I was saddened to read this morning of the death of Jonathan Spence, Yale professor and author of some of my favorite books about Chinese history. Like so many others, I was introduced to the world of Chinese history by his book The Search for Modern China, published in 1991. During my stint in China in the 1980s, I had read several books about the more recent history, but this book started further back, in the 1600s, and thus put the events of the 20th century into context.
The USA Today article about his death had this to say about him and the book:
The recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, a Los Angeles Times book prize and numerous other honors, Spence wrote more than a dozen books on China, along with reviews, essays and lectures. He was best known for “The Search for Modern China,” an 870-page publication that began in the 17th century, at the peak of the Ming dynasty, and continued through the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
As suggested by the book’s title, Spence approached China as if writing a detective story, deciphering for Western readers one of the world’s largest, most populous and complex countries. Drawing upon scores of previous books and original papers, he documented China’s history of extreme upheavals and lasting traditions. He noted the “patterns of generational deference and concepts of obligation” and the rebellions designed to shatter them, whether the sacking of Beijing in 1644, the 1911 fall of the last emperor or the Communist triumph of the late 1940s.
Whenever I give lectures on Chinese history, I normally tell people to “just read anything and everything by Jonathan Spence you can find. It will be time well spent.”
That said, here are my other two favorites:
Spence tells the story of 5 westerners who went to China in the late 1800s and early 1900s to do their part in helping China enter the modern world. They all arrived with the intent of changing China but were eventually chewed up and spit out by a thousand-year-old culture. It is an important cautionary tale for westerners working in China today.
This book tells the story of Hong Xuquan, a mid-19th century drifter who becomes convinced he is Jesus’ younger brother. Convinced that God has called him to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, he launches the Taiping Rebellion, which kills 20 million people.