36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (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.
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.