Belated Book Reviews: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
25 November, 2018 - 7:28 PM
There are moments when reading a great history book (especially one that chronicles the history of a culture that isn't your own) during which you realize how many events of a truly massive historical magnitude have transpired that we are blissfully unaware of. Arguably, those are the kinds of moments that keep us folks who love history so deeply invested in the subject. The Taiping Rebellion, which constitutes the subject of Stephen R. Platt's epic history Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, was certainly one of those moments for me.
The Taiping Rebellion (also known as the Taiping Civil War) not only occurred contemporaneously with our own American Civil War, but was also significantly more bloody. Modern estimates put the death toll between 20 and 30 million, with some placing the higher end around 60 million. For context, the American Civil War, (which had a shorter duration) had an estimated 650,000 - 1 million dead. While death tolls are problematic as a measure of the social or cultural impact of a conflict, I mention it here only as a means of recognizing how isolated our thinking about history can be when we continue to focus on the history of the West as a proxy for the history of the world.
And while the numbers of dead are staggering, even more amazing is the realization that not much more than one hundred years ago, China had a very good chance of becoming a Christian theocracy led by a disenfranchised Guangdong-born failed Confucian scholar named Hong Xiuquan. Platt's rendering of Hong's struggles to pass the brutally difficult Confucian exam system to enter public service for the Qing Dynasty conjures a portrait of a man brought to a mental break by his ceaseless preparation for the banal exam. After one of many failed attempts to pass the exam, Hong suffered a nervous breakdown in which he claimed to have seen a vision from God (Hong had previously had some contact with western missionaries and the Christian religion), in which he learned that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and, among other things, saw visions of God punishing Confucius for his wrong-headed guidance of the Chinese people.
It is into this engrossing initial premise that Platt's Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom throws us into. Following first-hand accounts by western visitors to the country help to provide much-needed context to western readers, and through their writings mingled with Platt's summarizations keep the narrative momentum of the tale running strong, while also providing plenty of primary source materials and insightful analysis of the motivations and machinations of not only Hong's "Heavenly Kingdom" officials, but also the Qing Dynasty they pitted themselves against as well as the British and French forces active in the region at the time.
One of the greatest strengths in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is Platt's ability to pull this story's most prominent characters out for the page. Whether it is the ceaseless eggheadedness of Qing number-cruncher-turned-general Zeng Guofan, the passionate but flawed reformer of Hong Rengan, or even lesser known participants like the American mercenary Frederick Ward, the book is capable of making these long-gone historical figures stand larger than the assemblage of anecdotes and quotations that comprise their role in Platt's text.
The books greatest flaw, however, may come in the form of Platt's obsession with the Taiping Rebellion as history's greatest "what if?" story.
While it is endlessly fascinating to imagine how the world would have been different if a nominally-Christian, communalist-tinged theocracy had taken over China, Platt spends a lot of the text speculating whether various blunders in the western nations' handling of their response to the event may have swung the historical pendulum one way or another. This isn't to say there's no value to this exercise (Platt's drawing of the cringe-inducing ineptness of the British, French, and Americans to take stock of the situation constitutes one of the more interesting parts of the book), but the book tends to dwell on this point to an extent that starts to feel repetitive. The western world of Platt's history wanders in to the war like a stumbling colossus, stomping and slapping its way into a conflict it seems wholly incapable of comprehending.
Despite the speculative indulgences of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, it remains an endlessly fascinating and narratively satisfying account of a lesser-known event in Chinese history.
Title: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
Author: Stephen R. Platt