h i s t o r y r o b e r t b i c k e r s
Foreign Fantasies Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West,
and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War
By Stephen Platt (Atlantic Books 470pp £25)
Jaws dropped around the world. Picture the scene: one morning in 1853 paterfamilias opens his morning copy of The Times and finds the world turned upside down. Rebels called Taipings have seized China’s second largest city, Nanjing, and are threatening the very foundations of the great Qing dynasty established by the country’s Manchu conquerors in 1644. This rebellion had been rumbling on for three years, so this is not what shakes our reader: uprisings and insurrections seem to be a Chinese norm. And he would have little sympathy for China and its rulers. Although the country’s borders were forced open by British arms in 1842, allowing foreigners to live and trade in some of the large coastal cities, the Qing have proved skilfully obstructive. British familiarity with China has bred contempt. The chinoiserie craze has long passed, supplanted by a brutish Sinophobia and denigration of all things Chinese. And although foreign missionaries have leapt straight into newly opened China, progress has been slow. After nine years, the London Missionary Society has made twenty-one conversions. China remains a dark land of ignorance, superstition and sin.
But this rebellion comes with a bewildering twist. The ethnic Chinese fighters who have burst out of the obscure highlands of the country’s south are Christian soldiers. The rebels have established a ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’ (or ‘Taiping’) at Nanjing. They have been visited by British diplomats, anxious to get them to recognise the neutrality of the foreign community in the nearby city of Shanghai and curious about strange stories circulating about their beliefs. These rumours prove true: these are self-professed Christians. Even better, they are Protestants, intent on destroying the Satanic rule of the Manchus. ‘You too have our Ten Commandments!’ some rebels sweetly remark to the foreigners.
The Taiping fighters march to battle chanting the Decalogue; fired up by belief, they fight hard. So far they have proved unbeatable.
For a moment, as Stephen Platt’s engaging and exciting new book shows, it seemed as if this revolution would succeed, and that all foreign problems with the cantankerous Qing would be solved at a stroke. The Manchus would be vanquished, and a Christian Chinese kingdom would be established. Surely a common Christianity could not but help ease trade and cultural communications? Missioners rushed to Nanjing. But what they found complicated the picture. It turned out that the rebels were led by a ‘Heavenly King’, Hong Xiuquan, a failed candidate for the civil service, to whom the Christian God had appeared in a dream, handing him a sword and instructing him to cleanse China of demons. The Christian God, Hong had concluded, was his own father, and he was therefore the younger brother of God’s other son. Jesus Christ’s younger brother ruled the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
Foreign fantasies and Taiping dreams were to be equally disappointed over the course of the eleven years it took the Manchus to regather their strength and defeat the rebellion. In this long decade millions died, and central China was devastated. Some cities were never rebuilt. The Taiping lunged north to the capital, Peking, but divided their forces and were compelled to retire. They launched expeditions east to the rich cities of the Yangtze delta, but found themselves hemmed into their central Chinese kingdom. Foreign joy turned to disenchantment, and the Western powers eventually tired of their putative co-religionists and abandoned neutrality. While they did not help the Manchus outright, they lost the habit of hindering their pacification of this deadly rebellion, allowing mercenary units of foreign fighters to independent thinking from polity politybooks.com
Why Love Hurts A Sociological Explanation Eva Illouz
‘A tour de force, a thrilling read. Illouz etches a whole new emotional atlas.’ Laura Kipnis, author of Against Love: A Polecmic
May 2012 – 300 pages 978-0-7456-6152-0 hb £20.00
Is China Buying the World? Peter Nolan
‘Peter Nolan knows more about Chinese companies and their international competition than anyone else on earth, including in China.’ The Financial Times
May 2012 – 120 pages 978-0-7456-6078-3 hb £14.99
On Education Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo Zygmunt Bauman
‘Bauman on a bad day is still far more stimulating than most contemporary social thinkers.’ Times Higher Education
May 2012 – 100 pages 978-0-7456-6156-8 pb £9.99
Letters to Hitler Henrik Eberle
‘Full of fascinating and sometimes disturbing testimonies to the charismatic power of the Nazi dictator.’ Richard J Evans, University of Cambridge
May 2012 – 240 pages 978-0-7456-4873-6 hb £20.00
To order, free phone John Wiley &
Sons Ltd on 0800 243407
Literary Review ad SC 05.12.indd 1
j u l y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 5