Rana Mitter looks at a tale of revolution, political intrigue and opium
It may have been the bloodiest civil war ever. Yet the Taiping War, which convulsed China between 1851 and 1864, remains in the shadows of western understanding of world history.
The tale of the Taiping is one of the most bizarre encounters between China and the west. A young man named Hong Xiuquan, who had repeatedly failed the examinations to enter the imperial Chinese bureaucracy, had a vision inspired by missionary tracts, telling him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and that God had sent him to destroy the ruling Qing dynasty. This unlikely vision nonetheless won Hong thousands of followers and, within a few years, the rebels had established an alternative kingdom in the heartland of central China. That new kingdom was called the Taiping Tianguo: the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. The rebellion nearly toppled the entire imperial dynasty. Before it ended, more than 20 million Chinese people would be killed.
The story of how the dynasty came so close to destruction, and how it survived, is told in vivid detail by Stephen Platt. Platt weaves a compelling narrative that combines the tale of a lone, crazed visionary with the geopolitics of the mid-Victorian era: everyone from the emperor to the gunboat-happy English foreign secretary Lord Palmerston makes an appearance here. The story of the Taiping has been told before (most recently in Jonathan Spence’s superb God’s Chinese Son), but this is the first account that puts the rebellion in an international context. The establishment of a semi-Christian kingdom in the Yangtze delta might seem a long way from the cotton mills of the deep south in America, but Platt makes a convincing argument that in 1861, Britain found itself faced with the loss of two major trading partners, China and the USA, because of the two simultaneous civil wars.
In response, the British envoys weaved between appeasement of the emperor and flirtation with the Taipings, unsure if they might be the next rulers of China. But the story is told from both sides: we hear the views of Taiping leaders including the remarkable Hong Rengan, highly educated and with hopes of turning the movement into a progressive regime that would ban opium and introduce a modern navy, schools and banks. In the end, a reluctant warrior, the Confucian official Zeng Guofan, defeated the rebels with British help, and although the Qing survived for another half century, the seeds of warlordism that would eventually split the country had been sown. Stephen Platt’s book is a masterly account of a war in which Britain and the west played a crucial part, and which The Times was moved to call “the greatest revolution the world has yet seen”.
Rana Mitter is the author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008)