Jonathan Spence is Professor of History Emeritus at Yale. Among his books are The Death of Woman Wang, Treason by the Book, The Question of Hu, and The Search for Modern China.

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?

A studio portrait of Pamela Werner, who was murdered in Peking in 1937
An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the city seven months later.) The …

A Master in the Shadows

Fu Baoshi: Prague Castle, 1957
How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? …

The Ball and the World

‘Swimming Reindeer’; carved from mammoth tusk, 8 inches long, found in Montastruc, France, 11,000 BC
There are no fixed rules for writing a history of the world. Unless one is tied to some text-bound pattern of belief, each of us can open the global story pretty much where we wish: by conjuring up a tiny speck in galactic time, by evoking primal creatures of the …

Kissinger and China

Henry Kissinger with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, Beijing, February 1973
It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a half millennia, and to bring China’s past full circle in order to illuminate the present. In form, the book is highly idiosyncratic, for it is not exactly a memoir, or a monograph, or an autobiography; rather it is part reminiscence, part reflection, part history, and part intuitive exploration.

Recharging Chinese Art

Detail of a mural from Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service) in the Qianlong Garden, Forbidden City, by Wang Youxue and assistants, eighteenth century
Retirement was not usually a concept of pressing concern to Chinese emperors. Succession and survival were normally quite enough to keep them occupied, and death—when it came—was often unexpected and frequently brutal. But Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from 1736 to 1795 CE, was unusual in his willingness to plan for …

The Question of Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck, circa 1932
The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer in …

The Triumph of Madame Chiang

Madame Chiang at a celebration held in her honor at the Hollywood Bowl, April 4, 1943. The flowers she is holding were given to her by Mary Pickford, who can be seen in the background on the right.
Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, …

Specters of a Chinese Master

Luo Ping: Portrait of Mr. Dongxin [Jin Nong] (detail), circa 1760s
Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked …

The Enigma of Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-Shek And Mao Zedong
Back in 1975, when he died in Taiwan at the age of eighty-seven, it was easy to see Chiang Kai-shek as a failure, as a piece of Chinese flotsam left awkwardly drifting in the wake of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary victories. Now it is not easy to be so sure. In …

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Beijing, 1956
Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out as elegant, courteous, even courtly; and with his …

The Passions of Joseph Needham

It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally consistent. Most have …

The Dream of Catholic China

From the later sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, the Jesuit educational system was the most rigorous and effective in Europe. As one senior Jesuit wrote proudly in 1647, each Jesuit college was a “Trojan horse filled with soldiers from heaven, which every year produces conquistadors of souls.” …

China’s Great Terror

Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own solutions. On March 18, …

Portrait of a Monster

It is close to seventy years since Edgar Snow, an ambitious, radical, and eager young American journalist, received word from contacts in the Chinese Communist Party that he would be welcome in the Communists’ northwest base area of Bao-an. Traveling there by train, by truck, on foot, and finally on …

Chiang’s Monster

During the late 1930s and World War II, it was common to call Dai Li “China’s Himmler,” as if Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police and intelligence chief during that period performed functions similar to the head of the Gestapo and the SS under Hitler. But as becomes clear after reading Frederic …

The Whole World in Their Hands

Writing a history of the world is surely one of the greatest challenges a historian faces. The problems are formidable: there must be erudition, it goes without saying, but there must also be a rigorous selection of material, a persuasive structure, stylistic vigor to guide the reader over such vast …

The Shogun’s Favorite Brit

One of the defining battles in Japanese history was fought in late October 1600, in a narrow defile between ranges of steep hills, just outside the village of Sekigahara. The stakes were nothing less than the de facto control of the entire country, and came as the climax to decades …

Kissinger & the Emperor

From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers of human words to affect the onrushing course of events. Successful examples of bargaining, …

Goodfellas in Shanghai

Just over two thousand years ago, China’s first great historian, Sima Qian, decided to include a chapter on assassins in his long history of his newly united homeland. He chose five men as representative examples of those who had tried to kill Chinese leaders, and he explained the reasoning behind …

What Confucius Said

The first Western-language version of Confucius’ sayings—later known as the Analects—was published in Paris in 1687, in Latin, under the title Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, with a brief dedication to King Louis XIV, thanking him for supporting the publication. One of the Jesuit editors of the book, Philippe Couplet, recently returned …

The Risks of Witness

With this, the third book that Harry Wu has published about China’s forced-labor prison camp system, we can see that he has been moving on a discernible trajectory, one that has taken him from the world of reality to the world of appearance. In this, we might observe, he seems …

In China’s Gulag

Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship between life in the Soviet penal colonies and …

The Underground War for Shanghai

During the night of November 21–22, 1928 a steamer moored at the docks in the Chinese section of Shanghai, and a group of harbor coolies, flanked by a squad of thirty armed guards, began to unload chests onto the dock. Alerted by a tip some weeks before that the chests …

Remembrance of Ming’s Past

Let’s start with a domestic tiff, Ming dynasty style: Two months or so had now passed since Li P’ing-erh brought Chiang Chu-shan across her threshold in wedlock. Initially, out of his desire to please her, Chiang Chu-shan had concocted various aphrodisiacs. He had even bought some “Yunnanese ticklers,” “ladies’ delights,” …

Where the East Begins

Between 1965 and 1977, Donald Lach published the first two volumes of his Asia in the Making of Europe, an illuminating and erudite survey of the various ways that Asia has affected scholarship, literature, and the visual arts in the West. Beginning with a survey of the first glimmers of …

The Chinese Miracle?

Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of the past, yearning to host the Olympics in the …