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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 17, 2023

Last time we spoke about Shandong province. Yes this one province of China just always seems to be the breeding grounds for trouble, its actual a common saying haha. Historically Shandong was  unique in many ways; geographically its densely populated, almost exclusively with farmers, the majority of whom are quiet impoverished in its western portion. Just about all invading armies have to go through it if coming from the north, leading the province to be very unstable. Bandits roamed its region throughout time, leading local communities to seek protection via what we in the west called Boxers. These martial artists became a big part of western shandong, the strongmen to fight off enemies.  Shandong also birthed numerous sects and when they mingled with the Boxer types, rebels spread continuously. The Qing had a hell of a time with Shandong beginning in the late 18th century, and things would only escalate further by the late 19th.


#57 This episode is the Big Sword Society & the Armor of the Golden Bell


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 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 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.


“My investigations reveal that the Big Sword Society is the heterodox sect, Armor of the Golden Bell (Jin-zhong zhao). Its origins lie in the distant past. Although local officials have proscribed it, its roots have never been cut. Last year the coastal borders were unsettled [because of the SinoJapanese War], and when people heard that this sect could ward off bullets, it spread all the more, so that there was hardly a place without it. The stupid thought that they could protect themselves and their families. The crafty used it to carry out their violent schemes. Then roving bandits (you-fei) came from outside to stir things up and crowds gathered to cause trouble.”

This passage was written by the governor of Shandong, Li Bingheng who was trying to explain the origin of what was called the Da-dao hui “Big Sword Society”. This society was mentioned in 1735 in northern Anhui province, though there really is not much known about them, until they re-emerged in the late 19th century. The armor of the golden bell had existed since the late 18th century as a martial arts technique for achieving invulnerability. As I mentioned in the previous episode; the armor of the golden bell was a kungfu technique that employed “Qigong”. Qigong is a system of coordinating body-posturing, like movement, breathing and meditation. Those performing it would perform breathing exercises which they claimed helped protect their bodies against blades and even bullets as if a large bell was covering their body. Several practitioners of this technique were associated with various sectarian societies like the eight trigrams back in 1813. These people usually made charms using red paper, burned and swallowed them, sometimes they cast spells or better said incantations to appeal to various gods for help. The armor of the golden bell sounds like an organization, but I am just trying to hammer the fact it’s actually a technique, it just so happens many organizations used it. To give a firmer example, there was a man named Zhang Luojiao who grew up in Guan county of Shandong. He, his father and younger brother were Daoist priests and learned boxing and healing methods from another family member in 1782. The next year a teacher from Henan province taught Zhang the armor of the golden bell technique and gave him two charms. It is said after learning the technique, he took up more boxing and taught disciples for profit. He eventually became associated with the eight trigrams. He later learnt the spell “zhen-kong zhou-yu / true emptiness spell” from a Li Trigram member. Zhang claimed he left the sect because his teacher kept demanding donations and thus did not take part in the rebellion that occurred later. However students of his did take part in that said rebellion. So the armor of the golden bell at least seems to be part of something larger, it was a well established boxing technique in the north china plain region. It was an invulnerability spell against sword or knife attacks and its practitioners were often found to be linked to sects. 

Historians argue about the relationship between the Big Sword Society and other sects. Some argue the Big Sword Society was an off branch of the White Lotus, others believe it was nothing more than a martial arts group. 

Now the Big Sword Society that re-emerged in the late 19th century had its birthplace in southwest Shandong and the northern part of Xuzhou in Jiangsu province. Now southwest Shandong was an area where bandits flourished. Salt smugglers, opium dealers, all the black market types had activity in this part of Shandong. This all led to a rise in martial artists, the boxers, the region was seen sort of like the wild west of America. German missionaries described the area and its inhabitants as “firm of character, braver, and less cunning than the rest, but on the other hand, also more coarse and rough”. Japanese observers noted “they are feared because of their aggressive disposition and inclination to fight. Quarrels, brawls, and combats are daily occurrences in Shandong, most of all in Chaozhou. In Yanzhou, wherever you go, there is hardly a place where you do not see fights”. Needless to say, this area was particularly difficult to control during the 19th century which was ridden with rebellions.

