A SUPERBLY CARVED MARBLE STATUE OF LI HONGZHANG IMPERIAL MARBLE WORKS, KENSINGTON, LONDON, 1902-1906
Imperial Marble Works, Kensington, London 1902-1906.
Spink & Son Ltd., London, 1977.
This magnificent life-size figure of Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) is most naturalistically sculpted. It was commissioned by the Chinese Imperial Government shortly after his death in 1901. Created between 1902 and 1906 from photographs at the Imperial Marble Works in Kensington, London, it was never delivered to China because of the Revolution of 1911. Particularly notable is its fine sympathetic rendering: the hunched shoulders of the statue bear the burden of Li's responsibilities, which spanned nearly half a century, while the down-cast gaze and sadness of the eyes reflect his disappointment.
Li was one of the most prominent leaders who made strenuous efforts to modernise China during the Self-Strengthening Movement of the 1860s to 1890s. A native of Qunzhi in Modian xiang, Anhui province, Li showed remarkable ability from his youth, studying under the virtuous scholar-official Zeng Guofan and obtaining the highest level in the Imperial Examination system at only 24 years of age. Appointed as an official in 1844, he came in contact with Westerners from early in his career through his involvement in suppressing the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) and the Nian rebellion (1852-68). During this period Li became convinced that China needed modernisation if it wanted to protect its sovereignty.
In 1870 Li began his unprecedented 25-year term as governor-general of the capital province, Zhili, and launched several major modernising projects. These initiatives included sending young Chinese to the United States and England to learn new skills, a commercial steamship line, a railroad, a telegraph line and two modern naval bases. During this time Li also engaged heavily in negotiations with the Japanese, the British, the French, and other treaty powers. Although his efforts were not ultimately successful, this is largely a reflection of China's relative military weakness, of which Li was acutely aware. The humiliating defeat of China by Japan in the 1894 Sino-Japanese War greatly undermined his political standing. Nevertheless his prestige was still such that he was the principal Chinese negotiator with the foreign powers who captured Beijing on September 7, 1901, and signed the Boxer Protocol ending the Boxer crisis but at the price of huge indemnities for China. Li died two months later in Beijing.
Li Hongzhang was a sophisticated politician, a diplomat and a pioneer in introducing modern warfare technology to China. Through modernisation he hoped to protect China's sovereignty, but within the traditional and conservative China he was hampered by the system he was trying to protect.