A Chinese Civil War to Dwarf All Others

The New York Times reviews a new book, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, which looks at the Taiping Rebellion, one of the bloodiest periods of Chinese history, which is little known by non-specialists outside the country:

There should be a term in German that describes the sinking feeling you have when reading a serious book of scholarship, one whose determined author deserves praise and tenure, that no civilian reader should pick up, that will not warm in your hands, that will make you regret the 10 hours of your life lost to it, and that, once put down, will not cry out to be picked back up.

Such a book is “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War,” by Stephen R. Platt, a young academic who has a Ph.D. in Chinese history from Yale and is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He’s written a dense, complex work, about a war too little known in the United States, in which the narrative pilot light never ignites.

This Chinese civil war lasted from 1851 to 1864, overlapping in its end with America’s Civil War. Mr. Platt describes it as “not only the most destructive war of the 19th century, but likely the bloodiest civil war of all time.”

Some 20 million people lost their lives, many of them in grotesque ways. There are enough beheadings, flayings, rapes, suicides, disembowelments, mass killings and acts of cannibalism in “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” — more about these things in a moment — that it can seem like a version of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” spat into being by Cormac McCarthy.

In the Wall Street Journal, China Beat’s Jeffery Wasserstrom has a more generous description of Platt’s writing:

Stephen Platt’s “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” is an impressive, gracefully written account of the war that ensued. Like many historians of our War Between the States, Mr. Platt presents stirring accounts of battles and finely etched portraits of military commanders. On the insurgent side, the commanders included figures like Chen Yucheng (aka the “Brave King”), who started his life in poverty and ended it near the top of the Taiping hierarchy. Ranged against Chen were men such as Li Hongzhang, a famous military modernizer, and Li’s mentor, Zeng Guofan. A shrewd strategist torn by competing loyalties—to his family, his home province of Hunan and the dynasty he served—Zeng did more than anyone else to topple Hong’s Taiping Kingdom. Mr. Platt’s richly textured portrait of this complex, conflicted official is one of the strengths of the book.

February 10, 2012 10:48 PM
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