The World of a Tiny Insect

A Memoir of the Taiping Rebellion and Its Aftermath

Zhang Daye
Translated with an introduction by Xiaofei Tian

  • Published: January 2014
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies, Memoir
  • Bibliographic information: 208 pp., 1 map, appendices, notes, index, 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World
  • Contents

"From the cry of a tiny insect, one can hear the sound of a vast world. . . ." So begins Zhang Daye’s preface to The World of a Tiny Insect, his haunting memoir of war and its aftermath. In 1861, when China’s devastating Taiping rebellion began, Zhang was seven years old. The Taiping rebel army occupied Shaoxing, his hometown, and for the next two years, he hid from Taiping soldiers, local bandits, and imperial troops and witnessed gruesome scenes of violence and death. He lost friends and family and nearly died himself from starvation, illness, and encounters with soldiers on rampages.

Written thirty years later, The World of a Tiny Insect gives voice to this history. A rare premodern Chinese literary work depicting a child’s perspective, Zhang’s sophisticated text captures the macabre images, paranoia, and emotional excess that defined his wartime experience and echoed throughout his adult life. The structure, content, and imagery of The World of a Tiny Insect reveal a carefully crafted, fragmented narrative that skips in time and probes the relationship between trauma and memory, revealing both history and its psychic impact. Xiaofei Tian’s annotated translation includes an introduction that situates The World of a Tiny Insect in Chinese history and literature and explores the relevance of the book to the workings of traumatic memory.

Zhang Daye (b. 1854) is known only as the author of The World of a Tiny Insect. Xiaofei Tian is professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. Among her recent publications is Visionary Journeys: Travel Writings from Early Medieval and Nineteenth-Century China.

"Xiaofei Tian has discovered, reconstructed, and translated an early modern memoir hitherto overlooked in the Chinese speaking world. The World of A Tiny Insect relates a child’s traumatic encounter with a world of total atrocities, and a writer’s quest for redemption through the art of remembrances. More importantly, it is a testimony to the literary triumph over historical contingencies. Tian’s translation is concise and compelling, and her investigation of the fate of the manuscript is itself a fascinating story. Thanks to Tian’s endeavor, this obscure memoir has become a classic of nineteenth century Chinese literature." -David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University

“The author and narrator recounts his terrible experiences and miraculous survivals with a child’s curiosity and in a vivid, straightforward way. But he also embeds what happened to him in a larger historical, philosophical, moral, and aesthetic context. No comparable primary source available in English does anything like this for the Taiping Rebellion.” - Judith Zeitlin, University of Chicago

Map of Author’s Travels
Translator’s Introduction
Preface by Zhang Daye

Part 1
“Trip to Tiantai”
An Account of Taizhou Prefecture
The Six Counties of Taizhou
The “One-Headed Woman” at Huangyan
Ten Poems on Xianju
The Birds of Xianju

Part 2
Birth and Early Childhood
On the Run: 1861–1863
“Flames of War,” Ghost Troops, and Other Strange Happenings
Epidemic, Greed, and the Woman Dismembered at Lu’s Dyke
The Occupation of Shaoxing and Its Aftermath
Edible Flora and Fauna
The Pleasures and Horrors of Childhood
Narrow Escapes on Water
Reunion with Father and Father’s Death