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  • Introduction: War and Reconstruction in 1860s Jiangnan
  • Stephen R. Platt (bio)

This special section features articles by Xiaowei Zheng, Jeremy Brown, and William Wooldridge that bring us back to Jiangnan in the 1860s, into the tumultuous years spanning the Taiping occupation, the fall of Nanjing, and the early era of postwar reconstruction. Each focuses on local conditions in a specific area of Jiangnan during this time of widespread chaos, honing in on choices made by single individuals during a war that swept up millions. Their subjects are elites, local and otherwise, ranging from rural merchants on up to the victorious general Zeng Guofan, each of whom grapples differently with the disorder of the time. Some of these elites take the side of the Qing, others the Taiping, and still others manage to work with both sides. In the aftermath, their fortunes are not always what we would predict based on their wartime choices.

Among the common influences behind these articles, two works loom largest: Mary Wright’s Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism and Philip Kuhn’s Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China. In different ways, Zheng, Brown, and Wooldridge revisit Wright’s conclusions about Confucian loyalty and the restoration of order, and Kuhn’s arguments about local elites who strengthened their hands in the course of the rebellion. Their goal, however, is not so much to dispute those earlier studies as to look more closely at the counterexamples, and thereby to embrace more of the confusion and uncertainty of the era. Jeremy Brown suggests in his article that much past scholarship on the Taiping Rebellion has been a search for the roots of either the 1911 Revolution, with its need for enlightened urban elites, or the 1949 Revolution, with its need for rapacious rural landlords. By eschewing such forward-looking history, he argues, we can see that the urban elites were not always the “enlightened” ones, nor were the rural landlords the most cruel. In a similar vein, Zheng Xiaowei argues against imposing a monolithic consciousness on local elites, offering instead that locally powerful actors derived their [End Page 1] authority from a variety of sources, not all of which were tied to the dynastic order, and therefore they didn’t automatically side with the imperials. And William Wooldridge argues that the dynasty-centered narrative of restoration that we know from government documents contrasts sharply with the reality of what was happening on the ground in postwar Nanjing, where the power of the government in Beijing seemed so remote as to exist practically by virtue of indulgence on the part of Zeng and his generals.

The articles in this section were submitted to Late Imperial China independently and without coordination, suggesting by their fortuitous resonance that there may be a wider renewal of interest in the Taiping Rebellion and its aftermath underway. If so, why now? Despite the incredible scale of the war, the relative scarcity of major recent works suggests that we have been working largely on consensus for some time now, and for that reason alone, a revival of interest in this period would be welcome. But this is also a new era for China, and that will surely be felt in our scholarship, even if only in subtle ways. Mary Wright, writing The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism in the early 1950s, looked to Zeng Guofan as an analogy to the disgraced KMT (the self-styled “Confucian conservatives” of her own time) and found the KMT wanting; her conclusion: that strong American support for the Nationalist army was not necessarily the key to building a strong and modern China. Philip Kuhn wrote the dissertation that became Rebellion and Its Enemies in the early 1960s at a time when the elites he studied as the foundation of traditional China’s endurance and stability had been utterly disenfranchised by a regime whose leader identified himself with Hong Xiuquan; whether Kuhn intended it or not, in that context the antipathy to the Taiping he found in his subjects held an especially powerful resonance.

Now the fortunes of the Jiangnan elites have come full circle (at least for the mercantile set), and a renewed interest in their historical role...


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