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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 1, 2022

Last time we spoke, the Qing took Beijing and immediately set out a campaign to destroy the nemesis of the Ming and man who had broken them, Li Zicheng. The Qing smashed his Dashun army and caught the bandit leader ending his life. Yet as they did so a new threat emerged, that of the South Ming Regime. A few Ming princes took the Dragon Throne, each bickering with the next until the Qing smashed each one. Last left standing was Emperor Yongli, who promptly fled for his life at every sight of the Qing enemy. With the South Ming regime on the ropes, the Qing began to focus on quelling the hundreds of peasant uprisings against their new state. But the more they suppressed the peasants, the more the peasants fought on even harder. Now we will tell the horrifying tale, of a man who many of the peasants flocked to, and with that I actually think I will give the audience a graphic content warning.


This episode is the holocaust of Zhang Xianzhong


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 world war two 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.


Before I start I would just like to make a little acknowledgement. To those listeners who learnt of the man I am about to talk about in the education system of mainland China, I apologize if my take on him does not mirror exactly what you might have learnt. I do not in anyway pretend what I am telling is the facts at all. I read 2 vastly differing accounts of Zhang Xianzhong and I mean vastttttly different. One portrays him as a peasant revolutionary who fought for the rights of the peasant class and was misconstrued later on by the Qing who placed blame upon him for crimes against humanity they performed during the unification period. That account was written by a Chinese historian of the PRC and I will just outright say it, it was written more so for political ideology than history in my opinion. Another source I read was by a renowned Historian of Chinese history and he states that Zhang was undeniably responsible for an unreal amount of crimes against humanity. The truth is probably a gray, I did my best to use both sources anyways on with the show.

Ok so way back when many episodes back you might remember the name Zhang Xianzhong. He was basically the rival to Li Zicheng. Li Zicheng and his Dashun army managed to take Beijing, while Zhang Xianzhong and his Daxi army moved further southeast, fortunately for him considering the Qing blew the door open. Zhang Xianzhong’s operations at the offset were brutal to say the least, he had a reputation for cruelty. He also acquired some of the best military bandit leaders under his banner. One was named Sun Kewang, a native of Yanchang, and although he had a peasant upbringing, he knew how to read and write which proved very valuable. There was also Li Dingguo who was a tall and sturdy man, kept himself clean at all times and was extremely gifted in leading armies. He ended up being one of Zhang Xianzhong’s most trusted commanders who was able to restrain Zhang or his other colleagues when necessary. It is said while others raped and butchered cities after taking them, Li Dingguo prefered to avoid these activities and restrained his men. Then there was Liu Wenxiu and Ai Nengqi, each not as famous as the previous two, but equally were formidable commanders who earned the loyalty of their men. 


In the year 1643, Zhang Xianzhong entered a new phase of his career. He had gained valuable experience in both siege and naval warfare, moving beyond commanding just a mere bandit army. He led some 100,000 or so men and was regarded on an equal level to Li Zicheng, the de facto largest bandit army leader. Unlike Li Zicheng however, Zhang was not as successful at building a regime and tending to just pillage and move on. Now the last time we mentioned Zhang Xianzhong he was raping and pillaging Hunan province. He had a bit of a dilemma, he had plans to take Nanjing, the secondary capital of the Ming, but Li Zicheng and the Ming commander Zuo Liangyu made it impossible to get near Nanjing. Zhang’s forces though enormous at this point, some estimates indicating possibly half a million were under him, were taking heavy casualties. With so many men, he was concerned primarily with how to feed his army and he began to speak to his commanders. They all spoke to him about “heaven’s storehouse”, a name given to Sichuan province. Many of the commanders pointed out the geography of Sichuan and how it would prove a better base of operations against Li Zicheng’s Dashun forces. Thus Zhang Xianzhong abandoned Changsha which he had been occupying for some time and moved with his army upon Sichuan province. And here is the horrifying story of what happened to the people of Sichuan. 


In 1644 Zhang camped in western Huguang capturing Xianyang and dozens of towns in its vicinity. Rumors spread in Sichuan that Zhang Xianzhong was leading an army 400,000 strong to sweep the province at any moment. The South Ming officials in Sichuan had completely ignored their own defenses. They lacked supplies because of a shortage of funds, corruption was rampant in all levels of government, they bickered amongst another and there were barely any disciplined troops to make much of a stand. As a result Chongqing was left with only 3000 troops to defend it. To make matters worse, like many cities in Sichuan, Chongqing had been infiltrated by bandit spies serving as the “eyes and ears” of Zhang's men. 


The defense of Sichuan's capital, Chengdu was commanded by Zeng Ying. Zeng Ying was a large imposing man with a huge mustache, greatly feared by his enemies for his spirit and conviction in battle. Zeng Ying and his Ming general colleagues fought many battles against Zhang’s invading forces. Zeng won a significant battle at Zhongzhou killing over 1000 of Zhang's bandits and sinking 100 boats, but overall the Ming were simply outnumbered and out gunned in Sichuan. Over the course of quite a few battles it is estimated the Ming loyalist armies would lose up to 100,000 men. Zhang eventually dislodged Zeng armies from Fuzhou where Zeng was wounded by arrows. Ming fronts began to collapse and Zeng had to withdraw Wangjiang pass, killing many during his retreat. With Zeng gone, Chongqing was open for the taking. Zhang’s vanguard was 100,000 strong backed by 200,000 in reserve. He began his attack on Chongqing with probes while he built floating bridges. Zhang was eager to take Chongqinq as by this point in time, he received word that Li Zicheng had captured Beijing, and in Zhang’s mind it was only a matter of time before Li Zicheng turned his army upon Sichuan. 


