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.
The Making of Jonathan Spence
BY FREDERIC E. WAKEMAN JR.
Jonathan D. Spence, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, was born in England on August 11, 1936, the son of Dermot and Muriel Crailsham Spence. His was a lettered family. Professor Spence’s maternal grandfather taught at Clifton College in Bristol during the Great War, and his mother, who attended secondary school in London, was a passionate student of French language and literature. Dermot Spence had attended Oxford and Heidelberg universities in the late 1920s and spoke excellent German. He also worked at a publishing house and art gallery, and was editor of one of Joseph Conrad’s works. One of Jonathan Spence’s two older brothers was a classicist and the other a chemical engineer. His sister, a filmmaker, is also a professional translator of French, German, and Italian.
When he was thirteen, Professor Spence matriculated at Winchester College, one of the oldest public schools in England, founded by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and High Chancellor of England. As Jonathan once pointed out to me, in 1382, the very year Winchester College was established in Hampshire, on the other side of the world in Jiangnan, the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368–98) was suppressing the Hu Weiyong uprising and abolishing the post of chief councilor of the Ming dynasty. Somehow Jonathan’s world-spanning historical consciousness seemed all the more appropriate when I remembered that another global historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, had been an Old Wykehamist as well.
Raised in the “soft” Anglicanism of the college, he attended compulsory chapel eight times a week, amusing himself by reading the services in French and German psalters that he slipped into the oratory. Summer holidays were typically spent in France with an exchange family, living in a rural chateau where he spent long afternoons at tennis and watched the bats swoop for insects in the dusk.
Back at school he pursued his studies passionately. Even now, Spence remembers Winchester as an intellectual hothouse, a kind of “high-octane preparation for Oxford and Cambridge.” Though only a fees-paying “commoner,” while his father and older brother were stipended “scholars” (to use the college’s own medieval distinction), Jonathan survived at Winchester, winning the History Prize. He read widely and composed poetry, but considered himself a better literary critic than a creative writer. By the time he graduated from the college in 1954 and completed a two-year tour of military duty as a second lieutenant stationed in Germany, he was ready to go up to Clare College at Cambridge.
Clare College was “magical.” “Excited and reckless,” young Spence quickly became a member of the top intellectual stratum of the university. Not only was he a coeditor of the literary magazine Granta; in his second year he was also named editor of Cambridge’s student newspaper, Varsity. The outgoing editor facetiously wrote of him: “Jonathan Spence is slim, sallow and vague.” At that time he wanted most to be a novelist. He later modestly claimed that he realized he had “nothing to say,” and instead turned to writing parodies, a form he had mastered at Winchester. He was not yet clear about his métier by the time he took his BA degree in 1959.
Spence arrived at Yale University with a Mellon fellowship that supported an exchange of top-ranking students between Yale and Clare College. Though mainly working in history, he was still uncertain about his calling until he took a course with Professor Mary Wright. Arthur and Mary Clabaugh Wright had only recently left Stanford for Yale, where they each accepted professorships in Chinese history. John King Fairbank later described the intellectual dynasty that was being formed at that time:
When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936, my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a PhD candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study international history but turned to China when she heard about it. She married another Harvard graduate student in Chinese history, Arthur F. Wright. Twenty years later, when both Wrights were invited from Stanford to come to Yale as professors of history, Mary Wright found her brightest student in the person of Jonathan Spence, a young Englishman from Winchester College and Cambridge University, who had just come to Yale. Hearing Mary Wright’s lectures, he chose Chinese studies, and she arranged for his unusual talent to be specially trained under the master of Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty biography, Fang Chao-ying. Fang was then in Australia, where Jonathan Spence was sent to work with him.
Under Fang Chao-ying’s guidance, Spence became the first scholar in the West to make use of the Qing secret memorials collected in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. His PhD dissertation received the John Addison Porter Prize in 1965 and was published by the Yale University Press under the title Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master. I remember how excited my own mentor, Joseph R. Levenson, was by Jonathan’s precocious masterpiece. “Qing historical studies,” he told me, “will never be the same.”
“Besides,” he added, “the man writes like an angel.”
Spence joined the Yale faculty in 1966 as an assistant professor of history. In 1968, he was appointed an associate professor; and, in 1971, after publishing a second book, To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620–1960, he was promoted to professor. Five years later, he was named George Burton Adams Professor of History.
In 1974 and 1978, Spence published two extraordinary books, nearly back to back. Chinese historians had long hoped for a personal portrait of one of the great Qing emperors. Professor Harold L. Kahn had written a striking study of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–96), but it was more about the monarch’s persona than the individual himself. In Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi (Knopf, 1974), Jonathan gave us the monarch in his own words. Kangxi spoke directly to the reader—or so it seemed. The book was controversial, because the emperor’s speech was a collage from myriad sources in different contexts. But Kangxi’s voice was vivid and compelling, and the book broke out of the confines of a conventional audience of Chinese specialists to reach a much larger public. The same was true for The Death of Woman Wang, published in 1978, which soon was featured on most college reading lists in Chinese history. Students were not only introduced to a more vivid and colorful China than they expected; they also were privileged to view Qing society from the bottom up, as Spence gave voice to those who left no written records and whose lives had to be reconstructed from local gazetteers, magistrates’ handbooks, and storytellers’ tales.
Like many fine historians who combine narrative description and critical analysis, Spence has a special and unique eye for the telling detail. Often he begins with an image that has captured his imagination. I remember one evening with him, walking across the Wesleyan campus in Middletown, Connecticut. When I asked him what he was working on at the moment, Jonathan’s eyes narrowed, as though he were looking into the distance. “I’ve discovered a marvelous source,” he murmured. “About the murder of a woman née Wang: a body crumpled in the snow. . . .” Or later, as he was writing The Question of Hu, the figure of a hapless man from Foshan locked up like a lunatic in the asylum at Charenton materialized in his mind’s eye. Jonathan simply sees what most of us overlook. In one of the opening chapters of God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, published in 1996, he describes the foreign factories along Canton’s bustling waterfront. Much of this was familiar to me, as I had perused the same sources for an earlier work of my own. But I realized when I read Spence’s narrative that I lacked his sensitivity to many of the sights and sounds that struck contemporaries, and especially to the frisson of seeing a baby abandoned in a basket under the pedestrians’ feet.
Spence combines his critical imagination with a scrupulous attention to the sources. Whether in the collection of essays on the Ming-Qing transition he edited with John E. Wills, or in The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980, published in 1981, or in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, published in1984, Spence bases his work on solid and sedulous reading—especially of newly discovered archival materials. One of the best examples of this is his 1996 study of Hong Xiuquan and Taiping Christianity, God’s Chinese Son. As he explains in his preface, the book was born of the recent discoveries of heretofore unknown Taiping sources in the British Library by our mutual colleague Wang Qingcheng, the former director of the Modern History Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In 1996, the same year God’s Chinese Son appeared, Professor Spence and his wife Chin Annping, who earned her PhD at Columbia in classical Chinese philosophy, also published The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years.
At Yale, Spence is famous for his undergraduate lecture course in Chinese history, which has regularly been one of the humanities offerings in the college with the highest enrollments. Although it is impossible to reproduce Spence’s dazzling lecture style in book form, the content of the course reached a much larger audience when he published in 1990 his Search for Modern China, now perhaps the most widely used Chinese history textbook in American universities.
As a fervent admirer of Professor Spence, I envy his extraordinary discipline as a writer, which helps account for his prolific output. I happened to be his and Annping’s dinner guest at their house in West Haven the day he put the finishing touches on God’s Chinese Son. After toasting the new book, I idly asked Jonathan what he planned to write next. I was surprised when he responded without hesitation. In that uniquely ruminative way of his, he said, almost dreamily: “I want to write about cold. I see a Manchu warrior skating on a frozen pond. And the steam of a war horse’s panting in the dry cold of a North China winter.” The picture was so immediately vivid that I halfway expected him to leave me at the dinner table and go upstairs to write, picking up a fresh sheet of paper for his sprawling longhand even before the latest manuscript had been sent off to the publisher. Other books have intervened since then, but I am still waiting confidently for him to bring that cold landscape to life one way or another.
