Saturday, September 3, 2011

Li Hung Chang Chinese Statesman

By Chester Holcombe.

In any attempt to measure a man and de­termine his size and force, it is essen­tial that he be taken in his native surround­ings, and compared, not with alien types and times, but with his own fellows; with the facts and forces which surround him and make for or against him. Fanciful speculations as to what Alexander the Great would have accomplished had he been in the place of the first Napoleon, teach nothing and help no one. While it is not difficult to determine the comparative value of the ethical systems of Confucius and Socrates, yet, in measuring the men themselves, each must be taken in his own home, and his greatness estimated by his ability to mould thought, purpose, and life there. In much the same way, the reader of this sketch of one of the most honored and distinguished of modern Chinese should study him in his native environ­ment, and, so far as may be possible, from a Chinese point of view. It is idle to con­trast him, for example, with the great friend of his 1ater years, General Grant, or to measure the one by the other. It is extreme1y probable that General Grant would, as a Chinese, have accomplished nothing; and the great Oriental statesman who survives him wou1d have been equally a failure in America.

His Excellency, Li Hung Chang, was born in a small city in the province of An Huei, which lies in the centre of China, in 1822. His parents belonged to an ordi­nary family of the middle class. In his early days he pursued the usual course of Chinese study, and, so far as is known, gave no evidence of preeminence over his asso­ciates. He took the several provincial examinations, as other young men did, and gave the first sign of special ability when, at the final triennial examination, held at Peking, he passed with such honors as se­cured him admission to the Han Lin Col­lege, which carries with it immediate offi­cial employment and an assurance of rapid promotion.

Without attempting to decide upon the justice of these charges, it should be said that Governor Li was well aware that, with the single exception of Major Gordon him­self, the foreign officers in the Ward corps were fighting, not for the sake of patriot­ism or glory, but for dollars. They were not of the best class of foreigners. They were often insubordinate, mutinous, and not a few of them had deserted to the rebels: some, indeed, having deserted, re­turned and were forgiven, only to repeat the same routine a second and even a third time. And Governor Li never forgot a fact of which Major Gordon often reminded him, that the latter was, first, last, and always, a British officer; that his sole loy­alty was due to the queen; and that, while he labored for what he considered to be the best interests of China, those interests were never allowed to hold more than a second­ary or subordinate position in his mind. He had no sympathy with the idea, "China for the Chinese," which dominated Li's thoughts and purposes; but looked at every question from the standpoint of a British subject. In other words, he would have fought for the rebels as bravely as he fought against them, had he been con­vinced that their victory would have better promoted the interest of Great Britain, which, to him, were coincident with the interests of civilization throughout the earth. It is not to be wondered at that under such circumstances Governor Li used Major Gordon, but did not give him his confidence.

Other circumstances which happened about the same time, and of which the Chinese governor was fully informed, may well have both intensified, and to a great degree justified, his reserve. A British subject employed by the Chinese gov­ernment in the customs service had been sent by it to England with funds for the purchase or construction of a number of gunboats, as a first step toward the estab­lishment of a Chinese navy. He brought back to China a fine fleet, larger and far more expensive than his instructions had called for, officered exclusively by English­men, and having a distinguished British naval officer as its admiral. The fact was developed almost at once, upon the arrival of the fleet in Chinese waters, that a pro­vision existed in the contract under which this admiral had consented to serve, that he would obey no orders given by any Chinese authority, the emperor himself not excepted, unless such orders were counter­signed by the agent who engaged him; and the agent bound himself to countersign no such orders unless in his judgment they were "reasonable." It is hardly neces­sary to add that this fleet was at once broken up, the admiral re­turned to Europe by an early steamer, and the agent who pro­posed to seat himself above the emperor found no further scope for his services in China.

The military skill shown by Li in the suppression of the Tai Ping rebellion and in crushing out the last scattered bands of the insurgents, and the energy, good sense, and administrative ability mani­fested by him in restoring order and prosperity to the devastated districts, largely increased his in­fluence at court, and made his promotion to the highest offices in the state a certainty.

