Shi Ma (1093-1121): The Infamous White Lotus Rebel

du_alex_yuhui_previewShi Ma (ca. 1093–1121), the great rebel and leader of the White Lotus Sect, was remembered as one of the most infamous man during the Song dynasty. During his time, due to new coinage and even the invention of paper money, the Song remained mostly prosperous and cultural. Yet the powerful barbarians in the north, first the Khitans, then the Jurchens and eventually the Mongols, posed great threat to the south and often demanded expensive gifts from the Song to buy peace1. Apart from this, the Song was also famous for its corrupted government officials, including Gao Qiu, from the famous novel Water Margin, and Qin Gui, the official who was known for the murder of Yue Fei2. These corrupted officials were also the causes of peasant rebellions, including the one led by Shi Ma.

Nothing much was known about Shi’s early age. Like many famous people who died too soon to have an actual official record of themselves, Shi’s origin was never recorded in any legitimate historical accounts. However, it is widely believed that he was probably born around the year 1093, in a rural family in Jiangzhou which is where it is known as Jiangxi province today. Like many poor peasants of the time, Shi’s parents probably owned little pieces of land and farmed laboriously to make a living under heavy tax and burden from land lords. Due to his poor backgrounds, Shi did not receive proper education in his childhood. Despite his later fortunes, he did not attempt to have himself educated and remained illiterate for his entire life.

Due to a plague that rampaged through the rural areas in the year of 1106, Shi lost both of his parents at the age of slightly older than 13. At such a young age, Shi does not have enough physical power to grow enough crops to feed himself after paying tax and land fees to land owners. As a result, evidence showed that he joined groups of bandits and robbers. Though he was too young to fight hand to hand, he worked as scouts and occasionally used his deceiving appearance of an innocent young man to trick traveling merchants into deadly ambushes.

Over the years, Shi gained trust from his fellow bandits. As suggested from his later stories as the commander of Bailian, Shi was a brave warrior and a talented commander. Apart from that, Shi also had the charisma to be a real leader. Every time the bandits sacked the merchant’s goods, Shi divided the wealth equally amongst all his followers, refusing to take the slightest advantage of his higher position. By the year of 1113, Shi, at the age of around 20, became the leader of the bandit group, which grew from around fifty men when he first joined into a three hundred men army. During this time, the bandits ravaged through the country sides of Jiangzhou, burning and pillaging from village to village. The local government, though aware of the dangers of the huge group of bandits, cannot organize a successful attack, as the bandits can always know where the Song army is heading by bribing certain officials.

At the year 1115, Shi and his men also converted to the Bailian Cult, an extremely powerful and influential underground organization in Jiangzhou province. Bailianjiao, or the White Lotus Sect, is a cult formed under the influence of Buddhism and Manichaeism. In Jiangzhou, the White Lotus Sect was capable of gathering believers in the number of hundreds of thousands, following not the order of the government or emperor, but the supreme prophet, named Zheng Ding.

So how did Zheng gather up so many people for his sect? In fact, there are many reasons that contributed to the success of semi-Manichaeism religions in China at the period. One theory states that although due to introduction of new rice, farmers now should have enough food. However, due to the system of moneylenders, peasants are forced to borrow money to buy seeds and repay most of their revenue in harvest seasons for the debt, forever trapped in this circle3. To counter this phenomenon, the White Lotus Sect promises that they can free the peasants from their fate as predicted. Like many cult leaders of its time, Zheng proclaims the arrival of a sage king, who is the reincarnation of Maitrya (Mi Le), the Buddha of the future that would free all beings from suffering. Zheng suggests that it is destined the peasants would follow his lead and overthrow the government, and live prosperously for eternity. To justify his claim, he used what in modern views that looks like magician-performances, and wooed the uneducated peasants to believe in his supernatural power. Apart from that, the sect also used martial arts and herbal knowledge of healing and medicine to gather the poor, just like the followers of what is later known as “Old Mother Beyond Birth”4. The masses were largely persuaded and converted into the cult. For most of the times, because of fearing the government would put force onto the massive organization, the sect worked underground.

