I have spent the last month wading through documents in the French Foreign Ministry archives in Nantes, rounded off with a flying visit to the Defence Ministry archives in Paris. The volume of material I have managed to collect is both reassuring, in that I will have material enough to write a history of the foreign intervention in the Taiping rebellion, and depressing, in that it highlighted the challenges for the type of history I want to produce. I may be able to find acres of documentation from various state archives but how far does this get me towards a transnational history of foreign relations in China that goes beyond state-to-state relations and considers the impact of non-state actors be they interest groups or individuals? The beliefs and interests of agents of the state endure, along with their archives and indeed their monuments to ideologies they happen to sponsor, as the rather spectacular Gothic cathedral in Nantes demonstrates.
Non-state actors rarely tend to leave a paper trail and so their motivations and actions have to be guessed at. I don’t know why one of the leading Chinese merchants in Shanghai, Yang Fang, was one of the largest donors to a fund collected in the city to support flood relief efforts in France in 1857. I would guess that this gesture was a way for Yang Fang to demonstrate his status to the foreign community, as well an attempt to further ingratiate himself with them, and so improve his trading prospects. However, without a testimonial explaining his actions to his superiors, as state agents, often inaccurately but always revealingly, were required to write, a guess it will remain. Likewise when reading the testimonials of mercenaries who, illegally, fought for the Taiping rather than the Qing government, I will have to interpret their statements in the context of their being caught and their story surviving only as a confessional. One such mercenary, Patrick Nellis, seems to have gone through such an extraordinary set of mishaps that the reader of his testimony to the law enforcement agents that apprehended him is left with the impression that his rise to the leadership of a group of foreigners fighting for the rebels was entirely accidental. He happened to be captured by the Taiping, who happened to ask him to demonstrate his prowess at shooting and who happened to have a band of foreigners already fighting for them who were themselves apparently looking for a leader. Yang Fang and Nellis are just as much a part of the Sino-foreign encounter as their state-backed contemporaries. As I work through the sources of the British and French states and prepare for my trip to Taipei to examine those of the Chinese, I will be thinking more about going beyond them.