Black Flag Army

Black Flag Army

The Black Flag Army (Chinese: ; pinyin: Hēi Jūn; Vietnamese: Quân cờ đen) was a splinter remnant of a bandit group recruited largely from soldiers of ethnic Zhuang background, who crossed the border from Guangxi province of China into Upper Tonkin, in the Empire of Annam (Vietnam) in 1865. They became known mainly for their fights against French forces in cooperation with both Vietnamese and Chinese authorities. The Black Flag Army is so named because of the preference of its commander, Liu Yongfu, for using black command flags.


The rise and fall of the Black Flag Army

A Black Flag ambush, 1883

In 1857, Liu Yongfu (Vietnamese: Lưu Vĩnh Phúc), a Hakka soldier of fortune was heading a group of about 200 men within a larger bandit group of Guangxi province headed by Huang Sihong (). He defected with his men to the band of Wu Yuanqing (Wu Yuan-ch'ing, ) under his own - black - flag. Liu organized a ceremony reminiscent of the tiandihui rituals and what will be known as the Black Flag Army was born. The "army" was operating as an independent unit under Wu Yuanqing and his son and successor, Wu Yazhong (Wu Ya-chung, ) [1] or Wu Hezhong. Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yazhong pretended to be Taiping "princes", but there was no basis for this claim.

After the Taiping rebellion was crushed in 1864 in Nanking, the Qing army proceeded to destroy systematically the many armed bands of south-eastern provinces, particularly the band of Wu Yazhong in Guangxi. In 1865, the situation of Wu Yazhong was desperate and Liu and his Black Flag Army crossed into Upper Tonkin.

The Black Flags demonstrated their usefulness to the Vietnamese government in helping to suppress the indigenous tribes that populated the hills between the Red and Black Rivers, and Liu was rewarded with official military rank.

Secure in the backing of the Vietnamese government, Liu Yongfu established a profitable extortion racket along the course of the Red River, taxing river commerce between Son Tay and Lao Cai at a rate of 10%. The profits that accrued from this venture were so great that Liu's army swelled in numbers during the 1870s, attracting to its ranks adventurers from all over the world. Although most of the Black Flag soldiers were Chinese, many of the army's junior officers were Americans or European soldiers of fortune, some of whom had seen action in the Taiping Rebellion, and Liu used their expertise to transform the Black Flag Army into a formidable fighting force. Liu commanded 7,000 black flag soldiers from Guangdong and Guangxi around Tonkin.[2]

The harassment of European vessels trading on the Red River led to the dispatch of a French expeditionary force to Tonkin under Commandant Henri Rivière in 1882. The resulting clash between the French and the Black Flag Army (the latter abetted by the governments of Vietnam and China) gradually escalated, resulting eventually in the Sino-French War (August 1884-April 1885). The Black Flags cooperated with Chinese forces during this war, most famously besieging a battalion of the French Foreign Legion in the Siege of Tuyen Quang. The Black Flag Army was formally disbanded at the end of the Sino-French War, though many of its members continued to harass the French for years afterward as freelance bandits.

Remarkably, the Black Flag Army was called into being again in 1895 by Liu Yongfu in response to the Japanese invasion of Taiwan (1895). Liu Yongfu crossed to Taiwan in answer to the appeal of his old friend Tang Ching-sung, previously the island's governor-general and now president of the short-lived Republic of Formosa, to command the Formosan resistance forces against the Japanese. Liu took a number of aging Black Flag veterans back into service to join the fight against the Japanese, but the reconstituted Black Flag Army was swept aside with ease by the Japanese Imperial Guards Division. Liu himself was obliged to disguise himself as an old woman to escape capture.

The Black Flag Army in action

Defeat of Francis Garnier's invasion of Tonkin, December 1873

Black Flag soldiers, 1873

In 1873 the Vietnamese government enlisted the help of the Black Flag Army to defeat the first French attempt to conquer Tonkin, led by the naval lieutenant Francis Garnier. On 21 December 1873 Liu Yongfu and around 600 Black Flags (French: pavillons noirs, drapeaux noirs), marching beneath an enormous black banner, approached the west gate of Hanoi. A large Vietnamese army followed in their wake. Garnier began shelling the Black Flags with a field piece mounted above the gate, and when they began to fall back led a party of 18 French marine infantrymen out of the city to chase them away. The attack failed. Garnier, leading three men uphill in a bayonet attack on a party of Black Flags, was speared to death by several Black Flag soldiers after stumbling in a watercourse. The youthful enseigne de vaisseau Adrien-Paul Balny d’Avricourt led an equally small column out of the citadel to support Garnier, but was also killed at the head of his men. Three French soldiers were also killed in these sorties, and the others fled back to the citadel after their officers fell. Garnier's death ended the first French adventure in Tonkin.[3]

