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.

Jonathan Spence has also pursued a lively interest in the intellectuals of the twentieth century in China. In The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980 he follows the writings and translates the poetry of three major figures among China’s new intelligentsia. The broad range and the meticulous research in these studies are clearly those of a major historian.

One strength of The Search for Modern China is its scope of four centuries, from 1600 to the present. Spence’s background in seventeenth-century history makes it natural for him to begin with the decline and fall of the Chinese Ming dynasty in the early seventeenth century. This puts the Chinese Communist revolution of the twentieth century into the broader historical perspective that it needs. The fall of the Ming in 1644 finds certain echoes in the fall of the Ch’ing in 1911, or even the fall of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in the 1940s. Similarly the Manchu conquest of China after 1644 can be compared with Japan’s attempted conquest by the same route in 1931–1945. The Manchus’ buildup of a government on the periphery of China north of the Wall before their sudden takeover finds an echo in the Chinese Communists building their Border Region Government in North China between 1937 and 1945, preparatory to their winning the civil war in 1949. Thus we arrive at the 1990s with a variety of historical examples of how the rulers of China have come and gone.

By starting at the year 1600 Spence enables us to broaden our perspective on the nineteenth-century invasion of China by the Western powers. We find, for example, that the modernization of China really got started when the Manchus and British, both non-Chinese invaders, finally got together in the 1860s and cooperated in fostering foreign trade. By adding the Manchu government of China as the first player in the process, The Search for Modern China upsets both the Victorian view of British progress, single-handedly bringing China into modern times, and the subsequent Marxist-Leninist view of communism as the only method for doing the job.


Spence’s twenty-five chapters are divided among five sections, each section opening with a clear summary of its central points. The first section, “Conquest and Consolidation,” is an account of the decline of the native Chinese dynasty of the Ming in the early seventeenth century and the rise of the Manchu state on the Ming northern frontier in Manchuria. When a tiny striking force of perhaps 150,000 warriors, representing two or three million Manchus, succeeded in taking over a Chinese empire of more than 100 million people, this was nothing new in Chinese history. The Manchus’ ancestors, the Jürchen, had taken over North China between 1115 and 1234 and the Mongols ruled all of China from 1279 to 1368. Of course they did so in each case with Chinese help. The Manchu contribution, in addition to fierce fighting, was a unified central leadership that specialized in seizing and holding power. The three strongest Manchu emperors provided unbroken command for 133 years.

The second section, “Fragmentation and Reform,” follows the Manchu dynasty through its last century, when the intrusion of the West marked by the Opium War of 1840 and the great internal rebellions of midcentury revealed the Chinese weaknesses when confronting the West. The Manchu emperor was unable to keep out the opium trade or stop the foreign gunboats that demanded equal diplomatic and commercial relations. The dynasty had a “Restoration” and was saved for its last half century; but this happened only after it yielded to the British and French in 1860 and got their cooperation in suppressing the rebellions and beginning “Westernization” as the first phase of modernization.

Spence’s account of the end of the dynasty in 1911 is followed by the section “Envisioning State and Society,” which really concerns the Chinese effort to accept aspects of Western culture while combatting warlordism and seeking the reunification of China. This includes the period of liberal searching for China’s way forward before 1949. Part of the problem for Chinese society was to create a new elite that could lead the peasant masses into political life. In the 1930s and 1940s the Western-educated, modern-minded scholars, Spence suggests, could not reach the villages until Mao Zedong showed the way.

There follows the section “War and Revolution,” in which Spence describes the Japanese invasion of 1937, the decline of the Nationalist government under the Guomindang party dictatorship, and the conquest of power by the Chinese Communist party. In this section he also recounts the vicissitudes of the People’s Republic under Chairman Mao Zedong, including the vast political campaigns that convulsed China in the early 1950s, the large numbers of people killed or allowed to starve to death, the incessant struggles over the Party line and shifts of policy. The successes, such as they were, and the stupidities and shortcomings wound up in the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and the chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The final section, “Living in the World,” begins with the opening of the door to America and the non-Communist world during the Nixon administration, and goes on to discuss the gradual recovery from the Cultural Revolution’s disasters, and the efforts under Deng Xiaoping to bring about economic reform without accepting political change, a refusal confirmed by the events of June 1989, with which the book ends.

