The Yellow River Breaches its Course.  Water Album by Ma Yuan.  Source: Wikimedia.
The Yellow River Breaches its Course. Water Album by Ma Yuan. Source: Wikimedia.




In the summer of 1902 a martial artist and rebel leader named Zhao San-duo (alt. Zhao Luo-zhu) was arrested in the course of a tax uprising in Guangzong County. Betrayed by a local wu juren (a holder of a military degree) Zhao was imprisoned and starved to death. His head was then displayed in front of the Wei county yamen. The events that led to Zhao San-duo’s (b. 1841 – d. 1902) death have colored the way that he has been remembered among local martial artists and Marxist historians in the PRC where he is seen as a proto-revolutionary. In the west he is best known for his earlier contributions to the region’s growing epidemic of anti-Christian violence and the eventual outbreak of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1900).

This post will review the final phases of Zhao San-duo’s career. Beyond his connection to important local events, he makes an interesting case study for anyone attempting to understand the social importance of hand combat groups during the Qing dynasty. Nor do I think that Zhao has received the attention that he deserves among martial arts historians.

As one of the few popular martial artists of the period who makes extensive appearances in both regional folklore and official records this is unfortunate. Perhaps this relative wealth of information is itself part of the problem. Knowing how Zhao’s story ends, it is entirely too easy to see in his life the stereotypical narrative of heterodox northern rebellion and late 19th century anti-Manchu fervor. After all, these themes appear in the oral history of his style and they are perpetually favorite notes in modern martial arts fiction.

When we read these elements backwards onto Zhao’s life we begin to collapse the depth of his historical experience into a stereotyped two dimensional image. He looks increasingly like the sort of figure that the PRC’s historians, eager to find any evidence of incipient anti-capitalist revolution among the peasants, would want to find. Practically all of the discussion of Zhao’s life that is available in the English language literature comes out of a handful of sources. Perhaps the most important of these is Joseph Esherick’s landmark study, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (University of California Press,1988).

When dealing with the rapidly evolving situation in Shandong Province at the end of the 19th century Esherick frequently cautions his readers against making anachronistic judgments. Given the fluidity of the situation it is impossible to attempt to guess the motivations of some local official in 1896 by the preferences that their actions or statements in 1899 might seem to reveal. This was a point in history in which a lot could change in even a few years.

This same warning certainly applies to the actions and motivations of Zhao San-duo. Even though he is executed for treason it would be a mistake to think of him as a firebrand revolutionary or to draw too many assumptions about the nature of his boxing society. If we make a more measured study of the final phases of his career we discover that Zhao was at best a reluctant rebel.

He was drawn into repeated conflicts with the government not by his own choice or ideological leanings, but through the pressures of his disciples and the expectation that as a martial arts leader he should be able to mediate a wide range of disputes in local society. As the government weakened, “law and order” became a privatized commodity with boxing groups playing an important part in their enforcement. In this increasingly complex environment Zhao’s web of local alliances and master-disciple relationships, which had been the source of his social standing, increasingly drew him towards disaster.

By better understanding the sources of Zhao’s rise to prominence and eventual downfall we will gain not only a better understanding of the place of local martial arts societies, but also the nature of northern China’s unique social structure and political economy of violence. Why was the area around southwestern Shandong so unstable? Was this totally a result of local imperialism and natural disasters? Or did it have to do with the remoteness of these border regions and the traditional difficulty of projecting military and cultural power into the hinterlands. When the center could not muster the strength to maintain a rigid hierarchy was the devolution to local chaos and rebellion inevitable? Or was it something else altogether?

Rather than being the result of a weakened state, do the disturbances that led to Zhao’s downfall reveal the extent to which local officials were forced to tolerate and even rely on violent factions in their own areas to keep the bandits at bay and ensure a modicum of good governance. If that is the case than the emergence of martial arts masters like Zhao San-duo is not an artifact of periods of social chaos (thought that may be where they are the most visible as the Confucian historians who keep the records can no longer ignore their presence). Rather they are a feature of the Chinese marketplace in violence, and not the exception.

