A Brief History
On May 20, 1645, the forces of Prince Dodo (we do not make this stuff up!) of the Qing Dynasty conquered the city of Yangzhou, China, from the forces of the Southern Ming of the Hongguang Emperor. The Qing army commenced perhaps the greatest single incident atrocity/massacre in all of History by killing 800,000 people over the next 10 days. (See below for another candidate for worst massacre in History.)
China had long been fought over by rival warlords calling themselves “Emperor” and the carnage involved in these Chinese wars are among the deadliest in the history of warfare. In Yangzhou, Prince Dodo wanted to make an example of the population for daring to resist his forces in an effort to avoid such resistance in other cities in the region South of the Yangtze River known as the Jiangnan. The Ming leader of Yangzhou, Shi Kefa, was executed by Dodo for refusing to submit to the authority of the Qing empire.
The population of Yangzhou was herded like sheep to killing zones, sometimes tied together with ropes before being killed. People on the loose were trampled by horses or pursued and killed, and thousands of bodies were thrown into ponds, lakes, rivers and canals, causing the water to run red with blood.
Some residents his within their houses or other buildings, only to be burned to death when the buildings were torched. Some historians question the number of people killed but given the dense population in large Chinese cities and the ruthless killing spree butchers such as Prince Dodo were capable of, the usual number of people cited as killed of 800,000 may well be accurate or at least close to the actual number.
For perspective on how massive this massacre of innocent Chinese people was, the United States lost 407,000 men in combat in all of World War II combined! The United Kingdom lost less than 400,000 combat deaths and only 450,000 total deaths including civilians in all of World War II. When Tokyo was bombed in 1945, about 100,000 people died in the bombing raids of March 9th and 10th of 1945, the deadliest bombing attacks in World History (more deadly than the atomic bomb attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The infamous “Rape of Nanking” massacre of Chinese civilians by the Japanese Army in December of 1937 killed between 40,000 and 300,000 people, depending on source, a fraction of the carnage at Yangzhou.
The other Chinese contender for the title of Worst Massacre in History is the Sichuan Massacre that occurred in China only a year after Yangzhou. Zhang Xianzhong was a peasant that led a revolt against the Ming Dynasty in his native Shaanxi Province going on to conquer Sichuan Province, laying waste to the countryside and population along the way, killing as many as 1,000,000 of the population of 3,000,000 in the province. Zhang led an army of about 100,000 men, taking the major city of Chongqing, cutting of the hands of any that had defended against his attack and massacring many others. Zhang declared himself King of the Xi Dynasty upon conquering Sichuan, but only got to rule until October of 1646 when the approach of a Qing (Manchu) army caused him to flee to this home province of Shaanxi. Many of the total people massacred lost their lives as Zhang and his army traveled back to Shaanxi. Zhang died in battle against the Qing army in 1647. While Zhang ruled Sichuan, he brutally put down any sign of resistance to his rule, creating enormous piles of head he had cut off of any suspected of resistance. Ears and noses of his victims were kept in separate piles, and the thousands of feet from women whom he had their feet severed created another pair of enormous piles. Zhang doused the severed feet with oil and lit the huge piles creating what he called “heavenly candles”. He was also known to flay those suspected of resistance or intrigue against his rule.
As with most other massacres, the Sichuan Massacre death toll is debated among historians, but most seem to agree that the number is probably a million or even twice that number. Lasting for well over a year (perhaps nearly 2 years), the Sichuan Massacre did not match the Yangzhou Massacre for killings in such a short time frame but exceeded it in total deaths.
Yet another contender for Worst Massacre in History is the Indonesian Massacre of 1965-1966, in which between 400,000 and 3,000,000 people suspected of being communists and their families were massacred by the government of the country. Also known as the Indonesian Politicide or the Indonesian Communist Purge, or even the less colorful name of The Tragedy of 1965, the Indonesian government targeted suspected communists, openly leftist citizens, and large numbers of ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia. The majority of accepted estimates of deaths range from 500,000 to 1,000,000. The mass killings finally resulted in the deposing of President Sukarno and the installation of President Suharto. Information released in 2017 indicates that the United States Government approved of the purge and killings by the Indonesian Army during a time of great tension between the Communist Bloc and the West. American CIA agents apparently supplied the Indonesian Army with lists of suspected communists to target.
Other mass killings and genocides in World History are even worse than the massacres listed above but are not generally referred to as “massacres.” Those would include the Soviet starvation of the Ukraine in the 1930’s, killing between 5 and 11 million Ukrainians, the Nazi Germany Holocaust of the 1940’s in which as many as 12 million people were killed, perhaps half of which were Jews, and the Maoist famines in China during the 1950’s 1960’s that cost as many as 45 million Chinese their lives! Chinese purges may have killed another couple million people over the course of Mao’s reign. Soviet purges and mass arrests/execution amounted to a few million people killed, but those killing took place over the course of decades. These purposeful starving and killings of vast numbers of people are normally referred to as “genocide” or other names, and most took years to accomplish their deadly goals.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other “massacres” in World History would you consider to be the worst of all time? Or what massacre would you consider so particularly heinous that it should be mentioned? Feel free to give us your opinions in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Brown, Adam. China: A History of China and East Asia: Ancient China, Economy, Communism, Capitalism, Culture, Martial Arts, Medicine, Military, People including Mao Zedong, Confucius, and Sun Tzu. Amazon Digital, 2016.
Naimark, Norman. Genocide: A World History. Oxford University, 2016.
Robinson, G. The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66. Princeton University, 2018.