Salt smuggling had been an integral part of the border economy, but by the 1880s and 1890s opium production was on the rise. It began with foreign traded opium, but by the 1880s, native production increased markedly, especially in Xuzhou. In the early 1890s Dangshan opium exploded in Dangshan county and with it so did incidents involving the Big Sword Society. With opium production expanding in this area, men began to bear arms and challenged Qing officials. The Qing dynasty was in a very weak state because of the rebellion, war with Japan, corruption and such, thus banditry exploded. When the Japanese began marching into China proper, it sent refugees and bandits into the Shandong-Jiangsu-Henan border area. Many villages simply became bandit lairs leading to inter village feuds. The missionaries in the area became involved in said feuds as bandits used the church for protection. There were countless french jesuits who were literally lured to said bandit lairs, in Jiangsu to help offer protection. It was in this type of environment that allowed the Big Sword Society to flourish. When the first sino-Japanese war brought an unprecedented wave of banditry and violence, it became time to develop effective means of self-defense, and here the armor of the golden bell shun brightly.

A man only known by the name Zhao came to Shan county of southwest Shandong from either Zhili or Hejian. He was described as a wandering Daoist priest and he took up shop in Shan country working as a hired hand in the village of Shaobing Liuzhuang around 1894. It seems to make some money he began teaching martial arts and perhaps even some sectarian rituals, no one knows for sure, but one thing is known, that he taught the armor of the golden bell technique. Here is an in depth passage on how the technique worked

When they study their techniques, the poor need not make an offering, but those who can, offer 6,000 Beijing cash as a gift. In the middle of the night, they kneel and receive instruction. They light lamps and burn incense, draw fresh water from a well and make offerings ofit. They write charms (fu-lu) on white cloth. The words of the charms are vulgar and improper. There are such phrases as "Patriarch, Duke of Zhou; Immortals of the peach blossom; Golden Bell, iron armor protect my body." Those who spread the art can neither read nor write. They have others write for them. They also teach spells (zhou). While chanting spells they burn charms, mixing [the ashes] in water and instructing [the initiate] to kneel and drink. Then [the teacher] breathes in from above the lantern, and blows out over [the initiate's] entire body. Then he beats him with a brick and staff. After chanting the spell for three nights, one can withstand swords. It is said that after chanting for a long time, even firearms cannot harm one. It is much like breathing exercises (yun-qi). Where the "breath" (qi) moves, even a fierce chop cannot penetrate. But if one loses concentration, then the blade will enter. The simple people do not understand, and think it a magical technique.

It fits with other descriptions of the technique, sometimes seeing people recite incantations, swallow charms and hit themselves with swords or bricks, fun times. The Big Sword Society used a variety of invulnerability techniques like the armor of the golden bell, the “tie bu shan / iron cloth shirt” or “wu ying bian / shadowless whip”. All of these stressed the beating of ones body to resist further injury. There were a lot of martial arts groups in the region, but the Big Sword Society distinguished themselves for heavily using incantations and charms.

