In the dedicatory preface to his 1904 play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, J. M. Barrie suggested that “a safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer. If you are searching for anything in particular you don’t find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting.” History is filled to bursting with events that have been unintentionally overlooked or willfully consigned to oblivion, regardless of their contemporary relevance. The so-called Jindandao Incident may be counted among these. A catastrophic affair that took place in the late autumn and early winter of 1891 along the Sino-Mongolian borderlands, the Jindandao Incident was of epochal importance at the time, and it continues to inform China’s oftentimes aggressive campaign for minzu tuanjie, for “national amity.” Yet in our day the “incident” — a calamity, really — is seldom remembered, let alone commemorated. So, together, let us force open the crammed door of Chinese history, and see what falls out the back.
Our story begins in Sanshijiazi, a humble village situated in a remote corner of the Qing empire known as Kou-wai, or “beyond the passes,” and beyond the Great Wall, where the hilly tracts of Manchuria peter out and the vast Mongolian plateau begins. It is May of 1891, in this cautionary tale of ours, and a group of Chinese Catholic converts is visiting the market district, going from shop to shop in search of grain. Nothing seems amiss on this morning much like any other, in this town where Mongols, Manchus, Han Chinese, and missionaries live cheek by jowl, and where Buddhists, Confucians, Daoists, shamans, Protestants, and Catholics share an uneasy coexistence. Sanshijiazi, along with the rest of the province of Rehe (also romanized as Jehol), had long been ruled by the Mongol “lords of the soil,” but recent decades had seen an influx of Han immigrants venturing north of the Wall, drawn by the irresistible allure of gold, ginseng, sable fur, and arable land. While snobbish Mongol princes initially dismissed these interlopers as liumin or “wandering people” — somewhat ironically, given their own decidedly nomadic roots — the newcomers had become permanent fixtures, alongside an increasing number of Christian converts like those we see before us, singing and chatting and haggling for foodstuffs in the market stalls of Sanshijiazi.
History is very often “politics turned towards the past,” a lesson well understood by Xi Jinping. History must be grasped, but once grasped it can be manipulated.
As the converts approach the emporium of the merchant Hu Yun, they have no idea what mìngyùn, “the turn of events in life” — what we call fate — has laid in store for them. We, on the other hand, know just what is about to transpire. How easy it is to forget, as Milan Kundera observed, that “man proceeds in a fog. But when he looks back to judge the people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their far-away future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog.” These Chinese Christians, meanwhile, are groping their way forward, fog-bound, oblivious to their impending doom. It’s a bit like a horror movie; we should like to caution them against passing through the gateway into Hu Yun’s granary, but they would be deaf to our entreaties. Instead, they are unwittingly stepping out of the lazy eddies of quotidian life and into the surging torrents of history.
With all due respect to the great Czech novelist, Kundera did not have it quite right. For we ourselves are also cloaked in fog as we look back at the past, dependent as we are on official documents and unreliable narrators, as is the case here. The Records of the Guangxi Reign tell us that the converts are merely “borrowing grain,” which sounds relatively benign, but the Records of the Donghua Gate are less sympathetic, and refer to the “converts’ demand on every family to contribute grain in the fourth month of this year.” The precise truth of the matter has been lost to the murk of history, but what is clear is that tensions between the Chinese villagers and their Catholic counterparts have been on the rise. S. E. Meech of the Protestant London Missionary Society, who had been in China since 1871, related the “long standing feud between the Romanists and the heathens,” while bemoaning the advantages the rival Catholics “obtain in their dishonest practices.” Whether or not Meech was exhibiting candidness, bigotry, or sour grapes, two of the Sanshijiazi village headmen, Lin Yushan and Xu Rong, evidently agreed with his assessment. Taking offense at some slight, real or perceived, on this otherwise unremarkable day in Rehe, they rush to confront the Catholics. An argument ensues, one that rapidly escalates into an altercation. Tempers flare, there is shoving and shouting, haymakers are thrown, and, suddenly, gunpowder flashes. As the smoke clears, a terrible scene reveals itself: Xu is dead of a gunshot wound, and Lin is fleeing for his life.
