Tungan [Dungan] Rebellion (1862–77)


Battle of the Wei River, painting of the Imperial Qing Court.


Shooting exercises of Yakub Beg’s Dungan and Chinese taifurchi (gunners)

The Tungan Muslims in northwest China also rebelled. Sparked by the Taipings’ invasion of Shaanxi Province and by an increase in the ever-present tensions between the Han majority and the Muslim minority, the Tungan groups rose up in 1862. The major leader of this movement was Ma Hualong, descendant of Ma Mingxin, the founder of a particularly militant Muslim group called the Xinjiao, or New Sect. The rebellion quickly spread, since Beijing could not immediately afford to send troops to quell this uprising.

By 1864, the Muslims had taken control of Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces. Their victories put the Muslims in a particularly strong geographic position, since they enjoyed the military advantage of being located upstream on the Yellow River. It was from this location that the Qin Dynasty had first unified China in 221 bc, and from there that the Chinese Communists would do so again almost a century later in 1949. Caravan routes from Beijing to Xinjiang and beyond passed through the Gansu corridor, and allowed for relatively easy communication with Muslims in Xinjiang, as well as with Central Asian Islamic countries.

The Tungan Muslims were Chinese-speaking and had intermarried with Han Chinese for many centuries. Their religious school of Sufism was highly active and served to unify the community. Religious leaders had long claimed a special link with God that would let them perform miracles, such as curing all kinds of disease and forecasting future events. A Sufi practice known as “vocal recollection” was central to the New Sect’s teachings, and Ma Hualong became a major leader of this school. His followers believed that through “vocal recollection” Ma could eliminate all thoughts from his mind except those pertaining to God, and in such a manner could predict the future and even cure physical problems like infertility.

In April 1862, one wing of the Taipings’ final Northern Expedition moved into Shaanxi Province. This Taiping force approached Xi’an, the founding capital of the Qin Dynasty, before moving eastward into Henan Province. Encouraged by Beijing, the local Han Chinese in Shaanxi formed militia groups to oppose the Taipings. Fearful that these militias would be turned against them, the Muslims followed suit. By late May 1862, Han– Muslim tensions erupted because the Han militia burned a Muslim town, and the Tungan responded by murdering the Imperial commissioner for local defense.

The Muslim groups were originally divided into eighteen “great battalions.” Although they were initially scattered throughout Shaanxi, they later became centered in Tongzhou in eastern Shaanxi, near Xi’an in central Shaanxi, and in Fengxiang in western Shaanxi. The Tungan immediately blockaded Xi’an and kept it isolated from Beijing from midsummer 1862 until August 1863, when the new Imperial commissioner, Dolonga, relieved the town. Dolonga also defeated the Muslim forces in Shaanxi and forced the rest to flee west to Gansu Province.

Following Dolonga’s death in March 1864, Imperial repression of the Tungan Rebellion shifted to Gansu Province. The Tungan Rebellion in northern Gansu was based in Lingzhou, only fifty miles from Ma Hualong’s hometown of Jinjibao. When Ma’s troops took Lingzhou in December 1863, a reported 100,000 Han Chinese inhabitants were massacred. From this base, the movement spread throughout all of Gansu, and the Muslims soon controlled almost the entire province. Many Muslim sects did not agree with Ma’s New Sect teachings and so there was continual internecine strife. In May 1866, Ma even agreed to support the Qing. In return for giving up twenty-six cannon, more than 1,000 foreign arms, and 10,000 swords and spears, Ma’s record as a rebel was cleared and Beijing proclaimed him a loyalist. Still, the rebellion continued unabated and even spread further west into Xinjiang.

Imperial opposition to the Tungan began in earnest only in 1867, with Zuo Zongtang’s entry into the fray as the head of the new Hunan Army. Southern Shaanxi was cleared first, and many of the Tungan who had returned to Shaanxi once again fled to southeast Gansu. Meanwhile, even after his “surrender” in 1866, Ma Hualong had continued to strengthen his position in northern Gansu. Zuo’s new Hunan Army numbered 55,000 men, and a unit of the old army—about 10,000 men—was commanded by Liu Songshan. In addition, Beijing had assigned 10,000 troops from the Sichuan Army, 7,000 troops from the Anhui Provincial Army, and 6,500 troops from the Henan Army. Altogether, Zuo’s total troop force numbered almost 100,000.

Zuo Zongtang’s military philosophy was a mix of West and East. Although his troops were armed with western firearms and ammunition brought at great expense from Shanghai, they received only ten days of arms training and minimal practice, so they could not use their weapons effectively. Zuo’s army did have a number of western siege guns, however, and they proved to be particularly important for attacking the Muslims’ walled cities.

Zuo’s highest priority was that his men were courageous and that they had ample rations to fight. Accordingly, he would not order his troops into battle unless he had already accumulated and stockpiled three months of supplies. Even this was not always adequate to keep morale high, so promises of Muslim loot were also made to the flagging troops. Even with these promises Zuo’s troops orchestrated a series of mutinies throughout the campaign.

To fund the seven-year campaign, Zuo received government and provincial money from a special “Western Expedition fund.” In addition, Zuo arranged for foreign support by taking out loans “from foreign firms, guaranteed by the superintendents of customs at the treaty ports and confirmed by the seals of the provincial governors involved, to be repaid by these provinces to the foreign firms by a fixed date.” Needless to say, these arrangements made a Qing victory of great interest to the foreign firms, since full repayment could be made only after the errant provinces were reconquered.

Zuo quickly developed a reputation for carrying out painstaking preparations before sending his troops on rapid and decisive campaigns. Zuo was periodically criticized by members of the Manchu Court for being indecisive, but “he refused to make blind moves before his preparations were complete, even upon an order from the Court.” Instead, he carefully stockpiled food at strategic points along his proposed route, and in so doing “conquered what had seemed to be an insurmountable handicap in Gansu, the shortage of food.”

Finally prepared, Zuo led his troops against the eighteen great battalions. Highly decentralized and without walled cities, most of the Shaanxi Muslims were either easily defeated or fled to Gansu. In early 1869 Zuo moved into Gansu, where his force was flanked to the northeast by Liu Songshan, who had just completed his campaign against the Nian in Zhili Province, and to the north by Zhang Yue, who had been stationed in Shanxi Province. Although this three-pronged attack eventually succeeded, it was not without major setbacks. Specifically, in early 1870, Muslim cavalry cut off supply lines in Shaanxi and, amidst heavy fighting, they killed Liu Songshan and routed Zuo’s army.

Regrouping, Zuo once again took the offensive, and by fall 1870 had surrounded and cut off Ma Hualong in his fortress at Jinjibao. Using Krupp siege guns to fire over the city walls, Ma was eventually forced to surrender and was executed, along with several thousand of his closest followers. The main base of the New Sect was now crushed.

Instead of an easy victory, what followed was a grueling three-year campaign. Although eventually victorious, Zuo’s forces were defeated yet again in early 1872 not far from Hezhou in western Gansu by the so-called “Old Teaching” Muslim Ma Zhanao, before Ma agreed to negotiate his surrender. Finally, on 24 October 1873, the final Muslim stronghold in Gansu, the walled city of Suzhou, was breached and 7,000 surviving Muslim troops were executed. Zuo was to write that this victory, which ended the Tungan Rebellion in Shaanxi and Gansu, was the “most perfect feat of my military career over decades.”

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