Last week I visited the island of Lanyu (also known as Orchid Island), which lies roughly 40 miles from the east coast of Taiwan. It also marks the most easterly point of any sort of unchallenged Chinese jurisdiction. The island is inhabited largely by the indigenous Tao population rather than by Han Chinese and is, it is safe to say, a peripheral concern to policy makers in Taipei. So much so that in 1982 the government sited a nuclear waste storage facility on the island, much to local outrage. As the unkempt and disregarded statue of Chiang Kaishek that I spotted on the island suggests, the locals likewise feel little connection to the mainland or its founding father. I have been thinking a lot about peripheries and the reaction of central governments to them. Reading through imperial memorials and the Veritable Records of the Qing, in the nineteenth century there appears to have been a profound disconnect between Beijing and other parts of the Qing Empire.
Shanghai, a bustling metropolis and birthplace of many of the PRC’s leaders, would never be considered peripheral in contemporary China. However, in the early 1860s at the start of the foreign intervention against the Taiping, the city appears to have been peripheral to the concerns of the court in Beijing in a number of ways. Firstly, policy makers in Beijing had little idea of what was going on in Shanghai, having to rely on the reports of local officials who deliberately obfuscated either to feather their nests or cover up mistakes. Secondly, metropolitan decision makers confessed to having little idea how to handle the crises Shanghai faced. The few policies they did recommend were completely unworkable and highlighted a remarkable lack of awareness of how Shanghai functioned. Finally, there was a disconnect between metropolitan officials, who had spent years preparing for civil service exams to secure their positions, and local officials at Shanghai, some of whom were wealthy merchants who simply paid for their titles and route into government. Thinking about the ways in which Shanghai was peripheral to the imperial court and the central government might be a good way to begin to understand the challenges thrown up by the foreign intervention in the Taiping Civil War itself.