June 1974: A Conversation with Four Historians

Frederic Wakeman, Jr.

In June 1974, I spent a month in the People’s Republic of China as an interpreter and cultural advisor with the herbal pharmacology delegation from the United States Academy of Sciences. While visiting Peking, I requested, among other things, a chance to discuss Taiping historiography with Chinese historians. On 17 June, in Nanking, I was informed that this request had been granted. The next day a meeting was arranged for me with four Chinese Taiping specialists.

On the morning of the 18th, after a fierce summer thunderstorm that had toppled many of Nanking’s sycamores, I left my hotel accompanied by Lü Pin and Comrade Su, both cadres attached to the Chinese Medical Association, which was our host in China. We drove down Chung-shan South Road, where the population had already been mobilized to replant the fallen trees, and turned into a small street to pull up in front of the gate leading to the former residence of the Taiping tung-wang, Yang Hsiu-ch’ing. Behind the gate stretched the Soochow-style garden of a much larger complex, which houses the Taiping Historical Museum. The museum itself, I was told, is now under repair and not open to the public. It, and the residence area, were originally the palace of Hsu Ta, the early Ming general who fought so ably against the Mongols in Ninghsia. Under the Ch’ing it became the circuit intendant’s residence and yamen, and was — like all of the wooden buildings of Nanking — burned down when Tseng Kuo-fan’s Hsiang Army set the Taiping capital to the torch and slaughtered its inhabitants in 1864. Tseng had the palace rebuilt, and under the Kuomintang it housed police officials of the ministry of the interior. Now it has been completely restored, and the audience room, which looks out upon a pavilion with a lotus-covered pond and T’ai-hu rocks, is furnished in that dark and heavily rococo furniture of the high Ch’ing.

Four men greeted me at the front gate and led me into the audience room where I was offered tea and cigarettes. Three were Nanking University historians: Ch’üan Shao-ch’ing, Han P’in-cheng, and Wang Shih. The fourth man, Ch’en Ta-jung, was curator of the Taiping Historical Museum, and acted as formal host. He spoke very briefly about the history of the dwelling, and then fell silent. Most of the subsequent conservation was carried on by the two younger historians, Ch’üan and Han, who sat on either side of me. We spoke in Chinese.

After expressing my gratitude for the opportunity of visiting the eastern king’s palace and to discuss Chinese history with my hosts, I asked about current interpretations of the role of Yang Hsiu-ch’ing in the Taiping movement, explaining briefly how western historians tended to view his position.

Professor Ch’üan answered that there had recently been a great deal of discussion about Yang Hsiu-ch’ing, and that the matter was not entirely resolved. In fact, Ch’üan added, Nanking University historians still disagreed with some of the interpretations put forth in the recent study on the Taipings prepared by historians at Fu-tan University in Shanghai. One had to recognize, he said, that Yang did come from a semi-proletarian background, and that he had contributed a great deal to early Taiping ideology. Later, Yang deviated from the Taiping leader Hung Hsiu-ch’tian, who maintained the original peasant-war outlook of the early Taiping movement.

Wakeman[1]: We [American historians] tend to regard Hung as an ideological revolutionary before 1856, but feel that he inclined more and more towards a monarchic point of view as the Nanking regime aged. What is your opinion?
Ch’üan: We would disagree with this interpretation. Our more recent research shows that Hung did maintain a correct line until the very end, but was undone by others.[2]

Wakeman: Was Hung then not responsible for the degeneration of the hsiang-kuan system?[3] In the United States, many of us are discovering that the actual effect of the Taiping occupation of Kiangsu was to strengthen the landlord class.

Ch’üan: Correct. The landlord class was strengthened precisely in and around Soochow, and we have found that this was so because Li Hsiu-ch’eng, about whom we had serious debates in 1962 and 1963, controlled that region. He was in close contact with landlord representatives and essentially sold out the peasants’ interests.

Wakeman: Yes, Soochow is a good example of this. A young scholar named James Polachek at Columbia University has explored this problem.

Ch’en: Li Hsiu-ch’eng betrayed Hung Hsiu-ch’iian, who faithfully maintained the peasants’ class struggle against the Ch’ing feudal class and the imperialists.

Wakeman: In the United States, the Harvard historian, John Fairbank… .

Wang: We know of him. He spent some time in China.

Wakeman: . . . yes. Fairbank argued in his work, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast, that imperialism was not the issue. Rather, the Americans and English co-operated with the Ch’ing, just as the Manchus collaborated with the Chinese to rule the empire.[4]

Ch’üan: I do not see how that cannot be called imperialism, in any case.

