THE NANLONG UPRISING OF 1797
In February 1797, members of the Zhongjia ethnic group launched an uprising against the Qing state. Rallying under the battle cry, “Heaven will exterminate the Han Chinese, native headmen, and imperial troops” (Tian jiang mie Hanren, bing mie Miaomu bingyi), the rebels laid siege to the prefectural seat of Nanlong and sacked neighboring villages. Provincial and central government officials initially dismissed the Zhongjia as undisciplined bandits incapable of sustaining a coordinated rebellion.1 This proved a grave miscalculation. Within weeks of the first assault on Nanlong, as provincial officials scrambled to shore up defenses, the Zhongjia attacked every major town in southwestern Guizhou and seemed poised to strike the provincial capital of Guiyang.
Far from being undisciplined bandits, the Zhongjia were well-trained guerilla fighters who drew strength from a potent combination of charismatic leadership and magical beliefs. Their movement had evolved from a cult surrounding two Zhongjia religious leaders, a young woman called Wang Niangxian, “Immortal Lady Wang” and a man nicknamed Wei Qiluoxu, or “Seven-whisker Wei.”2 Wang Niangxian, a mysterious personage known to all but seen by few, was the spiritual head of the rebellion, while Wei Qiluoxu, a magician and martial arts expert, was the self-appointed political and military leader. Aware that the Qing armies possessed superior weaponry, he instructed his followers to use magical charms and rituals to neutralize their adversaries’ technological advantages.3 Rebel troops advanced into battle “with a white fan in one hand and a white scarf in the other, dancing and bobbing atop their horses,” or beating on bronze drums as they chanted “Stop the bullets! Stop the arrows!”4
The rebels’ success was short-lived. After a sluggish start, the Qing suppression campaign rapidly gained momentum in April of 1797. Although the Zhongjia continued to frustrate imperial troops with surprise maneuvers and delaying tactics, they could only hope to postpone their eventual defeat. Rebel morale and popular support declined as scores of Zhongjia soldiers suffered mortal wounds at the hands of the imperial troops, demonstrating to even the most fervent believers that their charms and incantations were no match for Qing armaments. During the spring and summer of 1797, Qing armies secured a series of important victories. By early autumn, they had captured both Wei Qiluoxu and Wang Niangxian; and Qing forces reestablished control throughout southwestern Guizhou before the end of the year.
This chapter presents the first Western-language analysis of this rebellion, which is usually called the “Nanlong Uprising” (Nanlong qiyi) in post-1949 Chinese historiography. By utilizing both Qing archival materials and Buyi (Zhongjia) folk literature, the analysis gives equal voice to the imperial officials who sought to contain the rebellion and to the indigenous men and women who faced an enemy they knew to be much stronger. The Qing government materials—namely, correspondence between provincial officials and the imperial court in Beijing—provide a chronological account of the major battles in the rebellion and reveal the missteps that nearly undermined the early phases of the Qing campaign against the Zhongjia.5 These documents are treated as more or less historical fact, or at least the version of events that imperial officials wanted to preserve. On the other hand, the Zhongjia folk narratives, “Immortal Maiden Wang” (Wang Xiangu) and “Song of the Nanlong Resistance” (Nanlong fanbing ge), represent not historical facts, but rather selective historical memory, or the way Zhongjia chose to perceive and remember the rebellion. The events depicted in these accounts run the gamut from slightly exaggerated to categorically implausible, all with an eye to casting the rebels in a heroic light and softening the psychological blow of their ultimate defeat.6
“Immortal Maiden Wang” is a narrative poem (changshi) from the southwest Guizhou town of Anlong.7 In 1958, Buyi ethnographers recorded a folk tale about Wang Niangxian, the young Zhongjia woman commonly regarded as the rebellion’s spiritual leader. Researchers who returned to the area twenty years later learned that the tale was based on a folk song. Further inquiries led to three elderly Buyi men, who performed the version featured in the collection used in this chapter. The song recounts the life and heroic deeds of Wang Niangxian, who uses her supernatural abilities to relieve Zhongjia poverty. Greedy officials thwart her at every turn until she becomes enraged and mounts a popular uprising. Throughout the rebellion, she performs a number of miracles to assist her troops in battle against the Qing. Ultimately, however, her magical skills prove insufficient; imperial armies invade her hometown and whisk her off to Beijing for execution.
“Song of the Nanlong Resistance” strikes a different tone.8 Throughout the narrative, oratorical talent—particularly the ability to give Qing officials a sound tongue-lashing—seems to take precedence over magical powers or even martial skills. Once again, Qing armies eventually quell the uprising, but this narrative casts the rebels’ final defeat in a less tragic light than does “Immortal Maiden Wang.” The message is that the Qing defeated the Zhongjia on the battlefield, but could not quash their sharp wit or defiant spirit.
Although the two narratives are more fanciful than factual, they play an important role in this analysis of the Nanlong Uprising. The Buyi rarely, if ever, have had the opportunity to speak for themselves about the Nanlong Uprising or other pivotal events in their past. Their history has largely been controlled by Qing officials and, more recently, by communist scholars.9 It is a history that reflects the goals and priorities of the dominant political group, not those of the Buyi themselves. When subordinate groups appear in the official record, their presence, behavior, and motives are mediated by the interpretation of dominant elites.10 The analysis in chapters 3 and 4 “read against the grain” of the official record to find the voices and motivations of participants in anti-government movements or illegal schemes. In this chapter, the indigenous narratives provide rare glimpses of Buyi views on their own history—albeit with the occasional imprint of PRC ethnohistorians and editors bound to the Chinese Communist Party’s political agenda.
No scholar outside China has examined the Nanlong Uprising in any detail.11 However, the rebellion has garnered far more attention in China. General histories of Guizhou province or the Buyi ethnic group all include brief discussions of the rebellion. More detailed analyses may be found in a 1991 issue of the journal Research in Buyi Studies (Buyi xue yanjiu) devoted to the Nanlong Uprising. This volume includes articles on such topics as the causes of the rebellion, the role of folk religion, and the reasons for the rebels’ defeat. These articles provide important background on the Nanlong Uprising, and also reveal much about the principles guiding Chinese scholarship on ethnic minorities. Most of the scholarly contributors are themselves members of the Buyi minority nationality: at once representatives of their own nationality and participants in a hegemonic state project. Their primary responsibility is to write the history of their own ethnic group in a way that glorifies and legitimizes the People’s Republic of China.12 Buyi scholars are therefore obligated to depict the Nanlong Uprising not as a pivotal event in the history of their own ethnic group, but rather, as an episode in the larger history of the People’s Republic of China.
Accordingly, some Buyi writers take pains to point out that “the Han” targeted in the rebels’ battle cry—“Heaven will exterminate the Han” (Tian jiang mie Hanren)—signified only Han landlords (Hanzu dizhu).13 (This is somewhat misleading, for although the rebels did target Han local gentry and landlords, their animosity extended to ordinary Han peasants as well.)14 The Buyi scholars who make these claims undoubtedly consider it prudent to qualify any suggestion that their ancestors wanted to exterminate the Han—by far the largest and most powerful ethnic group in China. More importantly, if Qing landlords can be seen as the primary Buyi enemy, then the Nanlong Uprising must be a peasant rebellion, a product of “class contradictions” (jieji maodun) rather than ethnic tensions.15 In this respect, the Nanlong Uprising can be seen as virtually the same as every other peasant rebellion in Qing China: in other words, the Uprising becomes nothing more and nothing less than a small step in the country’s march toward socialism.
