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Interview With Stephen Platt Photograph by Michael Lionstar.  

Interview With Stephen Platt

The author of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom talks cannibalism, rebellion and how little he still knows about China.

The Taiping civil war, one of the most gruesome civil wars in history, claimed the lives of 20 million people. The uprising, which Steven Platt describes in all its gory detail in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom (Knopf), started after Hong Xiuquan, a failed civil servant, hallucinated that he was the brother of Jesus Christ and was chosen by God to rid China of the ruling Manchu "demons." In this narrative history, Platt takes us on a journey through a tumultuous China as a home-grown rebellion, built on the power of the poor and a leader who preaches Confucian-infused Protestantism, is set to drastically change the country's status quo. When bumbling British and American troops, scared that their precious supply of tea is about to be cut off, put their weight behind the prevailing Qing dynasty, the tale becomes one of mistrust, miscommunication and misunderstanding.

The moral of this story for us, says Platt, has to do with the dangers of assuming that you can understand a foreign civil war on your own terms. By the end of the tale, Hong Rengan, prime minister of the Heavenly Kingdom, has no faith left. "I have never met a good foreigner," he says.

Maisonneuve spoke with Platt, who recently won the $75,000 Cundill History Prize for Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by phone at his home in Amherst, Massachusets.

Farid Rener: You started out as a teacher in China after college. What made you want to start writing about it?

Stephen Platt: I spent two years there teaching in a middle school, teaching thirteen- to fourteen-year-old kids who had, what seemed to me, very strange ideas about what was happening in the United States, where I come from. So a lot of my job felt like interpreting America for these teenagers in China who had only learnt about it from television and government publications and things like that. Coming back, I hadn't intended to spend my career working on China, but Americans had similarly strange views of what was happening in China and there seemed to really be a need for people to interpret contemporary China for their fellow countrymen.

FR: In Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, you link the events of the Taiping rebellion to the actions of a few compelling characters. Was this your intention from the beginning, or did your research lead you to write the story in this way?

SP: The story grew out of the characters. I originally conceived the story as something much more close up and limited. Originally, there was only going to be one central character. It was only in the course of working at it and thinking "What I could do?" that it expanded into something much more panoramic. The individual character stories that are in there are really the essence of the book. It was their experiences that really pulled me in to it.

FR: Many of these central characters, who, as you put it, "shaped a war encompassing millions," come from modest means—General Zeng Guofan, whose army becomes central in the success of the Qing dynasty, and Hong Rengan, the Shield King and Prime Minister of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, both come from poor farming villages. What was it about the political climate at this time that allowed such modest men to become the flag-bearers of China's future?

SP: The rebels were, by nature, from modest means. It was a peasant uprising; these were the disenfranchised rising up against the elite establishment. For Zeng Guofan, the Imperial general, however—who as you said came from this obscure farming background in Hunan—for him, the relationship of his background to his role in the war was much more by chance because as it was he was very much part of the power structure. He had passed all the examinations and had a very elite position within the Imperial bureaucracy, so it wasn't necessary that he came from an obscure background. The fact that he did highlights a success of the exam system that it was, on occasion, able to select talented individuals out of complete obscurity and elevate them to positions of power. So it is partly because Zeng Guofan came from a modest background that he is such a compelling figure in China, that he didn't come from a family of scholars, or from a family of officials, and he could represent this ideal of Imperial China that somebody who is truly talented and incorruptible will find their way to the top.

FR: That sounds like the American Dream. From rags to riches.

SP: Exactly. This was the dream of the exam system, that even the poor peasant, if he was talented enough, could succeed and become a high official, and have great fame and fortune. In terms of his own background, that's also one of the reasons why his loyalty to the emperor was so incredibly deep. He had been rewarded by the system. Otherwise he would have been a farmer in Hunan province. So he was deeply wedded to the system that had rewarded him so well. It also gave him a stronger stake in ensuring that the Imperial system endured.

