Accomplishments and Records

Which War Killed One-Sixth of the World’s Population?

If you had to list the deadliest military conflicts in human history, which would take the #1 spot? The easy answer is World War II. With some estimates placing the death toll of 85 million, it definitely earns the top spot in terms of raw numbers.

An Lushan (A.D. 703 – 757)

The world’s population in 1939 was approximately 2 billion. All told, WWII killed as much as 3.5 percent of humanity. As devastating as that was, WWII’s carnage is overshadowed by an event that you may never have heard of.

More than a millennium before the great wars of the twentieth century, China witnessed bloodshed on a scale unequaled before or since. In the span of 12 years, the An Lushan Rebellion not only sent tsunamis of devastation throughout China but wiped out as much as one-sixth of the earth’s population.

An Lushan (A.D. 703 – 757) was a general during China’s Tang Dynasty. He was dissatisfied with the political climate and sensed that conditions were right for a change. An Lushan established the rival Yan Dynasty in Northern China and declared himself emperor on December 16, 755.

The An Lushan Rebellion would last until February 17, 763, and would span the reign of three Tang emperors. By the time it was over, as many as 36 million people had lost their lives in the struggle.

It is a challenge to arrive at accurate population and casualty figures. The last census taken in China before the rebellion was in 755. It recorded a population of 52,919,309 in 8,914,709 taxpaying households. A census taken in 764, the year following the end of the rebellion, recorded only 16,900,000 in 2,900,000 households. If accurate, this would indicate the deaths of 36 million people. That represents about two-thirds of the population of the empire. It is also one-sixth of the entire world’s population, which ranged from 200 million to 220 million.

There is some debate about the way census figures should be interpreted. Some historians have argued that the post-rebellion census figures do not count people in the same geographic area or include untaxed people such as foreigners and members of certain religious orders. In his book Great Big Book of Horrible Things, Matthew White originally recorded 36 million deaths from the rebellion. He later revised it to 13 million. Even with the revision, the result was a 6.5% reduction in the global population.

Siege of Suiyang and Cannibalism

As if the whole of the An Lushan Rebellion were not horrifying enough, the Siege of Suiyang warrants special attention. The siege lasted for eight and a half months, from January 25 to October 9, 757. By the time it was over, as many as 120,000 people had lost their lives in the conflict. Of those, between 20,000 and 30,000 became food for the survivors.

As recorded in the Old Book of Tang:

Yin Ziqi had besieged the city for a long time. The food in the city had run out. The city dwellers traded their children to eat and cooked the bodies of the dead. Fear spread and worse situations were expected. At this time, Zhang Xun took his concubine out and killed her in front of his soldiers in order to feed them. He said, “You have been working hard at protecting this city wholeheartedly for the country. Your loyalty is uncompromised despite the long-lasting hunger. Since I cannot cut out my own flesh to feed you, how can I keep this woman and just ignore the dangerous situation?” All the soldiers cried, for they did not wish to eat [the woman]. Zhang Xun ordered them to eat the flesh. Afterwards, they caught the women in the city. When there were no more women left, they turned to the old and young men. 20,000 to 30,000 people were eaten. People always remained loyal.

Old Book of Tang, Chapter 137

The New Book of Tang confirmed the cannibalism:

After the city was besieged for a long time, in the beginning, the horses were eaten. When there were no more horses, they turned to the women, the old, and the young. 30,000 people in total were eaten. People knew their death was close, and nobody rebelled. When the city fell, only 400 people were left.

— New Book of Tang, Chapter 192

Death of An Lushan and End of the Rebellion

The rebellion that bore his name heavily depended on the health of An Lushan. Heavily is a good word to describe anything associated with the man. He was beyond obese. Tipping the scales at 330 kg (727 lbs), An Lushan’s girth became the stuff of legends. The historical records describe him, saying his “abdomen droops over the knees” requiring that “every belt [he] wears, three or four people help; the two lift his belly,” while the third connects the two ends of the belt.”

One account states that a horse was crushed under the man’s weight.

The excess weight did not come without health problems. One account states, “Lushan is fat with body and has sores.” It records how the massive folds of flesh developed necrosis within their cavernous depths.

Although obesity was a factor in An Lushan’s eventual demise, it was not the direct result. Ultimately, it could be said that his treatment of others was the primary contributing cause. As An Lushan’s health declined, he grew paranoid and irrational. One of the people who suffered greatly at his hands was Li Zhu’er. He was working as a servant for An Lushan when the general suffered a fit of rage and used a sword to hack off Li Zhu’er’s genitals. The poor servant nearly died from blood loss, but An Lushan smeared ashes on his injury and saved his life. He kept Li Zhu’er as his servant and entrusted him as one of those who helped carry the overweight leader and assist him with dressing and undressing.

In retrospect, An Lushan was probably naive in thinking Li Zhu’er would not harbor any resentment about sword/genitals incident. The eunuch was approached by dissidents who resented An Lushan’s abusive treatment. On January 29, 757, Li Zhu’er and co-conspirator Yan Zhuang assassinated An Lushan by hacking at him repeatedly with a sword until his intestines spilled out of his ample belly.

The rebellion against the Tang Dynasty continued for another six years. Without An Lushan’s leadership, however, the Yan Dynasty quickly lost power and imploded. The rebellion officially came to an end on November 18, 763. Although An Lushan failed to achieve his political aspirations, is remembered for the dubious distinction of having started the deadliest war in history.

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