Even these skeletal facts have been subject to contestation, as we begin to enter Rashomon-like territory. To wit, the priests of the Rehe Catholic Diocese had a very different story from those of the Guanxi and Donghua Gate record-keepers. In their account, included in the Qingmo jihaoan, a compendium of anti-Christian incidents during the late Qing period, it was the “common people” who had tried to “borrow grain from the evil merchant Hu Yun but were refused,” and who “went on to beat the grain-store guard to death when they saw him, took the grain by force, and then placed the blame on the Catholic church.” This recital could not differ more from the official reports, but is in keeping with the zeitgeist of May 1891. After all, at that very same time, in Wuhu, Anhui Province, crowds were harassing nuns, ransacking a mission, and digging up graves in search of murdered children and money thought to have been secreted in the churchyard. Perhaps the converts of Sanshijiazi, like the nuns of Wuhu, were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps they were trigger-happy shake-down artists. Or something in between. All we have is a tangled skein of facts, self-justifications, and no doubt some outright lies. But we do know the end result — the historical record is transparent enough in that regard.
Fearful of retribution, the Christians beat a retreat to their church compound and began casting cannons for their community’s self-defense. Zhang Zoukai, the district magistrate of Jianchang County, paid a visit to the church compound but, as the Records of the Donghua Gate ominously put it, he “did not take any precautionary measures to prevent possible clashes.” The Catholics were right to be apprehensive, for the headman who survived the dust-up, Lin Yushan, was not just a local leader but the head of the region’s militia, and, even worse, a member of the Zaili, a millenarian White Lotus sect whose adherents worshiped the Venerable Mother, eagerly awaited the apocalyptic coming of the Maitreya Buddha, and in the meantime contented themselves with brigandage. Prosper Leboucq, in his Associations de la Chine (1880), found that “a number of poor men of letters, a few military mandarins out of work, form [the Zaili’s] general staff and grand administrative council. Ordinary members are drawn from the waterman, thimble-riggers, fortune-tellers, firemen, peddlers, etc. The society’s main concern is to admit only men who are bold and pugnacious.” These were the men now plotting the besieged Christians’ demise. They were not, however, the only Rehe-based heterodox sectarians with murder in their hearts.
The Jindan, another popular religious society active in northern China, may have called themselves the Xuehao jiao, the “Learning-to-do-good Sect,” but their motto, “xue fashu, kang daqing, xing zhe,” or “learn the laws and techniques, resist the Manchus, and restore the true ruler,” was indicative of a revolutionary, as opposed to merely esoteric, ideological program. Yang Yuechun, the sect’s leader, initially presented himself as a healer capable of casting invincibility spells, but his rhetoric grew increasingly dark, as he informed his followers that he had “heard that the [Aukhan Banner Mongol] prince wanted to dispatch Mongol armies to kill the [Han] people and recover their land.” Another Jindan leader announced to his disciples that he “held hatred in his heart” for the Mongols after his two nephews had been arrested and put to death, having been accused of chopping firewood on Aukhan Banner property. One Mongol official, Wang Guojun (also known as Buyanbiligtu), admitted in his memoirs that Mongol princes and lamas had indeed grown intolerably high-handed in recent years, lashing insufficiency solicitous Han bystanders on public roads and arresting Han peasants for cutting hay.
In such a way did the resentment felt by the Zaili towards the Christian community come to be matched by the hostility harbored by the Jindan towards their Mongol neighbors. The two White Lotus sects were transforming from syncretic folk religions into political movements driven by what Richard Shek called “anti-Mongol, anti-Christian, antiforeign, and antidynastic sentiments.” A massive pogrom was in the offing, one made even more likely by the devastating rains, crop failures, and widespread famine that descended upon Rehe over the course of the summer of 1891. Charles Denby, the American minister in Peking, sent word home that “grave fears are entertained in China that a preconcerted plot has been formed for a general uprising against foreigners at several of the ports,” but it was the cultists in Manchuria, aided by thousands of refugees dislocated by famine and brigandage, who made the first move in November, after the sodden terrain had been made passable by the onset of cold weather.