Spence has earned his writing time on his own. That is, he has “bought” most of his triennial research leaves with his administrative contributions to Yale University. From 1973 to 1975, he was director of graduate studies in history. From 1977 to 1979, he served as chair of the Council on East Asian Studies, and also as director of the Division of Humanities from 1980 to 1982. He chaired the Department of History from 1983 to 1986, and during the 1988–89 academic year, he was acting director of the Whitney Humanities Center. Named Sterling Professor of History in 1993, he currently serves on the governing board of Yale University Press. By dint of such superb university citizenship, Jonathan was able to earn leaves three years apart; if those did not suffice, he often took advances or leave without pay. For at least twenty years he has never applied for a grant. During the interim between leaves, he typically reads for the next book: The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds appeared in 1998, Mao Zedong in 1999, and Treason by the Book in 2001.
The world has recognized Professor Spence’s eminence. He has received eight honorary degrees from various colleges in the United States and from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2003, Spence received an honorary degree from Oxford University. He was also invited to become a visiting professor at Peking University and an honorary professor at Nanjing University. In 2001, he was named CMG (Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George) on the Queen of England’s Birthday Honours List.
In 1978, he received the William C. DeVane Medal of the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa; in 1979, a Guggenheim Fellowship; in 1982, the Los Angeles Times History Prize; and in 1983, the Vursel Prize of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Spence was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985 and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1988, the same year he was appointed to the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress. In 1993, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society, and in 1997 was named a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.
THE CHINA SCHOLAR
Jonathan Spence, the 39th Jefferson Lecturer, is our foremost scholar of Chinese history. Known for his literary craftsmanship as well as groundbreaking research, he has in his numerous books and articles achieved the unlikely feat of improving Western understanding of Chinese history and culture. His magnum opus, The Search for Modern China, is the standard textbook in Chinese history courses, while his other works distill and throw light on a wonderful array of periods and figures, both modern and medieval, great and small, Eastern and Western.
JIM LEACH: You were born in Surrey, England, attended Winchester College and then Clare College, Cambridge. You showed a literary bent, studied European history, and came to Yale to study. Then you switched to Chinese history. Why?
JONATHAN SPENCE: Well, it’s probably one of the most complicated decisions I’ve made. It wouldn’t have happened, as far as I can tell, unless I had gotten an exchange fellowship to the United States. I had never really studied Asia, except peripherally where it happened to impinge on British imperial history.
In 1959, I got offered a two–year fellowship to do a master’s degree. It was a program funded by Paul Mellon, a loyal Yale graduate and donor who endowed this fellowship for English people, specifically from Cambridge. This gave me a chance to sample Yale’s curriculum. I won’t weary you with the different attempts I made to see which subject needed studying the most, and I found there were too many for me to make a logical decision.
In the summer of ’59, two wonderful China scholars had joined the Yale faculty, Arthur Wright and Mary Wright. My quite fortuitous arrival coincided with their coming to New Haven.
While talking to them, I suddenly thought this would be fun to explore. So I plunged into the equivalent of Chinese History One and Basic Chinese Language One and got fascinated by this completely different history, and I’ve stayed with it. That’s the serendipity of it all.
LEACH: When one thinks of Chinese history, one thinks of dynasties. And in British history, one thinks of kingships. Did that analogy help you?
SPENCE: I think the dynastic structure was of a more complex scale than the more rapid changes in rulership in British history. In terms of comparative study, there wasn’t much made of that.
In the late fifties and early sixties, the area of comparative study that interested me was between the gentry or the intellectual elite and landowning, which you did find in China and in the United Kingdom. We can look at how this group was educated and how from being educated, in the Chinese case, they took over governance. In England, advancement turned out to be more directly based on landholding.
We could look at different lifestyles—different education patterns, marriage patterns, child–raising patterns. I remember finding that fascinating. It was a true linkage of the social sciences with the humanities that dominated much thought about China in the early 1960s.
LEACH: When did you first visit China?
SPENCE: I was in Taiwan back in 1963; I didn’t go to mainland China until 1974, two years after President Nixon’s visit. I’d also been in Hong Kong, which then was still controlled by the British.
My research into archival material was initially done in Taiwan. In those days, with the threat of war being discussed both in mainland China and in Taiwan, the documents were kept in air–raid shelter conditions.
One needed a complex series of introductions to get at them. I was lucky to get an introduction to a curator of what became the National Palace Museum in Taiwan and was able to do some research into imperial documents of the early Qing rulers of the seventeenth century, the people who became my favorite subjects of study.
I was able to hold in my hand the original writings of the emperor of China. It was something that is still very emotional for me, and it was a major moment for my thinking about the past.
LEACH: The prior generation of American Chinese scholarship was symbolized probably by John King Fairbank. One has a sense of a man who was deeply motivated by influencing and training people who would be part of foreign policy making.
SPENCE: I knew Professor Fairbank quite well. He was a formidable presence, and he could be very gracious to younger scholars. In fact, Mary Wright, who became my dissertation director, had done her dissertation under Fairbank. So, in a sense, I was sort of his grandson. And Arthur Wright had also studied the history of China at Harvard, working in earlier Chinese history and Chinese Buddhism. Mary Wright had studied the great rebellions of the nineteenth century and the way China had tried to hold together under foreign pressure.
Neither of them had the specific agenda that John Fairbank had. And they didn’t have the same entrepreneurial interest in making an enormous center at Yale. They were concentrating more on having a tightly run center in which there would be a balance between early modern history, early and modern religious studies, language, literature, and art history.
LEACH: You mentioned Mary Wright and her interest in nineteenth–century rebellions, one of the most interesting being the Taiping rebellion. Americans are not particularly aware that something occurred that might have been a larger civil war than our own. One is struck by the fact that the leader of the uprising was influenced by the teachings of Western missionaries. And so, you have an example of a Western cultural impact on the course of Chinese revolutionary movements. Do you consider that a significant event in terms of how Chinese look at the West today and worry about groups like the Falun Gong?
SPENCE: It remains something deeply worth thinking about. Mary Wright’s first book was called The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism. And that gives us, perhaps, a sense of where she was going.
She was interested not just in this group called the Taiping and their revolutionary aspects or in their Christian aspects, which, by the way, some people say were not very deep. Others say it ran extremely deep in the Taiping—they had studied with foreign missionaries, usually fairly informally, and some of the leaders certainly knew the main outlines of Christian doctrine.
But Mary Wright’s main interest was how the state coalesces again after a colossal civil war and an internal rebellion that led to fifteen to twenty million casualties. This enormous loss of life ended in 1864, and the ruling elite was able to reestablish itself for another forty–five years of imperial rule. Was there a valid tradition of Chinese conservative thinking that could be linked from the bureaucracy and the examination system to the practical skills that allowed the ruling elite to reestablish itself after the rebellion?
What Mary Wright tried to understand was the toughness that came with this education that enabled a country to pull together when it had really been in danger of total disintegration.
The Taiping rebellion was only one of four rebellions that struck China in the 1860s and 1870s. The scale of the disaster and the chaos that was caused certainly exceeded that of the American Civil War.
But Mary Wright had a broader agenda there, which was looking at the structure of the later political parties. And by jumping forward in time from that study of the suppression of the rebellion and the reassertion of central power, Mary Wright took a parallel look at the Nationalist party of China controlled by Chiang Kai–shek and its claim to have a conservative background.
So this was not without political implications, especially during the Cold War. Mary Wright’s book had, I think, a real influence in broadening our thinking about the linkage of past catastrophe and present regimes and meant that we were encouraged to take a broad look at Chinese nationalism.
We should remember the title of her book. It wasn’t just that a new kind of dramatic conservatism was going to win in China. If there had been a last stand of Chinese conservatism, the title implied that it was over. We were now going to have to deal with a completely new, different kind of regime. And you could argue, if you wish, that we’re still doing just that.
LEACH: What drew you to write about the Italian Jesuit cartographer Matteo Ricci?
SPENCE: Ricci wrote in the late sixteenth century and into the early seventeenth, presenting a portmanteau of Western values and religious experience of different kinds. He represented the cutting edge of Jesuit Counter–Reformation forces, the reassertion of Catholic power and influence.
It was the period of the second to last dynasty, the Ming dynasty, which collapsed after a swift, but massive civil war. And this meant that China was again dislocated. This dislocation coincided with the arrival of particularly skillful Jesuit scholar missionaries. And Ricci was one of them.
