Li Hongzhang was an important figure in the Chinese Imperial Court, its government and its military throughout his over 50 years in public service from the mid to late 19th century. A driving force in modernizing China's military, he raised his own armies, suppressed several rebellions including those espousing anti-foreigner sentiments, effected a coup d'état upon the death of the Tongzhi emperor, putting a child on the throne and power into the hands of two empresses one of which was the notorious Dowager Empress Cixi. In later life he became a Superintendent of Trade and effectively created China's foreign policy. He traveled widely on diplomatic missions to Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada and the United States and was even made a Knight of the Grand Cross by Queen Victoria while in England.
In the early 1800's the Opium Wars marked a turning point in China's history and its relationship to foreign states. Despite greater numbers, the Chinese military, using outdated ships and weapons, were no match for the western forces. Quick defeats were followed by painful concessions for China in the resulting treaties.
Afterward China instituted a period of military reform and reorganization. Called the "Self-Strengthening Movement", c.1861-95, it strove to integrate foreign military expertise and technology into China's defense, making it more resistant to outside invasion. There was a focus on shipbuilding and the creation of arsenals stocked with artillery, rifles and other munitions. Preferring to create their own military industry, they brought in European experts and contractors so their own people could learn to build the ships and arms themselves, though rampant corruption made this a somewhat uneven effort. In this period several arsenals were created across China, including the Jinling arsenal, where this fine bronze cannon was cast in August of 1870.
The cannon is inscribed on the top of the tube, and on the end of each trunnion. On the left trunnion it reads, "Tongzhi Emperor's 9th year, August" Tongzhi reigned as Emperor from 1861-1875, the 9th year being 1870. On the right, "Cannon manufactured in Jinling (Nanjing) under the (Imperial) Cast-Mold Bureau." The main inscription on the tube of the cannon lists the honors and titles of Li Hongzhang including his post at the time of the cannon's manufacture, Viceroy of Zhili, hugely influential because at that time it oversaw not only modern day Hebei province but also the capitol Beijing and major port city Tianjin. Historians say that the person holding this office was the most honorable and powerful among the viceroys and Li held this post for more than 25 years, at the height of this career.
It somewhat ironic then that this cannon, so dedicated to Li, would be captured in the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers were a Chinese nationalist militia opposed to foreign imperialism, influence and Christian missionary activity. Violence began in 1899; spurred by severe drought and the perceived growth of foreign interference in Chinese affairs of state. Starting with small attacks against foreigners in northern China, the Boxers eventually converged on Beijing seeking the extermination of all foreign persons and Chinese Christians for the good of the Qing Empire. Foreigners took refuge in Beijing's diplomatic or "Legation" quarter. Besieged, but protected by their own small military forces, they were effectively imprisoned within its streets.
Initially hesitant to support the Boxers, the Empress, known for strong anti-foreign beliefs, eventually gave official support to their actions, declaring war against all foreign powers on June 21, 1900. As a response, countries with interest and citizens in China formed a military coalition which became known as the Eight Nation Alliance, together sending 20,000 troops to lift the siege.
Chinese officials were split between those supporting the Boxers and those favoring conciliation and Li was in the latter camp, believing that the Qing Dynasty's use of the Boxers to repel foreigners from the country was a grave mistake. He refused the Empress' declaration of war as invalid, manipulated military communications, and ignored orders to send reinforcements. During the siege and afterward, Li had full diplomatic power to negotiate with the Eight Nation Alliance, eventually signing the treaty which would bring the rebellion to an end, but at high cost to his country in indemnities. This cannon, bearing his name and titles, would be just a small part of the war prizes.
This rifled howitzer was made to shoot studded shells of the "La Hite" system, developed by Antoine Treville de Beaulieu in 1858 and an inert, original "Le Hite" shell is included with the cannon. A brass breech sign bracket is attached with four bolts and numbered "208". A small iron blade is embedded in the rimbase above the right trunnion. In very good condition, markings are all legible and the bore is clean and clear.
This is the second of two known cannons of this type. The other is in the collection of the Beijing Military Museum, China. One of the photos on this page is a period image of the Nanjing Jinling arsenal, which shows this cannon or one like it on the ground, in the center of the image, near the bottom.
In excellent condition, with all marks legible and weighing 275 lbs. with a 3.8" Bore
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