Sandy Hook. Those were the last words that I wrote while drafting this post considering the Taiping Rebellion in high school world history classes. I finished Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War during the week following the white supremacist terrorist attack in Buffalo, NY on May 14th; and,I began writing in my slow, piecemeal fashion.
I kept wondering what to do, if anything, with a history whose most extraordinary feature was the scale and brutality of its carnage? How to communicate this to students living in a world awash with images, videos, and descriptions of the horrors that people inflict on each other?
Last school year, my students were in second grade when the Sandy Hook tragedy happened. The lock on the event’s Wikipedia page, which greatly limits who can edit the page, says a lot about US society’s inability to respond to brutality. Not only have we been unable to develop policies making such violence less likely, but we also live in a society that cannot even fully admit that they happen. I often wonder how this affects students who have spent more than half of their lives in schools that our society is too broken to secure.
Numbness and caution seem to be part of the mix. Last year after another police killing of Black person in Minnesota, I asked my classes how their generation deals with traumatic events. Students mentioned social media and smart phones than any other variables. These techonologies make distant events feel closer, and allow students to process them with their peers. Many students also noted that the repetition of violent public events made them seem more normal. The students probably do deal more directly with violent media, but the fragmentation of current events resulting from social media also separates them from much that is happening, too.
On the Monday following the Buffalo massacre a poll at the beginning of class indicated that most students had heard little or nothing about the latest event. Whatever mix of reasons that produced, it increases the emotional toll on the teacher who tries to break a traumatic event into their consciousness. And, doing so, probably requires verbal and visual emphases that will increase the trauma for students particularly vulnerable in the moment, such as Black students who already knew about the tragedy in Buffalo.
It’s getting harder to convey the horrors of the human exper.ience.
I was turning all of this over in my head as I thought about how I might incorporate the Taiping Civil War into my World History classes. (Platt makes a convincing argument that Civil War is a more neutral phrasing than Rebellion, which adopts the Qing vantage point on the conflict). The Taiping Civil War was probably the second deadliest conflict in human history and the deadliest Civil War. Estimates on the scale of mortality vary, but it is safe to say that it cut short forty times as many lives as the contemporaneous US Civil War. These consequences drew me toward books on the conflict as something about which I should know more, but the brutality left me with a conundrum: should I bring a story of yet more mass violence into a subject that already has its fair share?
Then, Uvalde. It does not take much to stop my intermittent writing process, and this was more than enough.
Prior to the Uvalde massacre, the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida had hit me harder than anything since Columbine. Like many teachers I was unsure how to handle this, knowing that many students would have seen first person views of the scenes via social media. Going to school felt very heavy that morning, heavy in a way that I very rarely feel. Heavy with weight of students’ fears, doubts, and anger. I only devoted a small part of class to , and in an attempt to take on some of the weight that students were feeling I centered myself by writing on the board.
- Oklahoma City
- Sandy Hook
Events that I can remember an exact location and experience related to schooling. I saw the Challenger disaster live from the doorway of a dorm room. The others I experienced as a teacher, and my memories include interactions with students. I wanted to students to know that other people have experienced what they may have felt when learning about the shooting in Parkland. I shared that I was concerned about my own desensitization as compared my responses to Columbine and Parkland. And then I opened up the room to questions and comments. I mostly kept my cool.
After Uvalde, and after more than two years of pandemic-influenced teaching, I did not have the energy to do this, and so we moved on.
Taiping Civil War
Moving on, though, means a next a thing. This week, I came back to the Taiping and this writing, considering Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom along with Tobie Meyer Fong’s thoughtful What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China which I read last year. Both books, in different ways brought home the absolute horror of the fourteen-year conflict.
Platt traces the conflict primarily through the stories of Confucian scholar-bureaucrat and reluctant general Zeng Guofan whose Hunan Army was decisive in preserving the Qing regime and Hong Rengan, the Shield King and cousin of Hong Xiuqan, the visionary who led the Taiping rebellion against the Qing. Platt’s careful reconstruction of events illuminates the contingent nature of history by showing the many consequential decisions made by Zeng, Hong, and many others. I enjoyed the book a lot, overall, although some of the campaign narration was more detailed than I needed. As another history teacher noted on Twitter, Platt deftly moves between micro and macro levels of analysis.
Initially I thought that Platt’s narration of events would have the most to offer me as a World History teacher; and, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom illustrates interactions between the Chinese and global contexts that will be useful in class. On reflection, however, Meyer Fong Meyer Fong asks what may be the most relevant question: What Remains? Her book “decenter[s] the generals” and other luminaries in order to focus on the “lived experience” of Chinese people (14). Moreover, Meyer-Fong’s goal, as outlined the Introduction includes the bigger picture, then and now.
By making a place for individual suffering, loss, religiosity, and emotions, this book transforms our understanding of China’s nineteenth century, recontextualizes our understanding of suffering and loss in China during the twentieth century, and invites comparison with war and political violence in other times and places.p 15
What Remains delivers on this promise. Both books, in fact, provided insights into the functioning of the late Qing. The religiousity of this time was evident in the writings of Yu Zhi, a minor Confucian scholar whose writings aimed to butress support for the Qing Dynasty and to raise money for victims of the war. Excerpts from his illustrated pamphlet Images from Jiangnan to Evoke Tears from a Man of Iron could be used in class to illustrate how contemporaries recognized the horror of the Taiping Civil War.
More generally, content from these books could be use to encourage students to think about two dimensions of history: contingency and memory.
I have intended to introduce students more explicitly to contingency. I already mention that events were contingent on many factors, and try to undermine facile causal chains. But, this is not yet a concept that I formally introduce students, and I would love to hear from teachers who have. History teachers should frequently remind students that the past, like the present, is complicated.
