You think you know a country and then wallop, a book comes along that turns everything on its head. Stephen Platt’s hugely enjoyable Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, for instance. A megatome if ever there was one. Knowledgeable, zestily written, and utterly surprising.
China’s GDP is predicted to overhaul the USA in the next few years, making it the world’s leading superpower. And yet we have a general notion that China’s history comes in rough-hewn slabs: Emperors, Orwellian Communists and then, in a reversal of the way Karl Marx imagined, mad rampant Capitalism.
But China is as diverse as Europe and just as complex.
Platt, a leading American academic, offers a glimpse of the forces that dragged the world’s most popular nation out of the middle ages and into the modern era, by focusing on a rather peculiar rebellion which took place in the mid-19th century.
Peculiar in the sense that it was led by a Christian fundamentalist who saw visions of God and believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. Not what you expect from the land of Buddha and Confucius.
Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping movement illustrates just how extraordinary and terrible humanity is. All it took was an idea – one that seemed preposterous to those in the west – for a million people to rise up against their overlords. Religion is not set in stone. It morphs, depending on who is doing the preaching.
Platt is tackling a big subject: a forgotten civil war, perhaps the bloodiest of all time, which resulted in as many as 20 million deaths. The reaction of the western powers – and western public opinion – to the Taiping revolution was crucial in how it played out.
But it is the details that make a history book really work and Platt is good with these. There is something brilliantly mundane about Xiuquan, for instance, in that he failed the stringent exams for the Chinese civil service five times. Had he passed, you wonder if the war might never have happened.
Does history work like that, or is it down to individuals or to greater forces – be they economic, physical,