Now Zhao taught many, but his leading pupil was named Liu Shiduan, who was reportedly 43 years old in 1896. Liu Shiduan had a decent education, he attempted the lowest examination, the sheng-yuan degree, but never passed, so he purchased the jian-shen degree which brought him to the lowest fringe of the gentry class. Again going way back to the opium wars, the corruption of the Qing dynasty was simply getting worse and worse. Shi was the head of a fairly important family in his village who held quite a lot of fertile land. Shi learnt the armor of the golden bell from Zhao and began teaching his own disciples in his village and the neighboring villages. His greatest students would become the leaders of the Big Sword Society in their villages. The most well known of these was Cao Deli, a wealthy peasant in this 30s from Shan county in the village of Caolou, whose male population almost all join the Big Sword Society. Cao was the leading household of the village. Next was Peng Guilin from the market town of Daliji, whom Liu saw as a man of great substance, he was indeed a wealthy man from a wealthy family. Another was Zhou Yun-jie in Zhouzhuang in Cao country, known as the stockade lord. The reason for their society was first to defend their people against the bandit scourge. This inherently meant protecting ones land, and thus landlords were quick to join up, but the extremely poor, who did not have land and thus no real home to protect did not. If it is to be believed part of joining meant each member had to burn ten cash worth of incense per day, thus the poor really could not afford to join. There are accounts, many joined because of personal dependency on landlords who drew them into the organization.  According to the son of Liu Shiduan “Both poor and rich joined the Big Sword Society. The poor joined to help their landlords watch their homes and they could get something to eat and drink and some entertainment from their landlords”. Thus Liu Shiduan became the leader of the Big Sword Society with his best disciples as the various leaders within it.

In the spring of 1895, the banditry going on in Shandong and Jiangsu became so bad, the Qing government took notice. Many in the court feared the bandits would help the Japanese by stealing ammunition shipments for troops at the frontlines. They began to hear rumors of groups of people utilizing the armor of the golden bell technique to combat these bandits. The invulnerability techniques always led to bad things and the Qing court had made great efforts to censor and dissuade such things. However in the face of the banditry problem, the Qing court sent word to the governor of Shandong Li Bingheng to annihilate the bandits, but to only find ways to disperse the guys using the armor of the golden bell technique, so quite lenient. The key official in the area was Yuxian who was promoted to daotai, given control over south Shandong. Yuxian responded enthusiastically to the order against the bandits. By June that year, Li Bingheng reported back to the court, that Yuxian had arrested hundreds and killed dozens of bandits. There were countless accounts of bandits stuck in wooden cages outside Yuxians yamen who died of exhaustion and starvation. However as Yuxian was trying to seize all the credit, a lot of credit was due to the Big Sword Society who proved themselves a ally to the anti-bandit campaign. As told to us by the daotai of Xuazhou “At this time Caozhou was suffering from banditry, and the officials and people both relied heavily on [the Big Sword Society]. Once a person learned its techniques, the robbers would not dare oppress him. If a theft occurred, the society's members rushed in to search the robbers' nest, and were sure to seize the robber without regard to their own safety. At first they sent their captives to the officials for prosecution. Then because the officials had to treat each according to the facts of the case, and could not kill them all, the people were unhappy. Thus later they seized robbers and just killed them, and no longer sent them to the officials

The Big Swords Society moved from a close collaboration with the Qing authorities to hold an official function. The daotai praised their brave allies, but insisted to the Qing court they never paid them nor gave them any food. One Daotai reported back to the Qing court “in recent years in Heze, Chengwu, Shan, Dingtao and Cao counties, there has not been a single robber. This has all been due to the power of the Big Sword Society”. Thus the Big Sword Society was not only tolerated they were being encouraged. Both Yuxian and Li Bingheng would go on the record to state the Big Sword Society were from “good and wealthy households who also practice techniques to protect their families”. The local officials were benefitting from the Big Sword society and it was growing exponentially. 

From 1895 to 1896 the Big Sword Society’s activities became more and more open. In the spring of 1896 there was a large celebration for their leaders birthday at the temple near the Shan county seat. For 4 days, extravagant shows were on display, people gathered from all around the region and this offered a opportunity to forge connections amongst the Big Sword society groups. According to a legend, Yuxian personally came,disguised as a fortune teller trying to investigate who popular the society had become. Sometimes this legend has it that he was caught and released. What is true, is that Yuxian did pretty much nothing to stop their society from growing, but as time went on he and others became alarmed. The daotai of Xuzhou reported “As they spread underground and grow in secret, their party becomes steadily more troublesome; but within their own territory, they never steal, rape, or kidnap. People all praise their chivalrous spirit (xia-yi) and hasten to join them. Great households (da-hu) in the villages hire them as guards; and even the army, counties, bureaus, and customs posts recruit them for defense. Thus they spread and proselytize more and more. They are most numerous in Shandong, next Henan, then Anhui. Xuzhou borders on Shandong and recently people [here] have joined the society. In all there are about 20,000 to 30,000.” Some estimate by 1896 the Big Swords Society were 100,000 strong, but that seems an exaggeration. They did not really have a solid chain of command, rather large village groups had a leader who held ties to Shi. But if the bandits came in numbers, these villages would mobilize and though a loose organization, it was still quite powerful.

