A Scholar’s Perspective: Interview with Tobie Meyer-Fong

20120705This interview with Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong, historian and author of the study of the Taiping conflict What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (Stanford UP, 2013), took place on December 14th, 2013. The following is a lightly edited transcription, offering a sampling of a broader collection of questions asked across the conversation that day. 

Christany Wilson: How did you come up with the title What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China? When you say “coming to terms” are you referring to the people in the war, or your readers, or both?

Dr. Meyer-Fong: That’s an interesting question. One of the reasons I like the title is that it is a little ambiguous, there are multiple possible subjects for the title and there are multiple readings of the word “remains.” It can be a statement “that which remains”, it can also be a question “what, in the end, does remain?” It also can be “what remains, in terms of the fact that there is a long treatment of human bodies” so what remains? — meaning which or what corpses and skeletons? In other words what did people do with the remains? And then in terms of “coming to terms with” I was thinking in terms of how do we make psychological space for human suffering. How do we wrap our minds around the human suffering in the past that we have previously disregarded, but also how did people in the past come to terms with what they had lost and try to make sense of the world they inhabited? And then also, [the phrase refers to] the ways in which terminology plays a role in this study. In other words, we haven’t really found adequate terminology to describe the events in the past.

Caleb Gallagher: You mention in Chapter Three that the archives were filled with “lies and half-truths.” As a scholar, how do you sort these sources out and decide which ones are credible and which ones you cannot use?

Dr. Meyer-Fong: That always is one of the toughest questions as a scholar, right? How do you evaluate the credibility and the authenticity of a source, and also how do you discern across time and space, and across a distance of a very different and difficult language, what’s being said. One of the things that I found really important to learn, as a non-native reader of classical Chinese–and nowadays everyone is a non-native reader of classical Chinese–but how as a nonnative reader of classical Chinese do you accumulate enough experience to know when what you’re reading is fresh and when it’s someone using a poetic cliché? How do you know when it’s written, when something is a literary gesture and when something is actually meant to be descriptive, and when someone is using a cliché in order to be descriptive? Just read enough stuff in order to know, the first time you see, you’re like “Oh my god, he’s using such fresh, interesting language.” And then 3 other people use it and you just realize “Ok, that’s the way people of that time described that.” In terms of being wise in the archives, you can see ways in which officials are seeking to justify, for example, numerical discrepancies, or they’re seeking to justify their own bad behavior. I found in using archival sources, often they tell you more about the human relationships behind the bureaucratic action rather than telling you about a particular case, so it’s complicated. It’s almost a matter of experience, it’s a matter of knowing what kinds of questions will be answered honestly. I’ve become really distrustful of statistics and numbers in nineteenth century sources.

Caleb Gallagher: How do you as a writer and also as a historian choose what stories to include in your book and what characters to include? How does one keep it interesting but still have that scholastic integrity?

Doctor Meyer-Fong: That’s one of those art rather than science kinds of questions, right? How do you both tell a story that’s interesting to read and also participate in the scholarly conversation? It’s a good question. There’s the practical question: one answer is you write frequently and you are flexible enough to reorganize things as you go along, being attentive to the basic mechanics of plot. What information do people have to have at what point in the book in order to make sense of what follows… So, what has to be in the introduction to makes sense of what follows? At what point do you explain which element in the story in order for the whole thing to make sense and flow? You want to really be attentive to organization. And one way to do that is to have community of other friends and scholars who you exchange work with and comment on, some of whom work in your immediate field and others of whom work at a greater distance. I was very fortunate in writing What Remains to have a group of people that I share work with before I publish it and who share their work with me before they publish it and so we have conversations about what works and what doesn’t and that’s just been tremendously helpful along the way.

Jessica Scatchard:After reading your book it’s very obvious that you’re incredibly knowledgeable about this time period in China. Are there any questions about the Taiping Civil War that you think need to be addressed that have not yet been?

