The World’s Bloodiest Civil War

By John B. ThompsonMay 16, 2013

The World’s Bloodiest Civil War

What Remains by Tobie Meyer-Fong
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R. Platt

THIS SUMMER MARKS the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, and November holds the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — “the words that remade America,” according to journalist and historian Garry Wills. Part of the address’ power flows from the image of the dead as martyrs for “a new birth of freedom,” the promise that the unprecedented savagery of the American Civil War was not a departure from the American project but a necessary part of it. We tend to remember this civil war for the positive reasons that Lincoln primed us to believe. But Lincoln’s rhetorical accomplishment makes us forget that death and civil war are more often toxic things. And few here remember that, at the same time that Lincoln was delivering his speech, China was witnessing its own civil war, with even higher costs and more unclear ends.

The Taiping Civil War (1850­–1864) started with a dream. Hong Xiuquan, a young scholar from Guangdong, a province in southern China, aspired to the government position and the unassailable status guaranteed by success in imperial civil service examinations. However, in 1837, Hong flunked the provincial-level examination in Canton, the province’s major city, for the third time and returned home broken. He collapsed into episodic trances in which he traveled to a heavenly realm and met an old man in a black dragon robe. The man, whom Hong understood to be his “father,” stood grieving at the edge of heaven, dismayed by the people of his creation who had been led astray by demons. He dispatched Hong to earth, along with a middle-aged man identified as Hong’s “elder brother,” to slay these devils. 

Until 1843, Hong had no vocabulary to explain his visions. That year, he rediscovered a collection of Bible passages he had obtained in Canton years before, and the meaning of his visions became clear: his heavenly father was God. His elder brother was Jesus. The demons were China’s false idols and Hong was China’s savior. Hong immediately began to preach his vision along with the New Testament in the mountains of southern China and quickly amassed a growing following among the farmers and villagers. 

Over time, Hong resolved to establish on earth the kingdom he had seen in heaven. He redefined the demons from the idols of China’s cultural inheritance to the alien Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty. “God had divided the kingdoms of the world […] just as a father divides his estates among his sons,” Hong said. “Why should these Manchus forcibly enter China and rob their brothers of their estate?” In 1850, Hong and his Society of God Worshippers openly rebelled against Qing authorities. In 1851, Hong formally declared the existence of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom with himself as Heavenly King. By 1853, his resourceful, ever-growing army had captured the old Ming Dynasty capital of Nanjing. From that point until the end of the civil war, there were effectively two states within China.

Most English-language histories of the Taiping Civil War start here at the beginning, with Hong, his social matrix, his weird charisma, his distinctive Christianity, and his peculiar visions. A fixation on Hong, however, reduces the scope of the war and its impact. Taiping Christianity makes the whole movement seem strange and incredible, but Taiping autonomy, and their government infrastructure, were very real. The wrath in the rebellion’s ranks reflected genuine frustration with the Qing Empire and Hong retreated from public prominence after the capture of Nanjing. Neither Hong nor his religion survived the upheaval.

More importantly, neither did another 30 million people, killed by war, suicide, famine, and disease. This was a serious war with effects that outlasted its causes. These consequences are often neglected, but thanks to two recent histories, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen R. Platt and What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China by Tobie Meyer-Fong, we may finally begin to move away from Hong and confront the black hole opened by tens of millions of lives lost in China and the way 19th century history warped around it. 

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is a masterfully written narrative history of the last six years of the war. Platt’s stated goal is to restore the Taiping Civil War to its proper place in world history during the 19th century and the result is a globe-spanning epic, complete with a list of dramatis personae in the front matter.

Among the Chinese in Platt’s book, Hong Xiuquan plays a bit part. In the foreground are two personalities so perfectly opposed they would be unthinkable in a work of fiction. On the Taiping side is Hong Rengan, the Heavenly King’s cousin who, after being separated from the Taiping movement early in its inception, worked as a preacher’s assistant in British Hong Kong. There, he learned to speak fluent English and read the Bible in addition to studying Western science and theories of government. In 1859, Hong Rengan ventured to Nanjing to rejoin his cousin. Western missionaries encouraged him. They hoped Hong Rengan, properly instructed in true Christianity, would purge the Taiping movement of its blasphemies. 