Han: The English and Americans refused to support Hung Hsiu-ch’üan because he would not recognize the unequal treaties.

Wakeman: Then we in fact agree. Fairbank’s thesis is now being challenged by younger historians, many of whom are members of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars founded during the anti-Vietnam war activities in the United States.

Wang: Yes, we know of their work. Fairbank’s views are still current among the older generation of western scholars.

Ch’üan: But younger scholars have new interpretations of our national history. We know of your History and Will,[5] for example.

Wakeman: Do you think that the Ever-Victorious Army was very important in the defeat of the Taiping forces?

Han: No. The Hsiang and Huai armies were obviously much more important.

Ch’üan: Still, the Ever-Victorious Army is a concrete example of the imperialist-feudal collusion against the peasant movement. Of course, some foreigners were sympathetic to the Taipings.

Wakeman: Yes, missionaries gave strong support… .

Han: Not support; sympathy (t’ung-ch’ing).

Wakeman: … sympathy, until they realized Hung Hsiu-ch’iian did not believe in their form of Protestantism.
Ch’en: The missionaries realized that their religion was not the same as Hung Hsiu-ch’üan’s revolutionary beliefs.

Wakeman: What is your opinion about the origins of Hung Hsiu-ch’üan’s revolutionary theory?

Ch’iian: Naturally he was influenced by Christian propaganda, especially by Liang A-fa’s pamphlets; but Hung Hsiu-ch’üan went on to develop a peasant class point of view and a theory of struggle that was his own.

Wakeman: I realize that this is a sensitive question, especially in view of the present campaign to criticize Confucius and Lin Piao, but what about Confucian influences, especially chin-wen Confucianism, upon Hung Hsiu-ch’iian?

Han: He was influenced by the Chou-li and of course that is comprehensible. After all, Hung had to master the Four Books in order to take the examinations, and also taught Confucianism in the village school near Hua-hsien. But once he developed his ideology he became iconoclastic and attacked Confucius. Later, after 1853, many Confucianists joined the Taiping Government in Nanking, so there was also an influence then.

Ch’üan: However, if you carefully investigate Hung’s later works, even up to a few months before his death, you will find him attacking Confucianism as an instrument of the landowners. His thought was very much in the spirit of our present campaign to criticize Confucius.

Wakeman: How do you regard Shih Ta-k’ai’s historic position?

Han: He betrayed the movement and committed many errors.

Ch’uan: As you may know, we thoroughly exposed Shih Ta-k’ai’s record in vigorous debates in 1961.

Han: Hung Hsiu-ch’üan badly needed Shih Ta-k’ai’s troops to help defend Nanking. We have evidence here, in materials which you have not seen, that Shih Ta-k’ai was repeatedly requested by Hung to return to Nanking, yet did not return. He betrayed the movement.

Wakeman: Of course, Shih Ta-k’ai was also in touch with Tseng Kuo-fan, who wished him to surrender.

Ch’üan: Actually, that was not Tseng Kuo-fan’s policy to begin with. Tseng Kuo-fan wrote to Shih Ta-k’ai offering amnesty only after being ordered to do so by the Hsien-feng emperor. There are documents proving this.

Wakeman: I didn’t realize that. As you know, western scholars have relied heavily on the Taiping materials which you published in 1955, and the additional set made available in 1961. Both sets of documents advanced our knowledge considerably. Are you planning to publish any more materials?

Ch’üan: Definitely. Nanking has a rich set of archives, although they were left uncatalogued before Liberation. Many documents are damaged. We certainly do plan to publish new materials in the future.

Wakeman: Very soon?

Ch’tian: Very soon (tsui chin).

Wakeman: Let me raise another question. What sort of relationship do you think existed between the Taiping headquarters, and other movements of the period such as the Red Turban Army in Fo-shan, the Gold Coin Society in Chekiang, and the Small Sword Society in Shanghai?

Ch’üan: The secret societies (hui-t’ang) shared a similar point of view and were also in the vanguard of the peasant struggle against the landlords and imperialists, as the Small Sword Society’s activities show. However, we must recognize two points. First, the secret societies were dispersed (fen-san). They allied momentarily, but did not have a united command. Secondly, without a disciplined proletarian leadership, their efforts were bound to fail.

Han: But one must also add that they were in the front lines of a struggle that continued on into the 20th century, when the working class finally occupied the historical stage.

