TIANJINThis is the fifth story in the “Tientsin at War” series,which starts in 1918 and ends a few years before the Japanese full-scale invasion of mainland China. Although much of this true story takes place long before World War II, greedy warlords and the Zhili-Fentian civil wars drained China’s central government treasuries and weakened the country as a united military power, opening the coast to invasion.  The personalities of this time period are villains and heroes both, and far too many to include in one story. It was a time with no right and no wrong, for these people, there was only victory or defeat. 

By C.S. Hagen

Tientsin, China – If trees are the spirits to a city, then the old crabapple at Zhongshan Park is a broken one.  Its now gnarled trunk was only a sapling during China’s Warlord Era; its brothers – the vibrant cypress and weeping willows – have long since been replaced by younger strains.  Once, not so long ago, street side hawkers combed its lower limbs clean of its tart, coin-sized fruit for skewering and sugary glazing.

The tree’s too old for bearing fruit anymore.  If the old crabapple had a memory, or more appropriately if humans had ears that could hear, the tree might quiver before sharing the story of a murdered father and a son’s revenge.  Swaying a little closer to the ground, its voice low as a Mongolian throat singer’s, it might tell another similar tale, but this time of a daring woman’s vengeance upon a bloodthirsty warlord.

Then, straightening one twisted branch, scattering turtledoves, the old crabapple would point to a nondescript spot.

The spot where “Little Xu” executed “Slaughter Lu.”


A Gentleman’s Vengeance Can Wait Ten Years and Not Be Late [1918 – 1925]

Lu Jianzhang (陆建章)

Lu Jianzhang (陆建章)

Like most ambitious people in the Warlord Era, the decade after the Qing emperor’s abdication, Lu Jianzheng, or “Slaughter Lu,” rose and fell with his allegiances.  He was a married man, had at least one son named Lu Chengwu (陆承武), but built a reputation for being a black sheep, and in revolutionary circles was greatly feared.  When offered a chance to become the head of security for the new secret police in Peking, he leapt at the opportunity.

“It was a useful institution,” The Brisbane Courier reported on Friday, September 13, 1918 about Peking’s old secret police called Yuan Shi-kai’s Martial Court.  “The purpose of this position was to condemn to death political recalcitrant[s], without regard to the law.

“Its many victims were arrested in secret and polished off without a trial.”

The Martial Court became legal after Yuan Shi-kai, the dogmatic general who ousted the last Qing emperor from power to become the Republic of China’s first president then monarch, decided to rid the country of revolutionaries.  He was known as the “Father of Warlords,” and when he died unexpectedly of kidney failure in 1916, his armies fragmented into factions and Slaughter Lu lost his power.  He joined the clique closest to home.

“After Yuan’s death Lu found himself of little account,” The Brisbane Courier reported.  “Took the side of the Zhili Clique, and got himself greatly disliked.”

"Little Shu" (徐树铮)

“Little Shu” (徐树铮)

The two cliques vying for national power were the Zhili Clique, founded by Feng Guozhang, but led by Wu Peifu, and the Fengtian Clique, led by Zhang Zuolin, the “Rain Marshal.”

The Zhili Clique, named after modern day Hebei Province, was backed by western powers such as Great Britain and Germany.  The Fengtian Clique, named after modern day Liaoning Province, had Japan at its back.  Both cliques differed on who should be the next president, and Slaughter Lu traveled to Tientsin to discuss options to avoid war with Fengtian General Xu Shuzheng, who, despite his enormous size was better known as Little Xu.

While in Tientsin, Little Xu invited Slaughter Lu for tea at the Fengtian headquarters, formerly the Tientsin Yamen, or Qing Dynasty magistrate’s office and home, which is at the southern corner of Zhongshan Park.

“Unfortunately, he seemed to have thrown caution to the winds,” The Brisbane Courier reported.  “General Xu himself shot down the victim with a revolver.”

On the pretense of taking a pleasurable stroll through the garden, Little Xu’s soldiers first gunned down Slaughter Lu’s bodyguards, and then forced Slaughter Lu to his knees while Little Xu walked up behind him and put one bullet into the back of his head.

