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

4.11 of 5 stars 4.11  ·  rating details  ·  239 ratings  ·  51 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
ebook, 496 pages
Published February 7th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2012)
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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
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
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
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
Matt Brady
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
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
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
Christopher Saunders
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Justin Burnett
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
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
Jemera Rone
Wonderful to read a book about a discreet period in China's history that is short enough to put one's mind around, especially since it coincided with the equally bloody US Civil War. Or somewhat less bloody war. This also has a "hook" to US readers in that there are several characters (interfering inferior whites) who are British or US in origin. Some of the main Chinese actors in this drama were influenced/trained by Christian missionaries, as well.
The story is certainly epic, and sufficient u
Gary Bruff
Platt's book is a history of the unraveling of one of the oddest forces in history, the TaiPing rebellion. A fascinating story in its own right, Platt's telling seems to do it narrative justice. The TaiPings were a massive army of the downtrodden who adopted (or adapted) a barely recognizable form of Christianity and then nearly toppled the Qing dynasty. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom looks at the decline and fall of the Taiping rebellion, whose turning point seemed to be when the Western Powers ...more
Harley Gee
The Taiping Rebellion is intriguing in part because it is so unknown or ignored in the West. Probably the bloodiest civil war ever fought, it killed north of 20 million people. While the combatants, the ruling Manchu dynasty as well the Taipei rebels, were primarily ethnically Chinese, the impact of the West (primarily England, US, France) was important if not decisive in supporting the declining but eventually victorious Manchus.

Such a strange story. The Taipei rebels were nominally Christians.
Mickael Gondrand
The Taiping Rebellion was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, pitting a largely southern, ethnic Chinese peasant force against the Manchu imperial government in the north. As Stephen Platt shows in this excellent and well-written study, the “rebellion” really deserves to be known as a civil war; not only because of its protracted existence (from 1851 to 1864) or the scale of the devastation (20-30 billion dead, under conservative estimates; as much as 70 billion when one calculates the lo ...more
This work covers the final few years of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom - the decline and eventual fall of the losing side in a civil war that claimed millions (perhaps dozens of millions) of lives in 19th Century China. As the author points out, that at the time of the contemporaneous American Civil War, the Chinese losses excelled more than the entire population of North America.

The author makes it clear from the beginning that his aim is to cover the fall of the Taiping, rather than provide a co
This book does a skillful job of both laying out the internal causes of the Taiping Civil War and of placing the events within the larger global picture at the time. The author prefers the term "Taiping Civil War" over "Taiping Rebellion" as the latter portrays the fading Qing dynasty as the only holder of legitimate power--a view often shared by self-interested outsiders. The truth was more complicated: the Qing, being Manchus rather than ethnic Chinese, were already viewed as foreigners even a ...more
Zeke Chase
Those that know me know that the Taiping Rebellion is probably my favourite period in history to read. Unfortunately, there is little written on it in English. The largest uprising in human history, led by a madman Christian that proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and saw nearly 1000 times the death toll of the Spanish Inquisition, and you can find only a handful of books on it. This book is one of them, superbly written, thoroughly annotated and wonderfully insightful.

The T
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
The Taiping Rebellion (or war as Platt describes it, with good reason) was one of the most destructive conflicts in China and indeed the world. The Qing government faced a popular heterodox Christian revolt that spread across several provinces, and was only substantially solved after foreign involvement.

Platt's book details the history of the war, its principle figures, and the differing responses the world had to it, ranging from initial support to condemnation as crossed wires and miscommunic
The Taiping Rebellion ranks second to World WAr II as the bloodiest major event in history. The fact that its history is barely known in the West is a shame, especially given the rise of China to global power. Platt's book corrects that deficit. It is detailed (within current capability), well written (though sometimes more bloodless than you'd expect), and global in its focus (comparing the event to the concurrent American civil war). I've read it more or less at the same time as I read Jonatha ...more
Sad, very sad. But very much worth reading, if only to remind ourselves that the mistakes that Western powers make in places they invade are just the same mistakes over and over again. Although I may not agree with some of Platt's extrapolations at the end, he does have an excellent handle on the war and the narrative of Western involvement during the war.
Lots of interesting information but not a very exciting read.
a very good narrative history of the Taiping Civil War in china in the 1850s-60s. sort of farts to an unsatisfying conclusion, but that's more about the history of the war itself than Platt's storytelling. Truly great research and excellent blending of said research with storytelling. Zeng Guofan is my favorite general who would rather be a moral philosopher. Good read, helped me get a better grasp on my 19th century chinese history. Probably not that necessary for people who are not into China.
Great book! The only criticism I have is that there was too little detail given of some of the campaigns. But it is clear from the account how close the Taipings came to ovethrowing the Qing dynasty or, at the very minimum, setting up a separate kingdom in the south of China. The unremitting hostility of the British representative, which seemed to be responsible for much of the tragedy that befell the Taipings is hard to understand.

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