Autumn ends in the grey sand,
With the grasses all withered …
The Tang-era poet Gao Shi, in his masterpiece “A Song of the Yan Country,” described a distant, parlous time in China’s history, a time when China’s northeastern border grew “dark with smoke and dust,” threatened as it was by “savage invaders” of Turkic and para-Mongolic origins. This time would be different. The threat, though just as deadly, would be home-grown.
On November 11, Jindan zealots raided the mansion of Prince Daghchin, chief of the Aukhan Banner Mongols and head of the Mongol Juu Uda league. Caught unawares, the prince was brutally murdered alongside most of his household; later it was discovered that only two infants had survived the carnage. The Aukhan ancestral tomb was then desecrated as the genocidally minded rebels chanted slogans like “Kill the Mongols in revenge” and “Defeat the Qing and wipe out the Mongols.” Members of yet another obscure sect, the Wushengmen, opportunistically joined in the carnage, hoping to “plunder, burn, and kill Mongols,” as their leader Li Guozhen rather frankly put it. Within three days the insurgents had reached Ch’ao-yang, where the missionary Rev. J. Parker awoke to the sounds of roiling crowds shouting “Sha! Sha! Kill! Kill!” and was soon obliged to flee through the city gates. When he looked back, he “could see the yamen all in flames; to the right of us, a few li away, was a large Mongol temple all aflame.” When the reverend returned to Ch’ao-yang after government forces ejected the rebels, he found the city a shadow of its former self, “shops closed and barricaded.” “Outside the gate,” Parker elaborated in his account of the mayhem, featured in the Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal, “was a great pile of headless bodies with a pack of dogs feeding on them. Outside the four gates some 200 had been beheaded. For nights after, the darkness was made hideous by the barking and shouting of the numberless dogs devouring these bodies.” Ch’ao-yang had become “like a place of death,” one straight out of the Narakas or hell realms of Buddhist cosmology.
Meanwhile, back in Jianchang county, it was Lin Yushan’s turn to take revenge on the Catholics of Sanshijiazi. The Zaili, joined by Jindan marauders, hurled themselves at their Christian enemies. The Qing commander Ye Zhichao summarized the massacres in starkly clinical terms, as recorded in the Secret Palace Memorials of the Guangxu Period:
The conditions in Pingquan are worse than in Chaoyang. The Jindan sectarians say that they are good, that they will not harm the people. They only have a grudge against the Catholics. They have already burnt several Catholic churches and killed many: male and female, young and old. They have carried out their revenge and accordingly they should disperse and return to their occupations. Yet these rebels arbitrarily seize property. In the towns and villages of Pingquan they have taken mules and horses. Those who refuse to give them are killed…. They have killed several hundred in Sanshijiazi. They have killed over one hundred in Niemenzi. They have killed over two hundred in the vicinity of Pingquan city. The merchants and the people are shouting their grievances in the street.
Thus did the Catholics of Sanshijiazi meet their end in what would become known as the Jehol Persecution, a more fitting name than the official term used by Chinese authorities — the “Jindandao Incident” — which utterly fails to convey the extent of the horrors that unfolded in northern China in the dying months of 1891. Hundreds of Christians lost their lives in Sanshijiazi and Niemenzi, and tens (some say hundreds) of thousands of Mongols were slaughtered, untold numbers of Tibetan Buddhist temples were burned to the ground, and countless refugees were forced to flee northwards to the relative safety of the Da Hinggan Range.
Eventually, after a few weeks of humiliating reverses, the Qing regime managed to rouse itself into action, taking back most of the towns and cities that had been occupied by the rampaging sectarians. When the rebel stronghold at the Beidasi temple in Wudancheng fell on December 15, 1891, the Jindan and Zaili had nowhere else to hide. The revolt had been suppressed, but the suffering in Rehe had only just begun. Famine still stalked the land, brigandage remained widespread, some 20,000 unclaimed bodies lay strewn about the province, and 300,000 refugees were begging for assistance. A campaign of retaliation predictably followed. As Cecily McCaffrey observed, “episodes of revenge killings further disrupted the region. In the banner areas, there were cases of Mongols killing Chinese on the pretense of wiping out remaining rebels. In southern Rehe, Christian residents led by local priests made unauthorized arrests and seized the property of villagers they deemed complicit in the attacks on the church.” Even after the terrible ruination of 1891, the great wheel of history would not stop grinding down the afflicted populace of the Sino-Mongolian borderlands.
