on 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.
Much of the book is a military history, describing armies on the march, attacking, laying siege to one river town after another on the Yangtze. Platt does not engage in very much analysis, until a ten page epilog chapter, but he does not need to. The parallels to the subsequent war between the Nationals and the Communists in the 20th century are impossible to miss.
In an effort to reach an American audience, Platt may have overstated America's influence on events. At the time, Western involvement basically meant the British. But the points of comparison with the American Civil War are fascinating.
This is a terrific book by a new author - it is just Platt's second book. Highly recommended.
on February 16, 2012
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.
Platt also does not indulge much in historical analysis; when he does do it, he simply writes aphoristic statements the reader has to accept or reject without much evidence one way or the other. He seems loathe to waste any research; among other vague irrelevancies he included a poetic ballad about an obscure American seaman who joined the British in a losing battle to take a fort in China. This sometimes gives the narrative a disjointed feel.
His excellent style and the interest of the incident redeem the book in my eyes--it is a mightly fine yarn. Yet as a serious historical work, it has flaws that prevent it from being an essential discussion of 19th century China and Britain.
on November 11, 2012
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.
on March 3, 2012
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.
on November 27, 2013
(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.)
There are several books on the Taiping Rebellion, although most of them are polemical or ultra-specialized (1). Amazing as it may seem to readers, the 2nd deadliest conflict in recorded history (after WW2, of course-2) has left behind little or no authentic documentation of the losing side, so in this case, history really has been written by the winners. No authentic image of any Taiping leader can be found. Most internal affairs of the Taiping are (apparently) lost to history, but for the self-serving testimony of certain outsiders, such as military men acting for the Qing Dynasty, or European interlopers. Since the testimony is inconsistent, readers are obligated to choose whom to believe. And in the end, one must decide who the Taiping were.
This pressing question is mostly (and shrewdly) parried by Stephen R. Platt. Were the Taiping really Christian? Was their Christianity a key to understanding the Taiping polity or its fate? Platt's plan of the book is like the narrative style of novelist Arthur Hailey, jumping from character to character as events unfold. We are introduced to translator/missionary James Legge, then his friend Hong Rengan (cousin and foreign secretary of the Heavenly King), Zeng Guofan (an ethnic Han fighting for the Manchurian Qing Dynasty), Edward Hope, and so on. Sometimes these characters don't remain for long; Charles "Chinese" Gordon gets a commission to help the Qing "government" restore its odious rule over their Chinese Empire, but quits after 9 pivotal months of campaigning (3). Likewise, Frederick Ward and Henry Burgevine, whose stories are picaresque but short.
There are advantages to this: people behave very differently as members of a group than they do as individuals, but in either case they are a distinct person whose motives cannot be truthfully blended with those of others. Probably Hong Xiuquan, the Heavenly king whose visions became the creed of the Taiping, did believe he was God's son, and that reality lay in those visions. But what did Hong Rengan believe? Evidence exists for him, but not for others. Even then, however, Platt focuses solely on Hong Rengan among the Taiping (and Zeng Guofan on the Qing side), because they were operating in the theater where the treaty ports were.
This is not a ruse: this is, after all, not only a book trying to explain what impact Europeans had on the outcome of the war, but specifically how it was linked to the other world-historical event of the time, the Civil War in the United States. Fighting mostly took place on the eastern frontier of the Taiping territory, sometimes outside the Chinese sector of Shanghai, and sometimes along the coast of Zhejiang. The border of the Taiping region was fluid but long, yet only a small part of it was under attack. Still, the behavior of the great powers is a pointless parade of squalor. The foreigners in Shanghai were often freebooters and filibusters by profession, and their respective governments had little hope of restraining them under the best of circumstances. In a war that threatened to spill into the European concessions, it was like a hothouse for ripe, succulent soldiers of fortune, redolent with racial snobbery and psychopathic megalomania. On this point, all available evidence jibes.
But outside of this particular theater, the Taiping Rebellion was a peasant uprising, and involved most of southern China. Other books about peasant uprisings address the nature of tenant cultivation and how drove the uprising. This was certainly true in the The Huk Rebellion and Poor Conrad. It had to have played a role in China. But how? That's missing.
