighting capability and greatly hurt the Qing treasuries. Regardless this will all be showcased much more in the future.
Emperor Qianlong saw the uprisings as a local issue that should be dealt with by local forces. His focus was on internal unrest, not the problems of the frontier lands and so he denied requests for military aid. He kept telling provincial officials to use the resources they had to deal with the uprisings even though he held ample elite troops that could have swept in to restore the peace. What Emperor Qianlong did do however was send funds to the province to help as the government treasury was jam packed with silver during this age. Without the capitals troops to reinforce them, provincial officials began to follow the lead of the militia rebels and armed peasants to fight off the rebels. At the beginning of the uprising most frontier territories had government militias of just a few hundred, luckier ones perhaps a few thousand. But as the rebellion spread into neighboring provinces and the funds from Beijing poured in, the militia armies grew exponentially. By 1798, Hubei had nearly 400,000 militiamen registered on its books and Sichuan and Shaanxi each had comparably large militia forces. In the concert of the war against the rebels, the 3 provinces reported a total of 100,000 government soldiers and upto a possible million militiamen.
The militiamen strategy proved to be very ineffective against the rebels, in fact the militias did more harm than good. Militiamen came from all walks of life, from farmers, to unemployed city folk to ruthless criminals. If you were a bandit, it was actually far more beneficial to join the militia which paid a salary about the same as a government soldier. These militiamen had no real allegiance beyond the salary they were paid so as the White Lotus watched the government hiring all of these people they simply offered them the same salary or more. By the later years of the uprising it turned out nearly half the White Lotus armies were made up of former militiamen! And if you were wondering what else than money could persuade these militiamen to join the White Lotus hear this. The governor general of Sichuan province reported with disgust that whenever government troops went into battle they simply quote “sent the militia to charge in ahead of them as they hung back where it was safe. If the militiamen got turned back by the rebels and started to run away, the government soldiers just ran after them”. On top of this, tons of false victories over the rebel armies were being reported when in reality, the government troops would just pretend to engage the rebels and continuously move their camps around. There was even reports that government forces would murder refugees from nearby villages and set up their mutilated bodies at their camps to make it look like they had caught rebels. The fact the government forces were really not engaging the rebel armies very much was so apparent one witness said “where the rebels are, there are no government forces; and where the government forces are, there are no rebels”.
With the declining mental health of Emperor Qianlong growing worse, the campaign against the White Lotus fell into the hands of Heshen who was too busy using the opportunity to enrich himself. As emperor Qianlong obsessed over the reports of the rebel war, apparently barely sleeping while he read them day and night according to accounts from his son, well Heshen was doing his best to control which reports came to the emperor. Heshen made sure all the reports were fake victory stories making it seem that the entire campaign was going off without a hitch. Heshen had appointed his own personal goons to be in key military positions who in turn fed falsified victory reports for money or military honors in return. This went further to whitewash massacres done to the civilian population by the government armies. And of course the funds for the military were going to the goons who in turn paid tribute right back to Heshen, making sure they kept their positions regardless of how incompetent they were. For the first 3 years of the war, Heshen effectively controlled the central government's military funding. It would also turn out that the registry of over 300,000 militia soldiers recruited to fight the White Lotus did not exist and it was an embezzlement scheme. It gets even worse. Those militia soldiers who did exist and who died fighting the rebels, well the corrupt officials would embezzle their death benefits, so a ton of mourning families got nothing and this had the disgusting side effect of creating an incentive for corrupt officers to have more of their soldiers die on the battlefield. The Militia related expenses would claim at least half the war effort funding according to Jiaqing who discovered the racket. A scholar in Hubei said this of the situation
“At first they nibbled away like worms, gradually taking more and more until they were gulping like whales. In the beginning, their embezzlements could be reckoned in hundreds and thousands of taels, but presently nothing less than ten thousand would attract notice. Soon amounts ran to scores of thousands, then to hundreds of thousands, then to millions.”
Emperor Qianlong expected an easy victory over the White Lotus, but the war was not ending. After reading so many countless reports of victories over the rebels, Qianlong because frustrated and confused as to why the White Lotus rebels did not submit. By 1799, the cost of the war was reaching nearly 100 million taels of silver, an unbelievable sum that had completely exhausted the treasury surplus and there still was no end in sight. Emperor Qianlong spent his last years of life losing his mind to the rebellion and died in a position of helplessness with the treasury emptied. Jiaqing did not have an enviable start to his reign. He was a broad, fat man with a talent for archery and was left with a clean up job that was simply immense. He had been forced to suffer the indemnity of being enthroned in 1796 only to find out he was a puppet and that his father was not even in charge, it was Heshen. He was in his 40’s and quite powerless as long as his father remained alive. The day after Emperor Qianlong died in 1799, one of Jiaqings first major acts was to order the arrest of Heshen, boom. There was a swift and very publicized trial where the board of punishments found Heshen to be guilty of a long list of corruption related charges and the sentence would be death. Because Heshen held one of the highest ranks in the court he was allowed to strangle himself with a silk cord, a privilege considered more honorable than having your head cut off. Although the execution of Heshen was symbolically cathartic, it did little to stop the rot of corruption within the government. Heshen was blamed for just about all the sins of the time, as if he alone dragged the empire down…though one could argue he certainly provided a helping hand. All Heshens misdeeds were laid to bare and his enormous wealth was unimaginable.
