Zēng Guófān, the Most Cursed and the Widely Admired Master(1)

Zēng Guófān (曾国藩) has been a most talked about and most read person in China. He lived and rose up in the late Qīng period when the imperial system was faltering and the Taiping Uprising troops had occupied half of China. While government troops were unable to block the advancement of Taiping soldiers, the Civil Corps organized by Zēng in his hometown Hunan Province and the neighboring Province Hubei crushed the uprisers by crucial means. He was thus refuted as the most known official of the Mid-Survival period of the Qīng. He left a deep mark not only in politics, but also in economics, military, social and ideological affairs. He was regarded as the “prime culprit”, yet at the same time as a “sage” by many people. Despite the fact that criticism against him never stopped, he survived so many political storms, his masterly skills in the official circles fully reflected the Chinese people’s wisdom and strategy in providing services to the government. The charisma he exhibited as a person and as an official was very appealing. His unique theories, he bequeathed to us, drawn from his failures and successes, as expressed in the 15 million characters, (only very few could be so proliferate in China’s history,) collected in the 《Complete Works of Zēng Guófān》published by China Drama Publishing House, are inexhaustible resources. His unique theories, undoubtedly, inherited and developed the best part of China’s traditional culture, and embodied the great wisdom of cultivating self, bringing harmony and peace to the family, state and the world. His writings also include his diary, memorials he wrote to the emperor, his comments on documents, his poems and essays, all of which are too vast to jump into. In this book, aside from having a brief look at the chronicle of his life, we shall read “The Icy Clear Mirror”, his theory of assessing people and some sample letters he wrote to his family. Please remember not only Lǐ Hóngzhāng (李鸿章), Huāng Xíng (黄兴), but also Yuān Shìkǎi (袁世凯) and Chiang Kai Shek (蒋介石) all bowed to him and respected him as a “saint”; not only Liáng Qǐchāo (梁启超), Cài èr (蔡锷), but also Chén Dúxiù (陈独秀)and Máo Zédōng (毛泽东) all had the highest esteem for him and took him as a model.

The Chronicle of Zēng

1811 (the 16th year during the reign of Emperor Jiāqìng ): born on November 26 (lunar calendar October 11) at Tiānpíng Village, Shuāngfēng County, Hunan Province. He was given a milk name: Kuānyī (宽一).

1815 (the 20th year during the reign of Emperor Jiāqìng): He was five and started to learn how to read and write. One year later, he entered the family school, which was called “Lì Jiàn Cottage” (利见斋).

1826 (the 6th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng ): He was sixteen. He took part in the prefecture children’s examination in Chágnshā (长沙) and ranked number 7.

1830 (the 10th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was twenty. He joined the classes run by the ancestral hall of the Táng family in Héng Yáng and his tutor was Wāng Juéān (汪觉庵). He was transferred to Liánbīn (涟滨) School at Xiāngxiāng (湘乡). His given name was changed to Díshēng (涤生).

1833 (the 13th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was twenty-three and took part in the county level examinations and qualified as “Xiù Cái (秀才)”—a licentiate.

1834 (the 14th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was twenty-four and joined the “Yuè Lù” Academy in the spring and in the fall he took part in prefecture examinations and qualified as the thirty-sixth “Jǔ Rēn (举人)”—a provincial candidate for further examinations. In the winter he went to Beijing to get ready for the interview. On the way, he stopped at Chángshā where he came to know Liú Róng (刘蓉)

1835 (the 15th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He failed the pre-qualification examination in April, stayed in the Chángshā Club House (长沙会馆) in Beijing and continued his studies.

1836 (the 16th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He failed the pre-qualification examination again in the spring. He left Beijing and stayed at the Xiāngxiāng Club House in Chángshā for two months together with Liú Róng and Guō Sōngtāo (郭嵩焘) .

1838 (the 18th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was twenty-eight, he passed the pre-qualification examination and ranked number thirty-eight as “Gòng Shì (贡士)”. He then changed his adult name to Guōfán. After the examination at the imperial court, he ranked number forty-two in the third category and was qualified as a “Tōng Jìnshì (同进士)”—a quasi metropolitan candidate. He ranked number three in the first category after the emperor’s interview, and then the Emperor himself placed him as number two of the first category. He was appointed an intern at the Imperial Academy (Hànlínyuàn 翰林院). He asked for leave at end of the year and returned home.