In an attempt to answer this question will look at the final five years of Zhao’s life. We can think of this period as being characterized by three distinct phases of conflict. The first of these centers around a civil dispute between two domestic groups in Chinese society. More specifically, we will see Zhao and his network of martial artists being dragged into a dangerous (and exceptionally complicated) conflict with a local Christian community and its missionary backers by a newly admitted clique of disciples.

In the second phase the locus of conflict shifts. Zhao is now forced to come to an accommodation with the Chinese state in the form of the provincial government. Rather than simply exterminating the troublesome martial artist, local officials are eager to offer him a deal in exchange for assurances that they can enroll his network of boxers into the quickly growing gentry led militias of the region. Still, the weakness of the local government makes it difficult for all sides to come to agreement and it proves to be impossible to enforce. In the final phase of the discussion we will see Zhao move into open and direct rebellion against the state.

The government’s ability to capture and kill him with relative ease strongly suggests that at prior points in his career, even when he may have been formally wanted, he and his social network were seen as a potential asset that could be exploited by local officials rather than an actual threat. That suggests something very interesting about the political economy of violence in the late Qing era and the social role of martial artists. Yet before we can explore these historical issues we will need to know about Zhao’s background and association with Plum Flower Boxing (Mei Hua Quan), one of the region’s most popular and iconic styles.


Zhao San-duo and the Plum Flower Boxers

Plum Flower Boxing has a long and complicated history across much of northern China. Nor is it always clear what this style entails. In addition to Plum Flower Boxing there is also a “Plum Flower Religion” in many villages which until recent years has been suppressed by the national government. This practice has a number of rites and festivals (which seem to vary from place to place) and is often associated with boxing. A few participants in the 1813 Eight Trigram Rebellion seem to have been Plum Blossom Boxers. This has led certain local officials and later Chinese historians to strongly link the style to the area’s White Lotus tradition.

While noting the existence of Plum Blossom Religion, Esherick finds that this approach misunderstands the essential nature of late 19th century Mei Hua Quan. While the art had both a civil (including religion and medicine) and military (focusing on boxing) side, there is no evidence that it was ever associated with rites or beliefs specific to the area’s more millennial religious cults. He characterizes the rituals of the group as being basically indistinguishable from the popular religious observances of the areas that the style spread into.


The Yellow River running along side the great wall of China.  Frequent floods of this silt laden waterway both impoverished sections of Shandong and contributed to the rise of banditry and disorder.
The Yellow River running along side the great wall of China. Frequent floods of this silt laden waterway both impoverished sections of Shandong and contributed to the rise of banditry and disorder.


Nor was Plum Flower Boxing strongly associated with rebellion. If anything the opposite is true. While a small number of recent Plum Blossom disciples may have joined the Eight Trigram’s rebellion, the school as a whole wanted nothing to do with the affair. They excommunicated those members who cooperated with the rebels while joining with the local government’s militia to help put down the uprising. Later in the 19th century they once again took vigorous steps to separate themselves from the growing anti-Christian violence and sided strongly with the government whenever anti-Manchu sentiments were expressed.

This is exactly the opposite of the public image that Mei Hua teachers often attempt to cultivate today. Following 1911 and the move towards the building of a strong national consciousness, the idea of “revolution” gained a romantic popularity among the population that was actually very different from attitudes in the 1880s-1890s. All sorts of styles were retrospectively reimagined as fonts of revolutionary fervor, when in historical fact most martial artists had actually made a living by fighting for the government, not against it. Indeed, one of the really interesting things about the extensive research that has been done on the groups involved with the Boxer Uprising is that it has helped us to understand exactly what the extent of this retrospective myth-making has been and how the process has unfolded.

In actual fact Plum Blossom Boxers were tolerated by most officials in northern China precisely because they organized publicly, made no attempt at creating secret societies and had no noteworthy heterodox religious practices (beyond their involvement with the ordinary cults of the local religion). After reviewing the historical record, Esherick characterizes the group as politically cautious and ideologically neutral. This, combined with their occasional cooperation with bandit suppression and the formation of local militias, probably helps to account for their long and prosperous history in the region. While other boxing groups were suppressed after only a few years, Plum Blossom societies thrived in the regions for centuries. In fact, it can still be seen today.

