Li Hongzhang
Li Hung Chang in 1896
Photograph of Li Hongzhang in 1896.
Some attributes
First Name: Li Hongzhang
Second Position: Viceroy of Liangguang, Huguang, Zhili, Minister of Beiyang, General
Third Nationality: Han Chinese
Other attributes
Fourth Allegiance: Qing Dynasty
Fifth Born: February 15, 1823
Sixth Died: November 7, 1901 (aged 78)

Li Hongzhang (formerly rendered in English as Li Hung Chang), GCVO, (February 15, 1823 – November 7, 1901) was a politician, general, and diplomat of the late Qing Empire. He quelled several major rebellions and served in important positions of the Imperial Court, including the premier viceroyalty of Zhili.

Although he was best known in the West for his generally pro-modern stance and importance as a negotiator, Li antagonized the British with his support of Russia as a foil against Japanese expansionism in Manchuria and fell from favor with the Chinese after their loss in the 1894 Sino-Japanese War.

His image in China remains controversial, with criticism on one hand for political and military mistakes and praise on the other for his success against the Taiping Rebellion, his diplomatic skills in defending Chinese interests in the era of unequal treaties, and his role in pioneering China's industrial and military modernization. For his life's work, the British Queen Victoria made him a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order.

Early lifeEdit

Li Hongzhang was born in the village of Qunzhi (Chinese: 群治村) in Modian township (Chinese: 磨店鄉), 14 kilometers (8.7 mi) northeast of central Hefei, now the capital of Anhui province. From very early in life, he showed remarkable ability, and he became a shengyuan in the imperial examination system. In 1847, he obtained jinshi degree, the highest level in the Imperial examination system. Two years later, he gained admittance into the Hanlin Academy.

Shortly after this the central provinces of the Empire were invaded by the Taiping rebels, and in defence of his native district he raised a regiment of militia. His service to the imperial cause attracted the attention of Zeng Guofan, the generalissimo in command. In 1859, Li was transferred to the province of Fujian, where he was given the rank of taotai, or attendant of circuit. At Zeng's request, he fought the rebels.

220px-Li Hongzhang

Li Hongzhang in early life.

He formed an army called the Waigun (淮軍). He found his cause supported by the "Ever Victorious Army", which, having been raised by an American named Frederick Townsend Ward, was placed under the command of Charles George Gordon. With this support, Li gained numerous victories leading to the surrender of Suzhou. For these exploits, he was made governor of Jiangsu, was decorated with an imperial yellow jacket, and was enfeoffed as an earl.

An incident connected with the surrender of Suzhou soured Li's relationship with Gordon. By an arrangement with Gordon, the rebel princes yielded Nanjing on condition that their lives should be spared. In spite of the agreement, Li ordered their instant execution. This breach of faith so infuriated Gordon, that he seized a rifle, intending to shoot the falsifier of his word, and would have done so had Li not fled. On the suppression of the rebellion (1864), Li took up his duties as governor, but was not long allowed to remain in civil life.

On the outbreak of the Nian Rebellion in Henan and Shandong (1866), he was ordered again to take to the field, and after some misadventures, he succeeded in suppressing the movement. A year later, he was appointed viceroy of Huguang, where he remained until 1870, when the Tianjin Massacre necessitated his transfer to the scene of the outrage. He was appointed to the viceroyalty of the metropolitan province of Zhili, and justified his appointment by the energy with which he suppressed all attempts to keep alive the anti-foreign sentiment among the people. For his services, he was made imperial tutor and member of the grand council of the Empire, and was decorated with many-eyed peacocks' feathers.

To his duties as viceroy were added those of the Superintendent of Trade, and from that time until his death, with a few intervals of retirement, he directed the foreign policy of China. He concluded the Chefoo Convention with Sir Thomas Wade (1876), and thus ended the difficulty caused by the murder of Mr. Margary in Yunnan; he arranged treaties with Peru and the Convention of Tientsin with Japan, and he directed the Chinese policy in Korea. Among Li's projects to open China to the world on Chinese terms was his support for the Chinese Educational Mission, which sent Chinese boys to the United States for education starting in 1872. The Mission, however, was aborted in 1881.


On the death of the Tongzhi Emperor in 1875, he introduced a large armed force into the capital and effected a coup d'etat which placed the Guangxu Emperor on the throne under the tutelage of the two dowager empresses Ci'an and Cixi. In 1886, on the conclusion of the Sino-French War, he arranged a treaty with France. Li was impressed with the necessity of strengthening the empire, and while Viceroy of Zhili he raised a large well-drilled and well-armed force, and spent vast sums both in fortifying Port Arthur and the Taku forts and in increasing the navy. For years, he had watched how the successful reforms effected in the Empire of Japan and had a well-founded dread of coming into conflict with that nation.

Nanjing Jinling Arsenal 1865 built by Li Hongzhang

Nanjing Jinling Arsenal (金陵造局), built by Li Hongzhang in 1865, during the Self-Strengthening Movement.

In 1885 Li founded the Tianjin Military Academy for Chinese army officers, with German advisers, as part of his military reforms. The move was supported by Anhui Army commander Zhou Shengchuan. The academy was to serve Anhui Army and Green Standard Army officers. Various practical military, mathematic and science subjects were taught at the academy. The instructors were German officers. Another program was started at the academy for five years in 1887 to train teenagers as new army officers.