1839 (the 19th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was twenty-nine. He visited Du Fu’s temple and Stone Drum Academy in Héng Yáng in the summer. He travelled to Shàoyāng, Wǔgāng, Xīnhuà, Lántián and Yǒngfēng in the fall. His son Jìzé (纪泽) was born in December. He left home for Beijing at end of the year. He began to keep his diary in the year and continued to the last day of his life.

1840 (the 20th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty. He ended his internship in May and was appointed the official in charge of compiling state history at the Imperial Academy. In July he fell ill. He recovered two months later after treatment given by Ouyáng Zhàoxióng (欧阳兆熊) and Wú Tíngdòng (吴廷栋). The three became good friends.

1841 (the 21st year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-one. In August he called on the New Confucianism Master Táng Jiàn (唐鉴) together with Wō Rén (倭仁) to ask for ways of study and self-examination. In November He was appointed assistant compiler of the State History Department, where he read extensively to acquaint himself with “right and wrongs” in history. He read with pleasure 《Collected Writings of Táo Wényì (陶文毅 公文集)》given to him by Hú Línyì (胡林翼) . He wrote a poem entitled “Village Head (Lǐ Xù 里胥)” to describe the sufferings of the people and berate the corruption of officials.

1842 ( the 22nd year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-two. He devoted more time to the study of Chēng Hào (程灏),Chēng Yí (程颐) and Zhū Xǐ (朱熹), all are masters of the New Confucianism in the Sòng Dynasty. He also tailored up a timetable for himself, which says: getting up early, study whole-heartedly, sitting quietly for half an hour any time during the day, not to jump to another book before finishing the one being read, read history, ten pages everyday of the “Twenty-Three Histories”; be discreet in speaking; to store up energy; take a good care of health; copy down two sayings from “Words in Couplet” (written by Lǐ Dǐng 李鼎);every month write several poems and essays to see if knowledge has been accumulated and energy has been built up; every morning after breakfast, practice calligraphy for half an hour; not to go out in the evenings.

1843 (the 23rd year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-three. In April he was promoted to a lecturer for the Imperial family. In July, the emperor appointed him to be the Principal Examiner of county level examinations in Sichuan Province. In December he became a proof-reader at the Royal Library (Wén Yuān Gě 文渊阁).

1844 (the 24th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-four. In August, Guō Sōngtāo brought Jiāng Zhōngyuān (江忠源) to him. Zēng admitted him as a student, and then sent him to the Imperial Academy as an intern.

1845 (the 25th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-five. In October he was promoted to the deputy 4th rank official in charge of compilation. Lǐ Hōngzhāng (李鸿章) came to Beijing for pre-qualification exams. As a youngster he took Zēng as his teacher.

1846 (the 26th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-six. In January he took up the post of inventory sorter (Zhígéshì直阁事) at the Royal Library. He named his study “Qiújuèzhāi 求阙斋”-a study in wanting of a watch-tower. During the summer and the fall, he was recuperating his health at Bàoguó Temple. He had discussions with Liú Chuānyíng (刘传莹), who was also staying at the temple, in depth on studies of the Hàn and Sòng Dynasties. He furthered his understanding of such ideas as “return to the roots and grasp the essentials” and “master the two extreme ends and make a good use of the middle.”

1847 (the 27th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-seven. In July he was promoted to one of the members of the cabinet and concurrently enjoyed the treatment for a Vice Minister of the Ministry of the Rites. In November he was appointed by the emperor Chief Judge of the imperial court martial art examination and the imperial court examination paper reading official.

1848 (the 28th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-eight. In March, his second son Jìhōng (纪鸿) was born. By October, he had finished collecting sayings of famous officials in the past and present; he divided it into three parts: self cultivation, family harmony and peace for the state. There were thirty two entries. He named it and used it as《Mottoes for the Family of Zēng》.

