On a recent trip to Macau I visited the Lin Zexu museum. Commissioner Lin, responsible for burning confiscated foreign opium and sparking the Opium War, is of course in/famous in the history of Sino-foreign relations. On arriving at the site, apparently neglected by tourists and locals alike, I noticed a subtle difference in the building’s Chinese name. Rather than being a museum (博物館 bowuguan) the building was a jinian guan (紀念館) or memorial building. This could, and probably should, spark a debate about how we classify and present knowledge. What are the finer distinctions between a museum as a site of knowledge and a memorial as a site of specific commemoration? Can one site be both?
What made Lin’s memorial remarkable to me was its location. The museum’s presence in Macau was tenuous in the extreme; based simply on the fact that he had visited the area briefly to discuss foreign policy with local officials shortly before the war’s outbreak. The opium burning incident itself took place in what is now mainland China, and much closer to Hong Kong than Macau. The memorial was established in 1997 with funding from local entrepreneurs and opened by invited CCP officials. One can’t help but suspect that the site might have been a brokering tool for the local elite seeking to make connections with the incoming regime when Macau was handed back to China from Portugal in 1999. The narrative offered at the memorial certainly toes the CCP line on Lin and the nineteenth century opium question. Indeed, room is even found, as if it were one of Lin’s legacies, for a presentation on China’s ongoing efforts to suppress the narcotics trade.
All of this made me think about the uses of memory as I start work on the fifth (and final!) section of my PhD research, on the memorialisation of the foreign collaboration with the Qing in the Taiping war. Almost as soon as the war ended, efforts were made to commemorate the foreign contribution, both by the foreigners themselves and by the Qing government. Such efforts included the erection of statues, the distribution of medals and the writing of histories. As with the Lin Zexu memorial, who is doing the memorialising, and why, is of paramount importance. One focus of this section of my research will be Dong Xun’s Record of the Foreign Armies (洋兵紀略). Dong Xun was a minister in the Zongli Yamen, the Chinese office for dealing with foreign affairs from 1861-1901. As a reformer he was keen, in the face of trenchant conservative resistance, to bring foreign technologies and influences into the country in order to better enable it to resist future internal rebellion and external threats. His flattering account of the usefulness of foreigners during the Taiping war may, then, have more to do with the ongoing foreign policy debates of the late 1860s and 1870s, than with the exploits of Gordon and others in the early 1860s.