Several articles by modern Buyi scholars elaborate on the notion that Han landlords were the primary enemy, and these articles all follow a similar thread: After the reforms of 1727, when Yongzheng-era officials deposed the native ruler and Nanlong became a regular administrative unit, Zhongjia peasants endured more oppression than ever before. Han immigrants from China’s central provinces purchased native lands and then rented these lands back to the original owners at exorbitant rates, forcing the Zhongjia to become tenants on their own ancestral fields. Han landlords also demanded occasional payments of rice, wine, or meat, euphemistically termed “gifts,” and ordered their Zhongjia tenants to perform unpaid manual labor. At the same time, the Zhongjia also had to pay taxes to the central government and were subject to corvée and military service. In these narratives, after decades of oppression, the Zhongjia people took up arms in 1797, thus becoming one of the many peasant groups to wage war against the landlords. They fought valiantly, but it was not until the rise of the Chinese Communist Party that feudal oppression ended, and peasants of all ethnicities came to enjoy peace and prosperity.16
This rhetoric also informs the scholarship on “Immortal Maiden Wang” and “Song of the Nanlong Resistance,” scant though it is. A lone journal article and a few scattered references in other works comprise the entire body of PRC writing on the indigenous narratives.17 Tian Yuan’s brief article applauds the two poems for expressing the “beautiful hopes” of the Buyi people in their struggle against feudal oppressors, namely Han landlords and Qing officials.18 And in a chapter on Buyi literature, Huang Yiren cites the two narratives as examples of folk stories that arose from “the exacerbation of class contradictions and ethnic contradictions” and the Buyi people’s “nonstop struggle against the feudal system and class oppression.”19
Another scholar, Jin Anjiang, singles out one verse from “Immortal Maiden Wang” as a paean to pan-ethnic unity, and he uses this verse to support his assertion that the Nanlong Uprising marked a step forward in strengthening solidarity and cooperation among the many ethnicities cohabiting in Buyi regions. Jin Anjing’s argument relies on the lines, “Tens of thousands of Buyi, along with [their] Miao, Yao, and Zhuang brothers . . . joined Wang Xiangu [Wang Niangxian] to single-mindedly exterminate the imperial troops.”20 Jin concludes that the harmonious ethnic relations in Guizhou today are a legacy of shared historical experiences like the Nanlong Uprising. He is quick to add, however, that the Qing government’s “cruel suppression” of the Nanlong Uprising militated against pan-ethnic unity by exacerbating inequalities among the different ethnic groups. This in turn gave rise to “estrangement and enmity among the ethnic groups.” It was only after the rise of the People’s Republic of China that Guizhou’s minority nationalities began to enjoy true equality and unity: “Only by upholding the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and upholding the socialist road, can the universal development and prosperity of the minority nationalities be realized.”21
Clearly, authors like Jin Anjiang, Huang Yiren, and Tian Yuan zero in on aspects of the indigenous accounts that can be used to glorify the Chinese Communist Party and ignore the rest. Issues such as the narratives’ actual content, literary merit, and possible significance for today’s Buyi populations remain unexplored. Perhaps these scholars feel that the narratives rely too heavily on primitive religion and superstition to be of any historical value—or perhaps these magico-religious components simply make the narratives too sensitive for deeper examination.22 Indeed, folk religion and magic are delicate topics for Buyi scholars of the Nanlong Uprising. Most authors seem inclined to ignore them altogether, or else to roundly denounce the rebels’ reliance on charms and incantations. Leng Tianfang, for example, acknowledges that folk religion played an important role in mobilizing the Zhongjia masses to rise against their oppressors. However, Leng states that during the later stages of the rebellion, the deleterious effects of the rebels’ blind reliance on charms and incantations became more and more apparent and that this ultimately hastened the rebels’ defeat. In a final rebuke, Leng calls the rebels’ practices “truly stupid and primitive.”23 The message is clear: Unscientific beliefs and unsound tactics undermined the Nanlong Uprising and prevented the Buyi peasants from triumphing over their class enemies. Only by eliminating superstition can the Buyi and other minority nationalities move forward.
This chapter, unfettered by a political agenda, offers a very different interpretation of the Nanlong Uprising. It views the rebellion as the most elaborate and fully articulated expression of the livelihood choices described throughout this book. As demonstrated in chapter 4, local residents developed sophisticated money-making ventures that combined local superstition and anti-Qing slogans to gain popular support. The masterminds behind these schemes enticed impoverished villagers with promises of instant wealth, lifelong immunity from taxes, and protection from natural disasters. That such promises never came to fruition was of little consequence. It was the hope of overcoming Guizhou’s ecological and economic constraints that repeatedly impelled local residents to put their faith in charlatans whose promises, however far-fetched, were still much more enticing than what local officials either offered or delivered. In short, by the end of the eighteenth century, many villagers of southwestern Guizhou exhibited a clear propensity to reject imperial authority in favor of charismatic figures who extended the slightest hope for a better life. The Nanlong Uprising marked the first time this propensity found expression in armed rebellion.24
THE NANLONG UPRISING AS RECOUNTED IN QING DOCUMENTS
Wang Niangxian, née Wang Acong, hailed from Dongsa, a hamlet near the prefectural seat of Nanlong.25 She was born into a family of Mo ritual specialists who began teaching her spells and incantations as soon as she could talk.26 Wang Niangxian specialized in a ritual called “crossing the darkness” (guoyin) that enabled her to serve as a mediator between the spiritual and terrestrial realms.27 Her most prized possession was a set of five-colored stones that she believed to represent her covenant with heaven. She traveled from village to village telling people that the stones endowed her with a magic so potent that a mere moment in her presence could cure any ailment. She also announced that heaven had sent down an order forbidding every type of magic but her own.
Wang Niangxian was not above using trickery to attract followers. On one occasion, she secretly planted rice in a grotto. She told villagers to pray to the rice spirit for food, and then led them to the grotto. When they saw rice shoots flourishing there, they believed that she must be an immortal (xian). It was thus that the common people began to call her Wang Niangxian, or Immortal Lady Wang. Day after day, they asked her to cure their illnesses and predict the future. Many gave her money, wine, pigs, and rice in exchange for her services, although she never asked for payment.28
As a local cult grew around Wang Niangxian, her half-brother Wang Huaming and his friends began to see the potential for a lucrative venture. They persuaded her to cease all public audiences; and they built her a temple at a location where they promised she would enjoy even better communication with the spirits. Wang Huaming and his friends invited villagers to visit the temple but would allow the villagers only to stand outside the building, where they could call up to Wang Nianxian, burn incense, and kowtow. Worshippers were required to bring contributions of food and wine, which Wang Huaming and his friends collected.29
In late 1795, some villagers grew concerned that Wang Niangxian and her followers might be planning a rebellion. They filed a complaint with the acting prefect of Nanlong, Zeng Tingkui, who authorized an investigation that resulted in the arrest of several cult members. After several days of interrogation, local officials determined that fears of rebellion were unwarranted. Wang Niangxian’s followers were not distributing suspicious seals or woodcuts, or spreading anti-Qing slogans. As a precaution, however, Prefect Zeng decided to keep the cult members in jail. Several months later, a local headman, He Zhanbie, voiced fresh complaints about the Dongsa cult. Prefect Zeng dismissed the complaints as nonsense, but to be on the safe side, he did file a report with provincial authorities. His superiors in Guiyang supported his initial conclusion that the Zhongjia were merely practicing their traditional form of magic, not plotting rebellion. They also ordered Prefect Zeng to release the prisoners detained after the first investigation.30
This decision was a sound one. Nothing in this account suggests that Wang Niangxian or her handlers had any intention of mounting a rebellion. Most likely, they were engaged in a scheme similar to the ones described in chapter 4. Wang Niangxian’s activities did not seem to have a seditious component, and Wang Huaming and his friends seemed interested only in the booty they could gain by taking advantage of Wang Niangxian’s devoted followers. All in all, the Dongsa cult was a self-contained organization that posed no real threat to social stability. It might have remained so if not for Wei Qiluoxu.
Wei Qiluoxu lived in the nearby hamlet of Dangzhan. Like Wang Niangxian, he seems to have been a Mo practitioner who frequently “crossed the darkness” on behalf of his fellow villagers.31 People who benefited from his services often tried to reward him with cattle, wine, and other goods, but he never accepted their gifts. Because of his generosity in providing free spiritual services, Zhongjia villagers called him “Great Master Wei” (Wei Da Xiansheng) and many became his followers. Wei also claimed to possess a strong social conscience. As a local healer, he observed firsthand the poverty and despair of his fellow Zhongjia, and he took it upon himself to help them. As he explained in his confession:
Throughout history, we . . . have been oppressed by the Han. They cheated us out of our land and then rented it to us. They made us slaves. It was unbearable. Every Miao had a mind to kill the Han, but no one dared raise a hand. When the Miao in eastern Guizhou and Hunan rebelled [in 1795], all of the soldiers near us were transferred out. At that point, I decided to gather the Miao to rise up against the Han, to burn and kill them. My will was strong, and people knew I was also skilled in the martial arts. I went everywhere in search of followers, and I found many willing to join me.32
It appears, then, that Wei Qiluoxu’s organization began as a magico-religious group with a mandate that soon extended to social banditry.33 He began to build a small army in 1796, using simple recruiting tactics: that is, he sent some of his adherents into the countryside to invite Zhongjia peasants to burn and loot Han villages. For many Zhongjia, this was enticement enough to join up. It was an easy way to obtain money, grain, and other goods, and offered an exciting alternative to growing rice and tending cattle. As one Zhongjia man said later, “If we could raid Han houses, we could leave the bitterness of farming behind.” But many Zhongjia joined only reluctantly, after Wei Qiluoxu’s henchmen warned that anyone who refused to participate would face certain death.34
Wei’s initial battle strategy was as simple as his recruiting strategy. He planned to invade a Han village and seize all the grain and guns he could find, killing anyone who dared to resist. He would also gather new Zhongjia recruits from villages throughout southwestern Guizhou, using coercive means if necessary, and then he would move on to the next town to repeat the process. In this way, his army would increase in size and strength with each successive raid. He targeted Puping, a relatively prosperous town in the northern part of Nanlong, for the first attack. From there, his men would fight their way to the prefectural seat and beyond. He composed a slogan to sum up his ambitions: “When the clouds rise, we will burn Puping, eat breakfast in Nanlong, and kill our way to Kunming” (Yun tengteng, shao Puping, Nanlong chi zaofan, sha shang Yunnan cheng).35
On January 31, 1797, Wei Qiluoxu’s army attacked Puping and rampaged through neighboring villages. When they reached Dongsa, Wei Qiluoxu’s ambitions took a new turn. After surveying the area, one of his men reported that many local residents were adherents of the young priestess Wang Niangxian. Wei Qiluoxu realized that a strategic alliance with Wang Niangxian would enhance his appeal and credibility among Zhongjia peasants. He sought out Wang Huaming, her brother and public representative, and tried to strike a deal, saying, “I, too, can ‘cross the darkness.’ During my last crossing, I saw the great jade emperor (da huang yudi). He told me, ‘The Miao [Zhongjia] will conquer all under heaven.’ Wang Niangxian is to be the immortal empress (huangxian niangniang), and I am to be her husband.” Wang Huaming agreed that he and his sister would cooperate, although it is not clear if he did so willingly, or if Wei Qiluoxu threatened to kill him if he refused. Wang Niangxian was not consulted.36
On February 1, Wei Qiluoxu ordered Wang Niangxian’s followers to join his men in an assault on the prefectural seat of Nanlong. The rebels entered the city with no resistance and proceeded to burn and pillage as they moved through the streets. No longer just bandits, the rebels now believed they were on a mission sanctioned by Heaven. The terrified residents of Nanlong tried to defend themselves with whatever came to hand—kitchen utensils, hunting knives, or sticks. Several hundred rebels encircled the city walls to prevent anyone from leaving or entering. Nan-long now belonged to the Zhongjia, and they would use its riches to finance their next conquest.37
In the afterglow of this first victory, Wei Qiluoxu moved to consolidate his authority. He proclaimed himself emperor and assumed the reign title “Heavenly Compliance” (tianshun), and he bestowed the reign title “Realized Immortal” (xianda) on Wang Niangxian. This act of proclaiming a reign title was significant in at least three ways. First, it undoubtedly satisfied Wei Qiluoxu’s own delusions of grandeur. Second, as a public relations tactic, it may have increased his legitimacy in the eyes of the Zhongjia. And third, as a political symbol, it represented an act of lèse-majesté and a declaration of independence from the dynasty, because only the emperor himself could take a reign title. By claiming his own reign title, Wei Qiluoxu put himself on equal footing with the monarch. Now it remained to capitalize on this new title and build his own empire in Guizhou.
