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

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  824 ratings  ·  125 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
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published February 7th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2012)
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4.21  · 
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 ·  824 ratings  ·  125 reviews

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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
Feb 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china, war, nonfiction, history
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 26, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: china
I have a hard time knowing exactly how to review this book. I enjoyed it a great deal -- the writing is solid 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
Jul 09, 2013 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
May 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: china, nonfiction
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
Christopher Saunders
May 15, 2013 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
Nov 26, 2015 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
Aug 20, 2012 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
Jan 22, 2016 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
Aug 10, 2013 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
Sahil Pandey
Jul 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The only backdrop I had coming to this book was this 2007 movie titled " The Warlords" starring Jet Li and Andy Lau (Worth a watch) . In this movie there were flashing montages of a Jesus appearing in the middle a chinese civil war. I was left scratching my head, but then took it to be some inside joke and thought nothing of it.

This book was sitting in my recommendation feed for a very long time but I couldn't bring myself to read it. Mostly because I thought of it as some local scrimmage, some
Dec 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, nonfiction
Once again failed by the American school system. This war, which took place partially at the same time as the American Civil War, is considered to be the most deadly civil war in history, and yet I only heard of it by chance when I was looking for something else in the library catalog. This is an excellent book. It's infuriating (if you didn't hate British imperialism before, you will after you read this) and horrifying (all those people dying, after all), and so fascinating.
Tim Casteel
Mar 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Very well written. The author does an amazing job taking what had to be an enormous amount of research and turning it into a one volume novel-like summary of the deadliest civil war in human history. This Chinese civil war took place at the exact time of the American civil war but was far more brutal- with casualties 100x worse than its American counterpart.

I knew nothing of this era of Chinese history. And was shocked to hear how China almost became a Christian (if just a wee bit heretical!) na
Apr 14, 2013 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
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
Rob Hocking
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Taiping Civil war isn't something I ever thought I would feel the need to read a whole book about. The short version is that around 1850 guy in China thought he was Jesus's brother, tried to overthrow the Qing dynasty, and (by about 1865) failed. This premise didn't seem interesting enough for me to invest dozens of hours of reading for the sake of learning more. But since the book came highly recommended by a friend, I decided to give it a chance.

In the end, this book really surprised me an
Lachlan Macfarlane
Mar 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Matt Brady
Jul 13, 2013 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
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is an excellent and very interesting book about a period of time that is not well known and to the extent that it is known it is not well understood in the West. The Taiping Rebellion or Civil War was a massive conflict that ripped through central China in the middle of the nineteenth century lasting just over ten years. During it, the Taiping controlled some of the most populous and wealthy provinces in South Central China, and it controlled the Yangtze river from Suzhou to Wuhan with it's ...more
Feb 12, 2015 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
Mar 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Quite possibly the best history I have ever read. Platt writes history like a novelist, and in this book he mixes primary and circumstantial evidence to bring out his main character's inner thoughts and workings. The book also provides a compelling history of xenophobia and racism in China at the same time the U.S. exploded because of its own.

I've never had an interest in Chinese history, but the magnitude of death caused by this war caught my attention. Platt provides wide ranging estimates of
Bridger A-10
Apr 15, 2013 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
Mar 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Both breathtaking and heart-wrenching narration of the most intriguing and horrible civil war in the known human history. A fascinating read!

"So in the end, perhaps the tale of the foreign intervention and the fall of the Taiping is a tale of trust misplaced. It is a tale of how sometimes the connections we perceive across cultures and distances---our hopes for an underlying of human virtue, our belief that underneath it all we are somehow the same---can turn out to be nothing more than the fict
Julian Haigh
May 27, 2012 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
Mar 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The Taiping Civil War is much, much more than a one-off event ("Rebellion") in Chinese history, and it has been detailed with rigor by Platt. I loved how the book followed several main historical figures, and did not shy away from linking the events in China to those happening elsewhere around the world at the time, particularly with the Civil War in the US and the ebbs/flows of the British Empire. Easily the most comprehensive book on this period of uprising in China and a must-read for histori ...more
May 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
This guy was right, never get involved in a land war in Asia. A riveting account of the Taiping Rebellion, which is mostly forgotten in the West, but with an estimated 20 million dead, having huge consequences for the eventual development of China in the modern world
Jonathan Yu
Sep 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I’m Chinese. I learned more about the Chinese mindset than a dozen other books on the country. The Taiping Civil War was as bad as any other in history. I have not read such a depressing, disheartening subject since Bloodlands. I highly, fervently, deeply recommend this book to everyone - Chinese or not.
Jul 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Lovely read, went into it without knowing much of the Taiping Civil War. Chinese history is still pretty unknown to me in general but after reading this book i wanna know more about it in the future.
Oct 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
so bloody I still can't breathe...
Aug 13, 2015 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.
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Stephen R. Platt is a professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.