'Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom' by Stephen R. Platt: Review

In the mid-19th century a civil war ripped China apart, destroying an empire and plunging the country into lawlessness and chaos.

The Taiping Civil War is a Chinese Rorschach test. The Communist Party has long taken the uprising as an honored utopian precursor, while reformers dwelled on the missed opportunity to modernize a declining empire. Where nationalists have praised a momentous Chinese rebellion against Manchu overlords, Christians celebrated a visionary religious movement, an unusual hybrid of Confucian and Protestant beliefs. One thing is certain: between 1851 and 1864, a brutal series of battles, sieges, plagues, and famines claimed some 20 million lives, and the feeble Qing dynasty would never be the same. Taiping set the stage for the drama of modern Chinese history.

In 1837, after failing the imperial examinations for a third time, Hong Xiuquan, a Hakka villager in southeast China, sank into a delirious fever. Aware that a prestigious career in the civil service was now closed to him, Hong experienced searing visions for the next 40 days. Six years later, reading a missionary tract, he began to discern a quasi-Christian meaning in those visions, baptized himself, and established the Society of God Worshipers. Thousands of people, the Hakkas of southern China in particular, flocked to this strange evangelist preaching a self-taught Protestantism with Chinese characteristics. Hong took to calling himself the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus. Backed by massive armies of adherents, the self-proclaimed Heavenly King declared an independent Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in 1851, directly challenging the emperor in Beijing.

Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom provides a compelling and often meticulous account of the aftermath: “not only the most destructive war of the 19th century, but likely the bloodiest civil war of all time.” A historian at the University of Massachusetts, Platt picks up the thread in 1852 in Hong Kong, “a diseased and watery place, a rocky island off the southern shore of the Qing Empire.” A cousin and early cohort of the Taiping emperor, Hong Rengan, is attempting to explain the rebellion to an uncomprehending Swedish missionary stationed in the ramshackle British colony. The episode is a fitting introduction to one of Platt’s major themes: mutual incomprehension and misplaced trust, just as the historical trajectories of China and the West were becoming significantly entwined for the first time.

In the early 1850s, led by capable generals, the Taiping swept everything before them, consolidating a territory of several wealthy Chinese provinces along the Yangtze, home to tens of millions. From his capital at Nanjing, the Taiping emperor ordered the destruction of Buddhist and Daoist temples, the segregation of men and women into communal residences, collective work brigades and shared Protestant worship. As historian Mark Elvin recently wrote, “the social liberation of women was made a reality to a great extent, including the recruitment of female soldiers.” Everything augured for the Qing’s collapse, and the Taiping positioned themselves as patriotic avengers of the fallen Ming Dynasty, sometimes to the point of unleashing a genocidal fury against Manchus. Meanwhile, Hong Rengan, now the reclusive Taiping emperor’s closest adviser, drafted what Platt calls “the first truly global proposal for reform in China's history … a vision of the country as a modern industrial power.”

This golden age would be short-lived. The ineffectual Qing emperor Xianfeng died young, and a Manchu concubine—soon to be known as the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi—seized power in the name of her son, the five-year-old Tongzhi. Zeng Guofan, a scholar-official from Hunan with no practical military experience, raised and organized an army along fervently Confucian lines and began to check the Taiping advances. As the conflict became a “grand game of envelopment and strangulation,” the Taiping leadership grew increasingly erratic and the noose tightened around Nanjing, which finally fell to imperial forces in 1864, under circumstances every bit as horrific as those in 1937.

Platt’s old-fashioned narrative history focuses on the military campaigns of key figures like Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan. Readers interested in the origins of the rebellion, the Taiping emperor, and the religious and social atmosphere of the time are advised to look elsewhere. Besides capturing with steely precision the mindless slaughter on both sides, Platt is at his best when dissecting the often absurd dynamics of Western intervention—in one memorable case, the British diplomat Horatio Nelson Lay dispatched a whole steamship flotilla to the Qing government, which the latter could neither use nor pay for.

Although technically neutral, Britain, France, and the United States connived and stirred up trouble on both sides. An Anglo-American missionary contingent based in Shanghai, led by an “erratic and peculiar” Tennessee Baptist named Issachar Roberts, actively championed and negotiated with the Taiping. At the same time, an elite stratum of colonial diplomats, “China Hands,” and powerful merchants preferred the status quo and supported the Qing—despite having just unleashed the Second Opium War against them. The Taiping naively hoped for steamships and Armstrong guns from their fellow Christians; they were to be sorely disappointed. Instead, those weapons were ultimately used against them, first by the colorful Massachusetts mercenary Frederick Townsend Ward and his “Ever-Victorious Army,” a motley crew composed of Western soldiers of fortune and Chinese recruits, and later by commissioned British officers.

This civil war had global dimensions, as Platt effectively demonstrates, citing editorials by Karl Marx, debates in the British Parliament, and contemporaneous events like Fort Sumter and Appomattox. The Taiping period presents tantalizing counterfactuals—imagine the consequences of a Christian Chinese dynasty, or of Jiangsu province under the rule of Queen Victoria—but Platt seems to overreach when he not only compares, but explicitly connects the Chinese and American civil wars. Britain remained narrowly neutral in the latter conflict, he argues, by intervening in China and making up its trade deficit there.

Arguably, the more important context was the broader panorama of lawlessness and tragedy that was 19th-century China, perhaps the original failed state. Other major rebellions besides the Taiping were breaking out with equal ferocity: the Nien in the north, the Panthay in the southwest, the Dungan in the northwest. Forget the comparatively tidy American Civil War and consider a level of chaos more like the recent bewildering conflict in Congo, which ultimately seemed to be about everything.

In a rare digression from the litany of battles and negotiations, Platt notes the miraculously surviving account of Huang Shuhua, “one of the thousands of young women who were taken from Nanjing,” abducted by Zeng Guofan’s army after the Taiping capital fell. After witnessing a soldier murder her mother and three brothers, the 16-year-old girl begged him to kill her. “But he only laughed at me,” wrote Huang, “ ‘You, I love,’ he said.” Tied up and shipped by boat to the soldier’s home village, “the young woman would face the horror of spending the rest of her life as the wife of the man who had murdered her entire family,” writes Platt. Huang hurriedly wrote her story on two slips of paper, hiding one on her body and another on the wall of an inn. “Then she somehow found the wherewithal to kill him, before she hung herself.”