Meir Shahar, in his review of the late Ming and early Qing boxing styles of the region, looks at the question of Mei Hua Quan’s ultimate origins. He notes that family genealogies suggests that the art was first developed in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, by the Zou family sometime in the late Ming or early in the first years of the next dynasty. As this clan moved towards Hebei in about 1700 they spread the art.

Along the way the new style picked up disciples in Henan Province and ultimately the Shaolin Temple. A remarkably early text (1742) on Plum Flower boxing was authored by Yang Bing (b. 1672) who achieved the third ranks in the government’s highest military exam and is known to have served in the metropolitan garrison. Shahar points out that Yang’s 1742 text, Introduction to Martial Practice, is significant as it was one of the very earliest hand combat manuals to integrate the cosmic process of evolution seen in the “Classic of Changes” into a martial arts system. In that sense this text appears as a forerunner of some of the more important developments that would later appear in northern China’s martial culture (p. 154).

While Yang’s 18th century treatise is a critical source, readers should recall that there is often a great deal of variation in how a particular style can be practiced in two different places and over the decades. While we know a lot about current practice in the area, it is actually somewhat hard to speak with certainty about what Zhao’s style in the late 19th century was actually like. Still, we know something about the organization of his community from period documents.

To begin with Zhao’s group was structured through the typical sorts of master-disciple relationships that one might expect to see in the martial arts. In fact, Zhao seems to have been quite a successful teacher and between both his own students and grand-students he controlled a network of a few thousand individuals. Better yet, many of his students were yamen runners, clerk and other minor local functionaries.

This was critical as one of Zhao’s social roles seems to have been to mediate, or otherwise settle disputes, between local claimants. Having access to the information that these officials could provide, as well as the ability to suggest that his clerks look at (or away from) certain issues, probably gave Zhao a notable degree of clout.

Social influence was likely critical for Zhao as his family fortunes were flagging. His grandfather had been a degree holder and at one time his clan had been wealthy and important. Yet in the following generations they had failed to produce another degree holder and their monetary wealth had largely evaporated, leaving them no better off than prosperous peasants.

Yet this monetary situation actually obscures more about Zhao than it reveals. As a youth he had taken up the study of Plum Flower Boxing and by the late 1890s was a well-respected master. His connections as a martial artist allowed him to maintain the family contacts with the local militia leaders, military degree holders and the minor gentry. Zhao’s network of boxers made him a “useful person,” and that ensured a greater degree of social relevance than one would have suspected for someone of his station in life.


Gong-sun Sheng, a fictional character from the locally significant novel Water Margin.
Gong-sun Sheng, a fictional character from the locally significant novel Water Margin.


Zhao and the 18 Chiefs

Of course a reputation as a boxer who both loved justice, and possessed an unusual talent for being able to secure it, came at a cost. Zhao did not really have any independent base of power within local society. He was socially relevant only so long as he was solving problems and mediating disputes.

It seems that individuals seeking his influence would apply for his services by declaring themselves to be his disciples. Like other martial arts masters, as Zhao accepted these individuals (and most likely their payments) the difficulties of his disciples became his own. As such his career likely required just as much political as physical skill.

Esherick repeatedly makes the point that the most obvious aspect of European imperialism in northern China in the 1890s was the presence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. These individuals sought to win souls by demonstrating that their power to protect the social and economic interests of their converts was much greater than the local government. Marginal people (including bandits) seeking protection from the state sought conversion as did landless and destitute peasants. The Catholic missionaries of Shandong in particular meddled in all manner of court cases to both secure advantageous outcomes for their converts and to discredit the power of the provincial government.

This pattern of interference in the details of regional life led to a number of festering and perpetually unresolved feuds between local residents and Christian converts. One of the most byzantine of these affairs had to do with the ultimate fate of an abandoned temple to the Jade Emperor in Liyuantun which at one point had been sold to the local Christians as the site for a church.

