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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War [Kindle Edition]

Stephen R. Platt
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

A gripping account of China’s nineteenth-century Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest civil wars in history. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom brims with unforgettable characters and vivid re-creations of massive and often gruesome battles—a sweeping yet intimate portrait of the conflict that shaped the fate of modern China.
The story begins in the early 1850s, the waning years of the Qing dynasty, when word spread of a major revolution brewing in the provinces, led by a failed civil servant who claimed to be the son of God and brother of Jesus. The Taiping rebels drew their power from the poor and the disenfranchised, unleashing the ethnic rage of millions of Chinese against their Manchu rulers. This homegrown movement seemed all but unstoppable until Britain and the United States stepped in and threw their support behind the Manchus: after years of massive carnage, all opposition to Qing rule was effectively snuffed out for generations. Stephen R. Platt recounts these events in spellbinding detail, building his story on two fascinating characters with opposing visions for China’s future: the conservative Confucian scholar Zeng Guofan, an accidental general who emerged as the most influential military strategist in China’s modern history; and Hong Rengan, a brilliant Taiping leader whose grand vision of building a modern, industrial, and pro-Western Chinese state ended in tragic failure.
This is an essential and enthralling history of the rise and fall of the movement that, a century and a half ago, might have launched China on an entirely different path into the modern world.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Platt presents the perplexing Taiping Rebellion that convulsed China’s Qing dynasty from 1851 to 1864. Overlapping with additional portents that the Qing had forfeited the mandate of heaven, such as territorial cessions to Russia and the Anglo-French capture of Beijing, the turbulent times tested the loyalty of imperial officials like Zeng Guofan. Tracking his apparently amply documented career, Platt richly portrays Zeng’s inner self-doubts about his outer presentation as the general tasked to subdue the Taiping rebels. On their side, Platt has a comparably knowable character named Hong Rengan, a Christian convert whose relative, Taiping leader Hong Xiuquan, proclaimed himself the “Heavenly King” and younger brother of Jesus. However eccentric Taiping theology was, it was the rebels’ control of the Yangtze River and environs that vexed foreign powers trying to extract concessions from the Qing government. From attacking the Qing in 1860, Britain performed a volte-face by fighting the rebels with a mercenary army raised by another bizarre figure, American freebooter Frederick Ward. Incorporating his perceptive characterizations and a comprehensible account of Zeng’s ultimately victorious military campaigns, Platt has skillfully converted his erudition into an eminently general-interest treatment of what may have been the most lethal civil war in world history. --Gilbert Taylor


“A refreshing and gripping account that illuminates how civil conflicts can suck in outsiders and why the West has had great difficulties in trying to maintain a façade of neutrality and protect its commercial interests at the same time . . . Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom may not have said the last word on the Taiping Rebellion, but the story it tells is powerful, dramatic, and unforgettable.”
—Minxin Pei, San Francisco Chronicle
“Structurally, Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a thriller . . . We read in starred reviews things like ‘the book brings history to life.’ We read these words so often that we have forgotten what they mean, but this book reminds us. It makes history immediate and personal, one that speaks to us on a sensory, moral, intellectual and emotional level. They should teach this one in schools.”
—Gerard Martinez, San Antonio Express-News
“A compelling and often meticulous account . . . Platt is at his best when dissecting the often absurd dynamics of Western intervention.”
—Ross Perlin, The Daily Beast
“An intricate and compelling historical narrative rich in military campaigning, vivid personalities and, above all, diplomatic misunderstanding. When Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, the Taiping rebellion had been raging for 10 years, and it would continue until rebel supply lines collapsed in 1864. With a wonderful flair for storytelling, Platt explores the relationship between the two conflicts . . . Authoritative and fascinating, Platt’s work will interest both the specialist and the casual reader (like me) who wants to learn about an event that presaged China’s entry into the modern world.”
—Tom Zelman, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“China’s brutal Taiping Civil War erupted in the 1850s and raged until the fall of rebel-held Nanjing in 1864. The bloodbath paralleled our own North-South conflict, but dwarfed it in terms of casualties, geography and global fallout . . . [Platt] juxtaposes the competing ideologies and leaders of the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty and the Hunan Taiping rebels with savvy and assurance. By neatly folding in the machinations of the British, Platt paints a picture of combat dire enough to have choked the Yangtze’s flow several times with discarded victims.”
—Jonathan E. Lazarus, Newark Star-Ledger

“Platt has skillfully converted his erudition into an eminently general-interest treatment of what may have been the most lethal civil war in history.”
—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist (starred review)
“Splendid . . . An upheaval that led to the deaths of 20 million, dwarfing the simultaneously fought American Civil War, deserves to be better known, and Platt accomplishes this with a superb history of a 19th-century China faced with internal disorder and predatory Western intrusions.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Stephen Platt’s history of the Taiping rebellion in mid-19th century China sheds an authoritative and comprehensive window on a major event in world history that up until now has too often been consigned to a footnote in the West. It is a critically important achievement.”
 —Robert D. Kaplan, author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power
“Stephen Platt brings to vivid life a pivotal chapter in China’s history that has been all but forgotten: the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century, which cost one of the greatest losses of life of any war in history. It had far-reaching consequences that still reverberate in contemporary China. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a fascinating work by a first-class historian and superb writer.”
—Henry Kissinger
“A splendid example of finely calibrated historical narrative. The civil war that erupted in China between the early 1850s and 1864 was perhaps the bloodiest in human history; with a wealth of vivid detail, Platt shows how the fates of China’s rulers and many millions of their subjects were manipulated by British diplomatic and commercial interests, as well as colored by the rebels’ own unorthodox religious and political beliefs. It is a tragic and powerful story.”
—Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China

“The ambitious scale and lively writing make Platt's book an excellent entree into a pivotal event in world history.”
—CHOICE Magazine

Product Details

  • File Size: 6242 KB
  • Print Length: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (February 7, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0050DIX42
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #95,534 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chinese Epic February 23, 2012
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a fast paced, tightly focused and compelling history of the civil war that tore China apart in the mid 19th century, at the same time America was enduring its own Civil War. It is one of the best written histories involving China I have come across, indeed one of the best on any topic.