Heshen had a sprawling mansion of over 730 rooms. In his secondary residence there were 620 rooms. He held landholdings of over 120,000 acres of productive farmland. All the stories you can imagine were there, he had golden chopsticks, silver place settings for banquets, entire rooms filled with jewels, jade and other riches. He owned 10 banks, 10 pawnshops and millions upon millions of taels of silver hoarded into them. Apparently one wall in his main residence turned out to be filled with 5000 pounds of gold bullion if its to be believed. One extremely overexaggerated estimate his sum worth was around 800 million taels of silver, thats around 1.5 billion at the time, around 4 times the entire gross domestic product of the United States of America. More conservative estimates are at around 80 million taels of silver, which was more than the entire treasury surplus that preceded the White Lotus war and enough to make Heshen as wealthy as the Emperor!
After dealing with Heshen, Jiaqing began a campaign against the corruption in the government. However, Jiaqing understood how an anti corruption campaign could fall into chaos and become a general purge, so he allowed it to peter out pretty quick. What did happen, was the Qing government saw a lot of old scores settled and factionalism rose amongst officials. The first order of business after dealing with Heshen was obviously the White Lotus war. The day after Qianlong's death, Jiaqing issued an edict naming the suppression of antigovernment religious sects as the dynasty's most urgent priority. Jiaqing rallied against the corrupt military officers accusing them of dragging out the war in order to fill their pockets. He laid blame for the insurrection upon the civil servants who extorted the peasants. “The peasants enjoy few fruits from their labor. So how can they possibly supply such insatiable demands? It is the local officials who provoked these rebellions”.
Emperor Jiaqing began removing corrupt and incompetent military officials to try and replace them with better men, but the reality at the time was quite thin pickings. Most of the Manchu generals of his father or grandfathers generation were dead or far too old to lead. The younger generation were not born into the same world as their parents. If you’ve ever listened to Dan Carlin’s podcast and yes I am nothing but a mere fanboy, he often makes the analogy of how empires go soft. The old quasi proverb of old wooden shoes going up the stairs and soft silken sandals going down them. This new generation of Manchu did not live the hardened lifestyle of their ancestors, they were living in a world of luxury now. A ton of the younger generation were also tainted by the Heshen click. Yet there was a minority of great warriors and some of the old guard so to say that had won Emperor Qianlong some victories back in the day. The very best of them was a physically enduring Manchu named Eldemboo. At 51 years old in the year of 1799 he was selected to lead the White Lotus suppression. He was quite old, but experienced, ruthless and said to be incorruptible.
Elemboo’s had been part of campaigns in the 1770’s to bring parts of the frontiers under the Qing Yolk. He fought the Burmese in southern Yunnan. He fought during the Tibetan rebellion in the1770’s, during a muslim uprising in Gansu in 1784, helped put down a rebellion in Taiwan in 1787 and served in the far west against the Gurkhas in Tibet and Nepal in the 1790s. By 1797 he was a Lt-general who had just succeeded in suppressing a Miao ethnic uprising in Hunan province. The campaign against the White Lotus faced a crucial problem, that of mobility. The rebels required little in terms of weaponry and could get pretty much anything on the go from just about any village. They did not construct elaborate camps, they were accustomed to the mountains and forests and could carry out guerilla warfare at a moments notice. The Qing military was another beast altogether. It required enormous logistical operations to move its food, matchlock muskets, ammunition, powder, bows and arrows, this all required carts and beasts of burden. Usually these logistics were not a problem, but for mountains and forest regions it was a nightmare. The rebels understood the advantage and made sure to take up positions in the worst possible places for such logistics.
Because of these logistical problems the Qing forces had been simply setting up stations in fixed positions hoping to cast a net around rebel pockets. Many commanders simply did not have the stomach to march into forests or up mountain sides to chase an enemy that would use every obstacle against them. Eldemboo unlike his predecessor commanders not only was willing to venture into the forests and mountains, but was perfectly willing to endure the hardship of such ventures alongside his men. A new approach was necessary for the campaign. Eldemboo called for “jianbi qingye” “fortify the walls and clear the countryside”. The idea was two fold, first to separate the good peasants from those who would support the White Lotus, by concentrating them in places of safety ie, behind fortified encampments known as baozhai. In these Baozhai, some peasants would be trained as militia to defend their respective camps. The second idea was to clear the countryside, by moving all the grain harvest and food stores away and into the Baozhai where all the good peasants would be taking refuge. The hope was the rebels would eventually be unable to scavenge food from the emptied countryside and would be forced to come out of their hiding and fight the government forces on their terms.
