Week 5: The Changing Historiography of the Taiping Civil War

A word of warning : as we move closer to the present, there is an increased chance that materials contain graphic descriptions or depictions of violence. I'll do my best to give you a heads-up, but if you need specific content warnings, please let me know and I'll do my best to give you advance notice so you can be prepared, or work around it. Being a historian does not require you to relive trauma.

This week we look at another tragic moment in late Qing history: the civil war between the imperial government of the Qing, and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

We will look at the historiography and the way the points of view of historians have changed over the years, and how the same events can be interpreted in very different ways. This is essentially the core of what we do as historians. History is not "one damn thing after another" (incorrectly attributed to Arnold Toynbee), that would chronology. History is (among many other things) the craft of making sense of it all, while remaining respectful of the sources, and understanding that the producers of our sources have their own conscious and unconscious biases. This is not "changing the past", but making sense of the past, and re-interpreting it to make sense for our times, because what it means to be human, and who gets to have a voice in the conversation changes with the times. While reading through any text (including the list of ingredients of your breakfast cereal, or a photo on Instagram), it's always useful to have this list of questions from Prof. Brook by your side if you haven't internalized them yet.

Table of contents

Background

One of the most harrowing episodes of Chinese history is undoubtedly the period of the Taiping Kingdom, or the Taiping Rebellion, or as more scholars in the West now call it, the civil war. Hong Xiuquan, a man from southern China, had visions he was the younger brother of Jesus, and drew a large following. Between 1850 and 1864, the Taiping spread across southern China, and occupied large sections of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and southern Hubei, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. Millions of people were affected, and twenty to thirty million people lost their lives in the upheaval.

Western missionaries were at first intrigued and supportive. After all, here was a chance to turn China into a Christian state! Yet when they began to realize that the Taiping ideology was not quite in line with their own interpretation of the Christian scriptures, the tide turned, and the Western powers lent a helping hand to the Qing imperial troops against the "rebels", as the Taiping were now called, and helped to prop up imperial power because it was in their own interest. But throughout the civil war, the West played a role that helped to direct the conflict, the historian Stephen Platt argues in his book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.

Why does it matter? Official communist historiography of the PRC sees the Taiping rebels as the "good guys" who rose against the "feudal" system of the Qing (anything before 1912 and much before 1949 is considered feudal, or "fengjian", they use the term differently from historians of Europe). In this view, the Taiping leaders are awakening the consciousness of the common people against the oppression from the Manchu, and therefore can be considered a forerunner of the communist revolution. The violence that went along with is apparently deemed necessary to effect change. For Westerners, the focus on Christianity and the role played by the Western armies has overshadowed for a long time the human drama of the civil war in China itself. But as Tobie Meyer-Fong's book shows, even in China itself, the bodies of twenty to thirty million people were hidden from the historical gaze relatively quickly when other, more pressing historical matters demanded it. This event is a good entry point in the thorny issue of how we represent the past, and why.

Readings

In this week's readings, you get a podcast to listen to (transcript available) to get you up to speed with the basic events. There is an optional extra as an example of an early type of writing about the "Taiping rebellion". The meat of this week's reading is formed by three book reviews, each giving a different judgement of the same book. I then also give you the introduction to a very different book on the Taiping civil war, and a chapter from that book to show you what a very different perspective can be on this horrible period of Chinese history.

This week's readings will work best if you read them in the order presented here:

  • Podcast: Melvin Bragg and guests "The Taiping Rebellion". In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, Feb. 24 2011.
    • Use this to get up to speed with the basics of who, what, when and why.
  • Platt, Stephen R. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom : China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. First Vintage books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. (PDF)
    • Brief excerpt with list of "dramatis personae" and a chronology, may be useful to have by your side to keep track of things.