The deal was approved and then reversed multiple times due to political pressures. Ultimately a group of minor gentry figures got involved with the struggle to restore the temple. Yet larger geo-political considerations ensured that the Christian side of the dispute was strongly favored. While the government was able to convince the gentry to step back, a new group of “18 Chiefs” (mostly struggling peasants with nothing to lose) took up the fight to oust the Christians from the site.

A number of these individuals were also boxers and the leader, Yan Su-qing, was a student of Red Fist or Hong Quan. This style tended to be favored by local bodyguards and members of the armed escort companies. It was not quite as large or popular as Plum Flower Boxing. Still, Hong Quan had an important presence in the area.

After the loss of their gentry backing the aggrieved Chiefs realized that they needed additional support if they wished to pursue their case. The courts had already been compromised by outside pressure and the gentry were helpless. As such they turned to the world of boxing as a privatized mechanism of dispute settlement. Specifically, the 18 Chieftains became disciples of Zhao San-duo (even though they did not share the style) and appealed to him for help.

Zhao was initially hesitant to accept these new students or their cause. He did not approve of the violence that they had previously displayed and he must have known that confronting the Christian’s at a delicate time in China’s diplomatic history would arouse the ire of the provincial government. Still, there was no denying the fact that the Christian community had become a powerful irritant and many of his preexisting disciples began to demand that he become involved with the problem. Given that Zhao’s status depended on his ability to manage what were essentially voluntary relationships, he was left with little option but to enter the fray.

His initial strategy was characteristically cautious. Zhao began by directing a large number of Plum Flower boxers to stage a public demonstration in Liyuantun directly across from the church. While no direct references to the controversy were made, and no anti-Christian slogans were employed, the entire thing was an unmistakable show of force. Rather than fleeing the local Christians instead took shelter in the building and refused to leave.

At that point discipline among the boxers seems to have broken down. Esherick reports that group of between 500 and 2000 martial artists attacked the structure and looted the homes of the village’s Christian population. The Christians counterattacked and there were a number of casualties including a single death. Ultimately the town’s Christian population was forced to flee and their homes were robbed or destroyed.


The Yellow River.  Source:
The Yellow River. The flatness of the surrounding land makes areas like this both fertile and subject to devastating floods.  Source:


From Boxers to Militia and Back

The area’s conservative local officials were sympathetic to the boxers and would have let the situation stand except for the sudden eruption of the Juye Incident. Two Catholic missionaries in Juye were killed by a mob that attacked the vicarage for reasons that are still not historically well understood. This provided the German government with the pretext that it had long desired to both seize a port on Shandong’s coast and to extend its influence inland. As a result of these setbacks the imperial court ordered that all outstanding missionary issues be settled immediately and in the favor of the local Christians (thereby denying the Germans an excuse to further project power in the region.)

The situation in Liyuantun was once again reversed. The Italian Bishop (who oversaw the area) demanded that the new Chinese temple be torn down and a Catholic church be constructed on that very same site. Nor were the local Boxers willing to concede the field. While the international situation may have changed, this had little impact on their more parochial concerns.

The atmosphere in the boxer camp became tenser when Zhao was joined by another Mei Hua Quan elder who, while lacking his social influence, outranked him in the organization’s hierarchy. A drifter and itinerant potter, his name was Yao Wen-qi, of Guangping in Zhili. While Zhao was naturally somewhat cautious, Yao was a more radicalized figure. Perhaps he lacked Zhao’s extensive ties and social relationships in the area and therefore had less to lose.

Not only did Yao take a more militant line towards Christians, but some of his own disciples even quietly promoted anti-Qing sentiments. This was simply too much for Shandong’s conservative Plum Blossom community. While they had tolerated Zhao’s earlier adventure, they wanted no part of Yao’s growing radicalism. It was all too clear how this was going to end. A number of elders visited Zhao and attempted to convince him to distance himself from the 18 Chiefs and Yao. When he refused they effectively excommunicated him and demanded that in any future actions Zhao cease to use the name of their organization. In this way the “Yihi Boxer” of Guan County (or Boxers United in Righteousness) were born.

