Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom
This book is a history about the Taiping Civil War during the Qing dynasty of China. Even though I was born Chinese, I know little about this piece of history. There aren’t many famous novels about that period that I’m aware of. In school I remember that Taiping Civil war is usually covered within 20 minutes of time. This is shocking considering that the Taiping Civil War is arguably the most bloody war in human kind if counting by number of death caused by the war. It succeeded even World War II depending on how death is counted. So the motivation to read this book is by pure curiosity. Why is the Taiping Rebellion got so little attention in both World history and Chinese history?
This book has three almost parallel narratives, one from Zeng Guofan, one from the Heavenly king Hong Xiuquan, and the third from the foreigners in China.
Zeng Guofan was a typical Confucian scholar who got his job through the Keju, or the examination to select government officials. He was appointed to be a general by chance and frankly speaking he was not good at war. What he was good at was to use people who are good at waging wars. He was also good at organizing campaigns and he created a new system to select military officials and to recruit soldiers.
Hong Xiuquan was once also aiming to be an official. After he failed in the exam though, he had illusions where the God visited him. His personality changed completely after that. He got in touch with other foreign Christians in the area and started preaching. But his “version” of Christianity was different from other sects, in that he puts himself as the son of the God. Many Chinese emperors made such a claim in the past and therefore he became a king. His speech was very persuasive and his administration is family oriented – key positions controlled by his brothers and cousins.
I was surprised to learn that the Heavenly Kingdom was in fact Christian. When I studied that period of history, I never had that sort of impression. I just thought that it was like other rebellions in the past where people are pissed about bad government and just rose up. I was even more surprised that other European countries would actually align with the Qing dynasty on this matter – especially shortly after they had wars with the Qing dynasty.
The attitude of the west towards the Heavenly Kingdom was heavily influenced by the generals in charge of trading ports.Those generals despised Chinese, so even though the Heavenly Kingdom was very friendly to foreigners due to common religious belief, the reports of generals depicted the Heavenly Kingdom as an evil rebellion that brought disruption to trade. It is hard to imagine that one person can influence the foreign view of China so much, but that happened.
Another thing that remember most clearly from the reading is the reason for the foreign army to burn down the Summer palace. It was depicted in Modern Chinese history as the day when foreigners basically stepped and spitted on China’s half-dead body. But in the foreigner’s view it was completely different. It was an act that prevented further damage to civilians and an act to destroy the pride of the Qing emperor. Soldiers usually plunder after they won a war and they either do that to civilians or in this case to royal palaces. But the Summer Palace was destroyed because the Qing emperor refused negotiation even after Beijing was taken over. Qing emperor tortured and killed the messengers sent to him. So the destruction of the Summer palace was two fold– one caused by the greed of soldiers and the other caused by the useless pride of the Qing dynasty.
I did not finish this book, but it gave me interesting perspectives to the society then – the same period as the American civil war. Life was hard at that time. People can die in millions. Cannabalism is not unusual due to hunger. Superstitions, prejudice, and pride drove the events that shaped Chinese history forever. I feel that the world would be different if Taiping Rebellion had succeeded. Almost half of China was under the Heavenly Kingdom at one time! China will become a Christian country, a thing I would never have imagined could be possible. China will have a half-crazy king who says he is the son of a foreign God. Yet people followed Hong Xiuquan, partly because Hong was Chinese instead of Manchurian, and partly because of his charisma.
I wish I can finish the book but it’s just too heavy and I can kind of see how Heavenly Kingdom failed without foreign support. I wish the book could be more concise so that I can fully experience a totally different world 150 years ago.