There was another powerful group in Shandong and Jiangsu, the church. Foreign missionaries, notably from Germany were making a lot of noise, complaining to the Qing court about conflicts against them. In late june of 1895 a riot occurred when Bishop Anzer tried to gain a permanent residence in the city of Yanzhou. He and his fellow colleagues were threatened and he complained to the Zongli Yamen "If your esteemed government is unable strenuously to suppress [these disturbances] and give more protection [to Christians], then my government will have no alternative but to devise methods to protect them itself." The Qing court continuously caved in to the foreign missionaries fearing further reprisals. As the Big Sword society grew, so did the Christian converts. That should be no surprise as all, because as the Bandits faced more and more Big Swords they began to run to the church for more protection. Take this example, a report from a official who saw firsthand the problem “In the twentieth year of Guang-xu [1894, but the date should be 1895] the Big Sword Society attacked "Rice-grain Yue the Second." He had 3,000 people with nothing to eat or wear, who stole things from the wealthy. So the Big Sword Society attacked them. After the Big Sword Society had quelled "Rice Grain Yue," Yue's followers, fearing that the rich people would arrest them, all joined the Catholic Church” Now the Big Sword Society could protect the people from violence, but they could not settle lawsuits, this was the Qing governments role, who were basically fleeing from the church during cases. In the face of this situation it is no surprise the Big Sword Society began to shift their attention towards anti-christian activities. 

To make matters worse, the Catholics began to openly question the Big Sword Societies invulnerability spells. "When the Catholics did not believe [the Big Swords] could resist spears and swords, and accused them of false claims, the society members became the enemies of the Catholics." Both the Big Swords and Catholics were sort of fighting for the peoples hearts in many ways and the success of the Big Sword Society naturally caused common people to disbelieve in the Catholic message that “they were just pagan gods who were powerless”. Questioning things like the armor of the golden bell brought these two forces into conflict. 

Liu Shiduan and Cao Deli would find themselves in a conflict which took place in february of 1896 on the border of Cao, Shan and Chengwu counties. A pharmacist named Hao Hesheng, a Shanxi native was collecting debt from a Christian convert named Lu Dengshi. Lu tried to put him off using his Christian status, causing Hao to accuse him of evading debt obligations. Then a relative of Lu named Lu Cai accused Hao of being a White Lotus member. Hao retorted by accusing Lu Cai of joining the newly established Catholic congregation to cover his past as a bandit. The 3 men screamed and departed, but Lu Cai was greatly aggravated and made his way to the local church where he said Hao had insulted the Christian religion. Zhang Lianzhu who was a leading figure of said church gathered a band of converts who armed themselves who sought to beat up Hao, but could not find him. The next day in Lihaiji of Shan county, Hao was selling medicine when the band found him. Hao fled and hid. The Big Sword society heard about the conflict and their leader Cao Deli came to the market seeking to help Hao. Upon finding Hao, Cao got some Big Swords together to meet the Christian band in front of a medicine shop. The owner of the shop freaked out and dragged the two leaders inside to try and convince them to drop everything, but by this point a large crowd had gathered, its like a high school yard fight haha. Zhang then contacted another Christian group over in the town of Tiangongiao in Chengwu to come help. The Catholics challenged Cao Deli, and he contacted Liu Shiduan who gathered more men. On the way the Big Swords were intercepted by a local garrison who talked them down. Yet at the same time a German missionary happened to be meeting with that commander, was also meeting with the Christian mob to admonish them for their aggression. Both sides were forced to apologize to another, and the entire thing was settled. But the event certainly brought both sides into a major conflict, and nearly a large fight.