It was not, however, until the summer of 1870, that the pressure of events induced the Chinese government to summon Li to the high post which, until recently, he has continuously held, and where he has been, in the eyes of the Western world, at once the expo­nent and leader of progress in China. A fearful massacre had occurred at Tientsin in June of that year, in which the lives of twenty-three foreigners, including the French consul and his wife, had been taken, under circum­stances of peculiar atrocity, and, as was well known, with the connivance and open encouragement of the highest local authorities of the city. The viceroy of the province was Tseng Kuo Fan, one of the ablest of Chinese statesmen, and the patron, instructor, and lifelong friend of Li Hung Chang. He was broken in health because of advancing years and of continuous and exhausting service to his country. He was unequal to the task. of satisfying the demands of foreign govern­ments for punishment and reparation for the massacre and restoring order; and, at his own request and suggestion, he was transferred to a less arduous post, and his pupil, Li, was appointed viceroy of Chihli in his stead. This viceroyalty, though the least lucrative of any in the empire, is the most sought after and the most honorable of any, since the capital is located within its limits, and hence the viceroy becomes guardian of the person of His Imperial Majesty. Tientsin, distant eighty-five miles from Peking, is the seaport of the capital, though situated not upon the sea, but upon a navigable river; and here, since the massacre of 1870, has been located the residence of the viceroy.

This office, however- honorable, is still purely local, and would, by itself, have given to Li neither the scope nor oppor­tunity for the exercise of the great abilities of which he is possessed. He has held, in point of fact, four offices almost continu­ously since 1870, of which the viceroyalty is by far the least in importance. They are as follows:

Viceroy of Chihli.

Secretary to the Grand Council of State.

Superintendent of Foreign Trade for the Northern Ports.

Superintendent of Coast Defense for the Northern District.

In addition to and continuous with these he has held various other offices - such, for example, as Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparent - which, being mainly honorary, and important only as marks of imperial favor, need not be considered here.

A moment's consideration will show the enormous burden of responsibility thus placed upon the shoulders of one man under the Chinese system, where duties legislative, executive, judicial, military, and naval are commonly combined, and often confused. It will also serve to exhibit the almost limitless range of opportunity afforded for the exercise of his powers. As Secretary to the Grand Council of State, all questions of na­tional import, whether referring to the internal administration of affairs, the out­lying dependencies of' the empire, or the foreign policy of the government, came under his review, re­quired his study, and called for decision at his hands. It was Li's duty to prepare the roads for the burial of a dead emperor in 1875, and to give counsel and aid in resistance to French en­croachments in Cochin China in 1883; to attend to the transport of four sticks of timber from the sea to Peking, where they were to serve as lantern poles in the Temple of Heaven, in 1880, and in the same year to adjust the Kuldja question, which at the time threatened to bring on war between China and Russia; to receive the complaint of a vice­ consul that he had been called bad names by a naughty boy upon the street and soothe his wounded feelings, and to turn from that to the question of succession to the imperial throne.

As Superintendent of Foreign Trade for the Northern Ports, Li's opportunities and re­sponsibilities were hardly less than those barely hinted at above. All questions of commercial intercourse, of treaty interpretation, and of regulations for traffic under the treaties, came to him as a matter of course. Treaty making itself formed no inconsiderable portion of his duties, and it is probable that within the quarter of a century since his appointment to Tientsin, he has concluded more treaties than the Chinese Foreign Office at Peking; while it is practically certain that his advice has been sought, and in a large degree followed, in regard to every such convention' negotiated by the latter body.

In his position as Superintendent of Coast Defense for the northern half of the empire, Li Hung Chang found himself practically forced to play the role of cre­ator, and here he doubtless found his responsibilities and opportunities most thor­oughly in line with his tastes. Unless account be taken of a few earthworks mounted with antique guns, valuable only to a collector of relics of a past age, and of an immense number of harmless war junks, nothing existed that could be called a defense of the most vital part of the empire. Everything was to be built up from the foundation. And the only limitation to the opportunity of the Su­perintendent was his own exceedingly limited knowledge of modern military and naval systems, the total absence of trained subordinates qualified to aid and ad­vise him, and the fact that the exceedingly lib­eral allowance of funds placed within his con­trol for these purposes still was exhaustible.