1849 (the 29th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was thirty-nine. In February he was promoted to the working position of a vice minister of the Ministry of the Rites; and in September he was a vice minister of the Ministry of Defense.

1850 (the 30th year during the reign of Emperor Dàoguāng): He was forty. In April he submitted a memorial to the emperor entitled “My Opinions”, which exposed the cachexy, conservative and atrophic attitudes among officials, he pointed out “what should be discussed nowadays is how to use personnel”. In July he was appointed a vice minister of the Personnel Ministry.

1851 (the first year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-one. In January Hóng Xiùquān (洪秀全) organized uprising at Jīntiǎn village of Guǎngxī. In May, he submitted his memorial to the emperor, which was entitled “On Preventing Three Malpractices”. He criticized the new emperor’s habit of attending to small issues, embellishing ways of speech and his arrogant attitude. When Emperor Xiánfēng read the memorial, he was so angry he threw it on the ground and wanted to punish Zēng.

1852 (the second year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-two. In January he submitted his memorial “On Sufferings of the People”. In July, he was appointed the Chief Examiner at the county level examination in Jiángxī. When he got to the Xiǎo Chí Post House in Anhui, he got the news of his mother’s death and hurried home. He got home in October. The Tàipīng Uprising troops left Guǎngxī, entered into Húnān. They took Chángshā in September and Yuèzhōu in October.

1853 (the third year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-three. He received the emperor’s edict on January 21st, which ordered him to organize civil corps of Húnān. His friend Guō Sōngtāo urged him to stand up and safeguard the hometown. On the 30th, he arrived in Chángshā to discuss ways of organizing the civil corps with the Governor of Húnān Zhāng Liàngjī (张亮基). On March 19, Tàipīng troops took Jiáng Níng (江宁) and renamed it as Tiānjīng to be their capital. In September the emperor allowed him to go to Héngzhōu to train the corps. In November he began to build the Héngzhōu shipyard to build warships. He also sent people to Guǎngdōng to buy weapons and preparing the forming of a navy.

1854 (the fourth year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-four. On April 25, he was ordered to attack the Tàipīng troops. He announced his “Denunciation of Bandits in Guǎngdōng and Guǎngxī. With Zhǔ Rūhāng as the commander of the navy and Tǎ Qíbù as vanguard of the army, he led 17,000 men to the north. He suffered defeat at Jìnggǎng in May, wanted to drawn himself in the water and was saved. On July 25, he rallied his men again and took Yuèzhōu, and then Wǔchāng on October 14. On December 2, he seized Tiánjiāzhèng.

1855 (the fifth year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-five. On February 12, Shí Dákāi (石达开), one of the Tàipīng troop commanders took the navy headquarters of Húnān civil corps and burnt over 100 warships. Zéng’s vessels was also taken and all his documents were lost. He was in such a rage, he wanted to get on the horse back to fight to death. Luó Zénān (罗泽南) and Liú Róng stopped him.

1856 (the 6th year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-six. In July he was besieged in Nánchāng, the capital city of Jiāngxī. Yet, the strength of the Tàipīng troops was seriously reduced by their internal conflict, the “Tiānjīng” Incident on September 2 in particular, during which three of their key leaders were killed. Zéng organized a troop in October in Chángshā to assist the fighting in Jiāngxī.

1857 (the 7th year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-seven. On February 27, his father passed away. He went home for funeral services with his younger brother Guóhuá. In July he wrote two memorials to the emperor asking for leave for 27 months in condolence. The emperor gave him the leave. The Hall of Missing Clouds was built this year.

1858 (the 8th year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-eight. On May 19, Lǐ Xùbīn (李续宾) and Yáng Yuèbīn (杨岳斌) took Jiǔjiāng. His younger brother Guóhuá joined Lǐ’s army. On July 13, he received the emperor’s order to be in charge of the military affairs in Zhéjiáng Province. He departed on the 17th and got to Wǔchāng on August 5 where he discussed with Hú Línyì on military and logistic matters. On November 15 both Lǐ Xùbīn and Guóhuá died in the Sānhé battle. In December he composed “Song of Love of People” for the Húnān civil corps.
1859 (the 9th year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was forty-nine. Lǐ Hōngzhāng was kept in the army to assist in military affairs after he paid a call on Zēng in January. In the same month, another younger brother Guó Bǎo changed his name into Zhēngān and also joined the Húnān civil corps for purpose of revenge for Guóhuá. In February, he completed writing of an essay “Notes on Portraits of Saints and Philosophers”. In November he tailored up plans for taking Anqìng in four routs.

