- What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China by Tobie Meyer-Fong, and; Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt
The mid-nineteenth century witnessed one of the most cataclysmic events in Chinese history and possibly in world history: the Taiping Rebellion and War. From a small band of God Worshipers in the south in the 1840s, the Taipings grew into a formidable military and political movement that established its capital in Nanjing by 1853 and even threatened the Qing dynasty’s capital in Beijing in the north. It then extended its control over most of central China, capturing and holding key cities in the Yangzi valley. Though highly effective and destructive, the Taiping military campaign was eventually defeated by Qing forces in 1864, and the dynasty would survive until 1911, when revolutionary forces displaced both the Qing rulers and the entire imperial system.
The historical interpretation of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (Taiping tianguo 太平天國) has been contentious, buffeted by the tides of political and historical change. The Chinese Communist Party identified the Taiping movement with its own revolutionary struggle. It saw the Taipings as peasant revolutionaries who paved the way to the class struggle of the early twentieth century. Chinese scholarship in recent decades has distanced itself from this "ultra-leftist" interpretation but remains divided on key issues. Was the Taiping movement a real revolution that fundamentally altered China’s history, or was it a traditional Chinese rebellion on a very large scale? Did it advance the interests of the peasant class, or did it simply mirror the class relations of the time? Was it a millenarian religious movement from start to finish, or did it mark the beginning of a Western-inspired, modernizing, and rational political change? Was it ever a radical, populist movement, or was its leadership inevitably corrupt and authoritarian?1 [End Page 145]
In the West, scholarship on the Taipings has focused first on its leader, Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全, who, having failed the civil service examinations three times (followed by a fourth attempt), fell under the influence of Christian texts that he had received from missionaries, and who came to believe himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and divinely ordained to rule. His personality, beliefs, and charisma (followed by megalomania, delusions, and decadence) have held a fascination for historians. The ideology of the Taipings, as well as their utopian social and economic programs, have also been the subject of study and debate. On the government side, the Qing military victory over the Taiping forces has been a major focus. That the weak Manchu court, beset by external threats posed by Western powers as well as by internal political and economic difficulties, could vanquish such a formidable military force as the Taiping army was quite amazing and has been attributed to the dedication and skills of Chinese leaders, especially Zeng Guofan 曾國藩, who remained loyal to the Manchu rulers. In Western scholarship on the Taipings, Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan presents a reconstruction of the world as it was viewed from the mind of this tormented leader, whereas Mary C. Wright’s classic, The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-chih Restoration, 1862–1874. upholds the view of Zeng as the upright and loyal Chinese statesman who, rather than siding with the Taiping rebels, who were Han Chinese, defended traditional values and institutions, even when they were in the hands of the non-Chinese Manchus.2
Two important new works have now moved beyond this historiographical framework to offer alternative narratives or to explore uncharted historical waters. Although different in subject matter, sources, and approach, Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West...