Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China

By Wu, Yuxiu | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2014 | Go to article overview

Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China


Wu, Yuxiu, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. xiii + 203 pages.

In What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China, Tobie Meyer-Fong examines a despairing and desolate Jiangnan during the Taiping Rebellion and resolves "to capture the ambiguity, shifting loyalties, nuances, contingency and the abjectly miserable behaviors and consequences that characterized the wartime experience" (206). Tattooed faces, burned bodies, severed limbs, the sound of the dying, the odor of human remains, the taste of human flesh, haunting ghosts--the book is obsessed with the dead, as it relentlessly draws readers into scenes of mayhem that recall both apocalyptic fiction and warzone newsreels. What Remains departs from traditional war history narratives that emphasize the political significance of events; instead, it focusses on how people made sense of and eventually came to terms with the war. Meyer-Fong's use of overlooked sources, including pro-Qing memoirs, local gazetteers, official documents, and traveler's tales, is notable. In addition to lending a fascinating literary variety to the narrative, these sources provide different perspectives on the war, revealing "the contradictions between individual and local experience and the moralizing imperatives of state-sponsored accounts" (15). They also help us understand the relationships between the state, local officials, and the general populace during the late Qing era.

Meyer-Fong prefaces her book by stressing the importance of framing the Taiping Rebellion as a war, allowing us to strip away biases and reminding us of the event's terrible attrition. The following five chapters, "Words," "Marked Bodies," "Bones and Flesh," "Wood and Ink," and "Loss," ponder the war's legacy--remnants of propaganda, human remains, memorials for the dead, the emotional scars. The final chapter, "Endings," asks what remained when the dust had settled.

Meyer-Fong's dissection of the remains of the Taiping Rebellion starts with "Words." In this chapter, she examines the literary works by Yu Zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1809-74), a failed examination candidate and philanthropist who strove to promote the orthodox ideology during and after the war. To arouse both the fear and sympathy of the masses, he utilized a variety of media and approaches, including composing songs and poetry, producing and disseminating pamphlets that included horrifying paintings such as An Iron Man's Tears for Jiangnan (Jiangnan tielei tu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and organizing charities. Meyer-Fong is particularly interested in Yu Zhi's use of religious imagery and tales to preach moral obligations that reflect the religious sensibilities of the time. More importantly, Yu Zhi's work demonstrates how local elites tried to give the war an indigenous meaning and communicate it to the local community, connecting these elites to the dynasty and reestablishing order during the mayhem of war. Yu Zhi often invoked the city-god Lord Wenchang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] a deity celebrated in the Jiangnan area during the mid-nineteenth century. He also created a local cult by consecrating a local personality: the late Pan Zengyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1792-ca. 1853), a well-known scion of a wealthy Suzhou family and local philanthropist, whom Yu Zhi transmogrified into a part of the divine bureaucracy with the ability to visit the dreams and warn of calamities. Pan's divinized image served as an effective way to communicate dynastical moral teachings to the masses. Meyer-Fong argues that local elites such as Yu Zhi localized the orthodox messages and thus became interpreters and advocates of imperial demands.

Perhaps the most illuminating and creative part of the book is "Marked Bodies," in which the author meditates on the human body as evidence of the obfuscation of identities, and thus focusses a different lens on the war and its damage. …

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