From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping

The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence
Norton, 876 pp., $29.95

Jonathan D. Spence
Jonathan D. Spence; drawing by David Levine

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 Ph.D. 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.

At a time when most of us were still looking at China’s nineteenth-century foreign relations, Jonathan Spence studied the Manchu rulers of China in the seventeenth century. His first book was Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master. Now, a quarter-century later, Mr. Spence has published an overall account, The Search for Modern China, which will remain unrivaled for a generation to come. Mary Wright died at the age of fifty-two in 1970, but her brightest student has fulfilled her hopes.

The Search for Modern China is a big book of 876 pages, beautifully produced with two hundred black-and-white illustrations, several quite rare, and twenty-five of them in color, and with forty-five excellent maps. In addition to useful notes there is a twenty-three-page bibliography of “further readings.” Section headings include fine examples of several types of calligraphy.

Of the several extraordinary things about this book, the first is Jonathan Spence’s preparation for writing it. The half dozen books, large and small, that he has published since his dissertation have been on several subjects. One is the mind of the K’ang-hsi emperor, which is explored in passages from his pronouncements (Emperor of China: Self-portrait of K’ang-hsi). Another, The Death of Woman Wang, concerns the life of the common people. Another short book is on Western advisers in China from 1620 to 1960, recounted in biographical vignettes. In his highly imaginative account, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence first analyzes the education of the great pioneer missionary at Macerata and in the Jesuit order, and then reconstructs the memory palace that the famous Ricci might have used to dazzle his Chinese audiences. So creative is the reconstruction that the minds of Ricci and Spence seem to coalesce. Spence’s previous book was The Question of Hu, a carefully researched portrait of a cantankerous Chinese scholar in Paris of the 1720s who dealt with stagecoach timetables, police inspectors, and the insane asylum.


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