(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: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines 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 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).