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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 6, 2023

Last time we spoke about the modernization efforts of China, Japan and the Hermit Kingdom of Korea. China and Japan undertook very different paths to modernization, and little Korea was stuck in between them. Yet there was even another play joining the mix, the empire of Russia who was threatening all 3 of the Asian nations with her encroachment. The 3 Asian nations attempted to cooperate against the common threat, but Japan and China were growing ever more and more hostile towards another, particularly over the issue of who should influence Korea more. Yet today we are actually doing something a bit different, this will be sort of a side episode, for China had too many events going on during the 19th century to cohesively tell. One story goes often forgotten, yet it encompassed numerous groups, vast amounts of territory and a lot of bloodshed.


#38 This episode is the Dungan Revolt


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.


I am not going to lie, I have no idea where to even start with this one. Originally I wanted to write a single episode, perhaps a two parter, explaining how China and Japan find themselves going to war in the 1890’s largely over Korea. Yet the late 19th century is probably one of the most jam packed time periods for Chinese history. So many uprisings, rebellions, wars with foreign states occurs for the Qing dynasty, there’s simply no way to tell them all, but here I want to touch upon just a few. Now I keep bringing up but barely talk about, the Dungan Revolt of 1862-1877. If you go right now and please do, to the wikipedia article on the Dungan Revolt, check out the list of Belligerents. You will see the Qing, the Russian Empire, a short lived state called the Kashgaria, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and an unbelievable number of Muslim rebel groups from all over the place. Events like this do not live in a bubble, as we say in the research world of neuroscience, this requires multivariable analysis. Well that's what I hope to accomplish, in a single episode.

Now I expect when I say the Dungan Revolt, the first question that comes to mind for many of you is, who are Dungans? Its complicated. They can be described as Turkic or Chinese speaking, Hui Muslim people who inhabitant Xinjiang province, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Tajikistan and parts of modern Russia. Now you are saying, wait are they Turks or Chinese, thats a very politically motivated question haha. Today you could call them, Hui, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Uzbeks, Tatars, etc. In essence they inhibit a part of the world that has so many different groups around and their history goes very deep, before the time of the Qing dynasty. When the Qianlong Emperor hit the scene in the early 18th century, he named the province Xinjiang, meaning “new frontier” and the people there were known by many as Hui, but specifically for those Chinese speaking muslims in the northwest, well they were often referred to as Dungans. Prior to the Qing rule, Xinjiang was ruled by the Oirat Mongols of the Dzungar Khanate. I am sure you veteran listeners before I came to this podcast know much of these peoples and their history, you probably could teach me a thing or two, as this is very much so out of my specialization. One thing you might remember that I touched upon I believe in the very first episode of this podcast series was the Dzungar genocide. As ordered by the Qianlong Emperor 

"Show no mercy at all to these rebels. Only the old and weak should be saved. Our previous military campaigns were too lenient. If we act as before, our troops will withdraw, and further trouble will occur. If a rebel is captured and his followers wish to surrender, he must personally come to the garrison, prostrate himself before the commander, and request surrender. If he only sends someone to request submission, it is undoubtedly a trick. Tell Tsengünjav to massacre these crafty Zunghars. Do not believe what they say."

It is estimated perhaps 80 percent of the 600,000 or so Dzungars were killed through war and disease between 1755-1758, enough to argue the annihilation of them as a people. Now with Xinjiang so devastated and depopulated, the Qing sponsored a large-scale settlement of Han, Hui, Uyghur, Manchu and other Chinese. Thus the demographics of the region changed dramatically, Xinjiang became mostly Uyghurs around 60% or so, followed by 30% Han and Hui and the rest of various minority groups like Manchu. The Qing did their best to unify Xinjiang, and one of their policies was to turn over 17,000 acres of steppe grassland over to Han Chinese to farm and colonize. Some historians point this out to be an attempt to replace Uyghurs, but in truth its messier than just that, as the Qing also banned Han Chinese from settled in Uyghur concentrated areas of the province.

