Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 31, 2023

Last time we spoke about the Juye incident and the scramble for China. The Big Swords society and their armor of the golden bell technique certainly made some waves in the mid 1890’s. However it would seem to get them in trouble, at minimum by proxy. The Juye incident was quickly seen as another Big Sword attack on christians and Kaiser Wilhelm utilizes it to gain something he was looking for a long time, a naval port in China. Jiaozhou bay was quickly seized by the Germans and suddenly all the western powers were seizing parts of China left right and center. The carving up of China had thus gone into overdrive and it looked to the common Chinese people that christian missionaries were all behind it. German was truly rubbing their nose in and allowing their missionaries to abuse their authority in Shandong province, but for how long would the Chinese put up with all of this?


#59 Yihequan “Why is everyone Kungfu fighting?” 


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.

So there has been this group I have kept alluding to for a few podcasts now. They went by a few names, but they truly pop into the scene in the year of 1898 in what other place than Shandong province, to be specific Guan county. Guan county lies along the western border of Shandong and is just a bit due west of Jinan. The people of guan county were known their “brave spirit and love of righteousness”. Their county held poor soil, many grew cotton and this lent itself to weaving. It was quite an impoverished county, their people lived simple lives. As noted by a gazetteer “The young have become like knights-errant, and like to indulge in wine, and drink for pleasure. They form cliques and seek revenge." By the mid 19th century, these young knight types were allying themselves with White Lotus sects. This led to conflicts such as the Song Jing-shi uprising of the 1860s. As we have seen over the past few episodes, where there are young men practicing boxing and there are sectarians, well they seem to just find common cause and love to rebel. There was a small market town in Guan county called Liyuantun. It was an exclave among 24 settlements in Guan, isolated across the Shandong border inside Zhili. Bordering it to the north was Linqing and Qiu county. A peasant from Liyuangtun described Liyuantuns locations as such “Speaking from our village, either two li [one kilometer) to the east or ten li to the west was Wei county. Twelve li to the northwest was Qiu county; twelve li to the south was Jize [Zhili]; fifteen li to the southeast was Linqing; ten li to the south was Quzhou; five li to the west were 300 mu of Guangzong [Zhili] land; and we were 130 li from the Guan county seat”. The small town historically had changed administrative boundaries multiple times.

Now when conflicts began to break out with Christians, a magistrate was told be local residents of Liyuantun "Before, the prefect and magistrate repeatedly came to calm and pacify us. They would fix a date and only when they received permission did they dare to enter this territory." Alongside the christians, the region was of course a natural refuge for bandits. Bandits seemed to increase dramatically between 1894-1899 and these bands were coming well armed and dared to raid villages during daylight. Even casualties were beginning to increase, it was said during one raid, 7 people were killed in a single village. Highway robbery was particularly popular in the area. Theft was often directed at the wealthy, the kidnapping of members of rich families, the ordinary peasants did not suffer from this, but instead benefited, as the bandits took their riches and spent them in the poor villages. The local Qing forces were too weak and incompetent to do anything. 

The isolated county of Guan was very susceptible to heterodox sects. There were countless such as the White Lotus, the Green “Qing Bang” or Red “Hong Bang” gangs, the “Huang shahui / the Yellow sand society”, the “shen-ren dao / way of the sage” and so on. Historians point out the isolation of the county, low education and weakness of the orthodox gentry to be the reason for the popularity of such sects. These very same factors would bolster certain boxing groups to fight christians. With a weak Qing state, the Christian missionaries flooded the area. French Jesuits dominated the Zhili side towns and Italian Franciscans the Shandong side towns. The French were particularly large, as stated by resident of the region “Early in the Guang-xu period, the White Lotus were active here. The county magistrate sent troops to make arrests. The French priest "Liang" told everyone, "I am a missionary. Whoever wants to join the Catholic Church raise your hand and register. I guarantee that nothing will happen to you." Several who had joined the White Lotus raised their hands and joined the church. In this way the government troops did not arrest them.” The town of Liyuantun saw its first congregation come about in a similar fashion. In the wake of the Song Jingshi uprising, a former rebel was arrested. A secret christian in Liyuantun convinced the man’s family to join the church and appeal the for the mans release. That is just what they did and taking upon their example, many others followed suit. Soon there was some 20 catholic families mostly from the Wang family.

