Last weekend, taking advantage of my archival research trip to Washington DC, I took the opportunity to visit George Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Hanging on prominent display in Washington’s mansion was an unremarkable looking old key. Unremarkable, at least, until the tour guide told me that it had been given by the Marquis Lafayette to George Washington after the French Revolution and was, in fact, the original key to the Bastille. It was passed on, the Marquis claimed, by missionaries of liberty to its father. It is in moments and symbols such as this that the myths of nations are forged. However far America, or France, move from the ideas and traditions of those that sparked their modern history, the identity of both countries remains anchored by this collective narrative. In reading the correspondence of foreign diplomats observing the Taiping civil war, the question of nation again takes centre stage. The mid-nineteenth century, the age of Garibaldi and Bismarck, was an age of fascination with the idea of nations.
British diplomats, in responding to the Taiping kingdom wanted to know if they were dealing with a ‘national movement’. What was meant by this? It is clear that the rhetoric was infused by class bias as well as being understood on racial lines. The Taiping might be considered a national movement if they were a popular movement by the majority Han ethnic group against minority Manchu rule. They were only a truly ‘national’ movement, however, if they commanded the respect of the merchant classes. Since the disorder brought by the fighting supressed market confidence, and hence trade, their claims to being a national party were considered to be on shaky ground. Compounding this was the almost complete lack of national identity among Chinese at the time. Far stronger were ties of native place and province. Since the Taiping were natives of remote rural Guangxi, their movement was never likely to appeal to the urban elite of the Jiangnan region, at the time China’s cultural centre. Failing to be a ‘national’ force, in the sense understood by foreign diplomats, the Taiping were demoted to being ‘land pirates’ who would never form a stable government and needed to be suppressed.
What seems to me to have been significant about the Taiping period from the foreign perspective, however, is the questions that it raised. The Taiping were not a national movement but they were an alternative to Qing rule. What would and should rule in China look like? How great a role should foreign powers play in forging it? Before intervention Qing rule was taken for granted, after it the role of foreigners in China’s governance was open for debate. How far should the Qing regime be propped up? How far should foreign states encourage and stimulate the development of new technologies in the country? The foreign intervention against the Taiping might be seen as a series of experiments, in support by direct force, in indirectly supporting Chinese armies, and in technology transfer. The success or failure of these policies determined how diplomats perceived their role in the country in the following decades. The apparent failure of many of the foreign interventions in the Taiping period served eventually to limit European states’ interest in intervening further. For private merchants however, supporting the Qing government through technology transfer created a new world of possibility in the country. These possibilities, though, were not as vast as those facing Washington as he was inaugurated for his first term as president of a new nation.