Once he had constructed 100 boats his men sailed force with great yellow banners proclaiming dengqing Chuan yue” “quelling the disturbances in sichuan”. As told by 

Historian James Parsons “the rebels converged on Chongqing from 2 directions: 1 force continued the advance up the Yangtze, and another, under Zhang’s personal command went overlord and approached the city from the west. The magistrate of Chongqing, Chen Shiqi, was undoubtedly demoralized by the fall of Beijing to Li Zicheng and the suicide of the Chongzhen empror. He made no attempt to defend the approaches to the city, apparently because he was afraid that his troops would flee if he allowed them outside the city walls. Thus, in July 1644, Chongqing was completely surrounded. The outcome of the content was apparent, for Zhangs forces outnumbered the defenders, and he had by now acquired great skill in attacking walled towns. But fighting continued for several days with both sides using cannon as well as the more conventional, and probably more effective, bows and arrows. Finally the rebels succeeded in digging a large hole in the wall and filling it with gunpowder, which was exploded by a means of a fire arrow. Thus they were able to gain entrance to the city and all resistance was overcome on July 25, 1644”


As the walls fell, the invaders swarme in like ants and the Ming defenders tried to repel them leading to blood street fighting, but all were cut down. The magistrate and commander of the defenses of Chongqing, Chen Shiqi was captured by Zhang who offered him the opportunity to surrender and join him. Chen spat “if a petty little official of the seventh grade doesn't fear death, how can I, who am still a court official of the second grade and a high frontier minister, submit to you a bandit?”. Zhang in fury tortured Chen before having him publically flayed. In the words of the Jesuit priest Gabriel de Magalhaens who heard the story secondhand “they begin the butchery with the toes until they complete it at the top of the head, cutting off small pieces of flesh, some smaller and some larger depending on the orders of the tyrant, which ranged ordinarily from 300, 500, 1000 and 10,000 pieces, a butchery so inhumane, prolonged from sunrise to sunset on one man”. The bloodbath of Chongqing is one of the most infamous moments of Zhang’s rather dark career. Zhang began taunting Prince Rui asking if he was fiercer than Li Zicheng before telling him that heaven gave him a message in the form of lightning that he had to kill him an thus he executed him. Then it is said he ordered all the defenders of the city, 37,000 soldiers to have their sword arms severed off, though those who submitted peacefully “merely” had their ears, noses or hands cut off. Some accounts state Zhang severed the left arms of the women in the city so that couples would be matched sets, wow. Tales of people being strung up to walls and trees and used as target practice are told, countless thousand were butchered filling the rivers with blood.  Its hard to gauge what's exaggeration or not in these tales, but one thing is for sure, Zhang killed a significant amount of people for both strategic and psychological purposes. As seen countless time in history, engaging in one great atrocity might well convince others to submit without fighting, thus preserving resources and allowing someone like Zhang to capture cities intact further down the road. But in the case of Zhang, this behavior seems to persist and more and more massacres will occur. It should be noted that Li Dingguo and Sun Kewang were said to try and curb Zhang’s murderous side when possible. 


After Chongqing, Zhang’s forces fanned out and attacked the localities, and in a short time 47 districts and prefectures fell to his men. Many independent bandit groups such as the Yao-Huang bandits would come to join his forces bolstering him by another 50,000 men. Then Zhang set his eyes upon Chengdu which he thought would make a perfect capital for his new regime. At Chengdu Prince Shu made the same mistake as his cousin, Prince Rui at Chongqing, he sat upon his treasure rather than spend it to bolster the cities defenses. The city’s defenses were organized by Liu Jiachong and Yang Zhang who raised a force no larger than 10,000. They dug moats, repaired walls and trained the troops as best they could. 


Zhang’s troops approached Chengdu from 3 directions. At this point, the official Shen Yunzuo, fed up with the greed and incompetence of Prince Shu, gave up trying to press the prince for funds and raised a funds from other officials instead acquiring enough to hire a mercenary force of 2000 troops. They would not make much of a difference. As with Chongqing, Zhang first offered the city a chance to submit sending envoys ahead, but the envoys were executed. Li Dingguo pushed Zhang to slip some spies into the city to learn of its defenses which proved very useful. Zhang’s army hit the city from all 4 sides on the first day. The initial assault of ladders was repulsed by the commander Liu Zhibo. Soon Zhang’s men set to the old strategy of finding weak points along the walls and setting sappers in to use gunpowder to blow them up. Always reminds me of the Scene in Peter Jackson’s LOTR two towers, sorry had to say it. As the charges went off , several parts of the walls collapsed and the bandit soldiers clambered through the breaches. The Prince of Shu tried to escape but failed, so he drowned himself in an old well when he heard the rebels had entered the city. 

