I occasionally make the effort to alternate between reading books for pleasure – often current mass-market fiction – and books for my own betterment – more often that not, historical works. With a best-selling novel, I often whip through it in no time, having to cut myself off so I don’t stay up all night reading. A more scholarly non-fiction work is the opposite – I have to push myself to read enough every day that I don’t draw out the exercise into eternity. Alternating between genres (fiction/non-fiction or pleasure/scholarly) helps motivate me to keep at it with the latter categories.
Every once in a while, a book I’ve chosen simply to learn about a period in history ends up being, additionally, a real page turner. Often unexpectedly so. The book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War fits that bill. It is well written (from the standpoint of a casual reader), aimed as an introductory history, and is written from the very perspective that I, myself, am coming from. It is the story of the last decade or so of the Taiping Rebellion (which the author prefers to call the Taiping Civil War), considered within the context of the major Western events of that same time.
The author, Stephen Platt, begins his work with an explanation of how he came to write it. As I mentioned briefly, I have no memory of learning the details of the Taiping Civil War (a term that I will use as the author has) in any of my history classes or historical reading. In his Preface, the author explains how he got “through twelve years of public schooling, four years of college, and the better part of a year in China before reading about [the Taiping Civil War] for the first time.” He speculates that part of the reason, in the United States, is that this civil war was concurrent with our own. He also adds that there is a misconception that the events in China at that time were isolated from global politics. With his book, he endeavors to correct that.
As I peruse some of the criticism of the book, there are complaints that it is too much of a Western-centric narrative of a Chinese-centric event. While the author gives his explanation (putting it in the global context), a critic brings up another factor. In victory, the imperial government eliminated all records of the rebellion. It is telling that for this war, contemporary with the American Civil War and its vast photographic record, there remains no images of any of the rebellion’s leaders. Thus, the book focuses on the interaction with Western actors and the theater in the area of the western treaty ports in part through necessity. It is not through Chinese records (because they were obliterated), but through the Western press and politics, that we understand what we do about the Taiping organization and personalities.
It least to this reader (and I’m pretty sure to the author as well), two characters in this tale stand out as particularly sympathetic. Hong Rengan is the cousin of Hong Xiuquan, who was the instigator, spiritual leader, and “Heavenly King” of the Taiping movement. Hong Rengan spent some time as more-or-less second-in-command of the Taiping government, and seemed to be the source of practicality and reasonableness of a philosophy that threatened to be the opposite. Zeng Guofan was a Beijing bureaucrat sent, in an hour of despiration, to raise a militia army in his home province. His army went on to be a keystone for the eventual imperial victory. While both “good guys,” Hong Rengan and Zeng Guofan are on opposite sides of the fight. This leaves the reader conflicted over for whom he should be rooting. In the end, history favors neither of the two. While Zeng Goufan was pivotal in defeating the Taiping forces and putting an end to Hong Rengan’s designs for a new government, in doing so he ran afoul of the imperial system. The central government was always wary of its underlings building up regional power, but Zeng was allowed a fairly long leash due to the emergency the State was facing. Nevertheless, the power that came with success would always be eyed with distrust by his superiors in Beijing.
Zeng suffered further at the hands of later history. While the history of the Taipings was wiped clean by the Qings, the Chinese Communist Party portrayed the Taiping movement as a proto-Communist revolution and demonized the imperialists, including Zeng Goufan. Zeng’s reputation has seen a resurgence in China, and particularly in his native province, in recent years.
Having walked us through his tale, Platt in his afterward (and if you prefer to read the book in the order the author presents it, skip over the following and start up with the next heading) summarizes in a conclusion that the reader has probably already drawn. First, there are several points in the war (specifically, this portion of the war in the 1860-1864 time-frame where the theater included a British presence) where choices made by officials of the British government may have been pivotal to the outcome of the war itself. Second, and in contrast to British opinion circa 1870, said choices were likely made counter to the interests of the British Empire, the West, and the Chinese people themselves.
The reader likely also concludes that the Qing Empire, while victorious, cannot take credit for said victory. In addition to foreign intervention, or lack thereof, forces such as Zeng’s Xiang Army (aka Hunan Army) seemed to succeed in spite of, not because of, the central government. Further, the case is made that Hong Rengan had both the vision and the competence to have created a better China following a Taiping victory. The book leaves us with a feeling of opportunities squandered, particularly in light of the massive scale of war and death seen in China over the century that followed.
