China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
Vintage Books 2013
Stephen R. Platt's new book is a beautifully written and intricately textured account of the bloodiest civil war of all time. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Vintage Books, 2012) is a deeply international history of the Taiping Civil War that situates the story of modern China within a broader, global history of civil war in the US and beyond. Platt refocuses our gaze on the crucial role of a cast of characters who shaped the war and its aftermath but are often overlooked in its histories. Rather than echoing previous accounts of the Taiping that focus on the visionary Hong Xiuquan, Platt thus highlights Hong's lesser-known cousin, Taiping "Shield King" and keeper of pickles Hong Rengan; the long-haired and wily Frederick Townsend Ward with his tight-fitting black uniform and army of filibusters; and the reluctant and toothache-suffering general Zeng Guofan and his "Confucian scholar's vision of an army." (Though he appears only briefly, look out also for Queen Victoria's unfortunately-named dog "Looty.") Platt is equally at home when bringing readers into the theater of sieges and political treaties, and while developing very affecting and humane accounts of men and women in the midst of making very difficult decisions in exceptionally challenging circumstances. This award-winning book is well worth reading, both as a masterful history of modern China and a model of evocative and gripping historical writing. Enjoy!