Li Hung-chang (1823-1901), Chinese soldier, statesman, diplomat, and industrialist, was one of the most powerful and influential officials in China and a leader of the Self-strengthening movement.
During the latter half of the 19th century China had to contend with internal rebellions and everincreasing foreign encroachments. To cope with this twin threat, a few far-sighted Chinese leaders advocated a policy of military and economic development along Western lines which would give China the strength to suppress the rebellions, get rid of the Westerners, and preserve its superior traditional culture. This movement was known as the Self-strengthening movement.
Li Hung-chang was born on Feb. 15, 1823, in Hofei in Anhwei Province. In 1843 he passed the first of the official examinations. Shortly thereafter he set out for Peking. Because Li's father and the soldier-statesman Tseng Kuo-fan both had received their chin-shih degrees (the highest academic degree) in 1838, Li became Tseng's student in the capital, and thus began the long and close association between these two men which was to affect the course of Chinese history. In 1844 Li passed the second examination and in 1847 achieved the chin-shih degree and was made a bachelor of the Hanlin Academy—a signal honor.
Li's budding career as a scholar-official in the capital was cut short in 1853, when he and his father were ordered to return to Anhwei to organize the local militia to fight the Taiping and Nien rebels. For the next 6 years he fought the rebels in Anhwei and received honors but was dissatisfied and frustrated in what he considered a backwash area. In 1858 he resigned his position in Anhwei and set out to join Tseng, who was the commander of his own army fighting the Taiping rebels in Kiangsi.
Between 1859 and 1862 Li served under Tseng in various military and administrative capacities. He has been described during this period as "a brash, young genius," and because of this, his relations with Tseng were often strained. Tseng's attempts to discipline and mold Li's character, however, gradually met with success, and in 1861 Tseng sent Li back to Anhwei to recruit an army which came to be known as the Huai Army. In 1862 Li led his new army to Shanghai and was concurrently made governor of Kiangsu Province.
In Shanghai, Li for the first time came into close contact with foreigners and saw for himself the military strength of the West. The Ever Victorious Army, a Chinese mercenary group led by foreigners, also proved to Li that, given the proper leadership, training, and weapons, Chinese soldiers could fight effectively. Operating out of Shanghai, Li's Huai Army, spearheaded at times by the Ever Victorious Army, cleared Kiangsu of Taiping rebels. Through the efforts of Tseng, Li, and Gen. Tso Tsung-t'ang, in Chekiang, the Taiping Rebellion was crushed in 1864.
Li continued to work closely with Tseng, who was the governor general in Nanking and nominally Li's superior. The two men cooperated in rehabilitating the Shanghai-Soochow area, established an arsenal in 1865, and supported each other's efforts at reform and in the suppression of the Nien Rebellion between 1865 and 1868. When Tseng was made governor general of Chihli in 1868, Li assigned elements of his Huai Army to Tseng so that Tseng would have a military force on which he could rely.
After the suppression of the Nien Rebellion in 1868, Li kept his army intact. It was the best army in China, owed him personal allegiance, and was the basis of Li's further rise in power. When France threatened war because of the Tientsin Massacre in 1870, Li, who was the governor general of Hunan and Hupei, was ordered to bring the Huai Army to Tientsin to support Tseng in the negotiations. While en route he received word of his appointment as the governor general of Chihli to replace Tseng, who had been sent back to Nanking. Li held this post for the next 25 years, and because of his talents, his army, and his close proximity to Peking he played a leading role in China's international and domestic affairs.
Reforms and Industrial Revolution
As the superintendent of trade for the northern ports, a post he held concurrently with his governor generalship after 1870, Li was responsible for all trade relations with foreigners in the northern half of China. As a result, especially after 1875, he gradually became a one-man foreign office. He was responsible for, or involved in, all of China's negotiations with foreign powers from 1871 until his death. For his efforts he was called a traitor and an appeaser by the war advocates, but Li knew that China had to buy time in order to build up its strength if it hoped to get rid of Western influence. The price it had to pay, he felt, was to give in to the foreign demands without a fight. Experience had shown that military defeats cost China more than diplomatic defeats, so Li was willing to pay the lesser price.
Li's efforts in Western-style industrial development grew out of his desire to see China economically, as well as militarily, strong. In 1872 he established the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company in order to restore China's economic rights, which the foreigners had usurped by taking over the coastal and inland shipping. To provide fuel for his ships he founded the Kaiping mines in 1877 and built China's first railway in 1880 to get the coal to the docks. He established the first telegraph lines in 1881, and in 1882 the first cotton mill, which was granted a monopoly in order to prevent the foreign interests from invading the market and removing the profits from the country. In all his commercial and industrial enterprises Li made sure that they were financed and controlled by Chinese.
Despite Li's concerted efforts to build up China's military defenses in the form of a modern army, navy, forts, arsenals, docks, and military academies, he was a realist, although an arrogant one, and recognized that he was bucking a conservative, self-seeking system that was innately opposed to anything Western or anything that involved change. With the halfhearted support of the empress dowager Tz'u-hsi, he was able to hold the conservatives at bay until 1894, when they pushed China into war with Japan, and all Li's efforts at "self-strengthening" failed to save China from defeat. He had failed to realize that the ships and guns of the West would be of no use without the ideas and institutions of the West.
Although Li had been opposed to the war, he was blamed for the fiasco, as it was his army and navy that had fought and lost, and he narrowly escaped with his life. He was further humiliated by the Japanese insistence that he personally sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, which ended the war. To get him out of the country until the furor died down, Li was sent to Russia early in 1896 as China's representative at the coronation of the Czar. He conferred with Bismarck in Germany and Gladstone in England and returned to China from the United States and Canada in October.
Until he was appointed governor general at Canton in 1899, Li was in semiretirement, continuing to hold only minor posts. However, in 1900 his stay in Canton was interrupted by the Boxer Rebellion in the North, and he was once again called upon to save his country. The foreigners, in retaliation for the Boxer siege of the legation quarter in Peking, had mounted an eight-nation allied force which had occupied the capital. He negotiated the Boxer Protocol, which he signed only a month before his death on Nov. 7, 1901.
Further Reading on Li Hung-Chang
The two most recent books in English on Li are Kenneth E. Folsom, Friends, Guests, and Colleagues (1968), in which Li's career is used as an example of the personal relationships in Chinese government and society; and Stanley Spector, Li Hung-chang and the Huai Army (1964). Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (2 vols., 1943), contains a lengthy biography of Li.