Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Li T'ang-chieh

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LI T'ang-chieh 李棠階 (T. 樹南, H. 文園, 強齋), Apr. 2, 1798–1865, Dec. 26, official, was a native of Pao-fêng ts'un 保封村 in the district of Ho-nei, Honan. His ancestors were farmers and came originally from Hung-tung, Shansi. As a child he was quiet and reserved, and did not take part in the normal activities of other children. In his youth he studied hard and acquired an extensive knowledge of the Classics. A chin-shih of 1822, he became a bachelor of the Hanlin Academy and was later made a compiler. From 1825 to 1835 he held various posts such as provincial director of education of Yunnan, tutor in the Imperial Academy, and junior secretary of the Supervisorate of Imperial Instruction. From 1836 to 1839 he retired to mourn the death of his parents. When the mourning period was over he was called to the capital and was re-instated in his previous post. In 1840 he became sub-expositor and then sub-reader and chief examiner for Shansi. Because of some mistakes in the distribution of the examination questions, he was deprived of his rank but was ordered to perform the duties of his post. In 1841 he was made a diarist and in 1842 provincial director of education of Kwangtung. In 1843 he was appointed sub-director of the Court of Sacrificial Worship, retaining at the same time his post as provincial director of education of Kwangtung. While acting in this capacity he was lowered three grades in rank because he had permitted over-aged licentiates to take the military examination. In 1845, on the death of his grandmother, he once more retired. During his sojourn at home he devoted his time to teaching and to the welfare of his clansmen. Once when the Yellow River at Chung-mou was flooded he contributed 500 taels silver for relief; and in times of famine, which in his day was almost an annual occurrence, he donated large quantities of rice for distribution to the poor. While he was lecturing in the Academy, Ho-shuo Shu-yüan 河朔書院, students came from long distances to study under him.

In 1850 Li T'ang-chieh was ordered to come to Peking to serve as an expositor, after being highly recommended by Tsêng Kuo-fan [q. v.] as a man of sound and orthodox learning. This appointment he declined on account of ill health. In 1853, a contingent of the Taiping forces crossed the Yellow River and marched into Honan. Local bandits quickly joined them and soon the place was in great turmoil. He was asked to organize a volunteer force to extirpate the bandits and to defend that area against the invaders. This he did, though not without many difficulties. The advance of the Taipings was checked, and he was rewarded with the title of a fourth grade official and the peacock feather.

When Emperor Mu-tsung ascended the throne in 1862, Li was again called to the capital. Realizing that the country needed him, he responded, and his first act was to present a memorial to the throne in which he outlined the principles that should govern the child emperor's education, and suggested measures to increase efficiency in government. In the same year he was made director of the Court of Judicature and Revision, then a vice-president of the Board of Ceremonies, and finally president of the Censor ate and concurrently a Grand Councilor. Owing to his superior knowledge and understanding of existing conditions, his words carried great weight at Court. Once he openly deplored the state of affairs in Honan and other provinces. He asserted that bandits of today were good citizens of yesterday, and their only reason for turning to banditry was the ever-growing oppression of greedy and corrupt officials.

In 1863 Li was transferred to the presidency of the Board of Works. When Nanking was recaptured and the Taiping Rebellion was suppressed he was honored with the title of Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent. In 1865 he vigorously protested before the two Dowager Empresses against the summary dismissal of I-hsin [q. v.] from the Grand Council, on the ground that he had rendered valuable services at a time when the country was in great distress. But Li had not been in good health and the heavy duties confronting him in the Grand Council further weakened him. He died in 1865 and was canonized as Wên-ch'ing 文清. As an official he greatly abhorred corrupt practices and left no stone unturned to eradicate them. As a scholar he belonged to the conservative school, devoting his time largely to the study of philosophy. Being a great admirer of T'ang Pin [q. v.], he transcribed by hand the latter's collected works, largely as a method of self-discipline. Li's philosophy of life is epitomized in the four words, Shêng-jên k'o-chi 聖人克己, "sagehood is attainable by self-denial." He left a diary, 李文清公日記 Li Wên-ch'ing kung jih-chi, written during the years 1834–65 and reproduced in facsimile about the year 1915. This document is replete with lofty sentiments designed to master human passions. It also contains occasional references to current affairs.


[1/397/2b; 2/47/7b; 5/12/1a; Li Wên-ch'ing kung jih-chi.]

H. S. Tsêng