Compare the following three book reviews:

  • Sunquist, Scott W. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. Church History 74, no. 4 (2005): 900. (Trexler library)
  • Bohr, Richard P. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. Monumenta Serica 53 (2005): 514. (Trexler library)
  • Esherick, Joseph W. Review of The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, by Thomas H. Reilly. The American Historical Review 110, no. 5 (2005): 1498. (Trexler library)

At this point, you may of course read through the book itself, but more interesting is to consider why these reviews are so different: what are these journals? Who are the authors of the reviews? Does that information help you understand their different opinions?

Next, we move on to a book that looks at the Taiping civil war differently:

  • Meyer-Fong, Tobie S. What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013. (also available as an ebook in Trexler)
    • Read and annotate with Hypothes.is the Introduction and Chapter Four (Flesh and Bones), all in this PDF.

OPTIONAL EXTRAS:

  • Zhang, Daye. "Part 2." In The World of a Tiny Insect: A Memoir of the Taiping Rebellion and Its Aftermath. Translated by Xiaofei Tian. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. (ebook Trexler)
    • An eye-witness account, the memoirs of a man who lived as a child in Taiping-occupied territory.
  • More eye witness accounts and personal narratives available through Trexler library, with the search term su:China History Taiping Rebellion, 1850 1864 Personal narratives
  • Yung, Wing. My Life in China and America. Cer Classics. Hong Kong: Reprinted by China Economic Review Pub, 2007. (ebook Trexler)
    • Chapter X "My Visit to the Taipings" is an interesting view from a US educated Chinese man.
  • Teng Ssu-yü. The Taiping Rebellion and the Western Powers: A Comprehensive Survey. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971. (PDF)
    • A good example of a traditional history of the Taiping civil war, as historians used to do it. I provide the preface, and the chapter on the Western missionaries. The contrast with Meyer-Fong's approach is, in my opinion, enlightening.

To give you a sense of the devastation of wrought by the civil war, check out these images: the top of the Porcelain tower (first tweet) had come down (second tweet in thread, click to see).
(assignment information under the tweet)

Assignments

Note: all times given are "Muhlenberg time" (Eastern Daylight time)

Feedback on posts from week 4

2 points, due by Tuesday, Sept. 22, 11.59pm

Even if you're reading the same materials, you're likely interpreting them differently or finding different points of emphasis, so it is important that you read each other's initial posts. This will enhance your understanding of the materials. Below you find links to three blog posts from your fellow students. If one of the websites is your own, or it is twice the same person's, refresh the page, and you should get new sites.

  • Post 1:
  • Post 2:
  • Post 3:

Leave feedback, questions, thoughts, insights about the contents of the posts of your fellow students using Hypothes.is group HST439. You can ask for clarifications, point out similarities and differences with the material you covered, or with your interpretation.
This should encourage you to nose around in the other materials you did not read in the first round.

Use the “Architect’s Model” of giving feedback, and engage with concrete issues.
Go beyond “Yeah, I agree,” “I like” or “I think the same”, and instead
explain why you have that reaction, or if you disagree, you can try to persuade the original poster of your idea or interpretation.

Remember that Hypothes.is allows for hyperlinks, e.g. to materials that support your argument, or you can include pictures (memes! [yes, there she is again]), videos etc. that help the original poster to learn more.

When you've commented on three posts, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

Declaration
I commented on three fellow students' posts on the readings from Week 4 (Opium) using the group HST439.
I made sure to leave substantial comments that move the discussion forward and help to create better insights, and go beyond "nice" or "great".
I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

Social annotation

3 points, due by Wednesday, Sept. 23, 11.59pm

  • Annotate the materials listed for this activity in the readings - this week it's the extract from Tobie Meyer-Fong's book.
  • Do you have questions? Post them as annotations there! Did you have to look something up? Share the definition or the information you found: chances are you are not alone!
  • Respond to comments from others: do you have a similar idea or can you shed a different light on an interpretation?

Remember that these comment sessions replace to a large degree our in-class discussion.
You must take part to demonstrate your participation in the Learning Community.
It's ok not to know things, but I do request that you try a quick search, maybe using the links in the resources page

You may also start up a discussion in the Cloud Lounge (preferably in our group HST439 to keep the space tidy).

