Taiping Diptych — two superb books on the most destructive war of the 19th Century

Ever heard more than a tidbit about the Taiping Rebellion, the civil war that convulsed China in the 1850s and 60s? I hadn’t either. It’s virtually unknown in the West, but it nearly destroyed China’s Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. The civil war sprung from the religious visions of Hong Xiuquan, a failed Confuscian scholar who, through a series of dreams and revelations, became convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong and his core of original converts founded a Bible-based quasi-Christian religious sect and “The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom” and aimed at overthrowing China’s Qing Dynasty. The ensuing war between the Taiping and the Qing devastated enormous swaths of the Yangtze Valley — perhaps killing as many as 20 million people.

I’d seen the Taiping Rebellion mentioned a time or two in passing before I started researching China’s Wings, but never in depth, and never with more than a few details attached. During my research, I hit a Taiping reference in this CNAC travel brochure from the early 1930s and when I asked Moon Chin about it, he elaborated on the extensive wreckage behind the Anking waterfront. Those morsels put the Taiping Rebellion in my mind as something I’d like to know more about.

(Click on the text in the second image, and you’ll see that the brochure noting that much of the city of Anking was still in ruins, left over from the ravages of the Taiping Rebellion, sixty years before.)

To that end. I’ve just finished reading the second of two superb books about the Taiping Rebellion. Taken together they make a excellent historical diptych — one written from each side of the rebellion.

First I read Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, recently published by UMass Amhert professor Stephen R. Platt, and I couldn’t put the damn thing down. (Here’s its NY Times review.)

I found Platt on Twitter, and asked him for a recommendation for further reading on the rebellion, and Platt was good enough to come back to me with the suggestion that I read God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence — which I finished last night.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom cleaves closest to the experiences of Hong Rengan on the Taiping side, Hong Xuiquan’s first convert, who at the climax of the civil war served as the “Shield King” of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (chief of staff and prime minister, essentially), and of Zeng Guofan, the brilliant Confuscian scholar, military commander, and statesman most responsible for suppressing the rebellion — and saving the Qing Dynasty. God’s Chinese Son spotlights Hong Xuiquan, the Taiping messiah. I strongly recommend them both. Platt fits the Taiping Rebellion into the larger tapestry of world events during the 1850s and ’60s and demonstrates how interdependent they were — how the civil war in the United States affected Britain’s China policy, for example.

(My only significant quibble with either of these books is with God’s Chinese Son, which Spence chose to write in the present tense, a quirk I found odd and distracting.)

I was struck by the similarity of the Taiping military campaign that led to their 1853 capture of Nanking and the Nationalist “Northern Expedition” of 1926-28. Presumably, both were governed by the military geography of Southern and Central China. Also, considering how close Hong Xuiquan came to toppling the Qing dynasty and installing himself in its place, it’s perhaps not so terribly surprising that an obscure revolutionary with profoundly rural roots would successfully accomplish a similar feat some 85 years later. And lastly, considering how close the Taipings came to toppling the Qing Dynasty and that they were essentially a spiritual movement (as was the Boxer Rebellion), is it surprising that the PRC keeps its heel so tightly stomped down on modern religious movements in The Middle Kingdom?



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