Tseng Kuo-fan

The Chinese statesman, general, and scholar Tseng Kuo-fan (1811-1872) was responsible for the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion and is regarded as a model Confucian official.

Between 1850 and 1864 China was racked by the Taiping Rebellion, which threatened to topple the Ch'ing dynasty and to destroy Chinese traditional culture. Because the regular armies of the Ch'ing proved to be totally incapable of stopping the rebels, the burden of resistance fell upon local militia groups. Tseng Kuo-fan was responsible for organizing the militia of Hunan into the first of the provincial armies which would eventually crush the Taiping forces. Because of his upright and moral character, he became a rallying point for the able officials, scholars, and soldiers who rose to support the dynasty and preserve their Confucian heritage.

Tseng Kuo-fan was born on Nov. 26, 1811, in Hsianghsiang, Hunan, to a poor peasant family. In 1832, Tseng Kuo-fan passed the first of the official examinations a year after his father had done so, and in 1838 obtained a chin-shih (the highest academic degree) and became a member of the Hanlin Academy. Routine promotions advanced his career until 1849, when he was made a junior vice president of the Board of Ceremonies. He also served as an acting vice president on several other boards. In 1852 he was ordered to Kiangsi to conduct the provincial examination, but on the way southward he learned of his mother's death and he was granted leave to return home to observe the customary 3 years of mourning.


Military Leader

The Taiping rebels in their northward sweep in 1852 had layed siege to Changsha, the capital of Hunan, but had been forced to withdraw due to the efforts of the local militia. In a sea of defeats, this was one of the few imperial successes, and the Emperor in January 1853 ordered Tseng to recruit and drill the Hunan militia. Because he was in mourning, Tseng felt that he could not accept, but after much persuasion from the Emperor and friends, he finally agreed and swore to himself that he would not "covet wealth nor fear death."

In keeping with his already established habits of thorough planning, Tseng carefully worked out the training of his troops, their discipline, and their organization. The army he created came to be known as the Hsiang Army and was founded on the Chinese custom of personal loyalties. Tseng had seen the soldiers of the regular armies of the Ch'ing refuse to fight for their commanders because they were strangers. Tseng insisted that each unit commander personally recruit his own soldiers and, preferably, that the commander and the troops come from the same local region. Tseng was using local affinities to give cohesion to his army. If for any reason a commander was removed, then his unit was to be disbanded, and the new commander would recruit a new unit. From this practice the saying arose that "the army belongs to the general"—and not the state. Tseng inadvertently set a pattern of personal armies that would lead to the growth of warlordism in the 20th century.

Tseng also believed in adequate military training before his troops were committed to battle. There had been too many instances where the imperial troops had fled before the approaching Taiping forces. Despite repeated entreaties from officials in beleaguered areas and even from the Emperor himself to commit the army, Tseng refused until he felt the men were ready.

Tseng's forces were not an immediate success, however. In two battles in 1854, his forces were defeated, and Tseng was so discouraged that he attempted suicide. However, a victory soon encouraged him, and his forces were finally able to stop the Taiping drive in Hunan. Tseng's efforts were also aided in 1856 by the elimination of most of the capable Taiping leaders through a bloodbath in Nanking. Despite repeated calls for aid from other areas, Tseng concentrated his forces on the job of recapturing the Taiping capital at Nanking. This meant that his army had to fight its way down the Yangtze River in the face of stiff opposition.

Tseng's entire operation was also constantly hampered by a shortage of funds and a lack of recognized authority. When his Hsiang Army was first organized, it was to be financed by the imperial treasury, but the imperial revenues fell short, and Tseng was forced to rely on the contributions of the local gentry who, as it turned out, were rather lukewarm to his entreaties. Tseng's official rank was not within the regular provincial bureaucracy and, as a result, he was unable to command provincial revenues. It was only through the aid of staunch friends, who held high provincial rank, as well as his own persistent pleas that Tseng was able to keep his army going. His troops were well aware of the situation, which further strengthened their loyalty to Tseng and their unit commanders. After 1860, when Tseng was appointed governor general of Kiangnan (the highest provincial civil rank) and imperial commissioner (the Emperor's own representative), he was finally in a position to ensure adequate funds for his army.

The repeated entreaties for military help from various areas within Tseng's jurisdiction, which, if complied with, would have diluted his main effort, forced Tseng in 1860-1861 to create three military areas: one in Kiangsu under Li Hung-chang, a second in Chekiang under Tso Tsung-t'ang, and a third in Anhwei under his own command.

Li Hung-chang returned to his home in the Huai region of Anhwei to recruit a new army on the same principles of personal loyalty that Tseng had used. Li's Huai Army was stationed at Shanghai in 1862 and during the next 2 years cleared most of Kiangsu of the Taiping rebels. Tso Tsungt'ang did the same in Chekiang, while Tseng's army under the immediate command of his younger brother, Tseng Kuoch'üan, laid siege to Nanking. Tseng's tactics resulted in the fall of the Taiping capital on July 19, 1864.


Postrebellion Years

With the rebellion over, Tseng's immediate task as the governor general of Kiangnan was to restore peace and order to the war-ravaged area and to promote the revival of learning in South China. During the war years he had gained the respect and admiration of many of the leading scholars and officials of the empire. His high moral character, his devotion not only to the imperial cause but also to the ideals of Confucianism, his own sound scholarship, and his military successes drew these men to his side. In his efforts to revive scholarship he established five official printing offices for reprinting the classics and the histories and restored the official examinations at Nanking.

During the postrebellion years Tseng also became interested in ways to strengthen China in the face of Western encroachments. He and Li Hung-chang established an arsenal at Shanghai in 1865; in 1868 the arsenal sponsored the building of the first Chinese steamship. In August 1871 he and Li jointly established a program to send Chinese boys to the United States to study, but he died shortly before the students set sail in 1872.


New Fighting

Tseng Kuo-fan had disbanded his Hsiang Army at the conclusion of the Taiping Rebellion because his troops were war-weary and because his power, based on this army, might be considered a threat to the dynasty. In June 1865, when Tseng was ordered to take command of the fighting against the Nien rebels in the North, he felt he could rely on Li Hung-chang's Huai Army. Tseng realized that this was contrary to all his teachings about personal recruitment but felt that since Li was his longtime pupil and friend it might work. After a year of unsuccessful campaigning he recommended Li as his successor and returned to his former post as the governor general of Kiangnan. Li brought the Nien Rebellion to a successful conclusion in 1868.

When the people of Tientsin attacked the French missionaries in 1870, in what has been called the Tientsin Massacre, Tseng, as the governor general of Chihli since 1868, was called upon to investigate the case. Aware of China's military weakness, Tseng pressed for a policy of justice and conciliation. As a result, he incurred the wrath of the masses and the war party. The case was nearly settled, however, when, old and ill, Tseng was transferred back to his former post in Nanking. Li Hung-chang, who had been ordered to bring his army to Tientsin to support Tseng, succeeded his master in Chihli. Two years later, on March 12, 1872, Tseng died in Nanking.


Further Reading on Tseng Kuo-fan

The standard work in English on Tseng is William James Hail, Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion (1927). Gideon Chen, Tseng Kuo-fan: Pioneer Promoter of the Steamship in China (1935), deals with Tseng's efforts at "Self-strengthening"; and Kenneth E. Folsom, Friends, Guests, and Colleagues (1968), discusses the creation of Tseng's army, his personal advisers, and his relationship with Li Hung-chang. A complete biography of Tseng can be found in Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (2 vols., 1943).