Such were the duties, briefly outlined, which "the great viceroy" took upon his shoulders when, more than a quar­ter of a century ago, he obeyed the command of his imperial master, and established himself at Tientsin. The mere mention of such widely diversified and enormous labors appears sufficient to convince any person of their impracti­cability during an ordinary lifetime when undertaken by a single individual, even though every circumstance were unquali­fiedly favorable. That anything of mo­ment was accomplished implies an almost superhuman versatility of talent, a capacity for labor without rest, a power of organi­zation and an executive ability almost without limit. Compared with such a task the labors of Hercules sink into the merest child's play.

It must not be imagined that Li carried on his patriotic efforts without opposition. He was hampered, interfered with, and deceived on every hand. Superstition, ignorance, self-interest, and hostile political influence, each singly, or all in combination, were brought to bear against him and his plans. Some of his own subordinates were incompetent to perform the duties entrusted to them, because of ignorance. Others sold their opinion to the highest bidder, and, having received their price, delivered this bought advice to their superior. And still others, having failed to secure a pur­chaser of their favor, either willfully mis­used or maliciously destroyed the articles bought, and then reported upon them as having been originally worthless.

Nor, if one is to speak with candor and fairness, can the native subordinates of the viceroy be held alone responsible for the difficulties placed in his way. Guns pur­chased abroad at an extremely liberal price proved, on trial, to have been manufactured exclusively for the Chinese market, and could be safely guaranteed to explode at the first discharge. And, naturally, the shocking accidents which resulted from such dishonesty became the basis for com­plaints against the viceroy by his political enemies. Foreigners engaged to enter the Chinese service at high salaries and for a term of years proved, on reaching their post of duty, to have such extremely lordly views as to render their employment im­possible. After having performed no more serious labor for many months than sign­ing a monthly receipt for their salaries, it became necessary to hire them to cancel their contracts and return whence they came. Combinations, either selfish or dis­honest, were formed among foreigners or natives, or both, by which the mind of the viceroy was poisoned against other for­eigners invited to enter his service who were both honest and competent, with the result that their employment was pre. vented. And a similar course was often and successfully pursued to destroy the effect of sound and judicious advice given by those not in the viceroy's service, whose only object was to render him friendly and unselfish aid. Still others, both native and foreign, who were actuated by no improper motives, yet lacked the courage to give sound advice which might prove unpalatable, and took what they thought the course safer for themselves, that of encouraging and confirming the viceroy in mistaken ideas.

Two or three illustrations of the opposi­tion, difficulties, and dishonesty which sur­rounded Li may be of interest. Only those are recited which have come within the immediate knowledge of the writer of this article. The viceroy having placed expensive machinery in the Kai Ping coal mines, with a view to furnish supplies of coal for the naval and mercantile marine, a high official at Peking appealed to the throne, asking that the mines might be closed and the viceroy held guilty and pun­ished for sacrilege, upon the ground that the extraction of coal by machinery disturbed the bones of His Imperial Majesty's an­cestors, then calmly reposing in the impe­rial cemetery, some forty miles distant from the mines. Another official, upon a differ­ent occasion, besought the emperor to command Li to cease all his modern inno­vations and to report himself for punish­ment, upon the ground that the introduc­tion by him of foreign arts and appliances had angered the imperial dragon, thus causing the unusually heavy rains of that summer, which had resulted in floods, with large loss of property and life. Of a large consignment of heavy guns bought in England, three exploded upon being fired for the first time, killing and wounding nearly forty Chinese soldiers. An exam­ination of the remaining guns proved that each had been dishonestly constructed and was worthless and dangerous. This catas­trophe was made the basis of a very seri­ous charge against the viceroy of Peking.

