previous sub-section
Chapter Two Foreign Imperialism, Immigration and Disorder Opium War Aftermath and the Small Sword Uprising of 1853
next chapter

Losing Control and Taking the City: The Small Sword Uprising

After opening to foreign trade, the city became densely crowded, and buildings pressed against each other like barnacles on a rock. Exotic and elegant goods appeared from all over, and people who knew strange stunts and bizarre feats amazed people with their cleverness and sophistication. The people trading with this place were mainly people from Guangdong, Chaozhou, Zhejiang, and Ningbo, and their activities brought no benefit to the local people.... Shanghai country people are frugal and simple, but they were enticed by gambling and festivals.... [T]hey neglected their work, loafed and practiced martial arts. Thus they formed the Temple Gang, the Dike and Bridge Gang, the Sugar Gang, the Straw and Mud Gang .... In the third year of the Xianfeng reign they were seduced by the Fujian and Guangdong bandits into killing the officials and occupying the city.[52]

In the third year of Xianfeng, on the sixth day of the third month there was a tremendous earthquake, followed by days


of successive tremors, with sounds like the howling of ghosts. In the summer, on the seventh day of the fourth month, there was an earthquake. In the fifth month, outside the north gate, blood flowed from the ground and the earth sprouted hairs. On the eighth day of the sixth month, a woman named Hong gave birth to three sons, one colored deep blue, one white, and one crimson. After this, the city was besieged.[53]

In the Small Sword Uprising of 1853[54] we see an extreme "crystallization" of trends in state-society relations during the post-Opium War, early-opium-trading years in Shanghai: the weak Chinese state, dependent on the nonstate social institutions of huiguan to maintain social control; the admixture of foreign elements into Chinese traditions; the powerful emergence of secret societies from the substratum of Shanghai society; the linking of secret-society elements with merchants and merchant institutions based on native-place tics; and the mediating role of huiguan as institutions between different levels of society and different groups in society, a role which made huiguan central to both the maintenance and the disruption of social order.

Huiguan Militia . News reverberated in Shanghai of the establishment of the Taiping Heavenly Capital at Nanjing in March 1853 and of the subsequent proliferation of smaller uprisings such as the Small Sword takeover of Xiamen in May, causing anxiety at every level of society. Shanghai's vagabond population had strengthened the ranks of secret societies, including the Guangdong Small Sword Society. "Between summer and fall, rumors buzzed in the streets."[55] Listening and spreading rumors themselves, the secret societies grew bolder.

Confronted with displays of secret-society strength and rumors of imminent rebellion (and mindful of the overextension of imperial forces), the officials governing Shanghai hastened to establish defense militia. The Guangdong merchant-Daotai, Wu Jianzhang, sought help


from his friend Li Shaoqing, Jiaying Gongsuo director, and gathered together a corps of Guangdong "village braves." Li Xianyun, director of the Fujian Xinghua Huiguan similarly organized a group of Fujian "braves. "[56]

The militia caused problems from the beginning. Shortly after calling the Guangdong group together, Wu found he could not support them. Disbanded, the former "braves" turned into secret-society members. In mid-August, alarmed by mushrooming secret societies, the Shanghai Magistrate, Yuan Zude, posted a proclamation denouncing banditry and accusing Li Xianyun of being a bandit leader. A week later the magistrate's runners arrested Li and fourteen others. Nonetheless, the magistrate was too frightened by threats against him to keep them in his yamen . He not only promptly released the group but also paid Li a large indemnity for "false arrest." According to one account, Li began to organize an uprising upon his release.[57]

The next sequence of events reflects the pivotal position of huiguan , providing links with and potentially influencing secret societies, as well as the unstable power relations between high and low under the native-place tie. Hearing of a plot to waylay him, Daotai Wu also feared the situation was getting out of hand. Wu negotiated with huiguan directors to disperse the secret societies formed by their fellow-provincials. These huiguan directors then discussed the situation with their "dang, " returning with a counterproposal that the secret-society groups be transformed instead into paid militia, as an inducement toward their keeping the peace. In the meantime, Wu bribed Li Xianyun to keep things quiet.[58]

