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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Nov 7, 2023

Last time we spoke about the conquest of southern Manchuria. The Russians had consolidated their hold over northern Manchuria and now had the necessary amount of forces to quell the chaos in the south. The two last major strongholds held by the Qing and their Boxer allies were Liaoyang and Mukden. The Russians consolidated their forces while the Qing spread themselves out far too thinly. Each engagement saw Russian victories, despite the fact the Qing had the necessary numbers and weaponry necessary to serve decisive defeats to the Russians, if only they consolidated and coordinated properly their forces. Liaoyang fell easily, and with its fall the Qing commanders began to loot and abandon their infantry. Leaderless the infantry gradually scattered into the countryside leaving Mukden pretty much open for the taking. Manchuria was in chaos, and within that chaos the same type of people always emerged to take advantage,  bandits. But who were these people really?


#72 The Red Bearded Honghuzi 


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.

Manchuria has been called by many names. An English study in 1932 by Hubert Hessell Tiltman referred to Manchuria as “the cockpit of Asia, where drama never dies”. It has also been called by Yu Juemin in 1929 “the balkans in east asia”, which I think fits it nicely. So you heard me in length talk about Shandong and Manchuria. You heard my entire series on the Boxer Rebellion. Often you hear me refer to the “bandits”, in Shandong we saw the precursors to the Boxers rise up primarily to combat bandits. China proper and Manchuria had bandits since ancient times. But who exactly were the bandits? I would like to take us back to Manchuria to talk about a specific group or phenomenon of banditry. The major reason I am taking the time to do an episode on this, because to be honest we are about to jump into the Russo-Japanese War, is because the banditry problem and specific bandits will have an incredible amount of influence on China, Russia and Japan for the first half of the 20th century. For those of you who have not seen my personal channel, the pacific war channel you might already know where this is going. I created an extremely long series and reformed it into a single documentary on China’s warlord era. Its a fascinating part of the history of modern China and one I will tackle in this podcast series, god knows how long it will be. Some of the warlords started out as bandits, two in particular were extremely influential, I am of course talking about Zhang Zuolin and the Dogmeat General Zhang Zongchang. By the way if you want to hear more about the king of memes, Zhang Zongchang, check out my episode on him on my youtube channel, its a must see I guarantee it, funny as hell and…well pretty dark too.

The word Honghuzi translates as “red bearded”. They were armed Chinese bandits who operated in northeast China, particular in the areas of the eastern Russia-China borderlands during the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th. The term Honghuzi is believed to originate back in the 1600s referring to Russians by Chinese who had red beards. These would be the indigenous peoples around the Amur region. Chinese bandits later would use fake red beards as a disguise. Honghuzi gangs grabbed new members from those seeking easy money. It could be peasants, those down on their luck, Qing army deserters, recent immigrants. Just about anyone who preferred robbing over working lumber mills or in mines as you can imagine.

A Vladivostok newspaper wrote an article in 1896 referring to the phenomenon Here he is, dirty, in rags, half-starved, laboring every day, in the rain, in clay sticky soil ... what joys in life does he have? ... No wonder he prefers joining the Honghuzi and a life full of adventures.” A honghuzi gang could be just two guys, or it could be several hundred strong. You can imagine large groups in the hundreds could perform large scale operations, bigger the gang, bigger the payoff. When Honghuzi groups came together to perform large scale operations it could threaten entire cities. Now I bet most of you have an image in your mind, a skinny, unwashed hooligan, probably wearing worn down rags, and obviously this could fit the description of many Honghuzi, but on average not really. Many of them were well dressed and extremely well armed. They typically performed crimes in spring and summer when it was easier to hide in the forest filled countryside or in the mountains. When I was speaking about Shandong I often mentioned these type of criminal seasons, highway robbery literally was seasonal work. In the autumn and winter times the Honghuzi typically hit the major cities and spent their booty on the usual stuff, alcohol, women and drugs, in this case opium. Many also held employment, like I said it was seasonal work, most were farmers. 

