10/6/13

Viceroy Li Hung Chang's "Smelly Shoes"


Viceroy Li Hong Chang (1896) Source:Wikimedia
In America, Li Hung Chang (also Li Hongzhang) is not a well known historical figure, but he was an influential diplomat for many decades during the Qing dynasty.  That fact is lost sight of as we know him best for his apocryphal role in creating the popularity of chop suey among non Chinese, an incidental outcome of a dinner he had during a diplomatic visit in 1896 to the United States, but one that became a turning point in the wider acceptance of Chinese restaurant cuisine among non-Chinese. 

On the world stage, Li Hung Chang had an impact on international relations. He was a key influence on determining foreign policy that affected the balance of power in Asia among China, Japan, and Korea at the end of the 19th century. Li tried to stop Japanese expansionism in Manchuria and fell from favor after the Chinese loss in the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War, an outcome that still reverberates today as it led to Japan establishing control over Korea in addition to seizing Taiwan as well as the tiny Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands that led to a confrontation between China and Japan in 2010.

His image in China remains controversial, with criticism on one hand for political and military mistakes and praise on the other for his earlier success against the Taiping Rebellion, his diplomatic skills defending Chinese interests in the era of unequal treaties, and his role pioneering China's industrial and military modernization. Critics of Li Hung Chang felt his decisions were faulty, i.e., stunk like 'smelly shoes' as symbolized in the image below found on a wall in San Francisco Chinatown in 1912 showing two Chinese men holding their nostrils in front of 'a pair of shoes worn by by Li Hung Chang in escaping from Japan.'

A mystery surrounds this wall posting making fun at Chang, however. The victory of Japan was in 1895 and Chang died in 1901, but the still photograph from a film of the 2 men mocking Chang was recorded in 1912, over a decade later. Of course, it is not known in what year the image was put on the wall. In any case, the defeat was indeed a bitter pill for this image to still be posted and elicit such interest after so much time.  

And exactly what was the purpose of this wall full of a variety of proverbs and clever epigrams? Who created it, where was it located, and how long did it remain?  


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