Li Hongzhang and China’s Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Year
This month, China celebrated its Spring Festival holiday, and with it, the end of yet another difficult gengzi year. Part of the traditional “heavenly stems and earthly branches” system — a sexagenary cycle used to reckon the passage of time in imperial China — gengzi years have not been particularly propitious. Even setting aside last year’s COVID-19 pandemic, 1960 saw widespread famines, 1900 brought the chaos of the Boxer Rebellion, and 1840 the imperialist incursions of the First Opium War.
The good news: The next gengzi year isn’t until 2080. The bad news: The current year, xinchou, is actually far more infamous, at least within China. The two characters alone are enough to send chills down many spines, all thanks to an unassuming, 120-year-old document known as the Xinchou Treaty.
Prior to the official introduction of the Gregorian calendar after the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, it was common to refer to major historical events according to their corresponding place in the sexagenary cycle: the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894 was known as the Jiawu War; the Hundred-Days Reform of 1898, the Wuxu Reform; and of course the uprising that finally toppled the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Xinhai Revolution. The Xinchou Treaty of 1901 was no different, except perhaps for its elevated place in the pantheon of national shame.
After the Eight-Nation Alliance of Britain, the United States, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Austria-Hungary captured Beijing and put down the Boxer Rebellion by force in the gengzi year of 1900, there was a lengthy period of negotiations between the Qing imperial government and foreign delegates from 11 nations. (The additional three were Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain.) Finally, on Sept. 7, 1901, they signed the Final Protocol for the Settlement of the Disturbances of 1900 — known in Chinese as the Xinchou Treaty and to the English-speaking world as the Boxer Protocol.
Of all the “unequal treaties” forced on the country from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, the Xinchou Treaty is seen as the most humiliating and costliest. Every high school-educated Chinese is taught China’s ratification of the Xinchou Treaty marked the country’s “official degeneration into a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society,” as textbooks referred to it for decades.
Unsurprisingly, history has not been kind to the man who negotiated and signed the treaty, the famous late-Qing bureaucrat and statesman Li Hongzhang. Many Chinese have laid their country’s loss of sovereignty directly at Li’s feet, a narrative that persisted for much of the 20th century. But 120 years on, at the dawn of a new xinchou year, it’s worth looking back at Li’s legacy. Was he really the traitor 20th century Chinese patriots made him out to be? And did his decades of service to a decaying empire deserve to be negated by the stroke of a pen?
The facts of his life paint a more complex picture. Born in Hefei, the capital of the eastern Anhui province, in 1823, Li was just 24 years old when he passed the highest level of the Qing’s imperial examination and joined the ranks of officialdom. But his service in crushing the Taiping Rebellion that roiled the country in the mid-19th century made his career. By the 1860s, he was ensconced in Beijing as one of the Qing dynasty’s top bureaucrats.
From his experiences working with them to halt the rebellion, Li was intimately familiar with the Western powers starting to partition China. Admiring their advanced scientific, technological, and military achievements, he became an active participant in the “Self-Strengthening Movement” — sometimes also referred to as the “Westernization Movement” — that swept China in the second half of the 19th century. In the process, he personally oversaw the creation of a modern army, built new factories and railways, and even sent the first young Chinese to study abroad.
In his personal life, too, Li cultivated a number of “Western” habits,” such as smoking cigars and drinking milk, red wine, and beef juice year-round. In 1896, when Li toured Europe and the United States on behalf of the Qing court, he would spend vast sums on a typewriter, soap, beef extract, and other Western sundries. His trip was a media sensation, with papers around the world devoting coverage to the “Bismarck of the East,” as the former American President Ulysses S. Grant had once dubbed him. Li’s diplomatic and strategic acumen impressed almost all he met, from British officials to the real Otto von Bismarck himself. For his part, Li was fascinated by German industry and largely bored with Western art. While watching female singers perform in the U.S., he hummed along to tunes of his own invention, praised their beauty, and left them with his photograph as a parting gift.
His trip was not without its gaffes, however, as Li’s knowledge of the West did not always extend to formal courtesies or cultural norms. He repeatedly asked about the age, income, property, and marital status of his interlocutors, and he contemptuously dismissed the notion of “new women” in a conversation with American female journalists. At another point, he was surprised to find the Chinese bureaucratic practice of qi shang man xia — “concealing the true state of affairs from both those above and below” was not a habit universally taken for granted by officials in the West.
