Prince Gong (Kung)

Prince Gong (Kung)
Prince Gong (Kung)

Prince Gong was the title given to Ixin (I-hsin), sixth son of Emperor Daoguang (Tao-kuang) of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty and half brother of his successor, Emperor Xianfeng (Hsien-feng), a depraved and inept ruler.

In 1853 Prince Gong was appointed Grand Councilor and took responsibility for the defense of the capital area as the Taiping rebels threatened. His mettle was put to the test in 1860 when British and French forces marched on Beijing (Peking) in retaliation for China’s reneging on the Treaty of Tianjin (Tientsin) of 1858.

Xianfeng and his court fled the capital to Rehe (Jehol), where the Qing emperors had a resort palace, leaving Prince Gong to deal with the invaders without soldiers under his command and few officials to assist him. The British and French forces looted and then burned the emperor’s Summer Palace and forced Prince Gong to sign the Treaty of Beijing.

This treaty confirmed the Treaty of Tianjin and in addition granted Britain and France the right to station permanent envoys in Beijing, the lease of Kowloon (adjacent to Hong Kong) to Great Britain, the opening of Tianjin as a treaty port, and increased the indemnity to both victor nations.

Xianfeng abandoned himself to dissipation and died in Rehe in 1861, leaving the throne to his five-year-old son under a council of five regents that did not include Prince Gong.

In the ensuing power struggle, Gong allied with the two dowager empresses (widows of Xianfeng) and executed a coup that toppled the regents. Thereupon the dowager empresses Ci’an (Tz’u-an), wife of Xianfeng, and Cixi (Tz’u-hsi), mother of the boy emperor, assumed the powers of state with Gong as prince regent.

Events of 1860 changed Prince Gong’s attitude toward Westerners from one of hostility to respect. He found allies in two prominent Manchu noblemen, including his father-in-law Gueiliang (Kuei-liang) and Wenxiang (Wen-hsiang), and Han Chinese officials Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuo-fan), Li Hongzhang (Li Hung-Chang), and Zho Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t’ang) because all favored reforms.

Prince Gong modernized the conduct of foreign affairs, establishing a new office called the Zongli Yamen (Tsungli Yamen) that took charge of foreign relations with Western powers for the next 40 years.

He also set up two offices to supervise foreign trade in treaty ports in northern and southern China and the Imperial Maritime Customs Service to collect duties and fees mandated by treaties made with Western nations and appointed two Englishmen, Robert Lay and Robert Hart, to head this office.

In order to train young men as interpreters, he established a language school called the Tongwen Guan (T’ung-wen kuan), which soon expanded to include modern subjects such as geography, mathematics, and astronomy; later this school became National Beijing University.

It remains China’s most prestigious university. He also had works of international law translated into Chinese, which he used to China’s advantage in dealings with Western nations.

In time, the ambitious dowager empress Cixi began to resent Prince Gong’s powers. When Tongzhi died in 1874, Cixi seized the occasion to appoint her threeyear-old nephew the new emperor in a power play that enabled her to become regent.

With her position firmly established and with the death of his allies Wenxiang in 1876 and Ci’an in 1881, Prince Gong became sidelined and increasingly discouraged. To show her power and control, Cixi chastised Prince Gong for concocted misdeeds, ignored his advice, and led China toward collision with France and Japan with catastrophic results.

Prince Gong was a pragmatic statesman who steered China toward stability and a quarter century of peace after the disaster of 1860. He also left numerous compilations on the conduct of state during his decades in power and two collections of verse.