Now the Oirat Mongol’s come back to the scene, this time in the form of the Kalmyk Khanate. They were mostly Tibetan Buddhists and in 1770, over 300,000 of them tried to seize control of parts of Xinjiang from the Qing. However when they began their great expedition, their traditional rivals the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz attacked them the entire way leading them to show up to Xinjiang, worn out, starving and ridden with disease. Many of them simply came and surrendered to the Qing upon arrival and managed to settle within Qing territory. Now these were nomadic people, but the Qing demanded they give up the nomadic lifestyle to take up farming, which was a deliberate policy to break them as a people. They utterly failed at becoming farmers and quickly fell into poverty, undergoing such horrors as selling their own children into slavery, becoming prostitutes, bandits, and such, terrible times. Alongside the terrible treatment of the new coming Kalmyks, Uyghurs were being abused by Manchu officials. It is said Manchu officials were gang raping Uyghur women, such as the official Su-cheng. A rebellion occurred, and the Qing violently quelled. There were reports of mass rape by Manchu troops causing even more hatred from the Uyghur population. 

Now fast forward to the Taiping Rebellion, during 1862 as Taiping forces approached Shaanxi province, the local population began to form militias known as the Yong Ying. The Yong Ying or “brave camps” were similar to our friend Zeng Guofans “Yung-Ying” Xiang army, just less well structured and terribly under equipped. If they were lucky the Qing government would hand over some Jingalls, but more or less the old sword and spear were their choice of weapon. Now the Yong Ying’s being propped up by the Qing were Han Chinese, but around them were large populations of Muslim Chinese who, well lets just say were having PTSD episodes from the countless atrocities performed upon them by these same people for centuries now. So the Muslim groups formed their own Yong Ying’s and this is where our story really begins. 

In 1862 sporadic conflicts such as skirmishes between groups, riots, smaller uprisings and such. They ran the gambit for reasons, could be just a barroom brawl as they saw, trivial type of stuff. During this time any rebel groups that emerged drew attention from the Qing and by proxy association were believed to be possibly working with the Taiping. To add some more chaos to the situation, the Green Standard army as you would assume took its recruits from populaces all over China. Their job much more as a police force than a real army was to keep things running smoothly in all the provinces of the Qing dynasty. In northwest China this meant numerous Hui and other muslim chinese groups were amongst their ranks and thus training for combat and armed, so keep that in mind.

There were numerous incidents that sprung the Dungan revolt, but one in particular involved of all things the price of bamboo poles. Some Han merchants were overcharging Hui and this led to a major fight. Bamboo poles were traditionally used to make spears. During a time of major conflict and open rebellion suddenly the Hui communities began to buy large quantities of bamboo poles and this led to the belief they were planning to set up an Islamic state in northwestern China. Organized mosques run by popular mullahs in Shaanxi were purchasing more and more bamboo poles, which they were indeed making into spears. The Hui communities were worried about their safety, seeing all these local militias pop up meant there would be fighting over resources and such. Well the non muslim merchants, mostly Han saw the paint on the wall and were obviously worried about selling bamboo poles to people who might attack them, or better said might defend themselves. Thus many merchants began to increase the prices on bamboo poles and this led to a major uprising known as the Shengshan bamboo incident. 

Manchu general Duolongga, the same man we talked about during the Taiping Rebellion was leading a cavalry unit in the north when the Hui revolt suddenly turned into a siege laid against Xi’an in Shaanxi province. Duolongga led a campaign against the muslim bands and by 1863 the siege was lifted and the rebels were pushed out of Shaanxi into neighboring Gansu province. In Gansu the Muslim leaders began to spread rumors of an impending Qing crackdown on muslims. They spread fear that the Qing would soon massacre many and this allowed them to organize another siege, this time against Ling-chou, a large city 40 miles north from Jinjipu. Jinjipu happened to be the HQ of a major Muslim leader named Ma Hualong, more about him later. While Lingzhou was laid siege, another strategic city was also attacked by Muslim forces, the city of Lanchow. The Governor General at Lanchow, En-lin reacted by trying to apply a policy of reconciliation. He advocated to the Qing court to not alienate the Muslims and began sending edicts in Gansu reiterating non-discrimination policies towards Muslims. His efforts seem to have been all for naught, as the rumors of a Qing massacre upon the muslims won out the day and large scale violence just grew. Within Eastern Gangsu, many of the Shaanxi Muslim refugees formed the what became known as the “18 great battalions”. Their purpose was to train and arm themselves to take back their homes in Shaanxi. Now while Gansu and Shaanxi were kicking off the beginnings of the Dungan revolt, this also opened the door to more groups to join in.

