Reading: Stephen R. Platt — Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Back to China. Three of the unfinished books on my shelves are on China, and none of them light reading. But having finished my latest science-fiction frenzy, it’s time to read for self-betterment and such forth.

My attention lately seems to be coalescing around a period from late-Qing Dynasty to the end of the Republican Era, more or less from the mid-19th Century to 1949, but with plenty of leeway for adventures on the side, and there is masses of insanely good reading to be had. Perhaps it’s that my interest brings my awareness to what’s been published, but it feels like the last decade or so has seen some quite impressive research and scholarship done on this period (and China in general), and the resulting books are real gems. So, amidst my list of “want and shall buy”, Stephen R. Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War made it to the top and after some time sitting on the shelf at Saint George’s, I picked it up last Thursday.

It’s probably an apt moment to be reading this, while the 18th Communist Party Congress grinds along, Hu Jintao and Grandpa Wen replaced by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, lip service paid to dealing with corruption while whatever legitimacy the Party might have once had long vanished. It’s possibly a fascination for me, as well as a sadness in seeing a vast country of countries suffer such lost chances — the most recent almost-lifetime of communist-in-name-only rule being merely a prolonged rubbing of faces in the dirt — and finding the threads in its history of where things fell apart. The Taiping Rebellion is perhaps one such moment, or at least this is what Platt contends, and given I know not so much of these specific events, I am duly educating myself.

Let’s talk about presentation. A beautiful cover — very Chinese, set in Minion typeface, though a different sans-serif is used for titles which looks like Bank Gothic Light, I think a peculiar choice, and not so attractive. The pages are deckle edge cut, which is rather pretty to look at and to touch, so I will be thumbing them a lot. It’s not quite The Gender of Memory, but nonetheless looks and feels … mmm, fondling the dust jacket.