Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 10, 2023

Last time we spoke about the conclusion of the first Sino-Japanese War and we took a side trip speaking about overseas Chinese in the 19th century. The treaty of Shimonoseki ended the war between Japan and the Qing dynasty. The Qing dynasty was humiliated yet again, but so too was Japan because of the triple intervention of Germany, France and Russia. The balance of power in the east had shifted dramatically. Such dramatic change that was seen in the 19th century led to massive emigration within and outside of China. The wealthy and common Chinese people wanted to improve their lives and they moved within China seeking lands to farm and outside China seeking new opportunities. Overseas Chinese were heavily influenced by the great Gold Rushes of the 19th century and of course the colossal railway projects. In many ways it was a dark part of the histories of numerous nations, but in the end it was also the beginning of a new international community.  


#56 This episode it’s not always sunny in Shandong


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.

Shandong, anytime you hear about a conflict in Chinese history it always seems to originate with Shandong. Indeed Shandong has been at the heart of an unbelievable number of conflicts, it just always seems to be the birthing place for trouble, but hell it always gave us Confucious. Not going to lie, this is going to be a bit of a bizarre episode. The purpose of this episode is to somewhat explain, how certain groups emerge historically because….well of just a place. Shandong is unique, its been at the heart of so many events. We are soon going to be jumping into another major event in Chinese history, but to best tell how it comes about, I wanted to cover the origin of those responsible. It just so happens where the majority of these people come from, that is northwest Shandong by the way, makes for quite a story. So let us explore Shandong and perhaps touch just a bit, like a teaser upon a group of people that will become known to the western world as the Boxers.

In the late 19th century Shandong held an enormous population, cereal agriculture and numerous impoverished villages. The climate of the region could go from just above freezing for the winter months and blazingly hot and humid for the summer months. China took its time modernizing as we all know, so the peasants of Shandong had to rely mostly on mother nature for irrigation and mother nature in China could be quite cruel. Floods were common, so were droughts. Shandong is quite diverse, its eastern portion was very productive, producing grain, fruits and vegetables. Its streams carried gold dust which was panned by locals. It was part of an ancient silk-raising region. Along the peninsula was a relative immunity to natural disasters. Landlords were more plentiful here than Shandongs western half and it held numerous important port cities like Qingdao which today produces Tsingtao beer, one of my favorites. Commerce was quite bountiful in the port cities and by far and large the peninsula and northern slope of eastern shandong were the most developed parts of the province. In the mid 19th century 58% of Shandongs provincial degree holders came from either the northern slope or peninsula.

However when you look at the northwest plains of Shandong province you begin to see a discrepancy. Stretching across the entire region north of the Yellow River, held one of the most populous regions, with 250 people per square kilometer covering around 26% of Shandongs land area. 93% or so of these people were peasants and the region was purely agricultural, but it could be described as anything but prosperous. Average yields were the lowest of any region in Shandong, reflecting the persistent problems of waterlogging and salinity of the soil. The northwest was prone to natural disasters. The yellow river became quite problematic to this region in the 1880s. The bed of the river had risen above ground level through most of Shandong, and the floods became increasingly bad. Though bad, the yellow river was not the only source of misery for northwest Shandong. Lesser streams frequently caused local floodings and as funny as it sounds, too much water was an issue, but often it was too little that brought upon real calamity. In 1876 a terrible drought was said to have carried off nearly 2 million people. 10 years later, famine hit again, truly making Northwest Shandong a disaster area. As bad as mother nature could be, man could also be problemsome. 