Defeat of Henri Rivière's invasion of Tonkin, May 1883

In 1883 and the first half of 1884, during the period of undeclared hostilities that preceded the Sino-French War, the Black Flags fought several engagements against French forces in Tonkin. The first major clash, the Battle of Paper Bridge (19 May 1883), in which the French naval captain Henri Rivière was killed, was a striking victory for the Black Flag Army.[4]

Indecisive clashes, summer 1883

In the Battle of Phu Hoai (15 August 1883, the Black Flag Army successfully defended its positions against a French attack launched by General Alexandre-Eugène Bouët, though it took considerably higher casualties than the French.[5] In the Battle of Palan (1 September 1883) the Black Flags did less well, being driven from a key position on the Day River.[6]

Disaster at Son Tay, December 1883

In December 1883 the Black Flag Army suffered a major defeat at the hands of Admiral Amédée Courbet in the Son Tay Campaign. Despite fighting with fanatical courage in the engagements at Phu Sa on 14 December and Son Tay on 16 December, the Black Flags were unable to prevent the French from storming Son Tay. Although there were also Chinese and Vietnamese contingents at Son Tay, the Black Flag Army bore the brunt of the fighting, and took very heavy casualties. In the opinion of the British observer William Mesny, a senior officer in the Chinese army, the fighting at Son Tay broke the power of the Black Flag Army, though the stubborn defence put up by the Black Flags in the Battle of Hoa Moc fifteen months later does not bear out this assessment.[7]

Loss of Hung Hoa, April 1884

The Black Flag Army took no part in the Bac Ninh campaign (March 1884). After the French capture of Bac Ninh, the Black Flags retreated to Hung Hoa. In April 1884 the French advanced on Hung Hoa with both brigades of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps. The Black Flags had thrown up an impressive series of fortifications around the town, but General Charles-Théodore Millot, the French commander-in-chief, took it without a single French casualty. While General François de Négrier's 2nd Brigade pinned the Black Flags frontally from the east and subjected Hung Hoa to a ferocious artillery bombardment from the Trung Xa heights, General Louis Brière de l'Isle's 1st Brigade made a flank march to the south to cut Liu's line of retreat. On the evening of 11 April, seeing Brière de l'Isle's Turcos and marine infantry emerging behind their flank at Xuan Dong, the Black Flags evacuated Hung Hoa before they were trapped inside it. They set alight the remaining buildings before they left, and on the following morning the French found the town completely abandoned.[8]

Loss of Tuyen Quang, June 1884

The Black Flag Army retreated up the Red River to Thanh Quan, only a few days march from the frontier town of Lao Cai. Several hundred Black Flag soldiers, demoralised by the ease with which Courbet and Millot had defeated the Black Flag Army, surrendered to the French in the summer of 1884. One of Millot's final achievements was to advance up the Clear River and throw the Black Flag Army out of Tuyen Quang in the first week of June, again without a single French casualty. If the French had seriously pursued Liu Yongfu after the capture of Tuyen Quang, the Black Flags would probably have been driven from Tonkin there and then. But French attention was diverted by the sudden crisis with China provoked by the Bac Le ambush (23 June 1884), and during the eventful summer of 1884 the Black Flags were left to lick their wounds.[9]

Alliance with the Chinese, September 1884 to April 1885

The fortunes of the Black Flag Army were transformed by the outbreak of the Sino-French War in August 1884. The Empress Dowager Cixi responded to the news of the destruction of China's Fujian Fleet at the Battle of Fuzhou (23 August 1884) by ordering her generals to invade Tonkin to throw the French out of Hanoi. Tang Ching-sung, the commander of the Yunnan Army, knew that Liu's services would be invaluable in the war with France, and Liu agreed to take part with the Black Flag Army in the forthcoming campaign. The Black Flags helped the Chinese forces put pressure on Hung Hoa and the isolated French posts of Phu Doan and Tuyen Quang during the autumn of 1884.

