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China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

by Stephen R. Platt

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-27173-0
Publisher: Knopf

During years that overlapped the American Civil War, the Chinese were engaged in their own self-destructive conflict (1851–1864), which eventually claimed more than 20 million lives.

Platt (Chinese History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China, 2007) maintains a generally descriptive, analytical, dispassionate voice, despite the savagery, arrogance and absolute mercenary and/or egotistical motives of the principal players. The author begins in 1853 with a quick description of the Qing dynasty, then in its second century of sway. Rising in opposition was the so-called Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, whose sub-monarchs went by names like Brave King and Loyal King. Weaving their way into the fabric were various Western Christian missionaries hoping to covert the masses, aligning themselves with the rebels, who were infused with a sort of hybrid Christianity. The French and British nervously observed, concerned about protecting their trade channels, sometimes venturing into battle, supplying arms, ships and leadership. Although there were too few of them in country to occupy territory, Platt shows that the armaments and early support were important factors in the eventual defeat of the initially dominant Taiping. By 1861, of course, the Americans were engaged in their own civil war; the North feared the British would side with the Confederacy and were relieved when they opted for China instead. Platt tells all of these stories in a seamless narrative, moving gracefully from one point of view to the next, relating strategies, presenting personalities and illuminating political complexities. In general, he allows the horrors of war—mass executions, rapes, starvation, cannibalism, cholera and overall depravity—to speak for themselves.

The author raises a curtain to show us events largely unknown in the West—yet achingly familiar as well.