West of Jinan is an imperial highway that runs north and south. It passed into the province of Dezhou, then through Haotang and Chiping before crossing the yellow river’s northern course at Dong’e. This area since ancient times saw numerous invading armies cross it from north to south. The Mongols used it and then the Manchu in a similar fashion. It was ripe also for rebels to take up shop. As we saw, the Taiping’s northern expedition in the mid 1850’s brought them into Shandong, when they attempted to hit Beijing. But Prince Sengge Rinchen managed to turn away the Taiping, ironically by flooding them out. The Nian rebels likewise raided Shandong, first in its southwest, but then in its northwest by the late 1860’s. Even the White Lotus Rebellion saw much spreading in the region. It was often said by travelers that this area “suffered quite as much from the imperial soldiers as they did from the rebels, and at times even worse”. With such conditions it was no surprise numerous rebels and bandits would emerge.

Banditry was an important part of both northwest and southwest Shandong. It was prevalent especially along the southern border with Zhili were bands of around 8-13 men would often perform highway robbery. Roving bandits would prey upon innocent villages, with the prime time being winter as most of these men were not full time bandits, oh no most had homes and grew crops, it was seasonal work. One account in July of 1897 had this to say “the season when highwaymen are especially numerous and dangerous is upon us. The kaoliang is in its prime, and being 7 or 8 feet high and very thick affords a most convenient ambush. It is unsafe to travel alone even in daylight over lonely roads”. 

Now northwest shandong was disaster prone leading to barely any landlords. The region was simply not wealthy enough to support many landlords. Poverty and peasantry was the norm. It was not unheard of for entire villages to take up the road, carrying entire families of men, women and children begging for food. There was a ton of mobility, and a lot of young men would sell themselves as laborers to make ends meet. There was a constant migration of people in northwest Shandong because of the harsh conditions. All of these conditions lent the region into a certain mentality. Now Shandong is the birthplace of both Confucious and Mencius, the very foundation of orthodoxy in China, so why do so many rebellions seem to spurt up here? Confucian tradition holds that a ruler should educate, and lead people to do what is right. But Shandong has historically been seen to be a stubborn place for sectarianism, especially during the Qing dynasty.

Something Qing officials took notice of, was how rebellions often came about with the marriage of a sect, take for example the White Lotus and martial arts, which we can also refer to as boxing. The Ming had set a law against Heterodoxy which the Qing adopted, it proscribed a penalty of strangulation for the leaders and banishment of 3000 li distance for followers. Here is a passage of the laws “all teachers and shamans who call down heterodox gods [jiang xieshen\, write charms, [chant] incantations [to make] water [magically efficacious: zhou-shui], perform planchette and pray to sages, calling themselves duan-gong (First Lord), tai-bao (Great Protector) or shi-po (shamaness); and those who wildly call themselves the White Lotus Society of the Buddha Maitreya, the Ming-zun [Manichaean?] sect, or the White Cloud Assembly with their heretical and heterodox [zuo-daoyi-duan] techniques; or those who hide pictures [of heterodox gods or patriarchs] and gather in groups to burn incense, meeting at night and dispersing at dawn, pretending to do good works but [actually] arousing and misleading the people” So as you can see with this passage, the law made it clear that incantations or charms were particularly concerning to the Qing court. Mere worship was tolerated or at least treated leniently. But what was definitely not ok was the formation of hierarchies, such as master and disciples, or the use of lets say magic. These actions were seen as instrumental to providing the organization needed for subversive activity, ie rebellions. In the early Qing days, these prohibitions were pretty effective, while sectarian worship still flourished, at least no rebellions were kicking off. However by the late 18th century things began to change, rebellions emerged. Now I spoke extensively about the White Lotus Rebellion, but there were two other significant rebellions took place around this time, the Wang Lun rebellion of 1774 and the eight Trigrams uprising of 1813. Both broke out in the Shandong region and both involved significant participation from martial arts groups, more notably both involved those known as Yi-he-quan, aka those who the west would call Boxers by 1898. 

The Qing noted the persistence of sectarianism in Shandong, the province was a major source of what was called ‘meditational sects” built upon the White Lotus tradition. These meditational sects had no great halls, sutras or views, they usually were just people prescribing certain diets. They stressed meditation and breathing exercises, sometimes with recitation of incantations. They were pretty simplistic, groups with rituals based around certain times of the day. Both the Wang Lun rebellion and eight Trigrams uprising were begun by these so called “meditational sects”.

