- On the Trail of the Yellow Tiger: War, Trauma, and Social Dislocation in Southwest China during the Ming-Qing Transition by Kenneth M. Swope
In the first chapter of On the Trail of the Yellow Tiger: War, Trauma, and Social Dislocation in Southwest China during the Ming-Qing Transition, Kenneth Swope writes, "… [T]he present book … was conceived as a simple study of Zhang Xianzhong's brief and bloody reign in Sichuan from the ground up. But once I started delving into the primary sources, I realized that there was a much richer story to be told by expanding the focus to encompass all of southwest China and bring in the full story of the Southern Ming resistance to the Qing in southwest China" (p. 13). The resulting monograph gives voice to both the powerbrokers whose decisions and ambitions led to the fifteen-year war for southwestern China, and the ordinary people who suffered and died in the crossfire. As such, On the Trail of the Yellow Tiger is much more than the story of the Ming-Qing transition. It is a cautionary tale with deep resonance in today's world.
The first four of the book's nine chapters detail Zhang Xianzhong's rise to power, his attempts to create a viable regime in western China, and his murderous excesses. Paranoia and bloodlust marked every stage of his career; "[he] supposedly deemed a day without killing a wasted day" (p. 79). Not even the tiniest infraction escaped his notice. Sichuan's hapless residents could be killed for failing to trim the weeds in their courtyards, or for miscopying characters in an official document (p. 108). An individual's mistake could bring [End Page 148] about the wholesale slaughter of an entire group. When a single physician's herbs failed to cure one of Zhang's executioners, Zhang had him cut into pieces and then ordered the decapitation of all other physicians in Chengdu (p. 109). Rape and sexual violence were also widespread: "Women were regularly ravaged, sometimes in front of their husbands or children" (p. 109). Although no one was truly safe in Zhang Xianzhong's Da Xi ("Great Western") kingdom, he harbored a special animus toward the gentry and literati, probably because they posed the greatest potential challenge to his rule. On more than one occasion, he ordered the mass extermination of Sichuanese intellectuals. Upon capturing the city of Qizhou in early 1643, he reportedly rounded up local scholars and ordered them to "enter into one gate of the city only to be slaughtered and 'processed' through another gate" (p. 39). In the provincial capital of Chengdu two years later, "… Zhang summoned scholars to [the Qingyuan Daoist temple] to take an exam only to massacre between 5,000 and 22,300 of them on the temple grounds. They entered through the east gate and were 'processed' out the west gate" (pp. 109–110). In his final assessment of Zhang Xianzhong, Swope pulls no punches: "… [E]ven allowing for considerable exaggeration on the part of surviving source materials, it is difficult to avoid regarding him as one of the most bloodthirsty psychopaths in history. He was directly responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands at the very least. … It is true that he lived in an exceptionally violent age … but his excesses go far beyond those of most of his contemporaries" (p. 136).
Swope's vivid descriptions of the bloodshed in seventeenth-century Sichuan draw inevitable comparisons to more modern instances of genocide and mass murder around the world—in Armenia, Nazi-occupied Europe, Jonestown, Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, and, most recently, Myanmar. Such analogies are not lost on Swope himself, who likens Zhang Xianzhong to modern genocidaires Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin (pp. 114, 116). Among its many merits, the book serves as a salutary reminder that mass murder...