Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Li Ch'ang-kêng

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LI Ch'ang-kêng 李長庚 (T. 超人, 西巖), May 1, 1750–1808, Jan. 12, naval commander and first Earl Chuang-lieh (壯烈伯), was a native of T'ung-an, Fukien. A military chin-shih of 1771, he was commissioned a junior Imperial Bodyguard. In 1776 he was appointed captain in command of a company stationed at Ch'ü-chou, Chekiang, and was promoted several times in the following eleven years. In 1787 he was made acting brigade general in command of the naval forces on Hai-t'an Island, Fukien, but was cashiered in 1788 for failure to, apprehend certain pirates. Nevertheless, he was allowed to redeem himself by assisting the authorities at his own expense. He used his private means to finance a small fleet which he led against the pirates. Though in this way he expended a large part of the family property, he succeeded in regaining the confidence of the authorities. Late in 1789 he was given by imperial decree the rank of an expectant major in Fukien, receiving appointment in 1794. After gaining several victories over pirates he was promoted in 1797 to be acting colonel in command of the fleet at the Pescadores, and a year later was made brigade-general in command of the naval forces at Ting-hai, Chekiang, He devoted the rest of his life to the extermination of pirates that were harassing the South China coast.

The disturbed conditions in Annam was largely responsible for the piratical excesses that day. In 1787 Juan Kuang-p'ing (see under Sun Shih-i) overthrew the Li Dynasty and in 1789 was recognized by Emperor Kao-tsung as King of Annam. He died in 1792, and his son, Juan Kuang-tsan (see under Sun Shih-i) reigned for ten years more. During these fifteen years (1787–1802), the throne of Annam was sought by Juan Fu-ying (see under Sun Shih-i) who received help from Siam. As Juan Kuang-tsan was hard-pressed financially, he permitted part of his fleet to make piratical raids off the coast of Kwangtung. In time Chinese pirates joined them and the Chinese leaders received Annamese official ranks in exchange for their plunder. From 1795 the pirates began to operate along the Fukien coast and then off the coast of Chekiang. The Chinese pirates belonged to two main bands, one from Fukien under Ts'ai Ch'ien 蔡牽 (d.1809), the other from Kwangtung under Chu Fên 朱濆 (d. 1809). These pirates enriched themselves by exacting 'protection' fees from merchant ships and by plundering those that refused to pay (see under Ts'ui Shu). Late in 1799 Li Ch'ang-kêng gained several victories over them and chased them to the northern border of Kwangtung. In that year Juan Yüan [q. v.] was appointed governor of Chekiang and soon was impressed by Li's abilities. Therefore in 1800 he and the governor-general, Yü-tê (see under Kuei-liang), requested Emperor Jên-tsung to appoint Li commander of the naval forces of Chekiang. In August of that year a pirate fleet of more than thirty Annamese ships and many smaller vessels anchored near Sung-mên with a view to making a landing: Li's fleet was anchored a little to the north. But on August 11 a typhoon which raged along the coast destroyed nearly the entire pirate fleet and about half of the government ships. More than a thousand pirates who swam ashore were captured, including a native of Kwangtung who held the Annamese rank of marquis. Thus ended Annamese piratical activities in China. When two years later Juan Fu-ying became king of Annam he formally put an end to the system.

But Chinese pirate fleets continued their operations, and in Chekiang at least Juan Yüan was determined to suppress them. He organized the residents of the coast into defense units, forbade all trade with the pirates, and entrusted Li Ch'ang-kêng with expanding the naval forces. As Li's vessels were smaller than those of the pirates, Juan encouraged the provincial officials to contribute a fund with which to build larger ships for the navy. He entrusted Li with money to construct thirty large vessels and these were completed in June 1801. Each ship was manned by eighty men and was equipped with cannon and other arms. After gaining several victories Li was made, late in 1801, naval commander-inchief of Fukien. But as he was himself a native of that province, he was soon transferred to Chekiang. Early in 1803 he dealt a crushing blow to Ts'ai Ch'ien's fleet near Ting-hai and chased the remaining ships to the Fukien coast. Finding himself overwhelmed, Ts'ai got into communication with Governor-general Yü-tê. Believing in the protestations of Ts'ai that he would surrender, Yu-tê ordered Li to relax his pressure. Ts'ai took advantage of the situation to escape, and it was not long before he recovered from his defeat. By offering large sums he persuaded unscrupulous ship-builders of Fukien to supply him with ships larger and better armed than the government vessels. With these he attacked in 1804 the rice transports of Taiwan Island. He combined his fleet with that of Chu Fên and in July of the same year he defeated a fleet of government ships off Foochow Bay. To counteract this formidable alliance Li Ch'ang-kêng was given the command of a combined fleet of Fukien and Chekiang forces. In September 1804 Li again defeated the pirates, forcing Chu Fên to break with Ts'ai and return to Kwangtung.