Now in 1896 French Jesuits were quite active along the border counties of Dangshan and Feng. They had been around for 6 years, and counted 48 parishes in all. In february of 1896 while friction was developing between Christians and the Big swords in Shandong, the Jiangsu Christian were also running into conflict with disgruntled gentry. Red placards began appearing warning “foreigners have come to establish secretly a temple of the white lotus, all the gentry have secretly resolved to put an end to this evil”. The Christians were met with a few mobs threatening to arrest their Chinese convert leaders, but things settled down rather quickly when the local magistrate took actions to prohibit any attacks on Christians. Then in spring things heated up again. A local argument between two families over land rights in Dongtuan brewed up. On one side was Pang, the other Liu. The dispute law in the villages of Pangjialin and Liutitou who traditional had the yellow river running between them. These lands traditional owed no taxes to the Qing government, but instead paid annual tributes of geese and ducks. Since the Nian rebellion, the official landlords claimed tributes were not made. This was likely due to the yellow river shifting its course in the 1850s which resulted in less water fowl. However now their lands had become extraordinarily rich in soil, now they were able to grow a lot of food. Until the 1890s the Pangs were the most powerful in the area, but then in 1892 their family leader died and the new one, Pang Sanjie had issues consolidating his power. He was in his 20s at the time, not well educated and devoted his time to military training. He was powerful, but not overwhelmingly for his task at hand. The Liu clan then found a way to bolster their claim to the land, they joined the catholic church. Pang saw the danger of this and decided to join the Big Sword Society. The Lius came over to claim land rich in wheat, and conflict occurred. 

On June 3rd, Pang Sanjie led a band of 60 Big Swords to burn the chapel at Liutitou. As violent as this was, it was considered even by the local french priest who investigated it to be minor, thus alongside the Dangshan magistrate on June 7th they dismissed the issue. The magistrate attempted to visit Pang to settle the looming feud, but failed to find him, so he wrote him a letter which advised him that if his family had an quarrel with the people of Shandong, he should settle it on that side of the border. This was rather bizarre, as the magistrate had to have known the quarrel was between two local families, and Pang chose to go to Shandong, to gather more reinforcements. 

Soon there was an influx of petty harassment against Christian churches and residents in Shandong, however for Pang and his family their activities remained in Jiangsu. Pang gathered around 100 Shandong Big Swords in Pangjialin and on June 16th led an attack on the leading missionary residence at Houjiazhuang in Dangshan. The Big Sword mob was joined by other local opportunities who stripped the village and threatened its inhabitants they would see more violence from other forces coming over from Shandong. Pang and his mob set up a base in Houjiazhuang for 5 days using it to loot 15 neighboring Christians villages. Meanwhile the local Qing officials acted quickly to protect foreign missionaries in the Dangshan and Feng counties, evacuating them and their possessions to Maqing. On June 21st, Pang returned to Shandong where his band looted Christian homes in Shan county and burned the Catholic school in Xue-Konglou. A few days later Pang mob was now around a thousand strong and they came back to Dangshan to loot more Christian homes and marched to a missionary residence located in Daitaolou in Feng county. They found the village deserted, and proceeded to burn numerous homes, before returning to Houjiazhuang where they burned many buildings.