He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever studied, and it took me some time to write about him because he was awesomely complicated and a man of great subtlety. I didn’t want to mess around with the record until I felt a little more confident that I could understand him, read his original journals, and get some sense of what he was trying to do in China and why Chinese scholars around the year 1600 would have cared what a Westerner thought.
We take it for granted that, of course, they were interested in us. But why? Why, when they had this huge tradition of their own and their own bureaucracy, their own religion, their own cartography, their own sense of time and place, their own sense of geography? All of these are areas Westerners claim to have a superior knowledge of. And yet the Chinese were doing extremely well. So the mystery can be rephrased. What was it that the Jesuits called upon in order to attract Chinese elites to share a Western religious system and the social values that went with it?
This led me in every conceivable direction—the nature of prayer and the nature of conversion, the nature of a pastoral elite in China, the relationship of the Chinese experience with Buddhism or Taoism, to which now was added Christianity and into which Islam and Judaism had already been partially incorporated.
So China was a cross section, if you like, of mosques and churches and temples and shrines. Because of their intellectual power and their willingness to learn the Chinese language, the best of these Western missionaries developed an ability to preach and teach in Chinese, whether they were from Italy or Portugal or Spain or France.
In Ricci’s case, he made an astonishing jump. He was able to write books in Chinese after he had been in China for six or seven years. And that’s still something most of us would not have any chance of doing, really, to write an elegant book on Western religion in Chinese and circulate it in China. That would be rare. So Ricci was a major pioneer.
LEACH: We have this idea of cultural exchanges, which might better be described as cultural elbowing.
SPENCE: Cultural elbowing? That’s a very nice phrase.
LEACH: Did the various Westerners in China have shared themes and common understandings or misunderstandings?
SPENCE: That’s an important question. It was important in the period just before the Korean War. And it was important in the opening up of China and the post–Maoist period. And it’s important now.
The phrase “closed China” has sometimes been used. It was extremely difficult to work and live in China without permission from the government. And as Western powers got more assertive and were more able to impinge on China, they got more and more frustrated by the Chinese attempt to stop this from happening.
I was intrigued by this long ago. I wrote my second book, which I called To Change China, on this idea—the ongoing quest for transforming a society into a mirror image of Western society.
By connecting the dots from the Jesuits right through to the Russian and American technical advisers, one could frame a sort of longitudinal study in which we can see at least some of what the West was trying to impose on China.
This was a really complex patterning. And I didn’t want to oversimplify it. But, in broad outline, you can see a strong lay missionary impetus among Westerners, not just a religious impetus, but laymen or laywomen using aspects from Western culture to change China in what they thought was the direction it ought to be going.
Now, to do that is an extremely dangerous thing. It’s part of foreign policy in many periods of time. But this was almost an international group of pressures trying to force the Chinese to join a value system that was being developed by the West.
And this went into many areas we think of as arcane: things like tariff structures, the way that China should be allowed to tax protected Western goods that were coming into China, the development of import and export markets, shifts in international currency, the shift between Chinese domestic interests in silver and a Western attempt to keep gold standards, a geographical expansion, the Japanese rise to power.
All of this extraordinarily complex mixture ended up with an apparently ceaseless period of harassment of the Chinese polity. And it ended, I think, with an ambiguous situation. If you take Mao as a turning point, that would be the period in which there was a real closure of China and a declaration that enough was enough and that Western influence was to be barred from China while it tried to find its own revolutionary goals.
There was a kind of unity to that huge period. And it contains some amazing men and women who tried to change Chinese values.
It led to a situation in which Westerners who had hoped passionately to change China were deeply disappointed when the Chinese decided not to use their help. The result was a kind of embittered attitude toward China, a real anger with the Chinese for rejecting our values and a feeling that they were being stubborn and pigheaded about this. And it wasn’t just some natural cultural resistance. It was deeper.
So, much later on, I came to try and unravel some of these cultural attitudes in The Chan’s Great Continent, the book I did in the early nineties. It looked more at the whole range of ways that China itself had values to pass on to the West and how the West tried to interpret shifts in Chinese civilization. I’ve found this a grand theme, and I’ve explored it in different ways for more than forty years.
LEACH: In the nineteenth century, the United States followed the European spheres of influence approach. Then, in 1899, we announced the Open Door Policy.
LEACH: And we thought this policy set us apart from European powers. But I’m not so sure the Chinese looked at it that way. What’s your take?
SPENCE: I think the simple answer to a huge question would be that, from the Chinese perspective, the Americans were maybe more easygoing than, for instance, British or French or other colonial powers, but the Americans were interested in exploiting China just the same way that Europeans were.
They just had a different rhetoric and practice. The Open Door Policy on paper, at least, seemed more generous than the overt British expansionism into Chinese cities along the coastline or the French development of a power base in southwestern China. Then the Japanese developed a power base as well.
The United States was often on the periphery of these major movements until the 1930s or early 1940s. But Pearl Harbor changed this and brought American forces into China in a different kind of alliance.
I think in terms of studying negative foreign impact in China, the Chinese textbooks would refer to all these different aspects of foreign pressure, including the American, as being different kinds of imperialist pressure on the Chinese people and its government and its economy. Even though there have been conspicuous examples of Chinese enthusiasm for specific figures from the United States, there’s no huge legacy of pro–American feeling—for instance, note the Chinese feeling that American aid against Japan in World War II was not particularly necessary.
This is something very hard for Americans to take. And I can understand why, because huge sacrifices were made.
LEACH: In the twentieth century, China moved towards a communist model after it defeated the Kuomintang. Geostrategists like to compare the Chinese model of communism and the Soviet. Historians like to inquire whether or not the Chinese model of communism is compatible with Western democracy and with Chinese cultural history. What are your thoughts on either of those subjects?
SPENCE: There’s a lot to say about both. And it’s the stuff of much study of modern Chinese history.
I think the basic premise, though it’s not without opposition, is this: When the Soviet Union was in its revolutionary days from 1917 up to about 1921, when the Communist party in China was founded, it had a strong influence on the formation of the Chinese Communist party.
But already by the later 1920s, China had realized that conditions were enormously different than those of both the former Russia and the new Soviet Union. China’s role in world revolution was of a different nature: Internationalism in China could also be rural, and the workers could be rural, as opposed to the so–called urban proletariat or working industrial classes in the Soviet Union or in Europe or, on a much smaller scale, in the United States.
China was offering something quite different. It was essentially, we might say, the development of a Marxist–looking revolution, but on a basis of rural insurrectionary forces.
China would have the right to claim a different kind of revolutionary insight if it were to get the peasantry, which represented 80 or 90 percent of the Chinese people, and teach them about revolution and teach them their future could lie in their own hands under the leadership of the Communist party. Their exploitation did not have to be unending, foreign imperialism could be attacked and maybe gotten rid of, and a new kind of economic order could be established within China, in which the Soviet Union would be one of the members of a new kind of alliance, a left–tilted alliance.
This kind of interpretation is being chipped away at now, particularly because there is a general feeling that Mao has been given too much credit for the way that China’s revolutionary society tried to alter the nature of Marxist insurrection in the period from the anti–Japanese War through the civil war and then into the Korean War and out the other side into the Great Leap Forward.
All of this can be seen as showing a different Chinese view. How much did the Chinese Communists galvanize rural China into a truly revolutionary military force with immense potential power? How do we evaluate this and ask whether we’ve been partly manipulated historiographically by the Communist party of China itself into seeing this as the mainline filament? There is a return to a feeling that maybe a small, elite group of leaders in the Chinese Communist party were manipulating their own people and also manipulating the historiographical record to make themselves look good.
So, aspects of what we call post–Cold War or late Cold War study are still active and fruitful in our study of China. We have to remember that Mao died in 1976. There have been thirty–four years of post–Maoist rule and a lot of chances to reassess what exactly Chinese Communist doctrine was and how much foreign influence played in it. Or, was there a deep split in China itself between different branches of the left–leaning elite and military personnel? It’s a great topic for a historian.
It’s difficult to be precise because so many people were involved, and so many archives have not yet been cleared because they still have importance to Chinese politics today. And though early historical archives are beautifully organized in China and made accessible, Communist party archives are a different matter.
LEACH: I’ve often wondered how relevant the philosophy of Marxism was in how Lenin organized the government. The Leninist model survives, but Marxism doesn’t very much.
SPENCE: This was the stuff of decades of work by scholars of China. Marxism was selectively introduced into China and selectively used. There wasn’t even a complete Chinese translation of The Communist Manifesto until the early 1920s, when China was already beginning to form Marxist study groups.
There is an entire tradition of what we might call Utopian Marxism, a sort of culturally harmonious Marxism, seeing it as a way of analyzing class struggle and human suffering, giving power to certain analytical approaches. The Leninist system is more focused on the analysis of Communist party power and organization, and the role of the Communist party in fomenting revolution on the global level and of using China as a conduit to Japan so the Soviet Union could protect itself on its eastern borders.
So we have a global influence, a domestic defense influence, and what we might call a social utopian kind of thrust. All of these, in different gradations, can be found in the way that Marxism made its way into China.
We run into all sorts of complicated problems: Some of the early Marxists were Buddhists, for instance. And we can find warlords who maybe were related more to Islamic forces in the new western areas of China. One can find all kinds of different pressure points: Hong Kong, Manchuria, Tibet. All these areas have different challenges and organizational possibilities. And they have their own historiography in China.
“Leninist” can mean many things. To a rigorous Leninist scholar, much of Chinese communism would not be rigorously Leninist.
When I first went to China, I saw pictures of Marx and Engels. And Lenin and Stalin would always be displayed in Tian’anmen Square. And Mao was later added so that you have the idea of the “big five”: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. That was the deliberate Chinese patterning of the past so that Mao, with his domestic plans for China, could be seen as standing in a tradition of revolutionary growth that would take them from the Marxists, through the Leninists, into the Maoists’ view of the world.
LEACH: How did Deng Xiaoping change all this? And do you think he will prove to be a more seminal figure than Mao?
SPENCE: Deng Xiaoping certainly is going to be part of this story for as long as the story is told. From his earliest years, there are so many ways in which he is both typical and atypical. He was raised in a dispiriting period of China’s history: From 1910 to 1915 was a grim, miserable time.
Like many Chinese Communists, Deng had gone to work in France at the end of World War I, where he was introduced to a more rigorous Marxist belief and organization.
When he came back to China, he became a tough–minded, disciplined young man of the Communist party and was involved in many of the great developments of the time. He was a military leader and a political commissar.
There was little in his past record that would lead one to expect the emergence of the Deng Xiaoping of 1978 onward, which is when he showed an extraordinary ability, I think, to work through what China would have to do if it was to become a post–Maoist power, while still maintaining the organizational toughness of the Leninist party structure.
So what on earth was one to do about galvanizing this economy when you have such a huge structure of state–controlled enterprises in the industrial sector, when you have such rigorous supervision over farm production in the huge hinterland of China?
He had senior Communist colleagues who agreed that China somehow had to break out of what had become a rather fragmentizing legacy from early Marxism. How could one take some of the patterns of capitalist development, some of the expansionist goals? How could one follow some of the technological successes of Taiwan, for instance?
How could one look at the financial innovation shown by Hong Kong? How was one to draw all this into a synthesis and somehow keep the same leaders in power? That was an amazing thing to do.
I think we’ll remember it was amazing, even if we start listing other people who helped him do it and find intellectuals who were whispering into his ear about the best way to go.
Deng was not particularly forthcoming, so we don’t know that much about him biographically. We can see that he had an extraordinary determination to push China away from the Leninist/Marxist direction into a kind of global economic position. Though, again, there was no way one could have anticipated the kind of accumulation of foreign reserves that China has achieved. I don’t think we could ever have guessed that from Deng Xiaoping.
LEACH: One has the sense that for much of the twentieth century, the great borrowings from the West were Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. With Deng Xiaoping, the borrowings became maybe Henry Ford and Andrew Mellon.
SPENCE: Who is controlling Deng Xiaoping, do we know? Who is making a report card on him? It was just a terrific amount of bold thinking and shrewd experiments in the area of Guangdong and also in Sichuan. These were used as trendsetters.
Then there was the whole idea of trying to open up landholding, so there’d be more use of private markets, more incentives to carefully start closing some of the least productive industrial facilities and factories. All this meant the possibility of alternative employment, the avoidance of domestic insurrection.
It’s this same Deng Xiaoping who is opening up the country in 1978 and 1979 and who is ordering the troops into Beijing in 1989. This is the same person making this decision that is harsh and antidemocratic and yet linking China to something that is much more open and flexible and creative. Humans are paradoxes, and Deng is a good example of a paradox in action.
LEACH: Well, in thinking through these centuries that you have studied, would you say we have borrowed much from China?
SPENCE: We’ve borrowed much from China. I’ve been thinking about this because of the Jefferson Lecture that I’ve been asked to give. I’m trying to work out times in which the cultures were more parallel or more different. ‘Who learned from China and when?’ is, again, one of these colossal historical questions.
This reaches back into Marco Polo’s day. Not too long after the initial contacts with China, the West learned that China was a huge country with a complex professional bureaucracy and a strong centralized government.
There’s a huge variety of early writings on China. Visitors were fairly awestruck by China’s power and extent. They couldn’t help wondering if the Chinese didn’t have some principles of organization, for instance, like the examination system and the bureaucracy or certain aspects of effective tax gathering or military garrison preparedness. It was also a terrific country for engineers, who made major hydraulic and irrigation works.
A flood of books about China began around about the 1590s into the 1600s. Some were written by Jesuits. Some were written by diplomats. Some were written by part–time travelers, armchair travelers, some by people who were able to read Chinese a little bit. And they saw a lot to admire.
LEACH: A few years ago I read about a nineteenth–century Chinese trade model that influenced American banking. The idea came from Canton, where merchants had reinsured each other. In essence, they took mutual responsibility for losses. The New York state legislature passed a law allowing mutual insurance into commercial banking. The model was copied at the national level and became the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
SPENCE: That’s fascinating, and perhaps the model grew from the Cohong system where a small group of Chinese merchants were given permission by the state to do international trade. The Cohong merchants certainly supported each other through mutual loans and by pooling their resources. They were able to develop enormous wealth, but they were also subject to incursions by the state, which regularly raided their profits. Western firepower ultimately destroyed that system in 1842 in the so–called Treaty of Nanking.
LEACH: What had changed the admiring attitude toward China?
SPENCE: As China weakened geographically and militarily under onslaughts from a technologically advanced West somewhere around the 1840s, the country began to feel threatened, but tried to avoid it by pretending it wasn’t happening. And that’s usually a disastrous thing to do in foreign policy.
By the 1840s, China was seen as a has–been power, and the earlier praise for administrative skill became contempt for imperial bigotry. And the exam system became known for mindless rote learning, which held back most of the population. And the peaceful countryside world was seen as one in which the peasants were kept down by force.
So there’s a sliding scale of what Westerners thought they could learn from China. I think now we’re desperately torn.
We’re not sure what we should be interested in about China. We’re not sure how China can balance its own initiatives against the real crises that it faces: the crises of water and pollution, disorder and protests against the pace of urban development, the difficulty of an automobile society, and the mobility brought by new domestic airlines. China just has so much going on—it’s awesome.
How much of this can we learn from? Some of it we’ve done already. Some of it we’re trying to do. Some of it, like magnetic resonance trains and this kind of thing, we’re finding, is very expensive. So, we’re realizing that we’ve got to struggle to keep up technologically.
But when I taught about China—I was lucky to have a good many years to do that—I always began in the seventeenth century as China drew itself together with a new dynasty, the Qing. I wanted students to start with a clear idea of an extremely tough, well–orchestrated, well–organized China that had come through a difficult civil war and foreign invasion and then developed extremely good leadership, even though it wasn’t democratically chosen.
The late seventeenth– and early eighteenth–century emperors had a strong sense of government and a pretty good sense of leadership responsibility. They were shrewd analytically. They had a good overall sense of finance. They worked extremely hard, twelve–hour days, fifteen–hour days. They read an immense amount of documentation on the country at large.
They also were tough as anything and willing to make decisions that we regard as ruthless. My main teaching premise, though, was ‘Let’s start with a strong, outward–looking China that’s also expansionist.’ It’s a period in which China doubles its extent within eighty or ninety years, a period in which China incorporated Taiwan. It sent forces into Tibet.
It conquered much of the Far West, thus giving itself a large Muslim population. There was its own domination within Manchuria, the settlement of the borders with Russia, and the containment of Western, particularly British, French, and other European states’ trade in China. If you come to China from that perspective, the less like the nineteenth century it seems.
The weak period seems more of an aberration. And China in the last twenty–five years or so seems to have been back on that earlier track: tough, pragmatic or sometimes ruthless, sometimes determined to strengthen its hold over its border areas, very watchful about any kind of mass demonstration, extremely watchful about written words that could be critical of the government, extremely cautious about crowds assembling in any way.
Not to give a sort of déjà vu sense, but we’ve been to some of these places before. Let’s not just worry about everything now being so huge. I guess the historian is trying to say, ‘No, it’s not exactly new.’ It hasn’t all been done before, but the broad premise is one we can recognize.
LEACH: Let me just ask you about the geopolitical contrast between the United States and China involving the island of Taiwan. Many people believe this is the one rub in our relations. How do you see this being resolved?
SPENCE: Well, if I knew that, I would be a sage. It’s extraordinarily difficult. We can see when Taiwan began to develop some ties with China through trade in the seventeenth century. We can see how the Dutch tried to make it a base for their empire in the 1620s. We can see how it was slowly incorporated into the Chinese governmental structure after the 1680s, as part of the Qing dynasty’s expansion.
What makes Taiwan so complicated is that it was essentially made over to Japan by the legitimate Qing government in the 1895 treaty settlement after Japan’s victory over China. Taiwan was lost to China and became a colony of the Japanese. And it remained in that colonial status until 1945 with the surrender of Japan.
Then, with startling speed, before it had really developed any of its own potential on its own terms, Taiwan became the staging area for Chiang Kai–shek’s nationalist regime. So Taiwan then became a kind of counterrevolutionary bastion.
Because of the politics involved and the loyalty many people felt to Chiang Kai–shek and the hostility that others felt to Mao and the Communists, Taiwan became the recipient of significant amounts of American aid. Slowly it began to modernize and then develop with remarkable speed once it had undertaken successful land reform.
It became a democratic government in the 1990s and then solidified that with an uneasy, but nevertheless working, balance of forces in the election pattern, between different generations of Taiwanese settlers and the earlier Taiwanese themselves, through links to indigenous populations and links to Japan through some of the educated elites. In terms of international law, this is really a unique situation. People are not meant to ever say that in history.
But it’s amazingly unusual. And exactly what the pros and cons are depends on how long you think a country has to control parts of a border area for that area to be totally integrated into a major player. In this case, what are the economic and political rights the mainland may have to Taiwan?
We have watched this difficult tension. We’ve had the Taiwanese regime under Chen Shui–bian. We’ve had the more Japanese–educated and American–educated regime of Lee Teng–hui before that, and Chiang Kai–shek’s son before that. We have the prosperity of the country itself.
There’s an awful lot going for Taiwan as a domain in its own right. And that’s what we have to try and juggle. So I can’t think of a much harder problem globally. There may be bigger problems in some ways, but this one has so many aspects that, I think, holding on in the way that people are doing so, at the moment, seems to be the most hopeful way.
LEACH: I’d like to end with one final query. Do you think there are fundamental Chinese ideals that Westerners misunderstand?
SPENCE: It’s a crucial question. It’s just very hard to answer. In terms of philosophy and organizational skills and development of moral argument and ideas about governance, China has a rich tradition whether one has any interest in modern China or not.
The research in China now into the roots of its own civilization is intense, and it’s being done by some incredibly good scholars, both of the senior generation going right back to the forties and fifties down to kids in college who are drawn to the fifth– to third–century period of Chinese thinking. That’s BC.
This period shows us Chinese people—intellectuals, writers, poets, and administrators—thinking through the meaning of administrative work, thinking through the nature of rulership, thinking through social problems, looking at education in a deep and complex way, philosophically thinking about the family, thinking about different possibilities for what was often a war–torn and fragmented group of smaller states. There were a great many countries that could claim Chinese values.
Within this body of scholars now there is a fundamental belief in the richness of their own tradition, which gives them a real nationalist pride. And I think that’s justified. This is such a fine scholarly tradition. It is also such a witty one with its Taoist side. It’s a potentially compassionate one with some of its Confucian values.
The state itself is interested in China being perceived as a culturally rich and enriching place.
So the attention given to archaeology in China is one of the fascinating sides that Westerners outside academia don’t know much about. But China is just the busiest place in terms of restructuring the past, recapitulating all of its previous achievements.
It’s just the most ebullient area and a particularly exciting one. We should ourselves, I think, be willing to study the Chinese past along with Chinese scholars.
That seems to be what a lot of our students are getting into as their language gets better. They can work with younger Chinese and begin an exploration of this earlier stage of global civilization that will be maybe helpful or reassuring to both nations.
LEACH: Thank you, sir.
SPENCE: Thank you for your shrewd questions.
When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century
It is just over fifty years since I made my first wobbly attempts to read and write Chinese. Within a few weeks I was hooked completely by the complexity and scope of Chinese history and culture, and since that time I have continued to try and understand what makes this extraordinary civilization so difficult to understand and yet so rewarding. Back in 1959–1960, when I was a student, Mao and his pliant colleagues in the People’s Republic of China were driving the entire country into apparently irreversible programs of fundamental economic transformation, known by the optimistic name of the Great Leap Forward. Now, in 2010, that particular Great Leap has faded from global discourse, and has been replaced by a different type of transformative and explosive economic growth, as China has learned how to marshal its vast potential along new tracks of reconstruction and change. I see this invitation to give the Jefferson Lecture as being an opportunity to present some thoughts concerning an earlier period of Chinese history, one in which concepts of cultural change were very much present. Westerners and Chinese in the late seventeenth century were able to share certain beliefs and priorities that show how the idea of a “Meeting of the Minds” could be a genuine force for exploration and possible change, but also for harmony and adaptation.
The particular meeting of the minds that I am exploring this evening occurred in the 1680s. That was just a century after the pioneering Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (whom the Chinese still refer to by his Chinese name of “Li Madou”) had crossed the border between Macao and China and rented a small house in Guangdong province. As a conversation piece, he placed on the wall a print of a world map made in the West, with the names of the main continents and countries spelled out in the Western alphabet. Some of the Chinese who came to visit were vexed, other were intrigued. It was those Chinese with the greatest interest in getting at the truth who persuaded Ricci to make an enlarged version of the world map with the names identified by Chinese characters, and with the cartography somewhat adjusted so that China was closer to the center of the map, rather than being stuck on the periphery (as had been the case with the original map). In following these Chinese requests, Ricci further revised and enlarged the map with descriptive passages (in Chinese) which gave commercial and political details of many countries in both Europe and East Asia, along with descriptive references to some aspect of the Catholic states, the role of the papacy, and the nature of Chinese relations with its neighbors.
Over the following years, a small but steady stream of missionaries followed Ricci, and even served in Chinese official positions in the bureau of astronomy. A smaller number of Chinese also traveled to Europe during this period, though none left detailed accounts of their experiences. But travelers moving in either direction during the 1680s were aware that there was a tough new emperor on the Chinese throne, on whose orders troops of the newly installed Qing dynasty had consolidated China’s southwest borders, occupied the island of Taiwan and blocked Russian settlers in the north from intruding further into the territories claimed by China along the Amur River.
In England, just to complete this brief summary, the year 1685 marked the accession to the throne of King James II, who boldly identified himself as a Catholic ruler of his largely Protestant subjects. It soon became clear that King James II intended to roll back the anti-Catholic prohibitions so strongly imposed on England by the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell. For those of the Catholic faith in particular, the times were fragile and unpredictable—and citizens of any faith were all too aware of the recent and disastrous Great Plague and Great Fire which had laid waste whole areas of London, including the old St. Paul’s cathedral, no less than eighty-six parish churches, and at least forty-four of the grandest commercial company halls. London’s recovery was steady but also expensive and King James II—trying to rule without Parliament—was soon to be forced from his throne and sent to live in exile in France.
It is a commonplace that the sources that underpin our concept of the humanities, as a focus for thought, are expected to be broadly inclusive. But as a historian I have always been drawn to the apparently small-scale happenings in circumscribed settings, out of which we can tease a more expansive story. Thus I would like to start our search for the meeting of the minds not only in the later seventeenth century, but with a most unassertive source, an apparently simple letter of introduction written by a scholar in England, at Oxford University, dated July 26, 1687. Though the language of the letter is rather formal, even neutral in tone, if we read it carefully we notice that the range of topics covered in a short space is unusual, and can serve as a useful guide to the kinds of issues that in the seventeenth century served to bring people of different ages, races, and backgrounds into a common dialogue.
The writer of this late July letter in 1687 was a historian and linguist named Thomas Hyde, fifty-one years old at the time, a scholar of wide interests, who conducted his researches in a variety of “Oriental” languages, including Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac. In his youth, Hyde had found employment in the “publick library” at Oxford, completing a catalogue of the enormous benefaction later known, from the name of its principle donor Thomas Bodley, as the Bodleian Library. With that project now safely behind him, and the catalogue completed except for the tracking of certain Chinese titles, Hyde felt free to delve more deeply into his own scholarly interests, including the learning of the Chinese language.
The man on whose behalf Thomas Hyde was writing his letter of introduction was a Chinese traveler, called Shen Fuzong, who had arrived in England that March. Shen Fuzong had been born and raised in central China, where his father was a physician, and educated in Chinese by his parents, who were both practicing Christians. At the same time he had been taught Latin (both written and spoken), by Jesuit missionaries stationed in China. Now in his late thirties, Shen had been invited by one of his teachers, the Flemish Jesuit Father Couplet, to join him in what turned out to be an adventurous and protracted journey by land and sea, which took the two men through Southeast Asia and around the Cape of Good Hope to an eventual safe landing in the Netherlands. From there they journeyed to Flanders, Paris, Rome, and Florence, and then returned to Paris again in 1686. After close to a year back in Paris, working on cataloguing Chinese books in the royal library of King Louis XIV, and helping French scholars with problems of translation and exegesis, Shen had left France and come to England in the spring of 1687. England, at that time, was the way-station for ships voyaging to Portugal, and Shen hoped to travel to Portugal so that, while there, he could complete his training for the priesthood, before returning to China to take up full time pastoral work.
As for the intended recipient of the letter of introduction that Hyde was drafting on Shen’s behalf, his name was Robert Boyle. Boyle, aged sixty, resided with his widowed sister in her mansion in the area of London known as Pall Mall, close to the royal palaces of Whitehall and St. James’s. Over the previous thirty years, due to his experimental work in physics and chemistry, Boyle—a founding member of the Royal Society, as well as a man of great wealth and powerful aristocratic connections—had gradually built up a reputation as one of the leading scientists in England. He was particularly celebrated for his work on the compression and expansion of gases, which was to become globally known as “Boyle’s Law.” To catch Boyle’s full attention was no easy task, for he was so inundated with curious visitors that at times he had to withdraw into self-enforced seclusion: Boyle had been known, occasionally, to post advertisements stating that he was no longer available for meetings or, as he phrased it in one of his work journals, that he was driven to “scaping into his study, out of a crowd of extraordinary vaine company of both sexes.” These attempts to find some respite from society were noted by the contemporary diarist and avid gossip John Evelyn, who wrote that Boyle’s visitors grew “sometimes so incomodius, that he now & then repair’d to a private lodging in another quarter of the Towne.” Foreigners provided no respite: travellers to England never “think they had seen any-thing, til they had visited Mr. Boyle,” wrote another observer, adding that Boyle “had so universal an esteeme in foraine parts that not any stranger of note or quality, learned or curious coming into England, but us’d to visite him with the greatest respect and satisfaction.”
Hyde had known Boyle a long time, and his letter showed his deftness in saying just enough to encourage the celebrated scientist to want to learn more. It is worth quoting the letter in full. “Sir,” Hyde began his letter, “The Bearer hereof, the Chinese, hath been with us at Oxford, to make a catalogue of our Chinese books, and to inform us about the subjects of them. We have some of Confucius’s books; but most of what we have is physick. He is extremely well versed in his own language, having studied it many years, and also Confucius’s philosophy, which he doth not praise. He is a very good-natured man, studious and industrious, and sober. His Latin is a little imperfect; but it is well he hath any Latin; for before him there was never but one (who is dead) that understood any Latin. And now this is the only man left. I have made what use of him I could in a few days, losing no time ever since he hath been with me. He tells me, that in his province of Nankin (i.e. the south-court) they have but two months of winter, and very little ice or snow. The temper of the clime is much better than England, only hotter: but about Pekin (or the north-court) it is cold enough. You may make a shift to understand him, though he speaks but imperfectly. He was very desirous to be recommended to your favour and friendship by, Sir, your ever obliged and most humble servant, Thomas Hyde.”
The passages in Hyde’s letter about the weather and the precise durations and gradations of temperature between the north and south of China sound to our ears like a rather bewildering shift of focus, but in fact they signal to us that Hyde knew well (as did any well-educated colleague and friend of Boyle), that Boyle had undertaken a lengthy and detailed study of the nature of coldness, and the reasons for extreme fluctuations of temperature, as part of his lifelong interest in weather and the nature of air. Similarly, the brief description of Shen’s attitudes to the thought of Confucius, and the fact that he was interested without being captivated, showed Boyle that Shen took a median position over the writings of China’s famous sage, whose collected sayings had become a central facet of Chinese life and thought. As edited by later scholars, these words of Confucius (who had lived from 551 to 479 BCE) were central to the competitive examination system that had dominated the scholarly tradition in China across two millennia, and had been memorized and glossed by generations of China’s youth. By completing a careful and accurate translation into Latin of Confucius’s surviving words, the Jesuits hoped not just to find a readership for Confucius in Europe, but also to demonstrate to the papacy and leading Catholic theologians that Chinese thought had a firm and morally strong grounding, on which a project of mass conversion could be based.
The immanent appearance of this translated volume of Confucius’s sayings formed an overarching context to the letter of introduction that Hyde wrote to Boyle. It was one of the four co-editors of this complex translation project, a Jesuit priest named Couplet, who had invited Shen to travel to Europe with him, and see to the final proof-reading, and to the insertion of Chinese written characters at key places in the Latin text, so as to prevent any interpretive mistakes. But publication was no simple matter. A deal with a projected Dutch publisher fell through, nor could anyone with the right resources be found for the project in Rome. But through scholarly contacts in Rome, who linked the translators up with publishers in France, a deal was struck with an influential publisher in Paris, Daniel Horthemels. Horthemels bought the exclusive rights for publication of “The Confucius” (as it was informally termed) from the French King’s usual official intermediary for religious and travel publishing. This meant that Horthemels essentially procured a ten-year monopoly for this Confucian volume, along with the exclusion of all rivals, beginning with the appearance of the first printed copy. In a minor but still very real disappointment for Shen and Couplet, and despite the support of the King’s Library director, funding could not be found for the inclusion in the printed text of the relevant Chinese characters, even though the notation numbers for those characters had already been set in type in the first few chapters of the Latin version. The numbers can still be seen there in the surviving copies of the first edition, mute testimony to the problems of cost over-runs in technical publishing, even when one was backed by the prestige of the King himself.
There seems little doubt that the French King’s Library could have found the money if it had really wanted to, for the account books from the royal library show a payment of four hundred livres (equivalent to as many pounds sterling) payable for services rendered to Couplet and his “Chinois” or Chinese helper, Signor Shen, with further payments totaling five thousand livres being made later in 1687. The first volume of the magisterial edition came off the presses in Paris on May 28 of the year 1687, and just three weeks later, on June 21, the senior editor traveled to the palace at Versailles to hand deliver a copy to the French king, Louis XIV. Initial French reactions were favorable, and the Confucius received a seven page review in the leading intellectual journal, as contrasted with the single page that was dedicated to Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica which came out shortly after. A copy of the beautifully printed Latin version of Confucius was in the Bodleian Library by (or before) the early autumn of 1687, since a contemporary noted at that time that King James II asked Hyde if he had a copy of Confucius in the Bodleian Library, and Hyde replied “yes,” it was already there. But certainly the Bodleian library did not pay at the same level as the French king: the Bodleian’s own account book for this same year shows a payment of just six pounds made to “the Chinese for making Catalogues [of] the Chinese books, for his expenses and his lodgings.”
Hyde mentioned, in his letter introducing Shen to Boyle, that some time previously he had had another Chinese helper, who had since died, but scholars have found no sources to tell us who this person might have been. The sum of six pounds hardly offers a motive for Shen to have left Paris so abruptly for England, and Shen’s departure was a major inconvenience for Couplet, who wrote to a friend that he was sorely missing the skilled help with Chinese language problems that Shen had provided over the previous year. Did Shen perhaps take some advance copies of the proofs of the Confucius work to important contacts in London and Oxford? There is as yet no evidence for this, but certainly the book distribution system was surprisingly efficient and swift in seventeenth century Europe, and an earlier partial translation of a Chinese classical text—also published in Paris—had been specially delivered to both Hyde and Boyle by a scholar in Louis XIV’s library. Could Shen have been sent on a similar kind of errand? We know King James II had not only heard of the book himself, but was well-enough acquainted with the book to know that it had four co-editors, and signaled an important stage in English knowledge of China. It is true that non-Catholic readers in England might have been mortified by the fulsome dedication of the book to King Louis XIV, and the praise it lavished on him for his steadfast battle with the dissenting Protestants in France, not to mention the extended parallels drawn in the book between the ideas on firm governance held by King Louis and Confucius. But we have no proof that Shen was involved in the delivery in any way, especially since, as Hyde mentioned in his letter of introduction, Shen had noted that in the Bodleian library “we have some of Confucius’s books; but most of what we have is physick.” By quoting that sentence, Hyde was neatly hinting at Shen’s knowledge of the worlds of medicine and alchemy, two areas in which Boyle was known to have a deep and abiding interest.
We do know, from an entry that Boyle made in his work diary, that the letter of introduction had its hoped for effect, and that Boyle and Shen did meet and talk. Brief though the surviving evidence may be, the work diary shows us Boyle’s curiosity at work. Boyle reports that he asked Shen—identified simply as “the Chinois I was visited by yesterday”—two sets of questions. The first question for Shen was whether in China the number of Chinese written characters that an educated man needed to know was really as huge as it was rumored to be. Shen replied “that the number of their characters was really incredibly great, & that he himself was master of between 10 and 12 thousand of them.” The second question Boyle asked was how many Chinese people really knew such a range of characters. Shen responded by explaining the differences that distinguished classical Chinese from colloquial. “The language of the Mandarins (or Magistrates)” he told Boyle, “was very different from that of the Common people, & also from that of the clergy, and some of the Literati: insomuch that few understood the mandarins Language, or could make any use of it; tho, for his part, he had made some progress in it.” Boyle and Shen must have had this conversation about language in Latin, since despite Hyde’s cautionary remarks we can tell from Shen’s extant letters that he could read and write Latin comfortably. Boyle, for his part, was widely known to be a talented linguist, and Hyde wrote in a letter to a colleague that “Mr. Boyle besides his skill in the modern Languages, was excellently versed in the reading and speaking of the Latin tongue which I have heard him do to my admiration.” (Oddly enough, in light of all this mutual praise, Hyde’s own skills in the formal writing of Latin were queried by at least one of his scholarly friends.) Since it is probable that Shen did not return to Oxford after his meeting with Boyle—he seems to have been content to keep in touch with Hyde by mail—Shen may have lived for the later summer and fall in London, and have had other conversations with Boyle, though we cannot be sure.
It was probably just coincidence, but the figure of ten to twelve thousand characters being considered necessary to attaining the status of a moderately learned Chinese was very close to the figure of eight to ten thousand characters used by John Webb, in his eccentric but widely read book on Chinese as a universal language, first published in the late 1660s. Webb’s book purported to show “a probability that the language of the empire of China is the primitive language spoken through the whole world before the confusion of Babel.” It was this Chinese “lingua humana” that Webb claimed was spoken by Adam and Eve in Eden and was ultimately passed on to Noah and his descendants. In China, Webb wrote, after the flood, people continued to speak this language, while it was lost in the post-Babel cacophony that spread elsewhere in the world. In a similar vein, a flurry of books appeared in the late 1680s, extolling the complexity and efficiency of China’s government, and finding the roots of its success in a patriarchal system linked to Confucian antecedents. Shen and Boyle were not alone in probing these questions of comprehensive governance.
Though neither Hyde nor Boyle mentioned the fact, sometime during that spring or summer of 1687 Shen Fuzong had his portrait painted. (That is the painting displayed here, both on the program and the tickets.) This was not just a casual venture by an unknown artist: it was a full-length portrait by one of the best-known and most fashionable portraitists of the day, Godfrey Kneller, soon to be knighted and already celebrated as a painter both of the English royal family, and of many leading aristocrats of the day. Kneller portraits did not come cheap, and the painter’s own surviving account books from the time show him receiving between thirty-five and forty pounds sterling for a full-length portrait such as this one. (Three-quarter length and bust length portraits were cheaper, depending on the exact square footage.) According to those who knew Kneller, this was the painting of his of which he was the proudest, and in retrospect it gains additional value as the first detailed portrayal ever made of a Chinese in England. It is startling both in its pose and in its clarity. Shen is shown holding a crucifix in his left hand, and gesturing toward it with his right, even as he looks up and past the viewer to some distant horizon, with his face (beneath a fur hat) and his hands shining in the light of dawn. Shen’s attire is an unusual mixture of styles and fabrics, part Chinese and part Western. He stands on a marble floor, with the view to a distant tropical countryside opening out through the open window behind him. On the lavishly fringed table covering, just touched by the light, is a leather-bound book that we might guess is the newly published Confucius volume, fresh from the Paris press.
Who commissioned this painting, and exactly when and where did Kneller create it? Was it a gift? If so, from whom? Could it have been commissioned by King James II himself? (That is not totally far-fetched, since on one occasion James sent Kneller to make a portrait of King Louis in France.) Or did the idea come from one of the prominent Catholic families, or from the newly appointed papal legate sent to London from Rome? Or from the Jesuit priests who could once again worship openly in post-Reformation England, now that the King, James II, was proclaimed as a Catholic monarch, and was taking the initiative in funding or reestablishing schools, hospitals and beautifully decorated chapels for the Catholic congregations? There were many people eager to salute the King for righting what they believed to be past wrongs, and for seeking to bring Catholics back to many public positions, from posts in the treasury to the masterships and fellowships of Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Was Shen’s portrait, in this particular religious and political context, seen as the symbol of a new dawn for the Catholic faith, of which the mission to China was a manifestation? There seems no doubt that King James took a kind of proprietary interest in the painting and made sure that others knew of the pleasure it gave him. In a visit to Oxford in early September 1687, King James summoned Hyde from his desk in the Bodleian and asked him specifically if he knew this Chinese man, and to tell Hyde that he had Shen’s “picture to the life hanging in his roome, next to the bed chamber.” Hyde told the King that he not only knew Shen but that he personally “learned many things of him.”
Shen’s presence in England intrigued both Hyde and Boyle, but did not intrude in any cumbersome way. For the relationship between Hyde and Boyle went back to the 1660s, and from that time onward they had corresponded at fairly regular intervals. Their letters ranged widely, but the majority of them seem to have focused on problems of language or scientific experiments, due to Hyde’s stated wish to “consult chiefly such authors as have not been perused by Europeans.” They discussed Arabic and Persian texts, Malay grammars and Bible translations into Malay, Dutch translations from the Malay, and how to access books from Tangier, Constantinople and Bombay. Among the many scientific subjects they explored were the chemical constituents of sal ammoniac and amber, the efficacy (or lack of it) in medical diagnoses made from measuring the pulse, the effectiveness of certain Mexican herbs, rare plant seeds, the properties of vinegar and nitre, current studies of human blood and air, the nature of papyrus, the writings of Ramon Llull and the use of elixirs and alchemy. Hyde was familiar with at least some of the problems caused by alchemical experiments, especially those of two of his acquaintances who had developed a “gnawing in their stomach and guts,” probably the result of ingesting too much “sweet mercury.” But if it had been Hyde’s goal fully to fathom Boyle’s alchemical experiments and writings, the difficulties in his way would have been strong indeed. Historians have recently found that in describing his alchemical researches Boyle used a complex variety of codes, including four basic “encoding services” involving name, word, letter and numerical substitutions, supplemented by language alternations—for instance replacing English and Latin with Greek and Hebrew, inventing his own unique words, or employing the form of letter matrix known as the “Polybius Square.”
For some of their letters Hyde, Boyle, and Shen could use the newly established English “penny post,” which enabled mail from Oxford to reach London in less than a day. For bulkier or heavy objects, such as book proofs or samples, they could continue to use the tried and true services of “Mr. Moor’s Waggon” to drop off packages at Moor’s own ware-house adjacent to the Saracen’s Head in Newgate, or with a “Mr. Bartlett at the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane.” More prosaically, many of Hyde’s letters to Boyle included urgent pleas for money or for preferment, either for truly desperate souls like the recently bereaved printer of the Malay New Testament with five children, who faced starvation for his whole family due to their pay being so long in arrears, or for Hyde himself and his friends. Other major gifts from Boyle included “a noble award” to the scholar who translated Grotius into Arabic, which “he took care to order to be scattered in all the countries where that language is understood;” a further gift went to the Turkish translators of the New Testament, to the translators of Irish and Welsh bibles, and 300 pounds for “propagating the Christian Religion in America,” along with other sums to “the praying Indians” for printing “a small primmer and Cattachisme in their language.” Boyle seems to have been unabashedly generous, and Hyde was just one of his many beneficiaries.
Hyde sometimes shared his thoughts about language and language study with both Boyle and Shen. For instance, in a letter to Boyle from Oxford dated “Easter Tuesday, 1677,” about an unusually obscure Arabic text, Hyde toyed with the idea (held by some of his acquaintance) that the text had been coded in some way “under disguised names,” only to reject the suggestion with the argument that the text concerned was nothing but “mere superstition and enchantment.” But in trying to be fair to the text, which could be traced back to an Arabic thirteenth-century alchemist, Hyde reflected that even the most obscure writings might carry some useful truths. Thus, he wrote to Boyle, “there are in the book many odd words proper to the author’s own country and dialect, which are not to be found in any dictionary. But towards the end of this summer, I look for two men, who are natives of those parts, who perhaps may unriddle the hard words for me.” Developing that idea, Hyde continued: “It were to be wished, that we had in Oxford a college for the maintenance of some able men out of the several eastern countries; it would be a great help to all eastern learning: …such eastern men being amongst us, would enable us to be so accustomed to the true and genuine pronunciation of those languages, that so our emissaries might be enabled to discourse readily with the natives; for book learning alone will not do it. And therefore I, for my own both benefit and pleasure, do catch at all opportunities of discoursing with the natives of those countries in their own languages.”
It was surely in this spirit that, as soon as he heard the news of Shen’s arrival in London, Hyde conceived the idea of inviting him to Oxford. The ostensible reason was to complete the cataloguing of the Chinese books in the Bodleian, as Hyde mentioned to Boyle in the letter of introduction, but at the same time Hyde sought to gauge whether Shen’s skills in working with Chinese language were good enough for him to undertake more demanding tasks, and for this reason (one might guess) Hyde asked Shen to gloss the meanings and pronunciations of two Chinese characters. We do not have the full text of Hyde’s original invitation letter to Shen, but we do have Shen’s Latin reply, dated London, 25 May, 1687, in which he writes to “the most renowned and learned” Hyde that he has received Hyde’s letter along with an enclosure of the two Chinese characters that Hyde wanted him to gloss and translate, and that “if time permits I will come and enjoy the company of your esteemed self, whose Library is the font of enduring knowledge.” Shen signed his letter in the romanized form, “Michael Shin fo cum,” and at the same time gave Hyde the Chinese characters for his entire name.
A number of sub-channels flowed together into this intellectually rich main stream, but one key reason for Hyde’s eagerness to get together with Shen was not only Hyde’s wish to finish cataloguing the Chinese titles in the Bodleian collection, but also the fact that Hyde’s current major preoccupation was completing a comprehensive history and analysis of the game of chess. Hyde undertook this study of chess not only for its own sake as an intellectual adventure, but as part of a major analysis of board games in general. During his various researches, Hyde had grown convinced that the game of chess could teach us not just the game itself, but also could illuminate a country’s military strategy and broader comparative history. Several years before Shen’s arrival in England, Hyde had finished the bulk of the task, reading voraciously in earlier chess histories, and exploring European, Hebrew, Old English, Persian, Indian and other versions, as well as seeking Russian and Irish leads. But Hyde’s writings on Chinese chess, prior to Shen’s arrival in England, had been entirely drawn from a few random comments that happened to appear in published Jesuit memoirs concerning China. What Shen could—and did—give to Hyde was an overarching analysis of the sixty-four square board game of chess as it played out in Chinese, along with the names of the pieces and the shape of the moves that each piece was allowed to make. Shen also discussed a number of other Chinese board games, including “Weiqi” or “Go,” along with many others. Hyde was lavish in his praise of Shen’s contributions to his chess study, giving Shen elaborate thanks in the printed introduction to his finished opus, along with some discussion of Shen’s family background and education, and calling the Chinese visitor indispensible to the project as a whole. Hyde referred to Shen, in these encomia, as “my Chinese,” “our Chinese,” or “My dearest friend,” and praised him as a true collaborator and key “informant on all matters Chinese.” Hyde noted Shen’s abilities in Latin, the breadth of his knowledge of the sciences, and his shrewd evaluations of China; and Hyde acknowledged that in the case of “all the Chinese games which are mentioned in this book, it was [Shen] who gave me the glosses and the descriptions, and wrote out the Chinese characters with his own hand.” Hyde added: “Languages are the keys to all things, without which we can never reach to the things themselves.”
Despite the fulfilling work with Hyde, Shen did not lose sight of his larger goal, which was to proceed to Portugal and finish his preparation for service with the Jesuits in the Far East. Shen left Oxford, carrying his letter of introduction, in late July 1687, and we have seen that he met with Boyle in London as planned. How firmly was he integrated into Boyle’s intellectual and social orbit? It is hard to be precise, but thanks to a diary entry on February 10, 1688, written by the powerful politician the Earl of Clarendon, a close friend of Boyle’s, we can place Shen at a dinner party on that day, hosted by Clarendon. Besides Shen, there were two other guests: one of them was a famous dealer in foreign books (who often acquired rare titles for Boyle), and the other was the same Father Couplet who several years before had persuaded Shen to leave China with him and travel to Europe with the translated Confucius text. After the dinner, Clarendon served his guests tea, (still a costly rarity in England), which Couplet claimed “was really as good as any he had drank [sic] in China.”
During late 1687 and early 1688, Shen continued to collaborate with Hyde by mail, broadening Hyde’s Chinese vocabulary, and conducting far-ranging discussions over such technical matters as the precise dimensions of China’s units of weights and measures—a topic which would also have been of considerable interest to Boyle with his passion for precise calculations. Shen also sent Hyde a chart of the workings of the Chinese examination system and bureaucracy, along with a sketch of the so-called “Tribute system” by which China classified foreigners. In addition, Shen sent to Hyde a list of the Chinese words used to classify different types of Chinese temples, along with a brief description of the Chinese Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls. But such diversions were only temporary in Shen’s planning. Back in October 1687 Shen had already applied for, and received, the necessary English departure papers for his journey to Portugal, and in the spring of 1688 he set sail, just before King James II was driven from his throne to permanent exile in France by his anti-Catholic political and religious enemies.
By the time Hyde’s book on chess was published, at Oxford in 1694, complete with its praise of Shen’s contributions, Shen himself had died, in September 1691, before he could return to his home in China, of a shipboard fever he contracted near Mozambique. Boyle, who had long been ailing, died in that same year as Shen. When one of the memorial speakers at Boyle’s funeral asked Hyde if he had any last thoughts on his friend, Hyde replied yes, he had one thought to share. Boyle had told him that, whenever he went to English church services, he always carried with him a volume of the relevant scriptures either in Greek or in Hebrew. That way, Boyle told Hyde, he “alwaies had in his hand the original, wondering to heare our English translation so different from it.” Shen, like Hyde, would have known just what larger point about cultural interchange Boyle was making; for all three men, though so different, shared certain basic ideas about human knowledge: these included, but were not limited to, the importance of linguistic precision, the need for broad-based comparative studies, the role of clarity in argument, the need for thorough scrutiny of philosophical and theological principles, boldness of explication, and clarity. Theirs, though brief, had been a real meeting of the minds. And the values they shared remain, well over three hundred years later, the kind that we can seek to practice even in our own hurried lives.
(I owe special thanks to those who have explored aspects of this story: these include Theodore Foss, David Mungello, Noel Golvers, Nicholas Dew, John Witek S.J., Michael Hunter, Nicolas Standaert, William Poole, Steve Pincus, Jessica Hanser, Victor Keats, Han Qi, and the staffs of the Beinecke Rare Book Library and the Yale Center for British art. JDS)