Story of China - R. Van Bergen

Li Hung Chang

Of all the Chinese officers, not one is so well known in America or Europe as the man whose name appears at the head of this chapter. He was born in Hu-nan in the year 1818, and was one of those few who successfully passed the three examinations. His parents belonged to the middle class, and his rise was certainly not due to the corrupt use of money.

Li Hung Chang


He first attracted notice during the Tae-Ping rebellion by his great courage. At a time when every official sent to meet the rebels displayed arrant cowardice, Li Hung Chang showed great personal daring. He was soon convinced that European discipline and guns were better than the twenty-century-old tactics of China, and it was he who first engaged Ward and afterwards Gordon, to lead the imperial troops in the Tae-Ping rebellion. Thus, when comparatively a young man, he was brought into contact with foreigners. He studied them closely, more, however, to find out their weak points, than in order to profit by their experience. His first real lesson of the difference between a foreign gentleman and a Chinese nearly cost him his life.

Gordon, or "Chinese Gordon," as he is best known, had so hemmed in the chiefs of the Tae-Pings that no escape was possible. He was unwilling to shed unnecessary blood, and, knowing that desperate men will do desperate things, he received their surrender, promising that their lives would be spared. The chiefs were invited by Li Hung Chang to his houseboat. There were nine of them, and, trusting in Gordon's word, they came. Soon after nine headless bodies were seen floating down the river. When Gordon heard of this murder he hunted for Li for a whole day with a loaded revolver, but he could not find him. Gordon was so indignant that, if he had found Li, he would have killed him on the spot.

But Li kept out of his way, and, thinking to appease him, asked the Emperor to make Gordon a high Chinese officer, and to reward him with a large sum of money. The Emperor agreed, and sent two high officers with 50,000 taels (about $75,000) to Gordon. When they arrived and made their business known to him, he was so angry at them for thinking that money would satisfy his feeling of honor, that he caned the astonished officers out of his house, and had the money thrown out after them. Li Hung Chang afterwards pleaded that he had not given instructions to Gordon to pledge his word to the Tae-Ping chiefs. But Gordon replied that he acted for Li Hung Chang, and that his word must not be broken. It was many years before Gordon saw Li Hung Chang again.

As you have read in the last chapter, the British and French had compelled the government at Peking to admit foreign ambassadors to the capital, and to the presence of the Tien-tsz' without kow-towing. Hsien-Feng, the emperor at that time, had fled to Yeh-ho or Hot Springs, where he had a summer palace. He did not return to the capital, but died there the following year. (1861.) The Empress, his widow, had a little baby daughter; but the Chinese do not want girls on the throne. Another of Hsien-Feng's wives had a three-year-old son, and he was the heir. Some of the Chinese officers wanted to kidnap the boy, so that they could rule until he became of age. But the mother heard of the plot, and, with the Empress and her son, fled to Peking, where they sought the help of the late Emperor's brother, Prince Kung, the same who had saved the life of Harry Parkes. Prince Kung began an investigation, with the result that the treacherous officers were arrested and beheaded. The little boy had been proclaimed Emperor under the name of "Fortunate Union." Soon after, the widowed Empress and the Emperor's mother were established in the immense imperial palace at Peking, called the Purple Forbidden City. By Chinese law the baby boy belonged to the Empress, but the mother would not give him up. It was, therefore, agreed that the two ladies should be joint guardians of the boy, and act together as regents until he was of age. The boy's title was then changed to Tung-Chih (toong-chee), which means "United Rule." The Dowager-Empress was proclaimed Empress of the East, and the mother of the boy received the title of Tsze Hsi An (tsay hsee ahn), or "Mother of the Sovereign." Soon after she received another title, that of Empress of the West.

You will notice that the mother of the boy Tung-Chih, in acting as she did, defied the laws of China. In China she had no real standing. The law gave her child to the widow of the Emperor. To obtain the position she did shows what a strong-minded woman this Tsze Hsi An was, even at that time, more than forty years ago. She had not the least education, could not even read or write, for Chinese girls are not taught that way. Thus, at a time when China was entering upon a new chapter of its history, it was a woman who determined much of what that history should be.

The Ministers of the United States, England, France and Russia arrived at Peking, and after some difficulty, bought or rented temples under the wall dividing the Tartar City from the quarter occupied by the Chinese. This street was thereafter known as Legation Street. The ministers were ordered to give their credentials, as the letters from their governments are called, into the hands of the Emperor. But how could they, when the Emperor was a baby? Nor could they give them into the hands of the regents, for they were women, and Chinese law forbids any man, except the husband and members of the family to speak to a woman.

The Tsze Hsi An did what she could to avoid carrying out the treaties. The foreign ministers wanted order restored first of all, and tried to live on amicable terms with the Chinese. But the Chinese ascribed their actions to fear of the wrath of the great Middle Kingdom, and thus all the results of the war with China were lost.