Few today recall the Jindandao Incident, overshadowed as it is by the Opium Wars and the Yihetuan Movement (Boxer Rebellion), both of which loom larger in both the Chinese and Western imaginations. The Chinese Communist Party, embarrassed by the sheer ferocity of the 1891 anti-Mongol and anti-Christian bloodbaths, did what it could to conceal the events somewhere towards the back of history’s crammed drawer. As late as 1986, official Chinese textbooks were altering the Jindan slogans “Defeat the Qing and wipe out the Mongols” and “Kill the Mongols in revenge” to “Defeat the Qing and wipe out the Westerners” and “Kill the Mongol nobles in revenge,” apparently a vast improvement. Still, one cannot help but notice that Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China, had a slogan of his own — “expel the Mongols and restore the glory of China” — that might have come straight from the mouth of the Jindan leader Yang Yuechun.
For the Mongols, the 1891 massacres were not so easily forgotten. “Let us become one people,” urged the Bogd Khan during the Mongolian struggle for independence that began in 1911, “so that we will no longer be abused by the Chinese.” Ja Lama, a Mongolian warlord, adventurer, and self-proclaimed Buddhist lama, preferred to think more in terms of conquest and vengeance than of escaping abuse. In 1912, he ousted Manchu soldiers from their remaining outposts in Mongolia, far-flung towns like Uliastai, Ulaangom, and Khovd. It was at Khovd that Mongol troops wrought their most terrible vengeance, dipping their banners in the blood of massacred Han soldiers and merchants, and even, it was said, ripping the beating hearts out of the prisoners’ chests, mingling them with bits of brain and viscera in bowls made of skulls, and offering the gruesome admixture to Lcam Sring, the god of war.
By 1919 Mongolia had once again fallen under Chinese occupation. Two years later Baron Ungern arrived with an army of White Russians to reinstall the Bogd Khan, but only for a few months, after which time Damdin Sükhbaatar and his Red Army allies would lead a People’s Revolution establishing the rule of the Mongolian People’s Party. Massacres begot massacres all the while, yet still the bloodletting was not over. It was all rather like an Oresteian cycle of retributive murder and pollution, one writ unimaginably large, and with no Athena to grant the final pardon. Mongolia was gradually pulled into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, and then under its direct control, a fate unlikely to put a stop to the killings. A Russian children’s book, published in 1932, gives some sense of the characteristically Soviet approach to the Mongol question:
Puntsuk the Mongol hunter,
Puntsuk the Mongol hunter,
Puntsuk the Mongol hunter
Got himself a gun.
Did a little jumping,
Did a little shouting,
Made the greedy lamas
Turn around and run.
That year the Comintern began to set up böönöör horih lager, “internment” or “concentration” camps, sprawling gulags where as many as 13,000 lamas could be worked to death. There is no telling precisely how many Mongols and “counterrevolutionary Buddhist lamas” perished during the Stalinist Great Repression; it is estimated that 18,000 lamas were executed between 1937 and 1939, while 746 monasteries were liquidated. What the Jindan sects could accomplish only haphazardly was being carried out systematically by the communist authorities. In Tariat, one can still find a place known as “Machine Gun Hill,” where lamas were mowed down by the hundreds, where human bones are still being unearthed, and where it is said that demons roam the hills and infest the nearby abandoned monastery. And we have not yet even arrived at the Maoist Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia, during which some 500,000 Mongols were imprisoned and at least 100,000 lost their lives. Adding cultural insult to grievous genocidal injury, in 1966 the mausoleum of Genghis Khan at Ordos was demolished by communist zealots. The great Mongol conqueror, once praised by the CCP as a “hero of oppressed peoples” who “facilitated the communication between Europe and Asia, thereby propelling the development of world history,” was rebranded as a contemptible feudalist and nationalist.
