Li Hongzhang

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Li Hongzhang
Li Hongzhang

In office
1871 – 1895
Preceded by Zeng Guofan
Succeeded by Wang Wenzhao
In office
1900 – 1901
Preceded by Yu Lu
Succeeded by Yuan Shikai

Born February 15 1823(1823-02-15)
Hefei, Anhui, China
Died November 7 1901 (aged 78)
Flag of Qing Dynasty Beijing, China
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Li Hongzhang or Li Hung-chang (李鴻章) (February 15, 1823 – November 7, 1901) was a Chinese general and statesman of the late Qing Empire who made strenuous efforts to modernize his country, ended several major rebellions, and became a leading figure in China's relations with the Western powers. Li won numerous victories against the Taiping rebellion, with the support of the "Ever Victorious Army," under the command of Charles George Gordon, a 30-year-old English army officer, and suppressed the Nian Rebellion in Henan (1865) and Shandong (1866). In 1870, he was appointed Viceroyal of the capital province, Chihli, where he initiated projects to advance commerce and industry, and spent large sums modernizing the Chinese navy and fortifying Port Arthur (Lüshun city or Lüshunkou , 旅順口, formerly Ryojun), and the Taku forts.

Li Hongzhang was best known in the west as a diplomat and negotiator. Since 1894 First Sino-Japanese War, Li has been a literary symbol for China's embarrassments in the late Qing Dynasty. His image in China remains largely controversial, with most criticizing his lack of political insight and his failure to win a single external military campaign against foreign powers, but praising his role as a pioneer of industry and modernization in Late Qing, his diplomatic skills, and his internal military campaigns against the Taiping Rebellion. Though many of the treaties signed by Li in his official capacity were considered unfair and humiliating for China, more and more historical documents are being found which demonstrate Li's courage and forthrightness in his encounters with foreigners.


Li Hongzhang (李鴻章) was born in the village of Qunzhi (群治村) in Modian township (磨店鄉), 14 kilometers (9 miles) northeast of downtown Hefei, Anhui, on February 15, 1823. From very early in life, he showed remarkable ability. Both Li's father and Tseng Kuo-fan, who became his mentor, earned the status of “advanced scholars” in the Confucian civil service examinations. In 1844, Li became a shengyuan in the imperial examination system and embarked on his official career in Peking, under Tseng's guidance. In 1847, he obtained his jinshi degree, the highest level in the Imperial examination system, and two years later, he gained admittance into the Hanlin Academy (翰林院). Shortly afterward, in 1850, the central provinces of the empire were invaded by the Taiping rebels, and a national religious and political upheaval threatened to topple the dynasty. Li Hongzhang and his father organized a local militia in defense of their native district. Li became so committed that he stayed in his post unofficially after his father died in 1855, instead of taking the traditional Confucian retirement for mourning. Li earned a judgeship in 1856, and in 1859 he was was transferred to the province of Fujian( 福建), where he was given the rank of taotai, or intendant of circuit ( intendant of a country subdivision).

His service to the imperial cause attracted the attention of Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan,曾國藩), the governor-general of the Liangkiang provinces (central China). At Zeng's request, Li was recalled to take part against the rebels and joined his staff. He found himself supported by the "Ever Victorious Army," a force of foreign mercenaries which, having been raised by an American named Frederick Townsend Ward, was placed under the command of Charles George Gordon, a 30-year-old English army officer. With this support, Li won numerous victories leading to the surrender of Suzhou (蘇州) and the capture of Nanjing. For these exploits, he was made governor of Jiangsu( 江蘇), was decorated with an imperial yellow jacket, and was appointed an earl.

An incident connected with the surrender of Suzhou, however, 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 this 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.

Upon the suppression of the rebellion (1864), Li took up his duties as governor, but was not long allowed to remain in civil life. When the Nian Rebellion in Henan (1865) and Shandong (1866), broke out, he was ordered to take the field again, 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 there.

Appointment as Governor-General of Zhili (Chihli)

Li Hongzhang with Lord Salisbury and Lord Curzon

As a natural consequence, he was appointed to the viceroyalty of the metropolitan province of Zhili (直隸, meaning "Directly Ruled (by the Imperial Court)," was the name of Hebei before 1928), and in this position, 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.

In addition to his duties as viceroy, he was made the superintendent of trade, and from that time until his death, with a few intervals of retirement, he conducted the foreign policy of China almost single-handedly. He concluded the Chefoo convention with Sir Thomas Wade (1876), and thus ended the difficulty with the British caused by the murder of Mr. Margary in Yunnan; he arranged treaties with Peru and Japan, and he actively directed Chinese policy in Korea.