Pang Sanjie had thus stripped northern Jiangsu Christians nearly everything they had, he was running out of targets. The Jiangsu Qing officials were trying to mobilize a defense. Meanwhile Liu Siduan and Cao Deli began distancing themselves from Pang and placed Peng Guilin in charge of the Shandong contingent aiding his band. Pangs band was running out of food so they went back to Shandong to the large town of Maliangji, but not all were members of the Big Swords. On June 29th, some of the band members began to loot places and this led to a local militia rising alongside regular troops to put up a defense. The Big Swords scattered to Shan county, but Peng Guilin was caught and arrested by troops from Xuzhou. THe Big Swords tried to rescue him but were defeated in battle, seeing 2 casualties and 18 arrests. After this the Big swords hid in their homes as the Qing forces arrested more of them. That was the end of a rather small conflict, but its important to see how things were set into motion.

French Jesuits reported two main mission residence at Daitaolou and Houjiazhuang were attacked alongside Christian homes in over 16 villages. The church settled the losses with local Qing officials for only 2000 strings of cash on June 26th, before the final battle had occured. The Germans in Shandong submitted their report which amounted to petty vandalism to chapels in 17 villages and the burning of 119 rooms in Xue-Jonglou. For this they received 12,020 strings of cash. There were no Christian casualties during the entire conflict either Chinese or foreign. The Big Swords got rowdy, targeted the property of the Christians, but made sure not to take lives. If they had wanted to take lives, they easily could have as they demonstrated. The Qing authorities were too busy with another ongoings, there was a large Muslim rebellion raging in Gangsu and Shaanxi seeing General Dong Fuxiang with numerous forces going into the northwest. Thus the trouble of the Big Swords was pretty small in comparison. 

In Shandong Yuxian was given the responsibility for pacifying the Big Sword Society. He was appointed judicial commissioner and daotai in Yanzhou. His first order was to apprehend Liu Shiduan and Cao Deli. On July 7th Yuxian arrested Shi and interrogated him and had him beheaded. Cao Deli was also arrested and executed by officials working for Yuxian. The deaths of the two top leaders, who were both easily caught by luring them to banquets, showcased how naive the society was. Likewise an order went out to arrest Pang Sanjie and chop off his head. However the local gentry were afraid to go against Pang Sanjie. Instead in April of 1897 the heads of the Pang family offered another solution. They presented the local French missionary: Father Dore the names of 4000 Pangs willing to convert to Catholicism. The next day Father Dore’s church was overflowing with 3-4 hundred Pangs, including the parents and children of Pang Sanjie. The Pang family negotiated a deal with the Church who inturn twisted the Qing officials arms. The deal was simply, let Pang Sanjie live and all would convert. Dore’s superior Father Gain talked to the daotai and things smoothed over. It seemed in the end the Catholics had won the day. As noted by a historian in Xuzhou after the event “If people with lawsuits, difficulties with the courts, exaggerated taxes, quarrels over inheritance, or some other menace were afraid they did not have enough money to buy off the judges, there was still the recourse of the Catholic Church, which demanded nothing to uphold justice. But one had to be a member of the Church to claim its help. And they asked admission in groups oftwenty, thirty and forty families, by entire villages and from everywhere at once. In June 1896, when the Big Sword Society set upon Xuzhou, the number of catechumens was 3,550. In June 1897, there were 10,000; 17,000 in 1898, 26,000 the next year and over 20,000 in 1900, the year of the Boxers.

Trouble was averted…this time. It was indeed a peaceful resolution. There was a lot of leniency, take Li Binghang who reported to the court "This is because your imperial majesty's humanity is as [great as] Heaven's, and from the beginning, you did not wish to execute them all indiscriminately” The Daotai of Xuzhou likewise reported "We should only ask if they are outlaws or not, not if they belonged to the society or not." In 1896 this all worked out against the Big Sword Society. Afterall the society was controlled by rural landlord elites with close ties to the Qing officials and local militias. Officials understood such an organization and used the traditional method of arresting leaders and dispersing followers. But what about a group not like this, who might not be so forthcoming to disperse? 

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

They chanted incantations, ate charms and smacked another with bricks, the Big Sword Society made some waves in the 1890’s, but their story is far from done. Because next time we are speaking about another group, who lets just say loved to box.