WEAI Author Q&A: Chuck Wooldridge’s “City of Virtues”



We are pleased to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: City of Virtues: Nanjing in an Era of Utopian Visionspublished by the University of Washington Press. The book’s author is Chuck Wooldridge, an assistant professor of history at Lehman College, the City University of New York, and an associate research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. In his book, Professor Wooldridge examines the ways a series of visionaries, drawing on past glories of the Nanjing, projected their ideologies onto the city as they constructed buildings, performed rituals, and reworked its literary heritage from the late 18th century until 1911. Encompassing the Opium War, the Taiping occupation of the city, the rebuilding of the city by Zeng Guofan, and attempts to establish it as the capital of the Republic of China, City of Virtues shows how utopian visions of the cosmos shaped Nanjing’s path through the turbulent 19th century.

We thank Professor Wooldridge for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

How did you first become interested in this particular period in Nanjing’s history?

When I first heard about the Taiping, I was taking a course on Chinese history my junior year at Swarthmore.  The circumstances were extraordinary.  Most of the students in the seminar had been in China or Taiwan during Tiananmen, and Lillian Li, the professor, had a tremendous ability to highlight ways the past might give insight into questions about China at the time.  We would hang out after class, and I would just listen to my classmates’ stories about China. We also baked cookies; it was a good time.

I remember reading about the Taiping and it’s leader, Hong Xiuquan, and just not understanding how it was possible that a man could claim to be the younger brother of Jesus and still gain millions of supporters.   At the same time, all through 1989 and 1990, extraordinary things seemed to be happening, in particular the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. I got interested in how people can imagine that transformations might happen, and I found that I just kept returning to the Taiping.

Were “utopian visions” realized in Nanjing? Why or why not?

I should make clear that the book is about “utopian visions,” attempts to create what adherents claimed would be a wonderful and harmonious state.  Even if the visions had been fully realized, I doubt the result would have lived up to the claims.

Nanjing was never actually a utopia.  Sometimes it was quite the opposite.  At the end of the Opium War, the British threatened to bombard the city, and throughout the Taiping period it was under near constant siege.  In 1864 most of the city lay in ruins following the defeat of the Taiping.  Yet throughout the nineteenth century, different people tried to make Nanjing a place where one could see the true nature of the cosmos, could experience a form of government that perfectly reflected the reality of the world, could learn to understand the world, and could come to act in a way that would bring about utopia.  Writing about the city, constructing buildings in the city, and performing rituals, especially rituals to the dead, were the strategies employed again and again to convince people that this time would really be great.

What is the significance of the title “City of Virtues?”

Let’s say you want to bring about some radical political change.  In nineteenth-century China, you would have a number of strategies available to you.  You could, for example, try to convince the imperial court to issue edicts. You could try to create incremental change by solving particular administrative problems (for example, some scholars devoted a lot of energy to try to promote a new way of transporting grain to the capital because they thought the old system was inefficient and corrupt).  Later in the century you could study abroad, or seek help from foreigners in other ways.

In Nanjing, however, a number of groups chose a different path.  They tried to transform politics by claiming that the current world was completely out of alignment with the true nature of the cosmos.  The Taiping claimed that demons had taken over, preventing people from seeing that the world was actually a part of God’s Heavenly Kingdom.  Other thinkers, borrowing in particular from Song Dynasty Learning of the Way interpretations of Chinese Classics, argued that personal selfishness had spawned a host of problems, including an imbalance of qi in the universe that helped spawn corruption, natural disaster, and troubled relations with foreigners.  Later in the century, inspired by the writings of the visionary Confucian thinker Kang Youwei, others imagined an eventual “Great Harmony.”

These various groups had radically different visions of the cosmos, but they shared a common strategy for communicating their ideas.  They claimed that only truly virtuous people could effect meaningful political transformation. The truly virtuous could see the true nature of the cosmos, and thus knew the right things to do.  So to win adherents to your political cause, you created models of virtuous action.  If people followed these models, they would come to see your political program as true, and in so doing, they would condemn the politics of your opponents. As a result, as Nanjing is destroyed and rebuilt several times in the nineteenth century, each time allows leaders to use the city to depict the true nature of the cosmos and the kind of actions that would bring about a utopia.

Chuck Wooldridge-Scholars

What kind of sources and archives did you consult in writing this book? What kind of challenges did you encounter in researching this subject?

The sources for this book are quite diverse. First I created a database of everybody I could identify as having Nanjing as their native place, and I tried to track down all their extant writings.  Then I made a list of gazetteers of the city, and went through them.  Then I located accounts of the Taiping in the city. Then I went to Taipei and Beijing to go through the archives there.  And after all that, I still didn’t really have the story down.  The period of rebuilding the city after the Taiping was still a big blank.

It took me a long time to fill the hole.  Natives of Nanjing had mostly been too poor after the war to contribute much to rebuilding, and there was very little recorded in Qing government archives.  It turned out that Zeng Guofan, the architect of the Taiping defeat, had not used official channels to manage the rebuilding, but had instead employed an extensive, informal network of logistical support.  So a lot of people were involved who, at first glance, seemed to have no connection to Nanjing.

Then there are a lot of odds and ends: poetry, ritual manuals, and letters. I had a good time reading prefaces to different books to figure out how certain manuscripts had survived the Taiping War.  My favorite source is a catalog of the archive of the governor-general’s office.  Apparently the archive was extant as of 1937, and the catalog lists all kinds of different bureaus responsible for different aspects of urban administration. Sadly, the archive itself seems to be lost, and I could only make very limited use of the catalog.

Are there any cities – whether in China or elsewhere – that you think are being shaped by utopian visions today?

I argue in my book that all the individual elements of nineteenth-century political strategies are still around, but people have not thus far combined them.  I don’t know that promoting a vision of cosmic harmony would be desirable, but I do think it is still possible.  Groups promoting religious visions of change have mostly been suppressed, and therefore have not been able to shape contemporary cityscapes in quite the same way.  Protests, as for example recently in Hong Kong, have made use of urban geography, but not linked it (so far as I know) to cosmology.

The most powerful vision of the future shaping China today, including Nanjing, is neoliberalism.  Most of the neighborhoods I visited while the research for this book have been torn down in the name of economic development, which promises a future of prosperity with a vehemence that I find utopian.