A Hakka Chinese, born in 1837 in Bobai, Guangxi of poor parents, Liu Yongfu joined the militia force of Wu Quanching, who held a commission from the Taipings in the 1850s. After the Taiping Rebellion was defeated the government forces gradually reasserted their control over southwest China, and in 1868 Liu Yongfu decided to take a force of 200 soldiers across the border into Tonkin, and carve out a small kingdom of his own controlling the upper course of the Red River. He had dreamed as a youth that he would one day become a famous 'General of the Black Tiger', and christened his tiny band of adventurers the Black Flag Army.
Liu's immediate objective was the border town of Lao Cai, which was then held by a band of Cantonese bandits allied with the so-called Yellow Flag Army, a force established by Huang Chongying on the model of the Black Flag Army and about three times its size. Liu Yongfu's attempt on Lao Cai brought him into conflict with the Yellow Flags. Troops of both armies moved into the town and coexisted uneasily while their leaders negotiated insincerely. Finally the Yellow Flags launched a surprise attack on Liu Yongfu and the Black Flags, first exploding a mine in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the Black Flag leader. However, despite their superior numbers, they were defeated and driven from Lao Cai. The town was to remain in the hands of the Black Flags until 1885, and became the main Black Flag stronghold.
In the next few years Liu Yongfu established a profitable protection racket on commerce on the Red River between Son Tay and Lao Cai. Traders were taxed at the rate of 10% of the value of their goods. The profits that accrued from this extortion 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 soldiers were Chinese, many of the 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 came to an early arrangement with both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments. In 1869 and 1870 he took part in a Chinese punitive campaign against the Yellow Flags, which gave him the opportunity to settle an old score against this rival bandit army. Although the Chinese and Black Flags failed to anninhilate the Yellow Flags, they taught them a severe lesson, and Liu’s reward for his help was to be offered an honorary commission in the Chinese army. Meanwhile, knowing that the mountain regions of western Tonkin were inhabited by tribesmen who did not acknowledge the writ of the Vietnamese government, Liu wooed the Court of Hue by presenting himself as an ally against the refractory montagnards. The Vietnamese government, realising that it could not dislodge Liu from its territory, and realising too that he might be a useful ally, bowed to the inevitable. Liu was co-opted into its service, and given military rank in the Vietamese army. Provided that he continued to act in accordance with his technical status as a Vietnamese military governor, the Vietnamese authorities did not trouble the Black Flags.
Liu Yongfu and Francis Garnier
In 1873 the Vietnamese government enlisted the help of Liu's 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, 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.
Liu Yongfu and Henri Rivière
In April 1882 the French naval captain Henri Rivière captured the citadel of Hanoi, again disclosing French colonial ambitions in Tonkin and alarming the Vietnamese and Chinese governments. In April 1883, in the wake of Rivière's capture of Nam Dinh , the Chinese and Vietnamese were again able to enlist the support of Liu Yongfu and the Black Flag Army against the French in Tonkin.
On 10 May 1883 Liu Yongfu challenged the French to battle in a taunting message widely placarded on the walls of Hanoi:
The valiant warrior Liu, general and military governor of the three provinces, has decided to wage war. He makes this proclamation to the French bandits: Everyone knows you are thieves. Other nations despise you. Whenever you come to a country, you claim that you have come to preach the faith, but you really wish to stir up the inhabitants with false rumours. You claim that you have come to trade, but in fact you are plotting to take over the country.
You act like wild animals. You are as fierce as tigers and wolves. Ever since you came to Vietnam, you have seized cities and killed governors. Your crimes are as numerous as the hairs on the head. You have taken over the customs and seized the revenues. This crime deserves death. The inhabitants have been reduced to misery, and the country is nearly ruined. God and man both loathe you. Heaven and earth both reject you. I have now been ordered to wage war. My three armies are massed like clouds. My rifles and cannon are as many as the trees of the forest. We are eager to attack you in your devil’s den and to suppress all disloyal subjects. But the country’s welfare weighs heavily with me. I cannot bear to turn Hanoi into a battlefield, in case I ruin its merchants and people. So I am first making this proclamation: You French bandits, if you think you are strong enough, send your rabble of soldiers to Phu Hoai to fight in the open field with my tiger warriors, and then we will see who is the stronger.