Doctor Meyer-Fong: I think there is a lot more that could be done; it’s a really big topic. The sort of political questions in Beijing would be really interesting to look at. Again, if we’re not necessarily relying on the archives for numbers, then [we’re examining] the kind of complicated human relationships in terms of how the war was prosecuted. My book is really looking from the perspective of Jiangnan. Jonathan Spence’s book is looking from the perspective of Hong Xiuquan’s mind. Steve Platt’s book uses biographical energy to tell a big-spread military and political history, but again from the vantage point of foreign observers and big characters like Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan. So looking at what’s going on in Beijing could be really interesting. There’s been a lot of study of big player Ever Victorious Army [as] foreign participation. But there are also hints in Jonathan Spence’s book of low level mercenary participation, Western and Southeast Asian and other mercenaries on both sides. I was thinking somebody someday should do a global history of mercenaries. I wonder if they were participating in other conflicts that were roughly the same time period. It’s like the US civil war, just when you think that nobody is ever going to think of another angle on the US Civil War there’s another ten publications on it. It’s the same kind of big topic. There are lots of local histories that could be done. There are a lot of books in Chinese on gender and the Taipings, looking at the Taipings as sort of proto-feminists. There are questions of effects of the Civil War in terms of gender relations. There was lots of displacement, lots of loss; what are the implications of that? There are hints of questions that one might ask about effects on women and on gender issues more generally, not just in terms of Taiping policy but in terms of the human dimension. Susan Man’s book, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, has a wonderful chapter on a woman who lived through the Taiping Civil War. I think we could see more of that. [We could also look at] literary responses to the Taiping Civil War. In fact, Rania Huntington at the University of Wisconsin is working on that. There’s more room for stuff on reconstruction and the political implications of reconstruction. I’ve got a short article coming out in December on urban space in the Taiping Civil war in a regional city that was briefly during the war the capital of Anhui[6:22-6:20] Province and which is now the capital of Anhui province again. In the article, I look at the city through a man’s memoir and then looking at it through the local gazetteer published after the war. It’s not a finished subject matter by any means.

Peyton Brown: You mention that the Taiping Civil War remains relatively unknown outside of China; why do you think that is, and what does that tell us, that it does remain unknown outside of China?

Dr. Meyer-Fong: Well I think that may be starting to change because of Professor Platt’s book which was fairly widely reviewed in the mainstream press. So for example it was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, so maybe we’ve had a little bit more exposure on the Taiping Civil War and also maybe because of the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War people seem to be becoming more aware of contemporaneous civil wars. But it was interesting, when I started working on this it was fairly noticeable that it wasn’t something that people had ever heard of before. I think part of it is that general knowledge of Chinese history isn’t as widespread or prevalent as it could be in the U.S. Maybe you can help me answer this question, why do you think it’s not as well known in the U.S. as it might be?

Peyton Brown:I would have to say, before I took Dr. Fernsebner’s class I’d never heard of it, so I’d agree with the general lack of knowledge about Chinese history, they don’t teach you much about it in high school.

Dr. Meyer-Fong: I think it’s not as much something that’s specific to the Taiping being unknown in the U.S. I think there’s a general issue of Chinese history before the 20th century being relatively less known. Maybe the Taiping is less well known than some other events–for example, if you asked people in the U.S. who knew something. Paul Cohen, if he asked his students at Wellesley if they’d heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the Taiping Rebellion, they’d heard of the Boxers, they had some vague awareness of the Boxers, but they had no clue about the Taiping. Actually, I’ve had the experience of talking about the Taiping and had people confuse them with the Boxers, so I think that may be partly that there were some old Hollywood movies about the Boxers, and that the Boxers had some direct connections to the U.S. and to Western history because of the capture of the Legations and things like that. People were held hostage and things like that, so there was more American interest in the Boxers, but I think it’s certainly more a testament to general lack of information than anything else.

Many thanks to Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong for sharing her time and insights for this interview. For more information on her recent work, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War 19th Century China, see this link