The martyr Huang Guifang and the "Fang deity" temples of Xinjiang

Chapter Four) Ancient Maps and Folk Beliefs

The martyr Huang Guifang and the "Fang deity" temples of Xinjiang

In China today, few people have heard of fangshen (the "Fang deity") or of the temples erected in his honor throughout Xinjiang. Even in Xinjiang, hardly anyone is familiar with the term fangshen miao ("Fang deity temple"). The vast majority of people are unaware that, at one point, one could find more than ten of these temples standing proudly on the plains. Even rarer are those who know just who Fang was and how they came to be deified. His story has been virtually erased from our collective memory: all of his temples fell into disrepute or were destroyed, while extant historical records only mention him fleetingly.

I once came across a few fragmentary descriptions of this almost-forgotten chapter of history while reading historical records from the mid-Qing Dynasty. I subsequently searched high and low but could not find even a single ancient map or photograph that featured a Fang deity temple. Despite the lack of extant sources, we should not allow the obscure Fang deity to be forgotten. On the contrary, his story deserves to be researched and documented in greater depth, as it speaks volumes about the ravages of war, as well as the power of loyalty, sacrifice and faith.

The Fang deity is a real historical figure, though his name was not Fang — rather, he was called Huang Guifang, courtesy name Dingxiang. He was born during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing and was conscripted as a garrison soldier for committing a crime during the reign of Emperor Daoguang. First, he was exiled from his hometown in Hunan Province all the way to Gansu Province, before being transferred to the borderlands of Xinjiang. Not long after, rebel armies began to stage a rebellion in the city where he was stationed. Huang Guifang valiantly sacrificed his life in order to save the whole city. He was so revered by the local population for his patriotic deeds that they began to worship him as a deity of protection. They built a number of temples where one could burn incense in honor of the "Fang deity", as he became known.

Image 59: Aerial view of the Qing settlement of Laining. (Note: Laining was built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and named by the emperor himself. It was destroyed by the flames of war halfway through Emperor Qianlong's reign and reconstructed during the reign of Emperor Guangxu. The above image is of the reconstructed settlement, which is currently occupied by the local Public Security Bureau. When I visited in July 2012, the southern wall of the city enclosure still remained.)

Although this story occurs during the Daoguang reign, its origins are in the Qianlong reign. After Emperor Qianlong successfully suppressed the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas, some of the descendants of the Khoja clan remained in Central Asia, while others migrated to Beijing. By the time that Emperor Qianlong's grandson took to the throne as Emperor Daoguang, Jahangir Khoja — the grandson of one of the revolt's leaders, Buranidun Khoja — began to invade the borderlands. These two grandsons would engage in a battle that lasted for eight years.

Jahangir incited rebellions in Xinjiang on four separate occasions, the most serious of which occurred during the sixth year of Emperor Daoguang's reign (1826). In mid-June of that year, Jahangir invaded Xinjiang with his troops and sent them in two directions. One group, he sent to Kashgar; while the other, he sent to Yarkand. On 18 July, the old city of Kashgar was surrounded. The Hakim Bek (chief official) of Kashgar at that time, Maimasaite, wasn't able to hold the fort for very long. On the 22nd, the old city was captured by Jahangir.

Subsequently, the rebels invaded the Qing army-occupied new settlement of Kashgar, known as Laining (shown in Images 59 and 60). The Grand Minister Consultant of Kashgar (the highest military office in southern Xinjiang during the Qing Dynasty) Qing Xiang mobilized both enlisted soldiers and city residents to fight alongside one another to protect the city from the rebels. After leading several offensives to no avail, Jahangir tricked the Khanate of Kokand into sending reinforcements. He said that there was a large amount of gold buried in the district of "Gu'erbahe" in Kashgar, and promised Kokand that if they helped the rebels seize Kashgar, Yarkand, Yengisar and Hotan, he would grant them Kashgar and they would equally split the gold. Kokand sent troops to invade the city but incurred tremendous losses in battle with the Qing army and retreated. After their defeat, Kokand had a falling out with Jahangir and withdrew their troops from Xinjiang. During the revolt, Jahangir attempted — to no avail — to flood the Qing army settlement by blocking the Kaidu River.

Huang Guifang was one of the war heroes who emerged during this battle. On 6 May 1801, Huang was born into an ordinary farming household in Changsha County, Hunan Province. In 1821, his brother unintentionally killed one of their neighbors during a dispute over water. Huang decided to bear the blame. According to Qing Dynasty law, "a younger brother who takes the blame for his elder sibling has manifested fraternal piety and should be treated with clemency". Therefore, rather than being put to death, Huang was conscripted into the army.