On the death of the Tongzhi Emperor( 同治帝, the ninth emperor of the Manchu Qing Dynasty), in 1875, Li, by suddenly introducing, a large armed force into the capital, effected a coup d'etat by which the Guangxu Emperor (光緒帝, the tenth emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty, and the ninth Qing emperor to rule over China) was put on the throne under the tutelage of the two dowager empresses( 皇太后).

In 1876, Japan negotiated a treaty with Korea that ignored China’s traditional suzerainty over the Korean peninsula. Li attempted to manipulate a later trade agreement between the United States and Korea, but was not able to get the United States to recognize the old relationship between Korea and China. In 1879, China lost its suzerainty over the Liuchiu (Ryukyu Islands) to Japan. In 1886, on the conclusion of the Franco-Chinese War, he arranged a treaty with France. He sought French acceptance of Chinese control over Annam, but was forced to concede French sovereignty.

Li made strengthening the empire his first priority. While viceroy of Zhili he raised a large well-drilled and well-armed force, and spent vast sums both in fortifying Port Arthur (Lüshun city or Lüshunkou , 旅順口, formerly Ryojun), and the Taku forts(大沽炮台, Dàgū Pàotái), also called the Peiho Forts (白河碉堡; Báihé Diāobǎo), located by the Hai River (Peiho River), and in increasing the navy. For years, he had watched the successful reforms effected in Japan and had a well-founded dread of coming into conflict with that empire.

In 1885, Li Hongzhang and the Japanese statesman, Ito Hirobumi, had agreed to a joint protectorate over Korea. In 1894, Japan went to war with China over Korea. 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 (1894-1895). Li's northern fleet bore the brunt of the conflict with Japan, with virtually no assistance from China's two other modern fleets. China was further disadvantaged by corruption among Li’s own forces; one official made personal use of funds intended for the purchase of ammunition, with the result that some battleships ran out of shells during battle and one navy commander, Deng Shichang, resorted to ramming the enemy ships. China lost the naval war and had to cede Formosa (Taiwan) and the Liaotung Peninsula to Japan, recognize Korean independence, open new treaty ports, pay a large indemnity to Japan, and grant to the Japanese all of the advantages hitherto claimed by Westerners under the unequal treaties. Li traveled to Japan to personally open the peace negotiations and was wounded there by a Japanese fanatic, in an attack which excited Japanese sympathy and somewhat lightened the harsh terms of the peace.

Li had tried to avoid this war, but his influence, nonetheless, suffered because of it. The defeat of his relatively modernized troops and a small naval force at the hands of the Japanese greatly undermined his political standing, as well as the wider cause of the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Visits Abroad

Western nations regarded Li as the leading Chinese statesman. In 1896, he toured Europe and the United States of America, where he was received in Washington, D.C. by Presidetn Grover Cleveland, and advocated reform of the American immigration policies that had greatly restricted Chinese immigration after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (renewed in 1892). During this visit he also witnessed the 1896 Royal Naval Fleet Review at Spithead, was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order by Queen Victoria.[1] In Russia, he attended the coronation of the tsar and secretly negotiated an alliance between China and Russia that was modern China’s first equal treaty. On his return to China, he received a chilly reception and the empress dowager had to use her influence on his behalf.

He kept his position as superintendent of trade, and in 1899 was made acting governor-general of the Liangkwang provinces. Li Hongzhang played a major role in ending the Boxer Rebellion. In 1901, 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, and obtaining the departure of the foreign armies at the price of huge indemnities for China. Exhausted, he died two months later in Beijing.

Opinions and Legacy

Li Hongzhang, along with a few contemporaries, is credited with being a major force behind efforts to modernize China in an effort to preserve the Qing dynasty and the Confucian system of government. During his 25 years as Viceroy of Chihli, he initiated projects to advance commerce and industry and particularly concerned himself with the modernization of the Chinese military forces. Li himself was aware that these efforts could not be fully effective because of the contradictions within the old system of government. Li advocated educational reform and the introduction of science into the civil service examinations, but dropped his proposals in 1881 when faced with conservative opposition. For long periods at various times, Li was empowered to represent China in its dealings with Western powers and Japan. Li is recognized for his foresight and vision, but at the same time is known to have indulged in the corruption and power-brokering common among traditional Chinese officials.

Since the First Sino-Japanese War (1894), Li Hongzhang has been a target of criticism and has been portrayed in many ways as a traitor and an infamous historical figure to the Chinese people. Well-known common Chinese sayings, such as "Actor Yang the Third is dead; Mr. Li the Second is the traitor" (杨三已死無蘇丑,李二先生是漢奸), have made the name Li Hongzhang synonymous with “traitor.” This attitude is echoed in textbooks and other types of documents.