The huiguan directors framed their demands in a respectful petition, which the Daotai and magistrate graced with official approval. The text is preserved in a proclamation by the Shanghai magistrate on August 31, 1853, and translated in the North China Herald , establishing the new forces for the defense of the city:[59]


We conceive that when people mutually guard a place and assist each other, a neighborhood will enjoy tranquility. . .. [If] . . . secluded villages are required to maintain patroles, how much more should an emporium like Shang-hae assemble its inhabitants for military training.? Moreover, just now, when the rebels are making a disturbance, and lawless banditti are availing themselves of every pretext to get up a riot—if Shang-hae which is a market of such importance, where merchants assemble, and goods are stored up in such abundance—if the place does not adopt some means of defense, then robberies will be frequent, and the hard-earned savings of the trader will be encroached upon, in which case none would venture to come hither to trade. Orders having already been communicated to the president of the Canton assembly room to collect the members of the other guilds, consult about establishing a watch and train the militia in order to aid in the defense of the place—in which are conspicuous the wish to extirpate villainy and tranquilize the people—we have in obedience thereto assembled the guilds belonging to Fo-kien, Canton, Ningbo and Shang-hae people to consult with the gentry of the place; all these have gladly responded to the call, and have united together for the purpose above named; so that, should nothing happen, they may still be on their guard, and should anything transpire, they may resist with advantage; the watchmen on shore going backward and forward as regularly as shuffles in a loom. . .. Should this plan of calling out the militia be put into effect, the city will be as secure as the great wall, the neighborhood will be in a state of tranquility, and the merchants will feel as easy as if they were reposing on beds of down.[60]

After approving this plan, the magistrate endorsed the huiguan directors' demand for funds from the local gentry to pay the militia. In addition to this estimated annual cost of thirty thousand yuan, the magistrate endorsed the collection of funds for salaries for the huiguan directors, the cost of a general office for the seven huiguan to use together, and six smaller offices, presumably for the individual huiguan .[61]

The petition reflects the commanding position of the Canton association; the impecuniousness of local official government; the willingness of different regional huiguan to coordinate their actions for municipal defense; the demands of restive secret-society organizations to be paid off, and finally, the ability of huiguan to manipulate their pivotal position in the situation for their own profit and position (director salaries and official municipal offices).


The Coup . On September 5, less than a week after the posting of this notice, Guangdong secret societies joined local Shanghai secret societies organized under Zhou Lichun in an attack on the district yamen of Jiading. On September 6 there was a run on red cloth, and Shanghai shops quickly sold out. The following day the militia formed through the huiguan directors' agency confederated under the banner of the Small Sword Society and festooned themselves with red head-bands, red belts and other markers of rebellion. At dawn several hundred of these militiamen/rebels from Guangdong entered the Chinese walled city of Shanghai. The takeover began at the offices of the county magistrate, where there were forty guards, all Guangdong natives. The guards did not resist. According to one account they scattered "like stars" to make way for the intruders, then calmly reached into their belts and pulled out red cloths to wrap around their heads. By afternoon the rebels controlled the city.[62]

The conquest of the city claimed only two victims: one hapless guard who took it upon himself to resist and the city magistrate, who was not forgiven for his arrest of secret-society members prior to the uprising. After plundering the magistrate's yamen and freeing the prisoners within (leaving the corpse of the magistrate in his looted office for all to behold), the rebels proceeded to the Daotai's yamen , where they began to enact a similar scene, the Daotai's guard revealing matched red scarves.

Instead of killing Wu Jianzhang, the rebels reportedly shouted, "Because we are from the same native place, we will spare your life—where is the money?" Unwilling to trust his life entirely to native-place sentiment, Wu turned over his treasury, and the rebellion encountered no further resistance. In this fashion, to the wonderment of a western commentator, "a walled town of 200,000 inhabitants [was] taken by men armed mostly with spears and swords, and only one [sic ] man killed in the struggle."[63] The city was taken, but it was more a coup than an uprising, and there was no struggle. The city's armed forces had merely taken command. Although they lacked both coherent organization and ideology, they held Shanghai for seventeen months.