Hong Rengan’s ambitions were far grander than that. Once appointed to a ministerial position by the Heavenly King, he drew up a comprehensive treatise for transforming the Taiping state, “A New Work for the Aid of Government,” which Platt calls “the first truly global proposal for reform in China’s history.” Hong Rengan discarded the old imperial view of China as all that exists and instead saw China as one state among many. His new government would enthusiastically pursue diplomatic relationships with foreign powers in a way the Qing had never done. At the same time, it would undertake an ambitious plan to industrialize the economy and build advanced infrastructure using railroads, steamboats, and telegraphs. A strict fundamentalist Christianity would be the order of the day. 

Of the Qing, Platt resurrects Zeng Guofan, an exceptionally accomplished scholar-official from Hunan whose local militia became the last great hope for Qing victory. Zeng had achieved the highest possible distinction under the surviving system, passing the imperial-level examination and serving in the Hanlin Academy, the imperial office that guarded the Confucian canon and wrote the examinations. As Platt notes, Zeng’s entire sense of self was tied to the dynasty and its bequests, so it was not surprising that he would defend the empire and its ideology even when he suffered from its contradictions: he was called to military service in the midst of mourning his mother for the Confucian-mandated three years.

If Hong Rengan was a radical visionary, Zeng was a reactionary conservative. This summary oversimplifies, but it illustrates the stakes of the war as Platt sees them. Where Hong saw the rebellion as a purifying fire, an opportunity to create a new China, Zeng saw the Taipings and their ideology as an existential threat to everything that made China Chinese. “How could this be just a disturbance to our Qing dynasty? It is the most extreme threat to our Confucian teachings since the dawn of the world,” he wrote in an appeal to his fellow gentry. The rebellion, to Zeng, was not just a challenge to the Qing mandate from heaven, which must naturally pass to a better steward as it had since time immemorial, but to Chinese dynastic rule and the historical consciousness it engendered.

By 1860, the two sides had stalemated, with the Taiping holding tight to their kingdom in China’s prosperous Jiangnan region west of Shanghai. The two forces seemed precisely balanced and would have remained so if it were not for the meddlesome British who, desperate to bolster its tea trade, sided firmly with the Qing, donated arms and training to the empire’s beleaguered forces from Shanghai, and ultimately tilted the war in the dynasty’s favor.

This is Platt’s main contribution to Chinese historiography: an investigation of foreign intervention in this civil war. Platt’s argument that the Taiping Civil War needs to be integrated into international history rests on the fact that the conflict was always an international concern. When the war started, The Economist compared it to the European upheavals of 1848 and remarked that “it is singular to find similar commotions at the same time in Asia and Europe.” Karl Marx saw the Taipings as revolutionaries whose fight would “throw the spark into the overloaded mine of the present industrial system and cause the explosion of the long-prepared general crisis, which, spreading abroad, will be closely followed by political revolutions on the Continent.” In other words, with the Taiping, China had finally ceased to exist outside history and entered its dialectical stream. Platt summarizes views like these as “evidence that the empire at the other end of the world was now connected to the economic and political systems of the West.”

The West’s initial concerns with the war, then, had less to do with material worries than philosophical ones, specifically whether an empire as grand as China’s could shake off the dust of its ancient inheritance and become a modern industrial society like Britain. Given Platt’s preoccupation with his foreign sources and Hong Rengan, it’s difficult not to think that he may wonder the same thing. Platt’s book can be read as proposing one big counterfactual: what if the Taiping had won and Hong Rengan could have put his modernizing reforms in place? 

