The Civil War and the Taiping Uprising

Paul Harvey

Students in my History 4530 class, the Civil War and Reconstruction era, are learning about what many have called The American Iliad, a titanic struggle costing probably about 750,000 – 850,000 lives (according to the most recent estimates) and permanently defining the future of the American nation.

Coincident with the American Civil War were two other major world developments: the emancipation of the serfs in Russia (same year as the American Emancipation Proclamation), and the Taiping Rebellion in China. Oh, except that the Taiping Rebellion (or Taiping Uprising) was 14 years instead of 4, and cost tens of millions of lives instead of three-quarters of a million.

Stephen Platt’s new book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom narrates the Taiping Rebellion anew, and certainly puts the American conflict in a different perspective. The historian of China Jeffrey Wasserstrom reviews the text here. Below is a little, interesting excerpt, and then follow the link from there:

 In the early 1860s, a violent fight raged to determine the fate of a vast country. An insurrection had split it in two, leaving much of the southern half governed by men who claimed to be the leaders of a new state but were dismissed by their foes as illegitimate “rebels,” outlaws who had given themselves fancy titles. The conflict involved legendary generals with names that schoolchildren still memorize, and it had not just local but international significance: In far-off London, debates raged over whether the British Empire should back the rebels, with whom some Britons felt a sympathetic bond.

American readers might naturally assume that this description refers to our Civil War. In fact, I had in mind an Asian conflict, which may be little known to Americans today but which was far bloodier than the struggle that pitted Grant against Lee (tens of millions dead, compared with under a million). The insurgents with fancy titles in this case were the self-proclaimed “Kings” of the Taiping Uprising, a movement that at its apogee held sway over a territory roughly the size of Italy.

Hong Xiuquan (1814-64), the “Heavenly King” who was the movement’s supreme leader, strove to transform China by fulfilling a quasi-Christian millenarian prophecy. A frustrated scholar who had been exposed to a missionary tract while preparing to take the all-important civil-service examination that would secure him a post in the official bureaucracy, Hong went into a trance after failing the grueling test and awoke convinced that he was Christ’s younger brother, selected by God to save China from rule by barbarian “demons,” his term for the Manchu members of the Qing royal family. 

The review ends with an interesting story of when ex-President Ulysses S. Grant visited China following his presidency, where he met the Chinese military hero General Li —  Li Hongzhang, that is, leader of the forces which eventually suppressed the uprising. Evidently General Li had some fun with his name in conjunction with Grant. “General Grant and I,” General Li said at one point during Grant’s visit to China, “have suppressed the two greatest rebellions known in history.”

Read the rest here. 

This entry was posted in East Asian History, faculty teaching, History Books to Read. Bookmark the permalink.

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