John B. Thompson: Review of Stephen Platt's "Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom" and Tobie Meyer-Fong's "What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in Nineteenth-Century China"

tags: China, Stephen Platt, Tobie Meyer-Fong, John B. Thompson, Taiping Rebellion



John B. Thompson (@johnbthomp) is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a PhD student in East Asian history at Columbia University. 

THIS SUMMER MARKS the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, and November holds the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — “the words that remade America,” according to journalist and historian Garry Wills. Part of the address’ power flows from the image of the dead as martyrs for “a new birth of freedom,” the promise that the unprecedented savagery of the American Civil War was not a departure from the American project but a necessary part of it. We tend to remember this civil war for the positive reasons that Lincoln primed us to believe. But Lincoln’s rhetorical accomplishment makes us forget that death and civil war are more often toxic things. And few here remember that, at the same time that Lincoln was delivering his speech, China was witnessing its own civil war, with even higher costs and more unclear ends.

The Taiping Civil War (1850­–1864) started with a dream. Hong Xiuquan, a young scholar from Guangdong, a province in southern China, aspired to the government position and the unassailable status guaranteed by success in imperial civil service examinations. However, in 1837, Hong flunked the provincial-level examination in Canton, the province’s major city, for the third time and returned home broken. He collapsed into episodic trances in which he traveled to a heavenly realm and met an old man in a black dragon robe. The man, whom Hong understood to be his “father,” stood grieving at the edge of heaven, dismayed by the people of his creation who had been led astray by demons. He dispatched Hong to earth, along with a middle-aged man identified as Hong’s “elder brother,” to slay these devils. 

Until 1843, Hong had no vocabulary to explain his visions. That year, he rediscovered a collection of Bible passages he had obtained in Canton years before, and the meaning of his visions became clear: his heavenly father was God. His elder brother was Jesus. The demons were China’s false idols and Hong was China’s savior. Hong immediately began to preach his vision along with the New Testament in the mountains of southern China and quickly amassed a growing following among the farmers and villagers. 

Over time, Hong resolved to establish on earth the kingdom he had seen in heaven. He redefined the demons from the idols of China’s cultural inheritance to the alien Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty. “God had divided the kingdoms of the world […] just as a father divides his estates among his sons,” Hong said. “Why should these Manchus forcibly enter China and rob their brothers of their estate?” In 1850, Hong and his Society of God Worshippers openly rebelled against Qing authorities. In 1851, Hong formally declared the existence of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom with himself as Heavenly King. By 1853, his resourceful, ever-growing army had captured the old Ming Dynasty capital of Nanjing. From that point until the end of the civil war, there were effectively two states within China....



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