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Book review: ‘Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,’ by Stephen R. Platt

One of history’s least-known conflicts for Westerners is also one of its bloodiest. China’s Taiping Rebellion, from 1851 to 1864, is estimated to have killed 20 million to 30 million people, making it the most sanguinary internal war in human history.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom
China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
By Stephen R. Platt
Alfred A. Knopf. 478 pp. $30

One of history's least-known conflicts for Westerners is also one of its bloodiest.

China's Taiping Rebellion, from 1851 to 1864, is estimated to have killed 20 million to 30 million people, making it the most sanguinary internal war in human history. Americans, of course, tend to focus their historical attention during these years on the trauma of their own Civil War. Yet, as Stephen Platt observes in his well-researched, highly readable account of the Taiping movement, there are unsuspected connections linking the two conflicts.

The Taiping movement had its origins in the visions of Hong Xiuquan (1813-1864), a failed candidate in China's Confucian civil service examinations. Hong lapsed into a nervous breakdown and, having casually read some Protestant missionary tracts, announced when he recovered that he had been taken to the Christian heaven and told he was Jesus Christ's younger brother.

Hounded by local authorities, Hong retreated to a mountain stronghold where he built a community of "God worshipers" with the ultimate goal of liberating China from its "demons" — especially the Manchu rulers of China's reigning Qing Dynasty — and creating "the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace" (taiping tianguo). At once a communitarian, millenarian, and military movement, the Taipings outlawed gambling, opium-smoking, and foot-binding; decreed equality between men and women, even on the battlefield; and confiscated private property in favor of a communal treasury. The movement initially attracted members of Hong's South Chinese Hakka minority group as well as those whose livelihoods had been disrupted by the opening of treaty ports after China's first Opium War with Britain (1839-42). Hong himself sought religious training from Western missionaries, the most colorful of whom was a Baptist preacher from Tennessee named Issachar Jacox Roberts. By 1853, the Taipings had made the city of Nanjing (Nanking) their capital and come tantalizingly close to overthrowing the Qing. For the next decade, both sides fought a devastating war of attrition until the Qing finally recaptured the city and the movement ultimately collapsed.

The scholarly literature on this war is extensive, and Platt is less interested in exploring Taiping society or theology than in examining the global impact of the conflict. As British observers noted, America and China were the empire's two biggest trading partners. Moreover, they formed crucial links in a chain of production that began with cotton from the American South and ended with textile sales to China. The U.S. Civil War, however, created a "cotton famine" in English mills, and the Taiping struggle not only closed off China's richest markets to British cotton goods, but prevented Chinese commodities such as tea from being exported to Britain. Platt argues that, having decided not to intervene in America, the British were forced to do so in China and thus tipped the balance in favor of the Qing.

To be sure, Western observers had often argued that tacit British, French, and American support for the Qing was crucial in allowing the government to move more effectively against the rebels. Yet the argument is not without its difficulties. Chief among these is attempting to sort out the welter of ad hoc measures mounted by the foreign community in Shanghai to protect themselves from Taiping encroachment and square these with official efforts by their home governments. For example, from 1860 on there were a variety of foreign militia and mercenary groups operating in central China. For most of this time, however, the British attempted to enforce neutrality among foreign nationals in the Chinese civil war. The most direct support for Platt's argument comes from the activities of the Ever Victorious Army, a mercenary force officered by foreigners and manned by Chinese. Founded by the American Frederick Townsend Ward, it was later led by Charles George Gordon, who achieved fame dying in the battle for Khartoum two decades later. The British and French lent support to the use of this force by the Chinese commander, Li Hongzhang, as his armies worked in conjunction with the Hunan forces of Zeng Guofan in finally hemming in the Taipings and forcing the surrender of Nanjing. Yet exactly how crucial to the ultimate Qing victory this modest force actually was remains an open question.

This is, nonetheless, history writing of the first order. The story itself is compelling, the characters unforgettable, and the scale surpassingly epic. Along with Jonathan Spence's God's Chinese Son, it is the best current window through which to glimpse this most colossal "unknown" war.

Charles Desnoyers is an associate professor of history at La Salle University, the author of "A Journey to the East," and coauthor of "Patterns of World History."