Yaqub Bek, was born in the town of Pskente in the Khanate of Kokand, today’s Uzbekistan. There region he lived in was drawn into conflict continuously with outsiders like the Russian and from within as it was deeply factionalized. Yaqub Bek claimed to be a descendant of Timur Gurkani the Turco-Mongol conqueror of the Timurid Empire, probably a ruse to give himself more credibility as a great ruler. He conspired against factions such as the Qipchaqs, taking part in a horrible event known as the Qipchaq massacre. Eventually in the 1860’s he fought for the Kokand khanate as a General against the Russians, but they defeated them in 1866 resulting in the major loss of Tashkent. The ruler of Khokand, Sadik Beg dispatched Yakub Beg to Kashgar to raise and find new troops amongst Muslim allies. Yaqub Beg instead invaded Kashgar, defeated its Chinese defenders and declared himself ruler. Now Yaqub Beh was stuck between the forces of the Russian, British and Chinese empires who were all vying for control of the surrounding area, this was part of something called “the great game” which I simply cannot get into for it is too great, pun intended. Thus Yaqub Beg began a campaign that basically saw him conquer Xinjiang province, and this drew the ire of the Qing as you can imagine. 

So the Qing were now dealing with multiple Muslim rebel groups in the northwest and on top of this some of them were foreigners, who held considerable backing. The Qing dynasty sent one of their most formidable Generals, Zuo Zongtang in 1867 to Shaanxi to pacify the region. Zuo Zongtang as you already know was instrumental in the downfall of the Taiping, working closely with Zeng Guofan. Zuo Zongtangs task was to restore the peace, promote agricultural output particularly that of grain and cotton and to promote Confucian education. As we have seen throughout the series, northwestern China is a rough place to live, stricken with poverty and thus Zuo Zongtang would not be able to rely on the resources of the territory he would have to look elsewhere. This led Zuo Zongtang to immediately demand the Qing court help fund the expedition as he personally began to take out major loans worth millions of taels from foreigners. Zuo Zongtang wanted to prepare massive amounts of supplies before going on the offensive, a smart move. Zeng Guofan likewise helped his subordinate by allocating him 10,000 Xiang forces, led by General Liu Songshan to bolster Zuo Zongtang’s 55,000 man army.

Zuo Zongtang’s forces were mostly Hunanese, but there were also men from Henan, Anhui and Sichuan as well. Because of the Taiping Rebellion, Zuo Zongtang was a proficient army raiser now and he did his best to train the men in a western fashion and outfit them with western arms. As I had mentioned, Zuo Zongtang was one of the champions of modernization and established the Lanzhou arsenal in 1872 which produced Remington breech loading type rifles for his forces alongside artillery and munitions. Now that name, Ma Hualong I had mentioned comes up here a bit. He was the leader of the Jahriyya, known also as “the new teaching”. They were something of a Muslim sect in Gansu province and had been around since the 1760s.They periodically rebelled as a group and caused conflict with other groups, including muslim ones. When Ma Hualong took the leadership position in 1849 he gradually began to build up their forces and to do so he created a vast trade network using a caravan trade through Inner Mongolia and Beijing. His group became extremely wealthy and when the Dungan revolt heated up he began to use his trade network to purchase guns. Zuo Zongtang understandably was suspicious of the gun purchasing activity and deduced Ma Hualong sought to conquer parts of Inner Mongolia and rebel. Ma Hualong began collaborating with Muslim refugees fleeing Shaanxi for Gansu and this led to conflicts with the Qing. General Liu Songshan ended up dying in combat while campaigning against multiple Muslim militia groups, some of which were controlled by Ma Haulong.