It is alleged Zhang Xianzhong began to systematically massacre the population of Chengdu for 3 days, though the numbers are disputed. Reports of bodies being tossed into the river or left on the streets to rot made for a horrific scene. But a lot of accounts also state that after the 3 days some sort of order was established. Some scholars argue Zhang’s generals began to protest all the killing, such as Sun Kewang who said to Zhang “My king has fought battles for over a decade and has repeatedly slaughtered without acquiring an inch of territory to defend. Your generals and soldiers can no longer follow this way of thinking. Now we’d risk ten thousand deaths to see the completion of our king’s enterprise. But if you kill the masses, who will be left to implement your plans? I beg my king to put up your sword and spare the common people from death.”. Eventually the other generals  joined in to convince Zhang to make Chengdu his new capital and stop killing its populace. Soon Zhang proclaimed himself emperor Da Shun. This of course was ironically the same title as Li Zicheng who was of course his former rival. His kingdom was called “Da Xiguo” the great western kingdom and Chengdu was renamed Xijing “western capital”. 


Zhang then appointed special titles for his 4 adopted sons as he called them. Sun Kewang was made “pingdong Jiangjun” generalissimo who pacifies the east in charge of conquering Shandong, Liaodong, the coast and Korea.  Li Dinggou was generalissimo of the west in charge of conquering western Sichuan and Tibet. Liu Wenxiu was generalissimo of the south in charge of conquering Guizhou, Yunnan, Burma, Thailand and Southeast Asia. Last was Ai Nengqi generalissimo of the north in charge of conquering all northern provinces and Mongolia. Pretty ridiculous tasks, but the more you learn of Zhang Xianzhong, who might I add talked to himself in third person, heard and saw things no one else could, well it makes more sense.

Zhang restricted his entire military into 120 camps and appointed countless commanders with 5 chief military commissions similar to the Ming Dynasty military structure. His force is loosely estimated to have grown at this point to 600,000 to a possible million strong. With such incredibly high numbers of mouths, a ton of feeding was required and this is the crux of a horrid story. Zhang soon had to form an intensively strict government designed specifically to maximize resource acquisition and find any semblance of sedition. Districts were organized into units which were expected to inform Zhang’s authorities if there was any seditious talk or activity, failure to do so could result in execution of that person and or their entire families. 

Light punishments could be a good old flogging, for example if you enter the wrong door or face the wrong direction during certain events. Then if you were caught lets say hoarding anything, well you could expect a ear, nose, a hand or foot cut off, so a more moderate punishment? If you did something a bit worse than that, there was decapitation, even worse crimes met with slower deaths, dismemberment for example. If you did something really bad, Zhang’s favorite was to flay someone alive.  It is said the outer walls of Zhang’s palace were decorated with flayed skins of offenders and piles of severed body parts, divided by type amassed in front of his residence…remember that last part because oh boy it comes around later. 


Zhang had secret police everywhere, strict curfews were enforced, people required travel passes and if anyone was caught messing about it was a quick execution. The populace could be arrested and questioned for anything. It is alleged from the year 1644 to 1647 the land of Sichuan was drenched in blood. Yet despite the horror, Zhang apparently had plans for a peaceful administration of Sichuan. Seals of office were used, government organs operated all the while the citizens were threatened with death if they fled or resisted. Zhang set his army to work, hunting any Ming royal family members or supporters who were to be brought back to Chengdu, for some gruesome endings I imagine. His army fanned out into the countryside scouring for resources, anything that could be eaten or traded for food. It was reported that all cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs and even rats if it's to be believed were scavenged by his armies. Commoners were forbidden to hoard livestock or valuables and you can imagine how many would die as a result. It is alleged that Zhang “deemed a day without killing a wasted day” and he began to refer to himself as “heaven’s executioner” claiming he had a divine mission to kill. Now I want to make another point like I did at the beginning of this episode. Modern Chinese historians stress the positive aspects of Zhang’s regim, after all if you read between the lines you see how he was redistributed wealth and …well…for the most part the higher classes were the ones being squeezed the most, cause the peasants could only offer so much. There were many aspects of his government that seemed like they worked, surely everyone was kept in line. Zhang was extremely paranoid, we are talking Stalin levels here, he tried to control everything. His army was enormous and their tasks were even larger than them, this required an incredible amount of resources, which shows an incredible amount of capability…however it was done in quite a horrifying and irresponsible way. Regardless many of these modern Chinese scholars argue the merit for Zhang's promotion of the peasant class, one could see great revolutionary here. But their arguments are laid out with endless excuses for what is a known fact, one of the most insane death tolls imaginable for the people of Sichuan. They say, it was the Qing invaders who eventually show up, other bandit groups, climate problems and drought, which might I add is true, the climate at this time is responsible for unbelievable famine and death. But why do we face so many sources telling of unbelievable atrocities performed by a man, who quite frantically is seen to be the harbinger of doom. Anyways I wanted to give some of their side in this, cause from here on, its going to heavily skew to the anti-Zhang side. A Jesuit priest who was with Zhang had this to say of his early reign and I find it a bit revealing “His wisdom and perceptiveness are vast and exceed that of most people. He is certainly capable of governing a state.” “He began to govern at first with such liberality, justice, and greatness that all were taken by him; however, this benignity did not endure, because little by little he began taking off his human disguise and showing his ugly countenance of cruelty.” “So immense was this man’s ferociousness that from the beginning of the world right up to the present day there has never existed a tyrant so wild and so inhuman.”.


Zhang made claims to those around him that he could see entities, ghosts or spirits if you were, because of his capacity as the Son of Heaven. At times these entities or better said heavenly spirits told him to commit slaughter. He would also go on to say the people he killed sometimes came back to speak to him and in his frustration he could not kill the entities.  


