Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

The Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest civil war in the history of China, and quite possibly the most destructive war in the whole sanguine history of war, yet few outside of China know very much about the course of this titanic conflict, or even that it happened.

The Taiping Rebellion began as a religious movement led by Hong Xiuquan, a man who had had a nervous breakdown after failing the very difficult civil service exams that were the path to success in Imperial China. After reading some tracts given to him by Christian missionaries, he conceived the idea that he was Jesus’ younger brother and began to form a cult, which became a Chinese nationalist movement against the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China. The Manchus did not care for this movement and their persecution sparked a rebellion that, at its height, involved almost half of the Chinese Empire.

Contemporary drawing of Hong Xiuquan, dating f...

Roughly contemporary with our own Civil War, there were a number of striking similarities between the American Civil War and the Taiping Rebellion, a fact noted by both Chinese and American observers. Both conflicts involved a rebellion by the southern regions of their respective countries against a government controlled by the north. Both were the most destructive civil wars ever fought by

either nation. Both wars threatened the prosperity of the British economy, which depended on trade with both America and China. In both cases foreign powers, especially Britain and France believed they had an interest in intervening. In both cases, the north won.

The differences between the two wars were greater, however. The Taiping Rebellion lasted longer, from 1850 to 1864. It was fought far more cruelly than the American Civil War. Imagine instead of a pleasant conversation between Grant and Lee at Appomattox, Grant seizing the surrendering Lee and having him tortured to death. Or, Sherman deliberately massacring Confederate civilians when he burned Atlanta. The United States was also spared the complication of having British or French troops invading to fight on either side, or having the British Navy burn down the White House to force America to trade. China was not so fortunate. While fighting the rebellion, the Chinese were also forced to fight the Arrow War against the British who burned down the Xianfeng Emperor’s Summer Palace in retaliation for the Chinese government’s mistreatment of their representatives.

The outcome and legacy of the two wars were also much different for the two nations. The United States emerged from the Civil War stronger and more united. In the decades following the Civil War, America became an industrial giant and a world power. Again, China was not so lucky. The Qing Dynasty managed to cling to power for the next half-century, growing ever weaker and less capable of defending China against the encroaching foreigners.

Extent of the Taiping Rebellion (French). 中文: ...

Extent of the Taiping Rebellion (French).
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, little is known of this conflict in the West. There have been a couple good histories of the Taiping Rebellion written by Western historians, including Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R Platt. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is not so much a comprehensive history of the Taiping Rebellion, that would take several volumes to do it justice, but a story of some of the leading players would were caught up in the great events. Platt tells the story of Hong Rengan, the preacher’s assistant and cousin of Hong Xiuquan, who felt obliged to join the Taipings to help his cousin and who became Hong’s most trusted advisor. There is Zeng Guofan, the Chinese Confucian scholar who reluctantly became the general who crushed the Taipings. There were James Bruce, eighth Earl Elgin, who led the British in what he felt was an unjust war to force the Qing to allow the trade in opium, and his belligerent brother, Frederick Bruce who hated the Taipings and slanted his reports to encourage the British and the French to send forces to China to fight them. There were many Europeans, especially missionaries who sympathized with the Taipings and hoped that they would create a new, Christian China. There were others, like Frederick Townsend Ward, who sensed that fighting as mercenaries for the Qing could be very profitable.

This emphasis on some of the leading actors in the drama makes Platt’s account interesting and readable. In fact, it reads almost like a novel and I found it hard to put down. The only weakness in his approach that I can see is that he barely mentions the beginnings and early years of the Taiping movement and the history only really begins when Hong Rengan decides to join the Taipings in 1858. The story also ends with the end of the Rebellion, and it might have been nice to read a little more about how China’s “reconstruction era” turned out. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a worthy book about a somewhat forgotten war and I can heartily recommend it for anyone interested in China.

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