I am currently working on my fifth chapter, exploring the legacies of the Taiping war. One aspect of this is the remembrance of the foreign soldiers who died fighting for the Qing against the Taiping. I hope to understand how these activities were used by foreign and Qing actors for their own purposes. While I have been thinking about this it strikes me that there are methodological difficulties in ascertaining the political significance of remembrance activities. Remembering the dead is, after all, a universal feature of the human experience. From the Stone Age to the present day and across all continents of the globe evidence of remembrance activities abounds. How, then, do we identify certain remembrance activities as, at least in part, politically motivated? In some cases this is obvious. Augustus Lindley was a British man who fought for the Taiping against the Qing. Whoever was responsible for the epitaph on his grave in Kensal Green cemetery, if not Lindley himself, in dubbing him a ‘friend of China, enemy of oppression’, was making a clear statement. The British government’s policy of supporting the Qing presumably made them, by implication, enemies of China and friends of oppression. Political motivations are not always this transparent.
One way of dealing with this problem might be to pay attention to phases of remembrance. It is striking, for example, that there is a spike in Taiping remembrance activity, in the form of the construction or refurbishment of statues and the rededication of graves, in the 1930s. Why were the Taiping dead allowed to rest so long, undisturbed, before their memory was revived? One early speculation I have is that sites of foreign graves, particularly when they were as handily archaic as those of the Taiping war, anchored elements of the foreign community to their place in China. At a time of growing uncertainty, when the threat of further Japanese encroachments loomed, the British, American and French could justify their position in the country through the past service of their nationals. These nationals represented the long established history of these nations in the country. The dead of the Taiping war may have helped to make a point: that there was a corner of this foreign field which ought to be forever America, France or England.