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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War [Paperback]

Stephen R. Platt
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 July 2012
Stephen R. Platt's "Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom" tells the dramatic and disastrous story of the Taiping Rebellion: the bloodiest civil war in history. In the early 1850s, during the waning years of the Qing dynasty, word spread of a major revolution brewing in the provinces. The leader of the this movement - who called themselves the Taiping - was Hong Xiuquan, a failed civil servant who claimed to be the son of God and the brother of Jesus Christ. As the revolt grew and battles raged across the empire, all signs pointed to a Taiping victory and to the inauguration of a modern, industrialized and pro-Western china. Soon, however, Britain and the United States threw their support behind the Qing, soon quashing the Taiping and rendering ineffective the years of bloodshed the revolution had endured. In "Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom", Stephen Platt recounts the events of the rebellion and its suppression in spellbinding detail. It is an essential and enthralling history of the rise and fall of a movement that, a century and a half ago, might have launched China into the modern world. It is suitable for readers of Jonathan Spence's "The Search for Modern China", Jonathan Fenby's "The Penguin History of Modern China" and Jung Chang's "Wild Swans".


Product details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books; Export and Airside ed edition (1 July 2012)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0857897675
  • ISBN-13: 978-0857897671
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.7 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,207,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"* 'This book's title promises a lot, and Stephen R. Platt delivers: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is an intricate and compelling historical narrative rich in military campaigning, vivid personalities and, above all, diplomatic misunderstanding... Authoritative and fascinating, Platt's work will interest both the specialist and the casual reader (like me) who wants to learn about an event that presaged China's entry into the modern world.' - Tom Zelman, Minneapolis Star Tribune * 'A refreshing and gripping account that illuminates how civil conflicts can suck in outsiders and why the West has had great difficulties in trying to maintain a facade of neutrality and protect its commercial interests at the same time... Powerful, dramatic and unforgettable.' - Minxin Pei, San Francisco Chronicle"

About the Author

Stephen R. Platt received his PhD in Chinese history at Yale and teaches Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His work has been supported by the Fulbright program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation.


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressive 28 Oct 2012
By fergus
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a very impressive piece of work. There isn't much open source information on the Taiping Rebellion, so this book is invaluable in telling this critical story in World history. To understand Modern China it is essential to understand the rebellion. It is astonishing that few in the west know of this event - as deadly as WW1. The book reads very well, it could have been hard work given the complexity of the rebellion, but it wasn't. Your attention is kept and it flows well. The characters are well developed and yet the story is impartial. I was pleased to see that the story of Ward was told honestly (not making out that he was a god-like hero like in another book). The only reason I gave it 4 stars was that although there was some analysis at the end, I would have liked more. After all this was a critical event. I think a sum up would have helped. British intervention is partly blamed for the failure of the rebellion, although I saw it that it was the failure of British support, miscalculation by the rebels, famine and Zeng Ghoufan's stamina which led to Imperial victory. I would have liked to have seen in the summary the reasons why the author felt that British intervention was decisive. I understand that Charles Gordon became involved, but he resigned soon after. Overall however I thought this book was a substantial achievement. A difficult subject matter brought to life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Arynth VINE VOICE
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This work covers the final few years of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom - the decline and eventual fall of the losing side in a civil war that claimed millions (perhaps dozens of millions) of lives in 19th Century China. As the author points out, that at the time of the contemporaneous American Civil War, the Chinese losses excelled more than the entire population of North America.

The author makes it clear from the beginning that his aim is to cover the fall of the Taiping, rather than provide a comprehensive account from its birth to its death - the term 'Autumn in' is a reference to a Chinese historical term for the final years of a reign. This isn't unusual in History; how many books have been written about specific periods of the Second World War or the reign of King Henry VIII? The trouble is that so much History has been written around those periods (in English) that you can almost assume a knowledge of the various contexts surrounding the subject, which naturally lends itself to deeper reading. Most casual amateur historians will not have a deep knowledge of Chinese history or an understanding of Qing politics preceeding the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom as well as the events following it. So what we have is an assumption of knowledge of context, though this probably does not exist in the audience for this book. This could have been fixed with a short(ish) summery of events - perhaps a few chapters - either side.

Aside from that problem, the work is well-written. Platt focuses on three narrative strands: the heavenly cousin, Hong Rengan; the Qing Scholar-General Zeng Guofan; and the various meddlings of Western powers and their 'filibusters'.
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Format:Kindle Edition
(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.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chinese Epic 23 Feb 2012
By Brian Lewis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: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.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Old fashioned narrative history 16 Feb 2012
By Comment Man - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Half a Tale 11 Nov 2012
By M. Evan Brooks - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great narrative history 4 Mar 2012
By Stephen C. Browne - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful as companion piece to Jonathan Spence's book 27 Nov 2013
By James R. Maclean - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
(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.
__________________________________________

NOTES:

(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.

__________________________________________

ADDITIONAL READING

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).
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