Wang Lun was a former Yaman runner who managed to get rich working as a healer in Shouzhang county in southwest Shandong. He was the leader of the White Lotus sect in Shandong province in the 1770s. He was a self-taught physician and a martial arts master. He taught his followers yoga, meditation and  the ability to fast for long periods of time. Honestly you could really call these people modern day yogi’s. His sect was noted for their fasting techniques and martial arts prowess. By 1774 his sect numbered several thousand. It was in this year, Wang Lun began spreading rumors of an impending turn of the Kalpa. In the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, Kalpa refers to a period of time between creation and the recreation of the universe. He was telling his converts that the reincarnation of Maitreya was upon them, and he was destined to become the Emperor of China. He mobilized his followers and marched upon the city of Shouzhang on October 3rd of 1774. With some help from followers already inside the city, the rebels seized it and ransacked everything they could. The rebels held Shouzhang for a few days before abandoning it to attack the city of Yangku. Yangku was easily captured as its local garrison had just been sent to relieve Shouzhang. From there the rebels captured Tangyi and Liulin before marching upon the larger city of Linqing. By this point the rebels had defeated multiple Qing forces and rumors spread this sect were utilizing invulnerability magic. Many officials in Linqing fled in fear of this. For weeks Wang Lun’s forces besieged the city, but the Qing defenders led by Qing Zhanhun resisted their attacks. Wang Lun’s forces soon were surrounded and Wang Lun elected to burn himself alive rather than surrender.

The Eight Trigrams rebellion was a short lived revolt that broke out in Zhili, Henan and of course Shandong. It too was a sub branch of the White Lotus, led by 3 notable figures. The Eight Trigram sect goes back to the late 17th century of the Ming Dynasty founded by Liu Zuochen and the Liu family of Shandong which maintain it for decades. It was the first folk religion to develop civil and martial work methods, this is referred to as “wen and wu” a conceptual pair in Chinese philosophy, referring to civil and military realms for governance. They believed in meditation techniques to overcome human limits, to reach salvation. They were organized into eight trigrams and predicted a time of troubles and a new kalpa and mobilized themselves through master-disciple relationships. A major component of them was practicing martial arts. 

Now like I said during this rebellion they had 3 leaders, the first was Lin Qing who was described as a hustler who loved gambling and took on some odds jobs like being a night watchman, an enforcer, and even a minor healer. Eventually he took over a small white lotus sect and in 1811 he met Li Wen-cheng who at the time was trying to assume leadership over a larger white lotus sect network spanning across Henan, Zhili and Shandong. Both Lin and Li were inspired by the appearance of a comet in 1811 that they believed was a sign that they could topple the Qing dynasty. They also met Feng Keshan who was a martial arts master, who was not really interested in their crazy religious stuff, but he was seen to be a great leader in his own right and he joined them as a means of recruiting followers from boxing groups within Henan, Zhili and Shandong. In July of 1813 the main leaders of the eight trigrams met and discussed a date for a rebellion. What really began their necessity to rebel, was a series of droughts and floods that had brought upon a famine which in turn led to a sharp increase in the price of wheat. The emperor at the time had scheduled a hunting trip on September 15th, so the rebels knew the Forbidden city would be lightly guarded. The plan called for ambushing the Emperor as he was coming back from the trip, just outside the city.

