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Images of War: Picturing the Taiping Occupation of Jiangnan, 1860-84

A talk by Tobie Meyer-Fong, Johns-Hopkins University.

January 16, 2008 4:30pm to 6:00pm

The Taiping occupation of Jiangnan, and the retributive fighting that accompanied the Qing reconquest, destroyed cities and villages across a broad swath of southeast China. Memoirs and local histories compiled in the postwar period refer with appalling frequency to population loss approaching, or in many cases surpassing, 50 percent in cities and towns throughout the lower Yangzi region. How did nineteenth-century Chinese publishers, writers, and artists picture war and human suffering? What visual conventions were used to picture events that contemporaries labeled "unspeakable" and "too painful to view"? This talk will focus on an illustrated pamphlet, "An Iron Man’s Tears for Jiangnan," published in Suzhou in 1864 just as the war was ending, and designed to encourage donations in support of the countless refugees displaced by the war. In it, the author, a local philanthropist and advocate of "moral transformation," depicts the horrors of war and occupation, even as he illuminates the politically and ideologically redemptive potential that he found in the devastating violence he had witnessed.