Wakeman: How could the secret societies represent a peasant point of view when they were often urban commercial elements like petty traders, coolies and even compradores?

Ch’üan: They were bankrupted (p’o-ch’an) peasants who had been driven off the land by high rents and taxes. I would like to add that Hung Hsiu-ch’tian tried to mobilize (fa-tung) them, sending communications to Fukien and Kwangtung, but the Ch’ing imperialist troops occupied the communications routes and prevented them from making contact.

Wakeman: What was the role of the secret societies in the Hsin-hai revolution [of 1911]?

Ch’üan: Every revolutionary leader tried to mobilize them. The Elder Brothers Society was another version of the Triads.

Wakeman: Wasn’t the Elder Brothers Society first formed by Tseng Kuo-fan’s soldiers?

Han: Some also say that it was formed in Tso Tsung-t’ang’s army. We have been examining this matter and I can assure you that the evidence for the Elder Brothers Society forming in the Hsiang Army is not conclusive. The Elder Brothers Society, after all, was a continuation of the Triads.

Ch’üan: The Elder Brothers Society was much more mobile than the Triads, especially along the Yangtze River.

Wakeman: In the United States, many historians have been reconsidering the role of the secret societies and of Sun Yat-sen in the Hsin-hai revolution. At Yale University, the late Professor Mary Wright edited a book called China in Revolution. Among the essays in that book there are some that view the Hsin-hai revolution as a victory for the gentry. Others, like Joseph Esherick at the University of Oregon, have pointed out that in provinces like Hunan it was the reformist gentry like T’an Yen-k’ai who really profited from the revolution. Of course, the New Army… .

Han: Many New Army units were composed of Elder Brothers Society members.

Wakeman: … also played an important role.

Ch’üan: That sounds like a Japanese interpretation to me. Sun Yat-sen is still regarded as the consistent and far-sighted leader of the bourgeois democratic revolution. There is absolutely no question of that. Of course, his historical work in uniting the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party is also recognised. Sun Yat-sen did conduct a bourgeois democratic revolution, and at the time that was historically progressive. Yuan Shih-k’ai, on the other hand, continued to represent old landlords like T’an Yen-k’ai, and was an out-and-out reactionary. His attempt to restore the Confucian rites[6] is one example of his reactionary behaviour. He also bowed to the imperialists by accepting the reorganisation loans. His association with the Constitution Clique (Li-hsien p’ai) is more proof of his connections with the old gentry.

Wakeman: I would like to ask you about the effect of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution upon your research work.

Ch’üan: Many foreign scholars probably think that the Cultural Revolution impeded and delayed our work. I want to assure you that this is not true. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a great help to us, collectively and individually. We finally understood, in the course of our own intense struggles, that history is the science of class struggles (chieh-chi tou-cheng ti k’o-hsueh).

Wakeman: I think that western scholars fully understand that. But let me ask you another question that I have posed to many people during my visit to China. What effect has the campaign to criticize Lin Piao and to criticize Confucius had upon your work? I can certainly see how ancient historians are deeply affected by this movement, but what about modern Chinese historians?

Ch’üan: Let me give you an example. As we look at the Legalists at the time of the Ch’in dynasty, we realize that intellectual elements must be judged as progressives or reactionaries in terms of their historical stage. We have before neglected thinkers like Yen Fu who were exponents of the compradore and capitalist classes, but who in fact furthered China’s historical development by using western theories to attack Confucianists. K’ang Yu-wei and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, on the contrary, were seemingly progressive at their time, but ended up supporting Confucius, preserving his doctrine to sustain the old ruling classes.

Wakeman: I intend to report these developments in your current research to other western scholars when I return to the United States.

Ch’üan: Good, good. We hope that other historians will come to China in the future and exchange experiences with us.

Wakeman: I hope so too.


[1] The following remarks are as far as possible reported verbatim. I did not take notes during the conversation, but returned immediately to my hotel and reconstructed our comments as best I could from memory.
[2] The analogy with Chairman Mao Tse-tung is unmistakable.
[3] The system of appointing local officials to collect taxes.
[4] Obviously I could not think of the word for ‘synarchy’ in Chinese.
[5] He pronounced the title in English.
[6] Fu-li alluding to the current accusation that Lin Piao wished to emulate Confucius by k’o-chi fu-li (restraining the self and restoring the rites).


From The China Quarterly, no.60 (December 1974): 767-772. The style of the original has been retained. The original title was: ‘China Report: A Conversation with Four Chinese Historians in Nanking’.