Zho Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t’ang)



Chinese military leader and statesman Zho Zongtang was from a scholarly family of moderate means in Hunan Province. He obtained the juren (chu-jen) degree, the second highest in the examination system, then studied geography, agriculture and military strategy and experimented in farming, specializing in sericulture. Between 1852 until his death he devoted himself to military affairs, winning high distinction in serving China.

In 1860 Zho joined the staff of Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan), China’s leader in fighting the Taiping Rebellion, raising and training 5,000 volunteers of his native Hunan braves to serve in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) and Anhui Provinces, engaging in more than 20 battles. He was appointed governor-general of Zhejiang (Chekiang) and Fujian (Fukien) Provinces, expelling the Taiping rebels from both and implementing programs that restored prosperity. They included opening schools, printing offices, and promoting sericulture and cotton culture. After the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, Zho was appointed governor-general of Shaanxi (Shensi) and Gansu (Kansu) Provinces in northwestern China. He collaborated with his colleagues Zeng Kuofan and Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-chang) in first putting down the Nian Rebellion, then undertaking the suppression of the Muslim rebellions, first pacifying Shaanxi in 1869, followed by bringing peace to Gansu in 1874. He then made important reforms in those provinces that included the prohibition of opium poppy culture, promoting cotton growing and manufacture of cotton and woolen cloths, utilizing the spare time of his soldiers in agriculture and reforestation.

Zho next obtained court support for raising loans for the reconquest of Xinjiang (Sinkiang) or Chinese Turkestan, much of which had been under the control of Yakub Beg, a Muslim who curried favor with Russia, Great Britain, and the Ottoman Empire by promising them influence should he succeed in establishing an independent state. A careful campaigner who had sure knowledge of geography and logistics, Zho defeated the Xinjiang Muslims in 1877. Yakub committed suicide. The combination of the collapse of the Xinjiang Muslim rebellion thanks to Zho’s generalship and the negotiation skills of Chinese diplomat Zeng Jize (Chitse) (son of Zeng Guofan), Russia agreed to withdraw its troops from the Ili Valley in Xinjiang in the Treaty of St. Petersburg in 1881. Xinjiang became a province of China in 1884. Zho was appointed governor-general of Jiangnan (Kiangnan) and Jiangxi (Kiangsi) in 1882, was put in charge of military affairs when war loomed with France in 1884, but he was suffering from ill health and died shortly after.

Zho was a great military leader of the Tongzhi (T’ung-chih) Restoration and Self- Strengthening Movement who struggled successfully to defeat China’s domestic rebellions and protect its territorial integrity against Western imperialism. Both he and his wife, Zhou Yituan (Chou I-tuan), were accomplished in literature, she leaving published collections of verses, and he of official and literary works.


In 1867, he became Viceroy and Governor General of Shaanxi and Gansu and Imperial Commissioner of the Army in Shaanxi. In 1884, his fellow Hunanese Xiang army officer, Liu Jintang (Liu Chin-t’ang), was appointed as the first Governor of Xinjiang province. The Governor of Xinjiang was the subordinate to the Governor General of Shaanxi and Gansu.

In these capacities, he succeeded in putting down another uprising, the Nian Rebellion, in 1868.

After this military success, he marched west with his army of 120,000 people, winning many victories with advanced Western weapons in the Dungan revolt of Northwestern China, including today’s Shaanxi, Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai provinces and Xinjiang, in the 1870s.

Several Muslim generals, such as Ma Zhan’ao, Ma Anliang, Ma Qianling, Dong Fuxiang, and Ma Haiyan from Hezhou, who had defected to General Zuo’s army, helped him crush the “Muslim rebels”.[2][3][4] General Zuo rewarded them by relocating the Han Chinese from the suburbs of Hezhou to another place and allowing their troops to stay in the Hezhou suburbs as long as they did not live in the city itself.

In 1878, he successfully suppressed the Yakub Beg’s uprising and helped to negotiate an end to Russian occupation of the border city of Ili. He was vocal in the debate at the Qing Imperial court over what to do with the Xinjiang situation, advocating for Xinjiang to become a province, in opposition to Li Hongzhang, who wanted to abandon what he called “Useless Xinjiang” and concentrate on defending China’s coastal areas. However, Zuo won the debate, Xinjiang was made a province, and many administrative functions were staffed by his Hunan officers.

Zuo was outspoken in calling for war against Russia, hoping to settle the matter by attacking Russian forces in Xinjiang with his Xiang army. In 1878, when tension increased in Xinjiang, Zuo massed Chinese troops toward the Russian-occupied Kuldja. A Canadian spectator stated in 1878, “News from Turkestan says the Chinese are concentrating against Kuldja, a post in Kashgar occupied by the Russians…. It is reported that a Russian expedition from Yart Vernaic has been fired upon by Chinese troops and forced to return.” The Russians were afraid of the Chinese forces, thousands of whom were armed with modern weapons and trained by European officers, because the Russian forces near the Chinese border were under-manned and under-equipped, so they agreed to negotiate.

Zuo’s Xiang Army troops were armed with modern German Dreyse needle rifles and Krupp artillery, as well as a few experimental weapons.

By the end of the Nien War in 1868, a new kind of military force had emerged as the Ch’ing dynasty’s chief bulwark of security. Often referred to by historians as regional armies, these forces were generally described at the time as yung-ying (lit. ‘brave battalions’). In the 1860s, such forces throughout all the empire totalled more than 300,000 men, They included the remnants of the old Hunan Army (Hsiang-chün) founded by Tseng Kuo-fan, the resuscitated Hunan Army (usually called Ch’u-chün) under Tso Tsung-t’ang, and the Anhwei Army (Huai-chün) coordinated by Li Hung-chang. There were also smaller forces of a similar nature in Honan (Yü-chün), Shantung, (Tung-chün), Yunnan (Tien-chün) and Szechwan (Ch’uan-chün). These forces were distinguished generally by their greater use of Western weapons and they were more costly to maintain. More fundamentally they capitalized for military purposes on the particularistic loyalties of the traditional society. Both the strength and the weakness of the yung-ying were to be found in the close personal bonds that were formed between the higher and lower officers and between officers and men. In this respect they differed from the traditional Ch’ing imperial armies – both the banner forces and the Green Standard Army.

Further reading: Fairbank, John K., and Kwang-ching Liu, eds. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 11, Part 2, Late Ch’ing, 1800-1911. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980; Hummel, Arthur W., ed. Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period (1644-1912). Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Press, 1944.

Leave a Reply