NEH Statement on the Death of Jonathan Spence

Jonathan Spence
Photo caption

Jonathan Spence delivered the 39th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 2010.

—Photo by Richard Frasier

(December 30, 2021)

With sadness, the National Endowment for the Humanities notes the death of Jonathan Spence, the British-born scholar of modern China, prolific author, and long-serving professor at Yale University. In 2010, Spence delivered the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the highest honor in the humanities bestowed by the United States government. He was also the recipient of four separate grants from NEH, three of which were education grants in support of programs for college faculty involved in the teaching of Chinese history and helping to otherwise improve the quality of instruction in this important subject.

Spence has been credited with reaching more American readers of Chinese history than any other writer. At Yale, he lectured to packed rooms, while off campus his writing reached broad audiences through finely written books such as The Death of Woman Wang and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. He was the opposite of glib. In his application for the NEH grant he ended up receiving in 1977, he promised that “a conscious attempt will be made to prevent convenient historical markers from becoming conceptual barriers.” Yet he was also a gifted stylist. Spence wrote poetry and parodies as a student at Cambridge, but his later writing, rich in elegant prose and narrative detail, reflected his long familiarity with great history writing on at least two continents.

His intellectual distinction did not go unrecognized. Spence was the recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and several honorary degrees. He was appointed to the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress and was a member of the American Philosophical Society and a corresponding member of the British Academy. In 1993, he was named a Sterling Professor of History at Yale. His 1990 history of modern China from the last days of the Ming Dynasty forward, The Search for Modern China, was a New York Times best-seller and remains a standard text in Chinese history courses.

In a statement, NEH Acting Chair Adam Wolfson said, “Jonathan Spence was special. His life and work illustrated how far the humanities can take us. A young British scholar visiting the United States, he happened onto the study of China and began a journey that took him inside Chinese archives never seen before by Western eyes, then to the heights of his scholarly discipline and profession as a teacher, and even led him to become, in 2000, an American citizen. He taught us not only about a faraway country, a great feat in its own right, but also how we as Westerners have perceived and sometimes misunderstood China.”

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