For an ignorant American like me, to begin the study of Chinese history is a bit like going back to the Age of Exploration. There are entire continents yet to be discovered. There are ethnic groups, nations, and monarchical dynasties every bit as complex and varied as the Normans, the Saxons, England, France, the Stuarts and the Romanovs, all of which you need to spend years studying just to learn the basics. There are cities the size of New York and Chicago you’ve never heard of. It’s taken me 50 years to learn the history of the United States and Western Europe. Oh Satan, take my soul. Give me immortality. It would probably take me another 100 years, which I don’t have, to learn the history of China.
The “Taiping Rebellion” — a problematic term for reasons I will shortly discuss — was the largest and bloodiest civil war in history. According to conservative estimates, when it was all over, anywhere between 20 and 30 million people were dead. To put matters in perspective, that’s 20 to 30 times the causality rate of the United States Civil War. Stephen Platt is a good writer, but he’s no Shelby Foote. He tries his best to stuff 14 years of a civil war that had battles bloodier than Gettysburg or Antietam, generals as innovative as Grant or Lee, and sieges and massacres that make the Battle of Atlanta look like touch football, but it’s basically impossible. So there are times when Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is rough going. Even though it’s written like a popular, narrative history, and doesn’t assume you have even an intermediate level of knowledge about Nineteenth Century China, the subject is so massive that reading it is like drinking from a fire hose. For a novice like me, to write even a basic review is to do little more than show my ignorance.
But here goes. From 1644 to 1912, China was ruled by a monarchical dynasty know as the Qing Dynasty. During this period the “Chinese” royal family was not Chinese, but, rather, Manchu, a formerly nomadic people most ethnic Chinese considered culturally inferior, uneducated barbarians. Even though the British royal family is German, not English, and Marie Antoinette was Austrian, not French — a fact that would play an important role in her eventual execution —there’s really no equivalent in Europe to what the Qing dynasty was in China. To be completely honest, I don’t understand enough about politics in Nineteenth Century China even to begin to explain the differences, but I suppose it has something to do with how the Chinese — unlike the British or French, who value money and power — value education above all. The Manchu, uncouth barbarians though they may have been, never tried to interfere with the the system of civil service examinations based on the Confucian classics that had formed the basis of Chinese civilization since before the time of Periclean Athens. To become a member of the Chinese elite meant passing a series of examinations that led either to great respect — and wealth and power — or disgrace, and even madness. It was a bit like taking a supercharged bar examination. If you did well-enough, you became, not a mere lawyer, but a philosopher King.
It’s fitting, therefore, that Hong Xiuquan, the inspiration behind the Taiping Rebellion and the “Heavenly King”, failed his civil service examinations not once, or even twice, but four times, eventually having a nervous breakdown, and a series of visions, after which he converted to what can best be described as his own mixture of evangelical Protestant Christianty and ethnic Chinese nationalism. Like all successful revolutionaries, Hong Xiuquan was one part genius, another part madman. In 1853, after a little under a decade preaching to “God worshipers” among the Hakka — a subgroup of the Han in the Hunan province — Hong managed to conquer Nanjing, one of those Chicago-sized cities I had never heard of, massacre. To give you an idea of the scale of Hong’s rebellion, his Han, ethnic Chinese followers, massacred 20,000 Manchus — killed as many people who died during the entire French Revolutionary Terror in one day — and it was only the beginning. For the purely secular mind, Hong comes off pretty well. After all, the historical Jesus, who believed his was the son of God, turned over a few tables, and promptly got crucified. Hong, on the other hand, who believed he was the brother of Jesus, led one of the greatest revolutions in history. He came within an inch of destroying the Qing Empire before his movement was finally defeated by a combination of Han conservatism and the often inept yet ultimately decisive intervention of the British and French.
If you think the term Taiping Rebellion is a misnomer, you would be correct. Shay’s Rebellion was a rebellion. Paris in 1968 was a rebellion. The Prague Spring was a rebellion. This was a revolution. It’s only called a “rebellion” in the Enlish speaking world because the British, inspite of the fact that they marched on Bejing and destroyed the Qing emperor’s Summer palace, eventually decided to intervene on the side of the Manchus. This is a common form of propaganda, the reason Southerners call The United States Civil War “The War Between the States” or “The War of Northern Aggression” instead of “The Slave Power’s Secession.” It’s the same reason we say “The Glorious Revolution” instead of “The Protestant Coup.” It’s why it’s the “English Civil War” and the French “Revolution” or the American “Revolution” instead of the American “War of Independence.” For the Manchu emperors in Bejing, and their eventual British supporters, the capital of the Taiping “Heavenly Kingdom” — a nation that would last for almost 15 years and eventually inspire Sun Yat Sen’s nationalist movement in the early Twentieth Century — was nothing more than a nest of pirates, bandits who deserved, not the kind of honorable surrender Lincoln granted Lee at Appomattox, but to be executed on sight, which they often were. Yet no mere rebellion can field armies of 300,000 men — three times the size of either army at Gettysburg — unless it has the potential to build a new civilization on the ashes of the old one.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is dominated by two figures. The first is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin, the Prime Minster of the Heavenly Kingdom, and a visionary intellectual who tried, in vain, to form an alliance with the British Empire, as well as modernize, and Christianize China. The second is Zeng Guofan, a Confucian scholar — unlike Hong Ziuquan he passed his civil service exams on the first try — and a brutal reactionary genius without any formal military training who became, arguably, a better general than Grant, Lee, Von Moltke or Napoleon himself. Almost by accident, he propped up the corrupt, exhausted Qing Empire, then tried, in vain, to retire. Guofan could order the mass execution of 8,000 helpless prisoners without blinking an eye, but unlike Napoleon, he really had no stomach for war. He preferred his books and his study. To watch the dual between Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan is to watch a natural revolutionary defeated by the backward conservative people he tried to inspire rallying behind their oppressors. It’s to examine how a skillful counterrevolutionary, one who understands deeply his country’s traditions and weaknesses, can keep a bankrupt system in place, long after it’s ceased to be viable. Indeed, while Guofan would buy the Qing Dynasty anther 75 years, its fall was inevitable.
Above all it’s to watch the bumbling, yet treacherous British Empire stop the progress of history cold, and only for their short term economic interest. Indeed, after utterly destroying one Qing Army, marching on Bejing, ransacking the Summer Palace, and making overtures to the Taiping leadership in Nanjing, the British under Lord Palmerston then Lord Russell did an about face, and decided to save the Manchu dynasty, much as they had saved the Ottomon Empire the decade before. The reason? After the United States Civil War broke out in 1861, the British government, finding themselves short of raw cotton, yet unwilling to recognize Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, decided that the moribund Qing Dynasty was their best bet to keep the trade cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong open to the west. I suppose, therefore, you might say that 30 million Chinese died to save the United States, but for China it was only putting off the inevitable.