Professor Spence’s treatment of these four hundred years deftly embodies the results of a great deal of recent monographic study by Sinologists throughout the world. The text draws together these insights and new accounts of events but the process is given coherence by the fact that Professor Spence himself, as a humanist concerned with the particular impressions and motives of different people, has time after time worked his way down to the documentary ground floor of history. As a writer of great literary skill, he constructs a narrative that leaves out inconsequential names and details while conveying the mood of the times and the concerns of both the Chinese elite and the public. The biographical vignettes make the people understandable, and the sweep of the narrative prose makes the reader want to know what will happen next.

Spence also draws attention to parallels and contrasts in earlier and later events. For example, the Manchus, the Japanese, and the Communists each in their day used the Northeast (Manchuria) as a base for their invasion of North China through the pass at Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea north of Tianjin. As a historian dedicated to representing past realities and situations, Spence does not and indeed cannot take the space for broad speculations. Readers will find many themes that call for further exploration, for example on the ways the Chinese governments have used violence to hold power. In this sense, The Search for Modern China can be expected to suggest themes for further work.


It is a queer creature whose history Mr. Spence is depicting, a state that now tries to govern more than a billion people and consequently is most concerned with holding on to power and calling it a concern with unity. Over three thousand years this state, which in about AD 1000 was the most advanced in human civilization, created a co-dominion between power holders and administrators, between emperors selected by family dynasties and bureaucrats selected by civil service examinations.

The Chinese distinguished the functions of these co-rulers as wen (literary, cultured, civilian, morally persuasive) and wu (violent, military). The practitioners of wen propagated Confucius’ teachings of social order that enjoined the emperors to rule by their virtuous example. The emperors, practicing wu, regularly killed everyone who threatened their power, or seemed to threaten it, or might threaten it. The contemporary Chinese historians, who were naturally part of the wen contingent, usually constructed the record to show how the emperor’s wu-ness had really contributed to his wen-ness after all. It is in these terms that propagandists in Beijing tell us today how Deng Xiaoping had to kill the student demonstrators last June in order to save the Chinese people from counterrevolutionary chaos. He had to do it because the Party autocracy was threatened. This line of thought is of course not easy for us to follow. One has to be wu-minded.

In writing his history Mr. Spence, not having the hit-and-run privilege accorded a reviewer, has dutifully summarized the monographs of many writers and analyzed the rhetoric that major Chinese leaders used to justify their policies, including even the fatuities of Mao’s successor, the ineffable Hua Guofeng. By covering the subject in this way Spence has given us a reliable record of events and the motives that inspired them. His sympathy and literary skill make the Chinese people’s experience seem very human, even if grim and regrettable. Mr. Spence leads us so intimately into the lives of his historical figures, with such telling tales of personality and circumstance, that he gives us the sense of immediacy, of almost personal contact with the subject, that we find in the best works of history. He is well aware of the cultural differences between China and America and does not leave them out of account. Nevertheless the dimension of cultural difference seems to me underplayed in the picture he presents. Two examples can serve as illustrations—one social, the active subjection of women, and one political, the ruler’s customary right to kill those who threaten his power.

When my wife and I lived in Beijing in the early 1930s we soon became accustomed to three evils of that time. The first was our pleasant privilege of extraterritoriality, by which we were under the jurisdiction of our own consul. The Chinese police could not touch us. The second was the overabundance of cheap manpower, an unresolved social evil today. If our ricksha coolie who trotted about the streets with us developed too much of a cough, especially with blood in his sputum, he could always find us a willing substitute who would do equally well. Third, as we traveled about the countryside in North China we never came upon a farm woman over twenty-five who did not have bound feet.

