The last great English-language history of the 19th-century Taiping Rebellion — one of the bloodiest uprisings the world has ever seen — was published in 1996. China, at the time, was slowly emerging from its defensive crouch following the Tiananmen Square crackdown. So, perhaps fittingly, the writer, the storied Chinese historian Jonathan Spence, chose to emphasize the profound weirdness of the rebellion’s leader, the eccentricity of his ideology and the faraway nature of the events. The Taiping Rebellion was significant, Spence seemed to argue in “God’s Chinese Son,” more for the fact that it was a good story than for the effect it had on the world. China, then and now, he seemed to say, was unchangeable. Possessing many great yarns, mind you, but fundamentally unchangeable.
Since 1996, however, China has changed and mightily so. The economy of the Middle Kingdom is not only fully integrated into the international system, but China’s appetites (for oil, ore, fish and soybeans), its tastes (for Ferraris, Louis Vuitton bags and fine Bourdeaux), and its exports and imports are shaking the world. Although the word “globalization” has been around since the 1930s, for China, the pivotal year was 2001, when Beijing entered the World Trade Organization, after which its exports increased fivefold in a decade.
So now Spence’s former student Stephen R. Platt has followed the lead of his professor. He has written the next great history of the Taiping rebels. And his argument — which is fresh and important — is that this idea that China was unchangeable and not a significant factor in the world’s history in the 19th century is just plain wrong. Aided by the patently clear fact that China matters now, Platt has marshaled a powerful case that the rebellion — and China — mattered then.
The Taiping Rebellion erupted in 1850 in southern China and lasted 14 years, leaving a death toll 30 times greater than that of the contemporaneous American Civil War. Inspired by a charismatic — if not deranged — failed scholar, millions of Chinese farmers left their land, cut off their queues, burned their homes and set off to fight the Chinese government, which was controlled by a northern tribe known as the Manchus.
The Taiping leader, Hong Xiuquan, was deeply influenced by Christianity as he cobbled together an ideology to fight the Qing dynasty. Hong imagined himself to be Jesus’s younger brother, embraced the Ten Commandments and established a government in the central Chinese city of Nanjing called the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. Most China scholars, including Spence, have emphasized Hong’s distortion of Christian doctrine, but when placed in historical context, Hong’s Christianity appears no more blasphemous than, say, that of a contemporary, Joseph Smith and his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Platt supports his case for China’s importance in 19th-century history by noting that Chinese silver — through the purchases of thousands of tons of British and American opium — fueled the development of empires, both national and financial. China’s appetites for seal and otter pelts, sandalwood, and sea cucumber helped trigger the rise of the United States as a great seafaring nation. China was the Middle Kingdom all right, not because it was floating out there in some type of isolated Oriental splendor, but because it was a kingdom in the middle of the world.
In addition, Platt shows that the rebellion captured the attention of everyone from missionaries to revolutionaries. Writing in the New York Tribune in 1853, Karl Marx predicted that the uprising would spell the end of the British Empire’s predatory capitalism and, he enthused, would “throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system.” To radicals still intoxicated with the European revolutions of 1848, Platt writes, the Taiping uprising “seemed a remarkable parallel: the downtrodden people of China, oppressed by their Manchu overlords, had, it seemed, risen up to demand satisfaction. . . . Here was evidence that the empire on the other end of the world was now connected to the economic and political systems of the West.”
In the United States, the rebellion seized the imaginations of a different sort: the missionaries who saw in the quasi-Christian nature of the movement a chance for the “blitzconversion” — as a contemporary preacher put it — of China into a Christian nation. The New York Times argued that the United States should recognize the Taiping rebels and trade with them; for one thing, it said, they were almost Christians. In addition, they occupied China’s most productive tea- and silk-producing zones.
Platt adds an absorbing new perspective on this bloody conflagration when he shows how the rebellion mattered to Britain — the resident power in Asia. The United States and China constituted Britain’s two biggest markets and were key cogs in the London-centered globalization of the day. American cotton went to mills in Lancashire, which churned out cheap cloth for China. “Those English factories got three quarters of their raw cotton from the U.S. South,” Platt writes, “and nearly half of their finished products went on to be sold in the Far East.” But when President Abraham Lincoln blockaded Southern ports during the Civil War, Britons experienced a very real fear that “England’s domestic manufacturing economy would collapse.” With a skyrocketing price for cotton, British cloth could no longer compete with the cheap Chinese variety. The Lancashire mills ground to a halt. Unemployment jumped. There was revolution in the air.
So what did London do? First, it flirted with the idea of meddling in the American conflict. Then it pulled back and intervened in China instead, using an American hired gun, the darkly handsome Frederick Townsend Ward, as its agent. After Ward died on a battlefield outside Shanghai, Britain settled on one of its own, Charles “Chinese” Gordon, to continue battling the Taipings.
Platt also takes seriously the Taipings as a force for change and delves deeply into the captivating characters — Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang — who suppressed the revolt on behalf of the Qing. Platt reminds us that the first manifesto on political reform of imperial China was issued by Hong Rengan, a cousin of the Taiping leader, as the upheaval began. It was a platform modeled on the political system of the United States. That American and British officials did not see fit to listen to Christian missionaries and give the Taipings a little backing — or at least a little trade — raises for Platt one of the great what-ifs of history. At the end of his book, he sympathetically quotes the Japanese elder statesman Ito Hirobumi as saying the biggest mistake England made in China was to help the Manchus snuff out the Taipings. Such inteference allowed the Qing to stumble on for 50 more years, all but guaranteeing that when change did come to China, it would be even more violent and tumultuous. And so it was. And that matters, too.
China, the West, and the Epic Story
of the Taiping Civil War
By Stephen R. Platt
Knopf. 470 pp. $30