When you're done commenting, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

Declaration
- After reading through all the assigned texts, I commented on all the assigned texts in the Hypothes.is group HST439.
- I made sure my comments were meaningful, either by clarifying points of potential confusion, or by responding to comments to help the discussion move forward.

Blog post

5 points, due by Friday, Sept. 25, 11.59

  • Blog post of 400-500 words (more info on format and possibilities)
  • This week, a good approach would be to think about how we tell history, and why that matters. What did you learn from reading through the different book reviews? How has your understanding of the Taiping civil war changed, not so much in terms of what happened, but how the story of the events (the "narrative") has been shaped by the need to tell the story in a particular way?
  • Include in the title the words Taiping, add the tag week5 and add the post to the category HST439.
  • Include the bibliographic references for the materials you choose, so we know which ones you picked.
    • Top tip: copy-paste from the list, they are (hopefully) correctly formatted in bibliography format for Chicago Notes and Bibliography style.
  • Add an image, with a caption to credit the source. Use hyperlinks if you refer to online materials: make it easy for your reader to find those sources.

When you're done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

Declaration
- I wrote a post of 400-500 words in response to the readings and the discussion comments.
- I included the bibliographic references for the materials I used for my post.
- I included an image, I provided a caption and credit (source) for the image.
- I use the words Taiping in the title, added the tag week5, and added the post to category hst439

Feedback on posts from week 5

2 points, due by Tuesday, Sept. 29, 11.59pm

It will be interesting for this week's posts to see how everybody approached the issue of writing history so it is even more important than usual to read each other's posts. Below you find links to three blog posts from your fellow students. If one of the websites is your own, or it is twice the same person's, refresh the page, and you should get new sites.

  • Post 1:
  • Post 2:
  • Post 3:

Leave feedback, questions, thoughts, insights about the contents of the posts of your fellow students using Hypothes.is group HST439. You can ask for clarifications, point out similarities and differences with the material you covered, or with your interpretation.
This should encourage you to nose around in the other materials you did not read in the first round.

Use the “Architect’s Model” of giving feedback, and engage with concrete issues. Go beyond “Yeah, I agree,” “I like” or “I think the same”, and instead explain why you have that reaction, or if you disagree, you can try to persuade the original poster of your idea or interpretation.

Remember that Hypothes.is allows for hyperlinks, e.g. to materials that support your argument, or you can include pictures (memes! [yes, there she is again]), videos etc. that help the original poster to learn more.

When you've commented on three posts, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points.

Declaration
I commented on three fellow students' posts on the readings from Week 4 (Opium) using the group HST439.
I made sure to leave substantial comments that move the discussion forward and help to create better insights, and go beyond "nice" or "great".
I left comments that I would like to receive myself: thoughtful, helpful, kind, but also pointing out errors so they can be fixed.

First larger Reflection

WHEN: By Tuesday, Sept. 29, 11.59pm.

WHAT:

We are now five weeks into the semester, and I would like you to take the time to reflect on your learning in this course so far. Write a 500-800 word piece, using the following questions as a jumping off point for considering where you've been, what you've learned, and maybe even where you'd like to go. I've listed a set of themes, and you won't be able to take on all of them. Use these questions to craft a coherent piece that shows me how you're taking this course as a way to hone your research and writing skills, and develop your ability to collaborate with others.