Recall that I picked up this book after seeing a movie and wondering how the Taiping Civil War would fit into the world of wargames. Based purely on the portrayal of battles on-screen, it seemed that the style of fighting in this war was closer to the Pike and Shot era than that of the American Civil War. The book did not much focus on units and tactics; it was more about strategy and motivation. While I have been enlightened considerably, the original question still remains.
While reading, however, it occurred to me that I do have one tactical engine specifically tailored to the time period and with scenarios from this war. Age of Rifles has, within its user-created universe of scenarios, a number of battles from the Taiping Civil War. The engine, such as it is, allows for modeling the simpler technology available to the Chinese at the time and so is potentially suitable despite some of the archaic features of this conflict.
While not comprehensive on the subject of weapons and tactics, Platt’s book does support the idea that the war was fought largely with weapons from another era. One incident he describes is the discovery of a cache of arms – muskets that were already some 200 years old and in terrible condition to boot. These were immediately put to use, being better than what the soldiers were using up to that point. One wonders how faithfully the engine can really handle these peculiarities, particularly in a battle (like the one below) where such matchlocks may have been facing off against “modern” muskets fielded by European troops.
The Taiping assault on Shanghai is portrayed in Platt’s book as a drama of diplomacy, personality, and dumb luck. Shanghai was a treaty port per the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, making it one of the few gateway cities where Chinese markets were open to foreign international traders. The area to the north of the city walls were settled by Western traders, shown in the picture above drawn in 1884. Initially the Taiping leaders, preparing to capture the city in 1860, wanted to make it clear that they merely wanted to take control of the Chinese-administered portion of the city from the Qing government. They had no plans to attack the foreign settlements nor to disrupt their trade. In fact, they had hope that the powers of the West would take their side as fellow Christians in their fight against the “pagan” and foreign (Manchurian) minority which was ruling China. Letters were dispatched to the chief British envoy making clear that no foreigners or their property would be harmed and promising friendship and improved trade relations going forward. In a gesture made to appear neutral, he refused to open the letters from the Taiping and the Europeans forcefully defending the walls of Shanghai.
When the Taiping campaign again approached Shanghai, at the end of 1861, the supposed neutrality of England could be ever increasingly called into question. Nevertheless, it was the intention of the Taiping to engage only the Qing imperial forces if at all possible. By that time, however, the Europeans had committed to defending the city. As told in Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, that confrontation was postponed indefinitely by a most improbable (for Shanghai’s relatively warm climate) snowfall. By the time the weather permitted a major assault on the city itself, relief forces had arrived in the area shifting the balance of forces.
While this multi-year operation around Shanghai is generally called The Siege of Shanghai or the Battle of Shanghai, Platt refers to it as a “long distance siege.” After the first attempt, the British had warned that they considered Taiping operations in the immediate vicinity of Shanghai to be an act of war, over which they would violate their professed neutrality. While fighting took place within a hundred-mile radius of the city, I am not aware of any assault on the city walls beyond that initial attempt in 1860.
The Age of Rifles scenario proposes just such an assault on the city walls by a force of something like 10,000 rebels some time in 1861. While I cannot connect this scenario directly to a historical battle, I also must point out that the book is not a military history and is not necessarily comprehensive.
Seen above, I’m zoomed in on a portion of the map where I intend to concentrate my assault. The mini-map, once again for those with good eyesight, puts this corner of the defenses in the perspective of the larger battlefield. Compare and contrast that mini-map with the drawn map higher up in the article. The representation of the Shanghai Old City is close enough to acknowledge it as such, but obviously contains a lot of differences.
Similarly, the modeling of the battle is close and yet so far. As my soldiers approached the wall they are, as expected, devastated by the cannon and rifle fire coming from the defenses. However, if I can survive that initial volley or two, I find that I can take out the enemy positions by charging over the wall with my pike.
Even more helpful to my troops, as can be seen in the screenshot above, in an attempt to drive off said attackers the enemy cannon blew a hole in their own wall. It makes you wonder what the model is assuming about the defensive positions. Clearly one thing it is not modelling is the medieval-style assault on, essentially, stone castle-walls.
I seem to recall it being not that uncommon when working with these open-ended scenario creation games to include various kinds of sieges and assaults in the mix. I’m probably think of my recent experience with Lords of the Realm as well as the Total War games. Crashing a gate or crossing a bridge add diversity to a game where the typical fight is using armies in lines, facing each other across an open field. The problem is that, while a bridge or a wall or a tower can be included, an engine designed for line battles will sputter when trying to deal with these special features.