These are the sorts of wounds and humiliations that linger for generations. The French anthropologist Grégory Delaplace, in his fascinating study “Parasitic Chinese, vengeful Russians: ghosts, strangers, and reciprocity in Mongolia,” published in 2012 in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, described numerous supposed hauntings in present-day Ulaanbaatar and its environs, almost invariably involving Hyatad süns, “Chinese ghosts,” laying claim to buried treasure. Although there are the occasional sightings of Soviet soldiers, or spooky long-haired Slaviankas wafting about in white robes, Delaplace found these to be “far less numerous” than the ubiquitous Chinese apparitions. “Most crucially,” Delaplace continued, “the damage they [the Russian ghosts] are reported to inflict occasionally seems nothing compared to the inexorable process of ruination caused by Chinese ghosts.” Grievances held against the Chinese seem to run far deeper, which is unsurprising given that, as the Mongol historian Borjigin Burensain has persuasively argued, the Jindandao Incident occupies a place in the Mongol psyche roughly equivalent to the Opium War in China — the point back to which the modern struggle for independence, along with a host of grievances, can be traced.
Looking back on this litany of unadulterated human suffering, I cannot help but think of a passage in Walter Kempowski’s novel Mark und Bein (Marrow and Bone), describing a German journalist’s visit to the spot in Poland where his father fell in battle:
All for nothing! All for nothing! And by this he meant not just his mother’s death, not just the death of his father … but all the torments suffered by living beings, the flesh hung on the stake, the calf he saw bound and gagged, the shed in Marienburg prepared for torture, the line of exhausted refugees dragging themselves along beneath a condemning sky. It’s all for nothing! he thought again and again. And: Who is to blame?
The metaphysical question of whether all of this suffering in Inner and Outer Mongolia was for any particular purpose is best left to the priests, the lamas, and the shamans. As for who was to blame for the Jindandao Incident and its aftermath, that remains up for debate as well. A member of the Zaili sect would blame grasping Christian converts, while a member of the Jindan sect would blame haughty Mongol lords of the soil. A member of the Wushengmen sect might allude to income inequality and the need for a little redistribution of concentrated wealth, at knife-point if need be. Catholics can find yet another example of Chinese maltreatment of Christians, another assemblage of martyrs for their faith. Mongols like the modern historian Uradyn Bulag, for their part, blame “Great Han Chauvinism.” James Palmer, in his brilliant history of Baron Ungern’s Mongolian campaigns, The Bloody White Baron, summarized it this way:
Mention Mongolia to most Chinese and the inevitable response is, “Ah, you know that Mongolia used to be part of China.” A little more drink, and more imperial ambitions begin to emerge; now the Russians are gone, China should take back Mongolia — well, after the persistent canker of Taiwan is dealt with, at least. The Mongolians look on their immensely richer and stronger neighbor nervously. One Mongolian might be worth eight Chinese (and precisely four Koreans, apparently, according to quasi-official Mongol calculations, though even the Mongols admit to being outranked by the Japanese — divine winds and all that), but there are five hundred Chinese for every Mongolian. They have only to look at Inner Mongolia, where ethnic Mongols, once the majority, no make up less than 5 per cent of the population, to see their likely fate if swallowed by the new Chinese imperium: reduced to a colorful slideshow in dancing displays staged to demonstrate the wonderful diversity of China while their children study Mandarin in school.
But what of the Chinese perspective? A historian or policymaker from Zhōngguó could certainly be forgiven for looking at the events of 1891 and seeing the following: a supine, altogether pathetic Qing dynasty, wholly in thrall to foreign interests, unable to protect its own people from famine or brigands; a community of Christians refusing to integrate with Chinese society; “foreign” Mongolian aristocrats openly contemptuous of the humble tillers of the soil around them; and White Lotus sects driven into a murderous, seditious frenzy by charismatic charlatans. Is this any way to foster amity between nationalities (minzu tuanjie)? It is little wonder, then, that today we see a vastly more confident and assertive China extending influence abroad while cracking down on dissent at home, demanding humiliating fealty from Christian churches to an explicitly atheist state, brutally suppressing redemptive societies like the Falun Gong (linked genealogically to the White Lotus sects), and stamping out the vestiges of ethnic identity in Inner Mongolia through a violent program of “sinicization” and “hanification.”