Readers need to know that this is not a history of the Tàipíng Tiānguó, by any metric: it only cover the demise of the Tiānguó, and then only from the point of view of a few selected observers. It should be read in connection with Jonathan D. Spence's God's Chinese Son. By itself, the book is not very informative. It allocates far too little time making its case that English policy in the war was driven by the loss of cotton to Union blockades of Confederate harbors, For example, regular forces of the British army intervened on the side of the rebels almost six months before the secession convention was held in Alabama, and they withdrew soon after it became obvious that the Union was likely to win (but would require a long time to resume shipments of cotton). The timing is bad for the hypothesis, but Platt doesn't even mention this. And yet, it's central to the message of the book.
Perhaps Platt has a powerful rejoinder to what I say; it seems likely. But it needs to be in the book.
So it's hard to say what the point of the book is. It's certainly not informative about the Taiping polity, and it says little about the history of that polity; it discusses some of the internal Qing conflict but fails to explain the importance of this conflict convincingly. The economic analysis is a hodgepodge (although it's true that the Europeans were obsessed with the vigor of Chinese trade, and also true that the war definitely stimulated massive amounts of both profit and territorial control for the Great Powers). It does cover the ugly aspects of diplomacy, but otherwise leaves readers to make their own sense of the ghastly winding-up of the Taiping establishment.
(1) For a survey of existing literature on the Taiping Rebellion, I am indebted to Joshua Brett, "Building the Heavenly State: the Taiping Construction of Moral, Social, and Political Order," BA Thesis, UC Santa Cruz (2010), pp.3-5 in particular. In addition, the bibliography of Platt's book cites both Franz Michael & Chung-li Chung, Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents, 3 volumes, UW Press-Seattle (1966-1971) as well as separately published testimonies of several principle figures.
Several Chinese-language histories are explicitly polemical, in the sense of either denouncing them or praising them as proto-Communists. Another survey (Thomas H. Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: Rebellion and the Blasphemy of Empire, UW Press-Seattle (2004)), p.6-7, fingers Vincent Shih's The Taiping Ideology (1967) as belonging to this genre, insofar as he accuses Shih of not believing the Taiping took their religion seriously. Books written at the time, whether by Europeans or by Chinese, tended to be doctored outright or else explicitly self-aggrandizing.
(2) World War II--common estimates of the total killed are about 50 million (including genocides); the Taiping Rebellion is commonly estimated to have killed 20-30 million. World War I killed perhaps 16 million. Other wars that rival the Taiping Rebellion for 2nd place include extreme conjectures for the Mongol Conquest (of unhappy China) and the Qing Conquest (of China).
(3) According to the available accounts, Gordon suddenly discovered his employers were murdering captured Taiping leaders after he had promised them safety. But in 9 months of fighting with the Qing, he must have known they were killing POWs as a matter of standard operating procedure, and violating promises of their own. The Qing were world-famous for this long before Gordon arrived in China. Something doesn't add up.
Jonathan D. Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, WW Norton (1996) (Recommended because it provides an overview of the rebellion.)
Jonathan D. Spence & John E. Wills, Jr. (editors), From Ming to Ch'ing: Conquest, Region, and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century China, Yale University Press (1979) (I recommend this collection of essays because it provides valuable insight into the peculiar relationship between the Manchu elites, the Han Chinese landlord elites, and the Han Chinese peasants).
on June 17, 2013
The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war in the history of China, and quite possibly the most destructive war in the whole sanguine history of war, yet few outside of China know very much about the course of this titanic conflict, or even that it happened at all.
The Taiping Rebellion began as a religious movement led by Hong Xiuquan, a man who had had a nervous breakdown after failing the very difficult civil service exams that were the path to success in Imperial China. After reading some tracts given to him by Christian missionaries, he conceived the idea that he was Jesus' younger brother and began to form a cult, which became a Chinese nationalist movement against the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China. The Manchus did not care for this movement and their persecution sparked a rebellion that, at its height, involved almost half of the Chinese Empire.