After only a month of establishing his new Kingdom, matters began to spiral out of control. This would lead to 2 years which would go down in the annals of Chinese history as some of the bloodiest and in Sichuan, Zhang would earn the moniker “the butcher”.  Between 1646 and 1649, Sichuan which some called “heaven’s storehouse” would become a charnel house. Zhang’s forces lashed out all over Sichuan hunting anyone down who did not hand over food, funds or anything else necessary for the regime. Anyone who tried to flee Zhang proclaimed “would be regarded as a rebel in the eyes of the law”. He proclaimed to the countryside that he would punish bad officials and reassess land taxation for the peasants which did swing some of the peasants to him. Despite his best efforts to fleece the rich, there was such general chaos that tax collection or the conduct of official business was in quite disarray. Despite all of this his forces for at least the first month of the regime remained quite disciplined and many prohibitions were in place to stop looting, rape and pillage. But many  historians argue this was the work of his subordinates trying to build local level support and not so much Zhang himself. 


Four different regimes were competing for Sichuan, Zhang’s regime, Li Zichengs Dashun kingdom based at Xi’an, the Qing regime in Beijing and the Hongguang South Ming Regime in Nanjing. Zhang’s northern forces managed to repel Li Zicheng’s incursions on multiple occasions, the Qing were not yet this far south, but the South Ming regime remained a constant thorn. The South Ming loyalists were fighting back tooth and nail against the Zhang’s Da Xi army on all frontiers. The Ming loyalist commander Yang Zhan soon established a base of operations in southern Sichuan. He inspired the locals to help resist Zhang Xianzhong’s regime and harassed multiple cities under Zhang’s control. Southern Sichuan soon became a hotbed for resistance against Zhang’s rule furthering others to do the same. Another fire was the Ming commander Zeng Ying who also began raising forces in resistance and reclaiming some lost territory. Zeng Ying managed to recapture Chongqing and greatly bolstered its strength. To add to this injury, other bandit groups such as the Yao-Huang bandits within Sichuan began to rebel against Zhang in retaliation for his massacres upon the people. Some estimates suggest the Yao-Huang bandits numbers in Sichuan could had been up to 100,000, so this was no minor issue. Soon Xuzhou fell to the Ming loyalists and the more Zhang lost the more furious he became and unhinged. He soon sent his commanders with orders to indiscriminately kill, which was not a popular policy for them. Zhang had local militias rising up against him, Ming loyalist armies and soon the Qing would descend upon Sichuan.


On March 8th of 1645 he suddenly began multiple campaigns in all directions as Zhang declared his intention to recover vast lost territory. His 4 great generals went off in their respective directions. Liu Wenxiu was sent to pacify Chongqing, Sun Kewang and Ma Yuanli were sent into the north and Ai Nengqi was sent into the south.  It is said by the time their eradication campaigns had finished ““One could travel for a thousand li and see only red earth and in ten thousand homes there was no smoke [from cooking fires]. Travelers encountered no one living in Shu; there was land but no people, and the environment made it hard to stay there.”  Ai Nengqi won a few battles in the vicinity of Yazhou, driving the Ming forces further south, but it was only temporary as they kept coming right back recapturing lost territory. Its said half the residents of Yazhou died at the hands of Ai Nengqi’s army before the Ming retook the city.  Liu Wenxiu with a force of 30,000 men hit Chongqing by land and water, but Zeng Ying sent 2 riverine units and land forces pincer attacking Liu’s main force at Duogongcheng and smashed his army, apparently 3000 of Liu’s men would survive. Zeng Ying was promoted vice commander and made an earl of Jinpingkou by Prince Fu for the great victory and his forces allegedly grew to 100,000. This was the first major defeat for Zhang Xianzhong in Sichuan. Xuzhou was captured soon by other Ming loyalists, taking the lives of 2000 Daxi soldiers. One of Zhangs commanders, Feng Shuangli retook Xuzhou only to lose it again to Yang Zhan who burnt Feng’s boats not allowing him to retreat and killing most of his forces. Yang Zhan would follow this up by ambushing a force led by Zhang XianZhong's younger brother, capturing tons of men, money and supplies. With the booty in hand he soon hired 8000 more mercenaries and many spies to send into Zhang’s armies to cause mayhem. Even Buddhist monasteries began joining the resistance against Zhang in Sichuan.  


Zhang was livid at the reports and sent more and more forces out to kill indiscriminately. Zhang began to form repeated conferences with his advisers and noted that Chongqing needed to be rid of the Ming so that Zhang could refocus his attention upon the Dashun army in the north and the Qing even further north of them. By this point Zhang only really controlled an area of 30 miles around Chengdu. As he faced more and more defeats, his fury grew and massacres mounted. Corpses piled outside the offices of the Ministry of War as Zhang vented his rage. He began to purge his eunuch cohort, killing 280 out of a possible 300, possibly because he suspected them of being spies for his enemies. The courtyards and grassy areas around the palace were said to be stained with blood and the stench of rotting flesh. Official appointments became death sentences.


