The best books to make sense of 19th-century China’s rebellions, uprisings, and wars

David G. Atwill Author Of Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present
By David G. Atwill

Who am I?

Just after graduating from college in 1989, I spent the year teaching in the city of Kunming – a “small” city of several million in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. In some ways, I have never left. My year there set me on a life-long trajectory of exploring some of China’s most remote corners from Tibet to Beijing. Intrigued by the way China’s borderlands reflected China’s diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural traditions, I eventually wrote my first book The Chinese Sultanate on the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1872). Today I teach at Penn State University seeking to share my experiences in China (and the world) with my students in the university classroom.


I wrote...

Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present

By David G. Atwill, Yurong Y. Atwill,

Book cover of Sources in Chinese History: Diverse Perspectives from 1644 to the Present

What is my book about?

Sources in Chinese History serves as an introduction to a sweeping array of key events, personages, and policies from the founding of China’s last dynasty in 1644 to the present. Now in its second edition, each chapter opens with an annotated visual source followed by a historical snapshot of a key event from that period. By highlighting social and cultural dimensions of China’s past, the sourcebook challenges the reader to consider the shifting perspectives, economic challenges, and political ideologies of each era. Special attention has been made to incorporate non-traditional documents, such as film scripts, private correspondence, and political cartoons.

From the founding of China’s last dynasty to Xi Jinping’s leadership today, this book suits those seeking more information about a specific person or era, as well as those looking for a more thorough introduction to China’s recent or more distant past.

The books I picked & why

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The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

By Yingcong Dai,

Book cover of The White Lotus War: Rebellion and Suppression in Late Imperial China

Why this book?

Few include the White Lotus War in their discussion of nineteenth-century rebellions. Yet, in many ways, it provides the perfect starting point. Lasting over eight years, plowing a path of destruction across five central Chinese provinces, and emphatically marking the end to nearly a century of peace and commercial prosperity, the White Lotus War is an ominous harbinger of what was to follow. Chinese historian Yingcong Dai highlights the many disparate factors – from bureaucratic negligence and administrative apathy to the rise of secret societies and charismatic religious leaders – that transformed otherwise weakly connected local protests into a massive revolt that threatened to upend the Qing imperial state (1644-1911). As a specialist on Chinese warfare and imperial governance, the author pulls back the curtain on a rarely told tale that brings turn-of-the-18th-century China to life.


The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

By Julia Lovell,

Book cover of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China

Why this book?

No single event in nineteenth-century China looms as large in the imagination of nineteenth-century China as the Opium War. Initially begun by China’s efforts to stem the tide of illegal opium imported by British traders from India, the Opium War is traditionally viewed as a watershed moment that transformed China from a period of imperial grandeur to a century of decline. The prize-winning British scholar, Julia Lovell, manages to highlight both China’s heroic attempt to end the empire’s addiction to opium and the British empire’s overwhelming need to offset the trade deficit caused by its insatiable desire for China’s tea. Effortlessly intertwining political vanity, bureaucratic missteps, and human hubris, Lovell relates not just the war itself but demonstrates its ongoing legacy up to the present with lively prose and sympathetic analysis.


Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

By Stephen R. Platt,

Book cover of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Why this book?

If the Opium War represents the greatest threat to China’s global stature, the Taiping Rebellion certainly posed the greatest domestic challenge to the ruling dynasty. On the surface, the bare facts of the rebellion defy belief. Its leader, Hong Xiuquan, after failing the imperial civil service examination, came to believe that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and embarks on establishing a kingdom that upends thousands of years of beliefs by instituting a wide array of socially progressive ideas. Using both Chinese and Western sources, Chinese historian Stephen Platt breathes new life into both the extraordinary rise of Hong’s Taiping Kingdom and the imperial state’s ultimately successful response. Beautifully written, Platt’s account offers a captivating account of both the revolutionary ideology of the Taipings and the Chinese Confucian response.


What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China

By Tobie Meyer-Fong,

Book cover of What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China

Why this book?

While Stephen Platt offers a brilliant starting point for those interested in the Taiping Rebellion, Professor of Chinese history Tobie Meyer-Fong reveals the terrible realities of the war from the perspective of the survivors. Shifting her focus to the individual trauma caused by the rebellion, the author details the harrowing personal losses of the Taiping Rebellion. Meyer-Fong’s explicit and straightforward account of the hacking, slicing, and burning of both the Taiping and imperial soldiers accentuates the long-lasting psychological scars caused by the uprising that lingered on into the early twentieth century. What Remains pushes the reader to move beyond military campaigns and the lofty (but often impractical) ideology in order to better contemplate the long-term consequences of the violence it wrought on an empire already reeling from debilitating demographic pressures.


The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

By Joseph W. Esherick,

Book cover of The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

Why this book?

If the White Lotus marks the beginning of China’s rebellious nineteenth century, the Boxer Uprising (1900-1) emphatically brought it to its end. This account of the Boxers, written by scholar Joseph Esherick, although the oldest of the books recommended here, almost certainly served as their intellectual forerunner. Esherick’s iconoclastic approach upended traditional descriptions of the event and indeed transformed the way that scholars of China viewed rebellions as a whole. Moving away from the well-worn western perspective of the very missionaries and diplomats who were the targets of the anti-foreign, anti-Christian, and anti-modern movement, Esherick offers a richly textured description of the Boxer’s fantastical religious impulses and harsh social context. In this way, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising rich and vivid telling of the Boxer’s “Society of Harmony and Justice” is as exciting today as the day it was published.


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