The World of a Tiny Insect: A Memoir of the Taiping Rebellion and Its Aftermath. By Zhang Daye, translated by Xiaofei Tian. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. Pp. viii + 200. $75 (cloth); $30 (paper).
Scholars of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) already have a wide selection of original materials at their disposal, including official Taiping publications and the reports of Western observers. However, The World of a Tiny Insect is unique among existing sources in that it records events that were experienced by a child. Zhang Daye, the author of this fascinating memoir, was only seven years old when the Taipings captured his hometown (Shaoxing, Zhejiang) in 1861. His memoir not only highlights the extreme violence and chaos that characterized Chinese society during this tumultuous period, but also reveals the traumatic impact of such violence on an individual who experienced it as a child.
Zhang wrote his memoir in 1893-94, approximately thirty years after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion. Although the memoir has a clear tripartite structure, Zhang seems to have intentionally avoided a linear narrative, shifting back and forth between the past and the present in a way that encourages the reader to partake in the act of remembering. The first part describes a trip to Tiantai and Shaoxing that Zhang undertook in 1893. During this trip, Zhang paid his respects to a deceased friend (the stated purpose of the trip) and made sacrificial offerings to family members who had died during and after the Taiping Rebellion. The second part of the memoir transports the reader back to 1861, describing Zhang's experience of the Taipings as a young child. Zhang recalls how he and his mother, following their escape from Shaoxing in 1861, had to move to various places in Zhejiang in order to evade the Taipings. This section, which represents the core of the book, also includes detailed descriptions of Zhang's traumatic experiences during the Taiping Rebellion. The third part brings the memoir to a close with Zhang's reflections on the Nian Rebellion and the post-Taiping era.
Zhang's description of life and particular experiences during the Taiping Rebellion graphically illustrates the violence and chaos of the period. As a young child who "knew no fear," Zhang on one occasion went to watch a battle between the Taipings and a local militia. After the victorious Taipings had left the battlefield, Zhang went over to their fallen soldiers, identified those...