Manchuria was ideal for this type of criminal activity. The Qing government based in Beijing had little control over their sparsely populated homeland and the local officials in Manchuria did not have sufficient resources to quell the Honghuzi. The Honghuzi also did not stop at local activity, they often crossed over to plunder Russian territory, such as the Ussuri Krai. The Honghuzi had quite an easy time hitting the borderlands as the Russians and Qin could not focus much resources to protect them. As you can imagine such border issues resulted in larger scale conflicts.

When Honghuzi raided Russian territory they often stole anything you can imagine like cattle, were smuggling opium and even illegally performed gold mining. Illegal gold mining led to a clash between the Hongzhui and Russian forces. In 1867 when gold was discovered on the small island of Askold, some 50 kms away from Vladivostok, Manchurian began to come over to try their luck at gold mining, as did the Honghuzi. A Russian schooner, the Aleut on several occasion scattered illegal gold miners, but they just kept returning. 3 Russian sailors were killed in an armed clash and the Honghuzi’s chopped up their bodies in full view of the remaining Russian crew who fled in horror. The Russian government attempted to thwart the illegal gold mining and this led to what was called the Manzi War, Manzi is another name for Manchu. In 1868 Manchu and Honghuzi coordinated attacks upon Russian military posts and plundered and burned several towns, massacring settlers. In retaliation, Russian troops burnt down Manchu settlement known to shelter Honghuzi. By mid July the Honghuzi were gradually tossed back across the border into Manchuria. The Russians were not done, their forces pursued the Honghuzi as they fled back to Manchuria. Reportedly a Cossack sotnia penetrated Manchuria some several hundreds km’s pursuing Honghuzi.

In 1879 Russian forces crossed the border and burned down a well known fortified Honghuzi fortress near Lake Khanka. Major Nozhin leading a detachment during this time ran into Qing troops and a small battle occurred. It was an embarrassing episode for the Russians who apologized for the incident. The Qing court was not pleased with the border crossings, but knew the nature of the Honghuzi menace and actually asked the Russians to continue pursuing the Honghuzi within their borders.

Now I would like to talk about the stories of some famous Honghuzi. In 1875, Zhang Zuolin was born the third son of an impoverished family in Haicheng of Fengtian, modern day Liaoning province. His family had been rooted in Manchuria for a long time, but his father was unable to sustain the family after dividing the estate with Zhang’s uncle. Zhang only received two years of traditional education before leaving school following his fathers death. Nicknamed the “pimple”, Zhang was a thin and short boy. Zhang spent his early youth, fishing, gambling and brawling. When he first tried to make some money he worked as a waiter at an Inn where he came across tales of the Honghuzi. The only useful education he ever received was a bit of veterinary science, he underwent a brief period of veterinarian training, but ultimately he abandoned the career to pursue something else. 

When the First Sino-Japanese War broke out, Zhang joined the Yi Army commanded by General Song Qing in 1894 to fight against the invading Japanese in Manchuria. However when the war ended and the Yi Army re-deployed, Zhang at the age of 21 departed them to take a job under his father in law to protect his village as the head of an armed band. There is a legend, most likely perpetuated by Zhang himself, that during a hunting trip he spotted a wounded Honghuzi on horseback and killed the man before stealing his horse to become a Honghuzi himself. Zhang led the group of bandits and earned this sort of Robinhood like mythos. Because he was illiterate he often referred to his experience as a bandit leader as “experience of the Green Forest” something his contemporary Zhang Zongchang would enthusiastically also state. 

During the anarchic period between the first sino-japanese war and Russo-Japanese war, Honghuzi were both bandits plundering but also militiamen protecting towns. It was a complex situation and one that Zhang would become an expert in. Soon after Zhang had established his bandit group, it was dispersed by a larger group sponsored by the Russians. Zhang and the survivors joined another honghuzi group, run by Zhang Jinghui. Zhang would gradually become its leader, and Zhang Jinghui would later become a Lt under Zhang during the warlord era. When the Boxer rebellion broke out, Zhang’s gang joined the Qing army in their doomed resistance against the foreigners. Unlike the Boxers who ceased fighting when the war was over, the bandits kept on banditing. 

