Saturday, 18 August 2012


I recently read and reviewed Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (excerpt available here) by Stephen R. Platt, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who specialises in late imperial Chinese history. It details at length the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth-century and the staggering scale of the ensuing civil war.

I was fascinated by Platt's speculation about the significance of its coinciding with the American Civil War, and the contradictory pressures this exerted on Britain's Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to intervene (to prop up international trade) and not to intervene (which would have been more consistent with Britain's policy of non-interference in the American conflict). 

But the most interesting and, I think, relevant subject he broaches is the challenges and pitfalls of humanitarian intervention. Above all, he shows that discussions about external involvement in the Taiping civil war mirror almost exactly the kind of arguments still raging today about whether we ought to intervene in the Middle East.

Here is a video of Platt discussing why he decided to write the book:

The full review can be read here at OpenDemocracy. Here is an excerpt:

"The premise of Stephen Platt's new history is that, in spite of its scope and scale, it continues to be a neglected event in the western historical consciousness because it is commonly assumed to have been a purely internal affair. On the contrary, as he explains at length, "China was not a closed system, and globalism is hardly the recent phenomenon we sometimes imagine it to be. [...] By consequence, the war in China was tangled up in threads leading around the globe to Europe and America, and it was watched from outside with a sense of immediacy and horror." (xxiii) Abroad, the Taiping Rebellion was variously perceived as an echo of the wave of revolutions that erupted across Europe in 1848, a revolt by a downtrodden ethnic majority group against their ethnic minority overlords, and a signifier of divine approval of foreign missionaries.

Hong Xiuquan (1814-64),
 Taiping leader
 The Taiping Rebellion is for him, "a reminder of just how fine the line is that separates humanitarian intervention from imperialism - and how the trace and the curvature of that line are often decided simply by who it is from the one country who succeeds in claiming expertise on the other." (xxvi) As a detailed case study of the limits of good intentions in international relations, it succeeds admirably. The central message of the book is that foreign intervention in the struggle between the Qing Dynasty and the Taipings, though rationalised (often sincerely) on humanitarian grounds, had disastrous consequences during and after the war.

Without a full and proper understanding of the situation on the ground in China, and of the impact their intervention might have there, those in the west who favoured intervention were able to persuade themselves and others that the supply of men and weapons to the imperial forces was a “humanitarian intervention" that stood the best chance of ending over a decade of bloodshed. Western partisans saw their chosen party in a simplistic light, projecting their own hopes and fears onto their every action."

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