The Battle of Yellow Sea
The Battle of Yellow Sea The Beiyang Fleet(The Northern Ocean fleet) was the first modern Chinese navy. It was formed in 1887 under general Hongzhang Li and marked the beginning of the modernization of China. It was an important part of the self-strengthening movement of the Qing dynasty as it struggled to keep up with the rest of the developing world.
The Beiyang fleet faced its first real challenge in 1894 when it engaged with the Japanese Navy in the Yellow Sea, and unexpectedly failed because the overall capability of the Japanese Navy was far beyond the Beiyang fleet at that time.
This battle was viewed as a humiliating defeat of the Qing dynasty, and the defeat marked the failure of the self strengthening movement.
Chinese Navy had been ranked the strongest navy in Asia “on paper” by many military analysts in 1887, yet was soundly defeated by the Japanese Navy, a navy that seemed completely inferior based on their number of battleships and soldiers.
Furthermore, the two battleships of the Beiyang, Dingyuan and Zhenyuan, were considered by some to be impervious to the Japanese artillery due to its armor and weaponry. Both of the ships(pictured below before leaving Germany) were purchased from Germany and were viewed as the strongest in Asia.
Even though the Chinese Navy as a whole was stronger than the Japanese Navy, the Beiyang Navy was only one of the four navies at that time (also the strongest). The other three navies did not join the battle because other Chinese ministers wanted to see the Beiyang fleet fail, due to internal politics at the time.
It had been long viewed as the personal army of Hongzhang Li, a powerful court minister, general, and diplomat of Empress Dowager Cixi (pictured above) and people believed that he made a large profit from building the Beiyang Navy. It was considered to be Li’s influence with the Chinese court at the time that steered so many resources to the Beiyang Navy over the other 3 rival Navies.
Several other reasons have been presented to explain this failure, including the corruption of the Qing dynasty, outdated weapons and equipment, low morale, lack of preparation, low-quality training, and lack of commanding capability of the commanders.
Politically speaking, most of the people in the top management of the Qing dynasty realized that the fall of Qing was inexorable, so corruption was common and there were few efforts to save the country. One direct reason for the failure of the Beiyang navy is the inferior ammunition they used, the result of corruption related to Chubao Zhang, the nephew of Hongzhang Li.
He was designated to be the head of logistics of the Beiyang Navy, a fantastic job due to the financial benefits it yielded. Moreover, Empress Dowager Cixi took roughly an entire year’s budget of the Beiyang Navy to fix the royal garden to celebrate her 60th birthday. This led to the Beiyang Navy suffering from a fiscal shortage, which indirectly caused its failure.
This fiscal shortage was why the Beiyang Navy was left with outdated and reduced quantities of weapons and equipment. While the navy had 78 warships compared with the Japanese Navy's 31, Beiyang only had 195 guns while the Japanese Navy had 268. The Beiyang Navy had no large-caliber mortars (more than 120 mm), while the Japanese Navy had 97. Lai Yuan (來遠)
Moreover, the equipment of the Beiyang Navy was in bad shape, reflected by the unstable body of the ships, low speed of the ships, and lack of flexibility. Dingyuan and Zhenyuan had already seen 14 years of service, and were both in dire need of mechanical and weapons upgrades. The weapons aboard were relatively outdated, and they were inferior in speed and distance when compared to the newly designed warships of the Japanese Navy.
Another important factor of the failure of the Beiyang Navy is the lack of preparation and low morale. After 1892, the Beiyang Navy was full of fluke minds, and the top management of the Beiyang Navy expected to prevent the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war through diplomacy, which turned out to be impossible.
The commanders also didn’t have a plan for the war and lacked information about the Japanese Navy. When considering the culmination of all of these factors, it is not surprising that the Battle of Yellow Sea went so poorly.
The Beiyang Navy, from the lowest sailors to the highest-ranking officers, didn’t believe that they could win the Battle of Yellow Sea or the overall war, resulting in the whole navy fighting under low morale.
The lack of ammo aboard the ships during the Battle of Yellow Sea also reflected the lack of preparation of the Beiyang Navy.
According to an interview with a member of the navy, the ammo of Zhenyuan and Dingyuan had been used out half an hour before the end of the battle. In contrast, the Japanese fleet had enough ammo until the end.
The lack of efficient training also triggered the failure of the Beiyang fleet. Hongzhang Li had inspected the troops several times and spoke highly of them. However, according to the memoir of a member of the Beiyang Navy, their training was performative, in an effort to cope with the superior officials. For instance, the focus of training was rooted in the swiftness of movements, rather than the application of real combat in a war.
One last reason for the fall of the Beiyang Navy was the ineptitude of the admiral, Ruchang Ding.
Ruchang Ding had neither experience nor professional training. He was selected to be the admiral not because he was the most qualified person, but because he was from Anhui, the same province as General Hongzhang Li. Ruchang Ding committed suicide by opium before the rout of the Beiyang Navy, destroying 30 years of China’s modernization efforts.
The Battle of Yellow Sea
Written by Jialiang Chen
Edited by Andrew Fu, Christine Lee, Vivian Fang, Jay Devon & Ryan Cunningham