Mr. Spence of course mentions footbinding and its cessation as part of his continual interest in recording the emancipation of Chinese women; but neither he nor the brilliant social historians who are today analyzing the old China do more than mention footbinding in passing, as a painful custom, without going into detail. In fact the deforming of a girl’s feet during her formative years of growth from six to ten or twelve was a horrible process. It took several months for the relentless pressure of the binding cloths to break the arch of the foot and force it upward in a bow so that the flat of the heel and the ball of the foot which had formerly been horizontal would both become perpendicular, facing each other, in the artfully produced golden lily of three or four inches. This excruciating practice, which darkened the lives of probably more than half of the women in China in recent centuries, is today generally ignored. No doubt we China specialists love our China and hate to make it seem sordid. Only this, I think, can account for the neglect of a social custom carried out by women upon women ostensibly to please the men but with incalculable psychic consequences. Once your feet were bound they were with you night and day, a source of pain and weakness impossible to eliminate and constant proof of your inferiority.

Even today when a child is born in an impoverished family the bucket of water is kept handy and a female infant’s birth cries may be her last as she is dropped into the bucket. During the campaign for one child per family there were compulsory abortions. In general in the hard circumstances of Chinese overpopulation there has been no concern for the fetus as having the claim of a human being either legally, morally, or sentimentally.

The imperial autocracy, an institution persisting through the Ming, Ch’ing, Republican, and People’s Republic eras, is another subject in which cultural differences with other societies are often smoothed over. The old emperors of China did not rule under God but were in a godlike position themselves, objects of a religious cult of veneration and the fervent loyalty of their followers. Their government was personal and not under law, they were supported by the Confucian doctrine that human talent is the essential ingredient for government, not institutional procedures. There was no concept of “due process” in China. From the earliest times the emperor answered to no one but history, in the sense that he might be thrown out by rebellion but otherwise could do whatever seemed necessary to preserve his power. The result was a long tradition of the imperial elimination of officials as well as commoners. A leading general who lost a battle might lose his head thereafter. High officials who enjoyed the glory and considerable perquisites of their position were always in danger of sudden imperial wrath and beheading. In recent centuries the treatment of such people might be softened so that instead of being executed they would merely lose rank and status and be transported to the wild frontier.

Spence does not go into it very far, but the custom by which the imperial autocrats killed off rivals for power has brought the Chinese people continual disaster. For example, the Manchu Empress Dowager came into power in 1860 by executing Manchu rivals; she then preserved her regency when her son the boy Emperor Tongzhi died from “dissipation” before reaching maturity. She made her young nephew, also a minor, his successor but when this Emperor Guangxu finally began to reign and espoused reform, the Empress Dowager put him under arrest and executed six of his advisers. It is now generally accepted that just before she finally died in 1908 the Empress Dowager had the Emperor Gangxu murdered. At any rate he died the day before she did.

Suppose the emperor had resumed power. With his deserved reputation as a reformer, Guangxu might well have brought about a constructive transition from Manchu autocracy to constitutional monarchy. As it was, the Empress Dowager left power in the hands of a purblind, weak, and corrupt nonentity as regent for a three-year-old, and ensured disaster.

Again, Yuan Shi-kai, the strongman president of the new Republic, knew no way to govern but as an imperial autocrat. When the organizer of the Guomindang (GMD or Nationalist party) was about to set up control of the parliament in 1913, the president, through his prime minister, had him assassinated. Nobody could really object. It was the ruler’s prerogative. Once the substitute for dynastic autocracy was found in party dictatorship, and the GMD and Communist party dictatorships became rivals in 1927, their assassinations, often of liberals, were well organized. The Tiananmen massacre of last June 4 was not unusual except for its size and TV coverage.