Meanwhile Zuo Zongtang was finishing up suppressing Shaanxi and establishing control over the province when he finally had a free hand to deal with Ma Hualong who had heavily fortified Jinjipu into a stronghold. Zuo Zongtang’s forces erected a siege upon Jinjipu using Krupps field guns, the good old fashion sappers tunneling with mines tactic and the age old classic of starving out the enemy. After 16 months of siege, starvation took its toll upon the defenders prompting Ma Hualong to surrender his forces in January of 1871. Ma Hualong hoped to save the majority of his people, but Jinjipu saw a massacre, thousands lose their lives and the town was rape, plundered and raized. Zuo Zongtang ordered the execution of Ma Hualong, his son Ma Yaobang and 80 Muslim rebel leaders via “Lingchi / death by slicing”. This was a horrible form of execution where a sharp object like a knife was used to slowly remove portions of ones body over long periods of time until the person died.

Once done with Ma Hualong, Zuo Zongtang set his eyes upon another Muslim rebel leader named Ma Zhan’ao. Ma Zhan’ao worked loosely with Ma Hualong, but his stronghold was at Hezhou, present day Linxia. He controlled the region west of Lanzhou and benefited from Ma Hualong’s vast trade network managing to arm his rebel forces. Unlike Ma Hualong who was of the “new teaching” sect, Ma Zhan’ao was of the “Khafiya / old teaching” sect and they proscribing trying to peacefully exist amongst the non muslim Qing population. When the Dungan revolt began, Ma Zhan’ao escorted numerous Han Chinese to the nearest safe area of Yixin and he did not attempt to conquer the area nor molest them. Regardless he was one of the major muslim leaders purchasing arms and earned the attention of Zuo Zongtang who began an offensive against his forces in 1872. Initially his muslim defenders inflicted heavy losses upon Zuo Zongtang’s army much to the frustration of Zuo Zongtang. But Ma Zhan’ao did not want war and he dispatched his General Ma Chun to try and negotiate with General Zuo Zongtang. He offered to surrender his stronghold to the Qing and provide assistance to the Qing dynasty in quelling the Dungan revolt. Zuo Zongtang suspected this all to be a ruse, but the Qing ordered him to abide by the mutual assistance and indeed Ma Zhan’ao did assist the Qing. Zuo Zongtang began to pacify other areas, while Ma Zhan’ao basically saved his people from annihilation. To this very day the area he controlled holds a muslim population who control the Linxia Hui autonomous prefecture. Many of Ma Zhan’ao’s generals like Ma Qianling and Ma Haiyan defected to the Qing, including his son Ma Anliang who proved themselves instrumental to helping Zuo Zongtangs campaign. As Zuo Zongtang pacified the areas he was soon awarded governor generalship over Shaanxi and Gansu. At this point Zuo Zongtang loosely followed a strategy of divide and conquer. Those Muslim groups part of the New Teaching he violently massacred, but those of the old teachings he tried to persuade defection to the Qing. The Qing government likewise began to make edicts stating the Muslim rebels did not represent all muslim chinese, just as all the White Lotus rebels back in the early part of the century did not represent all buddhists. They advocated the Muslim community take up the old teachings over the new teachings. 

With the help of the Dungan people of Hezhou Zuo Zongtang then turned his gaze west towards Xinjiang to defeat the forces of Yaqub Beg. Zuo Zongtang was now joined by defected Dungan armies led by Generals like Ma Anliang, Dong Fuxiang. By 1875 Zuo Zongtang had assembled men and supplies along the Gansu corridor and the next year began his campaign by attacking Urumchi where he massacres their garrison. Next he besieged Manas for over a month until they surrendered. Allegedly the garrison were allowed to march out of the city with weapons, but it seemed to Zuo Zongtang’s commanders in the field they were planning an armed break out so they were all put to the sword as well. The women and children were spared luckily. Zuo Zongtang established a HQ at Gucheng while the Russian Empire annexed the Khanate of Kokand, squeezing Yakub Beg further.

