The Manchu official and statesman Wen-hsiang (1818-1876) was influential in China's change of policy toward the West in the 1860s and a leading figure in the Self-strengthening movement.
Wen-hsiang was born on Oct. 16, 1818, in Mukden into a Manchu family. Through the aid of his wealthy father-in-law, he purchased the rank of a student in the Imperial Academy in 1837. He passed the provincial examinations in Peking in 1840, and five years later he attained a chin-shih (the highest academic degree).
When the Taiping rebels advanced toward Peking in 1853, despite the ensuing panic, Wen-hsiang courageously remained at his post as a secretary in the Board of Works. His exemplary conduct brought him to the attention of his superiors, and he was rapidly promoted. By the end of 1855 he was chief supervisor of imperial instruction, a junior vice president of the Board of Ceremonies, and concurrently a grand councilor (one of the five officials who daily advised the Emperor as a sort of privy council).
Early Official Career
When Tientsin fell to the allied British and French forces in 1860, Wen-hsiang repeatedly urged the Hsienfeng emperor (reigned 1851-1862) to remain in Peking. However, as the enemy advanced on the capital, other counsels prevailed, and the Emperor fled to Jehol. Wen-hsiang insisted on remaining, however, and, along with Prince Kung (the Emperor's half brother) and Kuei-liang, was ordered to handle the peace negotiations and to maintain order in the city. The allies occupied Peking on Oct. 13, 1860, and on October 24 the Treaty of Tientsin of 1858 was ratified and the supplementary Convention of Peking was signed. The foreign troops withdrew on November 5 and not long after left China.
The events of 1860 brought home to Wen-hsiang and Prince Kung the superiority of Western military power. Prince Kung, who previously had been rabidly antiforeign, now did a complete about-face and came to respect and even admire the British. He also discovered that the foreigners did not have any designs on Chinese territory and, surprisingly, were willing to share their military secrets by offering to help China train its army and manufacture Western-style weapons.
Learning about and from the West, which had been advocated as early as 1839 by Lin Tse-hsü, now found favor in the capital among the chief ministers of the state. Prince Kung and Wen-hsiang, on Jan. 11, 1861, memorialized the throne that a new office be established to direct foreign affairs and that there be a general change in China's policy toward the West, based on peace through diplomacy and Self-strengthening.
The new Foreign Office was formally established on March 11, 1861, as the Tsungli Yamen, with Wen-hsiang as the principal minister and at times the acting head. Although Prince Kung was the nominal head of the Tsungli Yamen, he and Wen-hsiang worked together so closely that it is difficult to determine who was really responsible for its policies. Nevertheless, to the foreigners, Wen-hsiang came to be known as "Mr. Tsungli Yamen." Because of his honesty (he was proud of being poor), straightforwardness, efficiency, and intelligence, he gained the highest praise of the entire foreign diplomatic community.
Between 1861 and the early 1870s the Tsungli Yamen effectively advanced the cause of Westernization and peaceful relations with the foreigners. As its working director, Wen-hsiang, who once referred to himself as a small donkey pulling a far too heavy load, was responsible for its everyday operation, its relations with foreign diplomats, and, with Prince Kung, for its general overall policies. Under their leadership the Tsungli Yamen promoted modern schools—the T'ung-wen Kuan, which was China's first foreign-language school, was established in 1862 on Wenhsiang's recommendation—Western science, industry, and commerce. Wen-hsiang also initially suggested sending Anson Burlingame, the former U.S. minister to China, to the Western nations as China's special representative in 1868.
As grand councilors, Prince Kung and Wen-hsiang were able to protect the Tsungli Yamen from the attacks of the conservatives until about 1869-1870, when Prince Kung was severely chastised by the empress dowager Tz'u-hsi, and when Li Hung-chang, as the superintendent of trade for northern ports, began to overshadow it. Nevertheless, Wenhsiang, despite his multifarious other duties and a serious illness in 1870, remained loyal to the Tsungli Yamen until his death.
Further Reading on Wen-hsiang
There is no book in English on Wen-hsiang. Facets of his career are dealt with in Ssu-yu Teng and John K. Fairbank, China's Response to the West (1954), and throughout Mary C. Wright, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism (1957; rev. ed. 1966). A short biography of him appears in the publication by the U.S. Library of Congress, Orientalia Division, Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, edited by Arthur W. Hummel (2 vols., 1943-1944).