cannibalism became routine -- 5/16/17

Today's selection -- from Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen R. Platt. The most widely cited estimate of deaths in China's Taiping Rebellion is 20 million, but more recent scholarship puts that estimate as high as 70 million. The destruction to cities and farms was so pervasive that cannibalism became routine:

"Meanwhile, the famine in the countryside deepened. Despite the relief stations [Qing Dynasty General] Zeng Guofan had set up in southern Anhui, conditions in that mountainous part of the province had deteriorated far beyond even the horror that had existed when he first took control of Anqing. 'Every­where in southern Anhui they are eating people,' he wrote in his diary on June 8, 1863, a remark whose very banality signified the degree to which the unthinkable had become commonplace. It was one of several notations on cannibalism in his diary, though in this instance the concern that drove him to mention it wasn't so much that human meat was being consumed per se -- for that was old news -- but that it was becoming so expensive: the price per ounce had risen fourfold since the previous year, meaning that even this most dismal of sustenances was becoming unaffordable. ... [British Army officer] Charles Gordon saw its gruesome footprint for himself while on cam­paign, though he didn't think his brethren back in Shanghai could possibly understand the true horror of it. '[T]o read that there are human beings eating human flesh:' he wrote to his mother, 'produces less effect than if they saw the corpses from which that flesh is cut.'

"The most widely accepted estimates put the death toll of China's nineteenth-century civil war at somewhere between twenty million and thirty million people. The figure is necessarily impressionistic, for there are no reliable censuses to compare from the time, so it is typi­cally based on demographic projections of what the Chinese popula­tion should otherwise have been in later generations. According to one American study published in 1969, by as late as 1913, nearly fifty years after the fall of Nanjing, China's population had yet to recover to its pre-1850 level.

"A more recent study by a team of scholars in China, published in 1999, estimated that the five hardest-hit provinces -- Jiangxi, Hubei, An­hui, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu -- together suffered a population loss of some eighty-seven million people between 1851 and 1864: fifty-seven million of them dead from the war, and the rest never born due to depressed birth­rates. Their projection for the full scale of the war in all provinces was seventy million dead, with a total population loss of more than one hun­dred million. Those higher numbers have recently gained wider circula­tion, but they are controversial; critics argue that there is no way to know how many of the vanished people died -- from the war, from disease, from starvation -- and how many took up lives elsewhere. Nevertheless, even the most subjective anecdotal reports from travelers on the lower Yangtze testified to the deep scars on China's cities and countryside, which were still far from being healed even decades after the Taiping war, and those figures begin to give a sense of the unprecedented scale of destruction and social dislocation that consumed China in what is believed to be the deadliest civil war in all of human history."





Stephen R. Platt


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




Copyright 2012 by Stephen R. Platt


358-359, 338-339
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