AMHERST, Mass. – A history of the Taiping rebellion by Stephen R. Platt, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is one of three finalists for McGill University’s 2012 Cundill Prize, the world’s most lucrative award for a non-fiction book.
“Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War,” published earlier this year by Alfred A. Knopf, 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.
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.
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.
“Platt’s fine work is not a comprehensive history. Instead, it is, as he writes, an attempt to relay what it was like to live through the tumultuous events,” wrote Gordon Chang in the New York Times, where Platt’s book was named an Editor’s Choice.
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.”
Publisher’s Weekly called the book “splendid,” adding that “an upheaval that led to the deaths of 20 million, dwarfing the simultaneously fought American Civil War, deserves to be better known and Platt accomplishes this with a superb history of a 19th-century China faced with internal disorder and predatory Western intrusions.”
Platt is also the author of “Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China” (Harvard University Press, 2007).
Platt is the second UMass Amherst historian short-listed for the Cundill Prize in recent years. Professor Marla Miller was a finalist in 2010 for her book “Betsy Ross and the Making of America.”
The grand prize winner will be announced at the Cundill Prize Awards Ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 29, in Montreal. In addition to the grand prize, two “Recognition of Excellence” awards of $10,000 U.S. each are granted to the runners-up.
This year’s Cundill jury includes Garvin Brown, executive vice president of Brown-Forman Corporation; Charles R. Kesler, senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, editor of the Claremont Review of Books; Vanessa Ruth Schwartz, professor of history, art history and film, University of Southern California, and The Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson.
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.