Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
Stephen R. Platt
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A gripping account of China’s nineteenth-century Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest civil wars in history. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom brims with unforgettable characters and vivid re-creations of massive and often gruesome battles—a sweeping yet intimate portrait of the conflict that shaped the fate of modern China.
The story begins in the early 1850s, the waning years of the Qing dynasty, when word spread of a major revolution brewing in the provinces, led by a failed civil servant who claimed to be the son of God and brother of Jesus. The Taiping rebels drew their power from the poor and the disenfranchised, unleashing the ethnic rage of millions of Chinese against their Manchu rulers. This homegrown movement seemed all but unstoppable until Britain and the United States stepped in and threw their support behind the Manchus: after years of massive carnage, all opposition to Qing rule was effectively snuffed out for generations. Stephen R. Platt recounts these events in spellbinding detail, building his story on two fascinating characters with opposing visions for China’s future: the conservative Confucian scholar Zeng Guofan, an accidental general who emerged as the most influential military strategist in China’s modern history; and Hong Rengan, a brilliant Taiping leader whose grand vision of building a modern, industrial, and pro-Western Chinese state ended in tragic failure.
This is an essential and enthralling history of the rise and fall of the movement that, a century and a half ago, might have launched China on an entirely different path into the modern world.
his British counterpart and try to convince him to throw off his imperial commission. Gordon had, in fact, already come to the verge of quitting. The funding problems of his force were proving to be intractable, and he had difficulty controlling his men. Also, his sense of honor was offended by Cheng Xueqi’s penchant for beheading prisoners. But he had decided to stay on after Burgevine went over, since he felt that his duty to England demanded the preservation of Shanghai from rebel capture.30
dragons, the fast crabs, and the brass-gunned sampans, and Zeng Guofan would control the whole of the Yangtze. In yet another sign of the true balance of power in the empire, the general’s wishes trumped those of the central government. So, when Sherard Osborn arrived in Shanghai on September 1, he found an official letter waiting for him from Prince Gong, informing him that a Hunan Army admiral would henceforth be serving as the war fleet’s commander in chief. Osborn was demoted to assistant
fell. Her name was Huang Shuhua, and she was sixteen years old. The soldiers came, she said, and “They killed my two older brothers in the courtyard, then they went searching through the rooms of the house. One of the strong ones captured me and carried me out. My little brother tugged on his clothing, my mother threw herself down before him, weeping. He shouted angrily, ‘All rebel followers will be killed, no pardons—those are the general’s orders!’ Then he murdered my mother and my little
Taiping forces, unable to connect to the river and therefore useless to the greater army. As the scale of the loss became obvious and his men reached the verge of mutiny, he attempted suicide a second time by riding a horse awkwardly into the thick of the battle. Once again his officers managed to pull him back before he could complete the deed.50 After the fiasco at Jiujiang in February 1855, Zeng wound up stranded for eighteen months in Jiangxi province just to the west of Hunan, with more
and apocalypse may have motivated some, the rebels’ appeal also rested heavily on more earthly issues of control, stability, and taxation (essential to the poorer classes) and, for those in more elite levels of society, the promise of an empire that would be ruled by Chinese rather than by Manchus. Separately from his attempts to forge a religious bond with the international community in Shanghai, Hong Rengan also labored from within his palace to design a new government for the time when the