Spence, Jonathan D. 1936–
Spence, Jonathan D. 1936–
(Jonathan Dermot Spence)
Born August 11, 1936, in England; son of Dermot Gordon Chesson (a poet) and Muriel Spence; married Helen Alexander, September 15, 1962; children: Colin Chesson, Ian Alexander. Education: Cambridge University, B.A., 1959; Yale University, Ph.D., 1965.
Yale University, New Haven, CT, assistant professor, 1965-71, professor of Chinese history, beginning 1971, became George Burton Adams Professor of History and chair of department. Wiles Lecturer, Queens University, Belfast, 1985; Gauss Lecturer, Princeton University, 1987; visiting professor, Peking University, 1987. Appointed to Council of Scholars, Library of Congress, 1988. Military service: British Army, 1954-56; became first lieutenant.
American Philosophical Society, British Academy (corresponding fellow), American Historical Association (president), Council on East Asian Studies (chair).
Christopher Book Award, 1975, for Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi; Los Angeles Times Book Award, 1982, and Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, American Academy—Institute of Arts and Letters, 1983, both for The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980; Gelber Prize, 1990, and Best Book of the Year, American Association for Chinese Studies, 1996, both for Chinese Roundabout: Essays in History and Culture; notable book, New York Times, 1998, for The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. Also received eight honorary degrees from universities, including Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Ts'ao Yin and the K'ang-Hsi Emperor, Bondservant and Master, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1966.
To Change China: Western Advisers to China, 1620-1960, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1969, published as The China Helpers: Western Advisers to China, 1620-1960, Bodley Head (London, England), 1969.
Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi, Knopf (New York, NY), 1974.
The Death of Woman Wang (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1978.
(With John E. Wills, Jr.) From Ming to Ch'ing: Conquest, Region, and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century China, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1979.
(With Paul Cohen and Steven Levine) The Historical Precedents for Our New Regulations with China, East Asia Program (Washington, DC), 1980.
The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
The Question of Hu (biography), Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
(Editor, with Pei-kai Cheng and Michael Lestz) The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, Norton (New York, NY), 1990, 2nd edition, 1999.
Chinese Roundabout: Essays in History and Culture, Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
(With Annping Chin) The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds, Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
The Taiping Vision of a Christian China, 1836-1864, Markahm Press Fund, Baylor University Press (Waco, TX), 1998.
Mao Zedong, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.
Treason by the Book, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.
Also contributor to books, including A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China, Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY), 1998.
Jonathan D. Spence writes books of Chinese history that employ various styles of organization and approach. In his Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-Hsi, Spence splices together contemporary accounts of a seventeenth-century Chinese ruler to fashion a kind of autobiography. In The Death of Woman Wang, he fuses the official history of a seventeenth-century Chinese province, the memoirs of a local magistrate, and a collection of contemporary short stories into a historical novel. The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980 presents recent Chinese history as seen and lived by China's writers and artists. And The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is a biography of a sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary to China organized around the mental images used in a medieval memory system.
One of Spence's most successful books is The Gate of Heavenly Peace, winner of two major awards in the field of historical writing. Tracing the turbulent history of modern China, The Gate of Heavenly Peace does not tell of the political leaders of the time nor of the common people. It focuses instead on China's intelligentsia and records how they both inspired and served the forces of political change and were often the first victims of those changes. As Kenneth J. Atchity explained in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Spence shows us history through the perceptions of individuals who—in a more or less minor key, relative to Sun Yat-sen and Mao—were affected by these movements and whose souls helped shape these dreams." In particular, the book follows the careers of three people: the Confucian scholar Kang Youwei, the writer Lu Xun, and the novelist Ding Ling.
"No one has quite done Chinese history like this before," Jay Mathews wrote in the Washington Post Book World. Mathews believes that Spence "brings alive the men and women who made the revolution, uncovering their bedtime fantasies, personality conflicts, sexual weaknesses and irrational rages." Similarly, Richard Harris of the London Times called The Gate of Heavenly Peace "a book that brings China to life better than almost any other written about China since [the revolution]."
In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence recreates the China of the sixteenth century and the work of the Jesuit missionaries of the time. In doing so, he also sketches a panoramic overview of the relationship between Europe and the East. The book's title comes from Ricci's memory system, which he used to remember vast amounts of information. His memory feats astounded his Chinese friends. At one gathering, Ricci was given a list of 500 Chinese characters to memorize. He read them back correctly and then, to the astonishment of the Chinese, recited them correctly in backward order as well. The system he used was based on a mental "memory palace"—a series of vividly imagined rooms. In each room was stored visual representations of the items to be remembered. As the user of the system imagines a walk through these rooms, the visual images trigger the proper memories in the proper order.