An anonymous account of the rebellion written by a member of the Shanghai gentry recounts that the uprising was orchestrated by a confederation of seven major gangs (dang ). These dang corresponded to seven native-place groups:[64]


Chaozhou (Guangdong)

Jiaying (Guangdong)

Guangzhou and Zhaoqing (Guangdong)

Quanzhou and Zhangzhou (Fujian)

Xinghua (Fujian)

Ningbo (Zhejiang)


The secret societies of the Shanghai area numbered more than seven. These included the following:[65]

Small Sword Society (Guangdong)

Double Sword Society (Guangdong)

Bird Society (Fujian)

Fujian Gang (Fujian)

Blue Turban/Blue Hand Society (Fujian)

Ningbo Gang (Ningbo)

Hundred Dragon/Temple/Dike and Bridge Society (Shanghai)

Luohan Society (Jiading county, Jiangsu)

Sugar Gang (Shanghai)

Straw and Mud Gang (Shanghai)

It seems fairly clear that the seven dang which formed the organizational foundation of the uprising overlapped with the seven regional associations which organized the city's militia. Several of the identified rebel leaders—Li Shaoqing, Li Xianyun, Pan Yiguo—were among the huiguan directors who signed the petition to the magistrate. At least two huiguan or gongsuo within the city served as offices for the rebels. The Guangdong rebels took Daotai Wu to their Guang'an Huiguan. The elegant Fujian merchants' Dianchuntang, with its courtyard gar-


dens and carved wood and marble furniture, was headquarters for the Fujian rebels.[66]

Connections and Tensions . It appears that the seven major regional huiguan were nodes for the coalescence of smaller and disparate secret societies, which conjoined on the basis of overarching regional affinities.[67] The joint militia organization provided a loose framework, connecting in turn the different huiguan .

The opium trade provided another critical connection. One contemporary account identified the Fujianese leaders, Chen Alin, Lin Afu, Chen Aliu, Li Xianyun, and the Guangdong leaders, Li Shaoqing and Li Shuangxuan, as opium sellers and gamblers, "accustomed to daring and lawlessness." Another noted that the Guangdong and Fujian people were engaged in transporting opium. One Guangdong leader, Liu Ayuan, was identified as the owner of an opium shop in Shanghai. Opium had clearly involved merchants in illegalities and tied them to secret societies. Opium also linked Guangdong secret societies with local Shanghai secret societies.[68]

The native-place ties which provided the axes of coalition for the rebel uprising were not linked, at this point, to an ideology which went beyond the self-interest of individual native-place groups. This is clearly reflected in the rebels' clumsy groping for symbols, causes or powers greater than themselves. Although the rebels followed secret-society rhetoric of Ming restoration and declared themselves a new Ming dynasty, they also cast about for other symbols of legitimacy, naming themselves, in foreign fashion, the Yixing Company (which may be


taken as a reflection of their recognition of the power of foreign commerce) and hoping variously for help and sponsorship from the Tai-pings, from the British, French and U.S. authorities and even from the Qing official Wu Jianzhang.

From the beginning of the uprising the Small Swords were divided by the very native-place ties along which they were organized. Fujian and Guangdong groups entered the city from different directions and set up camps in different places. From their different headquarters their leaders issued independent proclamations. Each regional group wore a distinguishing badge. According to a western observer, Fujian rebels fled their heads with red bands. Although they wore red belts, Guangdong rebels wore white head cloths. There were also sartorial distinctions between sojourners and local people.[69]

On the first day of the coup the rebels argued over the fate of the Daotai, with the Fujianese pressing for execution. The Guangdong group instead protected him and took him to their huiguan in the western part of the city, hoping to persuade him to join them. Liu Lichuan even sent a note to the American legation proclaiming that the Small Swords intended to reestablish Wu as a high official of their new government.[70]

The rebels also argued over their conduct in the city. The Fujianese and by one report the Chaoyang group wanted to loot and plunder. They were restrained by the Guangzhou group, with ill will on both sides. A dispute arose over an estimated 200,000 taels discovered in an imperial treasury. The Fujianese wanted to divide the money; the Guangdong faction favored establishing a treasury for the defense of the city. The dispute escalated into a fight which ended only when Guangdong rebels drove the Fujianese out of the walled city.[71]