The question is whether this is the best way to think about the Taiping Civil War. Hong Rengan’s reforms were dead on arrival. Platt admits most supporters of the Taiping cause were not utopians or millenarians, but people who simply wanted a break from the inattention and corruption of the Qing authorities. The Taiping had already given up on radical policies like land redistribution before Hong Rengan arrived in Nanjing; Hong Rengan himself reinstituted the civil examinations — the very thing that had bedeviled the Heavenly King — and formed a government bureaucracy that mirrored the imperial one. The British, for their part, never trusted the Taiping to be competent administrators because of the Taipings’ affiliation with the backward south, even though their Christianity and cosmopolitanism made them attractive allies.

Then there is the issue of considering the Taiping Civil War as a global event. First, in Platt’s telling, the Taiping Civil War was only globally important insofar as it was an object of British policy: he makes it seem as if the most important international consequence had become a matter of where the British got their tea. Second, we don’t normally consider the importance of civil wars in terms of their international effects because those consequences pale in comparison to the immediate ways all that violence inflects the domestic situation. 

The American Civil War makes for a useful comparison. Platt convincingly shows how the start of the American Civil War forced the British to intervene in China, where they had otherwise studiously maintained the appearance of neutrality, because it closed Britain’s second largest international market. There were no longer any cotton textiles to sell to China and no tea to sell to the United States. The British perceived the need to create a stable market environment in one or the other. Platt has a secondary reason for invoking the American Civil War: he wants to make the case that the Taiping Civil War was every bit as important as the American Civil War in 19th century history. 

The American Civil War definitely produced international effects, but that’s not why Americans fixate on it. (At the time, outside of Britain and France, few other people cared. It barely registered with the Chinese then or now.) In addition to the fact that Americans will generally favor history they perceive to be their own, the American Civil War is remembered for its social, philosophical, and even sentimental impact on the formation of American character and the conception of the American nation. Did the Taiping Civil War have a similar impact on the Chinese? The Nationalists and Communists who inherited control of China in the 20th century thought it did. In their minds, the Taiping uprising was evidence of China’s revolutionary potential. But what was the Taiping legacy beyond politics? As a preliminary investigation into the emotional and social consequences of war and reconstruction, Tobie Meyer-Fong’s resourcefully researched What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China begins to answer this question.

Meyer-Fong’s book is less a thesis-driven narrative than a collection of accounts of the war from people who experienced it and those that immediately survived them. One of Meyer-Fong’s main projects is to read these sources “close to the ground, below the lofty retrospective frameworks of dynastic loyalty and revolution” to better understand the war as experience. The people living through the war had less concern for what it signaled about China’s place in the world than its metaphysical problems (Why all this suffering?) and the practical concerns it created (How to bury all these dead bodies?). This work recalls sections of Paul A. Cohen’s attempt to rescue historical experience from politics in History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, and Meyer-Fong’s accomplishments are similar to those of that seminal work. We are reminded that these Chinese people were people, too, and before they ever parsed the war’s political consequences, they experienced it as devastating unchained chaos.

The world of civil war was a world made strange. In imperial China, everything from accents to clothing marked the essential boundaries between sexes and among classes and regions. In the nightmarish hall of mirrors that was the Taiping Civil War, these markers could be exaggerated, bent, or erased to the point that no one knew who was on what side. The Taiping leadership appropriated the yellow clothing typically reserved for the ruling emperor. Others purportedly wore women’s pants as turbans. Taiping men, in defiance of Qing mandate, refused to shave their foreheads or wear the long braided queue that displayed submission to the ruling dynasty. That did not stop recently captured subjects from hiding their queues under their hats in case the Qing retook a Taiping city. Refugees forged Taiping identification documents to cover them as they escaped to the Qing side. Taiping soldiers disguised as refugees frequently ambushed Qing soldiers. 

The easiest way for each side to avoid the trouble of distinguishing the loyal from the disloyal was to annihilate the populations of any newly acquired territory. In Anqing, on the Yangtze west of Nanjing, Zeng Guofan’s army slaughtered the 16,000 survivors of his earlier siege. His forces were just as merciless when they retook Nanjing — and ended the war — in 1864. Some occupied populations didn’t wait for judgment and instead committed mass suicide. When the Taiping captured Hangzhou in 1861, an American vice consul reported, “Terror-stricken, the people rushed out of the western gates and threw themselves into West Lake [such] that ‘one could walk out into the lake for a distanced of half a li [about 300 yards] on dead bodies.’” 

