“What times are these?” (1854)

When I tell people about my research on late Qing baojuan, I talk about how ordinary lives can animate history. Non-official histories and religious texts can give us a poignant sense of daily concerns and their solutions. My work gives voice again to long-silent popular perspectives on the late Qing, some anonymous, some by named authors, which include attempts to process crises – both great and small.

Sometimes I spend my days contemplating minutia. The painstaking concern that The Precious Volume of Honoring Grains, for example, takes in recommending that devotees pick up every single grain of rice that falls to the ground and separate out unhusked grains from the rice prior to cooking to prevent them from falling undigested into the outhouse and incurring heavenly wrath, is incredibly specific. On days when I write about such texts, my thesaurus gets a work-out as I look for synonyms for outhouse (privy, latrine), feces (dung, excrement, bodily waste), and contamination (defilement, pollution, impurity). Those are weird days.

And then there are days like today, as I work on the introduction to this chapter on baojuan newly composed during and shortly after the Taiping War (1851-1864), that I find myself looking for a different set of synonyms.

Bloody (brutal, gory, vicious), weary (fatigued, exhausted, drained), hopeless (despairing, dejected, demoralized).

And translating passages like this, written by Yu Zhi (余治 1809-1874) in 1854, “Alas! What times are these, what circumstances are these? These times and these circumstances are yet murky and unawakened. The land shakes, people are trampled like mud and ashes, with bodies piled like mountains, blood pouring out to become a river. Hearing it hurts the heart, speaking of it stings the nose. What times are these, what circumstances are these?” And, from the same man writing again in 1864, “Now after this, I will not dare say that the happiness of heaven’s heart is guaranteed. Now after this, I will not dare say that the protection of the gods is guaranteed.”

Numbers like 100,000 dead in the 1864 fall of Nanjing, or 20-30 million dead in the war itself (the variation itself there saves or kills 10 million people, an unimaginable number already) are too big to wrap one’s mind around.

And then you have Yu Zhi’s refrain, “What times are these, what circumstances are these?”

He’s right, hearing it hurts the heart. Writing it does too.

I’m not writing about the dead though, but how the living themselves tried to cope, particularly a group of evangelical philanthropic moralists associated with Yu Zhi who published and distributed a spectacular array of exhortative moral texts in the 1850s-1870s.

Sometimes, they memorialized and mourned the magnitude of human suffering brought on by the conflict. And sometimes they just focused on the little things. Picking up every grain of rice in the hopes that merits would once again outweigh demerits and heaven would cease its punishment, for example.

“I know this, that the inability of the calamity to end is not the fault of heaven’s heart being unable to change its mind and is not that others’ hearts will not change. In truth, it comes from my heart being unable to change. For this reason, if I wish to change others’ hearts, I must first start with mine.” (Yu Zhi again, writing in 1864)

In researching and writing about these texts, the great and the small, I want to bring a little humanity back into the enormity of the war and the post-war recovery.

“What times are these, what circumstances are these?”

9 thoughts on ““What times are these?” (1854)

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this. Those who picked up every last grain of rice did indeed ensure–on the spiritual level as well as the material–that they and their descendents would have a better chance of survival, unlike so many others.

    As for the dead…there is the Buddhist/traditional concept of the “hungry ghost.” How indeed do you conceive of the hungry ghosts of “100,000 dead in the 1864 fall of Nanjing, or 20-30 million dead in the war?”

    Writers like Yu Zhi need to be read, their voices heard, their stories remembered. Thank you.

    • Yu Zhi is semi-famous among those of us who study the late Qing, but I don’t think well known beyond that. A prolific writer, he failed the local level of the national exams five times before giving up and devoting himself to his philanthropy. I get the sense from his writing and his impact on Jiangnan society that he must have been quite charismatic in his promotion of traditional values and Confucian/Daoist fundamentalism. Though his efforts to restore traditional culture ultimately failed (his insistence on teaching the classics when he assumed the role of principal at an academy for the study of foreign language in Shanghai during the 1860s shows how out of touch he was with where things were headed), I do admired his earnestness, hard work, and ability to weave a story. I’m arguing in a paper in progress for a presentation in March that he wasn’t as much of a hard-liner as some of his works make him sound, he leaves room for redemption in some stories as well, not just heaven’s merciless punishment.

      I think you’d enjoy (if that’s the correct word for this?) Tobie Meyer-Fong’s book about the post-Taiping recovery, called “What Remains.” There’s a chapter called “Bones and Flesh” that deals in particular with war dead. Meyer-Fong is such a sensitive, careful writer when it comes to this trauma, I can only hope to follow in her footsteps.

      • I’d never heard of Yu Zhi before, and your upcoming paper sounds like a valuable contribution to studies of the late Qing.

        Thank you for the book recommendation! I get what you mean about the word “enjoy” in this context.

  2. Reblogged this on Heathen Chinese and commented:
    And on the other side of the Pacific Rim, how does one wrap one’s mind around the millions of indigenous peoples and African slaves (and their descendents) who have died/continue to die in brutal circumstances since colonization began? Their spilled blood, their bodies and their spirits are in the land itself (stolen native land). They will judge the people alive today by their actions and their inactions, as will the gods.

    “Now after this, I will not dare say that the happiness of heaven’s heart is guaranteed. Now after this, I will not dare say that the protection of the gods is guaranteed.”

  3. War and suffering do have lasting impact. 2/28 has just came and went in Taiwan. The newly elected Taipei mayor was one of the speaker in 228 memorial service. He broke down several time during his speech. He said the the pain of 228 could not be expressed by word. What his grandfather had suffered during 228 from 68 years ago still haunts his family to this day. It is important to remember the history and try to prevent the same tragedy from happening again.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’ll have to look up his speech, it sounds very powerful. I agree, war and suffering impact people for generations to come, and we need to remember how the effects of violence continue to ripple through society and culture.

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