Alliances among groups were private matters, not ideological expressions of allegiance to a united Small Swords. Li Shaoxi's friendship with the local Qingpu strongman Zhou Lichun brought the Shanghai gangs into an exclusive alliance with the Guangdong group. In the treasury dispute the local Jiading and Qingpu factions sided firmly with the Guangdong group, opposing the unruly Fujianese.[72]


Denouement . The fates of the Small Sword rebels similarly varied according to the native-place and personal alliances of the different rebel subgroups. As the French-assisted Qing troops pressed their siege, the food supply dwindled and some factions leaned toward desertion. The Fujianese had long wanted nothing more than to return to their native place with captured booty, but they had been prevented from doing so by the Cantonese. As conditions and morale deteriorated, the Guangdong leader Liu Lichuan himself proposed surrender to the reinstated Daotai (in return for an official rifle). His plan was opposed by the Fujian leader Lin Aria. At times the tensions of survival led to the emergence of savage ethnic conflict among groups previously allied as fellow Guangdong provincials. In January 1854, in response to a reported Hakka conspiracy (presumably referring to the Jiaying group) to deliver the city to foreign troops, the non-Hakka Cantonese murdered more than seventy of their Hakka fellow-provincials.[73]

In the last days of the occupation (February 1855), the Small Swords began to flee the city in different groups. The first desertion was precipitated by Chen Alin's shooting of Liu Lichuan's secretary, an act which aroused the anger of the Guangdong faction. Fearing revenge, Chen and his followers escaped. Another Fujian leader, Lin Afu, and his followers also fled, joining coastal pirates. Liu Lichuan himself finally deserted the city for Guangdong, accompanied by more than a hundred fellow-provincials.[74]

It was only after most rebels had vanished that the imperial forces rushed into the city, confident of meeting no resistance. Their entrance marked the most devastating moment of the Small Sword episode. They beheaded, burned, tortured, drowned and raped all of the rebels, relations, sympathizers, and suspect passersby they could lay their hands on. Amid the corpses and slaughter, the imperial troops plundered the city and finally set it afire. Three days later, "order was restored." Nearly half of the city lay in bloodied rubble. Houses, temples, yamen, huiguan and gongsuo were in ruins.

As the ashes cooled, the Qing Pacification Commissioner strode into the city to inspect the work of his troops. He issued ten regulations to prevent the resurrection of the Small Swords. Although Ningbo and local Shanghai people had also participated in the rebellion, Guangdong and Fujian people (and their huiguan ) bore the brunt of his punitive


measures. The regulations dictated surveillance over the selection of subsequent Guangdong and Fujian huiguan managers; prohibition against the rebuilding of Guangdong and Fujian huiguan within the city walls; prohibition against the rebuilding of any "dens of rebellion"; deportation and supervised relocation of Fujian and Guangdong vagabonds; examination and registration of all Chinese in foreign employ (primarily Cantonese); prohibition of Fujian and Guangdong boats; and prohibition against vagabonds departing on these types of boats.[75]

The new acting Daotai, Lan Weiwen (from Ningbo), together with a coalition of his fellow Zhejiang merchants and officials, vigorously implemented these regulations in a full-scale campaign against people from Guangdong. In the official records, the Small Sword rebellion was increasingly attributed to "Guangdong and Fujian bandits" only. Whereas Guangdong people were forced to move outside the city and their efforts to rebuild huiguan repeatedly thwarted, Ningbo people were permitted to retain a temple within the city walls and use it as their huiguan (the Zhe-Ning Huiguan). Within a few years their former huiguan , the Siming Gongsuo, was restored and expanded.[76]

The outstanding feature of the Small Sword episode in Shanghai history is perhaps neither the coup nor its failure but the resemblances and overlap between the rebel and loyalist sides. Under the principle of "changing from evil ways to good" (gai e cong shan ), secret-society members were made into defense militia for the city. The militia then turned rebel and overthrew the officials it served. This much will perhaps not seem remarkable, because attempting to coopt local strongmen was a common imperial tactic and because infiltrating city defenses was a common secret-society tactic.[77]

But the overlaps run deeper. The upstanding merchant associations, the huiguan which maintained urban order, were revealed in the course of the uprising to be in thrall to secret societies, as useful to the cause of rebellion as they had been in service to the government. Huiguan


directors who petitioned the authorities to maintain order, some of whom had official rifles, were identified as ruffians who had been in and out of prison.