The Qing Response: A Desultory Counteroffensive
While Wei Qiluoxu and his followers celebrated his victory at Nanlong, the town’s prefect, Zeng Tingkui, was plunged into despair. He died two days after the attack on Nanlong, although it is not clear whether he committed suicide or succumbed to illness. Before Zeng’s death, he relayed a hasty communiqué to Guizhou governor Feng Guangxiong, who at this point was overseeing troops on the Hunan-Guizhou border. Zeng’s message was terse, indicating only that one thousand Zhongjia bandits had laid siege to Nanlong.38
The news must have filled Feng Guangxiong with alarm. The Zhongjia attacks coincided with the two major rebellions of the late eighteenth century—the White Lotus uprisings in Hubei, Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu, and the Miao Rebellion in western Hunan. With its military and financial resources already stretched to the limits, the embattled dynasty could ill afford another crisis.39 Indeed, the White Lotus and Miao Rebellions had already siphoned so many provincial troops from Guizhou itself that only a few thousand men were available to respond to the violence in Nanlong.40 Even worse, just weeks before the Zhongjia insurrection, southwest China’s highest-ranking civil and military official, Yunnan-Guizhou governor-general Le Bao, had been ordered to Hubei to assist with the ongoing campaign against White Lotus rebels.41 With so few troops in the Nanlong region, the chaos could easily spread throughout southwestern Guizhou and into neighboring Yunnan and Guangxi. A few thousand soldiers were available in Anshun, one hundred miles northeast of Nanlong, and Feng hurried to arrange their transfer to the new battlefront. He then contacted the Guizhou provincial military commander Zhulonga and the Nanlong regional military commander (zongbin) Zhang Yulong, both of whom were on the front lines in Hunan, and ordered them to proceed to Nanlong without delay. Finally, Feng sent Beijing an urgent request for permission to follow Zhang and Zhulonga to Nanlong as soon as possible. As he pointed out, hostilities on the Hunan border were drawing to a close, and reconstruction (shanhou) was already under way in some areas.42
The emperor’s responding edict approved Feng’s request and ordered Le Bao to leave Hubei for Nanlong as soon as he could. The court also instructed Feng to diagnose the nature of the disturbances in Nanlong. Were the instigators merely bandits whose only goal was to burn and plunder, or were they bona fide rebels, cut from the same cloth as the Miao in Hunan?43
Feng replied to this edict before he set out for Nanlong. Based on the original communiqué from Zeng Tingkui, he wrote, he did not think the disorder in southwestern Guizhou would reach the scale of the Miao Rebellion. Only one thousand or so Zhongjia had attacked Nanlong, little more than an angry mob. Feng reasoned, moreover, that it was not in the Zhongjia character to rebel:
Although the Zhongmiao possess a fierce nature, their clothing and customs are no different from those of ordinary people (yu qimin wu yi). Their perversity cannot be compared to that of the Hunan Miao. It was only because the military presence [in Nanlong] was weak that they dared to create a disturbance. They amount to little more than an unruly and undisciplined mob. They assemble like crows, gathering suddenly and then dispersing just as suddenly. . . . They specialize in burning and looting, and lack cunning and astuteness. I fear that these Miao bandits will assemble over and over again, spreading trouble to surrounding areas. Thus, I have ordered the officials in nearby towns to determine how many “village braves” (xiangyong) are available, and encourage the local militia to shore up their strength and defend crucial areas.44
Feng acknowledged that the Zhongjia posed a potential threat to social order, but he did not believe that additional Qing troops were needed in the Nanlong region because xiangyong local militia, who were recruited and organized by Han villagers, would be able to contain the threat. Also striking is Feng’s assertion that the Zhongjia were, in appearance at least, “no different from ordinary people”—that is, they were no different from the Han.45 In this case, acculturation did not signify any degree of identification with the Han or loyalty to the Qing Dynasty. But at this early juncture, Feng lacked adequate information about the rebels and could assess the situation based on only received wisdom about the Zhongjia.
Also noteworthy is Feng’s characterization of the rebels as “an unruly and undisciplined mob.” Only much later would he realize how badly he had underestimated the rebels’ organizational capabilities. The movement continued to grow in strength and number after the attack on Nan-long, as Wei Qiluoxu continued to consolidate his small empire. Shortly after declaring himself emperor, Wei set up his own state with two capital cities. His hometown of Dangzhan became the administrative and military seat, and Dongsa became the ceremonial capital. Each capital had a government that included generals, ambassadors, generalissimos, and prime ministers. Wei Qiluoxu personally oversaw the officials in Dangzhan, while those in Dongsa governed in Wang Nangxian’s name. Wei Qiluoxu’s second-in-command was a Zhongjia man known by the nickname Da Wang Gong, who assisted with military recruiting, troop mobilization, and local administration. Also among Wei Qiluoxu’s most trusted officials was a Han renegade named Sang Hongsheng who was responsible for managing the rebels’ treasury, granary, and weapons supply, and who also advised Wei Qiluoxu on military strategy.46
Wei Qiluoxu’s recruiting techniques also became more elaborate. With Wang Niangxian on his side, he could now tap more fully into local superstition and magico-religious inclinations. Male warriors called “realized immortals” (xianda) and women called “immortal maidens” (xiangu) enticed villagers to join the rebellion with promises that Heaven would reward the rebels with a lifetime supply of rice.47 On occasion, recruiters also invoked Wang Niangxian’s name to attract new recruits. As one rebel recalled:
After the attacks on Nanlong, two men came to my village and told me that Wang Xiangu [Wang Niangxian], the priestess from Dongsa, had conferred upon me the title of “brilliant immortal” (guangxian). They said this was a higher rank than Xianda. I could transmit the ‘ways of the immortals’ (xianfa), distribute grain, and command troops. I subsequently gathered more than two thousand Miao from nearby hamlets to resist the imperial troops.”48
When such inducements failed, Wei Qiluoxu’s followers resorted to coercive measures. The message was simple: Join the rebellion or die as an enemy of the Zhongjia.
Whether recruited voluntarily or under duress, the rebels soon numbered far more than Zeng Tingkui’s original estimate of one thousand. Within six weeks of the attack on Nanlong, they laid siege to every major town near Nanlong: Xincheng and Yongfeng to the northeast; Ceheng to the southeast; Pu’an and Annan to the northwest; and Huangcaoba and Bangzha to the southwest. Wei Qiluoxu’s followers also rebelled in Yongning and Zhenning on the southwestern edge of Anshun prefecture.49 In short, by the time Feng Guangxiong, Zhulonga, and Zhang Yulong arrived on the scene in mid-February, the rebels already controlled the entire southwestern quarter of Guizhou.
