Peripheral Vision

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Memorial to Chiang Kaishek in a state of disrepair, Lanyu, Taiwan

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.

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A lonely goat, Lanyu, Taiwan

Fort San Domingo

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Fort San Domingo, Danshui, Taiwan

Fort San Domingo, Danshui, Taiwan

A visit to Fort San Domingo, or, as the Chinese called it, the fort of the red-heads (红毛城), reminded me just how global Taiwan’s history is. The fort was built by the Spanish in the seventeenth century to defend their interests in the area and was later abandoned, only to be taken up by the Dutch for the same purpose. From 1861-1972 the fort’s surroundings were then used as the setting for the British consulate in Taipei. Weekend excursions aside, I have been wading through British, French and Chinese sources in an effort to explore the global nature of foreign intervention in the Taiping civil war. Fort San Domingo stands as a structural representation of Taiwan’s global past. It seems to me altogether harder to bring together the disparate voices and sources from China, Britain, America and France in order to create a coherent global narrative of historical events.

The Veritable Records of the Qing Dynasty provide a view of events from the imperial centre in Beijing. Yet they barely mention events that caused consternation in Paris and London. On 21st August 1860, in concluding their Arrow War campaign, British and French forces attacked the Qing government’s fortifications at Dagu near Tianjin. On the same day they supported Qing armies further south in expelling a Taiping rebel attack on Shanghai. A Times editorial caustically noted that if one were to intervene in a civil war, it was customary to choose sides rather than attack both. The Veritable Records however are almost silent on events at Shanghai, probably because the emperor was more worried about the Dagu battle, far closer to the capital, and posing an imminent threat to his regime’s survival. The challenge, when writing a transnational history of these events, is incorporating these distinct voices into one intelligible account.