Despite their vows to overthrow the dynasty, the rebels who took the city saved the highest official in it. Not only was Daotai Wu spared, but the rebels asked him to serve in their new government. Later, when Liu Lichuan considered surrender, he planned to hand over the city in exchange for an official rifle.

Although Daotai Wu declined to serve in the Small Sword government, he nonetheless made few effective attempts to retake the city. Unenlightened by the lesson of his initial militia-making endeavor, Wu turned to another group of his fellow-countrymen to combat the rebels. He hired a fleet of Xiangshan pirate-boatmen to sail on Shanghai and attack the Small Swords. The pirates came as hired, but they refused to fight fellow-provincials and spent their time in Shanghai waters robbing and plundering, one more "scourge on the populace."

Meanwhile, crowning the farce at the city walls, imperial troops recruited from Guangdong (said also to be secret-society members) sallied forward daily toward the rebel forces. At the tips of their bayonets they hung ducks and other foodstuffs, for the ostensible purpose of taunting the besieged rebels. At the end of the day, taunting done, these troops returned to their camps, ducks lost among the hungry besieged.[78]

If such contradictions weakened both the rebellion and imperial attempts to suppress it, they are consistent with the limitations and corruptions of an impecunious state as well as the frontier aspects of Shanghai at the time, as a boomtown with little government. Many wealthy merchants in this period had arrived just a few years earlier as poor adventurers, rough-and-ready types who did what it took to carve out fortunes and a reputation. Such men became powertful and rose as huiguan leaders after the Opium War. The Jiaying Huiguan director Li Shaoqing arrived in the Shanghai area as a peddler and then became a tea-house operator with connections to opium smugglers. We see a similar type in the figure of the rebel leader Li Xianyun, whose might made him director of both the Xing'an and Quan-Zhang huiguan : "The Fujianese Li Xianyun was also a bandit/secret society [member]. He was nearly sixty, short and with a slight beard and moustache. Coming and going he rode a sedan chair, surrounded by a throng of his bodyguards, creating extreme dread. Whenever each brokerage or shop expected goods to


arrive at the docks they had to send money to Li's place in order to avoid robbery when the shipments reached shore."[79]

In an urban atmosphere in which toughs and gangs roamed the streets making their own order because little order was imposed from above, for both merchants and poor immigrants native-place ties provided one of the few means of organization and protection. The Small Sword episode reflects this centrality of huiguan as an organizational base for multiple purposes, as well as the significance of native-place identity as a loyalty which could cut across other tics. It was not that native-place identity determined an individual's side in the uprising (in fact, there were reports of wealthy Guangdong merchants generously donating funds to both sides). Rather, throughout the episode the usefulness of native-place ties (contrasted with the ideological weakness of both the rebel and imperial sides) diminished the participants' interest in taking other types of loyalty seriously.

In the decades that followed the uprising, while imperial forces continued to deal with the ongoing Taiping Rebellion, Shanghai huiguan rebuilt themselves and grew in numbers, constituency and power. Although ties to secret societies would not entirely disappear, huiguan leaders would become increasingly respectable, so respectable that events like involvement in a rebel uprising would become unimaginable. But even though the huiguan wrote the Small Sword episode out of their histories, their behavior suggests that they drew important lessons from the experience.

In the Small Sword Uprising, huiguan and ideas of native place appear both central and strangely powerless. Although people coalesced around native-place loyalties, at this point native-place communities did not cohere around clear leaders or clear notions. Merchant elites could not effectively direct the actions of their tongxiang , and their institutions and reputations suffered accordingly. After the uprising, as Shanghai merchants grew in wealth and power, they took great care to root their power more firmly within their sojourning communities. They would also deepen their connections to other sources of authority in the city—both to Chinese and to foreign institutions. Through these connections and the tensions and responsibilities they aroused they would in time embed their native-place loyalties within a more coherent politics, entirely changing the meaning of native-place sentiment.


previous sub-section
Chapter Two Foreign Imperialism, Immigration and Disorder Opium War Aftermath and the Small Sword Uprising of 1853
next chapter