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UMass historian Stephen Platt wins 2012 Cundill Prize

Stephen R. Platt, an associate professor of history and Northampton native, won the 2012 Cundill Prize in History at McGill University for his book “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War.”

The award, announced Nov. 29 at a gala dinner in Montreal, brings a $75,000 prize, the largest international prize for a work on history.

Platt said he was surprised and humbled by the award, first bestowed in 2008.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” said Platt in a phone interview Monday. “Once I saw the group that was on that list, I didn’t expect to get much further. I was happy just to be there.”

Platt’s book was one of three finalists, competing with Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes,” and Andrew Preston’s “Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.” The authors of the latter two books each received “recognition of excellence” prizes of $10,000. The finalists were chosen from among 142 historical works submitted by publishers from around the globe.

Christopher Manfredi, dean of McGill’s Faculty of Arts, which awards the prizes, said it was important to the jury that the prize-winning books be accessible to a general audience.

“The three books really are winners and the grand prize winner is just a step above,” Manfredi said in a statement. “I am sure that everyone will gain new insight by reading any or all of these books.”

Book’s focus

Platt’s account of the Taiping uprising from the early 1850s to 1864 focuses on several characters who played a significant role in what is considered one of the bloodiest and most gruesome civil wars in history. At least 20 million people died during the chaotic war between Taiping rebels and the ultimately victorious Manchus, whose Qing Dynasty would last until the early 20th century.

“It’s almost unbelievable,” Platt said of the lives of some key players in the war. “No novelist could even invent them.”

Among those characters was Frederick Townsend Ward, an American soldier from Salem who winds up in China raising what would turn out to be an effective militia of several thousand Chinese equipped with western weaponry. The militia was called the “Ever-Victorious Army” in Chinese and fought on the imperial side against the Taiping rebels.

Ward would ultimately get shot in the stomach and die. Others who feature prominently in the book include Zeng Guofan, a Confucian scholar and general of the imperial armies, as well as Hong Xiuquan, the visionary and cultish leader of the Taiping rebellion who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.

Platt’s book both explores and emphasizes the role that Western powers played during the civil war providing arms and financing, including the British, who had strong trade interests in China.

Parallel wars

In announcing the Cundill Prize, McGill University wrote of Platt’s book that “rather than portraying it as an exotic, otherworldly ‘Middle Kingdom’ removed from the course of events in the West, (Platt) describes China in the 1860s as 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.”

Platt notes parallels between the Taiping Civil War and the American Civil War, which overlapped and caused significant economic problems for the British in particular as the markets for commodities like cotton, tea and textiles were disrupted.

“This is a war that encompassed millions upon millions of people,” Platt said. “One of the reasons I was driven to do this was to delve deeply into the way China was connected to the world and how the West was involved in this. Remarkably, not much has been written about it.”

Platt said that politically, the Taiping uprising, which sought to overthrow the country’s rulers of the time, is a difficult topic to discuss in China today. It is estimated that roughly 30 times as many people died in the Taiping Civil War than in the American Civil War, yet there is only one small and poorly funded museum in China dedicated to the conflict, Platt said.

Platt said the historical record in China is rich on the subject, and he drew on documents, including diaries, correspondence and military leaders’ orders to subordinates. He traveled in the country to get a first-hand look at the one-time headquarters of Taiping rebels leaders, former battlegrounds and mountain passes.

Among the biggest challenges in researching his book was determining the goings on in areas Taiping rebels controlled, because many Taiping sources and records were destroyed by the Manchus.

Platt said one of his goals in writing his book was to bring the Taiping Civil War to a wider audience. He spent five years working on “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” and a Chinese translation of his 470-page book is in the works.

Platt, who attended the former Florence Grammar School and Northampton High School, was a math major who never intended to become a historian. He said it was only after a two-year teaching position in China’s Hunan province after college that he began to take a serious interest in “how the past and present interweave.”

He is now a historian of 19th century China at UMass, and earlier received his doctorate from Yale University. Platt’s first book, “Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China,” was published in 2007.

The Cundill Prize in History was established by McGill University alumnus F. Peter Cundill, who died in January 2011. The prize is administered by the university’s Dean of Arts along with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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