Photograph of Zeng Guofeng, a leading Qing official during the mid-nineteenth century. He is best known for suppressing the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) and for his efforts to stabilize and strengthen the country.

Zeng Guofan was a leading government official during the mid-nineteenth century who initiated the decentralization of power and the rise in influence of regional officials that took place during the final decades of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). He is best known for his role in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) and for his efforts to modernize China’s military and improve its industrial capabilities.

Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan) was born in Xiangxiang, Hunan Province. He received the jinshi (advanced scholar) degree at the age of twenty-seven (1838) and was appointed to the prestigious Hanlin Academy in Beijing. He served on various boards in the capital during the next fourteen years and was promoted to the position of junior vice president of the Board of Ceremonies. In 1852 Zeng returned to his home province as commissioner for local defense, charged with the task of suppressing the Taiping rebels. He raised a province-wide militia, the Hunan Braves (later known as the “Hunan Army” or “Xiang Army”), personally selecting the officers and insisting on Confucian discipline among the troops. In August 1860 the emperor appointed Zeng governor-general of Jiangsu and Jiangxi provinces (liang Jiang) and granted him the political authority and fiscal independence he needed to coordinate the military campaign against the Taiping rebels. Together with the armies of Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, Zeng captured the city on 19 July 1864, bringing to an end the devastating rebellion. For his role in suppressing the Taiping rebels, Zeng Guofan was awarded the title of “marquis of the first class.” He was the first civil official to receive this honor.

After the Taiping Rebellion Zeng returned to Nanjing to take up his post as governor-general. He initiated a number of policies aimed at inspiring obedience to local and central authorities. He opened printing offices to republish classical Confucian texts and reinstated the provincial examinations at Nanjing. In 1865 he established the Jiangnan Arsenal in Shanghai to produce modern weapons and gunboats. In addition to manufacturing rifles, ammunition, cannons, and steamships, it housed a school for training technicians and translators. In 1867 Zeng was appointed grand secretary and the next year was made governor-general of Zhili Province. In 1870 he was ordered to negotiate a settlement with the French over the Tianjin Massacre (21 June 1870). His conciliatory approach to foreign demands during these negotiations conflicted with the hard-line position of many officials in Beijing. He was replaced by Li Hongzhang and reassigned to Nanjing, where he died.

Zeng Guofan’s importance in late Qing history is undeniable. He was instrumental in preserving the dynasty during the Taiping Rebellion. The reforms he enacted after the rebellion helped to stabilize and strengthen the country. His arsenals provided modern weapons to protect the nation’s sovereignty. Perhaps most significantly, however, Zeng’s career symbolized a turning point in late Qing political affairs. His ability to independently raise, train, finance, and command the Hunan Army indicated a shift in power from Beijing to the provinces. From this time onward provincial officials would most often take the lead in introducing new technologies, modern industries, and advanced educational systems.

Further Reading

Chen Qitian. (1961). Zeng Guofan: Pioneer promoter of the steamship in China. New York: Paragon Book Gallery.

Guo Yingjie. (2004). Cultural nationalism in contemporary China: The search for national identity under reform. New York: Routledge.

Hail, W. (1964). Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion: With a short sketch of his later career. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp.

He Baogang. (2000). Nationalism, national identity, and democratization in China. New York: Ashgate.

Porter, J. (1972). Tseng Kuo-Fan’s private bureaucracy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Make a decision when a decision is called for. Hesitation only brings disaster.


Dāng duàn bú duàn

Source: Meissner, Daniel J. (2009). ZENG Guofan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2615–2616. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

ZENG Guofan (Zēng Guófán 曾国藩)|Zēng Guófán 曾国藩 (ZENG Guofan)

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