There are few PC games that deal with siege warfare and probably few to none that handle it in anything resembling a realistic manner. Part of it is the issue with a the timescales. A siege may take months or even years with the “battle” portion of it being fairly anti-climactic. Often sieges ended with a breach created using cannon or mines, and then culminated in the attackers charging through a hole in a wall and looting the city beyond. There are a handful of board games that try to address this specifically, but none that I have yet to play. At the operational level, a common solution is to simply have a time that it takes for the siege to succeed; subject to attrition, relief armies, and perhaps some random factors to keep the besieger guessing. For anything except a purpose-built siege game, this might be the best solution. After all, for most sieges, the outcome is never really in doubt; it is merely a question of when.
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom portrays the actual fighting has having occured mostly through a series of sieges or, at least, the attempts to maneuver armies into position to effect a siege. There are interesting “game” factors involved. For example the siege which left open a supply route into the besieged city seemed like it wouldn’t have a chance to succeed at all, as it did not. In another example, Nanjing was able to provide its own food supply via gardens within the city walls whereas the besiegers, having devastated the surrounding countryside, had to go without. A simple battle of attrition looked to ultimately break towards the besieged.
Back to the battle. While it wasn’t the best “simulation” of a siege, playing this scenario had one unexpected benefit. The behavior of the AI was very clear in its reactions to my moves giving me a chance to think about how the AI handles battles and reacts to particular events.
Once I broke through the defenses at one location, I moved as many forces as I could in to try to come at the other defensive positions from inside the walls. What I found was that every position that was defended was difficult to attack, regardless of my direction. The path of least resistance was straight towards the center of the city, where a walled building was flagged as a victory location (see above screenshot).
I’ll point out here that I was playing the computer on the default setting for AI difficulty, which is toward the low end of the possibilities. I don’t know if the AI gets smarter as you push the slider, or if it is given other advantages.
If you squint at the mini-map in the above screenshot, you can see my plan coming to fruition. The bulk of my army (the little white squares on the map) attempted, and then achieved, a breakthrough in the upper-left quadrant of the city walls. They then pushed diagonally to the center right of the city, through the area of no resistance. You can also see that many of my own formation broke and ran in the attempt. Those white squares trailing off diagonally to the left. I also kept a secondary force in reserve, seen gathered near the bottom of the map. My intent was that a threat of a second attack from the south would deter the enemy from pulling forces off walls not under assault to reinforce the positions which I was attacking.
From the turn immediately following, when I took the city-center objective, the AI abandoned its defensive positions on the outer walls and moved towards the objective on the center. The AI managed, for a turn, to retake that objective and begin preparations for defending it. My response was to move in to take the outer-wall objectives that were now left undefended. Once that was done, the AI began to send forces back to retake those objectives. By this point they were in disarray, reacting to my moves without an overarching direction, and I was able to easily win a decisive victory.
The AI made several mistakes, and they are mistakes that I’ve made as a wargamer more than once. The first is the decision, probably baked into the scenario design, not to have any forces in reserve. Military doctrine demands that one hold reserves in any battle plan. But particularly when you are outnumbered, it seems like preventing the enemy breakthrough in the first place should take priority of having a reactionary force ready for when they do. It is also probably true that many a walled-defense has fallen to pieces immediately once the walls are breached. Second, had an overreaction upon losing victory locations while seemingly little planning not to lose them in the first place. Whether a particular location is a priority to take/hold should not be entirely dependent on who the current owner is. I’m sure I’ve done the same – ignoring a location until it becomes a crisis and then scrambling for cover. It is also probably fairly well represented in reality. As a defensive position falls apart, conflicting orders to rush from one defensive position to another has probably hastened the end to many a battle.
Sadly, the ability to watch the AI aside, I didn’t get what I had hoped for in playing this scenario. That is, I never did answer my question; is there a potential for historical wargaming in the Taiping Civil War conflict? Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom does not highlight any open-field battles that would fit into a tactical engine (whether Age of Rifles, Pike and Shot, or something else). The book also does not offer enough of a big picture to determine the whether an operational-level treatment of the war would be interesting. We can see that Age of Rifles isn’t suited to siege warfare and, not having any non-siege battles to play with, evaluating the engine’s suitability to the conflict isn’t possible.
I did really enjoy the book, though.