1636 The China Venture – Snippet 22

Chapter 16

Eighth Year of the Reign of the Chongzhen Emperor

Year of the Pig, First Month (February 17-March 18, 1635)

The Ministry of Rites received an urgent report from the Beijing Astronomical Bureau: “In the Sun there was a black light that roiled and agitated it.”

The best scholars in the Hanlin Academy were instructed to research when this had last happened and what it might portend. They reported back that there was a similar occurrence listed in the Veritable Record for the 44th year of the Wanli Emperor–that is, from Sept. 11 to Oct. 10 of 1616.

One of the scholars further pointed out that in that year, the Jurchen leader Nurhaci had declared independence from the Ming and adopted the title “Brilliant Emperor, Nurturer of All Nations.” He suggested that this was a warning of danger from the north and that reinforcements should be sent to the great fortress at Shanhaiguan, the coastal pass between China and the Jurchen homeland.

The scholar in question was arrested, and beaten in public in front of the south gate to the Forbidden City. He was then sent into exile in the remote southwest.

Jungyang County, Henan

There were campfires everywhere. The rebel numbers had swelled thanks to a plague of locusts in Henan, and they were now perhaps two hundred thousand strong. It was hard to believe that only half a year ago, several of the leaders sitting in conclave this evening had surrendered to Chen Qiyu at Chexiang Gorge. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for Chen Qiyu’s career, he had granted them amnesty, and had failed to take adequate precautions in escorting them back to Shaanxi. The rebels had slaughtered the guards and re-established themselves. Now the leaders of thirteen different rebel groups had met up to decide where to go next, and what to do when they got there. In the meantime, their followers caroused.

“We haven’t raided in Shanxi since 1633,” said Ma Shouying, the “Old Muslim.” All of the rebel leaders had nicknames, often ones dating back to when they were mere bandits commanding dozens rather than thousands of men. Shouying was, in fact, one of the Hui people, Muslims living in northwest China, as marked by the white cap that he wore. “Let’s pluck it again.”

“To do that we must cross the Yellow River,” said Zhang Xianzhong, the “Yellow Tiger.” The “Yellow” referred to the after effect of a bout of jaundice in childhood, and the “Tiger” to his notorious bloodlust. He had once been a follower of Ma Shouying, rising to command two thousand men, but in the winter of 1631 he had accepted an offer of surrender from Hong Chengchou. Although he rebelled again, and formed his own band, there was bad blood now between him and Ma Shouying.

“What of it? The river is frozen over, and it’s only a few miles from where we are encamped.”

“Shanxi is just one province west of Pei-Chihli, in which Beijing lies. The government is sensitive to what happens in Shanxi, and can move forces there quickly,” Zhang complained.

Ma Shouying shrugged. “Then we cross back into Shaanxi or Henan.”

“In winter, yes. But what if we find ourselves pressed back against the river in the spring, when the river is high from the melt of the mountain snows? Are we to throw ourselves into the maelstrom?”

Ma Shouying spat into the fire. “The Yellow Tiger should perhaps change his name to the ‘Yellow Sheep,’ since he is content to chew the cud of Henan over and over again.”

Zhang Xianzhong rose, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Gao Yingxiang, the “Dashing King,” restrained him. “We were beaten last year because we didn’t work together,” he whispered. “This is not the time to put Ma Shouying in his place.”

His lieutenant, Li Zicheng, the “Dashing General,” tried to smooth the troubled waters. “The courage of the Yellow Tiger is not in doubt,” he told the other leaders. “Did he not display our might in distant Sichuan?” He forbore to mention that the Yellow Tiger had been trounced by Qin Liangyu, a chieftain of the Mao tribe and one of the few female commanders in the empire. “The exercise of prudence is appropriate, after the disaster of Chexiang Gorge.”

Gao quickly affirmed his chief lieutenant’s remarks. “The Dashing General is right. If we wish to raid to Shanxi, then we must take the precaution of taking and holding a nearby crossing of the Yellow River. Perhaps the Yellow Tiger could do this if the Old Muslim insists on a foray into Shanxi?”