As Zhang’s bandit group grew in size, he sought amnesty from the Qing government and became a militia commander in 1902. This would prove to be the first of a series of choices he made that would propel him to nearly become the leader of China. He was soon joined by Tang Yulin and Zhang Zuoxiang who would in their own right become Fengtian leaders. It seems Zhang’s willingness to form alliances was the key to his success. Now I don’t want to go too deep into it, but Zhang’s militia was ordered by the Qing government to fight against Russian sponsored Honghuzi during the Russo-Japanese war. His bandit force worked to escort traveling merchants within Manchuria during the war. Fighting as mercenaries, Zhangs group become recognized as a regular regiment within the Qing military and they began patrolling the borderlands of Manchuria, suppressing other bandit groups.

An American Major - surgeon named Louis Livingston Seaman was working or the 1st regiment US volunteer engineers during the russo japanese war. His regiment was working with the 2nd IJA army in Manchuria and he personally met Zhang Zuolin who he described in some length to the Nation magazine. 

"He had some amusing and exciting experiences with the Hung-hutzes (Chun-chuzes), ex-bandits, now nominally Chinese soldiery, many of whom were operating as guerrillas on the Russian flank and communications under Japanese officers, as is charged. The Japanese had in their employ Zhang Zuolin a famous Honghuzi leader who led his men against the Russians”

Dr Seaman wrote a lengthy report of his story with the Honghuzi and Zhang Zuolin and I think it gives some flavor and a feeling of what the banditry types were like at their highest point. Dr. Seaman stated a Russian position had been swarmed by over 500 Honghuzi, the Russians took over 20 casualties before the Honghuzi hoard were finally driven off. The Qing troops seemed to let the Honghuzi roam around freely, most likely because "They can not be caught, the plain truth being that the best of fellowship exists between them and the imperial troops, their old comrades of yore." Seaman noticed the Honghuzi had a special hatred reserved for the Russians. There was much talk of past grievances, particularly that of the Blagovestchensk massacre when it was said 8000 unarmed men, women and children were driven at the point of a bayonet into the raging Amur river. Seaman met one Chin-wang-Tao who said a Russian officers who participated in the brutal massacre told him in 1900 ‘'the execution of my orders made me almost sick, for it seemed as though I could have walked across the river on the bodies of the floating dead.” Only 40 or so Chinese escaped the horror, many of them were employed by a leading foreign merchant who ransomed their lives at a thousand rubles a piece. Such atrocities were well remembered by the local Chinese who sought revenge. When Japan began to look for those sympathetic to their cause, willing to pay for it none the less, it was not hard to find enthusiastic Chinese. It was believed 10,000 or more Honghuzi divided into companies of around 200-300 each led by Japanese officers no less were in force during the conflict. Zhang Zuolin commanded a large army of Honghuzi allied to the Japanese and Dr. Seaman met him and his army while venturing near Newchwang. 

There had been reports of raids by Honghuzi, also called the “red beards” though none of them had red beards, nor any kind of beard. Dr. Seaman’s companion, Captain Boyd became determined to meet them. The two men hoped to see for themselves the characteristics of these so called 10,000 strong guerrilla fighters that fight on the western border area of Manchuria. They were said to be hitting the rear and right flank of the Russian army, compelling it to quadruple its Cossack guards in the region to protect supply trains and refugees trying to flee from Port Arthur to Mukden. Both men had Chinese passports and received official credentials from Minister Conger to meet with General Ma who had assembled his forces on the borderland. General Ma was the commander in chief of the Qing forces in the region and also the de facto commander of 10,000 Honghuzi now wearing Qing uniforms. Many of the Honghuzi were great horsemen, having Manchu backgrounds they lived a mounted life and for centuries had defied the Qing authorities, roaming at will, levying tribute and performing numerous crimes.