An old picture of former Tientsin Yamen area, Fengtian HQ, now near Zhongshan Park

An old picture of former Tientsin Yamen area, Fengtian HQ, now near Zhongshan Park – online sources

“From any point of view,” The Brisbane Courier reported, “it was a commendable murder, for Lu Jianzhang [Slaughter Lu] seems to have had a mind almost worthy of Prussians.”

Little Xu fled to Peking and procured a meeting with the Republican Cabinet, who whitewashed him.  Nobody wanted Slaughter Lu alive, and Little Xu endured no lengthy trial or jail time.

Slaughter’s Lu’s assassination carried few headlines in Western and Chinese press.

The same area today

The same area today – online sources

The Tientsin and Peking Times, one of North China’s most prominent newspapers at the time, smelled scandal.  “On that occasion General Lu accepted an invitation to lunch with General Xu.  On arriving at the latter’s residence he was arrested, taken out into the courtyard, and shot, without any form of trial or any charge being preferred against him.  A day or two later an attempt was made to regularize this murder by the issue of a mandate over the seal of President Feng Guozhang, accusing General Lu of attempting to incite the Zhili troops to revolt, and ordering his immediate execution and the cancellation of all his honors and titles.”

Besides the Tientsin and Peking Times, few cared, and there was a war to be fought, which the Zhili Clique won two years later.

Slaughter Lu’s son, Lu Changwu, or “Little Lu,” however, didn’t forget.  He quietly climbed military rank and file for the next seven years becoming a captain in the Zhili Clique’s army.    He was a cousin to Feng Yuxiang, the “Christian General,” also of the Zhili Clique, and married the daughter of a Tientsin flour and cotton taipan.  Little Lu waited, savoring vengeful thoughts, for the perfect time.

Little Xu quickly rose to military prominence through his notoriety as a bandit leader, the Examiner reported on Friday, January 1, 1926.  He was also called notorious, by the Riverine Herald, on August 9, 1921.  When Little Xu fell out of favor, he hid, mostly in the Japanese Concession at Tientsin.  Once, according to the Riverine Herald, when he was sentenced to death he fled to Peking’s Japanese Legation to hide.  He escaped on August 8, 1921 through a military cordon by being stuffed inside a trunk as officer’s luggage.

“Now he is again loose in China, and has recommenced his depredations,” the Riverine Herald reported.

He continued his “depredations” until December 29, 1925.

Little Lu was ready.  He attacked Little Xu’s train at the Langfang Train Station, sixty miles to Tientsin’s north.  A bomb, according to some newspaper sources, stopped the train and killed Little Xu’s bodyguards.  And then, just as with his father, Little Lu led Little Xu out into the train station’s platform and shot him in the back of the head.  At least twenty bystanders watched the execution, none were threatened or killed for what they saw, which alludes, ever so slightly, that Little Lu was confident with his guanxi, or powerful relationships.

Little Lu wasted no time.  He immediately began contacting local newspapers, admitting his guilt and describing his reasons with a confession he had written prior to the assassination.

“I waited seven long years to avenge the shooting of my father,” Little Lu wrote in his pamphlet.  “By the help of his spirit, Xu has not escaped my hand.”

This time, the murder did not escape the press.  From Paris to Tokyo, Mississippi to London, Little Lu became a filial son, seeking revenge for the cowardly murder of his father.

“Slayer, apparently still free, declares act revenge for murder of father,” The Evening Independent reported on December 30, 1925.

Reuters reported he was accompanied by a large amount of troops at the time of the assassination, and as of January 9, 1926 still had not been arrested.

“A Chinese Son’s Vengeance,” was another headline.

“Dramatic Climax to an old Chinese Feud,” reported another.

The British Consulate in Tientsin and again the Tientsin and Peking Times held a differing opinion.  Both believed another man, much more powerful than Little Lu was pulling the strings.