By the time Zhang’s armies had finished their campaigns which can be better described as eradication campaigns all he had really done was create more and more resistance. As his enemies multiplied so did his paranoia. This is where you find a ton of sources talking about Zhang seeing and hearing things. In the early part of 1645 it is said he was seeing headless ghosts stalking the halls of his palace, he claimed at one point to one of his advisers that one of the ghosts stole food from his plate…perhaps a starving servant? He complained that he kept hearing the cries of those flayed outside his halls at night. It was around this time where Zhang became fixated with what he called his divine mission to slaughter. He claimed to receive directions from a “tianshu” “divine book” that only he could read and understand. He would rant “There are too many commoners in China, and their wickedness is unchecked. Therefore the Lord of Heaven has sent old Zhang to the world to kill people. . . . I want to fulfill the charge of Heaven, so my plan is to kill all the evil people in China.”. He told the populace of Sichuan to cleanse themselves lest he be forced to do it for them “His majesty is truly acting on behalf of Heaven. All of you, officials and commoners alike, must wash your hearts and cleanse your thoughts in order to avoid Heaven’s wrath.”. It was after stating this to the Sichuan populace that we get that famous line he told his subordinate Wang Zhaolin about how “if a day went by and he did not kill somebody, then he was really unhappy”. How much of this is real and what is exaggerated or blemishing of character I leave up to you, but man does it make for a hell of a story. 


It’s frowned upon to give psychology diagnosis for people too far back in history who we cant really know how they were like, secondary sources and all. Even myself with a degree in neuroscience, not sure if I ever mentioned that hear on the podcast, bit bizarre to hear, my first degree is neuroscience and my second is in history, don't ask long story there. Anyways Zhang’s condition based on these sources indicates he was at minimum suffering from paranoid delusions if not full blown schizophrenia. His apparent delight in the torture and murder of so many also indicats typical behaviors of anti-social personality disorder aka psychopathy. 


Another account form the Portuguese Jesuit Gabriel De Magalhaens tells us “It seems that he ate and drank with greater gusto when people were being skinned alive or being cut up into pieces in his presence and at the same time that the pieces of human flesh were being cut off and dropping to the ground, he would be cutting up and eating the meat on his plate. And while the blood dripped, he drank his wine.”Things got so bad in Chengdu that Li Dingguo and Sun Kewang complained the capital had become a cemetery. 


Things got much worse when Zhang began the practice of having soldiers submit severed body parts for rewards and promotions. Apparently Zhang was enticed by this practice because of a subordinate under Sun Kewang who showed up with 1700 hands to show his work. Chengdu became a scene of horror as shipments of hands, ears, and noses started coming in and piling up around the city. As one could imagine, with so many body parts came scavengers and soon the city became filled with scavengers such as wolves, leopards and tigers. 


Now a lot of modern scholars point at Zhang’s insanity leading to the desolation of Sichuan, but there is also another aspect I have mentioned. Zhang had an enormous army that required an enormous amount of food. Zhang was estimated to have a force of 600,000 to a possible million which required nearly twice what all of Sichuan's annual crop yields could manage. As the old saying goes, killing the chicken to get the eggs led to disaster. Zhang’s men might have killed many on their own accord simply to acquire food and yes if you were wondering there were widespread reports of cannibalism.  As seen with so many tyrants throughout history, the policy of killing to overawe reached a breaking point. Local bandits, Ming Loyalists and commoners were resisting all over in greater numbers. Da Xi soldiers and officials alike were being killed wherever they went. Zhang’s armies would systematically come to places, “pacify” them and as soon as they left the areas were in the words of Li Dingguo “as soon as we leave these righteous armies spring up. The officials we appoint are killed one by one and after 3 or 4 months they are all dead. If the previous dynasty had not tried to do this to us, we never would have survived. So we must prioritize protecting the people”. What could make matters worse for Zhang you might imagine, how about the new enemy finally reaching the scene, the Qing. The Qing finally managed to kill Li Zicheng and his Dashun army, well most of them defected to the Ming loyalists. At the same time the Qing also defeated Zuo Liangyu who would defect to them. Zuo Liangyu’s defection bolstered the Qing with 100,000 troops, 40,000 boats and soon Henan, Huguang and Jiangxi were looking like easy grabs for them. Yet in order to take these places it was viewed that Sichuan required pacification as Zhang Xianzhong was a major menace with his giant army. 


In 1645 the Dorgon sent emissaries to persuade Zhang Xianzhong to surrender proclaiming “everything Zhang Xianzhong’s army had done during the Ming Dynasty was over, let bygones be bygones”. Provided Zhang Xianzhong and his army surrender, he would be appointed an official and his children would enjoy honor and wealth within the Qing dynasty. Well Zhang Xianzong chose to adopt a wait and see attitude, not surrendering, to no surprise the Qing were not too happy. Sun Kewang and some other generals began to complain to Zhang that the massacres of the population were creating more enemies and pushing them into the arms of the Ming and Qing. Zhang retorted simply that those who resisted must be slaughtered. 


In the beginning of 1646 the Qing sent an expedition against Zhang Xianzhong, but it never reached Sichuan as it got held up by various Ming loyalist armies along the way. Then the Qing sent a 2nd expedition led by the Prince of Suqin, Haoge and Wu Sangui to march south and attack the Daxi army in Sichuan. 


Now as bad as Zhang has been to the people of Sichuan thus far, it was at this point with the Qing coming to his doorstep where Zhang performed some of the most horrible atrocities against the people of Sichuan. Our portuguese man on the ground, Magalhaen claimed that Zhang’s hatred for the people of Sichuan stemmed from his belief that their perfidy had undermined his campaign in Hanzhong the previous year. For whatever reason, Zhang resolved to kill all Sichuanese people. Specifics are hard to gauge, but it is estimated Zhang would kill 140,000 people in only 4 days. Just to showcase again the character that was Zhang during his regime in Sichuan, here is a little story.