Two French naval officers were engaged for a term of five years, at salaries largely in excess of any amount they could hope to receive in their own service, to instruct Chinese young men in naval matters and generally to aid in the development of a Chinese navy. Upon arrival at Tientsin they made such preposterous demands as to their rank and authority as rendered their employment out of the question. The viceroy appealed to the French diplo­matic and consular authorities., who sub­stantially supported the claims of their countrymen. He then sought to reach a compromise by which their contracts might be cancelled upon payment of a moderate sum, but was informed, again with the sanction and support of the French authori­ties, that the contract would be surrendered only upon payment of the full sum promised for five years service. The discussion of the question dragged on for nearly two years, during which the French officers did no duty beyond drawing their salaries regularly, when the viceroy, disgusted and weary, paid the full amount claimed and homeward travelling expenses.

Thereupon the Frenchmen departed. The late Admiral Shufeldt was invited in 1880 to come to Tientsin by the viceroy, and to take entire charge of the organization and development of the Chinese navy. He accepted the invitation, and reached Tien­tsin in the summer of 1881. Shortly after his arrival he was waited upon by a foreign subordinate of the viceroy, who proposed a partnership and division of the spoils, with a frank warning that, if his offer was refused, nothing should come of the ad­miral's visit to China. Admiral Shufeldt's only answer was to show his visitor to the door. The visitor's threat was made good, and nothing came of the viceroy's offer.

And it will do no harm to say that the adoption of modern ways and implements has not always been devoid of ludicrous results. The writer will not soon forget one instance of this. The viceroy had provided himself with a military band of Chinese musicians, who had been patiently drilled and taught by an American musician until they could play a considerable range of martial and miscellaneous foreign music with a fair measure of success. One bright afternoon in midwinter the viceroy came to a hotel in Tientsin to call upon the writer. His Excellency came in his offi­cial chair, preceded and followed by a mili­tary escort of cavalry and infantry, his entire staff mounted, numerous bearers of red umbrellas and other insignia of rank, the whole extensive cortege being led by the Chinese military band. Banners waved; uniforms, swords, and gun barrels glit­tered in the sunlight; the musical instruments were well cared for and highly pol­ished; and everything caught and fascinat­ed the eye. But to the ear the result was different; for the musicians were blowing away with all their might, and "the man with the big bass drum" was beating out that once familiar put undignified air, "Tommy, make room for your uncle."

It must not be assumed that Li was ex­clusively surrounded by men who were either entirely ignorant, selfish, or cor­rupt. While there were far too many of such about him, he still had a large num­ber of devoted, unselfish assistants. Had this not been the case, any substantial prog­ress would have been impossible. And what was of equally vital importance, he was always fully sustained in all essential points by the authorities at Peking. In spite of almost constant memorials and complaints, his course was approved, full power and authority given him, and as lib­eral supplies of funds as the revenues of the empire would allow. There is no rea­son to believe that Li ever lost the confi­dence and approval of the emperor and cabinet, excepting, possibly, for a short time during the recent disastrous war with Ja­pan. The Tartar monarch trusted fully in the intelligence, devotion, and patriot­ism of his Chinese servant, and well has that trust been deserved. No servant was ever more devoted and loyal.

Upon the other hand, Li has not received at the hands of Western governments and their representatives that cordial sympathy and support in his efforts to build up a modern China capable of self-defense and self-development, which he would natu­rally feel that he might reasonably expect. Great Britain, until recently at least the leader in influence in China, while keenly watchful to extend and develop her commerce, has always sought to discourage China and the Chinese from undertaking manufacturing industries; going, indeed, to the extent of refusing to sustain her own subjects in efforts to establish facto­ries there, upon the ground that the introduction of modern methods of manufacture in China would lessen her own trade. While such a policy may be consistent, it hardly deserves to be described as friendly. The other European powers which have any practical interest in Chinese affairs, as a rule, make no secret of the fact that their policy is not to aid China in the de­velopment of her resources, and a conse­quent increase of strength, but rather to keep her in her present condition. Even the United States has not always followed the line nor shown the sympathy which might naturally have been expected. In 1875 the viceroy Li requested a distin­guished officer of our army, then in China, to prepare for him a scheme for the estab­lishment of a Chinese military school of similar scope and purpose to our own establishment at West Point. The request was gladly complied with. But when these facts were reported by our diplomatic agent at Peking to the Department of State, the distinguished gentleman then at the head of our foreign affairs mildly rebuked his subordinate in China, with the remark that it was the policy of the United States to aid and encourage China only in the peaceful arts of commerce.

