In the first week of November 1728, China’s Emperor Yongzheng (who reigned between 1723 and 1735) ruled over something like 200 million people and the vast territory that Beijing today claims as the People’s Republic. He had plenty on his mind. He was only the third ruler since 1644, when his non-Chinese forebears, the Manchus, seized Beijing from the Ming dynasty, established the Qing dynasty, and with the collaboration of many Chinese, but by no means all, set about conquering China.

When Yongzheng, at age forty-five, came to the throne, succeeding hiscelebrated father, Kangxi (who reigned from 1661 to 1722 and about whom Jonathan Spence wrote a fascinating earlier book1), the stability of the empire was uncertain and Manchu rule itself seemed perpetually threatened by millions still longing for a resumption of Ming, or at least Chinese, rule. Most of the people in central China, in the regions watered by the Yangtze River, were regarded by the Manchus as disloyal, if not treasonous. Artists painted gnarled trees and jagged rocks, which were understood to symbolize the endurance and defiance of Chinese intellectuals. Some nationally respected writers stated openly in their essays that it was the moral duty of the civilized Chinese to slaughter all barbarians. A vigorous rebellion by three generals who had earlier helped the Manchus seize power had been finally crushed only forty years before, and there were rebellions and uprisings in Taiwan, the south, and the southwest. Christian missionaries, opium growers, silk workers, and the Russians all were seen as threats to Manchu authority. Kangxi had left the government in financial doldrums; taxation and even the currency itself required urgent attention. The emperor, Yongzheng, constantly frightened of disloyalty, imprisoned and killed some of his many brothers and trusted only one of them.

In Jonathan Spence’s general history, The Search for Modern China, but not in this new book, there is a full-length portrait of Yongzheng, dressed in a simple scholar’s robe. He is holding an open book. The Emperor, wan, patient, looks directly at the artist. One foot, in soft riding boots, is poised under the hard couch on which he sits, as if he could spring up at any moment to attend to his world of duties. Into this emperor’s life in late 1728 came news of a challenge to his power so alarming that he spent much of the rest of his life dealing with it. It is to this story that Jonathan Spence, professor of history at Yale, once again applies his exceptional skills as a document-hunter, historian, and storyteller.

The story itself concerns the attempt by Zeng Jing, an unimportant provincial teacher, to instigate a revolution against the Manchus. It is well known in China and has been explored before, as Spence acknowledges.2 Although Spence adds relatively little to what was already known about a curious and brief episode, he recites it in his customary clear prose. He writes, as he usually does, in the present tense, with such a meticulous sense of detail that even when he appears to surmise what his central character is thinking, he can cite a primary source. His account begins with General Yue Zhongqi, the governor-general of two vital provinces, being carried along in his sedan chair in Xi’an (where the famous terra-cotta warriors are now exhibited). Yue was an imperial favorite and a descendant of General Yue Fei, who six hundred years before had tried to mobilize his countrymen to defend themselves against the barbarian northerners, ancestors of the Manchus, who overthrew the Song dynasty (960–1279). As a Chinese general serving the Manchus, Yue Zhongqi knew that many loyalists hoped he might be a rallying point for yet another attempt to drive out uncivilized northern occupiers.

One day he was approached by Zhang Xi, a messenger from Zeng Jing, who hoped Yue might become a champion of a Chinese resurgence. Zhang presented Yue with a letter from Zeng praising Yue as a descendant of Yue Fei and calling upon him to “seize the chance to rise in revolt, and avenge the fates of the Song and Ming.”

This treasonous and inflammatory letter claimed that the Manchu barbarians had taken advantage of Chinese weakness, and made one of the oldest claims in China, about “ethnic minorities,” a claim which is still believed by many Han Chinese, the members of the main Chinese ethnic group that makes up most of the population. Zeng Jing, who did not sign his name to the letter, said, “The barbarians are a different species from us, like animals; it is the Chinese who should stay in this land, and the barbarians who should be driven out.” Only one person, the writer went on, “The Master of the Eastern Sea,” fully understood China’s tragedy and the path to salvation; but this master was not otherwise identified.