Zheng realized that though his believers are numerous, few of them had the actual ability and courage to fight against the government. However, Zheng managed to find a new way to recruit his army. By providing food, weapon and other resources produced by the followers, Zheng got into contact with multiple groups of bandits, including the one lead by Shi. Shi clearly could not refuse such a proposal. Being ambitious as he was, Shi realized that this is an opportunity for him to rise in power. By the year 1118, White Lotus sect had solidified its power in the Jiangxi region, with Zheng being the religious leader, while Shi was the major leader of its military.

At the year 1118, Shi was married to a woman named Ma Tian, together they had two sons, Shi Jie and Shi Yu, twin brothers born in the year 1119.

The White Lotus sect’s best opportunity arrived when Fang La, the leader of the Manichaeism sect, openly rebelled against the Song government in 1120. Zheng and Shi realized that due to the similarities of believes, and the same ambition to overthrow the government, the Manichaeism sect could be a valuable ally.

As Fang La’s force took over control of modern day Hangzhou, Zhejiang, and Anhui, the White Lotus sect fought in the local Jiangzhou, which is modern day Jiangxi province. Along with the believers of the sect, peasants along the way joined in with the rebellion army. Apart from superstition, the rebellion army promised to overthrow the corrupted government and abolish its complicated tax system. Instead, they promised, romantically, to bring back the long gone well-field system, from the Zhou dynasty. The well-field system is that where eight families farm eight pieces of land for themselves and farm one communally for the ruler as tax. If they claimed they are going to become the “sage king”, what better way is to bring back the simple tax system from antiquity? In fact, due to the simplicity and appeal of their religion and tax system, even the illiterate peasants could understand what they are doing, hence the sect of White Lotus quickly spread through the conquered area.

Finally, within a very short period of time, Fang La and the White Lotus sect joined force and overthrow the Jiangsu, at the year 1120. At this point, the White Lotus sect’s force grown to two hundred thousand people. A total of one million men was openly rebelling against the government under Fang La.5

This number seemed a little impractical. However, this could be explained by the market economy and population explosion during the Song dynasty due to the introduction of new and improved types of rice from South East Asia.6 In fact, it was shown that at the year of 980, China’s population have had already approached one million,7 so the one million rebellions were not such an unbelievable number, considering that the rebellion army occupied six modern day provinces (at the time it was six administrative divisions, which also included 52 counties)8. Though the number is incredibly large, not all men served as soldier in the army. A major portion of the rebellions remained farmers to provide enough food for the rebellion. The rest of the army, though still out numbering the Song, where merely farmers with weapons. Even the bandits, which most only had fought against unarmed merchants, were considered elites in the army.

So it was not so surprising how the rebellion ended so abruptly, at the year 1121. As the Song government organized an army of one hundred and fifty thousand men, lead by Tongguan and Tangzhen, it was proved how the rebellions had no chance against well equipped and trained army. Within a couple of weeks, the Song army gained several significant victories against the rebellion army. In one of the battles, Fang La, along with his family, was captured by the Song army9. Later on in the year, Fang La was executed openly. Four provinces out of the six were restored to order. Now, only what is modern day province Jiangxi and Jiangsu was still in control of the rebellion, lead by Shi.

Despite the failure of Fang La, Shi, now being the major commander of the army, decides to continue his campaign against the government. Perhaps, Shi realized that it is already too late for him to surrender, and if he did, his fate would not be so different from that of Fang La’s. By commanding the army of the Sect of White Lotus and Manichaeism, Shi managed to resist against the much better equipped and trained Song army. Due to his personal charisma and success in the army, Shi gained great trust from the believers of both sect and the peasants fighting in the army. Shi also became the sworn brother of Liu Da, a general former under Fang La, who fought back to back with Shi during the battle fields. With the support from Liu, Shi’s reputation grow tremendously, and he became the commander in chief of the army in the June, 1121, surpassing his previous leader, Zheng.

Realizing that his power have been outmatched by Shi, Zheng had no choice but to give his position as the supreme leader of the cult to Shi. During August, 1121, Shi was proclaimed to be the predicted “sage king”, and also the reincarnation of Mi Le, and enthrones himself as the “heavenly emperor”.  Though Zheng remained the supreme prophet, he was clearly not satisfied. To Zheng, Shi is the usurper that took away his power and fame.

