AMHERST, Mass. – “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War,” a history of the Taiping rebellion by Stephen R. Platt, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has won McGill University’s 2012 Cundill Prize, called the world’s richest and most prestigious award for historical literature.
Published earlier this year by Alfred A. Knopf, Platt’s book was chosen from among 143 works submitted by publishers from all over the globe. The competition, now in its fifth year, features a $75,000 U.S. grand prize. The award was announced at a gala award dinner in Montreal on Nov. 29.
“I never intended to become a historian – I was a math major who ended up in the English department – it was only in the course of a two-year teaching position in the Hunan province after college that I began to take a serious interest in how the past and present interweave,” Platt told the gathering. “As most who practice history know, the truth can indeed be more wondrous than fiction.”
Platt’s winning book describes China in the 1860s as not some exotic, otherworldly “Middle Kingdom” removed from the course of events in the West, but a country deeply integrated into the world’s economy and home to thousands of foreigners. And, as it descended into civil war, the Western powers were watching.
While Union and Confederate troops were slaughtering each other at Antietam in 1862 in what is called the bloodiest day in American history, Taiping rebels were leading millions of Chinese in the final stages of an uprising against the Manchu rulers of China in what Platt describes as the bloodiest civil war in human history.
The resolution of the Taiping Rebellion was to a significant degree determined by outsiders, notes Platt. For the West, it proved a dark warning of the perils of involvement in foreign wars and a reminder of just how difficult it can be – in hindsight – to distinguish between humanitarian intervention and imperialism. Platt skillfully weaves the complexities of the Taiping movement and its bid to bring China into the modern world with the stories of Americans and Europeans caught up in the chaos just as America entered its own crisis of dissolution.
Joye Bowman, chair of the history department at UMass Amherst, said that Platt’s “work on China is extremely timely and important in this changing world that we all face.”
Henry Kissinger, architect of U.S. foreign policy in China and Southeast Asia in the latter 30 years of the 20th century, wrote that “Stephen Platt brings to vivid life a pivotal chapter in China’s history that has been all but forgotten . . . ‘Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom’ is a fascinating work by a first-class historian and superb writer.”
Platt is also the author of “Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China” (Harvard University Press, 2007).
The two other Cundill finalists, Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes” (Allen Lane), and Andrew Preston, author of “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy” (Alfred A. Knopf Canada) were awarded Recognition of Excellence prizes of $10,000 (USD) each.
“All three finalists are, of course, winners of a substantial prize” said Christopher Manfredi, dean of McGill’s faculty of arts, which awards the prize. “We are so appreciative of this year’s Cundill jury members, who tackled a huge task with such respect to the prize. It was important to the jury that the books be accessible to a general audience and they have done a terrific job.”
“The three books really are winners and the grand prize winner is just a step above. I am sure that everyone will gain new insight by reading any (or all) of these books.”
The Cundill Jury included Jeffrey Simpson, national affairs columnistfor The Globe and Mail; included executive vice-president of Brown-Forman Corporation, Garvin Brown; Charles Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College; and Vanessa Schwartz, professor of history at the University of Southern California.
The Cundill Prize in History was established in 2008 by McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill, who died in 2011. The prize is coordinated by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada on behalf of the dean of arts.