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Winner of the 2012 Cundill Prize in History
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.
“A refreshing and gripping account that illuminates how civil conflicts can suck in outsiders and why the West has had great difficulties in trying to maintain a façade of neutrality and protect its commercial interests at the same time. . . . Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom may not have said the last word on the Taiping Rebellion, but the story it tells is powerful, dramatic, and unforgettable.” —Minxin Pei, San Francisco Chronicle
“Structurally, Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a thriller. . . . We read in starred reviews things like ‘the book brings history to life.’ We read these words so often that we have forgotten what they mean, but this book reminds us. It makes history immediate and personal, one that speaks to us on a sensory, moral, intellectual and emotional level. They should teach this one in schools.” —Gerard Martinez, San Antonio Express-News
“A compelling and often meticulous account. . . . Platt is at his best when dissecting the often absurd dynamics of Western intervention.” —Ross Perlin, The Daily Beast
“An intricate and compelling historical narrative rich in military campaigning, vivid personalities and, above all, diplomatic misunderstanding. When Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, the Taiping rebellion had been raging for 10 years, and it would continue until rebel supply lines collapsed in 1864. With a wonderful flair for storytelling, Platt explores the relationship between the two conflicts. . . . Authoritative and fascinating, Platt’s work will interest both the specialist and the casual reader (like me) who wants to learn about an event that presaged China’s entry into the modern world.” —Tom Zelman, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“China’s brutal Taiping Civil War erupted in the 1850s and raged until the fall of rebel-held Nanjing in 1864. The bloodbath paralleled our own North-South conflict, but dwarfed it in terms of casualties, geography and global fallout. . . . [Platt] juxtaposes the competing ideologies and leaders of the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty and the Hunan Taiping rebels with savvy and assurance. By neatly folding in the machinations of the British, Platt paints a picture of combat dire enough to have choked the Yangtze’s flow several times with discarded victims.” —Jonathan E. Lazarus, Newark Star-Ledger
“Platt has skillfully converted his erudition into an eminently general-interest treatment of what may have been the most lethal civil war in history.” —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist (starred review)
“Splendid. . . . An upheaval that led to the deaths of 20 million, dwarfing the simultaneously fought American Civil War, deserves to be better known, and Platt accomplishes this with a superb history of a 19th-century China faced with internal disorder and predatory Western intrusions.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Stephen Platt’s history of the Taiping rebellion in mid-19th century China sheds an authoritative and comprehensive window on a major event in world history that up until now has too often been consigned to a footnote in the West. It is a critically important achievement.” —Robert D. Kaplan, author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power
“Stephen Platt brings to vivid life a pivotal chapter in China’s history that has been all but forgotten: the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century, which cost one of the greatest losses of life of any war in history. It had far-reaching consequences that still reverberate in contemporary China. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a fascinating work by a first-class historian and superb writer.” —Henry Kissinger
“A splendid example of finely calibrated historical narrative. The civil war that erupted in China between the early 1850s and 1864 was perhaps the bloodiest in human history; with a wealth of vivid detail, Platt shows how the fates of China’s rulers and many millions of their subjects were manipulated by British diplomatic and commercial interests, as well as colored by the rebels’ own unorthodox religious and political beliefs. It is a tragic and powerful story.” —Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China
“The ambitious scale and lively writing make Platt's book an excellent entree into a pivotal event in world history.” —Choice Magazine