The leader of these marauders was Zhang Zuolin, who now held the rank of Colonel in the Qing army. Within two years Zhangs band had obtained mastery over the entire border region of Manchuria going some hundred miles. The Qing government ceased opposing them and simply made terms to adopt them into the army. Now they stood as troops in good standing, with highway robbery semi officially recognized as one of their perquisites. The adoption of Honghuzi into the army had not changed their habits of murder and robbing. When they were not plundering Russian refugees en route to Siberia or Russian supply trains they often took their plundering gaze on Chinese towns. Practically every peasant in the region at some time became a Honghuzi. It seemed to be at the time the crops were nearly full grown, when the broom corn was 12 to 15 feet high when peasants were most likely to turn to the life of outlaw. The staple crop of kaoliang affords the perfect cover for troops or honghuzi. The 8 nation alliance troops realized this the hard way when they marched from Taku to Beijing.

With the tall kaoliang to hide their movements the peasants abandoned their legitimate work and took up weapons either alone or in groups to plunder the highways or rob smaller villages near where they lived. Sometimes people banded together to fight off the honghuzi. The Americans said it was a very similar situation in the philippines during their little war. The filipinos would call them amigos, then don on the clothes of the banditry class and try to rob them. Newchwang was visited by large organized robbers, many from Kaopangtzi. Dr.Seaman had the chance to take a photograph of Li Hongzhang and himself taken in the palace of the old Viceroy in Beijing, shortly before his death, it was the last picture of the old statesman, whom he knew very well by that point, he had made several visits to him in Beijing. Dr. Seaman stopped at Chinese Inn, and came across a merchant from Hsinmintung who was suffering from an affliction which he was able to relieve in some measure. The merchant heard we were traveling north and sought to meet the Honghuzi, he advised us to go at once to Hsinmingtung, where Zhang Zuolin was commanding forces. He even gave them a letter of introduction, the man turned out to be one of Zhang’s merchants. The letter proved very useful as when they traveled further, people in towns gave them better accommodations, they were greeted like friends. Hsinmingtung was the terminus of the railroad that connected Kaopangtzi with the main line from Tientsin. They were in the process of building the main line further to junction at Mukden.

They arrived to Hsinmingtung and received special rooms from the merchants friends. There were Cossacks patrol north and east and Japanese southeast. Qing soldiers under General Ma were patrolling west and northwest and the Honghuzi were all around. The two men bought fireworks and had a small party with the locals establishing a standing within their community. The men then called upon the Chi Fu, prefect of the place whose name was Tsung Zao Ku and he received them cordially. Then they were finally presented to the great ex-bandit of all Manchuria, the leader of the Honghuzi,  Zhang Zuolin who at that point was a colonel in the Qing army.

Zhang Zuolin was a handsome fellow, graceful and mild mannered. He made them feel at home in his luxurious yamen, and brewed them excellent tea in fine porcelain cups. Then he offered them a good bottle of wine, an old Madeira. The men took photos of Zhang Zuolin and his forces. Zhang told them they were now his guests and he had to attend to matters, they were at liberty to travel through the country at will, but to make sure they never traveled unattended or unarmed. In the meantime the men spoke with a guest of the Chi Fu named Chang Lin Lung from Mukden. He spoke about Zhang, saying years ago he ruled all the territory around with an iron fist, as a bandit, doing as he pleased west of the Liao river. When China absorbed him and his men into its army, he obtained an allowance to pay his men well, the government supplied them also. The two men learned what they had suspected, these honghuzi were now really officered by the Japanese. There were around 300 with Zhang Zuolin as his personal guard. There were 8 Japanese officers directing the operations of another band the two men visited. It was said Zhang paid handsomely for all of this. Some of the Japanese officers were disguised as Chinese and doing covert work. Their guerilla operations were embarrassing Kuropatkin’s army, robbing their supply trains forcing the Russians to double guards on lines of communication and adding more units to the right flank and rear.

