“What times are these?” (1854/2015)

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?”

Katherine Alexander in 2015: “Numbers like 100,000 dead in the 1864 fall of Nanjing, or 20-30 million dead in the [Taiping] 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 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 you who are alive today by your actions and your inactions, as will the gods.

Yu Zhi 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.”

Far From Formosa

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…

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