Roughly contemporary with our own Civil War, there were a number of striking similarities between the American Civil War and the Taiping Rebellion, a fact noted by both Chinese and American observers. Both conflicts involved a rebellion by the southern regions of their respective countries against a government controlled by the north. Both were the most destructive civil wars ever fought by each nation. Both wars threatened the prosperity of the British economy, which depended on trade with both America and China. In both cases foreign powers, especially Britain and France believed they had an interest in intervening. In both cases, the north won.
The differences between the two wars were greater, however. The Taiping Rebellion lasted longer, from 1850 to 1864. It was fought far more cruelly than the American Civil War. Imagine instead of a pleasant conversation between Grant and Lee at Appomattox, Grant seizing the surrendering Lee and having him tortured to death. Or, Sherman deliberately massacring Confederate civilians when he burned Atlanta. The United States was also spared the complication of having British or French troops invading to fight on either side, or having the British Navy burn down the White House to force America to trade. China was not so fortunate. While fighting the rebellion, the Chinese were also forced to fight the Arrow War against the British who burned down the Xianfeng Emperor's Summer Palace in retaliation for the Chinese government's mistreatment of their representatives.
The outcome and legacy of the two wars were also much different for the two nations. The United States emerged from the Civil War stronger and more united. In the decades following the Civil War, America became an industrial giant and a world power. Again, China was not so lucky. The Qing Dynasty managed to cling to power for the next half-century, growing ever weaker and less capable of defending China against the encroaching foreigners.
As I said, little is known of this conflict in the West. There have been a couple good histories of the Taiping Rebellion written by Western historians, including Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R Platt. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is not so much a comprehensive history of the Taiping Rebellion, that would take several volumes to do it justice, but a story of some of the leading players would were caught up in the great events. Platt tells the story of Hong Rengan, the preacher's assistant and cousin of Hong Xiuquan, who felt obliged to join the Taipings to help his cousin and who became Hong's most trusted advisor. There is Zeng Guofan, the Chinese Confucian scholar who reluctantly became the general who crushed the Taipings. There were James Bruce or Lord Elgin who led the British in what he felt was an unjust war to force the Qing to allow the trade in opium, and his belligerent brother, Frederick Bruce who hated the Taipings and slanted his reports to encourage the British and the French to send forces to China to fight them. There were many Europeans, especially missionaries who sympathized with the Taipings and hoped that they would create a new, Christian China. There were others, like Frederick Townsend Ward, who sensed that fighting as mercenaries for the Qing could be very profitable.
This emphasis on some of the leading actors in the drama makes Platt's account interesting and readable. In fact, it reads almost like a novel and I found it hard to put down. The only weakness in his approach that I can see is that he barely mentions the beginnings and early years of the Taiping movement and the history only really begins when Hong Rengan decides to join the Taipings in 1858. The story also ends with the end of the Rebellion, and it might have been nice to read a little more about how China's "reconstruction era" turned out. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a worthy book about a somewhat forgotten war and I can heartily recommend it for anyone interested in Chinese history.
on August 16, 2014
An historical tour de force about a much forgotten war that took place in China during the nineteenth century. It defies easy characterization, for although it is historically accurate, so much of what it tells is occult, melodramatic, and simply beyond the imagination of any film maker or fictional author. A sure and compelling case for life being stranger than fiction.
If you have NO interest in China, then you must purchase this book and pass it on. Those who are sino-philes will surely buy and read it. Much to their dismay and amazement. Its jaw-dropping
on April 19, 2012
This wasn't a dry academic tome but instead a thrilling read.
The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) could seem like an obscure topic to a Westerner, but Platt showed that the causes of the war were global, and the course that the war took was very much tied to global events.
Hong Xiuchuan was riding the wave of religious fervor that was sweeping Europe and America at that time. Platt did a good job of showing that Hong took some of his cues from the missionaries that made their way to China. Somewhat tangentially, I'd also point out that Hong is not that different from his contemporary, Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844), founder of the Mormons. Most missionaries were shocked that Hong was "mistaken" in his doctrinal belief that he was Jesus' younger brother. This is not so different than Smith's claim to be an American prophet. The point is that religious fervor was in the air.