Two days before the two men arrived, a party of Russians were attacked by 200 Honghuzi, 7 miles from Hsinmintung. 5 were killed, 4 decapitated, their heads placed on pike poles. The same group of bandits whipped out a Cossack escort that was moving 1000 cattle and ponies to the Russian troops, the entire herd was stolen. Over 1000 Cossacks began revenge raids in the region in retaliation. At the offset of meeting Zhang, he showed an unusual amount of attention. Trumpets summoned his entire guards of 300 men, there was a great commotion and soon the whole outfit of his forces began lining up for inspection and kodak designs. Zhang gave 20 special guards for the two mens disposal and the next morning they went on an expedition of sightseeing. The plan was to visit neighboring bands, but when they reached 5 miles northeast, several Cossack scouts forced them away. They spent the night in Kowpangtze with 5 Japanese officers supported by a large number of Honghuzi. They took a railway train in the end to part ways.

This was a glimpse at the future warlord of Manchuria as he ascended being a small-time bandit, to being the leader of the strongest bandit group in Manchuria and eventually found himself a role in the Qing military. 

Another infamous warlord who started out as a Bandit was Zhang Zongchang. Certainly the most notorious of China’s warlord, Zhang Zongchang was in all essence a monster. Google or Youtube search his name and you will see meme videos everywhere, though might I add, I made a video talking about the funny parts of his life, but also the cold hard horror show that it also was, check out Zhang Zongchang the monster behind the meme. 


Zhang Zongchang was born in 1881 in Yi county, present day Laizhou in Shandong. He grew up in an impoverished village. His father worked as a head shaver and trumpeter, a rampant alcoholic. His mother was basically what you would call a practicing witch, she performed exorcisms. The family moved to Manchuria when Zhang was in his teens and the parents separated. Zhang stayed with his mother who took on a new lover. Zhang quickly took to a life of crime in and around Harbin. He took up work as a pickpocket, a prospector, worked as a bouncer and found himself working as a laborer in Siberia. He picked up a lot of Russian, which would pay off big time down the road. He described himself as a graduate of “the school of forestry”. He became a hell of a big guy at 6 foot 6 and would be the tallest of the warlords, that was not all that was tall, if you know the meme you know the meme. 


When the Russo-Japanese war broke out, while Zhang Zuolin helped the Japanese, Zhang Zongchang helped the Russians. He served as a auxiliary for the Imperial Russian Army, it was basically the same situation of Zuolin, he was a honghuzi gang leader. However his real fame came after the war. During the war he showed himself a very capable warrior and leader. He was known for “splitting melons” ie: bashing the skulls of his enemies with rifle butts. Zhang made a ton of friends amongst the Russian military, he got along very well with them. He acquired an enormous taste for fine things, particularly cigars, champagne and whiskey. Google him and you will probably see a cigar in his mouth. Now unlike Zuolin, Zongchang really only starts to do famous deeds after the Russo-Japanese War, I don’t want to go to far into the future, but I will give you a taste. For one thing why was he notoriously known as the “dogmeat general” you might ask?


The nickname “Dogmeat General”, was said to be based on his fascination with the domino game Pai Jiu. Others say his favorite brand of tonic was known as dogmeat. And of course there was the rumor he ate a meal of black chow chow dog every day, as it was popularly believed at the time that this boosted a man’s vitality. 


Nicknames like “the lanky general or general with three long legs” were certainly something he publicized heavily. There was indeed the rumor old 86 referred to the length of his penis being 86 mexican silver dollars, there was also a nickname “72-cannon Zhang” referring to that length. I mean the man was 6 foot 6, people described him quote “with the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger”. 