Under the command of Eldemboo, the jianbi qingye strategy was implemented throughout the war zone. Hundreds of fortified camps were in the wartorn provinces. The fortified camps held strong walls and deep moats. The militiamen would defend them and not be taken out on campaigns that earlier had caused so much havoc upon the populace. The new role of the militiamen was to protect their own families, neighbors and such and thus they were far less likely to fall into banditry. While the quote “good” population concentrated in their Baozhai, defended by their good militiamen, Eldemboo’s manchu and Han troops were now free to campaign at will through any wartorn province. Soon Eldemboo began producing a string of victories over the weakened rebel forces. By early 1803, Eldemboo’s campaign had moved into its final phase, a brutal mop up operation. The remnants of the broken rebels needed to be crushed and the demilitarization of all the militiamen needed to gradually begin.
Emperor Jiaqing warned his generals not to relax in their campaigns prematurely. “Though the main disease is cured, there are boils and sores that remain. If even a single rebel is left alive, it would be enough for them to keep spreading and growing”. Emperor Jiaqing’s generals heeded his words and continued to ruthlessly crush the remnants of the rebels. A systematic program of pacification was enacted. The “good” populace was continuously resettled into the fortified cities, while the Qing forces pursued and exterminated the rebel guerrilla bands, though it should be noted they did give amnesty to many rebels who deserted. It was the combination of military and social policies that were winning the day. Qing administrators seized and destroyed all White Lotus scriptures they could find in the warzones. By the late summer of 1803, some of Jiaqing’s commanders reported back to him that after 8 years of extermination efforts against the White Lotus in the 3 provinces, it seemed for all intensive purposes the job was complete. In early 1804, Eldemboo traveled back to Beijing and returned his carved seal of authority to the Emperor, signifying that the war was over. It would be the last great victory of Eldemboo’s very long career. The next year at the age of 57 Eldemboo died and with him the last of that hardened generation. In 1805, Emperor Jiaqing was able to address the empire without the ongoing drain of resources due to the White Lotus War.
It was a very bitter victory, most rebellions are. A chinese scholar wrote a few decades later that it was estimated that several hundred thousand rebels had been killed during the war. For the governmental forces, militiamen and countless civilians who died of war and starvation the scholar simply stated it could not be calculated. There was also no way to differentiate the White Lotus from the rebels as there were countless groups rebelling for differing reasons.
A major problem with the White Lotus Rebellion aside from the death and horror was the loss of prestige for the Qing military. There was a sort of myth of invincibility for the Manchu warriors, hell they had conquered the Ming Dynasty afterall. But the scale of damage caused by the White Lotus Rebellion was eye opening, it took the Qing 8 years to quell it! And quell it is a strong word, for the White Lotus were not truly gone or anything, there would be sporadic revolts throughout the early 19th century, just not on the same scale as the 8 year war. The Manchu army of the early 19th century was not the same generation that once conquered the Ming. The wooden shoes were being cast off and silky slippers were starting to become the norm so to say for you Dan Carlin fans. To make everything much worse, the adoption of training and hiring militia’s would have a devastating effect on the Qing dynasty until its demise in the 20th century. This was not a unique problem for China, many empires fell for this same reason. Take example the Egyptian empire under the Ptolemy’s. Under the reign of Ptolemy IV Philophater the military was forced to hire local native Egyptians in large numbers for the first time to deal with the 4th Syrian war of 219-217BC. Prior to this war, the Ptolemiac empire had a military consisted mostly of Greeks and for a very important reason, they did not want to train or arm the native population who did not like them very much. When their backs were against the wall they trained around 30,000 native egyptians as Phalangites and hell it paid off during the battle of Raphia when they smashed the army of Antiochus III. The Ptolemies had finally ended what was an ongoing manpower problem. Oh and then the trained and armed Egyptians rebelled and created a separate kingdom that lasted 20 years. It was an enormous turning point in Ptolemaic history and a bitter lesson. For the Qing the hiring of militia armies will occur on countless occasions for countless reasons, but one thing is for sure it is part of a long list of reasons as to why the great dynasty will crumble.
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The once mighty Qing have proven to be not so mighty anymore. The 8 year White Lotus Rebellion was quelled, but at what cost to the empire? With the death of Eldemboo came also the deaths of a generation of strong warriors. And while this rebellion was going on, something else was afoot, this time not an internal issue, but a growing external one.