History has always been constructed with bodies and written in blood. Just like a Chinese poem said, “A general’s success is built on ten thousand bleaching bones（一将功成万骨枯)”. Looking back on the long Chinese history, cruel killings happened in almost every dynasty. In those dark times, people were killed, buried alive, and even cooked and eaten. Now, take a deep breath, as we take look at those frightening massacres.
Emperor Qin Shihuang burned books and buried scholars 秦始皇焚书坑儒
Emperor Qin Shihuang, the founder of the first unified empire in the history of China, was a great ruler but also a tyrant. Among what he did, the event “burn books and bury scholars alive (焚书坑儒)” had a large effect on history. In 213 B.C, Emperor Qin accepted official Li Si’s suggestion and ordered books to be burned. Except The History of Qin Dynasty and books on medicine, divination, and tree planting; many ancient books and records of the other six states were destroyed by Qin. The purpose of burning the books was to prohibit all heterodox thinking. Later, for the same reason, Emperor Qin ordered the burial of over 460 living scholars, who were thought to oppose him or his political ideas.
Bai Qi killed 400,000 Zhao soldiers 白起坑杀40万降卒
It was an ancient belief that killing captives was inauspicious. However, in the dictionaries of some generals, there was no entry for “prisoner-of-war.” Bai Qi, a famous general of Qin in the Warring States Period, who won more than 70 battles and never lost a single time in his life, was widely known for killing captives.
In the Battle of Changping between Qin and Zhao, 262 B.C, over 400,000 Zhao soldiers surrendered to Qin. But Bai only spared 240 of them to send message to Zhao. During his military career, Bai killed more than one million six hundred and fifty thousand soldiers. Despite of all his great military achievements, there is always controversy over whether he was a great general, due to his cruel practice of killing prisoners.
Xiang Yu killed 200,000 Qin soldiers 项羽坑杀20万秦卒
Ironically, perhaps neither Emperor Qin Shihuang nor Bai Qi could have imagined that decades later same thing happened to Qin people. In the late Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu, the leader of the uprising troops, launched battles against Qin. Unfortunately, Xiang was also a fan of killing. After Xiang conquered the city of Xiangyang, all of its civilians were massacred; the same thing happened in Chengyang, since the locals assisted the Qin army.
The most brutal killing happened in the city of Xin’an. Xiang killed 200,000 Qin soldiers who surrendered, because he was worried he could not control them and would endanger himself. Such a move made Xiang lose the support of his vassals and common people, and made him lose the “Contest between Chu and Han” against his rival Liu Bang, the eventual founder of the Han dynasty.
Yangcheng Massacre 董卓屠阳城
In 190 CE, Dong Zhuo, a regent of the 9-year-old emperor of the Eastern Han dynasty, directed a massacre in the city of Yangcheng. When Dong’s army passed Yangcheng, residents there were holding a street fair. Dong stopped and led his troop in to plunder the city: killing all the men, cutting off their heads, and hanging them on the carriages. Women and property were taken away as spoils. When they came back to the capital Luoyang, Dong ordered the burning of those heads in public and distribution of the women to the soldiers.
Later, when emperor decided to move the capital to Chang’an, Dong burnt the entire city of Luoyang and all the buildings within 200 miles including palaces, temples, and treasuries.
Huang Chao Rebellion 黄巢起义
If cannibalism makes your stomach churn, be careful when you read this story. In 875, during the Tang Dynasty, the infamous Huang Chao rebellion occurred. The most heinous atrocity of this war was recorded in The Old Book of Tang History. In 883 when Huang’s army besieged the city of Chenzhou, civilians and defending soldiers were caught and made into paste to serve as food. Huang used hundreds of stone mortars to grind human flesh.
Before that, Huang had committed other crimes in other cities. In 879, Huang occupied Guangzhou, and massacred 120,000 (others say over 200,000) Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other civilians.
Chang’an, the most famous ancient capital in Chinese history, also could not avoid Huang’s grievous massacres. In 880, several months after Huang conquered Chang’an, a famine soon followed. When the Tang army recaptured the city, they were welcomed by the residents. However, the city later fell to Huang again. Angry about the civilian support for Tang, Huang ordered the deaths of everyone in the city. As the most populous city in the world at that time, Chang’an then almost became empty after the massacre. When Huang finally left Chang’an, he set it on fire. Since then, Chang’an was never used as an imperial capital again.
“Ten days in Yangzhou” and “Three Massacres in Jiading” 扬州十日嘉定三屠
The regime of Qing Dynasty also started with massacres. Manchu rulers forced the Han people to change their costumes and hair into Manchu style. It was unacceptable tothe Han people because in Confucian culture, both the dress and hair style had important ritualistic meaning. So, fierce and violent resistance occurred all over the country. Among those tens of massacres Qing conducted, the most famous two were called “Ten days in Yangzhou (扬州十日)” and “Three Massacres in Jiading (嘉定三屠)”.
In May, 1645, Qing army entered Yangzhou and started a 10-day massacre. Over 800,000 people were killed in total. The same year, after Qing announced the “order to shave heads”, saying that people only had two choices: lose their hair or their head. Residents in Jiading rose up in revolt, and were around 30,000 people were killed by Qing troops. Three or four days later, another rebellion was raised in the city, followed by the second massacre. Later, General Wu Zhifan, who served Ming dynasty, sent his troops to Jiading to fight against Qing. Though many residents stood up to assist him, Wu was defeated, leading to a third massacre.
History is interesting but always cold. Destroyed cities are reconstructed; victims become statistics in history books; one dynasty replaces another; powerful rulers appear on stage one by one and then bow out. Sometimes, we may feel powerless because it seems that tragedies occur repeatedly and can not be prevented. However, in every era, bright or dark, there are always people struggling to make things better. No matter what kind of reality they are confronting, they never give up. They are a part of history too.
Cover image from screenshot of TV series Three Kingdoms