Alongside his penis propaganda, he was a legendary womanizer. Take his other nickname for example “the general of three don’t-knows”: he did not know how many women, how many troops, or how much money he had. I think that nickname fits him better than the nickname he gave himself “the Great General of Justice and Might”. 


He had a ton of concubines. The exact number of concubines he had has variously been reported between 30-50, but historians have a hard time trying to fix the numbers as Zhang himself allegedly did not know. Allegedly his concubines were from 26 different nationalities, each with her own washbowl marked with the flag of her nation. He was also said to give his concubines numbers since he could not remember their names nor speak their various languages. Many of these women he married, he was a polygamist after all. There was known to be Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, Mongolians and at least one American amongst Zhang’s women.


Zhang was semi-literate, whenever people asked where he was educated he would say “the college of the green forest” a euphemism for banditry. Despite being semi-literate Zhang Zongchang is famously known for his poetry, most notably his Poem on Bastards:


You tell me to do this,
He tells me to do that.
You're all bastards,
Go fuck your mother.


It should be noted a lot of the poetry attributed to Zhang Zongchang may have been fabricated by a political opponent named Han Fuju who took over Shandong Province after him. Now that’s enough about the two Zhang’s, trust me we are going to dig much deeper into these guys later on in the series, because I love the warlord era, its absolute insanity and very unknown to the west. 


So the Honghuzi who are often called just bandits, had a lot of influence in Manchuria, they are just another piece of the larger puzzle as they say. Now the enormous amount of bandits in Manchuria alongside the Boxer movement is what drove Russia to invade Manchuria. The Russians sent over 177,000 troops in Manchuria, under the guise it was merely to protect their railway construction efforts. This raised a lot of eyebrows as they say. By 1902 order had been restored in Beijing, the armed forces were thinning out. Britain and Japan were wary of Russia’s increasing influence in the far east. Britain and Japan entered into an alliance on January 30th of 1902. The terms dictated if either nation was to go to war to protect its regional interests against a third power, the unaffected party would not only remain neutral but would try to prevent the conflict from widening. If an additional power, like France or Germany joined the war, either Japan or Britain would help the other. The alliance worked to Japan’s favor allowing her to consolidate her recent acquisition of Korea and bolster her interest in Manchuria. Russia countered this by declaring a similar alliance on March 16th of 1902 with France. 


Now everyone expected Russia to withdraw her enormous troops from Manchuria, and on April 8th of 1902, during the Manchurian Convention, Russia confirmed her ultimate aim to evacuate Manchuria on the condition the railway and Russian citizens were protected by the Chinese. It was agreed the Russian withdrawal would be done in three phases. Over three periods, each 6 months. After the first 6 months, the first assigned territory, southwest of Mukden was evacuated and returned to China. The anticipated second phase of the withdrawal from the remainder of the province of Mukden and Kirin did not occur however. When the Qing ambassador in St Petersburg enquired what the delay was, he was waved off. Then 20 days after the withdrawal had begun, Beijing was presented with demands for concessions in Manchuria.


None of the returned territory was in any way to be given to another power. 

Mongolia’s system of government was not to be altered. 

No new ports or towns were to be developed or opened in Manchuria without informing Russia. Foreigners serving in the Chinese government were not to exercise authority in northern Manchuria. 

The telegraph line connecting the Liaotung Peninsula with Peking was to be assured. On Newchwang being returned to China, the Customs’ dues were to continue to be paid into the Russo-Chinese Bank. 

The rights acquired by Russian interests or Russian people were to be continue


On April 29th encouraged by the protests and support of Britain, the US and Japan, China rejected the 7 demands. Japan was greatly threatened by all of this and little by little, the same situation we saw unfold prior to the first sino-japanese war, was occurring all over again in Manchuria.


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

The Honghuzi were a unique type of banditry that had an enormous role in the history of Manchuria. Those like Zhang Zuolin and Zhang Zongchang would join their ranks and earn great fame. With so many bandits in Manchuria however, conflict would soon arise.