Stephen Platt, an American historian, has won the $75,000 US Cundill Prize in History, for his book giving  a gripping account of China’s 19th century Taiping Rebellion.

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Stephen Platt won the $75,000US Cundill Prize for History. (University of Massachusetts)

In Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, The West, And The Epic Story of The Taiping Civil War, he argues the rebellion shaped modern China.

His book examines the Western role in the Taiping Rebellion, how events in China interacted with the simultaneous Civil War in the U.S., and how difficult it can be to distinguish between humanitarian intervention and imperialism.

"I never intended to become a historian — I was a math major who ended up in the English department — it was only in the course of a two-year teaching position in the Hunan province after college that I began to take a serious interest in how the past and present interweave," Platt said Thursday at an awards gala in Montreal.

Platt is now an associate professor in the department of history at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst).

The Cundill Prize, awarded by McGill University, is the largest international literary prize for a work on history.

The two other finalists receive $10,000 US each. They are:

  • Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (Allen Lane).
  • Andrew Preston, author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Alfred A. Knopf Canada).