Yang Yuke (杨玉科; 1838–1885) was an ethnic Bai warlord from Yingpan village in Yunnan province. During the Muslim Uprising (1856–73) he raised a private army and fought on the Chinese side against the rebels, under the mentorship of general Cen Yuying. It was Yang’s forces that finally captured the Muslim capital, Dali, and executed their rebel leader Du Wenxiu in January 1872 – for which he was made a “baron”, second class (二等男爵). A few days later, Cen Yuying arrived in town and instigated the wholesale slaughter of Dali’s population. .
In 1875 the British consular official, Augustus Margary, was murdered down along the Chinese-Burma border outside the town of Mangyun. Yang helped round up seventeen bandits held responsible – though some commentators believed that these were in fact innocent amber merchants. The accused were found guilty by the Chinese courts, but the British government saved them from execution.
A couple of years later, Yang was ordered to Gaozhou (高州) in Guangdong province; he resisted the appointment because it would have removed him from his powerbase in Yunnan. He died in February 1885 at the Battle of Dong Dang, repulsing French forces who had occupied northern Vietnam, then nominally a Chinese protectorate. His death and posthumous title (wumin, 武愍, loosely “warrior”) were announced in the Peking Gazette of April 4th.
It’s difficult to know what Yang was really like. He was clearly a talented military leader, but Chinese sources tend to despise him as a minority race “barbarian”, greedy and lecherous, and further mistrusted him because he was independent. There was a widespread belief that he had murdered a concubine who had displeased him; the extreme version told by his descendants is that he personally ripped her heart out and had it cooked.
The Brits disliked him too, because he had taken part in the slaughter at Dali which – despite their own record at wiping out resistance against their rule in India and elsewhere – they liked to pontificate about. Long-time China resident Archibald Little (1838-1908) was unimpressed: “General ‘Yang’, who commanded the Imperial forces at the time [of Dali’s capture], was said to have amassed six million taels – about a million and a quarter sterling – for his own share of the plunder; and we well remember meeting the ruffian, who was returning home by the Messageries coasting steamer with six wives, laid out on the cabin table being shampooed by two of them.” Some of Yang’s wealth came from his control of orpiment (arsenic sulphide) mines around Dali; orpiment was used as a medicine, and also to poison weapons.
Explorer William Gill, travelling with William Mesny, met Yang at Dali in 1877 and left a fairly positive description in his diaries: “He is enormously rich and powerful the Chinese government are much afraid of him he keeps 200 soldiers now at his own expense he is almost a hunchback but exceedingly active, so much so that the people here have bestowed on him the soubriquet of “the Monkey” – In the war he was always at the head of his men on horseback under fire unlike the other Chinese generals who generally remain in the chair at the rear – he could not receive us as he is engaged I much regret not meeting him he is a remarkable man”. Yang sent them presents, including some excellent mutton, and later paid an unnofficial visit at their inn, amazing Gill by humbly walking over from his headquarters – a thing no Chinese of his status would usually do. Gill also mentioned Yang’s unsuccessful search for a high-born Chinese wife.
Yang Yuke’s former headquarters at Dali became the Xiyun Academy (西云书院), now part of the town’s main middle school; there’s said to be a small statue of him there, and another at Dali’s Guanyin temple. His grandson, Yang Gufan (楊孤帆) was a fighter pilot in WWII who defended Wuhan from the Japanese.
Many thanks to Yang Yuke’s great-great-granddaughter Helen, who got in touch and gave permission to post this photo of him.