Now while I call Liyuantun a “small town” it was fairly large. It held 300 households, had a marketplace attracting business. It was what we call a multiple surname town: 40% of the households were Yans; 20% Wangs: 10% Gaos and so on. Kinship had a special role in the town, as it did in most towns in China. Liyuantun was really no different than the rest of the towns in the north China plain; her residents had mud walled and thatch roofed homes. The people supported themselves farming, spinning, weaving and peddling. The farmers planted what, sorghum, millet and cotton, the soil was fairly fertile compared to the surrounded towns. With a bit better soil came some social differentiation within the town. The wealthiest family owned about 300 out of 4000 mu of land, 6 others households had around 80mu each. Some of the larger landholders rented out land, but it was far more common to just hire laborers. There were countless landless households, most of whom were hired as laborers. Some owned only 3 to 4 mu of land supplementing their farm income from secondary occupations, like weaving and peddling. The entire dynamic of the town allowed for some gentry types, and they commanded influence above the county level of governance, though their town was still very isolated.

Now in the middle of Liyuantun, stood a pair of small worn out buildings which once housed a temple dedicated to Yu-huang miao, the Jade Emperor. It was alongside a little school. The temple was said to go back to 1861 and during the rebels it took damage and was left in disrepair. Meanwhile by 1869 christians were increasing and it was decided the Christian and non-christians should divide the temple property and its associated lands, around 38 mu worth. An agreement was made between neighborhood leaders, the christians and the local constable stating the Christians would receive the temple property of 3.91 mu and the 38mu of farmland would be divided into three sections for the christians. This as you can guess was extremely unpopular and many of the neighborhood leaders who signed the agreement would dispute it later. Now the key issue was the right to the buildings which houses the temple to the Jade emperor, the highest god in the pantheon. In 1873 and 1881 the magistrate of Guan, Han Guangding enforced temporary settlements, trying to push the Christians to buy another site. But the missionaries did not want to give up the location and demanded the original deal be met. In 1887 a Franciscan showed up carrying bricks and tiles, attempting to dismantle the temple and turn it into a church. But as he began to do so, two gentry types, Liu Chang-an and Zuo Jianxun led a mob of very pissed off villagers to drive off the christians who were trying to evict their temple to the jade emperor. Magistrate He Shizhen tried to remedy the situation with another temporary agreement. He Shizhen was devoted to confucianism, and quite loved by the people for he was notably not corrupt. He Shizhen personally went to Liyuantun and confirmed the mob was roused by the two gentry types who were punished, but he also made sure to take down the bricks and tiles the Franciscan had put up.  The issue with the temple never went away, other magistrates were unable to resolve the matter. He Shizhen would come back to try and make a more permanent arraignment and got the christians to agree to accept an alternative location for their church. Liu Chang-an agreed to purchase another site for said church to be constructed. He Shizhen and a new magistrate added 100 taels of their own money to be put towards the churches construction. And it seemed to all the issue was finally resolved. 