Despite the internal problems in the rebellion’s army, the Song have had their problems too. Due to the high annual indemnity charges to the barbaric empires in the north10, the Song government had significant financial crisis. As a result, it was rather difficult to maintain the one hundred and fifty thousand soldier at battle-ready state. Hence, the government wanted to put down the rest of the rebellion as soon as possible. The chancellor of the time Gao Qiu, being aware of the conflict within the rebellions, offered an advice to the emperor Hui Zong. By following the advices of Gao Qiu, the emperor sent secrete missionaries to contact Zheng at the end of August, 1121. Hui Zong the emperor, promised to spare Zheng, despite the damage he have had caused with his cult, if Zheng would join force with the Song. At the same time, Zheng was promised the position of the chief official of Jiangzhou, where the White Lotus Sect originated. This was an offer Zheng could not simply refuse.

Soon after, during the Chongyang festival in September the 9th of 1121, Zheng invited Shi to a feast. When Shi received the invitation, what he imagined was simply an extravagant and expensive feast, with well decorated environment, well prepared food and plenty of alcohol, something he would have opposed if he was still the leader before Fang La’s rebellion. Being too optimistic about his power and his friendship with Zheng, Shi did not bring any body guards. Shi clearly had no idea of what was waiting for him. As soon as Shi entered the building, a group of well trained men loyal only to Zheng, disguised as servants, approached Shi. When Shi realized what was happening, he saw himself being surrounded by more than ten men, each pulling out sharp daggers. Shi was then killed under the command of Zheng. Now expecting no opposing force in the rebellion’s force, Zheng demanded the rebellions to surrender to the government, and executed Shi’s family by the end of September, 1121. Many peasants who are now discouraged by the death of both Fang La and Shi, regretted their action of disloyalty to the Song court, and were eager to surrender after hearing that they were promised to be spared.

However, Zheng underestimated Liu Da’s loyalty to his sworn brother Shi. Though most soldiers agreed to surrender, Liu managed to organize a troop that was willing to fight. But instead of fighting against the government, Liu and his men decided to revenge for Shi first. In a surprise attack against Zheng, who did not expect any resistance, Zheng’s force suffered great causality. Zheng himself was shot by an arrow during the attack, and died later of infection, by December, 1121.

The forces of Liu Da and those remaining of Zheng fought against each other, and as the force of Zheng was in contact with the government, they were supported by the government army. Finally, in February 1122, the army led by Liu surrendered, as Liu died in an ambush by the Song army. At this point, the remainder of the power of the White Lotus Sect lead by followers of Zheng was too weak to post a treat to the government, and with the death of Zheng, the Song took back their promise of the Chief official of Jiangzhou. However, leaders in the sect was granted minor positions in the government. The soldiers who surrendered returned to their farmer’s life. However, because the ravaging of the rebellions for more than two years, the population of Jiangzhou was reduced by almost a half (many died, and the rest moved a way). The Song government, glad that this great disturbance have been finally at rest, decided to free Jiangzhou from tax for three years to further appease the peasants and to make the region prosperous again. By 1123, the government ordered to ban or activities associated with Manichaeism and White Lotus Sect, and would sentence anybody who claims to be apart of these organizations to death. The power of these cults became very weak, and did not put up a large scaled rebellion all the way until the end of Yuan dynasty.

Fang La and Shi, the leaders of the largest scale of rebellion in the Northern Song dynasty, were often depicted as great villains that caused disturbance and chaos over large regions. However, some people also saw them as heroes, as they had the courage to fight against the corruptions of the government. Nevertheless, corruption of high officials continued to exist throughout the Song court. Though still remaining prosperous, the Song continued to be weak militarily, and was first conquered partially by the Jurchens, and later by the Mongols. Ironically, the forces of Manichaeism and White Lotus Sect, being defeated by the weak Song, was proven to be a key factor in the decline of the powerful Yuan, but that is another story.


1Wills, John. Mountain of Fame: Portraits of Chinese History. Princeton University Press, 2012. Page 152
Wills, 177
 Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China Through 1600.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. Page 247
Wills, 261
5 White, Matthew. Atrocitology: Humanity’s 100 Deadliest Achievements. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011. Print. Page 113
Wills, 151
Hansen, 239
8 Kao, Yu-Kung. A Study of the Fang La Rebellion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1962. Print. Page 30
Kao, 36
10 Hansen, 244

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Hi! I am Alex Du, I am from New Zealand but was raised in China. I have been interested in Chinese history since I was a child, and that’s why I enjoyed the History 142 course at U of R. More by Alex Du