Li Hongzhang, a Chinese scholar-official, military leader, diplomat, and statesman, was born on February 15, 1823, in a village near Hefei Anhui Province. In 1844, he traveled to Beijing to study intensively under the direction of Zeng Guofan (1811–1872), his patron and mentor. Li became a jinshi (graduate of the highest order) in 1847, and he was admitted into the Hanlin Academy in 1849.
Li's rise began during the years of the Taiping Rebellion, when Qing government forces fought the forces of Hong Xiuquan (1812–1864), a self-proclaimed mystic and Christian convert who challenged Qing authorities. When the Taiping rebels reached the central provinces in 1853, Li returned to Anhui, where he raised a militia regiment, which was successful and attracted the attention of Zeng Guofan. Li was then appointed a circuit attendant (daotai) in Fujian Province, but in 1859 Zeng Guofan had him reassigned to the campaign against the Taiping. With the support of the "Ever Victorious Army"—a Chinese brigade, trained and commanded by foreigners, originally raised by Frederick Townsend Ward (d. 1862), later placed under the command of Charles George ("Chinese" Gordon, 1833–1885)—Li gained numerous victories, resulting in the surrender of Suzhou and the capture of Nanjing. Li was then appointed acting governor-general in Nanjing, where he established an arsenal.
In 1866 Li was ordered to suppress the Nian Rebellion (a remnant of the Taiping in Henan and Shandong) and finally succeeded. The next year, he was appointed governor-general of Huguang (the provinces of Hunan and Hubei) and held this post until 1870. After the Tianjin massacre (Catholic missionaries had been attacked by a group of anti-foreigners, who were disgusted by rumors of human sacrifice and the drinking of babies' blood), Li was appointed governor-general of the metropolitan province of Zhili, where he suppressed all antiforeign sentiments. To honor his services, Li was made imperial tutor and a member of the Grand Council. Most important, he was appointed superintendent of trade—and from that time until his death, he had a key role in Qing foreign politics: Li concluded several treaties and conventions (e.g., the Zhifu Convention of 1876 that ended the difficulties caused by the Margary affair, treaties with Peru and Japan, and the treaty with France to end the Sino-French War in 1886), and he directed Chinese policy in Korea. After the death of the Tongzhi emperor in 1875, Li played a major role in the coup d'état that put the Guangxu emperor on the throne.
Li was always aware of the necessity of strengthening the empire, modernizing transportation and industries, and reorganizing the armed forces. He raised a large armed force that was well drilled and well armed. Due to his prominent role in Qing policy toward Korea, Li was the leader of the Chinese forces in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). China's defeat in this war undermined Li's position, and he was transferred to a nonpolitical post. In 1896 Li toured Europe and the United States.
Two years later, Li was appointed governor-general of Guangdong and Guangxi. In the aftermath of the antiforeigner Boxer Uprising (1900), he was urged to return to Beijing to negotiate a peace settlement with the allied powers, a multinational force that had suppressed the uprising. Li used all his power and ability to keep the indemnities as small as possible and to eliminate undue humiliations resulting from other conditions of the treaty. Li signed the treaty on September 7, 1901, and died in Beijing on November 7 of that year.
Chu, Samuel C., and Kwang-Ching Liu. Li Hung-Chang and China's Early Modernization. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 1994.
Foster, John W., ed. Memoirs of the Viceroy Li Hung Chang. London: Constable, 1913.
Paine, S. C. M.. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.