A more serious illustration of what the writer believes to have been a mistaken line of policy on our part came later. Prob­ably the most wise and practical step taken in modern times by China was that of send­ ing a large number of her young men to this country to be thoroughly educated. While the credit of originating this scheme belongs to the Honorable Yung Wing, himself a graduate of Yale College, it owed its adoption to Viceroy Li, Its ac­ceptance by him, and approval by the Peking authorities, was due to the fact that it opened the way, as they believed, to the admission of a considerable number of the brightest and best of those young men, after the necessary preliminary study, to our military and naval schools at West Point and Annapolis. It is safe to say that not a boy would have been sent to this country, except for that belief, and that by this means they hoped to secure trained naval and military officers of their own race. When the proper time arrived, formal application for this favor was made and re­peated without success for three years, when, disheartened by failure, the students were all withdrawn to China. Li and the Peking authorities always fully understood that no assurance or encouragement had been given that Chinese students would be admitted to our schools. But Japanese students were then and have repeatedly since been admitted to the Naval Academy, some of whom showed the results of their training in the battle off the mouth of the Yalu River, in the summer of 1894. The viceroy may well be pardoned for an ina­bility to discover the reason for the exclu­sion of his own students and the coincident admission of those from an equally alien and rival nation.

To one who watched the progress of the recent deplorable conflict between China and Japan with interest and any degree of intelligence, it seems impossible to resist the conclusion that the most fatal mistake made by the distinguished viceroy at Tien­tsin in his efforts for the past twenty-five years to enable China to defend herself, was his failure to establish, at the very be­ginning of his course of reform, thor­oughly equipped naval and military schools for the training of officers. No effort should have been shirked, no expense re­fused, to accomplish this; for, without these schools, all other preparations for defense or attack are practically worthless. There is reason to believe that the viceroy, in a measure at least, realized this fact, but that upon this one point he failed to secure the necessary endorsement from Peking. Had such schools been established, or had our government consented to the training of, say, forty Chinese young men in our schools, the result of the recent war would have been far different, or, what is more likely, it would not have taken place.

The Corean question has played so prominent a part in recent events in the East, the outcome of which appears to have been so disastrous to China, and per­sonally to Li, that it deserves some extended notice here. A glance at the map will show that the autonomy of the Corean kingdom is important, if not essential, to any continued peace between China and Japan. Neither could hold it without at least being suspected of menacing the rights of the other. Its possession by any European power ought not to be admitted by either of those great Oriental nations, since such possession would threaten the integrity of both, The temptation furnished by the weakness of Corea and its peculiar strategic position, which might lead to its seizure by Russia, was long since recognized by both China and Japan. In 1884 a distinguished Japanese official pro­posed, in an informal conversation with the writer, that this danger might best be guarded against by a tripartite alliance be­tween the United States, Japan, and China, which should guarantee the independence of Corea, He was recommended to seek such an alliance between his own govern­ment and China, but informed that the United States would probably refuse to burden itself with such responsibility. And he declared that Japan would gladly enter upon such a compact with the Chinese.

The last named power had, for many centuries, held peculiar relations with the peninsular kingdom, which, in default of any more accurate term to describe them, have been regarded as those of suzerain and vassal. Such they most decidedly were not, whatever else they may have been. The Chinese themselves have always de­scribed this relationship as that of elder to younger brother in the old patriarchal sys­tem which really forms the basis of their own form of government. Substantially, the Chinese position was that they did not purpose to interfere with Corea themselves, and would allow no one else to do so: a position similar in many points to the Mon­roe Doctrine, of which much is being heard. When, therefore, China had her suspicions aroused regarding the designs of Russia upon Corea, she, moved largely by the ad­vice of Li Hung Chang, decided to advise her weaker neighbor, as one measure of protection, to enter into treaty relations with the principal Western nations, Li was appointed general adviser to the Corean government, a position which he has since continuously held, and the United States government was chosen with which to make the first treaty. Duly authorized commissioners were sent by the King of Corea in January, 1882, to Tientsin; the writer of this sketch, as directed by the Department of State, went there to aid in the negotiation, and the treaty, article by article, and word by word, was discussed and arranged between him and the Chinese viceroy. The line of action desired by Li was an exceedingly delicate one, and in­volved him in no easy task. He knew that governments made treaties with other equally independent powers only. He desired to arrange for the admission of Corea into the family of nations, at the same time not only preserving that peculiar relationship between Corea and his own government, but to go a step farther, and secure an admission of that relationship in the text of each treaty. Accordingly, at an early point of the negotiations, he presented the draft of an article, carefully drawn by himself, which recited in sub­stance that while for many hundred years China had exercised peculiar relations to­ward Corea (the exact phrase is untranslatable into English), yet she never interfered either in the domestic affairs or foreign re­lations of Corea, and hence the existence of those relations was a matter of no con­cern to the United States. He was at once informed that such an article could find no place in the proposed treaty. A discussion lasting, with some interruptions, for nearly two weeks followed, and Li only gave up the point upon being informed that if he persisted no treaty could be made. But the shrewd Oriental diplomat, beaten at one point, essayed another; and upon the signing of the treaty by Admiral Shufeldt at Chemulpo, in Corea, some two months later, he was presented with an au­tograph letter from the King of Corea to the President of the. United States, which was found to contain precisely the same phrase which Li had vainly sought to have incorporated in the text of the treaty. It need not be said that President Arthur's reply to this letter gave no occasion to either Coreans or Chinese to hope that in establishing treaty relations with the former we would recognize any connec­tion between her and the imperial power upon her western border other than that of good neighborliness and friendship.

When the establishment of conventions with Corea was followed by the appoint­ment of diplomatic agents to reside at Seoul, Li Hung Chang, in whose hands the management of affairs between China and Corea had been left, appointed a protege of his own to represent him at the Corean capital. Unless he has been sadly maligned, this gentleman, by his overbearing and arrogant manners, and by open hostility to and secret intrigue against the Japanese, whose interests in the country largely ex­ceeded all others, did much to render a delicate situation dangerous and to pro­voke a power not averse to a trial of strength with China, to a declaration of war. The burden of the war fell, there­fore, with natural yet peculiar heaviness, upon Li.

It is unnecessary to catalogue the num­ber or variety of lines of improvement which Li Hung Chang has followed, or the new ideas which he has. brought before the officials and people of China. While naturally his first thought and the will of the government were in the line of defense, and hence his greatest efforts were given to military and naval affairs, the range of his labors has extended far beyond any such boundaries, and includes nearly every­thing which bears upon the welfare of hu­man kind. Schools, hospitals, refuges in which victims of the opium habit may be cured, a model farm, a new seed or plant, new bridges, good roads - all these have been brought before his people, and their benefits and advantages made apparent by practical object lessons.

Of necessity his failures have been many, and some of them serious. Yet the won­der is that he met with any degree of suc­cess; and no prophet would have been found sufficiently venturesome, a quarter of a century ago, to predict the transfor­mation which Li, almost single-handed, has wrought in the attitude of his people towards modern ideas, and the amount of practical progress made by them.

It is far too soon to wisely estimate the final value of the services of Li Hung Chang to his race and nation. The world of today may well bow the head to him as to a hero who has fought a magnificent fight and, almost unaided, broken the path for his people to a new and grander na­tional development, Future generations of his countrymen, long after his ashes have been placed beside his ancestors in An Huei, will rightly and finally determine the value of his labors, and give him fitting place in the long line of their patriots and statesmen. To them may be safely left this duty.

Originally published in McClure's Magazine.  October 1896.
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