Zhang was known for his cruelty and horribly stories are attributed to him, such as Shu Bi’s story about Zhang’s “heavenly-candles”. The story goes that Zhang got sick and vowed that if he recovered from his illness he would offer 2 heavenly candles as a sacrifice. No one understood what he meant at the time, but when he recovered, he ordered the small bound feet of many women to be cut off and placed in 2 large piles. The feet of one of his favorite concubines were unusually small and he had them served and placed at the very top of each large pile. Oil was poured on the piles and they were ignited fulfilling his vow to offer 2 heavenly candles. Have to say I’ve read some gruesome things but this one was particularly gross. According to Shu Bi Well that was just 1 story, during Zhang’s rule in Sichuan, now let us talk about how he quote “engaged in one of the most hair-raising genocides in imperial history”


When word came that the Qing were sending an army against him in Sichuan, Zhang ordered the massacre of all Sichuanese people. Zhang had people skinned alive, with their bodies stuffed with straw and sent ahead to their home villages to spread terror.  People were killed for the slightest offenses, like not cutting weeds in their courtyards or miscopying characters in official documents. Some people were simply pulled off the streets and executed for allegedly using seditious words like “defeat” in public. Magalheans wrote this of the decaying situation “There was no exchange among friends, no one visited anyone; even though they were relatives there could be no conversation between two men under pain of being skinned alive immediately. When doors were shut for the night, so were mouths. If a door was left open or a fire kindled in one’s house, if one word were spoken, punishment was swift, not just for the culprit, but for those living in the ten neighboring houses on both sides of the guilty one’s house. Parents accused children and children their parents, and those who did this were highly praised by the Tyrant. If a large group of people were talking together even though there were the mandarins living in the royal palace, spies would immediately arrive on the scene, if they weren’t already there, and ask what was being discussed. This caused such horror and fear that these men no longer resembled living men but mute statues and portraits of death itself.”.


People were killed indiscriminately if seen outside their homes after dark. Women were being raped enmasse. If you had a lock on any of your doors, you died, if a Dr failed to cure any of Zhang’s official, they died, if you failed to show travel papers you died, you get the picture. At one point someone lit a literary temple on fire and Zhang took this as an omen that he must kill all scholars in Chengdu…..cause of course. When Sun Kewang heard the order to kill all scholars he said “The intellectuals are scattered all over. How can we kill them all?”. Well here is a story of how Zhang figured out how to solve that problem. 


During 1 incident it is said he organized an imperial examination at the Qingyang Daoist Temple under the guise he was recruiting scholars for his regime's new administration, only to have the an estimated 5 to 23 thousand candidates butchered. Apparently they entered through the east gate of the temple and were “processed” out of the west gate. Bodies were tossed into the nearby river and their exam writings were “piled up like a mountain in front of the temple”. Zhang followed this up by inviting Buddhist monks for ordination ceremonies at temples only to kill them. People were tied to horses to be torn apart at the blast of a cannon. Zhang men went into the countryside to purge and at Qiongzhou alone, Liu Wenxiu reportedly killed 10,000 refugees and 1000 Buddhist and Daoist monks. It was said that for 50 miles around Qiongzhou “the plains were awash with flesh and blood”. Another incident alleged Zhang killed 4975 out of his 5000 corut eunuchs because 1 of them used his given name at a banquet, that one I have a hard time believing, but these are the stories I read.


On january 8th of 1646 Zhang held a military conference and said that the massacre of the entire populace of Chengdu would commence the very next day “not a single person will be spared”. Accounts say the river of Chengdu was crimson red with blood and rose several feet up on the city walls. It got so bad, Zhang had to order his men to go in boats downriver from Chengdu to unclog it and the smell of decaying flesh filled the air for miles, imagine doing that job. Sun Kewang wrote of the massacres “This truncates our wishes. After all weren’t our years of rebellion on behalf of the peasants? Now we’re roaming back east and for what? If our fatherly king acts like this, then he’s really not pondering things deeply. Our fatherly king should regard the peasants of Sichuan like his head, like the trunk of looting heaven’s storehouse his body. Now if you’ve already cut off your hands and feet, how can the head survive? What kind of state has a king without subjects? Is this not only a king in name?”. After a couple of days of massacre, Zhang summoned all his court ministers, separating the Sichuanese from the rest and executed the Sichuanese ones. Chengdu was virtually empty by the end of the year and Zhang’s armies fanned out into the countryside. All the while he proclaimed his forces were preparing to face against the Qing. Some have made comparisons to this moment to that of Hitler pursuing the holocaust while neglecting his military aims during the last years of WW2. Zhang was fixated on the extermination of the people of Sichuan over all other goals it seems. Some accounts go as far as to claim Zhang had fetuses ripped out of the womb and children rounded up for systematic executions. Mountains of hands and feet piled up outside Zhang’s palace in Chengdu “like Mount Fenghuang”. Zhang is said to have been seen stalking his palace at night with his sword trying to kill ghosts. Zhang told advisors he was seeing disembodied hands stealing food from his plates, headless females playing instruments in rooms and all the while he heard the cries of the dead. Zhang began to believe Chengdu itself was haunted and had all his highest ranking officials flogged to break the curse. 