The three Qing commanders first proceeded to Anshun, where they tried to determine the quickest path to Nanlong.50 It was decided that Feng would station himself at Guanling, strategically located between Anshun and Annan, to oversee the campaigns and to wait for Le Bao. Feng also planned to set up a granary in Guanling to provision troops in the field. Feng Guangxiong ordered Zhulonga to take a westerly route through Yongning and Annan. Zhang Yulong was to travel due south through Angu, Yongfeng, and Xincheng. Zhulonga and Zhang Yulong would receive support from the Weining regional military commander Qi Ge and the Changzhai assistant brigade commander (shoubei) Cui Lin.51
Conditions were far from ideal when the four field commanders (Zhulonga, Zhang Yulong, Qi Ge, and Cui Lin) struck out for Nanlong in early March. It was raining, and the slick, muddy roads slowed troop movements to a cautious crawl. To make matters worse, the Zhongjia had set up roadblocks everywhere. Only Zhang Yulong made any headway against the rebels during the first month of the suppression campaign. On March 11, his troops captured Angu, a small but strategic town on the way to Nanlong. Even this marked only a minor victory, for countless rebels escaped into the nearby mountains, and constant fog made it impossible for the Qing troops to give chase. The one bright spot was that a number of loyal villagers had assisted Zhang in the attack on Angu, which suggested that not all Zhongjia in the region had sworn allegiance to the rebels.52
The other three commanders also met with numerous difficulties. When Zhulonga and his men reached Annan on March 14, they managed to break through the roadblocks and chase Zhongjia rebels into the mountains. Zhulonga’s forces held the town briefly before the Zhongjia returned and encircled the city again, trapping the Qing troops inside for several days. Qi Ge and his men had planned to meet up with Zhang Yulong at Angu, but after several unsuccessful attempts to break through the roadblocks, they were forced to retreat into the surrounding mountains. Unluckiest of all was Cui Lin, who stopped in Yongning on March 16 to help local officials shore up the town’s defenses. He suffered fatal wounds when some old ordinance exploded as he moved it to a storehouse.53
The Qing court was understandably displeased with these early ventures. Feng and Zhulonga soon received an imperial reprimand for taking too long to bring the situation under control. Nanlong remained under siege, yet none of the Qing commanders seemed to be within striking distance of that town. True, Zhang Yulong had secured Angu, but he had allowed too many rebels to escape. If, as Feng had insisted, the Zhongjia bandits were nothing more than an unruly mob, why were they so difficult to suppress? The court noted with obvious relief that Le Bao would soon reach Guizhou with additional troops. The Yunnan-Guizhou governor-general was a much better tactician than Feng Guangxiong, and campaigns would surely gain momentum under his command.54
Le Bao was still miles from Guizhou, however, and in the weeks before he arrived, the situation continued to deteriorate. In mid-March, Yunnan governor Jiang Lan reported that the rebels had made numerous incursions into the eastern part of his province, where they were likely to receive aid and comfort from Zhongjia and other non-Han villagers. He also feared for the safety of Han Chinese living in the border area. The rebels had already raided several Han settlements on the Yunnan side. On one occasion, after seizing all the money, guns, and grain they could find, they tied up Han men, women, and children, and carried them off into the mountains. Provincial soldiers pursued them and eventually apprehended the rebels and freed the captives. In a separate incident, a gang of Zhongjia bandits had forced their way into another Han village, although local militia had chased the rebels out of town before anything untoward happened. The local braves even managed to capture and decapitate one of the invaders. These incidents had worried Jiang Lan so much that he ordered an expeditionary force of five hundred provincial soldiers to enter Guizhou and investigate. The report of the expedition leader described an encounter with two columns of Zhongjia cavalry. Two women warriors rode near the front, both of them dancing and bobbing in their saddles. The rebels were clad entirely in white, and most of them clutched a white scarf in one hand and a white fan in the other. They had no firearms, only heavy sticks and hunting knives. Two Zhongjia men shouted a command to attack, and the mounted rebels rushed forward. The Yunnan soldiers promptly opened fire. The rebels chanted “Stop the bullets! Stop the bullets!” But the incantation failed to deliver the desired effect. Qing bullets struck first one of the female warriors, and then the other, killing them instantly. Before the battle ended, Yunnan forces had killed several hundred rebels and captured more than a dozen alive.55
Beijing’s response to Jiang Lan suggests that the court took heart from the rebels’ apparent stupidity:
According to the confessions [of the ringleaders], the Miao bandits wear white turbans around their heads, and carry white scarves and fans to deceive the stupid Miao into believing that knives and bullets could not harm them. In view of this, the Miao criminals do nothing more than stir up trouble and deceive people. They lack cunning and ability. . . . As for the “immortal maidens” and “realized immortals” [that is, rebel soldiers] who say it is possible to use turbans and fans to shield themselves from harm, many [of them] were shot and killed in battle. Certainly this proves that their words cannot be trusted. This is obvious and simple to understand. It will make it easier to admonish and disband the rebel gangs. Those who call themselves “realized immortals” and “immortal maidens” to deceive the foolish Miao are truly despicable and must be captured. . . . Moreover, there must be leaders above these “Immortals.” Once these leaders are caught, it will be even easier to capture the followers.56
The optimism in this court letter masked Beijing’s mounting impatience with the officials in Guizhou. Once again, if the Zhongjia rebels were so foolish and superstitious, so lacking in cunning and ability, why were they so difficult to contain?
Indeed, the court’s frustration increased as the Guizhou troops continued to lose ground in a series of bloody but inconclusive battles. After capturing Angu, Zhang Yulong learned that the rebels had taken Paishakou, another strategic point on the road to Nanlong. Zhang and his men climbed a steep, heavily forested path to reach the rebels’ mountain lair. When they arrived, they found close to a thousand angry Zhongjia with guns.57 Qing soldiers fatally wounded several rebels and burned their huts to the ground. The rebels fled, but imperial troops gave chase and killed them by the score. Two days later, Qing troops used cannons to bombard the rebels, killing several hundred. When several Zhongjia tried to flee, Zhang Yulong’s men chased after them and hacked them to death. The Qing troops also set fire to trees and houses, leaving a burned landscape behind. The surviving rebels fled into the mountains, and the following day, close to two thousand rebels attacked the imperial army. Qing troops fired on the rebels with cannons and did not count the number killed. Zhang’s men managed to capture a few rebels, but none of them could provide any useful information. For all the destruction, this battle brought few tangible results. The roads to Nanlong remained blocked, and Zhang Yulong could not see a way forward.58
As the imperial troops’ southward progress slowed, the rebels’ northward march proceeded apace. On March 22, rebels attacked and occupied Guansuling, an important mountain pass between Yongning and Guanling, thereby gaining control of the main westward route to Yunnan. A day later, they laid siege to Guanling and killed the officials whom Feng Guangxiong had placed in charge of the granary there. At this point, Feng was on his way to meet Le Bao in Anshun, or else he too might have perished in the fighting.
The disorder soon spread into three other towns—Guangshun, Dingfan, and Changzhai—all of which were dangerously close to the provincial capital of Guiyang. The rebels in Guangshun barricaded themselves in two walled villages, Bachang and Jichang. On March 23, local officials urged Zhongjia living near these two rebel encampments not to join the insurgency. Evidently, his admonitions had some effect, for these Zhongjia villagers agreed to remain loyal to the Qing state.
Feng Guangxiong, who was still en route to Anshun, apparently received faulty or incomplete information about Guangshun. He learned only that the rebels had taken Guangshun, but somehow did not find out that many local Zhongjia still remained loyal to the Qing. At any rate, when provincial troops marched into Guangshun, they did not attempt to distinguish the loyal Zhongjia from the rebels. They torched numerous hamlets where the residents had already promised not to join the insurrection. The needless slaughter undoubtedly pushed many surviving Zhongjia into the rebel ranks.59
Earlier, [Feng] reported that the Zhongjia bandits numbered no more than a thousand. How is it, then, that large bands of rebels now occupy every town and road in southwestern Guizhou? Recent communiqués would suggest that the rebels number in the tens of thousands, not [in the] thousands! It is plain to see that Feng’s reports were not reliable. It is equally plain that the disorder in Guizhou is indeed comparable to the Miao Rebellion in Hunan. Thousands of soldiers will be needed to eradicate the [Zhongjia] rebels.
The court letter went on to note that Feng was a scholar, not a soldier, and that he was perhaps too advanced in age to take on heavy responsibilities. Once Le Bao arrived, Feng was to resume his civilian duties in Guiyang. He would manage administrative matters relating to the suppression campaign but take no further part in military strategy.60
Le Bao arrived in Anshun on March 31 for a debriefing from Feng Guangxiong. On his way to Anshun, Le Bao passed through the Guiyang region, where the rebels were using coercive tactics to gain new recruits. Le made personal visits to several Zhongjia hamlets to convince the villagers not to join the resistance. He told them that Qing armies had summarily crushed the Miao rebels in Hunan, and warned that the Zhongjia upstarts in Guizhou would soon face a similar fate. Le Bao also urged the villagers to stay on the lookout for anyone engaged in suspicious activities. Anyone who arrested such troublemakers, he said, could expect rich rewards.
