Jeff Wasserstrom interviews award winner Stephen Platt
One of the most important awards a book about the past can win is the Cundill Prize in History given by McGill University, and news recently broke that this year's winner is UMass-Amherst China specialist Stephen R. Platt, for his Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, which was published in hard cover early this year and is about to come out in a paperback edition. It's a book I know well, having reviewed it for the Wall Street Journal, where I described it as an "impressive, gracefully written" account of a major event in Chinese history and noted the care that Platt takes to place this mid-19th-century conflict into a robustly international perspective.
I recently caught up with Platt, who contributed an essay to the Asia Society's new ChinaFile project and can be seen talking about his prize-winning book in a video created for that site, and asked him a few questions via email. I began by asking him about the Taiping, but knowing of his interest in exploring connections between history and current affairs, which fits in well with his status as a one-time fellow in the laudable Public Intellectuals Program of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, I couldn't resist ending by inviting him to weigh in on a recent debate that deals with contemporary Chinese politics.
First off, congratulations on the prize. As you know, yours is a book I admire on a topic close to my heart (my undergraduate thesis was on the Taiping). For readers unfamiliar with the period and events that are your focus, what are three things that are crucial to know about the insurrection and civil war that you trace in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom?
Thanks, Jeff. If nothing else, readers unfamiliar with the period should be aware that the Taiping Rebellion was probably the largest civil war in human history and very nearly brought the Qing dynasty to its end 50 years earlier than the 1911 Revolution. Also important is that the Taiping Rebellion was the single most important prototype of revolution in modern China, a touchstone for all who came after — both Sun Yatsen and Mao Zedong in different ways saw themselves as finishing the work the Taiping had started, and (on the other side) Chiang Kai-shek used the writings of Zeng Guofan, the general who suppressed the Taiping, as a textbook for training cadets at the Whampoa military academy. It is also important to know that foreigners — especially British and French, but also Americans — played a crucial role in tipping the balance of the war in favor of the Qing dynasty; without their intervention the Taiping might have won....
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