To the Italian and French missionaries however, they refused this resolution. They claimed the chinese christian villagers were not qualified to agree to such a settlement and only they could. He Shizhen argued the dispute was between two chinese parties in Liyuantun and so a stand off began that spanned a few years. He Shizhen stood his ground, and refused to meet with the foreign missionaries, so the non christians held possession for the temple. Then in 1892, the French minister to Beijing applied pressure to the court who applied pressure to the local officials who applied pressure to the villagers. The French protest brought upon a predictable verdict, the temple was to be given to the Christians. He Shizhen donated 200 taels and 1000 cash for the construction of a new temple at a different location, but the Christians said it was a no go. The Christians complained about the meddling of officials and this escalated the situation. It seems a bit of revenge was on the menu, for a unknown person apparently invited a Daoist priest named Wei He-yi from Linqing into the picture. Wei He-yi happened to have an armed local militia whose leader was Zuo Jianxun, it always comes full circle doesn't it. The militia came over to defend the temple and things quickly got out of hand. The local Qing officials responded quickly sending the Daotai of the area alongside a group of other Qing authorities, the Dongchang prefect, Lingqing subprefect, magistrates of the surrounding Zhili counties of Qinghe, Quzhou and Wei alongside He Shizhen to meet the mob. The Qing officials told them they needed to preserve the peace and eventually persuaded them to disperse. The christians were allowed to come to the site, and it seemed they had won the day.

Now this entire time, it was the gentry leading the charge against the Christians. They went through the appropriate means, they pressed their complaints to the prefectures, then to the provincial capital and all of this was quite expensive to do. A few of the gentry were very vigilant in their efforts and this earned them jail time. Several lost property because of the expenses. Liu Chang-an was stripped of his degree. By 1892 it was clear these gentry, despite some holding degrees, having money, land or influence could not challenge the missionaries. When the Qing authorities came in force in 1892 it signaled to them no further protests would be allowed, the gentry bent the knee. The gentry had thus given up the cause, but the struggle was passed to a younger and more volatile group. 

Once the Christians got back the rights to the temple site they immediately went to work building a church. They soon found themselves under attack from a group of poor, young peasants known as “shi-ba kui / the 18 chiefs”. One story goes, the Christians were forced to fortify the church and hid inside as they were met with rocks and gunfire. The mob stormed the church and assaulted several of the Christians inside. The christians fled to the missionaries residence over in Wucheng and for a long time did not dare leave the residence. Another stand off occurred where upon if either side tried to build upon the temple location the other side would intervene and tear it down. The prefect of Dongchang, Hong Yongzhou ordered both sides to stop constructing anything and to agree to a new settlement. 

These so called 18 Chiefs seem to represent the chiefs of the 18 surrounding villages, basically militia leaders. However oral tradition has it that they were all in fact young residents of Liyuantun, mostly poor peasants who simply took on the task of protecting the temple. Their leaders included Yan Shuqin, martial artists of the “Hong-quan” Red Boxing school and Gao Yuanxiang, known to the locals as “Gao Xiaomazi” Pockmarked Gao. Yan Shuqin owned around 5 mu of land and supplementing his incoming by peddling and spinning cotton. He had two brothers who were part of the 18 chiefs who worked as farm hands. Gao Yuanxiang had around 10 mu of land and made side money milling and reselling grain. The largest land owner out of the lot was Yan Mingjian with over 100 mu of land. 3 other chiefs were completely landless, most peddling to subsidize their income. 

The missionaries saw the 18 chiefs as nothing more than some impoverished thugs, pushed into the situation by the gentry who had failed. However the 18 chiefs would prove to be a resilient group, take Gao Yuanxiang who spent 2 years in prison beginning in 1895 but carried the fight on. The 18 chiefs knew they could not hold back the Christians forever, they were a small and isolated force, so they turned to a man they thought could help them out named Zhao Sanduo. Zhao Sanduo lived 5kms southwest in Shaliuzhai a large village with 300 households in Wei county. He was a notable martial artist, who also went by the name Zaho Luozhu. He taught Plum Flower Boxing, a martial art going back to the early 17th century. Feng Keshan back during the eight trigrams uprising taught Plum Flower boxing. 

