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 doctorate 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 West, in which the narrative pilot light never ignites.
This Chinese civil war lasted from 1851 to 1864, overlapping in its end with the American Civil War. 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 (孫子) Art of War (孫子兵法) spat into being by Cormac McCarthy.
On one side of this war was the decaying 200-year-old Qing Dynasty of the Manchus. On the other side, the Taiping rebels, fueled by their messianic religious ideology that contained a whiff of Christianity, who wanted to reclaim China from the small alien Manchu elite. Platt doesn’t linger overly long on the parallels between this civil war and America’s, but it is among his central points that Britain’s disastrous intervention, for trade reasons, on the side of the dynasty in this Chinese war prevented it from becoming involved in ours.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
By Stephen R. Platt
Alfred A. Knopf
The author approaches his subject from many angles. There are strong portraits of political and military leaders, though these figures can later blur in the mind.
The bulk of the narrative consists of battle after battle, and these also can blur. This was a grueling war; grueling too are descriptions of its many skirmishes. Reading about these battles is often like watching a football game in which no passes are thrown and every play is a run up the middle for 2 terrible yards.
Platt does several things quite well. His book is eloquent on racial issues, about how the British saw the Chinese as a profoundly inferior race. The Chinese, for their part, the author writes, had “an almost mystical belief in the superior weapons and skills of foreign soldiers,” a belief that was slowly shredded as this war moved forward.
The racism cut both ways. General Zeng Guofan (曾國藩), a Confucian scholar, thought the Britons were “uncivilized and unruly, and they didn’t understand the Confucian concepts of loyalty and trust,” Platt writes. “They were ignorant of the classics that would make a man a gentleman.”
He is alert to moments of stark poetry and gives them a gentle push. Thus we get, in the aftermath of one battle in Zeng Guofan’s Hunan Province, a description of how “the rice-terraced hills of Zeng’s childhood rang with the cries of his grieving neighbors, who everywhere shouted from their rooftops, calling to the faraway ghosts of their dead sons and begging them to come home.”