The slaughter created more corpses than could be buried. In the same city, one observer wrote: “The dead bodies were piled up as high as mountains. Everywhere you looked, with every third step you had to jump over a corpse in order to pass.” When his army reached southern Anhui, a province in eastern China, Zeng Guofan reported to the throne: “In jurisdictions including Huizhou, Chizhou, and Ningguo, one finds only yellow reeds and white bones; an entire day might pass without seeing a single living person.” The ubiquity of death was beyond Zeng’s own words: Meyer-Fong points out that “yellow reeds and white bones” was actually a stock poetic metonym for unspeakable carnage. Not every unburied body decomposed. When Zeng’s army entered Anqing, as Platt notes, they discovered the market price for human meat among the starving inhabitants had reached 38 cents a pound.

For the possible ways this scale of violence could affect society and the state, the American Civil War once again provides a useful comparison, not only because it was roughly contemporaneous to the Taiping conflict, but also because Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War is an obvious precursor to Meyer-Fong’s book. Faust concludes the civil war joined the politically neutral emotions provoked by death to the state-building tasks of reconstruction. The renewed American nation was a sentimental fraternity as much as a political organization. “The reasons for which men had died had been all but subsumed by the fact of their deaths,” she writes. “The Dead became the focus of an imagined national community for the reunited states, a constituency all could willingly serve.”

According to Meyer-Fong’s evidence, death and sadness eroded rather than strengthened people’s attachment to the Chinese empire. First of all, the Qing dynasty was penniless throughout the conflict. It lacked the resources to bury the unclaimed bones littering South China. That task fell to charitable gentry, who then further impoverished the public purse by seeking tax exemptions for the land they donated for public cemeteries. 

Second, the Qing had already established formal modes for honoring the dead since the beginning of the dynasty. Inclusion in the Manifest Loyalty Shrine, the highest honor the state gave its glorious dead, was originally limited to exemplary heroes who died on the battlefield. Inclusion was understood to be a bestowal by the emperor, encouraging loyalty in his subjects by not forgetting them. Over time, however, the criteria for inclusion expanded to the point that it was a nearly meaningless honor, such that any subject killed in war who had not retracted his fealty was eligible. Just as the Taiping Civil War produced more corpses than the dynasty could bury, it killed more subjects than the Qing could commemorate. Commemoration, as with burial, devolved to local gentry, who built monuments and memorials to cement their power in regional politics.

The Qing’s trouble with burial carried serious implications. Meyer-Fong writes:

The ruler’s obligation to rule benevolently extended even to the dead; according to classical antecedent, the dynasty ought to ensure that the dead were not left untended and the presence of unburied dead pointed to dynastic failure. 

Given the profusion of death, there was a feeling that not only was the dynasty failing, the world was ending. Yu Zhi, one of the elite writers Meyer-Fong resurrects, described the Taiping Civil War as the turning of the Buddhist kalpa, a death and rebirth of the entire world; others described it as jie, Chinese for apocalyptic disaster. But the dynasty was what remained, after all.

The cataclysm and the dynasty’s survival may have bestowed on China the modern sensibility Platt sees in Hong Rengan’s techno-dreams. If modernity can be defined as the rupture of historical consciousness, a feeling that one has crossed over from the past’s regular rhythms into a world in which nothing will be the same, then the Taiping Civil War marked China’s modern moment. By all indications and according to all historical precedents, the Qing had lost the mandate of heaven. Yet the dynasty persevered. And China stumbled onward toward the 20th century in the inevitable daze that must accompany waking up after the apocalypse.


John B. Thompson (@johnbthomp) is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a PhD student in East Asian history at Columbia University. 

LARB Contributor

John B. Thompson (@johnbthomp) is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a PhD student in East Asian history at Columbia University. 


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