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During the mid-nineteenth century, millions, probably tens of millions, of people in China died as the consequence of the devastating Taiping Civil War (1850-1864). The war destroyed lives, ruined cities, and obliterated cultural heritage. It also tore apart families and ravaged communities. At the time and in retrospect, various parties at home and abroad portrayed the war in absolute moral terms: as a battle between the loyal and righteous adherents of the ruling regime and unwashed and unruly rebels bent on its destruction and later, as a revolutionary movement seeking righteously to overthrow an alien dynasty, or as an incipient Protestant movement. Dynamics on the ground were, of course, far more complicated.
When we consider war at the level of the nation-state or empire, we lose sight of its local effects and transnational and global entanglements. Scholars, both in the China field and beyond, recently have turned to projects that present war as less heroic, less patriotic, less progressive, and less dependent on the battlefield deeds of great men. In conversation with recent works on the nearly contemporaneous American Civil War, this article will consider the Taiping Civil War as it was understood by many at the time: as an unpredictable set of local events, and, from overseas, in relation to other wars of the period.
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Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong, Professor of History and until recently Director of the East Asian Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, is broadly interested in the history of China from 1600 to the present. Her previous work draws upon a wide range of sources to explore responses to war in the 17th and 19th centuries. Recently she has been juggling several projects, including one that features a survivor of the Taiping civil war who circumnavigated the globe in 1876 and one that explores her mother-in-law's recollections of childhood in the Zhoushan archipelago during the 1940s from the vantage point of family life, emigration, and the island's rapid 21st century urbanization. She has also written about images of the Qing dynasty (and the Chinese past more generally) in contemporary China. Professor Meyer-Fong is the author of two books. The first, Building Culture in Early Qing Yangzhou, describes the construction of cultural landmarks and the re-creation of elite identities in the city of Yangzhou after the Manchu conquest. The second, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in Nineteenth-Century China, deals with the devastating emotional, cultural, and social impact of the Taiping rebellion. She served as editor of the journal Late Imperial China for twelve years ending in 2018.
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