“His murder was accomplished with the connivance and active support of…  Marshal Feng Yuxiang [the Christian General].  It suggests, too, that those who planned the murder went to considerable pains to reduplicate, as far as possible, the circumstances in which Lu Jianzhang [Slaughter Lu] was shot in “Little Xu’s” back garden in Tientsin in June 1918.”

The Tientsin and Peking Times uncovered information other journalists had missed.

“Little Xu, on the 29th ultimo, appears to have been invited to tea… He declined the invitation, and was then forcibly removed from the train, trussed up like a fowl, and shot during the following night.”

While other newspapers sympathized with the image of a grieving son sworn to vengeance, Little Lu’s plot miscarried, according to the Tientsin and Peking Times.  The newspaper connected both murders to a conspiracy and cover-up leading straight to the Zhili Clique’s top officials.  Conveniently, the Christian General, accused by the newspaper of wrong doing, decided to retire from public office soon after the assassination.

“It is quite clear that those responsible for the murder were highly-placed officers… It may further be possible that Feng Yuxiang’s much advertised decision to retire, at any rate temporarily, to the sands of the Gobi, was influenced by the unexpected number of witnesses to the crime whose presence at the wayside station of Langfang can scarcely have assisted the plot.”

Little Lu surrendered to authorities a few hours after the assassination, the Tientsin and Peking Times reported, saying he had been an intimate friend of Little Xu’s, and had studied with him at the military college in Japan.  Although his actions that morning had been illegal, so also was his father’s murder.

“Lu Chengwu, who boasts that he committed the actual murder, was not only permitted to go scot free, but seems to have been given every facility for broadcasting telegrams glorifying in his act.

“We cannot pretend to have felt any regret of hearing of Little Xu’s death.  But a murder is a murder, by whomsoever committed.”

Precious little is known about what happened to Little Lu after journalists tired of his story.  Not long after the Zhili Clique won the first war, a second war began and the Christian General betrayed his comrades by shifting his allegiance to the Fengtian Clique, thus ensuring the Zhili Clique’s demise.  Little Lu most likely followed his cousin’s example, and for a time, in Tientsin, there was a semblance of peace.

Until Wednesday, November 13, 1935, when another assassination with alarming similarities took place inside a Buddhist temple, only this time committed by an untrained woman.


Bloodbath in a Buddhist Temple [1926-1935]

The day Shi Mulan dedicated her life to murder; she chose to unbind her broken lotus feet.

The process was painful.  Even as an adopted daughter, lotus feet had been a Shi family tradition for centuries.  Lack of the disfigurement meant a lesser dowry, perhaps even a poor choice for a husband.  Although she was noticeably pretty and said to be a filial daughter, nobody wanted a twenty-year-old big-footed girl.

“Binding feet is painful,” a commentator for a special report on China’s CCTV7 reported.  “But to unwrap her feet was even more painful.”  The healing process would take months, re-breaking every bone in both feet before she could walk on ten toes.

Shi Mulan was born in a Shandong Province village, but was adopted by Fengtian General Shi Congbin, who had been promoted to director of military affairs in Shandong Province and served as brigade commander under the local warlord Zhang Zongchang, widely known as the “Monster.”  In October 1925 after the Fengtian Clique regrouped from its losses and invaded once again, Shi Congbin found himself surrounded by Zhili General Sun Chuanfang’s troops.

(Left) Shi Mulan (施剑翘), name later changed to Shi Jianqiao (施剑翘) in Tientsin - online sources (Center) Shi Congbin (施從濱) (Right) Sun Chuanfang (孙传芳)

(Left) Shi Mulan (施剑翘), name later changed to Shi Jianqiao (施剑翘) in Tientsin (Center) Shi Congbin    (施從濱) (Right) Sun Chuanfang (孙传芳) – online sources

He was caught and Sun Chuanfang beheaded him.  His severed head was wrapped with chicken wire, and strung from a telephone pole at the Bengbu Train Station for three days.

“Killing an enemy was nothing to Sun Chunfang,” CCTV7 reported.  “But they had a kind of soldier’s understanding, a moqi, with each other, that they would not kill captives.  “It is not known why Sun Chuanfang killed him, maybe he was just being a headache.”

News traveled fast to Tientsin, where Mulan was studying at the Tianjin Normal University.  The local Red Cross in Bengbu gathered her father’s head and body, and she risked her life to retrieve the body for burial.

Gulan was Shi Congbin’s adopted daughter, but he loved her like a real daughter, CCTV7 reported.  At her father’s grave she swore vengeance.  “I am just a girl, with no gun, no power.  Wait until I have the power, and I will avenge you, dieh.

She first went to a tangge, or unrelated brother, named Shi Zhongcheng, who promised he would see her avenged.  His promises fell through, however, when he was promoted to a military commander position.  Her tangge would not dare risk his prestige.

Next, she sought help from a marriage suitor, Shi Jinggong, who promised to assist her kill Sun Chuanfang if she married him.  And she did.  She bore two children while waiting for her husband to fulfill his promise, but he assumed time as well as their children would tame his wife’s vengeful ambitions.

“She was extremely disappointed in her husband’s failure,” CCTV7 reported.  “Two men in her life failed her, but she was cemented in her need for vengeance.  She decided she would personally see to it that Sun Chuanfang would die.”

Sun Chuanfang's house at 15 Tai'an Road

Sun Chuanfang’s house at 15 Tai’an Road, Tientsin – online sources

Once an infamous warlord, Sun Chuanfang could not hide easily in Tientsin.  Everyone knew where he lived.  With her big, stable feet, Mulan was able to move relatively freely about Tientsin, discovering the license plate number of Sun Chuanfang’s car.  She watched him exit a movie theater in the British Concession, and followed him home only to realize there was no way in.  Cars were searched.  Two guards stood at tall iron gates at all times.  When she lingered, soldiers ordered her away.  Everywhere Sun Chuanfang went, heavily armed men accompanied him.

Mulan worried she would fail her promise to her father.

While walking through the British Concession one day, she saw protestors marching, vehemently damning Nationalist policies of softening relations with Japan, many of which had been instigated by Sun Chuanfang.  The sight of so many people united in a common cause gave her an idea, CCTV7 reported.  Although she never received a proper education, Mulan vent her frustrations by writing a manifesto that she had printed into pamphlets, signing the declaration under a new name, Jianqiao, meaning “edge of the sword.”  In the pamphlet she wrote that she killed Sun Chuanfeng for vengeance, but that he was also a danger to China, and was scheming with the Japanese to sell Qingdao, in Shandong Province, her home.

“She realized that she needed to gather society’s sympathy if she was to succeed,” CCTV7 reported.  “She realized this when she saw the thousands of people marching down the street in protest.”

Mulan also made out a will, advising her brothers Erli and Dali to take care of mother and her children.

Her eldest brother, Dali, gave her a pistol.

Armed with a new name, new determination and a fully loaded Browning, Jianqiao went one last time to a local temple

Shi Mulan (施剑翘), name later changed to Shi Jianqiao (施剑翘) in Tientsin - online sources

Shi Mulan years after the killing in Tientsin – online sources

to burn incense.  A temple monk noticed her grief, knew of her father’s grisly death, and thought a salve was in order.

“Don’t be so disheartened,” CCTV7 reported the monk said.  “When Sun Chuanfang was young he was a tyrant, but now, he’s a devout Buddhist.”

The news took Jianqiao by surprise, and it didn’t take long for her to find the right temple, not more than a few blocks away from the Zhongshan Park in the Qingxiaoyuan Hutong.  She began frequenting the temple, telling monks her name was Dong Hui, which means “director” and “intelligent.”  She discovered Sun Chuanfang led chants and prayers every Wednesday and Saturday, sometimes bringing his family, and rarely his bodyguards.

According to a British Consulate at Peking report, dated January 8, 1935 and written by Sir A. Cadogan, Sun Chuanfeng had many enemies, and spent his ill-gotten gains by fixing the temple.

He retired from military career and founded the Tianjin Qingxiu lay-Buddhist Society, according to the Guangming Daily.

“Maybe the gods looked down on her with favor,” CCTV7 reported.

