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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 7, 2012

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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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (February 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780307271730
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307271730
  • ASIN: 0307271730
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #31,871 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Brian Lewis on February 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Comment Man on 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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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By S Browne on March 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a great narrative history of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest wars in history. I evaluate books in this genre on historical accuracy, quality of writing and readability - and Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom excels in all three. The story is necessarily a dark one, of the struggles of the Chinese people to deal with the modern world and their own decrepit foreign Qing dynasty and how a novel, quasi-Christian religious movement became a lighting rod for their aspirations along with those of the Western missionaries to "save" the country. Gone is the American civil war's pretense of chivalry, surrendered rebels are massacred and when Zeng Guofan, the analog of Ulysses Grant, meets his defeated Taiping counterpart, there is no respectful meeting of gentleman instead the fallen general is executed and his confession rewritten to fit what Guofan wants the Qing government in Peking to know. Another theme in the book is the folly of the British intervention (well worth studying in the wake of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) - without which the Qing empire very well may have fallen and a modern China emerged within the same time frame as Japan's modernization.
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful By M. Evan Brooks on 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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