Nathan Reich
LiHungChang.jpg
Li Hongzhang

Li Hongzhang was a Chinese general, administrator, and diplomat who had a strong hand in the late Qing period of Chinese history.

With the blessing of the Manchu court, Li organized the Huai Army in 1862 to fight in the Taiping Rebellion. His forces participated in several key battles, including the 1864 siege of Nanking, the Taiping capital. For Li's services, he was made governor-general of Kiangsu province in 1865. Li was later appointed the viceroy of Chihli province and superintendent of of trade for the northern ports in 1870. Li was the strongest advocate of military modernization in China based on western models, what became known as the Self-Strengthening movement. He organized the Nanking Arsenal in 1867, the China Merchants' Steam Navigation Company in 1872, a naval and an army academy in Tientsin in 1800 and 1885, and the Peiyand fleet in 1888. He contracted foreign officers like "Chinese" Gordon to train soldiers in artillery, "matchless weapons for offensive and defensive in the whole world" (Hsu 279). The Sino-Japanese War served as a referendum of sorts on Li and on the Self-Strengthening movement. His Huai Army was crushed at P'yongyang and his Peiyang feet suffered grievous losses and casualties at Yau River. To add insult to injury, the Japanese occupied the base Li conceived at Weihaiwei and turned its guns on Chinese targets. Because of Li's transparent failure, he was dismissed from most of his posts in 1895. Having faced opposition from conservative elements of society and government all along, his overshadowing by figures like Chang Chih-tung and Weng T'ung-ho was now complete.

Li was among the provincial authorities who ignored the Manchu declaration of war on foreigners in June of 1900. He creatively interpreted the edict saying that viceroys "should unite together to protect their territories" (Purcell 256) as a call to suppress the Boxers. In doing this, Li was able to ensure the safety of foreign people and property and therefore obviate the need for foreign intervention in his territory. He urged the same behavior on the imperial court, but radical xenophobes like Li Ping-heng and Tuan Kang-i had Ci Xi's ear. In July, the chastened Manchu government, from its self-imposed exile at Xi'an, asked Li to come to Tientsin and negotiate with the foreigners. It even restored his titles to the governor-generalship of Chihli and the superintendency of trade of the northern ports. Li waited to go until August, when the court admitted its complicity in the Boxer Rebellion and word reached him that the foreign ministers were safe and sound. Li managed to soothe foreign antagonism by forcing the Qing government to jettison and heavily punish its most guilty ministers. Li was one of the two Chinese signatories of the Protocol of 1901, which ended hostilities.

Li Hongzhang represented a moderate, western-open viewpoint that if included in imperial policy-making could have kept the Boxer Rebellion from flaring from an internal matter into a war on foreigners. That he was able to so easily defy imperial orders reflected a severe weakening of the authority the Qing court could exert on the provinces. Personal militaries like Li's anticipated the private armies of China's 20th century warlords.

Chesneaux, Jean, Bastid, Marianne, and Bergere, Marie-Claire. China: From the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.
Hsu, Immanuel C.Y. The Rise of Modern China. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Purcell, Victor. The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963.