Le Bao was confident that he had persuaded the Zhongjia of Guiyang to remain loyal to the Qing. But any good feelings that Le may have obtained from his success in this small mission probably evaporated during his meeting with Feng Guangxiong. Feng had just completed a tour of the Anshun region, where conditions were much bleaker than in Guiyang. The rebels had already taken many towns in the Anshun area, and the people were panicked. Feng was deeply apprehensive. If the rebels seized Anshun and Guiyang, what would stop them from pressing eastward or southward to other strategic points in Guizhou?61
Clearly, the rebels had to be stopped, and soon. Qing troops had made no real progress up to that point. In Le Bao’s estimation, Zhang Yulong’s assaults on Angu and Paishakou did not constitute real victories. They were a success only in terms of the number of rebels killed. But they were not successful from a tactical standpoint because the road to Nanlong remained blocked. Guanling, Yongning, Yongfeng, Xincheng, Huangcaoba, and of course Nanlong all remained under siege. Now the main road from Zhenning to Yunnan was also blocked, making it difficult to transport firearms, grain, and other supplies to the troops. Le Bao decided that he would mount an offensive on Guanling as soon as additional troops arrived from Hunan. Once Guanling was secure, he would go on to liberate Yongning and finally Nanlong. He also ordered Yunnan troops to mount an attack on Huangcaoba from the west.62
Le Bao set out for Guanling when the reinforcements arrived on April 8. The combined forces advanced about twenty miles to Huangguoshu, only to discover that the rebels controlled the road all the way to Guanling. Le Bao’s soldiers pressed ahead toward Huangguoshu, although the rebels continuously harassed the troops along the way. Shouting and waving their flags, the rebels swarmed like bees around the Qing troops. As Le Bao’s forces moved forward, more Zhongjia emerged from their hiding places in the stone caves of Huangguoshu and fired on the Qing troops. Undaunted, the troops advanced, capturing and killing many rebels.
Late that night, the government troops scaled Dapoling, a mountain peak opposite Guanling. Le Bao surveyed Guanling from atop the summit and noted that the surrounding terrain included a thick forest, with a wide gully traversed by a stone bridge. There were Miao settlements on either side of the forest, and Le Bao estimated that at least one thousand rebels were hiding there. The Zhongjia had also set up numerous sentry posts on the road to Guanling. Le Bao recognized that a direct attack on Guanling would be impossible. He found a circuitous route using mountain paths that the rebels did not yet occupy, and two days later, he launched a three-pronged attack on Guanling. The rebels put up stiff resistance, but Le Bao’s men killed scores of them and seized the rebels’ grain and gunpowder to redistribute among themselves. More importantly, through these successful attacks, Le Bao had reopened the main artery from Guizhou to Yunnan.63
Le Bao next set his sights on Balongtun, a strategic town between Guanling and Yongning. After a full week of fighting, Le Bao and his troops subdued the rebels in a series of coordinated attacks. Soon, some two thousand Zhongjia from neighboring villages went to the Qing encampment to surrender in person. Le Bao then ordered his men to charge into Yongning while he brought up the rear. After a few skirmishes, Le Bao and his forces arrived in Yongning. There, Le Bao met up with Zhulonga, who had finally managed to extricate himself from Annan. On April 16, Le Bao summoned all the Qing troops in the area and staged a massive attack on Yongning. When the Yongning magistrate heard the gunfire and saw explosions outside the city wall, he knew that imperial troops had arrived to end the month-long siege and he sent local militia members to help. Realizing they were outnumbered by government troops, the rebels surrendered by the score.
With Guanling, Yongning, and Annan under Qing control again, Le Bao and other Qing military leaders could begin planning the next campaigns. They decided that Zhulonga would proceed to Yongfeng, and after liberating the siege of that town, Zhulonga would continue to Nanlong. At Nanlong, he would meet up with Le Bao, who intended to go by way of Angu, Paishakou, and Xincheng. In that way, the Qing forces would approach Nanlong along two routes, liberate the city, and quickly exterminate the rebels.64
On April 26, Le Bao’s men did break the siege of Xincheng, but in the weeks that followed, nothing else went according to plan. Once Xincheng was under Qing control, Le Bao ordered brigade commander (youji) Chang Shan to lead a few hundred men to Huangcaoba, where Yunnan troops had been mired for several weeks. The plan was for Chang Shan to relieve the Yunnan troops, recapture Huangcaoba, and then push his way eastward to Nanlong. There, he would meet up with Le Bao and Zhulonga, who would arrive by way of their planned itineraries through rebel territory.65 However, both Zhulonga and Le Bao ran into immediate difficulties. Zhulonga and his troops made only limited progress before heavy rebel attacks prevented them from going any farther. Le Bao eventually ordered Zhulonga to abandon Yongfeng for the time being and to find an alternate route to Nanlong.
Pockets of rebel resistance also slowed Le Bao’s progress from Xincheng. The rebels in the area all knew that Le Bao had recently captured Xincheng, and they were determined to prevent further Qing advances. They set up numerous roadblocks and erected high wooden barriers on the road leading to Wangchengpo, a key mountain pass on the way to Nanlong. Le Bao searched for alternate routes, and, finding none, hatched a strategy to destroy all of the rebels’ roadblocks on the way to the pass. On the night of May 9, he ordered his troops to march toward Wangchengpo and throw torches at the wooden barriers. When the Qing troops did so, the barriers promptly ignited. The rebels scattered in panic as Qing troops fired on them. Many Zhongjia died, and others fled under cover of darkness. The Qing troops then took control of the Wangchengpo pass.
Even after this victory, Le Bao could only make slow progress toward Nanlong. The morning after the midnight capture of Wangchengpo, he surveyed the landscape and saw that the rebels had regrouped at a mountain several kilometers away. There was no effective way to attack these rebels, for they had set up encampments on the mountain at many elevations. Le Bao ordered his men to ascend this neighboring peak and to burn as many encampments as they could. Hundreds of rebels died in the fires, but countless others simply escaped by climbing to a higher elevation. It was a maddening impasse for Le Bao, but after nine days, Qing troops lured the remaining rebels into an ambush, vanquished them, and seized control of the mountain.66
While Le Bao was fighting for Wangchengpo, Chang Shan met his demise near Huangcaoba. The rebels apparently found out that Guizhou troops were on their way and laid an ambush. In order to reach Huangcaoba from the east, Chang Shan’s troops had to cross the Mabie River.67 Wei Qiluoxu personally led his rebel troops to the river’s edge and destroyed the sole wooden bridge spanning the water. The rebels then jumped into waiting boats and sailed to the opposite bank to set booby traps on the road to Huangcaoba. When Chang Shan and his Qing troops arrived, they could not cross the river and were forced to set up camp, opposite Huangcaoba. The rebels sailed across the river and attacked the Qing troops in the dead of night, killing the entire battalion. Wei Qiluoxu heralded the massacre as “The Great Victory at Mabie,” and it became one of the most celebrated pieces of Zhongjia lore.68
A Change in Momentum: Qing Armies Seize the Upper Hand
After so many campaign setbacks, Le Bao finally had a breakthrough in early June. He planned to press to Yangchang, the next important town on his slow march to Nanlong. For days, heavy rains and rough terrain conspired against him, and as usual, the rebels had erected roadblocks at many points along the road. As Le Bao and his men inched forward, he began to consider the possibility of taking an alternate route to Nanlong.
Several days later, a solution emerged when two brothers69 appeared at Le Bao’s headquarters and presented themselves as “loyal Miao” (shun Miao). The brothers complained that the rebels had seized their farmland and implored the Qing general to help them recover it. After listening with great interest, Le Bao invited the men to serve as spies for the imperial army, promising large rewards if they could provide good intelligence on rebel movements in Yangchang. Not only would they regain their own lands, they would also receive the lands now claimed by the rebels in Yangchang.
The men readily agreed and hurried to Yangchang. Two days later, the elder returned to report that he and his brother had feigned surrender to the rebel commander of Yangchang.70 The commander had initially rejected them because he suspected they were already sworn allies of the Qing. When he threatened to kill the brothers, they hastily explained that their surrender to Qing troops had only been a ruse to keep their farmland. The rebel commander seemed to accept this and ordered the two men to seal their loyalty by drinking the blood of a freshly slain chicken. He then asked them to stand guard by the village gate. The elder brother had managed to sneak away just long enough to inform Le Bao of the progress of the plan.
Le Bao stated his intention to attack Yangchang that night, and ordered the two brothers to continue acting as spies throughout the assault. The ensuing battle ended in a decisive victory for Qing troops, with countless rebels killed and thirty-eight rebels captured alive. Le Bao directed the brothers to identify each captive; and then Le Bao personally interrogated them one by one. In this way, Le Bao learned about the cult that had taken hold in Nanlong the previous year, and also gained some understanding of the rebels’ organizational structure. The rebel commander at Yangchang held the title “realized immortal” and oversaw local administration and troop mobilization. Every area under rebel control was placed under the jurisdiction of a different “realized immortal.” A shadowy figure by the name of Da Wang Gong selected the “realized immortals,” but the captives could not say with certainty who this man was, or where he might be. They were also not sure if Da Wang Gong was the primary leader of the rebellion, or if he was subordinate to a higher authority figure. Nevertheless, Le Bao was satisfied to have even these small kernels of information. As he pressed on toward Nanlong, he believed he could continue to gather intelligence on this Da Wang Gong.71
Le Bao’s success at Yangchang was the first of several important victories that summer. In late July, Yunnan governor Jiang Lan reported his province’s troops had finally broken the siege at Huangcaoba, thus clearing the western approach to Nanlong.72 Guizhou troops met up with the Yunnan armies outside Huangcaoba and launched a coordinated attack on Bangzha. The combined forces captured and interrogated numerous rebels, who revealed that Wang Niangxian of Dongsa and Wei Qiluoxu of Dangzhan were the true leaders of the rebellion.73
Armed with this knowledge, Le Bao decided to capture the two leaders before launching the final assault on Nanlong. On October 5, he sent five columns of troops into Dongsa and another three into Dangzhan. Thousands of Zhongjia had assembled in Dongsa to protect Wang Niangxian. When the rebels saw the imperial troops approaching, they felled trees to block the roads. However, Le Bao’s men pressed on, burning everything in their path, killing anyone who dared resist.
