Muslim Rebellions in China

Muslim Rebellions in China
Muslim Rebellions in China

The three Muslim rebellions against the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty in China in the 19th century were caused by economic, ethnic, and religious problems. The Xinjiang (Sinkiang) Rebellion also had diplomatic implications.

The first was the rebellion in Yunnan, known in the West as the Panthay Rebellion, from a corruption of the Burmese word for “Muslim.” Between 20–30 percent of the population of Yunnan, located in southwestern China, is Muslim, descended from Central Asian Muslim troops sent by Kubilai Khan to garrison the region in the 13th century. They were discriminated against by the majority non-Muslims and the Han and Manchu officials because of their distinctive lifestyles.

Disputes over mining rights led to the rebellion in 1855 under Du Wenxiu (Tu Wen-hsiu), who proclaimed himself Sultan Sulieman of a Muslim kingdom with capital at Dali (Tali). After enjoying initial successes, a new governor appointed by the Qing was able to eliminate the rebels in 1873. Du sought British help in vain and assassinated.

The second Muslim rebellion occurred in Shaanxi (Shensi) and Gansu (Kansu) Provinces in northwestern China between 1862 and 1873. It is also called the Tungan Rebellion, after the approximately 14 million Chinese Muslims in these provinces who were of mixed Central Asian and Chinese descent; although largely assimilated in language and customs, they nevertheless suffered from discrimination.

The rebellion broke out in 1862 as a result of the incursion of Taiping rebels into Shaanxi, igniting local grievances. The situation was very confused because the Muslims were divided into the warring Old and New Sects and was further complicated by incursion of another rebel group, the Nian (Nien), into Shaanxi in 1866, who joined forces with the Muslims.

The Qing court appointed Zho Zongtang (Tso Tsung-T’ang), a great general-statesman who had helped defeat the Taiping Rebellion, governor-general of Shaanxi-Gansu, in charge of suppressing the Tungan rebels. Zuo could not take up this task until he had suppressed the Nian Rebellion in 1868, after which he spent six years of hard campaigning before pacifying these two provinces.

Xinjiang, in the far northwestern part of China, was its historic gateway to the West along the ancient Silk Road. After several campaigns it was conquered in 1759 by Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung), who expelled the previously influential religious leaders called khojas to Khokand beyond China’s border.

After 1759 Xinjiang was governed by a military governor from Ili, who delegated local chieftains called begs to control the Muslims called Uighurs. It was garrisoned by Manchu banner troops concentrated on the north and south of the Tianshan Mountains.

In 1864 as the Uighurs rebelled, Yakub Beg (1820–77), a Khokandian adventurer, invaded Xinjiang. Preoccupied with rebellions elsewhere, the Qing government was unable to respond; thus Yakub Beg gained control of parts of northern Xinjiang (Kashgaria) and proclaimed himself ruler. Russia took advantage of China’s disarray to occupy Ili.

Xinjiang became part of the Great Game between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. After suppressing the Muslim rebellion in Shanxi and Gansu, the Qing court appointed Zuo Zongtang imperial commissioner to suppress the Xinjiang Rebellion.

An experienced and careful commander, he was able to crush the rebels in 1877. Yakub Beg assassinated, and Xinjiang was pacified. Russia was compelled to restore the Ili to China in the Treaty of St. Petersberg in 1881. On Zuo’s recommendation Xinjiang received the status of province and was fully integrated into the Qing Empire.

The three Muslim rebellions were indicative of the decline of the Qing dynasty. Their suppression, along with the defeat of other rebellions, would give a new lease on life to the dynasty.