John B. Thompson reviews Stephen R. Platt's Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom : China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War and Tobie Meyer-Fong's What Remains : Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China in the LA Review of Books:
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.