At last, the Qing troops reached Wang Niangxian’s fortress, a multi-storied tower encircled by two stone walls. Rebels fired at the soldiers and hurled stones from the fortress windows, so the imperial troops could not go forward. Several men attempted to scale the wall, but the rebels stoned them to death. Another group of soldiers tried to set fire to the gate, but the rebels promptly extinguished the flames with water. Le Bao finally hit upon the idea of digging tunnels underneath the wall to move his soldiers behind enemy lines. Soon after Le Bao’s troops began digging, a large section of the wall collapsed, allowing the men to rush into the enemy rebel stronghold. The rebels sprinkled gunpowder throughout their fortress and ignited it, apparently preferring self-immolation to capture. The Qing troops rushed into the town and pulled Wang Niangxian from the flames.
A similar scenario unfolded in Dangzhan. When the Qing troops approached, Wei Qiluoxu and his followers barricaded themselves in a building and set themselves on fire. Imperial troops arrived just in time to pluck them from the fire. Wei Qiluoxu’s hands were severely burned, but he was still able to speak and move about.74 After the attacks on Dongsa and Dangzhan, Qing troops recaptured Nanlong and Yongfeng with little resistance. Beijing subsequently changed the names of both towns to honor the citizens who had survived the long sieges. Nanlong became Xingyi, meaning “flourishing virtue,” and Yongfeng was renamed Zhenfeng, meaning “loyal and prosperous.”75 Wei Qiluoxu and Wang Niangxian were escorted to Beijing and summarily executed.76
THE NANLONG UPRISING AS RECOUNTED IN BUYI (ZHONGJIA) NARRATIVES
‘Immortal Maiden Wang’
“Immortal Maiden Wang” is the more fanciful of the two indigenous accounts.77 It portrays Wang Niangxian, not Wei Qiluoxu, as the mastermind behind the uprising. The first few stanzas establish her credentials as a priestess and rebel leader by recounting her remarkable childhood. She could climb and crawl as soon as she emerged from her mother’s womb, and learned to speak before she was a month old. When she and her mother went out on sunny days, the spirits provided a red parasol to shield them from the heat; when she and her father went out on rainy days, the spirits provided a green umbrella to keep them dry. People took these unusual occurrences as signs that the young girl enjoyed protection from the spirits, and possessed strong magical powers.78
Soon, her abilities became manifest in even the most mundane tasks. Like all Zhongjia girls, she tended her family’s cattle and horses and collected firewood in the forest. While her friends struggled to control their animals, hers were unfailingly placid and obedient. When she went into the forests, the wood chopped itself and piled into a heap at her side, while she sat under a tree and worked on her embroidery. Soon, her unique powers became apparent to others. When she was walking home from the forest, onlookers noticed that she was being carried on a sedan chair of flowers. From that point forward, everyone believed she was an immortal who enjoyed protection from the spirits, and they began calling her “Immortal Maiden Wang.”79
As she grew older, Wang Niangxian became aware of the poverty and oppression around her, and she used her magical powers to improve the lives of her fellow Zhongjia. While grazing her cows one day, she remarked to a friend, “The officials are truly despotic and hateful! They occupy the mountains, the forests, and all the land. They will not even relinquish the most barren rocks. We have no fields to till, and every year we suffer famine. We have no land to plant. Season after season, we have not been able to cultivate cotton. . . . I demand lands for the poor people to till! Everyone must have food and clothing.” So saying, she turned clumps of dirt into cultivable land. Thereafter, people called these lands “immortal dry land” (shenxian di) and “immortal paddies” (shenxian tian). It is interesting to note that Wei Qiluoxu’s concerns for the public welfare are here attributed to Wang Niangxian, but instead of resorting to social banditry, she used her conjuring powers to create new farmland.80
Before long, however, imperial officials and native officials seized the fields Wang Niangxian had just created. “Outrageously wicked and corrupt were the officials. People were dying of hunger and could not tend the lands. The officials came and took them [the lands] by force.” When Zhongjia villagers expressed their despair, Wang Niangxian announced her intention to fight the imperial officials and local despots to the death. The people rallied around her and said, “The officials have crowds of soldiers and horses. . . . You alone cannot accomplish much. We have deliberated and decided to fight.”81 Wang Niangxian also confronted officials about one of the Zhongjia people’s most serious grievances against the Qing authorities. Like many other non-Chinese residents of Guizhou, the Zhongjia tried to earn money by selling firewood to Qing officials. More often than not, the officials would refuse to pay. Wang Niangxian spoke out against this injustice:
The officials are wealthy, with storehouses full of grain. The common folk starve to death on the side of the road. Officials and gentry have meat and wine every day while the poor people subsist on chaff and bran. Officials occupy the fields; native officials seize the land. The common people have nothing to eat and must sell firewood in order to buy rice. In the forest, there are white birds and black, none blacker than the crow. In the human race, there are good people and evil, none more evil than the officials! When they come to procure firewood, they offer no money!82
At first, Wang tried to reason with the officials, but they beat her with heavy sticks. Enraged, she threw herself into hand-to-hand combat with Qing troops for three days and three nights. She seemed invincible, even though she was just one small woman, single-handedly fighting thousands of men. After she killed scores of imperial soldiers, they retreated to their garrisons, and she returned to her home village. Her martial skill and ruthlessness struck fear into the hearts of the local officials. They pasted up announcements proclaiming her a “devil” (yaoguai) who was protected by evil spirits. Wang Niangxian responded with harsh words about the officials’ behavior: “In daylight and in darkness, they harm people. When they buy firewood, they do not pay for it. Then they return to beat people. How can such injustice exist in the world? Everything must be set right!”83
In order to set things right, Wang Niangxian now determined to organize a rebel movement. She gathered followers by reminding them of her magical ability to “cross the darkness” and to communicate directly with the spirits. Wang Niangxian told the villagers, “The spirits have ordered me to transmit the following message to you: Why do we suffer? Only because of the officials and the gentry. . . . If we want food, we must rise up and resist the officials and gentry. If we want peace, we must rise up with our knives and axes and kill the officials of Nanlong. . . . Only after we bring oppression to an end will the people have security. Only when extortion is wiped away will the hamlets and mountains know peace.”84
Wang Niangxian’s words inspired people to take action. Tens of thousands of Zhongjia joined her cause and resolved to exterminate the officials and the gentry. Although it is difficult to determine whether Wang Niangxian actually uttered these words, in all likelihood, the creators and transmitters of this narrative used her character as a mouthpiece for the injustices endured by the Zhongjia. Once again, in this narrative it is Wang Niangxian and not Wei Qiluoxu who mobilizes the masses. Her rebellion is divinely inspired from the start and skips the social banditry phase described in the Qing accounts.
Wei Qiluoxu does enter the story soon, but in a subordinate role. During the planning phases of the rebellion, Wang Niangxian joined forces with Wei and two other local men, Da Wang Gong and Sang Hongsheng. Da Wang Gong and Wei Qiluoxu both wanted to rise up against corrupt officials and greedy landowners. Sang Hongsheng, a Han Chinese man identified as a “guest” (kejia),85 also wanted to lead a rebellion. Once the four established an alliance, they began planning their first major attack. Wei Qiluoxu was to attack the north gate of Nanlong, Da Wang Gong the south gate, and Wang Niangxian the west gate.
On the day of the attack, Wang Niangxian and her troops laid siege to Nanlong. The officials and citizens could only look on in horror, and the imperial troops stationed in the city realized they were no match for the rebels:
Although the soldiers were numerous, they could not defeat Wang Xiangu [Wang Niangxian]. The soldiers who died were many. Their blood flowed like a river. They fought for seven days and seven nights, until their corpses were numerous enough to fill a dike. The soldiers closed the [Nanlong] city gates. Xiangu [Wang Niangxian], closed in tight. Her troops besieged the city for three days and three nights. The magistrate was terrified. He notified the capital, and the emperor, too, was frightened . . . and sent a panicked edict ordering the transfer of troops from Yunnan and Guangxi. Soon, the dirty hound of a Governor-general Le Bao led ten thousand troops toward Nanlong. He burned villages to the ground as he rampaged through Guizhou like a rabid dog.86
The rebels went on to seize the Guizhou towns of Xincheng, Yongfeng, and Huangcaoba in rapid succession.87 Soon, the rebels seemed poised for a direct attack on Guiyang and the emperor became nervous and fearful. “By day, he [the emperor] dispatched soldiers (to Guizhou), and by night he panicked. The dog of a Yunnan-Guizhou governor-general, Le Bao, received an edict ordering him to proceed directly to Nanlong. The soldiers were like jackals and wolves, rampaging along the roads.”88 They burned and pillaged every town and hamlet in their path. It is interesting to see Le Bao referred to as a hound or a rabid dog, given the Qing propensity to label non-Chinese peoples with pejoratives using the dog character component. Here, the creators and transmitters of “Immortal Maiden Wang” turned the linguistic table on the Qing.
