"Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!"
- Zhang Xianzhong
Zhang Xianzhong (1606-1647), nicknamed the "Yellow Tiger" by his men, was the leader of a peasant rebellion in the dying days of the Ming Dynasty who eventually grew in power to become one of the greatest mass-murderers in human history.
Zhang Xianzhong was born in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, in 1606. He may have had some rudimentary training as part of a village self-defense militia, but otherwise seems to have had an uneventful early life, and he grew up and took up work as a carpenter. But fate had other plans for Zhang than sawing wood and pounding nails for the rest of his days.
In 1628, when Zhang was 22 years old, a massive famine broke out in Shaanxi, and when the tight-fisted and repressive Ming government refused to give adequate tax breaks in response (i.e. no tax break whatever), numerous bands of rebellious peasants started organizing across the province to resist taxes, liberate food from merchants and landlords, and generally vent their ire against the powers that were.
Zhang joined one of these bands, and quickly rose to become its leader. But when the famine eventually passed and all the other bands dispersed and went back to their peasant ways, Zhang refused to disband his group, for he had fallen in love with the chaos. Using hit-and-run guerilla tactics, and always keeping on the move, he and his men plundered widely across a large swath of Northern China. Although his band was defeated several times by Ming troops, and several other times was paid off to stop raiding for a while, he would always eventually head to the hills, regroup, and return to his pillaging ways before long.
Meanwhile, as Zhang's fame spread, and the decaying social and economic structure of Ming China sank deeper into disarray, he was able to attract larger and larger numbers to his band. Zhang became especially popular among the poorest peasants once he began a practice of executing wealthy landlords and redistributing their lands and wealth to the poor like some sort of Chinese Robin Hood. The only problem was, the power was starting to go to his head.
In the early 1630s, Zhang captured a large portion of Hubei province and set up a mini kingdom, killing all the landlords and Ming officials and initiating a massive redistribution of wealth to the peasants. His band swelled, and in 1635, he crossed the Yangzi River and invaded Sichuan Province, briefly capturing the capital of Chengdu. But forces loyal to the Ming rose up and defeated him soundly, destroying much of his band and driving him out of Sichuan.
Zhang fled back to the hills of his native Shaanxi, where he vowed revenge and set about rebuilding his band and making alliances with several other bands. In 1640, he returned to Sichuan, this time at the head of an army of over 100,000 armed peasants, and recaptured Chengdu. By now Zhang had started having visions telling him that the Ming were losing the Mandate of Heaven, and that the Mandate was now falling upon Zhang (as visions go, 1 out of 2 was not bad).
So Zhang accordingly proclaimed himself emperor of Da Xi Guo, or "The Great Western Empire," and set about trying to establish a kingdom in Sichuan, minting his own coins and making attempts to set up a bureaucracy. But true to his bandit ways, the thing Zhang was most interested in was killing all the landlords and giving their wealth to the poor. When the landlords ran out, he started killing all the merchants. Then when the merchants ran out, he started killing all the scholars. When the scholars were all gone, he had all the bureaucrats killed. Finally, the bureaucrats were all gone, so he ordered his men to kill all the women. When the women were all gone, he ordered his men to kill their own wives.
Zhang seems to have had a special obsession with ears and feet. He particularly enjoyed gazing upon massive piles of them. A mound of feet cut from the bodies of the murdered wives, with the feet of his own freshly executed concubine at the very top, or the mountain of ears he had his men cut off villagers in outlying districts.
Finally, the women and villagers ran out, so Zhang started ordering his own men to attack each other. Just about then the army of the Manchus, who were in the process of conquering China from the Ming, showed up, crushed whatever remained of Zhang's "kingdom," and had Zhang summarily executed. But shortly before Zhang was killed, he had a massive stone stele erected in Chengdu, recording the reasoning behind his mass killings:
Heaven brought forth innumerable things to support man.
But man has not brought forth even one thing to recompense heaven.
Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!
This monument, which became known as the "Seven Kill Stele," was quickly bricked over by the Manchus, who thought it was too full of evil power and thus would be too dangerous to try to destroy. It took a platoon of fearless atheists from the People's Liberation Army to finally unearth the stele in the 1970s and blow it up with dynamite, on the orders of Deng Xiaopeng, who was a native of the Chengdu area and did not want the destroyer of his homeland's monument to remain in existence any longer.
Zhang's seven year rule over Sichuan devastated the province, virtually beyond all imagination. The Ming census of 1585 recorded the population of Sichuan as 3,102,073 persons, but the Qing census of 1685, nearly 40 years after Zhang's death, was able to find only 18,090 people living in Sichuan. A large number of the inhabitants, certainly in the hundreds of thousands, had been directly murdered by Zhang's regime, but millions more simply packed up and moved away for good to escape the bloodbath. Records from the time record a massive migration of Sichuanese into Hubei and and Hunan provinces, and then a fairly large secondary migration of Hubeinese and Hunanese into the Jiangxi province, trying to get away from all the Sichuanese.
The population of Sichuan did not begin the path to recovery until the Kangxi emperor initiated a massive program to relocate hundreds of thousands of Hakka people from coastal areas around Guangzhou ("Canton") to repopulate Sichuan. Even today, most of the people in Sichuan can actually trace their ancestry back to the area around Guangzhou.
Blood and Treasure. "Further Chronicles of Nihilism." http://bloodandtreasure.typepad.com/blood_treasure/2004/09/further_chronic.html
Chung, Yoon-Ngan. "The Arrival of the Hakkas in Sichuan Province." http://www.asiawind.com/pub/forum/fhakka/mhonarc/msg00475.html
Encyclopedia Britannica. "Chang Hsien-chung." http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9022415
Wikipedia. "Zhang Xianzhong." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhang_Xianzhong