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is organized around eight pictures—four used in Ricci's memory system and four religious wood-cuts he chose to illustrate one of his books. Spence uses these pictures as starting-points to discuss such topics as sixteenth-century warfare, commerce, and religious thought. "Spence cuts across the fabric of history from many different angles and directions," H.J. Kirchhoff wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "allowing Ricci's choices of illustration and explication to direct our gaze toward the Chinese of the sixteenth century, and toward the Jesuits who so determinedly and imaginatively proselytized them." As Marvin R. O'Connell observed in the Washington Post Book World, "Spence has employed Ricci's preoccupation with mnemonics to fashion an ingenious structure in which to bring together a history of China and Europe during Ricci's lifetime…. [It is] a genuine tour de force."
Spence employed a more conventional structure in The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. The author begins this study in 1600, during the era when the Ming dynasty was crumbling. Progressing chronologically through the centuries, he demonstrates that since that time, China has continually struggled to hold together a vast nation which seems always to be on the verge of falling apart. Fear of such fragmentation is one of the major sources of China's traditional closed-door policy. Spence examines the many ways in which China has attempted to protect itself from outsiders and their influence, and analyzes the ways that these attitudes come into play in modern China.
"To understand the burdens and opportunities embedded in China's past there is no better place to start than Jonathan D. Spence's excellent new book," asserted Vera Schwarcz in the New York Times Book Review. Nicholas R. Clifford concurred in Commonweal that Spence's book offers unusually clear insights into "China's history, rather than a China seen through Western eyes, or a China that simply responds to the actions of others." Originally conceived as a textbook, Spence's book proved to have wide appeal; it was on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks.
In God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Spence chose to focus on one bizarre, violent episode in nineteenth-century China—the Taiping Rebellion, instigated by Hong Xiuquan. The son of a farming couple, Hong aspired to become a mandarin, and so traveled as a young man to Canton to take the Confucian examinations. After failing several times, he fell ill and experienced a baffling, vision-filled delirium. Beginning to read a Bible given to him by a missionary, Hong came to believe that he was the Second Son of God. He became an itinerant preacher and attracted legions of followers. Eventually, he called for the destruction of the government, and nearly achieved it; however, his own cult was eventually wiped out by religious excesses and self-destructive paranoia. Marie Arana-Ward commended the author on his achievement. She wrote in the Washington Post Book World: "Weaving what is already well known about the Taiping Rebellion with information from newly discovered documents inscribed by Hong, Spence gives us a magnificent tapestry of those apocalyptic days. It is a story that reaches beyond China into our world and time: a story of faith, hope, passion, and a fatal grandiosity."
Spence presents a sweeping overview of the ways in which China has been viewed by outsiders in The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. Observations from the first Jesuit missionaries, Marco Polo, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon, and a host of others are offered as a means of analyzing the ways in which Western minds have perceived China. Some of the writers actually went there, others did not, but in either case, China always seems to have stood for a mysterious "otherness," a country that was everything the West was not. Images of perfect order mingle with tales of outlandish decadence. Spence "brilliantly demonstrates [that] these competing hypotheses, already in play centuries ago, continue to find expression in the reflections of contemporary scholars and statesmen," commented Stephen Greenblatt in New York Times Book Review. "The overriding theme is that most Western thought on China has been colored by the religious, political, economic or personal agendas of those doing the observing," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Spence's book will appeal not only to those interested in history and literature, but to anyone looking for a perspective on contemporary discourse about China." Steven I. Levine, writing in Library Journal, contended that "only Spence, the Yale historian and master storyteller … could have woven such a brilliant tapestry from the threads of these Western travelogs, novels, stories, and plays…. This graceful book reminds us of the need to reflect upon our understanding of so protean a history and culture as China's."
Spence examines the life of one of modern China's most influential players in the biography Mao Zedong. Mixing historical fact with cultural analysis, the author creates "a work that is fluid and informative," in the opinion of a Publishers Weekly reviewer. By focusing on the cultural rather than political commentary, Spence is able to consider how Mao, a simple farm boy, rose to rule the most populous country in the world. The book is brief, a fact which "enables—or requires—Spence to accelerate the pace of Mao's life, thus adding drama to the sea of change in Mao's character from naive idealist to cunning political infighter and center of a personality cult."
In Treason by the Book, Spence recounts a tale drawn from the Qing archives of the mid-eighteenth century. The story centers on the Qing emperor Yongzheng and a purported case of treason that is brought before him. The treason is attributed to a scholar named Zeng Jing, who comes from the distant mountainous region of Hunan. Rather than simply arrest and execute Zeng Jing, however, Yongzheng takes personal charge of the investigation and, through a remarkable policy of openness, persuades the Hunanese scholar that his understanding of events is wrong. "The action follows the continuing search for culprits, their questioning, the final reckoning between Yongzheng and Zeng Jing," Laura Rivkin declared on the Great Britain China Centre Web site, "and Yongzheng's resolve to teach the people of China the lessons he himself has learned as a result of Zeng's delusions and successful thought-reform." The two—the emperor and the unknown scholar—then work together to prepare a refutation of the allegations Zeng originally made, publishing it under the title "Awakening from Delusion," and distributing copies of it throughout the country. "Spence has meticulously constructed his narrative very circumspectly, with full attention to potential dramatic impact," declared Ronald R. Robel, writing in History: Reviewof New Books. "He effectively uses Chinese language sources and places English translations in the text to enhance the story."