Qing court officials heard rumors of the planned rebellion and quickly arrested Li Wen-cheng on September 2nd. They began torturing him, but soon his followers broke in and rescued him. The rebellion was then pushed forward and the Eight Trigrams quickly seized Huaxin, Dingtao and Caoxian in southern Zhili and Shandong. Lin Qing took charge of an attack upon the forbidden city, although he notably did not participate in the attack. The rebels hid in ships outside the eastern and western palace gates as Lin paid off palace eunuchs to lead his forces through the gates. The rebels wore white cloths around their heads and waists and were armed mostly with knives or iron bars. They tried to attack during a mealtime when they assumed the guards would be eating. The Emperor at this time was around 50 miles away from the city walls. Around 80 rebels managed to get through the gates before they were closed and fighting erupted inside. With the element of surprise lost, the rebels soon routed as the Imperial guards brigade hunted them down. Several thousand supported continued to besiege cities for months, but all would be suppressed in January of 1814.  Li Wen-chang along with 4000 followers died while besieging Huixian. Over 20,000 or so eight trigram members would be killed and an estimated 70,000 people would die as a result of the short rebellion.

So Shandong was kind of a breeding ground for sects, particularly from the White Lotus faith. Shandong also was a place notable for martial arts. As early as the Song dynasty, the people of Shandong were noted for being warlike and brave. Their reputation only strengthen with time. During the late 19th century a western source labeled the people of shandong “Warlike, industrious and intelligent. The natives of Shantung [Shandong] ... whose overflow has peopled the rich lands of Manchuria, enjoy the finest record for both physical and moral qualities. It is from them the Chinese navy drew its best recruits; it is they who proved their prowess either as brigands or as a self-reliant and self-defended exploiters of the resources of Liaotung [Liaodong] and Manchuria.” It was not just westerners who took notice of Shandong’s martial arts prowess, the Qing dynasty looked to Shandong often for its military. Shandong was an area of China that had seen repeated invasions, take out a map of China, you see it immediately, anyone who comes from the north pretty much has to go through shandong. Repeated invasions by forces from the north encouraged the development of martial habits in self defense, add natural and human disasters that continuously disrupted the social order, and you eventually end up with bandits. The people who settled in shandong had to deal with constant banditry and attacks from invaders. Shandong also had a greater military/civil ratio than most provinces. From 1851-1900 the northwest ratio was around 1.22 to 1 and the southwest 2.38 to 1 while the ratio for the entire province was around .57 to 1. And those areas with the higher rations just so happen to be the areas where boxers and members of the Big Sword society emerged. We will talk more about them later.

The martial arts tradition of western shandong spawned numerous martial arts groups. There was a popular culture which stressed military virtues, boxing and swordsmanship. Seeing martial arts teachers displaying their prowess in the market places was a very common sight. In 1899 the Zhili magistrate Lae Nai-xuan wrote a pamphlet urging the prohibition of boxers and he wrote about certain martial arts groups along the borders of Jiangsu, Anhu, Henan and Shandong. 

In this area there are many vagabonds and rowdies (wu-lai gun-tu) who draw their swords and gather crowds. They have established societies of various names: the Obedient Swords (Shun-dao hui), Tiger-tail Whip (Huwei bian), the Yi-he Boxers,* and Eight Trigrams Sect (Ba-gua jiao). They are overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people. The origin of these disturbances is gambling. They go to fairs and markets and openly set up tents where they take valuables in pawn and gather to gamble. They [also] conspire with yamen clerks who act as their eyes and ears. “ The people Lai Nai-xuan are describing are the Yi-he-quan Boxers. Who the hell are these guys?

These were young men, the type to gamble, drink, perform petty crime to get by, the thuggish types. They most often than naught were bandits, involved in things like salt smuggling. As seen with the Wang Lun and the eight trigrams rebellions, these types of young men practicing boxing were greatly sought after as followers, so sects often created civil and military like divisions to attract them. Adding martial arts to a sect’s repertoire could help greatly to recruit. Take the White Lotus sect overall, many of its members, perhaps the majority were historically women. Females were much less likely to take an active role in violence, so white lotus leaders who were usually always looking to start a rebellion began seeing the necessity to recruit able bodied young men, those who knew some boxing to get things cooking. Boxing was often used as a way of luring people into sect activities. It was also a deceptive little trick. If a sect members was teaching youth boxing, it did not necessarily mean they were followers of his sect, it was like a foot in the door process. Thus Shandong was the breeding grounds for both sects and boxers, who often intermingled. 

