Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Li Yüan-tu

LI Yüan-tu 李元度 (T. 次青, 笏庭, H. 天岳山樵, 超然老人), Sept. 20, 1821–1887, Nov. 12, scholar and official, was a native of P'ing-chiang, Hunan, and a chü-jên of 1843. In 1852 he joined the staff of the provincial director of education in Manchuria. As a staff member he had access to the so-called "veritable records" 實錄 of the Ch'ing dynasty and followed the director in his travels over Manchuria, thus becoming familiar with political events of that period. He was also interested in geography and literature. After a special examination he was appointed a district director of schools in the province of Kweichow. In 1853 he sent a long letter concerning military defense to Tsêng Kuo-fan [q. v.] who was then organizing his Hunan militia for the suppression of the Taiping rebels (see under Tsêng and Hung Hsiu-ch'üan). Tsêng was pleased with the letter and invited Li to become his assistant. In the following ten years Li fought against the Taipings in Hunan, Hupeh, Kiangsi, Anhwei and Chekiang. In 1858, he wrote, by order of Tsêng Kuo-fan, a long persuasive letter to the Taiping leader, Shih Ta-k'ai [q. v.], urging him to acknowledge allegiance to the Ch'ing government, but Shih did not comply. As a reward for his achievements in the preceding years Li was promoted to an expectant intendant of a circuit in Chekiang, but was soon transferred to the same duties in southern Anhwei (1860) where a few days after his installation the strategic city of Hui-chou, in his jurisdiction, fell to the Taipings. The loss of this city put Tsêng Kuo-fan in a very embarrassing position at Ch'i-mên, a city west of Huichou. For this failure Li Yüan-tu was cashiered and was ordered to await further inquiry and sentence. Instead of waiting he went home, on his own account and without orders, to raise a body of 8,000 volunteers, for the relief of Chekiang. On his way he falsely reported the recapture of many cities in Hupeh. On the basis of these reports his title of judicial commissioner was restored to him and in reward for further reports, likewise false, that he had retaken cities in Kiangsi he was granted the title of lieutenant-governor. When he arrived in Chekiang the provincial capital, Hangchow, had already been taken by the Taiping general, Li Shih-hsien (see under Li Hsiu-ch'êng), on December 29, 1861. However, in cooperation with Tso Tsung-t'ang [q. v.], Li Yüan-tu managed to defeat the rebel chief at Chiang-shan in western Chekiang, and for this he was made salt controller, judicial commissioner, and concurrently acting lieutenant-governor of Chekiang (1862). But he was impeached by Tsêng Kuo-fan for disregard of the above-mentioned orders and for submitting untrue reports of military victories. He was once more stripped of his ranks and returned home for a few years of retirement.

In 1866 Li Yüan-tu was invited to Kweichow to suppress an uprising of so-called bandits, consisting of Muslims and aboriginal Miao tribes. With 2,000 Hunan soldiers he conquered more than 900 strongholds and cleared some 600 square miles of bandit rule. In 1868, for his success in subduing the bandits, his previous ranks were restored to him and he was appointed provincial judge of Yunnan. However, he did not accept that office on the plea that his mother, now advanced in age, needed him at home. His mother died in 1882 and three years later he was appointed provincial judge of Kweichow. In this capacity he punished many criminals, impeached corrupt officials, laid plans for mining operations, and erected ten shrines to loyal officers who lost their lives in bandit suppression. At the same time he submitted many memorials to the throne concerning state affairs—on methods of raising money, improvement of rice transport, defense and development of Formosa and establishment of new consular offices in foreign countries. In 1887 he was promoted to lieutenant-governor of Kweichow but he died in office that same year.

Li Yüan-tu was by nature a literary man and was very prolific as an essayist and a biographer, According to Tsêng Kuo-fan, he devoted much more time to these interests than to his official responsibilities as a military man. Tsêng was in duty bound to impeach Li for his failures, but at the same time he reminded the throne of Li's unusual talent as an expert, speedy calligrapher. Li's most famous published work is the 國朝先正事略 Kuo-ch'ao hsien-chêng shih-lüeh, 60 chüan (first printed in 1866), which contains 500 biographies of leading statesmen and men of letters of the Ch'ing period. He was also the compiler of two gazetteers: 平江縣志 P'ing-chiang hsien-chih (compiled in 1871), dealing with his native district, and 南嶽志 Nan-yüeh chih, 26 chüan (1883, revised edition 1923), concerning the famous mountain, Hêng-shan, in Hunan. A work entitled 天岳山館文鈔 T'ien-yüeh shan-kuan wên-ch'ao, 40 chüan, printed in 1880, contains his miscellaneous essays and short biographies. Four short accounts of his travels appear in the geographical collectanea, Hsiao-fang-hu-chai yü-ti ts'ung-ch'ao (see under Hsü Chi-yü). Li is also said to have exhibited skill as a painter of landscapes and bamboo.


[1/438/6b; 2/76/30a; 5/39/1a; 19/庚下/46a.]

Têng Ssŭ-yü