Mathematics, practical and technical subjects, sciences, foreign languages, Chinese Classics and history were taught at the school. Exams were administered to students. The instruction for Tianjin Military Academy was copied at the Weihaiwei and Shanhaiguan military achools. The 'maritime defence fund' supplied the budget for the Tianjina Military Academy, which was shared with the Tianjin Naval Academy.

Because of his prominent role in Chinese diplomacy in Korea and of his strong political connections in Manchuria, Li Hongzhang found himself leading Chinese forces during the disastrous Sino-Japanese War. In fact, it was mostly the armies that he established and controlled that did the fighting, whereas other Chinese troops led by his rivals and political enemies did not come to their aid. Rampant corruption in the army further weakened China's military. For instance, one official misappropriated ammunition funds for personal use.

As a result, shells ran out during battle, forcing one navy commander, Deng Shichang, to resort to ramming the enemies' ship. The defeat of his modernized troops and a naval force at the hands of the Japanese undermined his political standing, as well as the wider cause of the Self-Strengthening Movement. Yet the court entrusted Li to go to Japan and negotiate with Japanese Minister Ito Hirobumi. Li paid a personal price for China's defeat. While signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the war, a Japanese assassin fired at him and wounded him below the left eye. Due to the diplomatic loss of face, Japan agreed to the immediate ceasefire Li had urged in the days before the incident.

Later careerEdit

In 1896, he attended the coronation of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia on behalf of the Qing Government and toured Europe, Canada and the United States of America, where he advocated reform of the American immigration policies that had greatly restricted Chinese immigration after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (renewed in 1892). While in Britain, he toured parts of the country by train in keeping with his desire to inspire railway development in his own country, forever fighting against the prejudices of China's conservative leaders. He visited the industrial area of Barrow in Britain's north-east and even toured Lake Windermere on a steamer operated by the Furness Railway Company. He also witnessed the 1896 Royal Naval Fleet Review at Spithead. It was during his visit to Britain in 1896 that Queen Victoria made him a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order.

220px-Li Hung Chang, Lord Salisbury, Lord Curzon

Li Hongzhang with Lord Salisbury and Lord Curzon.

In 1900, Li once more played a major diplomatic role in negotiating a settlement with the Eight Nation Alliance forces which had invaded China to put down the Boxer Rebellion. His early position was that the Qing Dynasty was making a mistake by supporting the Boxers against the foreign forces. During the Siege of the International Legations (Boxer Rebellion), Sheng Xuanhuai and other provincial officials suggested that the Qing court give Li full diplomatic power to negotiate with foreign powers.

Li telegraphed back to Sheng Xuanhuai on June 25, describing the War declaration a “false edict” (luanming). This tactic gave the "Southeast Mutual Protection" provincial officials a justification not to follow Empress Cixi’s declaration of war. Li refused to accept orders from the government for more troops when they were needed to fight against the foreigners, which he had available. Li controlled the Chinese Telegraph service, whose despatches claimed that Chinese forces exterminated all foreigners in the Legation siege. This information succeeded in convincing western readers of this false information.

In 1901, as his last task for the Qing Dynasty, he was the principal Chinese negotiator with the foreign powers who had captured Beijing, and, on September 7, 1901, he signed the treaty (Boxer Protocol) ending the Boxer crisis, obtaining the departure of the foreign armies at the price of huge indemnities for China. Exhausted from the negotiations, he died from liver inflammation two months later at Shenlian Temple in Beijing. Guangxu created him the title Marquis Suyi of the First Class (等肅毅候). After his death, this Peerage was inherited by his grandson Li Guojie.

Legacy and assessmentEdit

After his death, the evaluation of Li's career hit both highs and lows. Because of his reputation for welcoming foreign influence and his 1896 visit to the United States, he was regarded favorably there. He was generously but wrongly credited, for instance, with inventing Chop suey during that visit. In 1913 William Francis Mannix wrote and published a fabricated Memoirs of Li Hung Chang which received widespread praise before being exposed as a forgery in 1923.


Woodcut of Li Hongzhang with Otto von Bismarck in Friedrichsruh in 1896.

On a more weighty level, his first scholarly American biographer summed up Li's contributions by saying he "did perhaps all he could for a land where the conservatism of the people, a reactionary officialdom, and unrestrained international rivalry made each step forward a matter of great difficulty," and went on to praise him as "always progressive, yet patient and conciliatory, it was his fate to bear blame for failures which might have been avoided if he had had his way." The leader of China's New Culture Movement, Hu Shih was also sympathetic, remarking that if Li had been allowed the opportunity, his achievement for China might have equalled the achievement for Japan of his 1895 negotiating partner, Ito Hirobumi.

Nationalists offered a less charitable interpretation of Li's relation with the western powers and Japan. Liang Qichao's 1902 biography of Li blamed him for China's woes and set the tone for further castigation. Li in this view was the chief culprit for the Self-Strengthening Movement, which these nationalists condemned for collaborating with the European imperialists and suppressing the masses. Liang Qichao's son, Liang Sicheng in 1951 denounced Li for "selling out" the country. History textbooks in the People's Republic of China attacked Li as a "feudalist" and a traitor to the Chinese people. It was not until the 1980s that mainland historians began a serious debate of the sort which had been taking place in Taiwan.

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