Jonathan D. Spence, an eminent scholar of China and its vast history who, in books like “God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan” (1996) and “The Search for Modern China” (1990), unearthed the past and illuminated its present, died Saturday at his home in West Haven, Connecticut. He was 85 years old.
His wife, Annping Chin, said the cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Professor Spence, who taught for over 40 years at Yale University, where his classes were always in high demand, found the big picture of Chinese history in the small details. His deeply documented books examined individual lives and bizarre moments representative of larger cultural forces, wrapping it all in vivid storytelling.
“It’s a delicate spider’s web of a book, skillful, fascinating and precise like Chinese calligraphy,” Diana Preston wrote in the Los Angeles Times in a review of her “Betrayal by the Book” (2001), about a scholar who challenged the Third Manchurian Emperor in the early 1700s. “It’s also annoying because it conjures up so much that still resonates.”
Among Professor Spence’s most ambitious books was “The Research of Modern China,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list and is now standard text. It took an 876-page view of Chinese history, from the decline of the Ming Dynasty in the 1600s to the democratic movement of 1989.
“Other books have attempted to cover the political and social history of China from imperial times to communist times,” Vera Schwarcz wrote in her review of The Times. “But they lack the narrative technique, the richness of the illustrations and the thematic orientation of this work.”
Professor Spence has written over a dozen books in all, beginning in 1966 with “Ts’ao Yin and the Emperor K’ang-hsi: Servant and Master”, based on his thesis on a minor historical figure in the late 1600s and early 1700s.
“There is no need to make big claims about the personal importance of Ts’ao Yin,” he wrote in the preface. “He was not one of the great officials of the Ch’ing dynasty, nor even a major figure of the K’ang-hsi reign. Rather, his importance lies in what the course of his life can tell us about the society in which he lived and the institutional framework in which he operated.
This approach would also guide much of Professor Spence’s later work. “Ts’ao Yin and Emperor K’ang-hsi,” said Pamela Kyle Crossley, Chinese scholar at Dartmouth College, by email, “have transformed the field, and its power as a new movement for storytelling in the world. he story echoed across many other specializations.
In “Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi” (1974), Professor Spence brought this emperor to life with an unusual technique.
“Jonathan gave us the monarch in his own words,” East Asian scholar Frederic E. Wakeman Jr. said in a speech in 2004 (reproduced in 2010 in Humanities magazine) pronounced when Professor Spence became president of the American Historical Association. “Kangxi spoke directly to the reader – or so it seemed. The book was controversial, as the Emperor’s speech was a collage of a myriad of sources in different contexts. But Kangxi’s voice was crisp and compelling, and the book went beyond the confines of a conventional audience of Chinese scholars to reach a much larger audience.
Emily Hahn, reviewing this book in The Times, said: “Jonathan Spence punctured the translators balloon and let out all the gas.”
A number of other books by Professor Spence have also been released to the general public.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, he almost single-handedly made Chinese history a lively and immediate interest to the general public,” said Professor Crossley. “It’s unusual for a writer with this kind of popular impact to also be at the forefront of scholarly influence and credibility, but Jonathan was.”
Jonathan Dermot Spence was born on August 11, 1936 in Surrey, England, to Dermot and Muriel (Crailsham) Spence. Her father worked in a publishing house and an art gallery, and her mother was an avid student of all things French.
After graduating from Winchester College, a boys’ school, in 1954, he served two years in the military, stationed in Germany, then enrolled at Clare College, Cambridge. There he edited the campus newspaper and was co-editor of the literary magazine Granta.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1959, he went on to graduate school at Yale, where Chinese researcher Mary Wright fostered the interest that became his career. He received his doctorate in 1965 and began teaching at Yale the following year.
“For a generation of Yale undergraduates, ‘Spence’ was both a legend and a legendary course,” said Janet Y. Chen, a Yale graduate and now professor of history and history, via email. East Asian Studies at Princeton University. “With a single sheet of scribbled notes in his hand, he could keep an auditorium of 400 to 500 students captivated by attention. He seemed to be spinning gold out of thin air. I don’t think he ever gave the same talk twice.
His lectures at Yale became the heart of “The Research of Modern China”. Interest in this book was heightened by the fact that it was published shortly after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Professor Spence’s long-term vision provided valuable context for these events.
“At a time when American interest in China is still strong,” Arnold R. Isaacs wrote in his book review for The Philadelphia Inquirer, “The Search for Modern China” persuades us that the key to understanding Tiananmen lies in China’s past, not in China’s past. in our own political myths.
Steve Forman of WW Norton, who was his editor on this book, and said a helping hand from someone close to Professor Spence was essential.
“There came a critical moment when he had already written the outstanding opening chapters but had not yet decided to embark on this massive project,” Forman said via email. “It was ultimately his mother whose enthusiasm for these chapters persuaded him to move on.”
“He ended up writing a good chunk of the book at a Naples Pizza table,” Mr. Forman added, naming a New Haven restaurant that is now closed, “where they then kept a framed photo of him on the wall. . “
Professor Spence’s first marriage, to Helen Alexander, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, whom he married in 1993, he is survived by a brother, Nicholas; two sons from his first marriage, Colin and Ian; a daughter-in-law, Mei Chin; one stepson, Yar Woo; a grandchild; and two step-grandchildren.
Another book by Spence which had both popular and scholarly appeal was “God’s Chinese Son” (1996), on Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be Jesus’ brother and led a calamitous pseudo-Christian movement in China. XIX century which caused a civil war in which millions of people died.
The parallels in history were obvious – China absorbed countless other outside influences, including communism and capitalism, and often gave them its own disastrous turn. But, as Orville Schell noted in a review of The Times, Professor Spence hasn’t hit his readers over the head with this point; as in most of his other books, he let the events speak for themselves.
“Mao Zedong used to extol the virtue of a ‘blank sheet of paper’ to write on,” Mr. Schell wrote. “Sir. Spence’s didactic reserve elicits the same response. The monstrosity of the events he recounts in ‘God’s Chinese Son’ makes us think for ourselves in search of a conclusion.”