Zhang had begun a new military program where his soldiers could be promoted based on how many limbs they brought to him. Feet, hands, heads, ears and noses were stacked in separate piles and Zhang would supposedly gather the severed heads together for banquets. Promotions and ranks for his soldiers were based on the number submitted. 200 pairs of hands and feet got a rank of squad commander, 1700 pairs could get you promoted from vice commander to commander. If 1 soldier killed hundreds in a single day, he could be promoted to supreme commander. According to Shun records for 4 months in 1646 alone, Sun Kewang, Liu Wenxiu, Ai Nengqi and Li Dingguo each killed around 10 million people, an exaggeration of course. Records state they razed up to 8 towns a day seeking grisly trophies. Anyone above the age of 3 was said to be subject to attack. Zhang would even kill disloyal soldiers, and it is said “that the trail of corpses extended for seventy li north and south of Chengdu and the “lands ran red with blood and bones piled up like mountains.”


Jesuits in Sichuan claim that Zhang left the city in the summer of 1646 for a military campaign and spent 40 days on a killing spree in the countryside before returning to Chengdu and killing 25 out of 30 of his high officials, including his minister of war. Civilians were rounded up and killed in the central park in Chengdu. Children were cut to pieces, and officials were flogged without reason. Zhang then ordered his soldiers to kill their own wives and daughters so they would be less encumbered by them in the upcoming campaign. To set an example he killed 23 of his 300 serving maids and concubines. People were killed for drinking tea, soldiers were flayed for trying to flee, mandarins were killed for sleeping at a banquet, and more servants were killed for smoking tobacco. Hoarding a single tael meant decapitation, hoarding ten meant death by flaying. Some were even cut open and their skin stretched to resemble bird’s wings. 


The modern Chinese scholar Zheng Guanglu estimates that from 1.8 to 2 million people died in Sichuan between 1644 to 1645 out of a total population of around 3 to 3.6 million. He concluded that 1 million died as a result of direct military operation and the rest died from starvation, disease, marauding wildlife eeeek, and other factors. 40-50% of the Sichuanese population had been killed in just a few short years. Sichuan would see up to 75% of its population decline from death and people fleeing. It was a combination of the massacres and also drought and famine that led to the flight. This by the way occurred before and after Zhang, many Chinese scholars argue it may have been the Qing armies who performed many of the atrocities that may have been attributed to Zhang. For example in Chengdu a stele (stone carving) known as the Seven kill stele holds the inscription
Heaven brings forth innumerable things to nurture man.

Man has nothing good with which to recompense Heaven.

Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.”

In the summer of 1646, Zhang was receiving word of the military situation from Li Dingguo and Sun Kewang that both the Ming loyalists and the Qing were making significant inroads. Zhang had spent too much time and effort on his insane butchering of the people and not enough against the Ming loyalists. The Ming loyalists controlled south and east Sichuan now, the most fertile and productive areas. They drained Zhang’s resources and drew the attention of the Qing towards Sichuan. They also controlled Chongqing which was the transport hub of the province especially by river. 


Zhang gathered his officials and proclaimed “I’ve been in Sichuan for two years, but the Sichuanese haven’t accepted my kindness, nor do they dread my awesomeness. The more I pacify, the more they rebel. As I consider what I can do, I’ve decided to abandon Sichuan and go to Shaanxi [lit. leave Shu for Qin] so I can take Chang’an [Xi’an] and use it as a springboard for recovering the central plain. This was my base of origins before, and my generals and soldiers are all folk of Qin. I can rely on Qin as the place to strengthen my troops and war horses. So my master plan is to return to Shaanxi and then follow the river south into Huguang and then come back into Sichuan.”. Sun Kewang argued they should not so easily abandon Sichuan and that they should begin extending relief to its people, in his words “replace killing with kindness”. With that perhaps they could restore a new government, to throw away all they had done in Sichuan would be such a waste. Li Dingguo concurred with his colleague and this forced Zhang to think a bit more on his decision. However in the end Zhang concluded he would follow through with what he proclaimed.  Thus Zhang prepared a sortie, spending months gathering all the treasure he could find or loot from all around stored on boats. He then ordered Chengdu burnt to the ground, which also allegedly took months. Zhang began to send out boats filled up with treasure and sent his 600,000 strong army forth by land and river southeast. Zhang made a rather bizarre strategic error and decided to attack Yang Zhang and seize his controlled territory, despite being hampered by his treasure and massive numbers of refugees. 


Well Yang Zhan who had countless spies amongst Zhang’s forces found out about Zhangs plan and ambushed him by land and river at Jiangkou near Pengshan. Yang managed to cut Zhangs fleet off from the shore and set fires to his boats. The battle almost immediately turned into a rout with most of Zhang’s navy being sunk to the bottom of the river. It is said Yang Zhan would spend months salvaging tens of thousands of taels worth of treasure and supplies from the bottom of the river. Yang would use all of his new found funds to pay his own army and help refugees in southern Sichuan. Yang pursued Zhangs forces all the way to Hanzhou, but upon seeing the scene of rotting corpses everywhere he apparently turned back in horror, who can blame him. Zhang then attempted to take back Chongqing but was defeated by Zeng Ying yet again. It was around this time, Zhang’s commanders began to lose the stomach for his campaigning and many deserted. This also prompted as you can imagine, Zhang to kill those who seemed to be faltering. He had 13,000 of his followers executed and apparently Liu Wenxiu captured 6000 soldiers trying to desert and flayed them alive. 


