Early in his carreer as a rebel, Zhang Xianzhong was known by the sobriquet "The Yellow Tiger." Another product of the 1628 Shensi rebellion, he gradually built up his power until, by 1638, he was the chief, indeed the only real rival of Li Zicheng as leader of the anti-Ming movement.
Zhang is a figure at once fascinating and repellant. The acts of wanton savagery of which he is accused are so outrageous as to challenge credulity. It was said he put swords into the hands of young children and forced them to hack to death helpless prisoners. Those who hesitated joined the victims. Those who seemed to most relish the exercise were organized into a Childrens' Army, and given license to vent their bloodlust on defenseless villages. In the less than six months duration of his proclaimed "Slaughter Policy," he is sid to have caused the murder of some six million people in Sichuan province alone. Survivors were too often missing hands, feet, or joints (the peculiar habit of lopping off elbows and heels seems to have been a favorite pastime of his). Such stories, and there are many more, surely make him a leading contender for the title of greatest monster in human history.
We must keep in mind, of course, that such stories all come from his most inveterate enemies -- writers to whom no crime is too horrendous to be laid at his door. Still, to the end he maintained the almost fanatical loyalty of a large army. And, there are occasional folk stories in which he is seen as a heroic light -- leading the people against oppression and exploitation.
But, despite the obvious exaggerations (6 million was several times the population of Sichuan before he began) there is ample, indeed overwhelming confirmed testimony to reveal Zhang as a figure of extreme and savage cruelty. Those unfortunate enough to fall under his shadow were only too often victims of brutal and merciless treatment. Even Communist historiographers who rehabilitated Li Zicheng as leader of a great Peasant Revolution, could do little to lighten the image of Zhang Xianzhong.
Zhang Xinzhong was born in Shaanxi in November os 1608 -- the same year as Li Zicheng. Details of his early life are uncertain. One story says that he first became a merchant, and then a minor local official. It is said that he committed a crime for which he was sentenced to death, but was saved by a friendly government official. We do know that he was literate, but not particularly sophistocated in his scholarship.
In 1628, Zhang was a soldier serving on the Mongol frontier north of Shaanxi. The border was quietm but due to the chronic corruption of the Ming court, and the incompetence of time-serving officers, the army was ill-equipped, poorly supplied, and often short of rations. The men might expect to be cheated out their pay by their own superiors -- when there was any pay to be cheated out of.
When famine swept through the region, worstening the situation yet more, many soldiers, Zhang Xinzhong included, formed bandit gangs to plunder the countryside. Soon they were joined by thousands of hungry peasants. In order to protect their families from reprisal by the government, most early bandit leaderstook nicknames. Zhang first called himself Ba Da Wang (Eighth Great King), though his men soon came to call him Huang Lao Hu -- The Yellow Tiger.