The Boxer Uprising: A Narrative History
At the beginning of my undergraduate course in late imperial Chinese history, I ask my students to write down in two or three sentences their associations with the "Boxers" and the "Taipings." I make it clear to them that I do this less to call attention to what they don't know (although that is invariably one thing the exercise reveals) than to identify and confront them with some of the curious ways in which what they do know is patterned, the idiosyncratic, oddly misshapen cognitive map of China they have etched in their minds. The results of the quiz are remarkably consistent. Year in and year out, while a substantial majority of the students have at least a glimmer of information concerning the Boxers and are able to identify them (albeit sometimes placing them in the wrong century) as "antiforeign" or a "rebellion" or a "revolution," well over 90 percent have never heard of the Taipings.
After announcing the results of the quiz to the class, we spend a few minutes trying to account for them. I tell my students that the Taipings launched what was very possibly the most destructive civil war in the history of the world (at least in terms of lives lost), 1 that they posed by far the most serious threat to the survival of the last imperial dynasty in China (the Qing), that for over a decade ( 1853-1864) they controlled some of the most valuable real estate in the country, that Westerners played a part (however marginal) in the rebellion's eventual suppression, that the Taipings' ideology was influenced in significant measure by evangelical Christianity, and -- this is always the shocker -- that their founder and supreme leader, Hong Xiuquan, had visions that convinced him he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Clearly, the Taiping uprising was an event of critical importance in the history of late imperial China; also, it had a component of Western involvement that was nothing if not intriguing. Why is it then that, in general, Americans who have not made a formal study of Chinese history have never heard of the Taipings while, in