The local government was also struggling to understand the rapidly evolving situation and the role of the various boxers in shaping these events. Eventually they gathered enough intelligence to determine that while Zhao was the social leader of this group, he did not have complete control over the movement. Nor was he all that enthusiastic about the way the situation in Liyuantun was shaping up.

As such Zhao was eventually approached by a number of officials who offered him amnesty (and even money and an awarded degree) in exchange for disbanding the Liyuantun operation. To do this they attempted to drive a wedge between Zhao, on the one hand, and Yao and the 18 Chiefs on the other. The leader of the Chiefs had new murder charges filed against him while Zhao did not. In fact, the local political leadership was even interested in working with the more moderate boxers who were loyal to Zhao and using them as a tool to combat the banditry problems that were endemic in the regions.

The negotiations were tense as Liyuantun lay at the intersection of a number of municipalities and Zhao would not simply disband his troops until he received firm guarantees of his safety from all of the local leaders. This took some time and the details need not concern us here, but eventually he dismissed his forces in a public ceremony and apparently blessed the efforts to then recruit large segments of them into a more effective gentry led militia.

Unfortunately this was not the end of Zhao’s involvement with the government. In fact, his inability to stay out of the fray betrays a weakness in both his own organization and the discipline of the local government’s forces. The root cause of the continued problems was the government’s inability to reassure the remaining boxers (those not incorporated into the militia) that the government could shield them from Christian reprisals or lawsuits once they disbanded. Rumors were rampant (and not entirely unfounded) that the Christians, who now had the upper hand, intended to pursue and exterminate their old tormentor. Nor did anyone really believe that the local courts or officials could stand up to this political pressure or German gun-boat diplomacy.

The situation continued to escalate and finally came to a head in the fall of 1898. After the harvest was in the administration of Shandong began to make plans for further arrests in an effort to put the Liyuantun incident behind them once and for all. In the course of this campaign a group of soldiers stationed at a missionary compound in Xiaolu, Linqing, crossed directly over the border into Zhili where they pillaged some beef from Shaliuzhai during a search of the village. Unfortunately this area was central to Zhao San-duo sphere of influence. Eshereick characterizes it as his “home base.”

Given that Zhao’s reputation stemmed from his ability to solve disputes and insure “justice,” this was a serious affront. Still, he was hesitant to move directly against the state. Others were not so concerned. Yao Wen-qi had decided, probably correctly, that the Christians would not stop until he personally was dead. Along with the 18 Chiefs he actually kidnapped the reluctant Zhao and his entire family in an effort to ensure that both he and his network would come to the aid of an old comrade in arms.

The entire incident reads like a lost chapter from Water Margin, but apparently Yao’s plan worked. Zhao was stirred up to remember his duty. With a number of horses borrowed from sympathetic local villagers the Yihi Boxers rode out carrying banners that read “support the Qing, destroy the foreigners.” This slogan, and the name of the movement, would be the two things that the Guang County Boxers would contribute to the outbreak of the more general “Boxer Uprising” which would actually be ignited by an entirely different group further to north. Still, Zhao and his allies rode through the countryside, destroying property and burning homes in an attempt to eradicate the local Christian population in an act that would inspire countless others in the next few years.

Needless to say such “support” was bound to be detrimental to the Qing who were focused on keeping additional European gun-boats out of their ports. At this point one might expect the state to crack down on Zhao and his boxers. They had crossed a line and were on the verge on becoming a security threat in their own right.

Troops were dispatched from both Shandong and Zhili in an attempt to contain the violence, but once again the government went to some lengths to avoid a direct confrontation with Zhao. Representatives (local militia leaders) were sent who successfully brought all of the parties back to the bargaining table. These were likely individuals that Zhao had longstanding relationships with.

Again a negotiated settlement was reached allowing the boxers to disband. Unfortunately that was not enough. As these martial artists returned to their homes they were once again subject to taunting and harassment from local villagers including a number of Christians. For Yao and his followers this proved to be too much. He assembled a small group and fought an unsuccessful battle with the militia of a French missionary while burning and looting other homes in the area. Eventually the Qing army caught up Yao and executed him.

