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March 27, 2014

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Jonathan Spence, rare Western sinologist avidly read in China

CHINA has been a topic of Western scholarly fascination for hundreds of years. Among the voluminous literature on China, one author’s works are avidly read and appreciated by both Western and Chinese readers.

At 78, Jonathan D. Spence is one of the most prolific and illustrious Western historians on China.

Spence, who is better known by his Chinese name Shi Jingqian — inspired by his admiration for the great historian Sima Qian (145 BC-86BC) — is Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. He has published 14 works on China.

On March 24, Spence gave a lecture at Fudan University about the intriguing nature of writing about China in the West.

Spence’s interest in Chinese history started at a late age, when he attended Yale as a graduate from Cambridge where he majored in British history, especially the history of constitutional law. His encounter with China was almost by chance. In the course of his extensive required reading he happened upon Chinese history, with which he soon became enamored.

Of all historical personalities, Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) became his favorite figure, and introduced Spence into the mysteries of sinology that later grew into a lifelong passion.

Enlightened monarch

By visiting archives in Taiwan and studying the original court memorials that China’s longest-reigning emperor read and stamped with imperial seals, Spence got to know what was on the mind of this enlightened monarch and why he handled crises the way he did.

For example, Kangxi’s reign was greatly threatened at a certain point by a formidable southwestern warlord, Wu Sangui.

Kangxi consolidated his kingdom by crushing Wu’s uprising and by waging a military campaign to capture Taiwan from Koxinga’s descendents. He also repelled Russian marauders on China’s northern borders, said Spence.

At the time when these military ventures were initiated, Kangxi was uncertain whether he would prevail, Spence told the audience.

The context in which the emperor made those strategic yet risky decisions motivated Spence to study Kangxi’s personality and frame of mind.

Analysis of the emperor’s actions, personality and background led to greater interest in issues of stability on China’s periphery, such as solution to the Tibet problem.

These topics, with Kangxi running through them as the main thread, became Spence’s doctoral dissertation and his first book on China, “Tsao Yin and the Kang-hsi Emperor”

A large portion of Spence’s writing is also focused on the modern exchange between China and the West.

Books like “To Change China: Western advisers in China” and “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci” are outgrowths of research about foreign influence on China’s politics and society.

Although that influence started very early on — first with the arrival of Western missionaries, then with British envoy Marcartney’s futile attempt to convince Emperor Qianlong to open up the country to foreign trade — it failed to make China and its monarchy receptive to Western values and practices.

The more China resisted the offer of help from the West, the more Westerners got angry and kept up the pressure on China, said Spence.

See the wider world

However, contrary to popular beliefs, although it was the West that largely one-sidedly exerted its influence on China, there were also a few Chinese who had tried to see the wider world at a time when China was a highly isolationist autarchy.

In “The Question of Hu,” Spence wrote about a 18th century Chinese man named Hu Ruowang, who became a Christian in Canton (today’s Guangzhou), and with help of a Jesuit priest, went to Paris to get a closer picture of  Western civilization.

But his venture ended in failure. Lacking language skills, Hu could not communicate with Europeans and had a difficult time there.

Rescued from a penitentiary for the mentally ill, he was finally sent back to China, a tragic end of his quest for knowledge about the West.

Spence’s curiosity about variations of Western imports in China also took him to religion and Christianity.

A typical case is his book “God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan.”

Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, saw himself in the image of Jesus Christ’s brother.

Yet the devoutly Christian Hong practiced polygamy and was responsible for one of the world’s bloodliest civil wars in which more than 50 million people died.

The reason Spence’s writing is so well regarded is that he told the story using a different, novel narrative style, rather than simply chronicle the events as do some orthodox historians, said Cheng Pei-kai, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

What also makes Spence’s books accessible to general Western readers is that he spares them the confusing academic nicety of referring excessively to Chinese names and places, Cheng added in his remarks about Spence’s lecture.

In the sense that “there is properly no history; only biography” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), Spence’s works are autographical in that they dissect the psychology of both plebeians and mandarins, and draw on their situations to reflect the bigger picture, said Chin Ann-ping, professor at Yale and Spence’s wife.


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