1860 (the 10th year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was fifty. In May he finished collecting in twenty six volumes “Assorted Notes from One Hundred Masters in Classics and History”, which he believed to have included all the essence and the cream of the four treasures, namely classics, histories, masters and collections. In June, Zuǒ Zōngtáng (左宗棠) came and stayed in the army for twenty days and discussed with him situation in the southeast. He was given the title of the Minister of Defense and put in charge of military affairs of Jiāngsū and Jiāngxī. In July he was appointed Governor of the two provinces and put in charge of military affairs in south China in the name of an imperial commissioner. On October 18, discussed with Hú Línyì policies of assisting the north. In December his headquarters at Qímén was encircled twice, and he was in danger because the Tàipīng troops were only ten kilometers away.

1861 (the 11th year during the reign of Emperor Xiánfēng): He was fifty-one. On August 23, he submitted his memorial entitled “On Procurement of Foreign Vessels and Cannons”, which said it was of primary importance to buy foreign vessels and cannons in order to turn the situation. On September 5, the Húnān civil corps seized Anqìng. On September 25, Zéng moved to Anqìng. On November 20, he began overseeing the military affairs in four provinces, namely Jiāngsū, Anhuí, Zhéjiāng and Jiāngxī upon the emperor’s edict, governors and commanders-in-chief in these provinces were all under him. In December, Anqìng Weaponry Plant was built. By the end of the year, the strategy of having three routs to attack was decided thus, “Guóquán will encircle and attack Jīnlíng (Nánjīng), Zuǒ Zōngtáng will look after Zhéjiāng affairs and Lǐ Hóngzhāng will look after affairs in Jiāngsū. In so doing, the uprisers in the southeast can be surely rooted out.

1862 (the first year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-two. On January 31st, he was appointed Governor of Jiāngsū and Jiāngxī, he was given the title of quasi first rank official. Guóquán was appointed Chief Prosecutor of Zhéjiāng. On February 14, Zuǒ Zōngtáng’s army marched into Zhéjiāng from Jiāngxī. In April Lǐ Hóngzhāng led his troops into Shanghai. In May, Guóquán led his troops into Yǔhuātái of Nánjīng, and encircled the city together with the navy led by Péng Yùlín (彭玉麟). On July 18,he submitted one of his memorials entitled “On Not to Borrow Troops from Foreign Countries” In September he buried the bodies of six famous Tóngchéng scholars Fāng Dōngshù, Dài Jūnhéng and four others who were not buried right after their death because of war. Stone tablets were erected for them as well. In December Guóquán died of illness at the headquarters at Yǔhuātái. By the end of the year, Huà Héngfāng and his son successfully manufactured China’s first steam driven generator.

1863 (the second year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-three. Anqìng Weaponry Plant successfully manufactured a wooden steam ship on January 28. After a trial voyage, Zéng named it “Yellow Swan”. On May 7, he wired to the Foreign Affairs Office opposing buying of warships with a foreign captain. In December 3, he gave Róng Hóng (容闳) 68,000 tales of silver to buy machinery in the United States.

1864 (the 3rd year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-four. He sent Lǐ Fèngbāo to islands near Jiángsū and Zhéjiāng to survey the coastal lines of these islands. In May libraries in Jiángsū and Zhéjiāng were damaged to some extent. He instituted some regulations for protecting books and formed a publishing house at Anqìng to print various classics and history books. On June 3, Hóng Xiùquān died of illness in Nánjīng, his eldest son took over his position as the leader. On July 19, Húnān Civil Corps took Nánjīng, and the Tàipíng Uprising was totally defeated. In July he was given the title of “Tutor of the Prince” and knighted a first class Marquess while Zéng Guóquān was given the title of “Teacher of the Prince” and knighted a first class Earl. On August 15, the emperor approved to disarm 25,000 men of Húnān Civil Corps. In October his office was moved to Anlíng. In November the emperor approved suspension of some taxes. In December he was in charge of the restoration of South China Examination Center, then made up delayed county level examinations and tested outstanding senior licentiates.

