The protagonist of “The Massacre of Yangzhou” is the southern Chinese city of Yangzhou, a rich and beautiful center of the failing Ming Dynasty as it succumbed to the rising Qing Dynasty. The episode is based on “‘Horrid Beyond Description’: The Massacre of Yangzhou”, from the book Voices from the Ming-Qing Cataclysm: China in Tigers’ Jaws by Lynn Struve. Struve is a professor emerita of the Departments of History, and East Asian Languages and Culture, at Indiana University.
In May 1654, the city of Yangzhou came under siege by northern invaders. The defender of the city, the noble and educated Shi Kefa, refuses to surrender despite inevitable defeat. When the city falls, the forces under Qing command are set loose for five days of punitive violence, as an example to other cities to capitulate. Unsanctioned looting, rape, and killings continue for another five days.
But there are no good guys and bad guys in this story. Internal systemic failures and ineffectual leadership among the Ming left them weak. Renegade Ming forces had been recruited by the Qing along with the northern Manchus and allied tribes. Many of the atrocities in Yangzhou seem to have been committed by renegade Ming. Individual residents of Yangzhou attempt to appease or collaborate with the invaders. The Qing are portrayed as restoring order, charity, and the rule of law.
In Lynn Struve’s presentation and her masterly translations, these complexities are represented by the voices of two very different men. In his last days, the viceroy and defender of the city Shi Kefa wrote sorrowful letters to his family, agonizing over his failures. Although traditionally viewed as the embodiment of integrity and loyalty, Shi Kefa’s choice to keep his word and not negotiate terms of surrender led to the slaughter of tens of thousands who lacked the power to choose.
The scholar Wang Xiuchu was one of these ordinary residents of Yangzhou who suffered its devastation. Unlike Shi Kefa, he survived to write a powerful and unsparing memoir of wartime atrocity, free of either self-aggrandizement or sentimentalized victimhood. If there’s a hero in this account, it’s Wang Xiuchu’s wife—who is left unnamed.
Listeners are advised that the episode contains brutal descriptions of the acts Wang witnessed.
The memoir of Wang Xiuchu is read by Eric Rensberger, and the letters of Shi Kefa by Frank Buczolich. Special music comes from the album Dialogue Between Fisherman & Woodcutter: Singing About the Beautiful Legend of China.
Guest host is Patsy Rahn, who co-produced.
Co-hosted and co-produced by Doug Storm.
Books Unbound is produced and written by Cynthia Wolfe.
For an extended interview with Lynn Struve, plus commentary by Patsy Rahn, listen to “Beyond Description: Witnessing Historical Trauma,” a crossover episode of WFHB’s Interchange.
Executive producer: Alycin Bektesh
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes