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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

4.13  ·  Rating Details  ·  445 Ratings  ·  82 Reviews
A gripping account of China’s nineteenth-century Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest civil wars in history. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom brims with unforgettable characters and vivid re-creations of massive and often gruesome battles—a sweeping yet intimate portrait of the conflict that shaped the fate of modern China.

The story begins in the early 1850s, the waning y
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published February 7th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2012)
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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R. PlattGod's Chinese Son by Jonathan D. SpenceThe Devil Soldier by Caleb CarrThe Taiping Revolutionary Movement by Jen Yu-wenWhat Remains by Tobie Meyer-Fong
Best Taiping Books
1st out of 15 books — 2 voters
The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonTeam of Rivals by Doris Kearns GoodwinBattle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPhersonUndaunted Courage by Stephen E. AmbroseThe Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
Best Books About Nineteenth Century History
84th out of 322 books — 171 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,394)
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Maru Kun
Why read "Game of Thrones" when you could be reading "Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom"?

Who is on the cast list?

A failed civil servant re-invents himself as the younger brother of Jesus Christ, dressing in yellow silk robes and ruling his Heavenly Kingdom from the old imperial palace at Nanjing, promoting equality for women, renouncing opium and promising a Christian peace with the west.

A gentle scholar who is so full of self doubt that he twice attempts suicide after failure in battle before beco
Sep 26, 2014 Kay rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, china
A few months ago, I visited China, staying in Nanjing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou -- all foci during the long, devastating Taiping Civil War that took place between 1850 and 1864. When Westerners think of Nanjing, of course, it is the brutal Japanese occupation before and during WWII that springs to mind, but I soon became aware as I visited the city that there are successive layers of history, each of which affected later developments.

The Taiping era fascinates me, and since Nanjing was th
Jul 16, 2013 Daniel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Taiping civil war in China caused more than twenty million deaths, and featured larger than life figures warring over the fate of the most populous country on earth. It's an inherently dramatic story that is almost unknown here in America (I took a few East Asian history classes in college and I only know the basic narrative), and AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM is Stephen R. Platt's attempt to create a clear, compelling popular history of the conflict for American readers.

Platt's focus is pr
Dec 03, 2013 Qmmayer rated it liked it
I have a hard time knowing exactly how to review this book. I enjoyed it a great deal -- the writing is good and Platt tells the story of the latter portion of the Taiping civil war/rebellion quite well. He makes a strong case that the Taiping were close to toppling the Qing Dynasty and that the western powers' sporadic interventions favoring the Qing may have made a critical difference. However, I've also read J. Spense's account of the conflict, God's Chinese Son, and with that backdrop, it's ...more
Apr 10, 2012 Hadrian rated it really liked it
This is an excellent narrative history of a war which has the contradiction of being the second-bloodiest war in history (some 20 MILLION dead), and yet being almost wholly forgotten to Western audiences. The Chinese remember it, though. THeir history tells stories of the Yangtse overflowing and choked with the swollen corpses of the dead.

In narrative history style, Platt focuses on several of the major characters - a Confucian scholar-general who is the Qing Empire's last hope, British diplomat
Aug 20, 2012 Ladye rated it it was amazing
I listened to this book on tape. Normally when I listen to books on tape, it is in order to have some background noise while I'm doing something else. If I really want to read a book, I read it. But this book refused to be background noise and I was soon engrossed. It is an absolutely gripping account of China's great civil war of the 19th century. The author's most compelling twist is the laying out of just how bumbling, contradictory, and confused the British were in their handling of China du ...more
Apr 25, 2016 Thomas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love it when a history book is entertaining, almost fiction like. This has it all: characters that run the gamut of archetypes, from meddling foreigners to wise Chinese leaders; a racing plot with so many twists you'll never see coming; and there is much action to hold attention, including an EXPLOSIVE climax.

The Taiping Uprising/Revolution/Rebellion is a little known part of history that played out concurrently with the civil unrest that Europe was suffering during the 19th century, and was a
Jan 18, 2015 Jill rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Stephen Platt strikes the precise pace needed for the scope of this book. On one hand, he clips along from siege to negotiation to media response, using an array of sources but mindful that most of us can't absorb 400 pages of meticulous detail. He doesn't belabor any points, which is why this book remains gripping until the end.

The points, however, are thoughtfully and deliberately made, and herein must lie the other reason Autumn has gotten so much attention. Even at his pace, Platt never comp
Jan 22, 2016 B A rated it it was amazing
The Taiping Rebellion must be one of the most underrated wars/historical happenings of the past two centuries. I don't know how it is remembered in China, but I know it's virtually unknown in the US, despite the fact that around 20-30 million people died in the war (upper estimates put the death toll as high as 85 million) and it almost saw the installment of a Christian dynasty in China.