Huang Guifang spent five years in complete anonymity as a garrison soldier in Gansu Province. Later, he was transferred to a fort in Kashgar. Not long after he arrived, turmoil broke out in the borderlands and the city of Kashgar was surrounded by Jahangir's rebels. The rebels blocked the river downstream from Kashgar, causing the banks to rise and flood the Qing settlement of Laining. At that time, city walls and urban dwellings were mostly made from rammed earth and therefore highly likely to collapse in the event of a flood. As a native of the "Southern Lake Province", Huang was a capable swimmer. He volunteered for battle and swam down the river to the rebels' embankment. After breaking through the embankment, he was swept away by the current and drowned at only 25 years old. Following his death, Huang was revered by soldiers and locals for his selflessness in protecting the lives and assets of Kashgar.

During his time as a garrison solider in Gansu and Xinjiang, Huang Guifang never shied away from danger, going so far as to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. The people of Xinjiang sought a way to express their gratitude to him. In Qing annals, it is written: "Who could match the way he generously gave his life for the good of the nation? He lived righteously and died a deity to whom sufferers of illness or misfortune — such as floods, fires and locusts — could pray for help. Temples in his honor have been built throughout Xinjiang, where he is worshipped as the 'Fang deity'." Thus is the tale of how the lowly garrison soldier Huang Guifang became known as the "Fang deity". His deity name, Fang, means 'direction'. It is reference to a passage of the Classic of Poetry, in which the King of Zhou and the peasants make sacrificial offerings to the "deities of the four directions". The people of Xinjiang used this stirring eulogy from the Confucian classic to pay homage to Huang Guifang in death and revere him as though he were one of the four deities worshipped by the King of Zhou.

Image 60: Ruins of the Laining settlement's walls (taken in July 2012)

Ritual worship of the Fang deity reached its peak in the mid- to late-Qing Dynasty. At this time, more than ten fangshen temples could be found in Xinjiang. According to research, at one point during the Qing Dynasty, there simultaneously existed a total of 11 of these temples in Xinjiang. The northern prefectures of Ili and Hami had one temple each, while the rest were situated in the major cities of the south, such as Aksu, Baicheng, Shule, Yarkand, Yengisar and Uqturpan.

The temples in honor of Huang Guifang fell into disrepute towards the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the post-imperial reign. Up until the foundation of the People's Republic, one could still see the ruins of these temples throughout southern Xinjiang. Yuan Guoxiang was a solider in the People's Liberation Army who helped capture Xinjiang in 1949. He claims to have seen one of these temples with his own eyes in the city of Shule. According to his recollections, in the early days of the People's Republic, Shule had eight Buddhist temples. There was also an alleyway intersecting with the north street called Fangshenmiao Xiang ("Fang Deity Temple Lane"). On the northern side of the western mouth of this alley were the ruins of a Fang deity temple that had a stage in front and a great hall at the back. While the two wings of the temple had collapsed, a tree stood tall in the center of the courtyard. The temple had long since been abandoned, but it still occupied a large expanse of land. One can imagine how, at the height of Huang Guifang's deification, this courtyard would have buzzed with worshippers laying offerings, singing operas and burning incense. Sadly, however, this plot of land was converted into a single-story house during the Cultural Revolution. No photos of the former temple can be found.
Image 61 is a photo that Yuan Guoxiang took of Shule's northern city gate in 1954. If one heads through this gate to Shule's town center, one will arrive at the intersection of Fangshenmiao Alley, where the temple is located. The rammed earth structures that one can see on the photo are the remains of the old settlement of Huiwu, which was built during the reign of Emperor Daoguang. From the photo, the city wall appears five to six people tall. Documents dating from the late Qing Dynasty state that the wall is "three zhang high". Given that, in the Qing measurement system, one zhang was the equivalent of 3.2 m, this would make the wall 9.6 m high. Regrettably, this wall and the old temple— as well as the memory of the matyrs they represent — have been gradually washed away by the passage of time.

Image 61: Old photo of the northern gate of Shule, taken in 1954

During the unification of Xinjiang under Emperor Qianlong, two Manchu generals lost their lives in Yarkand. In honor of their achievements, the Qing government constructed the Twin Martyrs Temple (shuangyimiao). Much like Huang Guifang, their stories of loyalty and devotion to their nation have faded into obscurity over time. It is my hope that they will be introduced to a new audience thanks to this book.

Main references

Chen Guoguang: Xinjiang's "Fang deity" was originally a patriotic martyr: an analysis of Fang deity annals. Western Frontier Research. Vol. 4, 2004.

Long Kaiyi: Study into the religious beliefs of Han Chinese immigrants in Xinjiang at the end of the Qing Dynasty and beginning of the Kuomintang's regime. Beifang University of Nationalities Journal. No. 6, 2011.

Yuan Guoxiang: Vestiges of Southern Xinjiang. Xinjiang Art and Photography Publishing House, 2012.