Tseng Kuo-fan

Tseng Kuo-fan
/dzung" gwaw"fahn"/
1811-72, Chinese general and statesman.

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▪ Chinese official
Pinyin  Zeng Guofan,  canonized name  (Wade-Giles) Wen-cheng 
born Nov. 26, 1811, Hsiang-hsiang, Hunan province, China

died March 12, 1872, Nanking
 Chinese administrator, the military leader most responsible for suppressing the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64)—thus staving off the collapse of China's imperial regime.

Early career in civil service.
      Tseng Kuo-fan was born into a prosperous family dominated by his grandfather Tseng Yü-p'ing, a farmer with social ambitions. Tseng Kuo-fan passed the prefectural examination in 1833, one year after his father had succeeded at his 17th attempt. The next year, he passed the provincial examination, and, after failing the metropolitan examination at the capital in 1835, he finally passed in 1838.

      The chin-shih (“doctorate degree”) led to his appointment to the Hanlin Academy, a body of the most outstanding scholars in the country, which performed literary tasks for the court; and Tseng served continuously in the capital for more than 13 years. He always remained devoted to interpreting the Confucian Classics.

      Tseng's intellectual progress helped his political career. He was soon appointed junior vice president of the Board of Ceremonies, serving later as vice president of the boards of Defense, Works, Justice, and Finance. Tseng was, nevertheless, bored with his routine life and wanted to help the people more substantially. In 1850, 1851, and early in 1852, he repeatedly criticized the emperor's behaviour, the government's financial policy, and imperial treatment of an outspoken official.

Military exploits.
      In 1852, Tseng Kuo-fan's mother died, and, in accordance with prevailing custom, he asked permission to observe the three-year mourning period at home. This granted, he was soon called into service again when the Taiping rebels, who had taken up arms in 1850, had by 1852 reached the fertile Yangtze River valley in south-central China, seriously threatening the Ch'ing dynasty's survival. The rebellion, a great religious-political upheaval, eventually caused the loss of some 20,000,000 lives and was the greatest threat the Ch'ing dynasty had ever faced. Tseng joined the local defense forces in his native Hunan province early in 1853, gradually shouldering more and more responsibility for the rebellion's suppression.

      Since the corrupt imperial troops were too weak to resist the rebels, the government encouraged members of the scholar-gentry to organize local self-defense militias in their home areas. Tseng became the most outstanding of these new military leaders. He not only established a local militia in Hunan but combined the units formed by several scholars in his home district into a regional army. This army, paid and equipped by voluntary contributions and local funds, was loyal to Tseng and his officers. Tseng's example was followed by other regional leaders such as Tso Tsung-t'ang and Li Hung-chang, who first served on Tseng's staff and then organized their own regional armies under Tseng's general direction. Beginning in 1860, the imperial government found it necessary to appoint the new military men as governors-general and governors of the provinces that their troops occupied. The armies of Tseng wrested from the rebels their supply areas along the upper Yangtze River and finally besieged and captured their capital, Nanking, in 1864.

Later administrative activity.
      Victory over the Taiping rebels in 1864 was the climax of Tseng's career. Thereafter, he was mainly an administrator, serving twice as governor-general of Kiangnan and Kiangsi provinces and once as governor of Chihli (present-day Hopeh) province. In 1864–65 he established official government printing offices in Nanking and four other cities to reprint the Chinese Classics and historical books, and he also restored at Nanking the examinations system, which had been discontinued during the Taiping years.

      Between May 1865 and October 1866 he again assumed military command in order to quell the Nien Rebellion that took place in northern China, but after a year of indecisive fighting he resigned after recommending his protégé, Li Hung-chang, as his successor in the campaign.

      Tseng never had an opportunity to work at the capital again after 1864, but his prestige, power, and open-mindedness enabled him to make important changes. Li Hung-chang gained tremendous power in the government, power that few other Chinese officials ever held and that, when passed on to the official Yüan Shih-k'ai, finally led to the collapse of the Ch'ing dynasty. With Tseng's support, Jung Hung, a graduate of Yale University in the United States, established an ironworks in Shanghai that later became the Kiangnan Arsenal (q.v.). It was upon Tseng's recommendation, too, that the government introduced student education overseas.

      Tseng was given the posthumous title of Wen-Cheng, the highest title given to civil officials under the Ch'ing dynasty.

      Since the 1920s, Tseng's role in history has caused controversy. Conservatives, such as the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Chinese, leaders, after 1928, hailed him as a symbol of Confucianism and a model of moral cultivation, while revolutionaries, including several founders of the Kuomintang and most of the communist leaders, bitterly criticized him for nationalist reasons. He was essentially a Confucian without being dogmatically conservative in policy, and it was with the philosophy of the ancient reformer that his deepest loyalties lay.

Shan-yüan Hsieh Ed.
Additional Reading
William James Hail, Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion (1927), is helpful in understanding Tseng Kuo-fan's career, though very critical toward the Taiping rebels and outdated in many respects. Teng Ssu-yu, “Tseng Kuo-fan,” in Arthur W. Hummel (ed.), Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (1644–1912) (1944), vol. 2, pp. 751–756, is a succinct but very useful biography. Shen Chen Han-yin, “Tseng Kuo-fan in Peking, 1840–1852: His Ideas on Statecraft and Reform,” Journal of Asian Studies, 27:61–80 (1967), offers a detailed description and analysis of Tseng Kuo-fan's political career in Peking and the development of his thought during that period.

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Universalium. 2010.

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