The Empire Strikes Back

For many, the battle of sanyuanli symbolized China’s ability to stand up to foreign invaders


It was 175 years ago this month: 60 soldiers from Great Britain and India were wallowing in the muck of a rice paddy just north of the old city walls of Guangzhou.

The 60 soldiers were part of a much larger army, 5000 troops under the command of Major-general Hugh Gough (namesake of Gough Street and Gough Hill Road in Hong Kong). They were in South China to fight for Queen, country, and the continuation of the lucrative trade in opium. Now they found themselves in a desperate situation, cut off from the main British force, and surrounded by thousands of angry Cantonese braying for blood.

The British troops frantically tried to dispel the crowds with their flintlock muskets only to find that the rain made it impossible to light a spark. The crowd around them were armed with short swords and long knives, spears and farm tools. A bloody death seemed almost certain. At the last moment, Gough sent reinforcements in the form of two units of marines armed with waterproof rifles, but the rescuers soon found themselves in need of rescue.

The crowd, estimated to be nearly 10,000 strong, surged forward and surrounded the British. A tactical retreat to a nearby fort resulted in a tense siege that ended only when Gough threatened to unleash his gunboats and level the city of Guangzhou. Local officials, including the new governor at Guangzhou, Yu Baochun, capitulated.

By day’s end, four of Gough’s soldiers had been killed, and dozens more wounded. The British commanders barely noticed. In the report submitted by Gough to his civilian counterpart, British Plenipotentiary and Superintendent of Trade Charles Elliot, the incident was barely mentioned. An unruly mob had been dispersed through threat of force.

Historians in China would later see in the Battle of Sanyuanli the first stirrings of an organized patriotic movement by the common people against foreign imperialism.

But for the local Cantonese, the Battle of Sanyuanli, named for a nearby village, was one of the few bright spots in a war that had gone very poorly for China and catastrophically for the Guangzhou residents. In their eyes, a chance to strike back against their foreign tormenters had been lost due to the cowardice of the local governor and his officials.

They had a point. In the days leading up the Battle of Sanyuanli, the patience of the local communities had been tested by the presence of so many idle British troops. After losing a series of disastrous battles to the British, Yu Baochun had offered terms for surrender on May 26. While the two sides negotiated the terms of the truce, British and Indian soldiers roved the hills and villages around Guangzhou. By all accounts, and by the standards of the day, the British forces in Guangzhou behaved reasonably well. But rumors of looting and rape soon spread from village to village.

In Sanyuanli, local residents accused a group of British soldiers of kidnapping and raping several women. Community leaders and local elites organized militias and rallied farmers and villagers to take up arms against the invaders.

Historians in China would later see in the Battle of Sanyuanli the first stirrings of an organized patriotic movement by the common people against foreign imperialism. It was certainly directed at the foreign invaders, although local elites and officials did play a role in motivating and organizing the people’s “spontaneous” resistance. It is also an open question whether the participants in the battle were motivated by a vague notion of defending a nation or state or simply taking up arms to protect their homes and families.

In fact, the Opium Wars of 1840-1842 in general, and Sanyuanli, in particular, became something of a rallying cry for Cantonese.

It was the beginning of a divide between the Cantonese and the officials sent from the capital to administer the affairs of the region. The locals felt they were more than capable of handling the barbarians if only these craven Northerners would let them settle things Guangzhou style.

The Cantonese felt the mandarins and Manchus of the Northern Capital were all too ready to sell out South China to save their dynasty. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, Cantonese from Hong Xiuquan to Sun Yat-sen could be found at the heart of revolutionary movements directed at the regime.

Today a Sanyuanli Anti-British Invasion Museum commemorates the resistance by the village militia against the British troops. The museum is located in the temple where the first anti-foreign militias gathered before the attack on the British soldiers. The museum has the usual artifacts of war including anti-foreign posters and notices as well as knives, flags, and captured British weapons.