Both books, in their different ways, illustrate how historical events, large and small, were contingent. The consequences of the war were contingent for both individuals and polities, including the fate of the Qing dynasty itself. In a civil war in a country as populous as China, millions
Furthermore, Platt explains how shifting allegiances of foreign actors, especially British missionaries, diplomats, military men, and merchants were crucial to the outcomes. The two sides were so evenly matched that the ultimate support of British military force contributed greatly to the Qing victory.
Platt and Meyer-Fong also demonstrate how the meanings attached to the Taiping Civil War has also been contingent on politics at all levels of political society. Concluding a chapter on “Marked Bodies” Meyer-Fong notes how the unreliable loyalty of “contingent allies” loyalty to the Qing, evident in male heads freshly reshaved head to conform to the Manchu style and the shifting policy of the British state, fostered a contest over the meaning of the war in its immediate aftermath. This inconstance presents a lesson for history students.
The archives are filled with lies and half-truths, often told in service of petty controversies among officers and officials. Foreign friends and enemies told their tales in service to their own more distant agendas: Christian conversion, parliamentary victories, and the trade in opium, tea, silk, and British manufactures. It is this confusion and contingency of allegiances that has fallen out of our understanding of a past long since reduced to a morality play of absolute identities and loyalties. The transformation of lived confusion into absolute moral certainty of loyalty got under way immediately.Meyer-Fong 98, emphasis added
Perhaps a class could spend some time unpacking this paragraph. A colleague who works in literacy has recommended that history teachers contextualize reads less often, and instead encourage questions. Historian Cacee Hoyer laid out a model for this in World History Connected earlier this year.
Contingeny was also a feature of very localized events. At the end of a chapter on physical and written memorials created in the wake of the war, Meyer-Fong notes that local elites inititally the figure of the Emperor and imperial loyalty to reconstitute communities after the rupture of civil war The Qing use of memorialization to maintain their legitimacy did not last, however.
The commemoration of disaster at the local level, in shrines and in books, brings us, seemingly inevitably, to to discourses on the fate of the nation. Here, from tremendous loss of life, we get contingent rededication by way of provincial militarists who restored (temporarily) someone’s faith in the center, or perhaps more accurately someone’s desire for a center. Rites and institutions honoring the war dead continued to be invoked as a talisman of centralizing legitimacy into the twentieth century.
New dead were honored using old forms, as events rendered the dynasty first irrelevant and then obsolete. Not long after the 1911 Revolution, whose leaders claimed the Taiping movement as an anti-Manchu antecedent to their cause, the Manifest Loyalty Shrines honoring the old dynasty’s dead were repurposed to honor Great Han Martyrs who had died for the new Chinese Republic…In the context of Sun Yat-sen’s anti-Qing activism, the Taiping came to be identified as nationalist revolutionaries and were incorporated into the historical narrative of China’s political modernization. And the former dynasty’s loyal and righteous dead, once so carefully curated by local elites, went forgotten.pp 173-74, Emphasis added
This excerpt could also be used to discuss contextualization, of course, while also opening a discussion for the shifting meaning of historical events in our own time.
Similar, Platt describes the shifting uses of the history of the Taiping Civil War in the People’s Republic. The Chinese Communist Party once celebrated the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom as an incipient revolutionary force, but has recently changed course by celebrating Qing loyalist general Zeng Guofan:
General Zeng’s legacy has followed a rocky course in modern China: reviled for generations as traitor to his race for supporting the Manchu ruling house, he has lately been resurrected as a model what it means to be Chinese–or, more specifically, what it means to be moral and strong and disciplined in a truly native and Confucian way, uninfluenced by the West.p xxv
All history is revisionist. I revise my understanding of the past all the time! The question that teachers and students should ask is why. In this case we see politically motivated revision, although it does seem consistent with Platt’s portrayal of Zeng Guofan.
Formal emorials can provide a useful approach to studying history. Meyer-Fong devotes a chapter to the personal and public memorial shrines and writings that survivors constructed following the Taiping Civil War. Students can also construct their own memorials or analyze public ones to understand historical events. Thinking about how to memorize is also an authentic historian’s task.
Memorials can also convey horror with graphic content. This is mportant because the emotional impact of graphic content will disproportionately impact some students. There is no way to drive home a concept hard enough to emotionally impact all students without traumatizing students most sensitive to the content.
For instance, the Statue of Peace pictured here memorializes women and girls coerced into sexual servitude by the Japanese comfort system during World War Two. In talking about the horrors of the comfort system in class I keep in mind the real possibility that one or more students in class has been a victim of sexual assault. Protecting them as best as possible is a higher goal than shocking the most complacent, least sympathetic student into noticing. There are many variations on this theme. Like many teachers I observed more disengagement among my students this past year. The temptation to attack this with shocking words and images is strong, but generally needs to be resisted
The numbness with which many teenagers experience these events, if they are even aware of them, short circuits remembering by eliding the sense of loss. I do not blame the students.
There is a lot for students to do with the Statue of Peace and its uses. The statue and replicas around the world are also explicitly political, functioning as a protest against inadequate apologies from the Japanese government which invites students to consider how we use the past ot address the present. The Statue of Peace is an answer to Meyer-Fong’s question what happens in the wake of such horrific losses. She pointedly notes that senses of loss may be
… personal talismans against forgettingWhat Remains, p. 176
I wonder what sense future students will make of this?
- Meyer-Fong, Tobie. What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China. Stanford University Press, 2013.
- Platt, Stephen R. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. Vintage, 2012.