President Xi Jinping, a keen student of history, has long regarded ethnic autonomy as an existential threat to the CCP’s goal of national “rejuvenation” — hence the perceived need for a “second-generation ethnic policy” that, via “paper genocide,” has eliminated the official existence of more than 50 formerly recognized ethnic groups, while severely constraining those who are permitted to continue their precarious existences. It is common, in CCP circles, to blame the fall of the Soviet Union on excessive federalism and ethnic autonomy, and the goal here is to avoid such a fate. This approach to understanding the collapse of the USSR is not without flaws, as it tends to ignore Stalin’s callous divide et impera strategy that was actually designed to stoke ethnic tensions (viz. the forced resettlement of the Ferghana Valley with rival Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks deviously arranged in such a way as to guarantee a rivalry over territory and resources). But there is as kernel of truth in it as well. The Bolshevik historian Mikhail Nikolayevich Pokrovsky argued that “Great Russia was built on the bones of the non-Russian nations … in the past we Russians were the greatest robbers on earth,” and that Russian expansion was only made possible by feudalist nobles and parasitic merchants. Such attitudes would necessarily undermine the fraternity of nations within the Soviet sphere. There is no way that the Chinese regime, motivated as it is by what Burag called “Great Han Chauvinism,” would allow an analogous narrative to take hold in China and its diverse periphery.
Pokrovsky was right about one thing: history is very often “politics turned towards the past,” a lesson well understood by Xi Jinping. History must be grasped, but once grasped it can be manipulated. Thus in November 2020 we saw, as reported by Bitter Winter, 14 stone tablets dedicated to Genghis Khan destroyed by CCP authorities in the Inner Mongolian city of Hulun Buir, while in Chifen “portraits of Genghis Khan and slogans promoting Mongolian culture have been replaced with the portraits of characters of Han Chinese history and slogans promoting Han culture.” This war on heritage has not been confined to within China’s borders. The Musée d’Histoire de Nantes in western France had organized an exhibition, “Fils du Ciel et des Steppes: Gengis Khan et la naissance de l’Empire mongol [Son of the Sky and Steppes: Genghis Khan and the Birth of the Mongol Empire],” in cooperation with the Inner Mongolia Museum in Hohhot. Yet in mid-October 2020, after the CCP insisted that the exhibition remove all references to “Genghis Khan,” “Empire,” and even “Mongol,” the museum was forced to announce that it could no longer move forward with the exhibition with its Chinese collaborators, and it delayed the retrospective until 2024, by which time it hopes to gather replacement artworks loaned out from various American and European collections. There will come a time, one suspects, when that kind of institutional defiance will give way to weary acquiescence.
As the Soviet “Great Repression” in Mongolia wound down, Agnessa Mironova-Korol, the wife of an NKVD secret policeman, took to traveling about the country “trying to introduce culture.” During her peregrinations, she visited a site of Mongol sky burials, the “Valley of the Dead”:
It was a large valley, and the field there was littered with skulls and bones. Savage wild dogs, with brightly-colored bits of cloth hanging all over them, lived on the edge of the field. When people came to dispose of a corpse, they would call these dogs (already trained for the purpose) and hang strips of cloth from their necks. Some had too many of these strips to count — which meant that they had eaten a lot of corpses.… The Russians had decreed that the dead be buried in the ground. They had even dug some deep pits in the valley. But no one followed the decree.
Bound by the tenets of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Mongols had managed to maintain their cultural practices in the face of Soviet oppression — a comforting thought. And it is also comforting, in a morbid, chilly sort of way, that another Valley of the Dead, the so-called Machine Gun Hill in Tariat, continues to sheath the remains of the lamas who perished at the site, each tibia and fibula with a boot still attached, occasionally stumbled over by local herders, bearing witness to the reality of the horrors that unfolded there — a reality that we can still perceive, if we are so inclined, in spite of the best efforts of those who would deny those horrors, and even deny the very identities of the victims. We are told that there are, in places like Tariat, Sanshijiazi, Pingquan, Ch’ao-yang, and elsewhere, innumerable ghosts and demons haunting the premises, bearing that self-same witness in perpetuity. Shouldn’t we be taking heed and following suit?