'Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War' by Stephen Platt. Book review.

The central message of the book is that foreign intervention in the struggle between the Qing Dynasty and the Taipings, though rationalised (often sincerely) on humanitarian grounds, had disastrous consequences during and after the war.

Samuel Burt
18 August 2012

In 1850 a Chinese Christian convert named Hong Xiuquan proclaimed himself the leader of a new religious and political movement in China, the Taipings, and set out to remove the Manchus of the ruling Qing Dynasty and establish in their place a 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.' Their alternative was a strange vision of an egalitarian and puritanical theocracy with all the financial and mechanical trappings of modernity. What followed their initial uprising was a civil war that lasted fourteen years, eventually involved soldiers and mercenaries from around the world, and is estimated to have claimed the lives of at least twenty million people.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

The premise of Stephen Platt's new history is that, in spite of its scope and scale, it continues to be a neglected event in the western historical consciousness because it is commonly assumed to have been a purely internal affair. On the contrary, as he explains at length, "China was not a closed system, and globalism is hardly the recent phenomenon we sometimes imagine it to be. [...] By consequence, the war in China was tangled up in threads leading around the globe to Europe and America, and it was watched from outside with a sense of immediacy and horror." (xxiii) Abroad, the Taiping Rebellion was variously perceived as an echo of the wave of revolutions that erupted across Europe in 1848, a revolt by a downtrodden ethnic majority group against their ethnic minority overlords, and a signifier of divine approval of foreign missionaries.

Platt's attempt to untangle each of those threads alongside a dense account of endless skirmishes, sieges, and massacres is not entirely successful. In his review of this book for the Sunday Times, Dominic Sandbrook writes, with some justification, that, "The narrative jumps confusingly back and forth, while the parade of names becomes frankly wearying. We meet Zeng Guofan, Zeng Guoquan, Zeng Guohua and Zeng Guobao, which is at least two Zengs too many."[1] It must be said that, at 364 pages, this is a long book, which, in places, feels even longer. Readers who, like this reviewer, are searching for a general historical overview of the Taiping Rebellion, will be disappointed to find the evaluation of strategy repeatedly displaced by tactical minutiae (especially in later sections of the book). For a writer whose declared mission is to write on China's history for a general audience, Platt meanders over too many pages, bombarding the reader with too many unfamiliar names and places.

But if Platt fails to achieve one of his objectives in writing this book, he comes a lot nearer his second, more specific, goal, which is to draw a complex message for our times from this bloody episode. The Taiping Rebellion is for him, "a reminder of just how fine the line is that separates humanitarian intervention from imperialism - and how the trace and the curvature of that line are often decided simply by who it is from the one country who succeeds in claiming expertise on the other." (xxvi) As a detailed case study of the limits of good intentions in international relations, it succeeds admirably. The central message of the book is that foreign intervention in the struggle between the Qing Dynasty and the Taipings, though rationalised (often sincerely) on humanitarian grounds, had disastrous consequences during and after the war.

Moreover, it is clear that this cannot be explained away by lack of awareness of ‘the facts’ on the part of those clamouring for intervention from abroad. Platt argues that some of the gravest misjudgments were made by some of the most well-informed and well-positioned characters, such as Frederick Bruce, Britain's first minister to China, who refused to read letters from the Taipings before attacking them outside Shanghai, because in his mind, "the hatred of foreigners and the hatred of foreign religions were such immutable and unchanging aspects of Chinese culture that it was impossible even to conceive of a rebel victory." It was not so much a matter of inaccessible facts, but of wilful ignorance.

Why was this so? Simplifying the argument only slightly, it would seem that westerners whose lives did not depend on the life or death of the Qing chose to ignore facts about the Taipings' alternative regime because they were deemed unworthy of their time and attention. Given their limited resources and attention-spans, they made a conscious choice to take what they saw as the comparatively ‘safe’ bet. They could have learned more about both parties and their models for Chinese society, but that was time and effort that could be better spent securing western interests in China in the here and now. In short, faced with an uncertain situation, some westerners in a strategically vital position at the interface of China and the west chose not to take the risk of gathering all of the facts first.

Without a full and proper understanding of the situation on the ground in China, and of the impact their intervention might have there, those in the west who favoured intervention were able to persuade themselves and others that the supply of men and weapons to the imperial forces was a “humanitarian intervention" that stood the best chance of ending over a decade of bloodshed. Western partisans saw their chosen party in a simplistic light, projecting their own hopes and fears onto their every action. Platt reminds us that, "when we congratulate ourselves on seeing through the darkened window that separates us from another civilisation, heartened to discover the familiar forms that lie hidden among the shadows on the other side, sometimes we do so without ever realising that we are only gazing at our own reflection."

This raises perhaps the most pressing question of all, which Platt does not address directly: who has the right to decide whether or not a people should ‘gamble’ with its own future? A natural response would be ‘the people themselves’, to which the inevitable reply comes that if ‘the people’ are silenced by their tyrannical rulers, how are we to hear their decision? As Platt recognises, there are no easy answers to these questions: "one man's national liberation was another man's humanitarian disaster." But we might start by observing that, in conditions of outright civil war with prevalent uncertainty, tyrannical rulers often realise that their own lives may depend on giving ‘the people’ (or at least, enough of them) something that they want; likewise their opponents.

The bloodiest civil wars are often the most evenly-balanced, grinding on in a drawn-out game of tit-for-tat; such was the Taiping Rebellion. The very balance of force prolonging the conflict indicates deep, cross-cutting divides underlying society, and the difficulty of overcoming those divisions through reconciling competing interests. Crucially, however, those most intimately involved in the conflict are arguably those with the most at stake in its outcome, and therefore they often have the most effective incentives to establish the salient facts of the situation. Following this logic - which Platt only does implicitly, by advocating non-intervention - these are the people who ought to take the vital decisions, not necessarily those with the biggest gunships - or the best intentions.

But that is not what happened. "The two sides in China were so intractably balanced that the final outcome was to a large degree determined by the diplomatic and military interventions of the British and other foreigners", interventions that were "largely informal, often half-hearted, morally fraught, and in many ways effective purely by accident". Contemporary critics of Britain's interference in China's civil war, such as Thomas Taylor Meadows, a British consul serving in Shanghai, warned that it would have serious long-term detrimental effects, whether or not it succeeded in attaining its immediate goals. According to Platt, Meadows maintained that, "If Britain did not allow the rebellion in China to follow its natural course, it would at best contribute to an even more intractable state of anarchy and at worst condemn the Chinese people to rule by a corrupt and cruel government that should rightly have fallen."

In a familiar turn of events, it was the dawning realisation on the part of the British that they did not really know where power truly lay inside China, that turned the tide of public opinion against British involvement there. The ‘watershed moment’ was the brutal recovery of the city of Suzhou from the rebels, which "showed, once and for all, that this was Li Hongzhang and Zeng Guofan's war, not Charles Gordon's. [...] What the events at Suzhou finally made clear, in short, was that for all of their many protestations to the contrary, the proud British agents in China in fact were, and had been all along, nothing more than mercenaries."

In an interview he gave in 1909, long after the Heavenly Kingdom was reduced to ashes, the engineer of Japan's post-1868 transformation and four-time Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi made a prescient prediction regarding the reverberations of the British intervention, which "arrested a normal and healthy process of nature... [W]hen they [the Qing Dynasty] fall, as fall they must and will before very long, the upheaval will be all the more violent and all the more protracted for having been so long and unduly postponed."

Even those with a serious interest in the history of modern China are likely to find their interest flagging intermittently throughout this book. That is only to be expected, since its author intended to write a cautionary tale. The most curious and well-intentioned observers must eventually confront the fact that the priorities of those inside and those outside of civil conflicts cannot be presumed to coincide. And then a fundamental choice must be made. Although it is short on answers, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is at least a timely reminder that that choice exists.

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