The Chinese general and statesman Tso Tsung-t'ang (1812-1885) was one of China's leading military figures during the latter half of the 19th century.
Beginning with the Taiping Rebellion in 1850, it became increasingly clear to a small group of Chinese civilian and military officials that China would have to adopt some of the attributes of the West, especially the military techniques, if it hoped to preserve the dynasty and its traditional culture. This group came to be known as the "Self-strengtheners, " and Tso Tsung-t'ang was one of the leaders.
Tso Tsung-t'ang was born on Nov. 10, 1812, in Hsiangyin, Hunan. As his family was moderately well off, Tso's education began at an early age. He obtained a chujen (the second-highest academic degree) in 1832, but after three unsuccessful attempts to qualify for the chin-shih (the highest academic degree)—the last in 1838—he gave up. From 1840 to 1848 he served as a teacher to the family of the late T'ao Chu, who was the former governor general of Liangkiang (Kiangsu, Kiangsi, and Anhwei). In 1844 Tso bought a farm in Hunan where he continued an earlier interest in geography, experimented in the ancient methods of cultivating tea, and promoted sericulture. He styled himself the "Husbandman of the River Hsiang" and wrote a book on agriculture in 1845.
Early Military Career
During the initial years of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), Tso was not actively involved, but in 1852, at the age of 40, he joined the staff of the governor of Hunan, with full responsibility for military affairs. From that time until his death in 1885, he was continuously connected with, or in charge of, military operations. In 1860 he decided to try again for the chin-shih, but while en route to Peking, he received a letter from his friend and patron, Hu Lin-i, who was the governor of Hupei, which informed him that he should report to Tseng Kuo-fan's headquarters in Anhwei. Hu had been trying for several years to get Tseng to utilize Tso's talents, but up to now Tseng had refused on the grounds that the differences in their personalities would cause friction. Need overrode personalities, and as a key member of Tseng's forces, Tso began his rise to fame.
Tso Tsung-t'ang recruited a force of 5, 000 men in Hunan and in September 1860 led them into battle in Kiangsi against the Taiping rebels. He chased the rebels into Chekiang and in December was made commander in chief of all government forces in Chekiang. In 1862 he became governor of Chekiang and, because of his subsequent victories, was promoted to governor general of Fukien and Chekiang in 1863. By early 1864 Chekiang had been cleared of rebels, and Tso turned to the task of rehabilitating Chekiang and Fukien.
As an early advocate of "Self-strengthening, " whose thinking had been influenced by Lin Tse-hsü and Wei Yüan, Tso paid particular attention to naval matters. While in Foochow he experimented with small steamboats and in 1866, with French aid, established a navy yard. The latter project was hardly under way, however, when he was transferred to the northwest as the governor general of Shensi and Kansu to put down a Moslem uprising. Before he could reach his new assignment, he was diverted to the North to cooperate with Tseng Kuofan and Li Hung-chang in the fighting against the Nien rebels. With the successful suppression of that rebellion in 1868, he resumed his journey to the northwest frontier area.
Career in the Northwest
For the next 12 years Tso was actively engaged in the suppression of various Moslem rebels in Shensi, Kansu, and Chinese Turkistan. He successfully countered the two most serious threats to Chinese sovereignty in the area: the short-lived kingdom of Kashgaria under Yakoob Beg, which he crushed in 1877, and the Russian occupation of lli from 1871 to 1881. In the latter incident it was Tso's army on the spot which strengthened China's hand at the conference table and forced the Russians to vacate the territory. Through his efforts the area of Sinkiang was finally incorporated into the Chinese empire as a province in 1884.
Even though Tso is known mostly for his military victories, he was also an able administrator. He partially solved his supply problems through his old interest in agriculture and had his troops farm in their off-hours. He also prohibited opium production and encouraged local industry by establishing cotton-and wool-weaving factories. The willow trees which lined both sides of the great highway in Kansu were testimony to his concern for the land.
In August 1880 Tso was ordered back to Peking. However, his brusque and outspoken nature and his long years in central Asia did not suit him for life in the capital, and he requested sick leave. Instead, he was appointed governor general at Nanking. When trouble with France over Annam became acute in 1884, he was summoned to Peking and put in charge of all the military affairs of the empire. Tso, who was one of the leading war advocates and believed in fighting first and talking later, was set opposite Li Hung-chang, who was handling the diplomatic negotiations with France.
Tso moved to Foochow in late 1884 to supervise the military operations, while Li continued to work for a peaceful settlement. On June 9, 1885, Li signed a treaty with France, and on September 5 Tso Tsung-t'ang died in Foochow. On his deathbed Tso's concern for the safety of China rose above his long-standing hostility with Li, and he supported Li's "Self-strengthening" measures for the future of China.
Further Reading on Tso Tsung-t'ang
The standard work in English on Tso is W. L. Bales, Tso Tsungt'ang: Soldier and Statesman of Old China (1937). Gideon Ch'en, Tso Tsung-t'ang: Pioneer Promoter of the Modern Dockyard and the Woollen Mill in China (1938), discusses Tso's "Self-strengthening" interests; and Immanual C. Y. Hsu, The Ili Crisis: A Study of Sino-Russian Relations, 1871-1881 (1965), deals with this aspect of Tso's career. For a short biography of Tso see Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (2 vols., 1943).
Additional Biography Sources
Fields, Lanny B., Tso Tsung-t'ang and the Muslims: statecraft in northwest China, 1868-1880, Kingston, Ont.: Limestone Press, 1978.