Reading Jonathan Spence

One of my goals during my sabbatical has been to attempt to read widely. In other words, I’m been trying to read beyond early American history to other historical fields and even–shockingly–outside of historical works. These explorations will provide plenty of grist for blog posts.

I thought I would start out this series with some reflections on Jonathan Spence’s work Treason by the Book.


Spence is the legendary Yale Historian of China, now emeritus. Over his career, he’s written widely on China. Most students agree that people should start with his Search for Modern China (now, I see, in its 3rd edition). He’s also written on the Chinese Revolution and produced a life of Mao.

But Spence also has a great gift for microhistory. In grad school I read his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, a book that caused me to be even more impressed with Ricci than I already was. That’s also apparent in his well-known Death of Woman Wang, as well as in my recent read, Treason by the Book.

In Treason, Spence takes a series of events built around a tendentious suggestion that a general and provincial governor overthrow the Manchu Emperor Yongzheng in the late 1720s. A treasonous letter prompted a manhunt which tracked down the instigator, a scholar by the name of Zeng Jing. While Zeng was in custody, the Emperor managed to convince him of the error of his ways. The Emperor then ordered documents related to the case, closing with Zeng’s complete recantation of his earlier views, published, distributed throughout China, and publicly read at regular intervals.

Spence uses this account to reflect on the nature of governance under the Manchus, the systems of scholars and ties between scholars and the bureaucracy, the political ideologies of Rule, and effects of gossip both in society and at court. So, this one event that never came close to threatening Imperial control could actually illuminate quite a bit about eighteenth-century China.

Let me reflect on the work as an early Americanist. First, as to method, I have to give a “thumbs up” to his use of microhistory. In this case, where Spence has plenty of documentation, it works quite well. I wonder if a parallel could be drawn to John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive, which reflects on events that took place only twenty-five years previous to those Spence describes–albeit on the other side of the globe.

Next, I wonder if some comparative reflections are in order. There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between the Chinese Imperial order at this time and some Absolutist Monarchies in Europe. I was most impressed by how the Manchus, even though outsiders, had adopted Chinese political culture. For them, the idea of legitimacy was wrapped up with the notion of “the Approval of Heaven.” I realize there’s a great difference theologically, but it seems there’s at least a similarity with Louis XIV claiming a divine right to rule. Further, just as Louis had the bureaucracy to carry out his wishes, so the Emperor had an entire mechanism to spread his decrees to the furthest corners of Chinese rule. By contrast, I don’t think you can see that level of governance in most of European colonies in America, and definitely not in British North America. Of course, the Crown had governors in place, along with other officers, but that didn’t suggest a very significant reach. The Crown was too far away to project the level of control demonstrated in China.

All in all, then, Treason was definitely a good read.

So, for those with more reading in Chinese History than I–any comments on this book or Spence’s contribution generally?


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4 responses to “Reading Jonathan Spence

  1. Will

    My first reaction is that this is interesting from an Ottoman point of view, because there’s recently been a minor trend of Ottoman-Qing comparisons. Yet I think from this perspective, the 18C Ottomans resemble the British more than the Qing or Louis XIV.

  2. Pingback: Reading Liao Yiwu | Historical Conversations

  3. Dr. Den Hartog, I believe you made an error. The final sentence should have a “me” instead of an “I.” Otherwise, I really enjoyed the article!

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