taiping: the bloodiest war of the 19th century -- 5/03/17

Today's selection -- from Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R. Platt. Taking place at the same time as the American Civil War, the Sepoy Mutiny in India, and the Italian Risorgimento, the Chinese civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion was the bloodiest and most horrifying war of that era. It stemmed, ultimately, from the desperate poverty of millions of Chinese under the rule of the Qing dynasty Manchus, and dwarfed those other conflicts with over twenty million deaths:

"The war that engulfed China from 1851 to 1864 was not only the most destructive war of the nineteenth century, but likely the bloodiest civil war of all time. Known in English as the Taiping Rebellion, it pitted the Chinese rebels of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom against the waning authority of the two-hundred-year-old Qing dynasty of the Manchus, and in its brutal fourteen-year course at least twenty million people lost their lives to war­fare and its attendant horrors of famine and pestilence. In terms of the U.S. Civil War, with which it coincided in its final years, the death toll of the Chinese civil war was at least thirty times as high. ...

Battle of Anqing (1861)

"These characters [in this war] range from a Taiping prime minister who spoke En­glish, preached Christianity, and dreamed of a China with free trade and railroads and newspapers; to the American mercenaries lured to Shanghai by the rewards of fighting in the Chinese war; to the Western diplomats and missionaries whose attempts to make sense of the strange foreign world around them wound up shaping that world in permanent ways. On the dynasty's side, the [main] character is Zeng Guofan, the general who rose from a poor farm­ing background to command a personal army every bit as vast, loyal, and ruthless as the army commanded by his counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant, in the United States, and whose power by the end of the war made even Grant look like a lieutenant in comparison. ... He is one of the most popular historical figures in China today, with dozens of books on his life and let­ters readily available. ...

Zeng Guofan 

"[As just one example of the horrors, in] 1860, ['the Loyal King' Li Xiucheng arrived] at Hangzhou without warning on March 11. The attack [on Hangzhou] would have been a complete surprise if Li's goal had been simply to invade the city, but he intended instead to terrorize it. ... Hell unleashed itself in the besieged city as its untrained militia defend­ers broke ranks and desperately looted the homes of their neighbors before running from the Loyal King's onslaught. The leaders of the civil gov­ernment abandoned their offices, some leading their bodyguard detach­ments in ransacking the city's richest homes before making their escape as well, leaving no command in place whatsoever. As Li Xiucheng's small force fought its way through the breach in the city wall, local citizens did battle in the streets with the looters who were supposed to be defending them, compounding the war dead with the lynched, the mangled, and the burned. Fires raged. The city's women, following generations of moral instruction on how to behave in times of chaos, began putting themselves to death -- tens of thousands of them by the end. Like other Confucian governments before it, the Qing dynasty had celebrated female suicide as the pinnacle of virtue, and it ramped up its honors for women's suicide in the course of the civil war, Female suicide became a kind of perverse defensive measure against the rebels. Fearing rape and murder when the Taiping entered the city, the women of Hangzhou acted as they had been taught: they hanged themselves, poisoned themselves, stabbed themselves with knives, and threw themselves into wells to drown. ...

"[In another example, British missionaries were dispatched from Shanghai to seek an audience with the Taiping leaders in Nanjing.] These missionaries had long welcomed the destruction of the civil war, because they saw God's hand at work in the Taiping armies. 'Prophecy has said, "I will shake the nations,"' wrote [missionary Joseph] Edkins a few months before his trip to Suzhou, 'and in China there has commenced an era of change, when multitudes are suffering present calamities for the ultimate good of the whole nation.' But it was one thing to reflect on such calamities from the relative safety of Shanghai, another to enter their midst. As the boat edged deeper into the war zone, the heady optimism of the missionaries ran up against countercurrents of horror. It was their fourth night, finally approaching the conquered city of Suzhou, that they would have forgot­ten if they could. For that was the night that their little boat slowed in its progress, the putrid smell of rot grew and thickened, and finally they came to a stop. Peering out into the twilight by the soft glow of their lanterns, all they could make out on the still surface of the dark water, for hundreds of yards in front of them, were the bodies of the dead -- cold, nameless, and uncountable -- that jammed the canal like so many logs. But there was no turning back. The missionaries pushed their boat forward into the grim mass, oars thudding dully in the blackness, until exhaustion finally over­came them and they had to sleep, there, in the unforgiving embrace of the multitudes."

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Stephen R. Platt


Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War




Copyright 2012 by Stephen R. Platt


xxiii-xxv, 66-67, 79-80
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