The author is able to rein in the far reaching complex story by focusing on two characters, Zeng Guofan, a scholar and later reluctant soldier who became the most important general defending the Manchu empire and Hong Rengan, the Taiping prime minister who brought word of the rebellion to the West, particularly Christian missionaires who he expected to work with "God worshippers" among the rebels, many of whom had adopted some aspects of Christian belief.

In my view this book is superior to God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquanby veteran China scholar Jonathan Spence, which covers the same territory, but less effectively. Spence's book focused on the actual leader of the rebellion, Hong Ziuquan, and his increasingly delusional world view impacted the book.

But Platt, who I presume was a student of Spence's while at Yale, has outdone the teacher here. Autumn is much easier to follow, in part because of a generous supply of maps, a comprehensive who's who of characters and a timeline clarifying the chronology of events.

The book also gains from Platt's decision to basically pick up the story at midpoint, focusing on the concluding half of the war. The book has been critized for this, but we have a full, busy narrative as it is. A larger book might very well have spun out of control, as Spence's did.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Old fashioned narrative history February 16, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A rebellious king in the heart of imperial China finds a missionary tract, decides he is the younger son of God the Father (Jesus Christ being the elder son) and a crucial third of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit ultimately being demoted....), and then manages to establish hegemony over the southern China for more than a dozen years--all simultaneous with the American Civil War--does that sound incredible? And if you are somewhat familiar with 19th century, are you somewhat surprised (as I was) to learn this happened? And that this entire rebellion ultimately attracted the attention of the British empire, which found its very foundation of trade threatened by these events?

It did and Stephen Platt has written an interesting book about the rebellion (which he terms a civil war.) The strengths of the book are many--Platt is an excellent stylist and he has an interesting subject. He follows largely a few crucial figures in the war, both Chinese and English, and paints a convincing picture of their doings. The book is a good old fashioned narrative yarn.

Yet it left me dissatisfied. Although Platt admits that HE, a scholar of China, has never heard of this rebellion until he had studied Chinese history for several years at the graduate level, and had spent a year in China, he blithely ignores much of the Chinese origins of the rebellion and its early years. In the introduction, he says several good books have been written on the subject--this may be true, but I for one do not want to read another book on this rebellion and would have appreciated at least a better summary of the early years of the war.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Half a Tale November 11, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are few books which cover the Taiping Rebellion adequately, and this book also fails to do so. The title itself is a warning; although the book is subtitled China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, it really only covers the last nine years of a civil war, and glosses over the first six years. In addition, it has a Western perspective which dominates the narrative. It would be like a book on the American Civil War which begins with the aftermath of Gettysburg and concentrates on the British perspective.

While the prose is readable, there are omissions which are substantive. When the author relates the experience of Yung Wing who initially sided with the rebels and later switched to the Qing dynasty, there are three hundred pages between his appearances and nowhere does the author tell what happened to him. It might have been helpful to note that Yung Wing had become an American citizen as early as 1852 and that he later returned to the United States, where he died in 1912.

Also, the prologue notes the chronology of the ciivl war, but the text does not really follow it to a conclusion. For example, the text ends with the capture of Hong Rengan (the Shield King), while only the chronology notes his later execution for treason.

Perhaps the most egregious omission is the failure to note anything about the motivations and actions of Hong Xiuquan (the founder of the Heavenly Kingdom). The principles of his polity, what he stood for and how his kingdom developed are omitted almost in their entirety.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
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Published 1 month ago by John Mazzacane
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully crafted
Stephen Platt, in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, creates an almost stunning narrative of the Taiping Rebellion and its attending intricacies. Read more
Published 2 months ago by C.R.
5.0 out of 5 stars This really is an excellent piece of scholarship
This really is an excellent piece of scholarship. For any reader interested in the fascinating story of the Taiping Rebellion this new book is invaluable. Read more
Published 3 months ago by James Kirrane
5.0 out of 5 stars Smart, Epic Storytelling
This is compelling historical storytelling at its best. Readers get a strong sense of how individual actors changed the tide of events to determine the fate not just of the Taiping... Read more
Published 3 months ago by J. Leighton
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly stranger than fiction but more worthwhile
An historical tour de force about a much forgotten war that took place in China during the nineteenth century. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Dr.G.
5.0 out of 5 stars A good history of the Taiping Rebellion
I've just finished this book. I can't say that it was an easy read. General unfamiliarity with the Taiping Rebellion, names, places, chronology and context made for hard going, but... Read more
Published 6 months ago by danny boy
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book
The best book about the Taipings that i have read and I have read quite a few. This is outstanding
Published 9 months ago by Old Man Walking
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable yet well documented historical account
This is one of the better non-fiction books I read in 2013. Platt's writing style and organization provides even readers without much background on Chinese history a readable book. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Vegas Slim
4.0 out of 5 stars love history
History has always been my favorite subject. There is so much to learn about the past that is relevant today. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Carol Jenkins O'Neill
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful as companion piece to Jonathan Spence's book
(Disclaimer: I am not an expert in Chinese history. Readers should not interpret this review as a rival assessment of the Taiping Rebellion. This is only a book review. Read more
Published 15 months ago by James R. Maclean
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