Another interesting thing that has a lot of roots in Shandong is the long history of invulnerability rituals. When rebels kicked up, they were as you can imagine met with force by the Qing authorities. Facing well armed Qing soldiers, rebels often tried to enhance the fighting capabilities of their followers by the use of magic, specifically invulnerability magic. This goes back to ancient times of course, but the advent of firearms from the west during the 17th century really enhanced the appearance of such magic. Several rebel groups during the Ming dynasty would use the allegedly polluting power of women to stop gunfire from walled cities that were being besieged. Wang Lun famous used large numbers of women who would attempt summoning goddesses to prevent the approach of bullets or stop guns from firing. The eight trigrams rebellion used a particularly invulnerability technique known as “jin-zhon-zhao / the armor of the golden bell”. This technique would later be famously employed by the Big Swords society, again future episodes will delve into this more. The technique was a form of kung-fu that employed “Qigong”. Qigong is a system of coordinating body-posturing, like movement, breathing and meditation. Those performing it would perform breathing exercises which they claimed helped protect their bodies against blades and even bullets as if a large bell was covering their body. Some who practiced this would chant incantations like “a song does not tell his father; a father does not tell his son”.

During the mid 19th century rebellions were tearing China apart. The Taiping, Nian, local white lotus were all hitting different parts of China simultaneously. By 1860 the Qing government was cracking down left right and center, increasing land taxes to support the suppressing efforts. In 1861, in Qiu county, the very extreme edge of western Shandong saw rebels rise up, a majority of them were of the white lotus.  They were joined by martial artists of the Black Flag Army under the leadership of Song Jing-shi a professional boxer and swordsman who made a living as a highway escort, like a armed guard for wealthy nobles. 

Unlike the previous rebellions that had marriages between boxers and sects, these rebellions in the mid 19th century brought upon a new flavor, an anti-manchu one. The Taiping and Nian rebellions inspired a vigorous hate against the Manchu, particularly against the corrupt officials that made up their dynasty. Certainly when the Qing began to suppress the rebels, it led to a ravaging of the countryside seeing flocks of boxers join the rebels in response. While many boxers joined such rebels, others would join the Qing to combat them as well. In 1861, Song Jing-shi was forced to surrender to the Qing and he would claim he only joined the rebellion because he and his followers were facing persecution by yamen runners. He then offered his services against the rebels, but he had one condition, that his forces would stay intact. His forces indeed fought against the Nian rebels, marching into Henan. The Qing asked him and his followers to go to Shaanxi to fight them there, but he elected to take his men to western Shandong where his original base was and just rebelled again. The story of Song Jing-shi showcases how martial artists and sectarians were a mainstream aspect of peasantry life in shandong. The participation of boxers on the side of rebels and the government shows it was really part of the social fabric of the region.

Western Shandong by the late Qing period saw greater numbers of military examination graduates. Boxing was becoming much more popular as a recreation for youthful men and a means of protecting one's home. As one Gazetter said “The local people like to practice the martial arts—especially to the west of Linqing. There are many schools: Shao-lin, Plum Flower and Greater and Lesser Hong Boxing. Their weapons are spears, swords, staff and mace. They specialize in one technique and compete with one another” . In rural villages of Shandong you would see what “ying-shen saihui / inviting the gods to a performance”. This can be described as a sort of opera, where a center for attention was erected. Shows would be put on to benefit the local temple gods, large tents went up and people came from all around for some good ol’ R & R. Relatives from surrounding villages would come and drink, eat, gamble, have fun and such. And here at these opera places, many boxers would showcase their skills. Many of the gods being worshiped were military figures, especially for western shandong. Marital themes of the Water Margin, the romance of the 3 kingdoms and enfeoffment of the gods were notably loved spectacles. It was all a blend of social drama and theater and it was a beloved part of communities, and something they wanted to protect, and to protect it they had Boxers. Young men began studying martial arts to protect their communities, leading to things like crop watching associations. Poverty was getting worse and worse by the late 19th century, driving more into banditry and thus more boxers emerged to counter balance them.