As early as 1885, General Tso, an equally famous but much more respected Chinese military leader, accusing Li Hongzhang of being a traitor. Although the Chinese navy was eliminated in August 1884 at the Battle of Foochow, the Chinese army won the decisive Battle of Zhennan Pass in March 1885, which brought about the fall of the Jules Ferry government in France. In July 1885, Li signed the Sino-French treaty confirming the Treaty of Hué (1884), as though the political circumstances in France were still the same as in the year 1884. General Tso could not understand Li's behavior, and predicted that Li would be notorious in the Chinese history records (“李鴻章誤盡蒼生,將落個千古罵名”).

According to Prince Esper Esperevich Ouchtomsky (1861-1921), the learned Russian orientalist and the Chief Executive of Russo Chinese Bank, Li Hongzhong accepted bribes of 3,000,000 Russian rubles (about US$1,900,000 at the time) at the time of signing the "Mutual Defense Treaty between China and Russia" on June 3, 1896. In his memoir "Strategic Victory over the Qing Dynasty," Prince Ouchtomsky wrote: "The day after the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between China and Russia, Romanov, the director of the general office of the Department of Treasury of the Russian Empire, chief officer Qitai Luo and I signed an agreement document to pay Li Hongzhang. The document stipulates that the first 1,000,000 rubles will be paid at the time when the Emperor of the Qing Dynasty announces the approval of constructing the Chinese Eastern Railway; the second 1,000,000 rubles will be paid at the time of signing the contract to build the railway and deciding the route of the railway; the last 1,000,000 rubles will be paid at the time when the construction of the railway is finished. The document was not given to Li Hongzhang, but kept in a top secret folder in the Department of Treasury of Russia." The 3,000,000 rubles were deposited into a dedicated fund of the Russo Chinese Bank. According to the recently exposed records of the Department of Treasury of the Russian Empire, Li Hongzhong eventually received 1,702,500 rubles of the three million, with receipts available at the Russian Winter Palace archive.

A controversial TV series, Towards the Republic, released in 2003 and produced by mainland China's Central Television station, portrayed Li in a heroic light for the first time in mainland China. The series was later banned, mostly due to its extensive coverage of Dr.Sun Yat-sen's ideas and principles, which are advocated by Chinese nationalists in Taiwan, but not Chinese communists in mainland China.

Nevertheless, many historians and scholars consider Li a sophisticated politician, an adept diplomat and an industrial pioneer of the later Qing Dynasty era of Chinese history. Though many of the treaties signed by Li in his official capacity were considered unfair and humiliating for China, more and more historical documents are being found which demonstrate Li's courage and forthrightness in his encounters with foreigners.

Political offices
Preceded by:
Zeng Guofan
Acting Viceroy of Liangjiang
Succeeded by:
Zeng Guofan
Preceded by:
Guan Wen
Viceroy of Huguang
Succeeded by:
Li Hanzhang
Preceded by:
Zeng Guofan
Viceroy of Zhili and Minister of Beiyang (1st time)
Succeeded by:
Wang Wenzhao
Preceded by:
Tan Zhonglin
Viceroy of Liangguang
Succeeded by:
Tao Mo
Preceded by:
Yu Lu
Viceroy of Zhili and Minister of Beiyang (2nd time)
Succeeded by:
Yuan Shikai


  1. Antony Best, "Race, Monarchy, and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, 1902–1922." Social Science Japan Journal 2006 9(2):171-186

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chu, Samuel C., and Kwang-Ching Liu. 1994. Li Hung-chang and China's early modernization. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 1563242427 ISBN 9781563242427 ISBN 1563244586 ISBN 9781563244582
  • Chu, Samuel C., and Kwang-Ching Liu. 1990. Li Hongzhang: diplomat and modernizer. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
  • Hummel, Arthur William. 1943. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing period: (1644-1912). Taipei: Literature House Ltd. Washington: United States Government Printing Office.
  • Liu, Kwang-ching. "The Confucian as Patriot and Pragmatist: Li Hung-Chang's Formative Years, 1823-1866." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 30 (1970): 5-45.
  • Mannix, William Francis, and Ralph Delahaye Paine. 1923. Memoirs of Li Hung Chang. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Spector, Stanley, and Franz H. Michael. 1973. Li Hongzhang and the Huai Army: a study in nineteenth-century Chinese regionalism = Li Hongzhang yu Huai jun. University of Washington publications on Asia. Taibei: Rainbow-Bridge Book Co.


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