After sketchy descriptions of some battles with the Qing armies, the narrative turns to a vivid account of the greatest rebel victory, the ambush at the Mabie River. Upon learning of Le Bao’s plans to cross the river, Wei Qiluoxu led his troops to the Mabie and ordered them to destroy the bridges spanning the waterway. Next, Wei’s men seized every boat in the vicinity and moved the vessels to the opposite bank, where Le Bao’s men could not reach them.89 When Le Bao and his men reached the riverbank, they were furious to see the ruined bridge and the boats on the far bank. To make matters worse, a violent thunderstorm struck. Lightning split the sky, and huge waves roiled the water’s surface. Le Bao sought out some local craftsmen and ordered them to build rafts for his troops. This proved a foolish move on his part. Unbeknown to him, the tribesmen were loyal to the rebels and seized the opportunity to sabotage the vessels. Normally, when the craftsmen made rafts, they lashed wooden planks together with thick rope, but this time, they used thin vines to bind rough-hewn logs. When the rafts were finished, the unsuspecting Le Bao ordered his soldiers to pole the rafts across the river. The watercraft broke apart immediately, leaving hundreds of Qing troops spluttering and thrashing about in the water—including Le Bao, who could not swim. A soldier saved him from drowning and carried him to shore. Many others were not as fortunate and lost their lives in the turbulent Mabie.
After this debacle, yet another ambush lay in store for the Qing troops. While Le Bao tried to gather his wits, Wei Qiluoxu prepared an ingenious attack. He set up camp on a mountain, where he stockpiled logs and large stones in preparation for his next assault on imperial troops. At this point, Le Bao’s foremost concern was self-preservation. Two important generals had lost their lives in the ill-fated attempt to cross the Mabie. After losing so many of his crack troops, Le Bao needed reinforcements. He retreated several miles to join forces with Guizhou governor Feng Guangxiong and his troops. After conferring, the two generals agreed to try crossing the Mabie once again. This time, they would descend from a nearby mountain and make their way across the river with each soldier holding fast to the shoulders of the man in front of him. Feng would lead the charge, and Le Bao would bring up the rear.
The path at the foot of the mountain was extremely narrow. As the Qing troops squeezed through, they heard a deafening noise. The entire mountain seemed to shake. Suddenly, giant objects rained down on them like hail. Wei Qiluoxu and his men stood at the top of the mountain, showering the Qing troops with rocks and logs. As in the ill-fated attempt to cross the Mabie River, many Qing troops were killed or injured. Many lost their legs or were smashed to death. Those whose legs remained intact retreated to safety.90 Le Bao once again managed to avoid death or injury, but Feng Guangxiong was slightly wounded. Wei Qiluoxu hurried to tell Wang Niangxian about his victories, and Wang spread the news to Zhongjia throughout Guizhou.91
This episode of “Wang Xiangu” contains a healthy dose of poetic license and exaggeration. In fact, neither Le Bao nor Feng Guangxiong was anywhere near Mabie. Le Bao, of course, was fighting at Bifengshan, and Feng Guangxiong was overseeing administrative work in Anshun. By incorporating these high-ranking Qing officials into the poem, the original creators and transmitters of the narrative probably hoped to heighten the importance of this final rebel victory. They may have also wanted to soften the blow of later episodes, which had to recount Wang Niangxian’s final defeat. Lingering images of Le Bao’s near-drowning might have provided some comfort as, later in the poem, listeners learned of the young heroine’s capture by Qing forces. At the same time, this Mabie episode represents a sharp departure from the rest of “Wang Xiangu.” The events arise from the application of human ingenuity, not of magic, which suggests the influence of PRC compilers and editors. In other words, to attribute the Zhongjia triumph at the Mabie River to spiritual intervention might give credence to the religious beliefs that Communist officials sought to discredit.
The narrative continues by describing the Qing officials’ panic in the wake of the Zhongjia victories. Le Bao and his colleagues sent numerous, frantic reports to the emperor, who also grew alarmed. He ordered soldiers to be transferred to Guizhou from other provinces (Yunnan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Hunan). Soon, these imperial troops overran Guizhou “like packs of wolves” and marched toward Nanlong. Wherever they went, they behaved “like wild animals,” killing people on sight.92 As soon as the Qing forces came upon a house, they would burn it to the ground.
At the same time, the rebels also incurred serious losses. They were greatly outnumbered, and knew they could not defeat the imperial troops. Once again, Wang Niangxian used her magic to help the rebels. Chanting a spell, she “sprinkled beans on the ground to produce soldiers” (sadou chengbing).93 One bean became one thousand soldiers; ten beans became ten thousand. The “bean soldiers” (doubing) took up weapons and battled with the imperial troops. Wang Niangxian also provided food for the troops. She uttered a spell, and rice poured down from heaven. The grains of rice formed a small mountain, more food than the thousands of troops could ever finish. The rebel soldiers called it “spirit rice” (shen fan). It was infused with magic, so that whenever a soldier ate it, he became even braver. After fighting with the “bean soldiers,” the imperial troops were even more frightened of Wang Niangxian.94
Before long, however, thousands of Qing troops descended on Nanlong in search of Wang Niangxian, whom the emperor had branded “a demon” (yaojing) and “the root of the trouble” (huogen).95 The emperor dispatched still more soldiers to Nanlong, whereupon Wang Niangxian led the rebel army to Dangzhan and set up an encampment. Everywhere, towns and hamlets in this area were surrounded by rebel soldiers. For many days, Qing troops could not break through the rebel lines, but at last they overwhelmed the rebels and stormed Nanlong. Once inside the city, Le Bao captured and interrogated dozens of people, including Wang Niangxian’s mother and sister. Le Bao tortured these Zhongjia to extract information. When Wang Niangxian learned of her family’s fate, it “pained her like a crown of thorns.”96 In the dead of night, she led three armies into Nan-long, determined to rescue her mother and sister. She entered the gates unaware that the city was full of Qing soldiers. As soon as they spotted Wang Niangxian, they opened fire, wounding her in seven places. She crumpled to the ground. Evidently, the “Immortal Maiden” was not immortal after all, and the narrative does not explain why her magical powers did not protect her from the Qing bullets. In any event, imperial soldiers tied her up and carted her off to Beijing in a heavy wooden basket.
The narrative concludes on a mournful note: “Today the sky is a slice of blackness. The sun sets early. Our Immortal Maiden was captured by imperial troops and sent to the capital. The river grows murky and the sparrows cease their song. Our Immortal Maiden was killed by the immeasurably evil emperor.” After her death, a five-colored cloud appeared in the sky. There, Wang Niangxian continues to live on as a spirit who watches over the terrestrial realm. The last few lines of the poem urge the listeners not to despair, for the Immortal Maiden never really died: “She will forever live on by our side. . . . She remains in the sky, preparing for war. She still intends to kill the officials and the gentry [in order] to wipe everything clean and help the impoverished.”97
In many respects, “Song of the Nanlong Resistance” hews closely to Qing accounts of the rebellion, though it exaggerates Zhongjia victories. This poem also seeks to turn the rebels’ battlefield defeats into moral victories. In this version of events, Wei Qiluoxu and Wang Niangxian emerge as equal partners in the planning and execution of the rebellion. This creates an interesting middle ground between the Qing accounts, which find Wang Niangxian playing a passive and not altogether voluntary role in the actual rebellion, and “Immortal Maiden Wang,” which portrays her as both mastermind and martyr.
“Song of the Nanlong Resistance” does not provide detailed accounts of major battles, and even glosses over the victory at the Mabie River. Instead, it relies on a series of dialogues between the rebel leaders and Qing officials, which highlight Zhongjia defiance in the face of defeat.98 In this account, when imperial troops descended on Dangzhan and captured Wei Qiluoxu, they took the rebel to see Le Bao. The Qing general swore at him: “Damn you, Wei Qiluoxu! You incited the people to rebel and killed my general, Chang Shan. Today, I captured you. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Wei Qiluoxu replied, “The officials of Nanlong oppressed the common people, pushing them to the point of rebellion. When I led the people to rise up, I complied with Heaven’s will and the people’s sentiment. Today I was captured. If you want to kill me, then kill me. If you want to hack me to pieces, then hack me to pieces. What more need I say?!”