  • Contents and insights:
    • What connections do you see across the weeks? Do you see patterns emerge? What are some of the threads or overarching topics you are interested in? What in your work so far makes you say: "yes, I am thinking like a historian"?
  • Collaboration:
    • What did you learn from engaging with the work from your fellow students? Which posts, written by you or a fellow student, really stand out? What criteria do you use to make that decision? When you look back on the reflections you have written so far, and compare your work with others’, what do you observe?
  • Engagement with the course:
    • How would you rate your participation and engagement in this course? What would you like to improve in your preparation and participation (which consists of annotating, writing posts and commenting)? What are you doing well? Have you done any of the extra credit tasks, and have they helped you? What grade would you give yourself for “thoughtful participation in the Learning Commons” so far? What does an “A” grade look like for this component, according to your interpretation of the syllabus description?
  • Future-proofing yourself:
    • What are the things you are learning now (contents, skills, insights, methods) that can serve you well in the workplace in future? Can you provide concrete examples of how your training as a historian will have you stand out in for instance a job interview?
  • Growth as a historian, writer, student:
    • Where have you improved? What new skills have you learned? How have you grown as a student, as a writer, as a learner? What remains difficult, and how would you overcome that difficulty? Do you see patterns emerge? What are some of the threads or overarching topics you are interested in?

WHY: These reflections help me understand how you learn, and how I can best support your learning. I also hope you use this as a moment to think about your goals for the course, and, if necessary how you can push the reset button on your engagement with the course, and commit anew to your goals for this course.

You will develop your metacognitive skills (knowing what you know) throughout this semester and the next with more of these reflections. We will also work with the Career Center to help you understand how you can turn that history degree into something that is desired by employers, and help you get in touch with History majors and minors who graduated from Muhlenberg and how they are using their degree in perhaps unexpected ways.

In the next few weeks, we'll look more at "professionalization": for instance how to leverage your history degree in job interviews, but also what tools and organizations professional historians use and we have access to. This reflection is just a first step. Later in the semester you will visit with a careeer counselor in the Career Center, and share your most recent reflection with them, to help you get started hunting for jobs, or fine-tuning your CV for the next step in your journey after graduation.

HOW: Write as a blog post, or as a Word or Google doc file, and submit on Canvas in this assignment.

You can submit a URL, or upload a document in docx, pdf, rtf, doc, txt format, in this Canvas assignment (note: this is not a Declaration).

Extra credit

EC 1: Follow that Footnote!

3 points, due by Sunday, Sept. 27, 11.59pm.

Read the instructions on this separate webpage (that's to keep the weekly schedule manageable). You'll also find the link there to the declaration quiz. It's not difficult, but it was complex to explain if you've never really thought about footnotes.

EC 2: Change the theme on your WordPress site

2 points, due by Sunday, Sept. 27, 11:59pm Note: this is a repeat task. If you have already done it, you cannot collect the points again.

The standard theme for WordPress blogs at this moment is the so-called "Swedish Museum of Modern Art" or "Twenty-Twenty".
Maybe you like it well enough. But did you know there are thousands of free themes out there to make your blog look nice? For instance, my course website runs on "Catch Starter", the Daily Course Announcements site uses the theme "Noto Simple". Here's how to have some fun with your site:

  1. Spend ± 30 mins. exploring different themes, and pick a new one that fits your personal taste better, and customize it. You can find more information in the videos linked on this help page (scroll down).
  2. Write a brief blog post explaining why you picked your new theme, and why you like it better, or how you customized it. If you stuck with the original Twenty-Twenty theme, remove extraneous links and information (so it looks nice), and then explain in the post why it's still the best theme for you.
  3. In the title of the post, include the words WordPress Theme, add the tag extracredit (one word) and add the post to category hst439.

When you're done, read this declaration carefully, and then fill out the Canvas quiz to collect your points. The title of the Quiz is "EC-week 2-2", this is correct.

Declaration
- I explored different themes for WordPress and customized one for my site.
- I wrote a blog post explaining my choice of theme, and how I customized it.
- I included the words WordPress Theme in the title, added the tag extracredit (one word) to the post, and added the post to category hst439

Where to ask questions

Remember that it is highly likely that you are not the only one with that question. Save me time, and help your fellow students by asking questions where others can see them. If you know the answer to a question, jump in! I can't be everywhere all the time.

Missing link? Wrong information? Email me!