The government promised a general amnesty to all of the remaining boxers except for Zhao. Even then they made no serious attempts to pursue him or his supporters and he was allowed to return to his base of operations in northern Zhili. Nor was this the end of his career. He would ride out in anger at least two more times.

During the height of the Boxer Uprising in 1900 (after the movement had been legalized by the court) Zhao led a group that attacked Christians in the Guan county enclaves where he spent so much of his career. Then again in 1902 he lent his support to Jing Ting-bin, a wu juren military degree holder, who led a local militia unit in rebellion after the governor (breaking with convention) refused to grant Guangzong county tax relief following a severe drought. While the provincial authorities had been willing to overlook almost any social conflict that Zhao had involved himself with because of his general usefulness to their ongoing efforts to strengthen the local militias, a direct assault on the state was too much. Zhao’s surprisingly long and violent career was swiftly brought to a humiliating end.


Boats on the Yellow River in Shandong.  Source: Vintage Postcard.
Boats on the Yellow River in Shandong. Source: Vintage Postcard.


Conclusion: Martial Artists in the Political Economy of Violence

Zhao San-duo’s life opens an important window onto the world of late 19th century martial artists in northern China. A fuller biography might be useful in addressing any number of questions, but what can the brief account offered here suggest about the nature of Chinese society and the role of martial artists within it? Esherick, perhaps reflecting the bias of the elite sources that he relies so heavily on, appears to see Chinese society as essentially bi-modal.

During times of good governance the discipline of the central government is strong. This manifests itself in a number of ways. Corruption is kept to a minimum and officials remember their core duties, keeping the roads free from bandits and repairing the elaborate earthworks that prevent flooding.

As the central government weakens there is a move towards the “privatization of justice.” The state can no longer maintain order in the periphery and a host of other forces, be they gentry led militias or martial arts societies, become the main means by which chaos is kept at bay. These forces are more likely to be heterodox in nature, to be liable to corruption and ultimately to contribute to the sources of local disorder.

I suspect that the actual contours of Zhao’s life story complicate this narrative. The Plum Flower Boxers from who he drew his strength did not emerge only in the middle of the 19th century when the region was hit by serious shocks. This movement was almost as old as the dynasty itself, and for most of this time it had been tolerated precisely because it served a useful social function.

David Robinson, in his analysis of the late Ming dynasty (Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven 2001, University of Hawaii Press) suggests that a bi-modal reading of Chinese society, vacillating between strong central control and more localized outbreaks of disorder, is essentially incorrect. This view of Chinese society represents the ideological ideal of Confucian elites which was subtlety (even subconsciously) woven into the ways in which they understood and recorded their history.

Yet a more balanced reading of the era would admit that even prior to the Sino-Japanese war, the garrisons of Shangdong were horribly understaffed. At no point could either the Ming or Qing dynasty actually afford the troops that would have been necessary to control banditry and put down local rebellions throughout most of the country. Violent men with local connections were critical to ensuring good governance because their patronage networks provided more penetration into local society, and could be activated more cheaply, than anything that the government could muster.

That did not mean that the state was powerless. The sort of strength that Zhao could wield was sufficient to fight bandits or settle social disputes. Yet it was clearly not the sort of force that could keep the Germans at bay. Martial artists were basically useful as a means of internal social control and discipline. As Esherick’s volume makes clear, once the government decided to execute a martial artist they generally had very little trouble in doing so.

Still, what is remarkable is the degree to which regional officials (even very conservative individuals) were forced to rely on Zhao and people like him to stock their own militias and provide good order in the countryside. That all levels of traditional Chinese society seem to continually create and support individuals like Zhao is a feature of the systems and not a bug. The Chinese martial arts were allowed to exist precisely because they played a certain social role. Nor have their functions always been as marginal as conventional histories might lead one to suspect.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: What Can the Opera Rebellion Teach us about the Social Toleration of Violence (and the Martial Arts) in Late Imperial China?