Le Bao retorted, “Your crimes are as high as a mountain! You incited the people to rise up and attack a prefecture. You killed an imperial general [Chang Shan]. Even to skin you like a slaughtered animal would not lessen your crimes. I will have you escorted to the capital, where the emperor himself will decide your fate!”99
After capturing Wei Qiluoxu, Le Bao set his sights on catching Wang Niangxian. He ordered his troops to block access to Dongsa hamlet on three sides, leaving only one road clear for Wang Niangxian when she descended from her mountain stronghold to return to Dongsa. He made an announcement: “Barbarian soldiers who are willing to die should come out and fight! Those unwilling to die should come down the mountain and surrender!” Le Bao stationed himself at the foot of the mountain and kept watch. Wang Niangxian hid in a fortress, readying her soldiers for battle. Eventually, she spied Le Bao and his men preparing to attack, and she was infuriated. After ordering her troops into battle formation, she taunted Le Bao: “Today the shields and daggers move. So you have more soldiers than I do. I am not frightened! I will send you to see the king of Hell (yanluo)! I will peel off your skin and use it for a drum, and gouge out your eyeballs to use as lanterns! I will knock out your teeth and use them as nails for the drum, and cut off your hands to use as hammers!”
Le Bao interpreted Wang Niangxian’s song as a declaration of war, and he responded with the following challenge: “I am leading an expedition to Nanlong to slaughter the barbarian troops. . . . Your corpses and skulls will be reduced to ash! Quickly! Quickly! Come down the mountain and submit to our knives. Do not use clever words. Come fight!”
Wang Niangxian then led her troops down the mountain and fought three battles with the imperial troops. Her men were “as fierce as wolves and tigers,” but they were unable to ward off Le Bao’s soldiers. They fought “knife to knife, gun to gun, soldier to soldier, general to general” (dao dui dao lai qiang dui qiang, bing dui bing lai jiang dui jiang).100 In the end, however, the imperial troops were too numerous for the rebels, and Wang Niangxian’s troops were forced to retreat. She took advantage of the chaos and hid herself among the local population.
By this time, Le Bao had also lost five of his battalions in the fighting, and he, too, was forced to retreat.101 The Qing general returned to his headquarters to regroup, but the following day, his troops stormed Wang Niangxian’s headquarters with flaming arrows in readiness. When Le Bao gave the command, each soldier shot his arrow into the compound, and fire engulfed the building. Satisfied that he had exterminated his enemies at last, Le Bao led his troops to Nanlong.
But Le Bao had not seen the last of Wang Niangxian, for she was still very much alive. The narrative does not make it clear whether she actually perished in the fire and came back to life—rising from the ashes, as it were—or if her supernatural powers enabled her to escape injury. Whatever the case, she cut her hair and disguised herself in men’s clothes in order to hide among the Zhongjia peasants of Nanlong. For several days, she wandered around, lamenting the recent turn of events:
I weep for my soldiers who died in battle. I weep for my father and elder brother. I weep for the soldiers who died in the fire. The villages and hamlets are deserted, empty of people. Qing soldiers gored my parents to death and plunged knives through my sisters’ hearts. Detestable are the imperial troops—criminals, every one of them! They destroyed my home and murdered my kinfolk and friends.102
Wang Niangxian’s disguise was not fail-safe, however. A sharp-eyed farmer recognized her and reported her to members of the village association, who then made a citizen’s arrest and began dragging her off to Governor-General Le Bao. En route, they met another Qing general. We are told that this General Jia was on his way to Nanlong when he encountered five men escorting a sixth person.103 The general asked the men to identify their companion, and they replied: “She is none other than the rebel leader, Wang Niangxian. She . . . plans to raise another army and engage in mortal combat with the emperor’s troops yet again. Fortunately, someone came and secretly reported on her. We saw her without a guard and arrested her. Now we will turn her in to Governor-General Le Bao.” General Jia took a look, and at first, he could only see a handsome young man. On closer inspection, he realized that it was indeed Wang Niangxian, disguised in male clothing. The general said with a smile, “At Nanlong, you killed many of the emperor’s soldiers. . . . You are truly formidable! I never thought that capturing you would be so effortless!”104
Jia and Le Bao sent gleeful reports to the emperor recounting the capture of Wang Niangxian. The two generals then had a great celebration, and spoke of Wang in admiring terms, calling her “a heroine, the likes of whom we rarely see.”105 In all likelihood, this conversation between the Qing generals never occurred, but perhaps it eased the sting of defeat for the original Zhongjia composers of this narrative and their descendants.
Le Bao and Jia escorted Wang Niangxian and Wei Qiluoxu to Beijing and presented the two prisoners to the emperor.106 All of the civil and military officials at court were in attendance. They saw a handsome, dignified couple with a regal bearing. The Jiaqing emperor asked if the prisoners were husband and wife. Le Bao replied that they were not, and added:
This woman is Wang Niangxian. The man is Wei Chaoyuan, nicknamed Wei Qiluoxu. The barbarian masses took the woman to be their supreme leader. The man was their main military leader. These two could be called heroes. Their troops besieged Nanlong for three months, killing countless imperial soldiers. They also attacked Puping and Yongfeng, and in those battles, they slaughtered three thousand of our troops. Thereafter, they fought several more battles in which they killed [the soldiers of] five of our companies altogether. General Chang Shan was also killed at their hands. I have therefore brought them before Your Majesty and await your verdict.107
The emperor ordered that the two prisoners be immediately executed. As soon as he delivered the verdict, a huge group of soldiers and palace officials pushed Wei Qiluoxu and Wang Niangxian to an execution ground outside the Forbidden City. Undaunted, Wei Qiluoxu and Wang Niangxian lifted their chests, their eyes bright and sharp as arrows, fiery anger gushing forth. With fierce scowls, they said, “After death, we shall return! You may expect us to attack you at any time.” The soldiers charged with the execution dared not raise their swords and retreated in terror. Only after the commanding officers barked stern orders did the soldiers take courage and move forward again. They killed Wei Qiluoxu using a rack of fine iron teeth. They cut Wang Niangxian into five parts. No one could bear to watch.108
CONCLUSION: THE ENDURING CULTURE OF RESISTANCE
Ultimately, the Zhongjia rebels achieved only a temporary disruption of the existing order, not the total destruction they desired. In this respect, the uprising can be seen as a “historical achievement of popular imagination.”109 That is, local malcontents envisioned an end to their impoverishment and domination by overlords, and acted upon this vision when the opportunity arose. In the end, these rebels suffered defeat because they overestimated their own abilities and underestimated the might of the Qing state.
The three accounts discussed in this chapter illuminate different facets of the Zhongjia defeat. Interestingly, both the Qing sources and “Immortal Maiden Wang” point to a similar triumph of technology over popular imagination. To be sure, both accounts reflect realities on the ground during the rebellion, but certain aspects of the indigenous narrative seem tailor-made to fit the PRC’s political agenda, particularly its emphasis on the primacy of science and reason over religion and superstition. In both versions, the rebels prove an unexpectedly formidable enemy, but the imperial troops’ superior weapons and military capabilities ultimately give them the edge. In both versions, the final battle for Nanlong finds the rebels utterly without resources when Wang Niangxian’s magical powers betray her during those last crucial hours—the triumph of science over superstition championed by PRC policy-makers.
In contrast, “Song of the Nanlong Resistance” appears to present the Zhongjia—and subaltern groups in general—as possessed with greater agency. In the final verses of the song, Wang Niangxian and Wei Qiluoxu literally have the last word, signaling the Zhongjia intent to rise up again at the next opportunity. Just because the Zhongjia had failed in this instance to overthrow the existing order, there was nothing to stop them—or another equally disenfranchised community—from trying again.
Leaving aside the modern-day political overtones, the final implied message of “Song of the Nanlong Uprising,” became abundantly clear to Qing authorities after the Zhongjia uprising, and in the aftermath of the much larger Miao Rebellion in western Hunan (1795–1806). The final years of the eighteenth century found provincial and central governments actively seeking measures to alleviate the causes of possible unrest in southwestern China.110 For example, in early 1798, the new Yunnan-Guizhou governor-general E’hui and Feng Guangxiong put forth elaborate new proposals to ease the poverty that had underlain the Nanlong Uprising. Han Chinese and Zhongjia were to live in segregated villages. Careful land surveys would be carried out to determine which fields belonged to Zhongjia farmers, and which fields belonged to the Han. Local officials were to mark boundaries with stones and strictly prohibit any encroachments by the Han. E’hui and Feng also wanted to provide the Zhongjia with occupations that might provide an alternative to crime, such as raising horses for postal station relays.111
However, such measures proved too little, too late. Local officials did not make much of an effort to enforce the new land regulations. There is no further information on the horse-raising scheme, but if the plan was implemented, few people took advantage of it. Thus, by 1801, trouble was brewing again in Guangshun, one of the many areas that had been affected by rebellion. In this case, yet another individual emerged with a money-making scheme that took advantage of the people’s superstitious bent. A man claimed that after a fourteen-month pregnancy, his wife was about to give birth to the new Miao king.112 This man attracted a small following before the officials could put a stop to his activities. Although Qing authorities managed to nip trouble in the bud this time, the potential for unrest remained undiminished.