The Panthay Rebellion


The Muslim Hui people of Yunnan suffered from years of abuse and then were subject to a massacre. They launched a revolt which created the independent state of Pingnan.

The Hui people were first brought to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan by the conquering Mongols, who believed they would make effective administrators and would show greater aptitude and loyalty than either the Han Chinese or the indigenous Yunnanese. Yunnan itself is positioned between the Tibetan plateau to the west, the tropical jungles of mainland Southeast Asia to the south and the mountainous provinces of Sichuan and Guangxi to the north and east. Yunnan existed for many centuries on the very borders of Chinese influence and, for significant portions of that time, maintained itself as a separate, independent state. First as Tien and later as Nanchao and Dali, princes based in the major cities of Kunming and Dali organised their own states, based on a federation of different ethnic groups organised from the central, urban strongholds.

The extent to which the Hui were accepted by the other ethnic groups varied but there was, apparently, always an undercurrent of resentment that they had been given a preferential position by hated outsider conquerors. Nevertheless, over the years the Hui seem to have been able to hold their own and they were often described as ‘fierce,’ ‘combative’ and ‘assertive.’ However, they were not able to resist the one overridingly successful characteristic of the Han Chinese throughout history – to increase their population and expand to new land (this is a characteristic that the Vietnamese people also demonstrated). Inevitably, tension increased. Tension manifests itself in many different ways but, in 1856, it resulted in a massacre in Kunming in which officials led the common people against the Hui Muslim people which killed somewhere between 4-7,000 people outright and resulted in the destruction of uncounted houses, businesses and Mosques. Knowing exactly who killed whom and why has turned out to be very difficult to discover and the motives remain obscure. There was resentment and no doubt racism and bigotry, perhaps on both sides, but why this should so it seems suddenly lead to an organised pogrom on this scale is not known.

What it did lead to is a large-scale rebellion lasting for eighteen years and uniting no just the ethnic Hui people but also many Yunnanese and Han Chinese people as well, joined together in solidarity against the expansionist power of Beijing. Reports of official sanctions for the actions led to further outbreaks of violence across Yunnan and thousands more Hui were murdered. Whether they were men, women or children. People seem to have believed, whatever the records show, that they had carte blanche to do what they will against a minority group living in their midst and so they committed acts of extraordinary cruelty against them. We have seen such acts throughout the years met by revenge and misery and retaliation until the present day. The loss of peace and happiness and human productivity is almost unbearable to consider.

The Hui people fought back and organised themselves to the extent that they could declare their own independent state of Pingnan. This, eventually was defeated as central Chinese troops were brought to bear. Chinese and Yunnanese joined with the Hui people to show their solidarity against the central government. Maintaining a separate state for 18 years is quite a startling achievement.

However, modern scholarship asks more questions of the past than the official records are able to bear. Why did this happen? Why were disparate incidents strung together to make it seem as if Chinese and Muslim had always been inimical when the evidence suggests that they had pretty much rubbed along together without too much difficulty. The officials involved had good records and extensive experience. There remains a mystery as to why that happened did happen with such ferocity and why it happened when it did.