Things, however, do not go as well as the emperor and his scholar-collaborator hope. "The resulting reaction among students and scholars" to "Awakening from Delusion," stated Amee Vyas on Bookreporter.com, "is harsh. They are outraged that Zeng Jing went free, while a long-dead noted scholar, Lü Liuliang, whom Zeng Jing implicated, was branded a criminal of the worst sort. While Emperor Yongzheng tries to devise ways of involving these scholars in shaping the future of China, he fails to placate them. Then, in 1735, Emperor Yongzheng dies, and the affair ends." Some sources suggested, however, that Yongzheng did not die a natural death but was assassinated by the descendents of Lü Liuliang, who had been disinherited (and in some cases executed) as a result of Zeng Jing's accusations. In keeping with the spirit of the times, and in order to placate the students and scholars, Yongzheng's successor, Qianlong, ordered Zeng Jing's execution and had "Awakening from Delusion" banned and suppressed. "Yongzheng's motive in forgiving Zeng and publishing ‘Awakening from Delusion’ was to convince the general population that the rumors circulating about the defects of his rule were false," Richard Bernstein explained in his New York Times Book Review assessment. "His hope, as Mr. Spence puts it, was that ‘because of his honesty, posterity would revere his name.’ But in fact what remains is a savory, fascinating, memorable story of absolute rule, one that not only reveals a great deal about China's turbulent past but also suggests where some of the more durable reflexes of China's current leaders have their roots."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 1, 1996, Brad Hooper, review of The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years, p. 480; September 15, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds, p. 172; March 1, 2001, Jay Freeman, review of Treason by the Book, p. 1224; September 1, 2007, Gilbert Taylor, review of Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, p. 38.
Commonweal, August 10, 1990, Nicholas R. Clifford, review of The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection, pp. 462-63.
Economist, October 2, 1999, "Gazing at China," p. 91.
Foreign Affairs, March, 1999, Lucian W. Pye, review of The Chan's Great Continent, p. 156; May/June, 2001, Lucian W. Pye, review of Treason by the Book; November 1, 2007, Lucian W. Pye, review of Return to Dragon Mountain, p. 202.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 29, 1985, H.J. Kirchhoff, review of The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.
History: Review of New Books, March 22, 2002, Ronald R. Robel, review of Treason by the Book, p. 125.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2007, review of Return to Dragon Mountain.
Library Journal, December, 1998, Steven I. Levine, review of The Chan's Great Continent, p. 128; February 15, 2001, Charles W. Hayford, review of Treason by the Book, p. 184.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 27, 1981, Kenneth J. Atchity, review of The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980.
New Republic, January 4, 1999, Ian Buruma, "Two Cheers for Orientalism," p. 29.
New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1990, Vera Schwarcz, review of The Search for Modern China, pp. 1, 32; November 15, 1998, Stephen Greenblatt, "Orienteering," p. 19; March 9, 2001, Richard Bernstein, review of Treason by the Book, p. 26; March 25, 2001, review of Treason by the Book, p. 26; October 7, 2007, Christopher Benfey, "China Passage," p. 20.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 11, 2001, review of Treason by the Book.
Publishers Weekly, September 9, 1996, review of The Chinese Century, p. 71; August 3, 1998, review of The Chan's Great Continent, p. 62; September 20, 1999, review of Mao Zedong, p. 61; January 8, 2001, review of Treason by the Book, p. 55; May 28, 2007, review of Return to Dragon Mountain, p. 47.
Time International, April 5, 1999, Hannah Beech, "Through Western Eyes," p. 56.
Times (London, England), February 18, 1982, Richard Harris, review of The Gate of Heavenly Peace.
Washington Post Book World, November 22, 1981, Jay Mathews, review of The Gate of Heavenly Peace; December 23, 1984, Marvin R. O'Connell, review of The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci; January 21, 1996, Marie Arana-Ward, review of God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, pp. 1, 14.
American Historical Association Web site, http://www.historians.org/ (May 10, 2008), "Jonathan D. Spence."
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com (May 10, 2008), Amee Vyas, review of Treason by the Book.
Great Britain China Centre Web site, http://www.gbcc.org.uk/ (May 10, 2008), Laura Rivkin, review of Treason by the Book.
Thepolitic.org, http://thepolitic.org/ (May 10, 2008), "The Search Continues: An Interview with Jonathan Spence."