Zeng Guofan was a leading statesman of the Tongzhi (T’ung-chih) Restoration. His leadership and policies resulted in defeating the Taiping Rebellion, the most destructive in 19th-century China.
Son of a farming family from Hunan Province, Zeng Guofan was raised under a stern Confucian tradition of hard work and study, filial piety, and frugality. He joined the government after attaining the highest, jinshi (chin-shih) degree in 1838 and gained widespread experience in civil administration. In 1852 he obtained leave to bury his mother and mourn her death, which was subsequently canceled. Instead he was ordered to raise a militia to defend his home province from invasion by the Taiping rebels. This was necessary because the regular Qing (Ch’ing) army had proven completely inadequate. Because the Taiping Rebellion preached a pseudo-Christian theology and initially fought with crusading zeal, Zeng countered it with instilling his militia with a mission—to defend China’s Confucian heritage and traditional cultural values. To ensure the men’s esprit de corps he chose his officers carefully from Confucian scholars and his soldiers from sturdy farmers in his home area; their initial goal was defending their home districts. These units were called the Hunan, or Xiang, (Hsiang, another name for Hunan) Army because they all came from Hunan Province. They were known for their discipline and loyalty, despite initial setbacks, growing to 120,000 strong. Later a navy or “water force” of armed junks was formed to operate on the rivers and lakes of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River region.
As the Hunan army proved itself in clearing the homeland of rebels, the court begged Zeng to proceed to neighboring Hubei (Hupei) Province. In time, Zeng’s forces spread operations to Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Zhejiang (Chekiang), and Anhui Provinces also. In 1864 Nanjing (Nanking), the Taiping capital, fell, ending the rebellion.
The main credit for defeating the formidable Taiping Rebellion belonged to Zeng. He combined many admirable qualities—able administrator, careful general, and good judge of men, picking first-rate assistants. His personal integrity, humility, and lifelong commitment to study made him the exemplary Confucian. He commanded few resources for the monumental task because he had no authority to collect land taxes in the provinces where he operated, but managed to complete his mission spending only 21.3 million taels of silver (each tael equals 11/3 ounces). Zeng dissolved most of the Hunan Army after 1864, spent some time unsuccessfully dealing with the Nian Rebellion, then served as governor-general of Zhili (Chihli) Province.
Some 20th-century Chinese faulted Zeng with propping up the Qing dynasty, which they argued was not worth saving. But from the perspective of the time, his ideals represented the true will of the nation. The Taiping movement dominated regions in southern China but never had support in the north. Had it survived, China would at best have been partitioned. Thus in preserving the Qing dynasty Zeng helped maintain a unified China. Zeng was also important for advocating and implementing reforms and adopting Western learning and technologies.
- Hail, William J. Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion, With a Short Sketch of His Later Career. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp, 1964;
- Wright, Mary C. The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-chih Restoration, 1862–1874. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.
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