If you are afraid to come, cut off the heads of your chief men and present them to me. Then give back the cities you have taken. I am a merciful commander, and I will let you miserable ants live. But if you delay, my army will take your city and kill you all, and not even a blade of grass will mark where you stood. You must choose between happiness and disaster. Life is but a step away from death. Mark my words well.
The French had no option but to respond to so stark a challenge. On 19 May Rivière marched out of Hanoi to attack the Black Flags. His small force advanced without proper precautions, and blundered into a well-prepared Black Flag ambush at Paper Bridge , a few miles to the west of Hanoi. In the Battle of Paper Bridge the French were enveloped on both wings, and were only with difficulty able to regroup and fall back to Hanoi. Like Francis Garnier ten years earlier, Rivière was killed in the battle. Liu had now taken the scalps of two French naval commanders in remarkably similar circumstances.
Son Tay, Bac Ninh and Hung Hoa
Liu fought two further actions against the French in the autumn of 1883, the Battle of Phu Hoai and the Battle of Palan . The Black Flag Army was mauled in both these battles, but was not seriously damaged as a fighting force. In December 1883, however, Liu Yongfu 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.
Angered that his Chinese and Vietnamese allies had done little to support the Black Flag Army at Son Tay, Liu stood on the sidelines during the Bac Ninh campaign . After the French capture of Bac Ninh, Liu retreated with the Black Flag Army 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 Fran?ois de Négrier's 2nd Brigade pinned the Black Flags frontally 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 west 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.
Liu now fell back up the Red River to Thanh Quan, only a few days march from the frontier town of Lao Cai. He was now in a position to retreat into China if the French pursued him. 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 , and during the eventful summer of 1884 the Black Flags were left to lick their wounds.
Liu Yongfu and the Sino-French War
Liu's fortunes 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 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. Although Liu had bitter memories of his previous service as an ally of China, he respected Tang , and agreed to take part with the Black Flag Army in the forthcoming campaign. Appointed a divisional general in the Yunnan Army, Liu 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. In the winter and spring of 1885 he commanded 3,000 soldiers of the Black Flag Army during the Siege of Tuyen Quang. At the Battle of Hoa Moc , the Black Flag Army inflicted heavy casualties on a French column marching to the relief of Tuyen Quang.
One of the conditions of the peace treaty between France and China that ended the Sino-French War was that Liu Yongfu and the Black Flag Army 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. 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. Meanwhile, the Qing government rewarded Liu Yongfu for his services in the Sino-French War with a minor military appointment in Guangdong province.
Liu Yongfu and the Democratic Republic of Formosa
In 1895, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki which ended the First Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded by China to Japan. The Taiwanese attempted to resist the Japanese occupation, and a short-lived Democratic Republic of Formosa was declared by the Chinese governor Tang Ching-sung on May 25 1895. Tang became president of the new republic, and Liu Yongfu was made a brigadier general and given command of resistance forces in southern Taiwan. Ten days after declaring independence Tang Ching-sung fled to Mainland China, and Liu replaced him as head of government . The Republic of Formosa lasted only 90 days, no longer than it took the Japanese to organise an expedition to occupy Taiwan. Liu's forces were brusquely swept aside in the . Within months the Imperial Japanese Army completed its occupation of Taiwan and the Japanese government formally annexed the island. With the collapse of the Formosan forces, Liu escaped back to mainland China.
Liu Yongfu outlived the Qing dynasty and survived into the second decade of the twentieth century, his reputation growing with the passing years:
He continued until the closing years of the dynasty in the employment of the Kwangtung provincial administration, and is said to have been a notable suppressor of bandits and a pacifier of clan feuds, those twin curses of the south China countryside. The advent of the Republic in 1912 found him in retirement, listening with interest to the news of public affairs as others related it to him from the papers, for he himself never learned to read. Most of the time, though, his mind dwelt in the past. He would take out Garnier’s watch and show the picture of the young wife inside the cover. He would tell of his challenge to Rivière and describe the battle at Paper Bridge. But he soon wearied of the incomprehensible foreign devils, and turned instead to what for him had been beyond comparison the most serious business of his life. The talk would then be all of the Black and Yellow Flags, and of the long years of feuds and hatreds in the steaming malarial jungle and on the silent reaches of the great river. His published memoirs, for his reminiscences were reverently taken down in writing, have as their main theme the story of this interminable vendetta between expatriate Chinese. But when he died, in January 1917, it was as the scourge of a foreign enemy, the hero whose achievements were nullified by the cowardice of his own government, that he was mourned by his countrymen, and that is the way they still remember him.