Platt also does a great job of explaining what the British Parliament thought about the Taiping Rebellion and how it could open up trade with China at the same time that trade with America was threatened by the civil war there. This was realpolitik before Kissinger.
And I enjoyed learning from Platt about the miscalculations by the Taiping and West about each other's intentions. The Taipings erroneously believed that the Westerners (mainly British, French, and Americans) would welcome the rebellion against the Qing Dynasty on the basis that the Taiping were Christian "brothers and sisters." Instead of embracing the Taiping, the Westerners rained artillery upon them. What the Taiping failed to realize was that the Westerners were appalled by the Taiping's religious doctrines, which seemed heretical. (Not to mention that the Westerners were largely motivated by what would be best for trade). Meanwhile, the Westerners were making war against both the Taiping in the Yangzi river delta and the Qing in the north, which resulted in turning all Chinese against the West. (Compare this to the post-1949 accusations in America about "who lost China").
I'd highly recommend this book.
on August 8, 2014
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 I persevered. I had read Jonathan Spence's "God's Heavenly Son" many years back then and, without remembering all the details of that book, it had given me an impressionistic view of this alternative kingdom.
Ploughing through this book eventually reveals that it is more of a military discourse on the latter years of the Taiping Rebellion. There are numerous battles and especially sieges, with insights into military stratagems, feints and cavalry incursions being conducted in the hinterland. The text is anchored by the focus on two key personages, Hong Rengan and Zuo Goufen, both antagonists who, obviously between them, left behind fuller accounts to posterity than other contemporaries. The Europeans, especially the heads of government, missionaries and soldiers of fortune, and their motives abound throughout this book, and it is this largely global context that gives much of the tome a certain familiarity for Western readers. For examples, comparative reference are drawn with the contemporary raging American Civil War and Britain's attempts to embroil herself in this conflict on the side of the Qing Dynasty was, ultimately, an economic decision.
To me, Spence's book was woven from the founder's (Hong Xiuquan) own narrative which would have covered the early history and founding of this kingdom. Thus, in this book, it makes sense to pick up the story at a later stage, as the Europeans were then starting to get involved. Given the amount of effort, documentation and excellent prose by the author, this book deserves 5 stars for this tale.
on December 21, 2014
Stephen Platt, in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, creates an almost stunning narrative of the Taiping Rebellion and its attending intricacies. Within the first few pages of the book, Platt introduces the reader to a series of well-crafted maps that demonstrate both the massive territory of the Qing Empire and the little corner of it in the southeast, which the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom occupied. Not only is the imperial capital, Beijing, safely more than 700 miles from the rebel capital of Nanjing, but Shanghai too, being perhaps less than 200 miles away, is also safe from Taiping control. By the maps alone, it seems almost a wonder that it took over a decade for the Qing to suppress the Taiping. Almost immediately, however, Platt makes it abundantly clear that the state of affairs in the Qing Empire during this period was that of complete bedlam. In addition to the Taiping, the Qing found its power contested in the West by a Muslim revolt, in the North by a group called the Nian, who roamed the countryside looting and waylaying at will, and the Europeans--chiefly the British and French--who drove the Xianfeng Emperor from Beijing and torched an irreplaceable 800 acre palatial complex. Making matters even more chaotic, Platt illustrates the vacillating foreigners in the country ultimately held the balance of power in China in their hands, but drifted from despising the ineffectual, duplicitous Manchus in Beijing to believing them the only party capable of ruling China. Platt sets out to redefine the Taiping Rebellion as the Taiping Civil War and to clarify its place in an international context--and he meets resounding success in this task. As the reader is inextricably caught in the grasp of Platt's lucid, wonderfully crafted narrative and becomes increasingly connected to the world unfolding before his eyes, he will see Ito Hirobumi's point (made in 1911) when he noted that, "The greatest mistake which you Western people, and more especially you English people, made in all your dealings with China was to help the Manchus in putting down the Taiping Rebellion."