Plum Flower Boxing was for self protecting, utilizing physical and spiritual exercise. There was little to no religious aspect in this martial art, except for some bowing to Sun Wukong or Shaseng. The prefect of Dongchang described Plum flower boxing as 

In the districts along the Zhili-Shandong border, the people are sturdy and enjoy the martial arts. Many of them practice the arts of boxing to protect themselves and their families, and to look out for each other. Great numbers practice [boxing] and it has spread widely. In Henan, Shanxi and Jiangsu there are also those who teach it, so that its name is widely known. Each year in the second or third [lunar] month there are fairs, and the boxers use this opportunity to gather and compare their techniques. They call this "liang-quan" ("showing off their boxing"). Thus in the countryside they are regarded as plum boxing meetings.” The plum flower boxer often practiced on market days and would often stage shows. Zhao Sanduo had roughly 2000 students, many of whom were employed as Yamen runners, giving him quite a advantage when dealing with disputes with Qing authorities. It is said Zhao may have had up to 400 mu of land and ran his own store, but countless accounts also claim he was a poor peasant with a meager 10 mu of land. When dealing with oral traditional history its always hard to feel out what is true and what is fable. Regardless Zhao was noted to be a very generous man and would use his considerable influence to right wrongs, particularly when it came to christian meddling.  The 18 chiefs pleaded for Zhao’s help and at first he rejected them, not wanting to get involved, but somehow they twisted his arm.

In april of 1897 the Christians yet again tried to bring their materials over to build upon the temple site. At the same time, Zhao had staged a major plum flower boxing exhibition in Liyuantun. It seems Zhao was just making a show of force, but soon violence broke out. Yet again the Christians hid in their church construction, then on april 27th, somewhere between 500-2000 men stormed the site and occupied it. The Christians attempted a counter attack which resulted in a single fatality and many injuries. The church was destroyed, the Christians had their homes looted and all of them fled. Upon receiving the news of the incident, He Shizhen sympathized with the non christians and the Governor of Shandong, Li Bingheng tried to prevent foreign intervention. By the fall of 1897 the Qing authorities endorsed a new settlement which gave a major victory to the non christians and their boxer allies. The Qing officials sought to buy the Christians a new site and supply all the supplies for their new church, while the old temple site would be used as a charitable school for all villagers. However in truth they sought to rebuild the old temple and even put on a grand celebration to commemorate it. 

It seemed a grand victory, but it was to be short-lived as the Juye incident came about. The Germans seized Jiaozhou, Li Bingheng was demoted and now the Christians overwhelmingly had the upper hand. Imperial edicts were being frantically tossed around demanding all incidents to be avoided at all costs, while the missionaries pressed for revenge. The Italian bishop rejected the 1897 settlement and demanded the Qing officials get rid of the old temple and return the site to the christians. In the meantime Zhao Sanduo was joined by a man named Yao Wenqi, a native of Guanging, Zhili. Yao had been teaching boxing in the town of Liushangu, southwest of Liyuantun. Yao was senior to Zhao in the Plum Flower boxing school, thus his boxing teacher or Senpai as the Japanese would say. Yao radicalized the scene, by introducing some new recruits who were notorious for anti-manchu activities. Many of Zhao’s students pleaded with him “Do not listen to Yao, he is ambitious! Don’t make trouble. Since our patriarch began teaching in the late Ming and early Qing there have been 16 or 17 generations. The civil adherents read books and cure illness, the martial artists practice boxing and strengthen their bodies. None has spoken of causing disturbances”. Zhao headed the advice at first, but it seemed he could not break away from the anti-christian followers amongst the ranks. In early 1898 the Qing authorities threatened to arrest any of the Plum Flower boxers if they dared to assemble. The leaders of the Plum Flower Boxers who did not share the anti-christian stance advised Zhao and the others to leave, and he did. Zhao left with many followers and they took on a new name, Yihequan. 

