Patriotism: Li Hongzhang and the Foreign Threat


In 1862, three of China’s most prominent officials, Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang, and Zuo Zongtang, were locked in a mortal battle against the last holdouts of Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Rebellion. Even as the armies of Zeng and Li used western weapons and troops (the Ever Victorious Army led first by the American Frederick Townshend Ward and later by Charles “Chinese” Gordon), Li Hongzhang began to worry about the motives of foreign intervention in this internal conflict and at the growing power of the foreigners in China’s major port cities.

“In early August 1862, he wrote to Tso Tsung-tang* (Zuo Zongtang): ‘Although Shanghai is on our population register and on our map, the hearts of the officials and the people have long since gone over to the foreigners, as if unaware that the Chinese [themselves] can still manage affairs and that the Chinese troops can still fight.’ Li strongly suspected that the British and French had territorial designs on China in the areas adjacent to Shanghai and Ningpo. By mid-August, Li wrote Tseng Kuo-fan (Zeng Guofan) that local Western-language newspapers (which were translated for him regularly) had published a proposal that all of Shanghai, not just the foreign settlement, should be placed under Western control until the Taiping threat receded. ‘In my official communication to the Tsungli Yamen (Zongli Yamen),’ Li reported to Tseng (Zeng), ‘I had said earlier that it was difficult to guarantee that some day [the foreigners] would not occupy [Shanghai]…We are treading on frost over ice; there is indeed a hidden danger.'" [1]

In the midst of the Taiping conflict, it is telling that Li, who would go on to be the Qing’s most famous and celebrated diplomat and statesman, would feel such trepidation at the growing foreign influence on China’s coast. Li is writing in 1862. Two years earlier, an Anglo-French allied force had marched on Beijing and razed the SummerPalace to the ground. Even as they provided arms and troops for the Qing against the Taiping, Britain, and France forced the Qing to renegotiate the earlier Opium War treaties on terms even more favorable to the foreign powers including (for the first time) outright legalization of the opium trade and the right for foreigners to buy land to build churches and missions anywhere in the Qing Empire. Even early in his career, Li could see that despite the danger of the Taiping armies, in the long term, it was the Europeans who posed the real threat to the future of the Qing Empire.

But that raises the question: Did officials such as Li and Zeng Guofan want to preserve the Qing dynasty and the Manchu court or were they trying to save something else? Some might argue that they were culturalists, trying to preserve the “ancient Confucian traditions.” The late eminent Qing historian, K.C. Liu disagreed and saw in Li the prototype of the modern patriot.

“Li’s letters of 1862-1863 show that a new patriotism was growing in him, one distinguished from the traditional Chinese pride in the celestial dynasty and in the inherited culture. He had to deal constantly with European consuls and naval and military men; he could not but be aware that the world was made up of contenders of varying strength and that the West was superior to the China in power and technology. Li continued, of course, to identify with the Ch’ing (Qing) dynasty, as he would do throughout his life. But when he used the phrase Chung-kuo (中国) or Chung-t’u (中土), which he frequently did, he was undoubtedly thinking not just of the dynasty, but also of China’s land and people…Li wrote repeatedly in his letters that the future role of the Europeans in China ‘depends on the strength of China’s armies,’ and that if China should fail to strengthen herself, ‘the calamity for the future is unthinkable.’” [2]

To be a strong and independent nation capable of standing up to the world has been a goal of Chinese patriots for a long time. The fears of Li Hongzhang would only partially come true: China never became a full colony. However, the restrictions placed on China’s development by the foreign treaties would make modernization difficult and the Qing court's continued resistance to the ideas and plans of men such as Li and Zeng Guofan impeded the importation and dissemination of western military and industrial technology. Moreover, Li, more than Zeng Guofan, understood that there was more behind the military power and industrial capability of the west than simple technology. Li was no blind culturalist, but he was nevertheless in a box of his own making: tied to the dynasty by circumstance and title, he was loath to change the system that made him the man he was.

I have a bad habit: a love of counter-history. But one wonders, in the late 19th century, a time when China’s central leadership was, officially at least, the domain of a series of children: What it would have meant to have had a leader like Li Hongzhang or Zeng Guofan? What did they think as imperial negligence and official corruption wasted or distorted their best plans and ideas?

The questions Li asked resonate down to the present day: How can China be a strong and independent nation? How to stand against other nations? Li Hongzhang asked that question in 1862. Yan Fu, Liang Qichao, Sun Yat-sen, and Mao Zedong, among many others, would take up the call. It is 2006 and the Chinese are still seeking the answers. They may not have found them yet--and just as in the Qing, central negligence and official corruption can work to derail the best intentions--but it is this quest for wealth and power that drives China forward. And somewhere, Li Hongzhang is smiling.


*Yes, he’s that General Tso: The chicken guy. The story as I've heard it is that the dish was invented in New York in the 1970s by a Chinese immigrant originally from the same part of Hunan (Xiangyin) as Zuo and named the dish in his honor. That said, I'm sure there are other versions out there.

[1] K.C. Liu and Samuel C. Chu, Li Hung-chang and China's Early Modernization (Armonk, 1994)., 25.
[2] Ibid.

Top right picture: Li Hongzhang
Bottom left picture: Zeng Guofan