Ultimately, the story of Li’s later life is that of a man who, for however much he was interested in Western civilization, science, technology, and military might, remained a typical Chinese scholar-official — one wholly loyal to his sovereign. Although the court had no such official title, Li’s combination of authority and familiarity with Western affairs made him the Qing’s de facto minister of foreign affairs by the end of the 19th century, and his primary motivation for forging a more harmonious relationship with the West was to buy China more time to grow its strength. But by that point, the Qing was plagued by internal and external woes too great for even the most competent of ministers to fix.
In January 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi, the conservative who was effectively running the country, sent the loyal but widely perceived as pro-Westernization Li Hongzhang south to act as Viceroy of the Two Guangs (the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, which were closely linked to Western trade networks). After Beijing was captured by the Eight-Nation Alliance later that year, this dedicated minister of the court — this rarity with a good rapport with Western ambassadors — quickly became the focus of a battle between rival factions within China. Cixi wanted him to return to Beijing to negotiate a peace treaty with the Western powers. The revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, who spent years trying to topple the Qing, wanted Li to join with him and declare independence for the two Guangs. Meanwhile, Henry Blake, the then-governor of neighboring British Hong Kong, wanted him to stay in Guangdong and stabilize southern China for the benefit of Great Britain.
In the end, however, Li stayed loyal and went north. He was the only minister with the prestige and connections needed to effectively negotiate, even if he knew his defeated country had no leverage. On Oct. 11, 1900, at the age of 77, he returned to Beijing, where he began his life’s final and most arduous round of diplomatic negotiations. After nearly a yearlong tug-of-war, he signed the Xinchou Treaty the following September, making unprecedented concessions, including a massive indemnity. Just two months later, he died. He was 78 years old. Right up until the very end, he was still being hounded by the Russian ambassadors to accede to the transfer of railways and mines in Northeast China’s three provinces to the China-Russia Daosheng Bank.
Over the subsequent half-century or so, China turned the page on an even more turbulent and chaotic chapter of its history. Although many earlier concessions were reversed after World War II, by then Li was already a scapegoat for the colonized and factionalized China’s problems, his public image increasingly one-dimensional until he was remembered as nothing more than a traitor. In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, a commune in Li’s birthplace of Hefei pointedly demolished his grave to make way for a factory. But first, they exhumed his and his wife’s bodies and dragged them behind a tractor until their bones were scattered throughout the village.
The fact that he died so soon after the treaty was signed, and a decade before the Qing itself collapsed, made him a more convenient scapegoat for dissatisfied nationalists than the imperial family. This would not have surprised him. Li and other officials of the time knew that whoever undertook the negotiations would bear the blame for their inevitable outcome.
It wasn’t until the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the rise of new, non-Marxist approaches to history, that Chinese historians and sociologists began to revise Li’s legacy on the mainland. Their work resonated with readers hungry for a more nuanced take on late Qing history, and Li’s reputation began to revive. No longer just a traitor, people began talking about his work as a reformer and politician. In his hometown of Hefei, his dilapidated former home was renovated and turned into a memorial; his desecrated burial site was also rebuilt.
Ultimately, Li Hongzhang was one of the most internationally savvy politicians of the late Qing dynasty, but the domestic and international pressures tearing China apart during the late 19th century were too great for him to fix, no matter how good his intentions. In this sense, his life was a tragedy. As Liang Qichao, another famous late Qing reformer, commented: “I can’t say Li Hongzhang wasn’t a hero, but he was a hero defined by his times, rather than a hero who defined the times.”
The China entering this xinchou year is in many ways a very different country than the one that dealt Li such an impossible hand 120 years ago. Yet in some respects, Li’s conflicted attitudes toward, and experiences of, the West feel compellingly contemporary. It’s a relationship still defined by a mixture of deep understanding and mutual respect, cut through by cultural blind spots and distrust. As long as that’s the case, Li’s story — the full story, not just its tragic denouement — will remain relevant.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A portrait of Li Hongzhang in Tianjin, taken by Lorenzo Fisler in 1870s. The portrait was published in magazine “The Far East” in 1876. Library of Congress/Corbis via People Visual)