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Persons in Chinese History - Zeng Guofan 曾國藩

Zeng Guofan 曾國藩 (1811-1872), actual name Zuo Zicheng 曾子城, courtesy name Zuo Juwu 曾居武, style Disheng 滌生, was one of the most important high ministers of the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He came from Xiangxiang 湘鄉 (modern Shuangfeng 雙峰, Hunan) and obtained the academic grade of jinshi in 1838. He entered the Hanlin Academy 翰林院 and became a retainer of Mujangga 穆彰阿, a member of the State Council (junjichu 軍機處). In 1843 he was sent out as an examining editor (jiantaoguan 檢討官) to oversee the provincial examinations of Sichuan and therefore rose to the official rank of reader-in-waiting (shidu 侍讀). He rose the ladder of official career by the offices of academician of the Grand Secretariat (neige xueshi 内閣學士) and vice minister (shilang 侍郎) of several ministries. Zeng Guofan was influenced by thinkers of his own period that stressed the importance of adapting Neo-Confucian state philosophy to the circumstances of the modern world, the so-called "school of facts" (shixue 實學).
In 1852, the Taiping movement 太平 spread out towards Zeng Guofang's home province of Hunan. He obtained the imperial allowance to return home and to organise a local resistance against the Taiping rebels, together with the governor (xunfu 巡撫) of the province. Zeng Guofan answered the imperial edict with the suggestion not to use the normal Green Batallion troops 綠營兵 but, according to the method of the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644) war historian Qi Jiguang 戚繼光, to recruit soldiers from among the population and to train them. The Emperor accepted this proposal, and Zeng Guofan so founded the new army (xinjun 新軍) of the "Hunan braves" (Xiangyong 湘勇), also called the "Hunan army" (Xiangjun 湘軍). In 1854 the new army was ready for battle, consisting of more than 17,000 troops of naval and infantry units. In the first battles at Yuezhou 岳州 (modern Yueyang 岳陽, Hunan) and Jinggang 靖港, the new army was defeated by the Taiping rebels. Zeng Guofan could not stand the shame and wanted to drown himself, but he was held back by his staff. He then started refining the training and was then able to occupy Yueyang. In October 1854 he even could liberate Wuchang 武昌 (modern Wuhan 武漢), the capital of Hubei. The emperor rewarded him with the office of governor of Hubei but soon again took him away this post, in fear of Zeng's growing military and political strength. Yet he continued to lead the Hunan Army against the Taiping rebels, but only with the vain brevet title of vice minister. In early 1855 he attacked Jiujiang 九江 and Hukou 湖口, Jiangxi, but was repelled and withdrew to Nanchang 南昌 (the capital of Hunan). This defeat had no greater disadvantages for Zeng Guofan as he had already won a high reputation not only in Hunan but also throughout the empire and was supported by the local governments wherever his army came to.
In March 1853 he had to leave command because his father had died. Hu Linyi 胡林翼 took over the command of the Hunan army and continued the fight against the Taiping rebels.
In June 1858 Zeng Guofan prematurely was entrusted with the fight against the Taiping troops in Zhejiang and was ordered to oversee the fights in Fujian and in Sichuan the territory of which was invaded by the Taiping general Shi Dakai 石達開. Yet Zeng Guofan suggested a better strategy against the Taiping by encircling their "Celestial Capital" (Tianjing 天京) that had been set up in Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu. He cut off their logistics in Wuhu 蕪湖, Jiangsu, and first advanced against the Taiping troops in the province of Anhui. In early 1860 the Qing army was utterly defeated by the Taipings. This catastrophy caused the Qing court to endow Zeng Guofan with the brevet title of Minister of War (bingbu shangshu 兵部尚書) and to appoint him to the post of governor-general (zongdu 總督) of Liang-Jiang 兩江, with the title of Grand Minister Inspector-General (qinchai dachen 欽差大臣). In Sepember 1861 he oversaw the conquest of Anqing 安慶, Anhui, that was conducted by his younger brother Zeng Guoquan 曾國荃. In November he was granted the title of Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent (taizi shaobao 太子少保) and was allowed to take over the highest command of the provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi and Zhejiang. Zeng Guofan suggested that Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠 might appointed commander-in-chief of Zhejiang and Li Hongzhang 李鴻章 to governor of Jiangsu. Zeng Guoquan then advanced from Anqing towards the Celectial Capital, and Zuo Zongtang from Jiangxi towards Zhejiang. Li Hongzhang, whose troops were centered around Shanghai, was to advance towards southern Jiangsu. In October 1862 the Celestial Capital was encircled, yet the siege was only ended with the assault on the city in July 1864. Zeng Guofan was highly rewarded and enfeoffed as 1st class Marquis (yideng yiyong hou 一等毅勇侯) and bestowed the title of Grand Mentor of the Heir Apparent (taizi taifu 太子太傅). He was furthermore allowed to wear a double-eye peacock feather, which was a very prestigious decoration.
As an experienced military commander, he was entrusted with the suppression of the Nian rebellion in May 1865 and took over command of the armies in the provinces of Zhili 直隸 (modern Hebei), Shandong and Henan. All his efforts did not result in a defeat, and so the next year he was replaced by Li Hongzhang, while Zeng Guofan himself was sent back to the post of governor-general of Liang-Jiang. In 1867 he was appointed governor-general of Zhili. In June 1870 he solved the case of the French missionaries in Tianjin. In September he was sent back to Liang-Jiang.
Zeng Guofan had seen that the superior firepower of the Western countries enabled them to win virtually all battles against the less well equipped Chinese troops of all kind. He therefore started a program of self-strengthening, made use of foreign cannons during his campaigns and stressed the importance of first buying and then learning how to produce cannon and to build ships. In 1863 he had made the first Chinese steamship, the "Yellow Swan" (Huanghu 黃鵠) and sent out Rong Hong 容閎 to America to buy machines and weapons. In 1866 he inaugurated the first Chinese factory for military equipment, the Jiangnan chuangzao zongju 江南創造總局 in Shanghai, together with Li Hongzhang. Rong Hong was only the first of a large number of students that Zeng Guofang sent to the USA. A lot of them would eventually be the founders of China's first industrial companies.
As a governor-general Zeng Guofan had great responsibilities for China's grainhouse and independently exerted a Confucian-style government, as he had learned by his education. He was known for his uprightness the sincerity with which he treated his staff, for his incorruptibility and his austerity. He made a systematic and well-founded use of the law, saw the peasantry as the most important base of the empire and therefore lowered taxes in the regions inflicted by war. After the defeat of the Taiping, he took great care for the reconstruction of the whole region and set up schools and academies for the education of future state officials.
Zeng Guofan died in March 1872 in Nanjing. He was granted the posthumous title of Duke Wenzheng 文正公, the "Cultivated and Upright". His collected writings were published in the collection Zeng Wenzhenggong quanji 曾文正公全集. Another publication, the Zeng Wenzhenggong shoushu riji 曾文正公手書日記, is a faksimile of his hand-written diary.

Source: Jia Shucun 賈熟村 (1992). "Zeng Guofan 曾國藩", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 3, pp. 1483-1483. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
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December 1, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail