For over fifty years, Jonathan Spence has been studying and writing about China. His books and articles form a body of work notable for groundbreaking research, fine literary quality, and extraordinary public value. If the West understands the culture and history of China better now than it did a half century ago, Jonathan Spence is one of the people to be thanked.
He was born in Surrey, England, in 1936. His father worked in publishing and edited one of Joseph Conrad’s books. His mother was a lover of French literature. He followed his brothers—one of whom became a classicist, the other a chemical engineer—to Winchester College, where he won the History Prize. At Clare College, Cambridge, he became a coeditor of the storied undergraduate magazine Granta, editor of the student paper, and a writer of parodies. When he graduated in 1959, an academic career seemed certain, though he had not yet settled on a field of study.
A fellowship established by Paul Mellon brought Spence to Yale University, where he encountered the China scholar Mary Wright. She and her husband, Arthur Wright, also a China scholar, had just accepted professorships at Yale. While talking to the Wrights, Spence recently recalled in Humanities magazine, “I suddenly thought this would be fun to explore. So I plunged into the equivalent of Chinese History One and Basic Chinese Language One.”
Mary Wright became his mentor and sent the young scholar off to Australia to study with Fang Chao-ying, an important Chinese historian. Spence then became the first Western scholar to use secret Qing dynasty documents collected at the Palace Museum in Taiwan. His prizewinning dissertation was published as Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master. As recalled by his late colleague and longtime friend Frederic E. Wakeman Jr., the China scholar Joseph R. Levenson remarked of this work, “Qing historical studies will never be the same. Besides, the man writes like an angel.”
Spence’s next book was a compelling review of Western attempts “To Change China,” as the title put it, from the Italian Jesuits who came in the late sixteenth century to American military experts in World War II. A historian of great breadth, Spence also showed he was capable of important research and elegant writing on discrete figures and events. Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi used the seventeenth-century Qing emperor’s own words from public and private documents to create a kind of autobiography in translation, a marked example of Spence’s light and yet generous hand with quoted material. Nor was his writing to be limited to a cast of the great and the famous. In The Death of Woman Wang, published in 1978, Spence wrote the annals of the Chinese county of T’an-ch’eng in the seventeenth century, as it suffered through a terrible string of famines, floods, plagues, and bandit attacks.
Even as he has ventured further into both large and subtle aspects of Chinese history, Spence has shown a remarkable talent for addressing the larger public. “His greatest achievement,” notes Professor David Mungello of Baylor University, “has been to blend careful scholarship with beautifully crafted books on China. In the process, he has attracted the greatest reading audience of any China historian in the United States. Perhaps in part because of his origins in Britain, he is a historian in the nineteenth-century grand style of British historians, which is to say that he seeks to make history meaningful and fascinating to the broadest range of readers.”
Spence’s writings over the years have ranged from the life and missionary career of Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) to works on the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese Revolution, and Mao Zedong. If China is his first subject, then perhaps Western understanding of China is his second, and to it he returned in his 1998 work The Chan’s Great Continent. Spence’s magnum opus, however, remains a book that took shape in the lecture hall at Yale, where his survey lectures on Chinese history drew hundreds of students, some not even enrolled in the course. The Search for Modern China, a New York Times bestseller published in 1990, begins with the last days of the Ming dynasty and ends, almost four centuries later, in the 1980s amidst the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping and student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Spence, who became an American citizen in 2000, has received numerous accolades in his long career. He won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1979, received the Harold D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983, and a MacArthur fellowship in 1988, the same year he was appointed to the Council of Scholars for the Library of Congress. In 1993, Yale named him a Sterling Professor of History. He has received honorary degrees, from, among others, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Oxford University. Spence was made a corresponding member of the British Academy in 1997, and Queen Elizabeth II named him, in 2001, a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. In 2003, he received the Sidney Hook Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In 2004 and 2005, he served as president of the American Historical Association.