Li Hongzhang – A Prominent Figure in Late Qing Dynasty

li hongzhang

Li Hongzhang (李鸿章) (1823-1901), originally named Zhang Tong, was a prominent figure in late Qing Dynasty China. He was a native of Hefei, Anhui province, and is widely recognized as a statesman, diplomat, and military leader. Known by various titles and honorifics, he was commonly referred to as “Li Zhongtang,” “Li Erxiansheng,” “Li Fuxiang,” and “Li Wenzhong.”

Li Hongzhang passed the imperial examination in the 27th year of the Daoguang reign (1847). In his early career, he joined forces with Zeng Guofan to suppress the Taiping Rebellion and the Nian Rebellion. He was also entrusted with the task of organizing the Huai Army, a significant military force. His outstanding military achievements led to his promotion as the Viceroy of Zhili, concurrently serving as the Minister of Commerce for the Beiyang region. Over time, he rose to the rank of Grand Secretary in the Wenhua Hall and was conferred the title of First-Class Marquis of Suyi.

During his career, Li Hongzhang played a vital role in Qing Dynasty’s major affairs, including diplomacy, military, and economic matters. He established institutions like the Jiangnan Arsenal, the China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, the Shanghai Machinery Textile Mill, and the Shanghai Dialect School, which were part of the Self-Strengthening Movement. He also organized the Beiyang Fleet, a modern naval force.

However, during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Beiyang Fleet faced numerous setbacks and was ultimately defeated. Li Hongzhang was appointed as a special envoy to negotiate the Treaty of Shimonoseki with Japan. In 1899, he was appointed as the Viceroy of Liangguang (the combined provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi). The following year, he played a significant role in the Southeastern Mutual Protection and was tasked with negotiations when the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded China during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1901, he represented the Qing government in signing the Boxer Protocol, also known as the Xinchou Treaty, with the foreign powers. Shortly after, Li Hongzhang passed away in Beijing at the age of seventy-nine.

In recognition of his service, he was posthumously honored with the title of Grand Tutor and further elevated to the First-Class Marquis of Suyi, with the posthumous title “Wenzhong.”

Li Hongzhang was one of the key figures in the Self-Strengthening Movement, and he, along with Zeng Guofan, Zhang Zhidong, and Zuo Zongtang, is known as one of the “Four Great Statesmen of the Self-Strengthening Movement.” Empress Dowager Cixi regarded him as the one who “assisted in rejuvenating the nation and quelling major difficulties” and as someone who “harmonized internal and external affairs.” In the eyes of Westerners, he was often considered one of the “Three Outstanding Figures of the World” and even referred to as “China’s Bismarck.” However, Li Hongzhang’s legacy is also marked by criticism due to his involvement in signing a series of unequal treaties on behalf of the Qing government, as well as allegations of personal corruption and decision-making errors.

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