From such a record the reader may be confirmed in the thought that Chinese politics are institutionally different from our own. The poignancy of the long Chinese struggle for democracy comes from the fact that it has usually been hopeless, so easily checked or subverted. The central contradiction of today is that the modern Chinese intellectuals who respond so warmly to ideals of the democratic West are at the same time caught in the institutional arrangements inherited by the Chinese state. These institutional practices make the scholar of modern times still dependent upon the state for his education and appointment to an offical position. Chinese students of today are thus the inheritors of the position of the Confucian scholar-officials of the imperial era. Meanwhile the artists and writers and in some cases the scientists of today are a new element for whom the atavistic Communist leadership has little use. They are not primarily concerned with loyalty to the ruler and service in government. They represent the Western tide of democratic individualism but their status and function in China has not yet been institutionalized and they lack the security of their counterparts in democratic lands. This is to say, in other words, that a civil society has not yet been established on the ruins of the Chinese empire.

Civil society, as the pluralistic democratic achievement of the European and American democracies, is separate from the state and not under government domination except as arranged by law. Thus it requires a government of laws, not of men, and such aspects of pluralism as a separation between Church and State and between political parties and the government proper. The concept of civil society has been specifically denied in Islam, in states under Communist party dictatorships, and, not least, in the Chinese political tradition.

Some in modern China since the eighteenth century have strived toward a strengthening of civil functions by non-government persons and agencies with a view to the eventual creation of civil society. Jonathan Spence remarks in his preface, referring in particular to 1644, 1911, 1949, and 1989,

We can see how often the Chinese people, operating in difficult or even desperate circumstances, seized their own fate and threw themselves against the power of the state.

Yet in each case it proved impossible to achieve a civil society separate from the state and its bureaucracy. No legal safeguards for human rights and civil liberties could be set up in a government where the men holding power were above any law. For them the great imperative was to maintain their grip on power. Mao Zedong was a gifted leader who began with high ideals, but after about 1957 he penalized the intellectuals, let millions die of malnutrition, and acquiesced in the harassing to death of many close comrades. He became a monstrous tyrant whose place in history is with Hitler and Stalin. Mao, like Deng today, had inherited the role of China’s imperial autocrat.

This autocracy as a point of Chinese cultural distinctiveness is of course surrounded by a host of interconnected characteristics of social structure and values—like the bureaucrat’s need for a superior authority, the patriot’s search for a personal object of loyalty, or the common people’s acquiescence in the ruler’s violence in support of order. China’s culture of today, despite the inflow of foreign influences, retains its identifiable shape and interacting elements. How can the historian take it all into account?

The narrative historian looking at China from a different cultural perspective has to skate fast on thin ice. How can he stop to wonder if bound feet made women more suicidal, if eldest sons’ prerogatives made them more demanding of “face,” if a Confucian-minded stress on moral principle made leaders less able to compromise? The complexities are endless and if Mr. Spence had pursued them all he would never have finished his book. He leaves us with homework to do.

China historians must face unhappy questions implied by the record of Maoist politics since 1949: Was the old Confucian philosophers’ government by virtuous example in fact a government more largely by brutal intimidation? In the course of a hundred generations had dissident critics of official conduct been so regularly extirpated that the Chinese people had learned to accept cowardice and hypocrisy as the price of survival? Did the vindictive cruelty of the Cultural Revolution and other campaigns reflect the harsh experience of the peasants who had been mistreated for centuries and knew only how to strike blindly at any alleged enemy? Within the Chinese people’s supreme achievements in art, literature, the aesthetics and politesse of cultured life, does there lurk a black strain of destructive evil of the sort that took hold in Nazi Germany and has surfaced from time to time among most peoples? Mr. Spence’s eloquent account raises such questions. The answers are still to be worked out.

Errors seem few. On page 479 the Office of Strategic Services was not part of the US Army but the forerunner of the CIA. I have found only one egregious error that demands correction. Mr. Spence refers three times to a Foreign Customs Service, a name he must have invented because I have never seen it in print before. The Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, to be sure, had a foreign staff at the top level and was known in its early days as the Foreign Inspectorate of Customs. It was a product of synarchy but always an arm of the Chinese government. (As a matter of fact I wrote my Oxford dissertation on the origin of the Foreign Inspectorate and so Mr. Spence’s neologism ought to be of concern to me, if to no one else.)

In Search of Modern China will give its readers a new appreciation of America’s China problem and, more important, the Chinese people’s problems.

This Issue

May 31, 1990