Zhangs Da Xi army moved east, but he left many subordinate commanders to garrison key locals, but most were defeated by Ming loyalist armies. Zhang’s army was so large and difficult to feed that he soon feared illness would spread amongst them and apparently he ordered his 4 great generals to kill anyone who looked sick. Allegedly this would see 4000 of his men butchered by their own commanders. Zhang reached Shunqing and besieged the city for 3 days before Zhang’s cannons broke its walls and he burnt the city to the ground killing an estimated 100,000 people inside. When his army continued to march on, he sent forces into the mountains and forests to forage for food and any who came back without a required quota of food each day were executed. 


Zhang then made his way to Mount Fenghuang located outside the city of Xichong. He attacked a fortified mountain stockade which was garrisoned by 2000 troops. Once he took the mountain he began to construct defensive works and built boats to try and head southeast on Haguang. But then his massive army ran out of food and he sent them fanning out to plunder, starting a wide array of massacres. It is at this point we get a lot of accounts of cannibalism amongst the troops. It is alleged Zhang had more visions telling him to kill more people and that at some points he was killing 10 to 20 thousand per day, beginning with Sichuanese, but soon people from Huguang and then Shaanxi. Supposedly he is said to have killed half of his own men in under 2 months, which has to be exaggerated. It is reported some of his advisers would often find Zhang talking to himself saying things like “Heaven has instructed me to kill. I dare not avoid killing.”.


Around the time Zhang and his army occupied Xizhou, Emperor Yongli took the throne at Zhaoqing and Emperor Shaowu at Guangzhou. Thus the Qing had plenty of work on their hands with the south east and soon appointed Prince Haoge to focus his attention on defeating Zhang Xianzhong. 


Prince Haoge soon captured Xi’an and continued to march south into Sichuan. The Qing began proclaiming to all the areas the occupied that no one was to be killed and that they would protect them. As you can imagine many of the populace fled into the arms of the Qing immediately. One of Zhang's commanders Liu Jinzhong had an army of mostly Sichuanese who for understandable reasons did not want to butcher Sichuanese people and he decided to defect to the Qing, most likely fearing for his life. Liu Jinzhong fled north and met with Prince Haoge telling him the exact location of Zhang. Liu told him “to save the people from fire and water” and that he would guide Prince Haoge and his men to Zhang personally. Thus Prince Haoge and Liu’s armies marched together into northern Sichuan finding roads strewn with bones. This prompted Prine Haoge to ask Liu if all of Sichuan was like this and Liu sighed and replied “For years Sichuan has endured the local bandits Yao and Huang and been trampled underfoot and since been subjected to the massacres of my old lord Xianzhong.”. Haoge replied “As soon as we encounter Huang, Yao, and the Zhang bandits, we must extinguish them immediately so as to alleviate the people’s suffering.”. In early January of 1647, Prince Haoge was led by Liu to Mount Fenghuang and Prince Haoege sent his most elite bannermen as a vanguard to find Zhang Xianzhong. 

Zhang got word of the incoming Qing force  and initially disbelieved his own scouts, in fact he killed them. He then exclaimed “The Awe of the Eighth Great King encompasses the realm and my name resounds over the Four Seas. Who comes here to die? I will personally go forth to greet them.”. Then Zhang emerged from his tent, grabbed a spear, mounted his horse and went to investigate with only 10 men. They reached the Taiyang Creek and saw enemy troops on the other side of the creek. As Zhang galloped into view, Liu allegedly pointed him out to he Qing force, prompting a Qing archer to shoot Zhang through his torso with a single arrow killing him. Prince Haoge recovered the body and decapitated it, cut him up and burned all the pieces on the spot. It is alleged when they cut Zhang's body open he had a heart that was as black as ink and that he had no liver. Stories told of strange thorns growing in the spot of Zhang Xianzhongs deaths and that a black tiger guarded his gravesite. OhhhhhHHhhHHH. 


One of Zhang’s men fled back to the army camp, relating what had happened. Upon hearing of Zhang’s death, Zhang’s surviving commanders immediately served under Sun Kewang who became the de-facto leader. They attacked Chongqing and managed to take this city this time and killed Zeng Ying. It seems Zeng Ying had finally made a tactical error and underestimated their force going out to fight them in the field and lost. Sun Kewang did not stay long in Chongqing, fearing the Qing pursuit and fled south taking Qijiang where Sun Kewang attempted to reorganize the Da Xi army and resurrect some form of government. They then marched on Zunyi and it is here, the former bandit army of Zhang Xianzhong had a change of heart. They began to join forces with the Ming loyalists, moving even further south to Guizhou. The Qing for their part had to abandon the pursuit rather quite owing to lack of supplies as Sichuan was a barren wasteland. They soon pulled up to Baoning where they butchered 10,000 of Zhang’s former men.


Meanwhile the hardship of Sichuan would go on for many years. Famine was rampant in Sichuan as a result of Zhang's chaos. It was said “women of good families offered their bodies in exchange for food but could find no takers”. The land of Sichuan was desolate, people resorted to cannibalism and allegedly human flesh was sold by vendors and that bandits were making “lamb stew” out of their victims. There were tales of people looting coffins of the recently deceased for flesh. One source lamented “because of the long period of disorder, the cattle were all gone, so people replaced cattle”. Disease and pestilence sprang up everywhere as a result of malnutrition. Recorded illnesses such as “big head boils, horse eye disease, horse trot disease” were reported. Apparently in Sichuan the number of tigers increased 100 fold as did packs of wolves and wild dogs…so yeah on top of everything else imagine being chased by a tiger while your family is starving?

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