1865 (the 4th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-five. In January he selected 17 memorials to emperors since the Hàn and Táng Dynasties and entitled it “Discourses of Míng Yuān Hall”. In March, he had two academies renovated. He adopted 800 orphans and poor children and put them into these schools with his own money from “anti-corruption” subsidies. On May 26, he received an edict to go to Shāndóng to fight the Niǎnjūn Uprising troops. In June, the sorting of “Wáng Chuánshān’s Posthumous Works” was completed in 320 volumes and was put to prints by the Jīnlíng Publishing House. On June 18, the strategy for fighting the Niǎnjūn Uprising troops was formulated. In October, he moved Jīnlíng Manufacturing Plant to Hóngkǒu in Shànghǎi and merged it with the cannon plant opened by Lǐ Hóngzhāng and a iron mill bought from an American, plus over a hundred machines bought by Róng Hóng, the new plant was named Jiāngnán (South China) Manufacturing Plant. In December the charter for navy along the Yangtze River, its composition and regulations were reviewed.

1866 (the 5th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-six. He oversaw the wiping out of the Niǎnjūn Uprising troops in the capacity of the Imperial Commissioner.

1867 (the 6th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-seven. In March, shipbuilding branch of the Jiāngnán (South China) Manufacturing Plant was in operation. The Translation office was set up at the same time. In May he moved Jiāngnán (South China) Manufacturing Plant to Gāochāngmiào for expansion. In June, he was given the title of a Grand Scholar at Tǐrén Pavilion.

1868 (the 7th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-eight. In April his title was changed into the Grand Scholar of Wǔyīng Hall. He inspected the Jiāngnán (South China) Manufacturing Plant on May 31st. In August he was appointed Governor of Héběi. In September the first vessel produced by Jiāngnán (South China) Manufacturing Plant arrived at Jiángníng, he boarded on it and named it “Tiǎnjī”. In December he arrived in the Capital and called on the Empress Dowager and Emperor Tóngzhì.

1869 (the 8th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was fifty-nine. In June his application for transforming Héběi army was approved. In August, he wrote “Urging Héběi Students to Study”, in which he proposed that Confucianism was composed of four parts, namely reason, textual research, application of classics and diction, and that reasoning is the fundamental of all. In December he reported in his memorial that he had cleared up all accumulated court cases in Héběi.

1870 (the 9th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was sixty. In April his right eye lost sight and his liver trouble became serious. He asked for sick leave for two months. In June he was sent to Tiānjīn to deal with the case of killing foreign missionaries. In September he was transferred to Jiāngsū and Jiāngxī, Lǐ Hóngzhāng replaced him in Héběi. On November 3, his birthday, the emperor gave him an inscription on a piece of wood, which said, “A Highly Meritorious Pillar”.

1871 (the 10th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was sixty-one. On August 19, he submitted a memorial jointly with Lǐ Hóngzhāng on “Sending Children to Foreign Countries for Study”. In September he inspected military posts. In November he arrived in Shànghǎi.

1872 (the 11th year during the reign of Emperor Tóngzhì): He was sixty-two. He proposed to set up an office in the United States to look after student matters and recommended Chén Lánbīn and Róng Hóng as heads of that office. A preparatory course was put in place in Shànghǎi for children going abroad to study. He recommended Liú Hànqīng to be in charge of that course. On March 1st, his feet became numb, his tough became stiff. On March 12 his feet were numb again after a walk in the garden. He came back to his study and passed away after sitting for a few hours. Hearing the news, the imperial court was suspended for three days. He was given a posthumous name: Wénzhèng. His body was delivered to Chángshā on June 25 and was buried there on July 19. On December 19, he was tomb was moved to his hometown and was buried beside his wife Mrs. Ouyáng.