In September of 1876, Yakub Beh received reports a Chinese army was on the march 700 miles to the east and he began to prepare his defenses. He built up fortifications at Turfan and in 1877 he was visited by Aleksey Kuropatkin. Kuropatkin was sent on a diplomatic mission to Yaqub Beg to try and resolve some Russian border claims over the Fergana Valley. Kuropatkin told him he had around 17,000 troops spread over the Fergana Valley region and that he could not hope to match them. Yaqub Beg was in a very bad situation. The Chinese army had entered Urumqi pretty much unopposed, many of his eastern forces were defecting over to the Qing and in the west they were defecting to the Russians. In the spring the Chinese attacked the fort of Davanchi which lay between Urumchi and Turfan. Simultaneously an army led by Chang Yao seized Pichuan just 50 miles east of Turfan. Yaqub Beg’s forces were shrinking from lost battles, desertions and defections. The Qing forces attacked Turfan where Yaqub Beg’s men were beaten badly, so he fled to Toksun. At Toksun the Qing pursued him quickly and defeated him again, so he fled to Karashar, and then Korla. All of the fleeing demoralized his troops causing further desertions and defections. It would be at Korla where Yaqub Beg died and historians are uncertain as to exactly how or when. The Qing claimed he died on May 22, while Aleksey Kuropatkin claimed it was May 29th. What he died of is a bit of a mystery. The Russians state he died of illness, multiple historians think it was poisoning. Some modern historians think it could have been a stroke. Regardless with Yaqub Beg dead this pretty much closed the curtain on his forces control over the area.

In autumn of 1877, Zuo Zongtang had kept his forces around Turfan as it was the hot season and he wished to gather further supplies, when he received news of the death of Yaqub Beg. Yaqub Begs forces disorganized into multiple rebel groups without a real leader consolidating anything. Zuo Zongtang sent advance parties to occupy Karashar and Korla meeting limited resistance. Zuo Zongtans army pushed the rebels further west until he eventually seized Kashgar with barely a fight and this led notable cities like Yarkand and Kohtan to submit.

Xinjiang was officially reconquered by the Qing. The rebel groups dissolved gradually and no large scale revolts would occur for some time in the northwest. In 1884 Xinjiang was established as a province officially again. Zuo Zongtangs Xiang army and other Han Chinese troops began purchasing Uyghur girls from their parents to take as wives, relying often on their Hui allies to work as translators. Countless Uyghur muslim women would be married off to Han Chinese in Xinjiang during the late 19th to early 20th century. This was not limited to Han Chinese under the Qing as plenty of Hindu, Armenians, Jews and Russians also did the same. A large rationale for the situation was the amount of male depopulation from the area which caused a vacuum of single women. 

The punishments for the leaders who caused the Dungan revolt were harsh. Many of the songs of the Muslim leaders were castrated by the Qing imperial household department once they hit 11 years of age and they were sent to work as eunuch slaves for Qing held garrisons in Xinjiang. Many of the wives of the Muslim leaders were likewise enslaved. To give you an idea of how prevalent this was, the Muslim leader Ma Guiyuan had 9 of his sons castrated by the Qing. The Muslim leaders themselves were mostly executed by Lingchi. Yaqub Beg and his son Ishana’s corpses were burned in public view. Yaqub had 4 other sons who died imprisoned at Lanzhou, Gansu or were killed by the Qing authorities upon discovery. Even Yaqub Beg’s grandchildren were hunted for, many of which were caught and executed or castrated. 

The Dungan revolt led to mass migration all over the place. Some Hui people fled to Russia, settling in places like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Within the Qing dynasty, the Hui Generals who defected were all promoted by the Emperor such as Dong Fuxiang and Ma Anliang. The power of these pro Qing Hui forces would become quite important to the Qing military further down the road, particularly during the Boxer Rebellion. 


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.

Well I hope you enjoyed my butchering of the Dungan Revolt, again I did my best to tell it in regards to its significance to the history of China. In reality it was part of something known as the “great game” that had had a long lasting impact on many other nations history.