Zhang Sang, a scholar who had recently joined Li Zicheng, added, “According to Sun Tzu, ‘when one attacks in enemy territory, one must preserve a line of retreat.'”

“You know, much as I appreciate the Old Muslim’s willingness to bare his teeth at Beijing, there is no need to cross the Yellow River. The economic heart of the empire is Nan-chihli,” Li Zicheng declared. “There is much plunder in this province.’

“It is not just plunder that should be considered,” said Zhang Sang. “We should take Fengyang and despoil the tombs. Then people will wonder whether the present dynasty has lost the Mandate of Heaven.” Fengyang, which was only a hundred miles from Nanjing, was the childhood home of the first Ming Emperor, and held the mausoleums of his mother and father. The fires in the tomb temples were kept burning to honor them every hour of every day.

“We can also free the prisoners,” Gao added. Fengyang was also where Ming princes and imperial eunuchs who had committed political misdeeds were confined.

“Let us march there,” Li Zicheng declared, “under banners declaring that we are in the service of the True Primal Dragon Emperor.”

“And who is that?” asked Ma Shouying.

Li Zicheng raised his eyes skyward. “We must wait for Heaven to reveal his identity.”


In February, the bandit armies under Gao Yingxiang the Dashing King and Zhang Xianzhong the Yellow Tiger assaulted Fengyang. Rather than simply mount a frontal attack, they first sent in men disguised as laborers, merchants, and Taoist priests. When the main bandit force approached, drawing the attention of the defenders, a smaller force was let in another gate by the fifth columnists. Fengyang’s defenses collapsed rapidly after that, and over four thousand Ming officials, soldiers and civilians were killed. The bandit casualties were light, perhaps a hundred men.

At “High Walls,” the Ming prison inside Fengyang for disgraced members of the imperial clan, they freed the prisoners, who hastily vanished into the countryside.

The bandits celebrated their victory by rape, murder, pillage and arson. Over 2,600 buildings and many ancient pine trees were burnt down, and the light of the tomb city could be seen from a hundred li away that night.

The Dashing King-Yellow Tiger alliance nearly fell apart that evening. The Yellow Tiger had captured some of the eunuch musicians who played for tomb ceremonies, and Kao’s lieutenant Li Zicheng, the Dashing General, had demanded that the eunuchs be turned over to him. Incensed, the Yellow Tiger had ordered that the eunuchs’ musical instruments be collected and burnt. In turn, Li Zicheng ordered his men to kill any musician who didn’t have a musical instrument to play.

As the instruments were collected in the center of the chamber, the eunuchs pleaded for their lives.

Fortunately, both for them and for the bandit alliance, Zhang Sang, the bandit’s new literati advisor, leapt up. “We are all good comrades here!” he cried. “There are plenty of musicians. Let them keep their instruments, and divvy them up equally between our fine leaders. And, in honor of our alliance under the banners of the True Primal Dragon Emperor, let us have all of the musicians play a song in honor of the Dashing General, the Dashing King, and the Yellow Tiger.”

He walked over to Li Zicheng and whispered, “Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, agreed to divide China between himself and Xiang Yu. But when the time was right, he renounced the treaty and took everything for himself. Be conciliatory, for now…..”

Li Zicheng gritted his teeth, then relaxed them. “All right,” he whispered. And then, loudly enough for all to hear, he asked, “Where will this song come from?”

“I will compose it shortly,” said Zhang Sang. “And while you wait for that song, let the musicians play us some good drinking songs.” The bandits roared in approval.

Both leaders grudgingly agreed to Zhang Sang’s proposal, and Zhang Sang yelled at the musicians, “Well, what are you waiting for? Grab your instruments and play a drinking song for these fine lads!”

He then pulled out some paper from his gear and started writing. Perhaps an hour later, he brought the composition over to the troupe, they made copies, and sang the new song. It was set to a well-known tune, so they only needed to learn the lyrics. And they were motivated to learn them quickly and well.