It's too bad because the war, as this book makes clear, was really fascinating. There are two main 'protagoni
Mar 04, 2015 John rated it it was amazing
I got exactly what I wanted out of this, plus I thought the writing itself was really good. Though Platt describes a very complicated situation with a rather large cast of characters, I really didn't get all that confused. I could see how someone might be a little disappointed if they picked this up because they wanted a "If you only read one book about the Taiping Rebellion" kind of deal. Platt doesn't really get into the build up to the war, and really doesn't spend time on the first few years ...more
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen Platt, is a interesting narrative history of the Taiping Rebellion in China during the closing 50 years or so of the Qing Empire (1850's/60's). The narrative in this book is split. On the one hand, it focuses on Hong Rengan, the Taiping "Shield King" and right hand man of the Heavenly Brother, who was instrumental in the Taiping's near victory in its foreign relations with Western nations. On ...more
Matt Brady
Jan 24, 2014 Matt Brady rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2014, china
Rather than a full history of the Taiping Civil War, a decade-and-a-half long conflict in the middle of the 19th century that killed tens of millions of people, this was a bit different to what I expected. Instead, Platt wants to place this incredibly bloody war in a global context, and show how the fighting was not just a matter of Chinese history but had far reaching effects in Europe and the United States. The narrative follows three main courses; 1)the rise to power of Hong Regan, a western ...more
Apr 14, 2013 Andrew rated it really liked it
The title does not disappoint: the book really is epic in scope. I really didn't know anything about the topic prior to beginning the text, and after finishing it, I feel that I know a great deal. My previous experience with the Taiping Rebellion derives from a visit to a museum for the rebellion in Nanjing, the Taiping Kingdom History Museum. I visited in 2006 and was bewildered by the museum's focus on military formations. Being a novice to military history, I found the exhibits exhausting. Wh ...more
Christopher Saunders
May 17, 2013 Christopher Saunders rated it it was amazing
Brilliant account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), China's catastrophic civil war that fatally crippled the Qing Dynasty, cemented Western dominance in the Orient and killed over 20,000,000 people. Platt keeps western figures like Lord Elgin and Frederick Bruce on the sidelines. Frederick Townsend Ward and Charles Gordon, often lionized as gallant adventurers, come off as unprincipled freebooters. Platt's mainly interested in the Chinese protagonists: Zeng Guofan, the scholar-turned-general ...more
Bridger A-10
Apr 19, 2013 Bridger A-10 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A very nice look at the civil war between the Manchu Qing Empire and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The author manages to give an extensive overview of the entire period, from the founding of the pseudo-Christian sect that started the war to the bloody and almost anti-climatic end. Also manages to avoid the Euro centrism that pops up a lot whenever the Taiping Rebellion gets talked about - Frederick Ward's and "Chinese" Gordon's mercenary Ever Victorious Army is examined but it's clearly a sidesh ...more
Julian Haigh
Jun 30, 2012 Julian Haigh rated it really liked it
The World's Largest Ever Civil War. I know very little about China and this book was a great introduction into the complexity and richness of Chinese history bringing me from my European perspective (through the eyes of foreigners) into a world so foreign and enchanting with fundamentally different perspectives on societal relations. The interplay of missionaries, trade missions, race relations, religion, values, countries, visions and contexts make this book a fast-paced thriller firmly rooted ...more
Stefanus Andre
Aug 17, 2015 Stefanus Andre rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
* Excellent story telling.

* Covers only the second half of the war.
* Focuses too much on the British.
* Many important characters (e.g. Shi Dakai) are only barely described.
Scott Strand
Jul 21, 2016 Scott Strand rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There's very little I can add to this litany of glowing reviews, besides another urgent recommendation to read this book if you have even a passing interest in a) Chinese history, b) military history, c) political history, d) the applications of international relations theory, e) English colonial history, f) the Chinese-US relationship, g)....the list goes on.

Yes, the historically accurate, tautly-paced, personality-driven narrative mercilessly grips your interest. Yes, very few non-Chinese peo
May 17, 2016 Liam rated it it was amazing
"Britain's neutrality in the U.S. Civil War came at the expense of abandoning it in China." (xxiv)

"And for those who weren't immediately captured, the [Canton] government set up suicide stations: pavilions with tools for killing oneself (daggers, ropes), emblazoned with placards calling for supporters of the insurrection to choose a quick self-imposed death over the eventual capture and dismemberment that would bring greater shame to their families." (21)