The translation of Yihequan is something along the lines as “the righteous and harmonious fists” or “boxers / fists united in righteousness'. The Yihequan of Guan county were united in righteous indignation over the Christian encroachment on the Liyuantun temple. This was not exactly a new thing, there were many Yihe organizations historically we have already covered. In the 1860s there were Yihe militias in southern Zhili fighting off the Nian rebels. In Wei county there were 3 different militias the Zhi he tuan “militia united in purpose”; Pei-yi tuan “militia worthy of righteousness; and the Yihe tuan “militia united in righteousness”. These three militias disbanded in the early 1870’s, but were resurrected in 1896 because of the explosion in banditry. Interesting to note, the Yihe tuan were led by Zhao Laoguang, a cousin of Zhao Sanduo. Such Yihe boxer groups formed a coalition against the Christians. The most radical of them were aggressive members of the 18 chiefs of Liyuantun, under the leadership of “Big Sword” Yan Shuqin. Then there were aggressive members of the Plum flower boxers like Yao Wenqi. Zhao Sanduo had a fairly large network of friends spanning militia leaders and gentry class. Thus for the Qing government it was quite frustrating, as when they tried to crack down on certain groups, these groups suddenly were being aided by others and well hidden. It was a true Boxer coalition.

The French demanded the dismissal of the popular magistrate, He Shizhen, who they saw as an obstacle and by early 1898 they got their way. He was replaced by Cao Ti who said as he entered the area “boxers were seen everywhere, wearing short jackets and knives, they filled the streets and alleys. Everywhere one looked, one saw their disorderly appearance”. Christians were fleeing Liyuantun in fear, thus Cao Ti's first task was to ease the tense situation. Cao Ti began with an investigation of the Boxer groups and learned that Zhao Sanduo was the key leader. He began systematically shaking down Boxer leaders trying to get Zhao to come forward, but he would not come out of the shadows. The Boxers in general were in hiding as Qing forces were building up a presence in the area. By February of 1898, prefect Hong Yongzhou took charge of the situation. On February 28th, Hong Yongzhou accused Yan Shuqin to be the murderer of a local Christian killed in the spring time. Hong went into Liyuantun and occupied the town with Qing forces, ushering the Christians to come claim the temple. While this solved the temple issue, it did not solve the Boxer issue as they were now gathering in local villages. Hong Yongzhou knew he needed to take out Zhao Sanduo, so he managed to convince local militia leaders he would provide Zhao safety if he would meet with him in Ganji. Zhao finally came over and Hong had this to say about their meeting  "I instructed the boxer leader Zhao San-duo very clearly, and showed him that for his best interest the Plum Boxers must be dispersed, and if they ever assembled again he would be prosecuted. I said to the man ‘ Your family is said to be well off and your sons and grandsons already established. Why have you not sought to protect yourself and your family, and have instead loosed your disciples to cause trouble, even committing murder and arson? Why do you let yourself be the puppet of others?" To all of this Zhao confessed his organization was infiltrated by some unruly men as a result of what was occurring at Liyuantun, but the Christians labeled him a criminal chieftain so he had to keep his boxers together for self protection. The Qing officials all agreed to offer him protection if he would disband the boxers. The Qing officials went with Zhao to his home in Shaliuzhai and got him to official disperse his boxers. However the Boxer coalition was vast and by no means was Zhao telling them to stop going to work for all.

In Liyuantun in April, a notice suddenly appearance on the examination hall reading this “The patriots of all the provinces, seeing that the men of the West transgress all limits [literally: over-reach Heaven] in their behavior, have decided to assemble on the 15th day of the fourth moon and to kill the Westerners and burn their houses. Those whose hearts are not in accord with us are scoundrels and women of bad character. Those who read this placard and fail to spread the news deserve the same characterization. Enough. No more words are needed.” So yeah it was clear there were still a lot of angry boxers.