The late Qing dynasty would see an increase in military applicants from Shandong and it seems boxing was pushing it. Boxing was a popular part of the culture in Shandong, particularly in its western half and this led itself to providing the dynasty with good soldiers. The boxers were tolerated, hell they kind of became seen as defenders of local communities. But as the 19th century saw many internal rebellions, it also saw external threats. The British, French, Russians, and Japanese, amongst others, were encroaching and humiliating China. The threat of western imperialism would prove to be the final ingredient to see the rise of a new sort of movement.

After the first opium war, 5 treaty ports were opened in China, but they were most confined the the southern and southeastern coast. Then the second opium war opened major ports in the north, like Tianjin and Chefoo along the Shandong peninsula in 1862. The Boxer movement was thus introduced to foreigners. Foreign cotton textiles began to enter Shandong through these ports, increasing during the 1880s and much more so during the 1890s. Despite the disruption of the first sino-Japanese war, cotton textile imports in Shandong rose rapidly. The increase in textile imports was seriously interfering with Shandong home grown textiles. In 1866 the Commissioner of customs at Yantai noted that the native Shandong textiles were "very good and durable, and are largely used in this province." Twenty years later, this same port reported that "the increase in its [cotton yarn's] import is said to be seriously interfering with the local industry ofspinning, which affords a means of support to many poor women." Then  in 1887, the same commissioner reported that "I gather that the reeling of Native Cotton Yarn in this province is almost at a standstill." Foreign imports were having a disastrous effect particularly on northwest Shandong.

The war with Japan hit the Shandong peninsula when the Japanese attacked weihaiwei. Qing forces were rushed northward and to the coast from interior parts of Shandong. The wars primary affect on Shandong was stripping it of its garrison forces as more and more men were sent to the front. This left a power vacuum in which two types of forces emerged; bandits and self defense forces, such as the Big Sword Society. When the war came to an end it provided dramatic evidence the Qing government was incompetent. There was a immediate feeling that China was breaking apart and that the Great Powers intended to carve it up for themselves. You all probably have seen the famous painting showing the great world powers leaders carving into china. 1897-1898 saw what we call the scramble for concessions and this was a very real crisis.

Every since the opium wars, Christian missionaries gradually flooded China. In Shandong, catholic missionaries began at first in secret to convert the Chinese, by 1850 its estimated there were nearly 6000. By the late 19th century this grew to 16,850 in 1887 and during the 1890’s it rose up dramatically to 47,221. The catholics remained in western Shandong and parts of Zhili while protestants grew along Shandongs coast around the treaty ports. The converts began to gain advantages with foreigners and this was met with resentment from those non christians around them. The church would intervene countless times in China’s domestic politics and justice. The missionaries were protected and held extraterritoriality provisions from the many treaties of the 19th century. Their converts would also by extension be able to use some rights. For example if a convert Chinese stated they were being oppressed because of their faith, the foreign missionaries could intervene, and this was most definitely a system that was exploited. The missionaries would often intervene in any sort of temporal dispute, but the most common exploit was converts using their christianity to escape government punishments.

Who else do you think would convert to Christianity to escape punishment, well bandits of course. In western shandong, bandits began seeking the protection of the church. So all of the sectarian groups that had been flourishing alongside the boxer groups were decaying and sought Christianity for protection. Likewise bandits would seek the same protection. The Boxers were losing their sense of being, those who they often aligned with to protect were seeking alternatives, and those they were protecting them from, were seeking the same thing. It looked to many of these youthful men that the missionaries were evil and ruining their lives. The situation was ripe for a major conflict.

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.

Shandong, why is it always Shandong? It’s sort of reminiscent of Bismarck talking about the balkans before WW1. Shandong was producing youthful men, who were watching their nation decay, and at some point enough would be enough.