"[I]f there was anything consistent in th
Alexander Kennedy
Nov 13, 2015 Alexander Kennedy rated it it was amazing
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen Platt is a narrative history of the Taiping Civil War. Platt is a very colorful and descriptive writer which lends life to the narrative. He does a brilliant job with characterization and develops both the personality and actions of the key figures. Throughout the book, Platt offers the reader insight into the motives of all of the different factions that played a role in the war.
Despite the large amount of space that the narrative consumes, Platt does
Oct 01, 2014 Nick rated it it was ok
I've got two books about the Taiping rebellion, and I think I should have read God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan first; I didn't realize from the subtitle that Platt's book is all about the Western view of the Taiping rebellion. This is a very strange choice to make - Platt ends up super fast-forwarding through the entire first half and the last bit of the rebellion, instead focusing on the stretch of the war when the Western powers interfered. This makes for a sear ...more
Richard Simpson
Jul 22, 2014 Richard Simpson rated it really liked it
A fascinating subject which is so unknown in the West. I read with personal pleasure as I lived in Nanjing for nigh on three years, though at the time was little acquainted with the history of the Taiping. As I read of the events I recognised the landmarks mentioned, and recalled wandering around the ghostly ruins of the gate to the Ming Dynasty palace, thus appreciating that I also trod the ground where this anomalous 'kingdom' existed. Anomalous it was, as it purported to be Christian, the Tai ...more
Oct 26, 2015 Nick rated it really liked it
The Taiping Civil War may just be the most destructive internal war in human history. Somewhere between 30 million and 70 million people died, depending on who's estimate you believe. It marked the beginning of the end of the last Chinese dynasty before the Nationalist revolution and Mao, though the final collapse took another 50 years. And yet this war is one that most people outside of China are barely aware of. This book aims to set that to rights, and it's an excellent history. The character ...more
Jan 28, 2014 Brian rated it it was amazing
A great overview of one of the most important, yet least understood, episodes in modern Chinese history. Most Americans, even college grads with history degrees, haven't heard of the Taiping Rebellion. Platt sums it up and puts it in its global context. Brilliant.
Steven Lin
Apr 07, 2014 Steven Lin rated it really liked it
A very well-researched and neatly written historical narrative from a rather visionary angle, Platt offers insight into how a rebellion often studied in isolation from other major world events was in fact a struggle that was deeply affected by its contemporary global events. It sheds light on the British intervention in China in great detail of what happened following the Opium War, and it puts the Western powers in perspective. Specifically, it illustrates why this event mattered to the British ...more
J. Kirsch
Sep 24, 2015 J. Kirsch rated it it was amazing
Shelves: historical
This is a unique view of the Taiping Rebellion that shows intimate portraits of two historical characters, one on each side of the conflict. Hong Rengan, one of the rebels, offers a tantalizing view of the inner circle of the Taiping, whereas Zeng Guofan shows how one humble Chinese general fought his way from a backwater, marginalized role in the war to temporarily have China's future at his fingertips. The ineptitude of the Qing regime and the meddling of European powers hints at how, if left ...more
Casey Mahon
Mar 20, 2016 Casey Mahon rated it really liked it
A good book covering the full history of China's Taiping Civil War, to include the concurrent history of the 2nd Opium War and the role foreign intervention in the conflict. Makes a strong case that this episode was an important North-South Civil War in China, rather than a large scale but contained rebellion of disaffected peasants. The rebellion's failure merely delayed by 50 years the fall of the Manchu dynasty and the start of an interim anarchy period until the Mao dynasty gained power. And ...more
Dec 16, 2015 Ervin rated it really liked it
A fine book that fleshes out what is normally a very empty space in someone's historical knowledge. The writing is information dense without sacrificing any of its easy readability, and the structure coherently balances a multitude of perspectives. This work stands out because the strength of its characters; the lives, travails, and inner workings of key protagonists are well expressed and made real to the reader.

I did come away with a slightly underwhelmed feeling - I felt the fullness of the s
Justin Burnett
Jul 25, 2014 Justin Burnett rated it really liked it
I came upon this book by chance, browsing on the Book Depository for books relating to civil wars when I found my way to this excellent piece of work by Stephen R. Platt. I think it was the cover art that caught my attention first, but after reading the blurb I was intrigued enough to add it straight to the shopping cart.

Previously, I was ignorant of the Taiping Rebellion prior to stumbling upon this book, a blank slate as I ventured into this important yet scarcely covered part of history. The
Graham Podolecki
Jul 10, 2014 Graham Podolecki rated it liked it
A fascinating, in-depth diplomatic account of the Taiping Civil War. Focusing on some of the major personalities on both sides, it really lets us into the minds of these men (and just men) who act in this time.
A bit dry at times, and focusing on the big men of this time, it tends to gloss over the fact that this was the most devastating civil war in the 19th century, and seemingly we are forced to look at it through British and American interests.
A good read nevertheless, it brings well needed
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