FR: You have said that no novelist could ever invent the characters you portrayed in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom. You give us insight into the lives of the likes of Frederick Townsend Ward, a renegade American soldier who raises a large militia to fight against the Taiping, and, of course, the Heavenly King, Hong Xiuquan, who believes he is the son of a Christian God. Did you find yourself relating to any of the characters in particular? Did any of them leave a lasting impression on you?

SP: As far as me myself relating to the characters—that would be more the foreign characters who were involved, like Frederick Townsend Ward and the others. [Laughs]

I think this is an experience that many foreigners have in China, when they go and live in China for a period of time. When I first went to China, after a few months there, I imagined that I understood the place pretty well and that I knew everything that was going on. The longer I lived there, the more I realized how little I actually knew. Now after ten or twenty years of studying the country, I realize how pitifully little I understand about it. It is an enormous, incredibly complex country. I had a certain sympathy with the foreign characters in here, many of whom have very little experience in the country, but who are absolutely convinced they understand China and its future, and they make some horrifically bad decisions on the basis of their confidence that they have understood the country. I think this is a theme that runs through the long history of foreigners in China. They were all firmly convinced that they knew everything there was to understand about China and its people, and they are certainly not the last ones to feel that way. We are awash in books by business people who have spent a couple of months in China and who want to tell us everything about it.

FR: The Taiping rebellion was full of many gruesome events, which you describe in deadpan fashion, from cannibalism to rivers filled with suicide victims. Many of these scenes haunted me long after I put your book down. How were you able to separate yourself from these macabre happenings during your research and writing?

SP: It was a truly horrific war, and going through the sources of it, you have the occasional extremely vivid glimpses of things that were happening. In terms of deciding how to use those in the book—they have to be used in some fashion, otherwise you end up whitewashing it and turning it into some kind of adventure story. At the same time, as a writer, I felt that these stories needed very little editorializing, and I was really trying to mediate directly from the eyewitness source to the reader of the book. These were events that were recorded in horror, and I tried to capture the essence of how they were seen by the people who lived through them, and then present that to the reader.

In terms of separating from the macabre happenings, a little bit goes a long way, and there is always the question for the writer of how to strike the right balance of not dwelling too long on gruesome events that, if taken too far, become almost pornographic.

As a tangent, earlier foreign accounts of the war make it sound almost like a playground for foreigners, traipsing around through the war zone. To me, that's absolutely unconscionable. A little bit goes a long way with these kinds of moments. They haunted me, and that is why I wound up putting them in. Some of them, I just couldn't shake from my mind after I saw them.

In fact, that part you mention—the one about human meat—I have to tell you, that wasn't even the full extent of it. Things had gone so far that not only was there cannibalism, that human meat was being sold at the market places, but there were actually two prices. There was one price for meat that was freshly cut and another that, I think, was for meat that was prepared.

FR: Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Fitting that many facts into a narrative while keeping it lively and interesting must have been difficult.

SP: Writing narrative non-fiction, especially writing narrative history, is very much like being a mosaic artist, in the sense that you have all of these little pieces that you've found. The creativity comes from how you fit them together in the larger picture. There are a lot of ways to do that. While you can't shape the sources that you have—they are what they are—you can shape the way you string them together, and what you build out of them. There is a lot of trial and error here.

The wonderful thing about working on narrative history is that, if you are doing it right, then as you go along the gaps almost seem to fill themselves. You will find sources along the way that will fit exactly into a gap that you had that you weren't sure about. Things just sort of snap into place. The downside of that is that if you aren't getting things right, then you start running into paradoxes and inconsistencies. I think it's something similar to what a novelist feels as they move through a novel, and they notice that they've painted their character into a corner, or they have set up a sequence of events that could never happen. The nice thing about history is that it did all happen, and so there is a way that it all fits together. It's a matter of trial and error to find a convincing way of presenting it all. You are really discovering it all as you go along.