Chonghou was born in 1826, into a Manchu family whose members had served in official posts for generations; his father (d. 1846) was a senior court official, and his older brother, Wanyan Chongshi (1820-1876), would also come to serve in an official post. Both held jinshi status, having passed the highest ("capital" or "metropolitan") level of the Chinese imperial examinations; Chonghou, however, only ever achieved juren status, passing the provincial exams on the third attempt. Monetary donations to the Court made by Chonghou's father, brother, and himself helped him achieve appointment and promotion.
Chonghou enjoyed an audience with the Xianfeng Emperor in 1853, receiving a promotion; he was then appointed in 1856 to oversee the management of the Yongding River, which runs through the outskirts of Beijing. As a result of Chonghou's incompetence in responding to a flood two years later, in 1858, he lost that position, but was sent to aid in the defense of Tianjin, in the Second Opium War which was then already underway. Once the war ended, in the wake of China's defeat, Chonghou was appointed superintendent of trade in Tianjin, where he would be forced to handle the rather undignified task of dealing with the European "barbarians." During his time in that position, he played a role in negotiating Unequal Treaties with France, Britain, Italy, Austria, Spain, and Prussia, and eventually recommended to the Court that they send diplomats overseas, as to do otherwise attracted considerable suspicion from the Western powers.
A severe incident in 1870 would lead to Chonghou traveling overseas himself. Rumors circulated in Tianjin that French missionaries were kidnapping Chinese children and performing barbarous rituals with the children's blood and organs; in fact, it was a Chinese group kidnapping the children in exchange for cash rewards. Tensions reached a breaking point when the French consul, in a moment of conflict, shot and wounded a Chinese official. On June 21st of that year, a Chinese mob converged on the French consulate in Tianjin, and killed the French consul, along with several nuns, priests, and Chinese Christians - around 20 people in total. The authorities later rounded up and executed roughly 20 Chinese (who may or may not have actually been the guilty parties), appeasing French demands for justice, and thus avoiding further diplomatic problems or outright war. Chonghou, apologizing to his superiors for his failure to properly address the rising tensions and to prevent the outbreak of violence, offered to travel to France to personally apologize on behalf of the Court. He was demoted by one rank, and sent to France, with the expenses for the trip coming out of his own personal coffers.
In Paris, Chonghou was forced to wait months for his meeting with the French authorities, who were frustrated with Beijing's delays and refusals in granting audiences to French diplomats. While waiting to be called upon in Paris, Chonghou thus found his way to London and New York, before finally being granted his opportunity to convey the Emperor's formal apologies to the French.
Chonghou returned to China in 1872, and was appointed to the Board of War, and to the Zongli Yamen, the ministry of foreign affairs. In June 1873, Chonghou was one of ten officials from the Zongli Yamen present when the Tongzhi Emperor granted an audience to Japanese Foreign Minister Soejima Taneomi and Japanese Diplomatic Minister in China Yanagihara Sakimitsu, who wished to discuss the Taiwan Incident of 1871. A number of Miyako Islanders had been killed by Taiwanese aborigines, and Japan demanded compensation; Chinese Foreign Minister Mao Changxi responded that the Taiwanese aborigines were beyond Chinese control, and that those killed were Ryukyuans, not Japanese. In short, the Chinese denied responsibility, and refused any compensation; the following year, Japan would send a punitive military expedition to Taiwan, spurring Chinese concerns that Japan might seize Taiwan entirely, and leading to considerable tensions between the two countries over control of both Taiwan and the Ryukyus.
In 1878, Chonghou was sent to St. Petersburg to negotiate a treaty with Russia. Rather than travel overland through Xinjiang, in order to learn more about the territories in question in the treaty, Chonghou journeyed by ship to Europe, and would make his way to St. Petersburg from there. He met with Guo Songtao, the first official Chinese ambassador to Britain and France, who assured Chonghou that his mission would fail due to his lack of proper preparation. And, indeed, it did. The Treaty of Livadia was drafted in September 1879 which granted considerable concessions to Russia, including 3/4 of the Ili Valley which Qing forces had only recently won in bloody battles, the right to establish Russian consulates in seven places in China, and an indemnity to be paid by China in the amount of five million rubles. Though the Qing Court expressed concerns over some of the elements of the treaty, Chonghou replied that it had already been copied out and signed, in October, and that it was too late to make any changes.
Chonghou was denounced by Empress Dowager Cixi upon his return to Beijing, and was imprisoned and put on trial for disobeying the throne. By March 1880, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Not only Russia, but many of the Western powers, expressed their outrage at such a move, feeling it outrageous for a treaty signed by a rightfully appointed ambassador to be renounced, and the ambassador convicted & sentenced to execution in this manner. Russia refused to renegotiate the treaty should the execution go forward, and both Russian and Chinese militaries prepared for war. Leaders of the Western powers worried that this would lead to Russia invading China, and/or to China renouncing other Unequal Treaties it had signed with their governments. Thus, they agitated for Chonghou to be freed, the treaties honored, and war avoided. In the end, Chonghou was spared, being freed in August 1880, and Zeng Jize, son of celebrated general Zeng Guofan, was sent to Russia to renegotiate the treaty; a new agreement, the Treaty of St. Petersburg, was signed in February 1881, granting most of the territory in question to China, and reducing the number of Russian consulates in China to two, but increasing the indemnity to be paid by the Chinese to nine million rubles.
Retiring from official service, Chonghou spent the remainder of his life living in comfort in his extensive mansion, where he fathered an additional six children (he had nine children earlier in his life). He made considerable donations to the Court, and attempted to restore his reputation, but was never successful; he died in 1893, thirteen years after his release from prison.
- "China's Worst Diplomat," The Economist, 21 December 2013.
- Youmi Kim Efurd, "Baiyun guan: the Development and Evolution of a Quanzhen Daoist Temple" (PhD dissertation, Univ. of Kansas, 2012), 60, 203.
- The exams had three levels - county (local), provincial, and capital (Beijing). Passing the provincial exams meant Chonghou was eligible for government positions, but was of a second-tier, compared to those who passed the metropolitan exams.
- This river is perhaps most famous for the Marco Polo Bridge which crosses over it. The bridge was the site of a particularly incendiary incident in 1937 which many take as marking the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
- "Ili crisis (Chinese history)," Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 25 Dec 2013.