Struggle for Empire

The Battles of General Zuo Zongtang

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Struggle for Empire provides the first comprehensive modern biography in English of the late Qing dynasty statesman, strategist, and military commander, Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885). A national hero in China, Zuo’s remarkable story remains understudied in the West.

Author Kenneth Swope traces Zuo's unlikely rise from poverty and obscurity in rural Hunan province to become the most powerful Han Chinese official in Manchu China. Zuo embodied a new practical type of Chinese official, grounded in the study of military history and strategic geography, who realized that the secret to China’s survival was to both live up to traditional Confucian norms and expectations while also adapting science and technology from the West.

Zuo also pushed for self-strengthening, building China’s first modern naval yard and setting up arsenals, silk factories, and publishing houses across China. Zuo also helped the Qing put down the greatest civil war in human history, the Taiping Rebellion.

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Editorial Reviews

"Struggle for Empire by Kenneth Swope presents the military career of General Zuo Zongtang, who worked to restore and expand the imperial rule of the Qing dynasty into central Asia during the nineteenth century. Considering Chinese activities in Xinjiang over the past twenty years, one can draw clear lines from Qing military operations to contemporary PRC efforts, often using draconian policies against the Uyghers, to control the restive area. Swope’s scholarship and writing style are excellent and his work should appeal not only to historians or scholars of military affairs, but to a broader audience interested in China's difficult history in its far western regions."—Eric Setzekorn, George Mason University and author of Arming East Asia: Deterring China in the Early Cold War and The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps: The Republic of China Military, 1942–1955
Struggle for Empire fills a longstanding gap in the literature on important late-Qing officials. Zuo was a critically important figure in his time, and Swope returns this major statesman to his proper place in history.”Peter Lorge, Vanderbilt University and author of Sun Tzu in the West: The Anglo-American Art of War
Struggle for Empire is a biography of one of China’s most influential military leaders of the 19th century, Zuo Zongtang. With an incredible career that ran from helping to crush the Taiping rebellion to reclaiming territory from Russia in what is now called Xinjiang, Zuo’s life spanned a tumultuous era of Chinese history. He has been reviled, revered, and everything in between, and this biography is a rollicking and fascinating story about not just the general, but the time and place in China. A super book and one destined to be a classic."—David C. Kang, Ph.D., Professor of International Relations, USC and author of East Asia before the West
"This vivid and well-written book is the first modern, full-length biography of General Zuo Zongtang in English. Many readers may have heard of General Zuo from the eponymous chicken dish, but they are probably unaware of his historical significance. He was one of the most important leaders of nineteenth-century China, helping the Qing dynasty overcome revolts and rebellions, including the Taiping Rebellion, perhaps the deadliest civil war in world history. He was also an avid reformer, building state-of-the-art shipyards and factories, reconceiving taxation, and urging the adoption of practical education in engineering and mathematics, with a view to building a modern economy. Anyone who wants a full picture of Chinese history or the global history of modernization should know about Zuo Zongtang, and there’s no better place to start than this vital book, written with Swope’s trademark clarity and verve."—Tonio Andrade, professor of Chinese and Global History, Emory University