Early in 1805 Li was transferred to Fukien for about half a year but was then ordered back to Chekiang. In January 1806 Ts'ai Ch'ien, calling himself Chên-hai wang 鎮海王 (King who Stabilizes the Seas), led an attack on Taiwan with more than 100 ships. Augmented by the ruffians of the island, his force reached more than ten thousand. Li led his fleet to the Island and won several naval and land engagements. Ts'ai's fleet was bottled up in a bay with sunken boats, but late in March 1806 an unusual tide and severe winds so altered the position of the boats that Ts'ai escaped. For this reverse Li was stripped of his decorations. In the meantime he reported that he failed to capture Ts'ai because the pirate ships were larger and higher than any of the government vessels, and that after the retirement of Juan Yüan (August 1805, owing to his father's death), the governor-general, Yü-tê, refused to build more powerful vessels. In consequence of this report Yü-tê was removed and sent into exile.

When the new governor-general, A-lin-pao 阿林保 (d. 1809, posthumous name 敬敏), arrived at Foochow, his first act was to submit a series of memorials condemning Li as incompetent and cowardly. He reported that Li would linger for undue periods at some anchorage and then report false victories. However, an investigation by the governor of Chekiang, Ch'ing-an-t'ai 清安泰 (d. 1809, chin-shih of 1781), disclosed the fact that A-lin-pao's reports were wholly unfounded and that Li sometimes had to anchor for long intervals to clear the ships of barnacles that retarded their speed. Moreover, Li's latest report of a victory was found to be correct and in no way exaggerated. The result was that A-lin-pao was severely reprimanded and Li was given back his decorations. This episode is an example of the hardships that Li was subjected to. While fighting desperate pirates, he had also to meet the calumny of prejudiced, jealous and corrupt officials.

Grateful to the emperor for this vindication, Li fought with increased valor and determination. After winning several victories over Ts'ai Ch'ien, he returned to Chekiang, in the middle of 1807, to attend to his duties as head of the provincial military administration. But in due time he was reprimanded by the emperor for relaxing the campaign against the pirates. Furious at this accusation Li at once sailed out of port and on January 11, 1808 overtook Ts'ai Ch'ien off the coast of Kwangtung. His ships were smaller, but greatly exceeded those of the pirate in number. During a fierce attack on Ts'ai's flagship Li was wounded in the neck by gunshot and died the following day. Ts'ai managed once more to escape.

When Emperor Jên-tsung received the report of Li's death he wrote that he was so shocked that he trembled, and so grieved that he could not keep from weeping. Li was given posthumously the hereditary rank of a third class earl with the designation, Chuang-lieh, and the name, Chung-i 忠毅. A special temple to his honor was erected in his native city, and his name was entered in the Temple of the Zealots of the Dynasty in Peking.

After Li's death the task of suppressing the pirates was entrusted to his former lieutenants, Wang Tê-lu 王得祿 (T. 百道, H. 玉峯, posthumous name 果敏, 1771–1842), Ch'iu Liang-kung 邱良功 (T. 玉韞, H. 琢齋, posthumous name 剛勇, 1769–1817), and Hsü Sung-nien 許松年 (T. 蓉巂, 1767–1827). Early in 1809 Hsü defeated Chu Fên off the Kwangtung coast and a month later that pirate died of wounds. For this exploit Hsu was given the minor hereditary rank of Yün-ch'i-yü. Late in the same year Juan Yüan (who had returned to Chekiang as governor) conceived a new plan for attacking Ts'ai Ch'ien's large flagship. He suggested that the smaller government boats deal only with the auxiliary pirate ships, leaving Ts'ai's flagship to the larger vessels. Following these instructions Wang, in command of the Fukien fleet, and Ch'iu in command of the Chekiang fleet, combined their forces for a determined attack. In September 1809, in a battle off the Chekiang coast near T'ai-chou, they succeeded in crushing the pirate. Separated from the rest of his fleet, Ts'ai fought valiantly in his flagship for two days and managed to sink several government vessels. But on September 27 his ship was finally sunk and he was drowned. For this victory Wang was created a viscount and Ch'iu a baron.

Li Ch'ang-kêng left no male heir, but his adopted son, Li T'ing-yü 李廷鈺 (T. 潤堂, H. 鶴樵, 1792–1861), inherited the earldom. Li Ch'ang-kêng is said to have written on military tactics and to have been an able poet. Of the naval heroes of the Ch'ing period, he ranks with Shih Lang [q. v.], especially as a commander and a strategist. Although when he took his chin-shih degree it was not required of him to be competent in naval matters, he decided to travel north by the sea route in order to acquire more nautical information. His lieutenants, Wang and Ch'iu, were like him natives of T'ung-an, as was also Ts'ai Ch'ien, the pirate.


[1/356/1a; 2/31/11b; 3/369/5a; T'ung-an hsien-chih (1929); Lo Shih-lin [q. v.], Lei-t'ang-an-chu ti-tzŭ-chi; Wei Yüan [q. v.], Shêng-wu chi 8/36a; 3/187/19a; 3/192/47a; 3/303/40a; 3/308/42a; 3/314/4a.]

Fang Chao-ying