Li Hung Chang had kept 30,000 men of Gordon's army in his pay, and when, in 1872, he was promoted as Viceroy of Pe-chih-li, he ordered his army northward, and took up his quarters at Tientsin, which was no an open port, instead of Pao-Ten-fu (pah-oh teng-foo), the capital of the province; for among his other duties, he was to advise upon the dealings with the barbarians.

The Tsung-li Yamen, or Foreign Office, had been established in 1861. At first it may have been, and probably was, intended to act as a Department of State, with power to carry on China's business with foreign nations. But when the Chinese saw that the foreign ministers took no advantage of their position, all its power was taken away, and it was simply a board, to hear what the barbarians might have to say. After its members had made a report, Li Hung Chang's advice was asked and generally followed. At this time a dispute arose between China and Japan. A Japanese junk had been wrecked on the coast of Formosa, and the government at Tokyo demanded satisfaction. China denied that it had any power over the island, whereupon the Japanese undertook to punish the islanders, and sent a small army to Formosa. China then claimed the island, and war seemed certain, but it was averted through the influence of the British Minister at Peking.

In the same year Tung-Chih came of age, and Tsze Hsi An withdrew behind the screen. The foreign ministers insisted upon carrying out their orders, and, after much objection, they were finally admitted before Tung-Chih in 1873, but only in the Hall of Tribute. They found this out after it was too late to insist upon being received in a more fitting manner.

In 1875 Tung-Chih died. Tsze Hsi An was now no longer mother of the sovereign, and had not a shadow of a claim upon the regency. But she had tasted the sweets of power, and was not the woman to give them up without a struggle. She at once called a family council of the princes friendly to her, and by her advice Prince Chung, the brother of the late Emperor Hsien-Feng, consented that his three-year-old son, Tsai-tien (tsie-teen) should be proclaimed emperor under the title of Kuang Hsu (kwahng hsoo), or "Illustrious Successor."

Li Hung Chang was notified and moved his Ever-Victorious Army toward Peking. This had the effect of stopping all opposition, even when Tsze Hsi An gravely announced that her late husband, dead these fourteen years, had adopted the three-year-old child by "posthumous act," that is, by an act after his death.

If this posthumous act was recognized, she was as much Tsze Hsi An as she was before, and Li Hung Chang had prevented opposition. From that time a strong friendship commenced between them. The Viceroy, as he was now called, was from this time really Secretary of State, and it was no easy position. He, alone among all the princes and high officers of China, did know something of the power of foreign nations, and it was owing to the friendship of Tsze Hsi An that he was not beheaded long ago.

In 1876 there was trouble again with Japan. This time it was about Korea. That country had insulted the Japanese, perhaps trusting to the assistance of China. But neither Li Hung Chang nor the Tsze Hsi An had any liking for war. A treaty was signed at Tientsin in which China declared that it had no power over Korea. There was another dispute about the Loo-Choo Islands. It was submitted to General U. S. Grant, when he visited China in 1878. Grant advised that the islands should be divided between China and Japan. Both refused to do this, and Japan settled the question by taking all the islands.

In 1883 there was a quarrel with France, and war followed the next year. Although the French were victorious, the Chinese fought better than they had ever done before.

Korean Village


The year before this Li Hung Chang had played a neat trick upon Japan. He disliked the Japanese because they have adopted many of our customs and manners, and for another reason which I shall tell you hereafter. In 1882 he was really afraid that the Japanese would take Korea. Admiral Shufeldt, of the United States Navy, was in Tientsin at the time, and Li advised him to go to Chemulpo (che-mull-poh), and make a treaty. The French and Americans had tried to go there before, but failed on account of the shallow water near Korea, and the strong tide along that coast. Admiral Shufeldt, however, acted upon Li's advice and found the Koreans, who had been warned by Li Hung Chang, quite willing to do as he wished. The treaty was signed, and the United States was the first western nation with whom Korea made a treaty. Li Hung Chang thought that, if Japan tried to capture Korea, the United States would take steps to prevent it.



In 1884 trouble broke out in the capital of Korea, known to us by the name of Seoul or Soul (sowl). It was really a quarrel between two prominent families, the Min and the Kim. The Min were related to the Queen, and the Kim were friends of the Japanese. They all threw the blame upon the Tai-won-Kun (tie-won-koon), or Prince Regent, the title given to the father of the King. Li Hung Chang heard of it, and sent a warship to Chemulpo. To restore order he had the Tai-won-Kun kidnapped on board the war vessel, and brought to Tientsin, where he was kept prisoner for two years. At the end of that time he was quietly taken back to Korea.

In 1886 Kuang Hsu became of age, and once more the Tsze Hsi An retired behind the curtain, but, except in name, it was she who governed. Although not related to the Emperor by blood, in the eye of the Chinese she was his mother, and he owed to her all the duties imposed by filial piety. How often was the poor, weak boy compelled to visit his adopted mother at the E-ho (ay-hoh) Park palace, to kow-tow before her!

Li Hung Chang's history from this time until his death in November 1901, can not be separated from that of the Emperor Kuang Hsu.