The battle of Hoa Moc, March 1885

A soldier of the Black Flag Army, 1885
A Black Flag banner, captured by the French at Hoa Moc (2 March 1885) and now displayed in the Musée de l'Armée, Paris

In the winter and spring of 1885 3,000 soldiers of the Black Flag Army served during the Siege of Tuyen Quang. At the Battle of Hoa Moc (2 March 1885), the Black Flag Army inflicted heavy casualties on a French column marching to the relief of Tuyen Quang. French casualties at Hoa Moc were 76 dead and 408 wounded, the highest casualty rate and the heaviest loss in a single day's fighting sustained by the French during the Sino-French War. Many French officers at Hoa Moc said that the carnage was even worse than at Son Tay fifteen months earlier. [10]

Disbandment of the Black Flag Army, June 1885

One of the conditions of the peace treaty between France and China that ended the Sino-French War was that Liu Yongfu should leave Tonkin. By the end of the war Liu had only around 2,000 troops under his command and was in no position to resist pressure from Tang Ching-sung and the other commanders of the Yunnan Army to remove the Black Flag Army. Liu crossed into China with some of his most loyal followers, but the bulk of the Black Flag Army was disbanded on Tonkinese soil in the summer of 1885. Unpaid for months and still in possession of their rifles, most of the unwanted Black Flag soldiers immediately took to banditry, under cover of the Can Vuong resistance movement against the French. It took months for the French to reduce them, and the route between Hung Hoa and the border town of Lao Cai was only secured in February 1886. In 1887, Black Flag bandits remained sufficiently powerful to ransack and pillage Luang Prabang.

Flags of the Black Flag Army

A possible reconstruction of Liu Yongfu's command flags at Son Tay

Liu Yongfu evidently had a personal preference for the colour black, having dreamed in his youth that he would one day become a 'general of the black tiger', and the Black Flag Army is so named from the colour of Liu's command flags.[11]

French sources invariably mention that Liu Yongfu's personal command flags were very large, black in colour, and rectangular. In December 1873, when Liu Yongfu confronted Francis Garnier outside Hanoi, the Black Flag Army is described as marching under enormous black flags. At the Battle of Palan (1 September 1883), Liu Yongfu's headquarters was marked with seven identical black flags, bordered in silver. In the Son Tay Campaign (December 1883), Liu Yongfu ordered three large black flags to be flown above the main gate of the citadel of Son Tay, bearing Chinese characters in white.

Individual Black Flag units flew a variety of flags, some rectangular and others triangular. On the afternoon of 15 August 1883, during the Battle of Phu Hoai, several units of the Black Flag Army emerged from their defences and advanced across open ground to attack the French left wing. According to a French eyewitness, the advancing Black Flag units waved numerous black banners decorated with Chinese characters in either red or white.[12]

Surviving Black Flag banners include a black triangular banner with a representation in white of the seven stars of the Great Bear.


  •  This article incorporates text from China: A collection of correspondence and papers relating to Chinese affairs, by Great Britain. Foreign Office, a publication from 1885 now in the public domain in the United States.
  1. ^ also known under other names, such as Wu Azhong (Wu Ah-chung, ) as in McAleavy, 1968.
  2. ^ Great Britain. Foreign Office (1885). China: A collection of correspondence and papers relating to Chinese affairs. LONDON. p. 29. Retrieved 2011-06-09. (Original from Harvard University)
  3. ^ Thomazi, Conquête, 126–8
  4. ^ Thomazi, Conquête, 152–7
  5. ^ Thomazi, Conquête, 162–5
  6. ^ Thomazi, Conquête, 166–7
  7. ^ Huard, 180–7 and 202–31; Thomazi, Conquête, 171–7; Histoire militaire, 68–72
  8. ^ Huard, 280–90; Thomazi, Histoire militaire, 84
  9. ^ Thomazi, Histoire militaire, 85–7
  10. ^ Thomazi, Conquête, 247–8; Histoire militaire, 107–8
  11. ^ McAleavy, 102 and 105
  12. ^ Duboc, 174

3^ >>


  • Duboc, E., Trente cinq mois de campagne en Chine, au Tonkin (Paris, 1899)
  • Huard, L., La guerre du Tonkin (Paris, 1887)
  • Lung Chang [龍章], Yueh-nan yu Chung-fa chan-cheng [越南與中法戰爭, Vietnam and the Sino-French War] (Taipei, 1993)
  • McAleavy, H., Black Flags in Vietnam: The Story of a Chinese Intervention (New York, 1968)
  • Thomazi, A., La conquête de l'Indochine (Paris, 1934)
  • Thomazi, A., Histoire militaire de l'Indochine français (Hanoi, 1931)

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