It was raining the morning of November 13, 1935.  Sun Chuanfang’s guards were nowhere to be seen.  Jianqiao first knelt in the back row, then made her way forward.  As Sun Chuanfang ended his prayers, she stood to his right side, slipped the Browning from a pocket and without waiting for him to turn, fired three bullets into his back.

Sun Chuanfang died instantly.  Monks screamed.  Worshippers backed away in panic.  She threw a handful of her pamphlets into the air.

Huala, huala.  The papers fluttered.

“Don’t be afraid,” CCTV7 reported Jianqiao said.  “I have come to avenge my father.  I will only kill this one person.  Nobody else needs to get hurt.  Don’t be afraid.”

She then sat down and waited for police.

Tianjin Jushilin Temple 天津居士林 “The Layman’s Forest” (old and recent) in the Number 1 Qingxiuyuan Hutong, Nankai District (天津居士林(南开区清修院胡同10) 669 Chengxiang Middle Road, built in the late Ming Dynasty, known as a Buddhist lodge.   Closed in 1952 after the death of the head monk, and was a hospital during the Cultural Revolution, fell into disrepair until 1982 when the lodge was restored.  It is an important historical relic.

Tianjin Jushilin Temple 天津居士林 “The Layman’s Forest” (old and recent) in the Number 1 Qingxiuyuan Hutong, Nankai District (天津居士林(南开区清修院胡同10) 669 Chengxiang Middle Road, built in the late Ming Dynasty, known as a Buddhist lodge. Closed in 1952 after the death of the head monk, and was a hospital during the Cultural Revolution, fell into disrepair until 1982 when the lodge was restored. It is an important historical relic. – online sources

Once again, media from around the world leapt like wolves to fresh blood.  Although news of warlords, kidnappings, Japanese troops and British warships filled the papers every day in Tientsin, the media hadn’t had a case as exciting as Jianqiao’s since 1925 and Little Lu’s assassination of Little Xu.

Jianqiao pleaded guilty in court, but said she was only doing her duty as a filial daughter.  The papers called her a heroine.

“Chinese Marshal Assassinated by Woman,” The Daily Perth reported.

“Woman Avenges Father,” The Mercury reported. “The assassination occurred while Sun was attending a Buddhist meeting.  The woman stepped forward and shot him three times.  He died instantly, and she then quietly awaited the arrival of the police.”

“Chinese Warlord Assassinated,” the Northern Standard reported.

Local newspapers made parallels to a female character in famed Chinese author Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, who carefully planned and avenged her father’s death before hanging herself from the rafters in an act of filial piety.

Tientsin courts first sentenced her to 10 years imprisonment, and then later changed her sentence to 1,000 years imprisonment.  And then, her father’s comrade, the Christian General Feng Yuxiang stepped in, and on October 1936 she was pardoned.

Many journalists, authors and government and consulate officials have made the connection that Feng Yuxiang, the Christian General, dealt a heavy hand in both assassinations.  Some said she was Generalissimo’s personal assassin.

“In his dreams Sun Chuanfeng could never have imagined this man’s daughter would come for revenge 10 years later, “ CCTV 7 reported.

Jianqiao, who later became an active communist, denied any secret deals with Feng Yuxiang or Chiang Kai-shek, remaining adamant until her death that she was only interested in avenging her father’s murder.

Perhaps, the old crabtree in Zhongshan Park would share a different story.  If only the tree could speak.

The first and second Zhili-Fengtian Wars lasted from 1922 to 1927, with few years of peace. It was a time of chaos and betrayal. Newspaper headlines during that time daily recorded the movements of various warlords from Shanghai to Tientsin, and their battles bathed the fields between Peking and Tientsin in blood. – artwork by C.S. Hagen

The first and second Zhili-Fengtian Wars lasted from 1922 to 1927, with few years of peace. It was a time of chaos and betrayal. Newspaper headlines during that time daily recorded the movements of various warlords from Shanghai to Tientsin, and their battles bathed the fields between Peking and Tientsin in blood. – artwork by C.S. Hagen