The Qing imperial government categorised the Taiping conflict of 1851-64 as a mere rebellion but, as Stephen Platt points out in this lucid and gripping account, in fact it was a major civil war, one moreover claimed by 20th-century Chinese communists as a foundational revolutionary movement. It was marked by the 11-year occupation of the great city of Nanjing; by the devastation of China's richest provinces; and by breathtaking butchery on all sides, with estimates of deaths ranging from 20 million to 80 million people. Large-scale massacres routinely took place as whole communities and even substantial cities repeatedly changed hands, leading to the clogging of rivers with corpses and the piling up of human bones on land.
Using diaries, letters, prisoners' confessions and a host of other original sources, Platt unravels the story from the perspective of the three main participating forces: the Taiping leadership, the Qing forces and the various disunited groups of Westerners living in Hong Kong and various treaty ports within China since the conclusion of the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War in 1842. On the Taiping side, among the most striking of a colourful cast of characters was Hong Rengan, Taiping's "Shield King" and the cousin of the founder of the rebellion, Hong Xiuquan.
Hong Rengan's early work with missionaries in Hong Kong prompted him to propose such radical reforms as railway-building and the institution of the rule of law, and to perceive Western aid as key to a Taiping victory. He hoped to obtain weapons and steamships from the Westerners by emphasising the Taiping's Christian roots, their goodwill towards the foreigners and their receptiveness to international trade. Only slightly less remarkable was "Loyal King" Li Xiucheng, a brilliant military commander of an army of millions who had joined the Taiping side simply to escape abject poverty as a charcoal maker. On the Qing side, the central figure was Zeng Guofan, a loyal scholar commanded by the desperate emperor to raise a local army against the Taiping, contravening long-standing principles concerning the centralisation of military power. Zeng's eventual success would give him and fellow generals Zuo Zongtang and Li Hongzhang unparalleled political power in the empire's waning decades.
The Western side was represented by various parties. Frederick Bruce, the ranking British official in Shanghai, was obliged to do his best while awaiting orders from London that were often months old and based on even more outdated information. A remarkable paradox, among many that Platt notes, was the simultaneous British defence of Shanghai against the rebels and attack on the Qing in the north - led by Bruce's brother Lord Elgin. Other Western players whose conflicting views exacerbated an already volatile situation included Admiral James "Fighting Jimmy" Hope; interpreter Harry Parkes; American Frederick Townsend Ward and numerous other mercen-aries on both sides; and the missionaries whose support for the Taiping "freedom fighters" contributed to heated debate back home about who to support.
The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 crucially complicated matters, for Britain found itself "trapped between the two wars". The interruption of the cotton and tea trades underscored the connections between the US and Chinese markets on which the UK depended and made British involvement inevitable. In Shanghai, the war also divided Yankees from pro-Confederate British, while in London it prompted debate about the treatment of belligerents under laws that were nearly impossible to enforce from afar.
Platt draws parallels between Hong Rengan and Frederick Bruce, each mistakenly convinced that he perfectly understood the other's civilisation. He might also have noted the similarity between general Zeng Guofan's scholarly background and that of his near contemporary, the American general Joshua Chamberlain, a classicist who, mindful of Caesar, in desperation led a charge at Gettysburg that turned the tide of the US Civil War.
The great virtue of this book lies in its multiple perspectives, neither altogether China-centred nor awkwardly Eurocentric, on a history that is not well known by anyone but specialists. Platt's account makes clear the extraordinarily high stakes of the Taiping conflict both domestically and in international terms, and argues convincingly for its global importance. The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in China, where the past is ever-present to an extent rarely seen elsewhere, in the rocky road of imperialism, and in military and diplomatic history.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
By Stephen Platt. Atlantic Books. 512pp, £25.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780857897664 and 97671. Published 5 July 2012