The Qing officials attempted a new approach, they tried to recruit the peaceful boxers into militias. The First Sino-Japanese War had greatly diminished Qing authority in the region and such groups were necessary to restore law and order. Governor Zhang Ru-Mei began recruiting them with the primary intent to combat banditry and it looked extremely successful. As Zhang reported to the court in May “I have already sent deputies to the various localities to work together with the local officials to clean up the bao-jia [registers] and establish rural militia (xiang-tuan). Originally I wished to clear up the sources of banditry, but these can also be used to mediate between the people and the Christian converts. ” Zhang and other Qing officials were not naive, they knew many of the boxers in the militias would not be neutral when it came to Christian disputes. This led Zhang to make a rathe controversial recommendation on June 30th “If we allow them [the boxers] to establish private associations on their own authority, and officials take no notice, not only will foreigners have an excuse [to protest], but in time it could become a source of trouble. Northerners are customarily willful. Their bravery and fierceness in struggle are an established custom. The techniques of these boxers, and their system of masters and disciples have had some success in protecting the countryside and capturing bandits. We should instruct the local officials to order the gentry and people to transform these private associations into public undertakings, and change the boxing braves into people's militia. This would conform to public opinion and make them easier to control, and it would seem that both people and converts would benefit greatly” Come fall, rumors spread that the Qing officials were going to crack down and arrest more people. Qing soldiers in Linqing crossed the border into Zhili and began searching for anti christian biligerants in Shaliuzhai. This began an uproar and Yao Wenqi alongside the 18 chiefs took Zhao Sanduo and his entire family hostage and forced him to push the coalition to attack. 

Boxers began to gather in hundreds along the border area of Zhili-Shandong. Boxers from Shaliuzhai marched north, assaulting Christians and destroying a few homes in some villages northwest of Liyuantun. Over the course of a few days bands of boxers passed through Hongtaoyuan which held a large christian population. There they destroyed a church and several houses. Rumors began to spread that the boxers were going to rescue Yan Shuqins brother and members of the 18 chiefs from jail. 50 horses were borrowed from supporters which the boxers mounted with large flags bearing what would become the famous slogan of the boxer movement ‘Fu Qing mie-yang / support the Qing, destroy the foreigners”. This was the first known appearance of the slogan and the Qing reacted with force. Qing forces were brought over from Linqing in Shandong and Daming in Zhili. The governor of Zhili, the magistrates of Qiu, Wei and Guan alongside other Qing officials quote “ordered the militia heads and gentry directors (shen-dong) of the three counties to go forward to enlighten the people to sincerity and public spiritedness, and to make them aware of the pros and cons. They strenuously reasoned with the boxers. Zhao Luo-zhu [i.e., Zhao San-duo] then publicly kowtowed to Yao Luo-qi [i.e., Yao Wen-qi] and the boxer crowd, and asked them to disperse and return to their homes. The boxers were deeply repentant and on October 31 and November 1 they dispersed in small groups and returned home.” The springtime dispersal of the boxers would have earned the Qing a summer of peace, but as the Boxers headed back to their homes, some passed through Hongtaoyuan. It is said the Christians there tossed insults at the boxers, prompting Yao Wenqi and some more hot headed types to seek revenge. On November 3rd, 80 boxers assaulted the Christian community of Hongtaoyuan, burning down a church and seven houses killing perhaps 3 christians. After this they advanced upon some other Christian villages in Wei county, but French missionaries had been organizing a militia 477 men strong. So the boxers instead attacked the nearby village of Disankou where they burned and looted more Christian homes. The next day saw Qing troops attack the boxers at Houwei village, where 4 were killed and 19 were arrested including Yao Wenqi. Yao Wenqi was beheaded the next day in Hongtaoyuan. 

Peace was thus restored to the 18 villages and as late as November of 1899 a Protestant missionary reported “a cordial welcome in Liyuantun”. The long struggle over Liyuantun had seemingly come to an end, or had it? 

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.

The Yihequan, Boxers of the righteous and harmonious fists had risen to face off against the Christian menace plaguing China. The christians retaliated heavily and seemingly have quelled the boxers, but for how long would such a peace last?