Yue immediately grasped that what he was holding was a treasonous document. He questioned the messenger, Zhang Xi, first with a show of false kindness and then by using torture. Even though his bones were cracking Zhang refused at the start to divulge the identity of the letter writer; but he finally claimed that six provinces were ready to rise against the Qing, the same provinces that had joined the great anti-Manchu revolt which had been put down barely forty years earlier. After a few days Yue sent a full report of the interrogation thus far to the Emperor in Beijing; his messenger, part of the remarkable imperial courier system which Spence describes vividly, made the 850-mile journey over difficult terrain in a week. Soon, Zhang Xi having been forced to talk, Yue sent the Emperor two more dispatches, enclosing a full account of the letter’s author, Zeng Jing, the names of twelve other conspirators, and identifying the Master of the Eastern Sea as Lü Liuliang, a famous scholar of the late Ming and early Qing, from whose writings the conspirators took inspiration.

The Emperor read all these materials. They made charges he had heard before: that he had usurped the throne, murdered his brothers, and was an avaricious man obsessed with sex. He had plenty of worries anyway, as Spence points out (although less plainly than in The Search for Modern China), about the legitimacy of the Manchu dynasty as Confucian rulers; he was concerned with the security of borders and the loyalty of non-Han tribes living within the borders. Suspicious of his own courtiers and officials, he also had doubts about the effects of foreign trade on China. He disliked foreigners, including Western missionaries. He was especially suspicious of men from Zhejiang province, which lies along the Yangtze and was the home of the dead scholar Lü Liuliang, who was beginning to look like a very dangerous man indeed.

The Emperor now made use of the Manchus’ astonishing web of secret communication and surveillance—which Spence masterfully describes. He wanted all the conspirators rounded up—some lived in almost inaccessible parts of rural China—and he asked for information about other possible dangers. But instead of ordering that Zeng and his immediate family be executed by “slicing,” a lingering agony, together with similar punishments for the other conspirators, Yongzheng decided that while Zeng Jing’s arguments and accusations may be “patent” to himself, “they are phrased in an oddly convincing way; and if he is not simply to ignore them altogether, it will be necessary to produce counterarguments.” The Emperor therefore initiated a long series of rebuttals; how he did so and what he said are the main subjects of Spence’s book.

Spence describes how Yongzheng, using the imperial vermilion ink and paper and employing his refined calligraphy, began a refutation of Zeng Jing’s allegations that would consume well over a year. He denied that he was a usurper; no one was more filial than he and no one had ever had so many disloyal brothers. He was neither voracious for money nor sexually depraved. Indeed, “I have often said of myself that there is no one in the country who dislikes sex as much as I do.” As for the Manchus being uncivilized and illegitimate barbarian rulers, it was not they but Chinese rebels who struck down the Ming dynasty and it was the Manchus who, with their new Qing dynasty, had restored Confucian rule, even performing sacrifices at the tombs of Ming emperors.

All this the Emperor set down in eighty-three pages, which were then read out to all the senior officials in Beijing. Within a few months the Emperor had arranged for hundreds of copies of his edict to be copied and thousands more to be printed so that his views could be “distributed so as to reach the fullest number of people possible, down to the poorest villages and meanest homes.”

This was an unusual thing to do, but there was a precedent in the early Ming, between 1380 and 1390, when the dynastic founder also spread his views widely. The Qing emperor was thus cunningly using a practice of the Ming rulers, said by Lü Liuliang’s followers to be “paragons of Chinese virtue,” to broadcast his own beliefs as the Manchu emperor.

By the spring of 1729 the Emperor’s agents were rounding up and interrogating suspects, their families, and their friends throughout central China. On December 4 the year before, a squad of soldiers arrested Zeng Jing. Brought to Changsha, the provincial capital, he readily admitted that the writings of Lü Liuliang had driven him to write to General Yue. He also told his interrogators that he has been in contact with travelers from many parts of China who passed on rumors and more rumors of disaffection with the Manchus, especially allegations of immoral misconduct against the present ruler.


In Xi’an, meanwhile, General Yue heard rumors that he had himself been plotting to overthrow the dynasty. The general was also reading some of the less well known works of Lü Liuliang. Lü’s commentaries on the basic Confucian canon were used in schools throughout China. They were certainly not subversive. But what Yue found alarming were Lü’s less famil-iar writings, which had ignited Zeng Jing’s anti-Manchu passions; it emerged that Lü, who had been born in the late Ming—in 1629—and died under the Manchus in 1682, despised all collaborators with the Manchus. He yearned for the “return of our rivers and mountains,” the famous (and perhaps apocryphal) rallying cry of General Yue Fei hundreds of years earlier.

In her searching study of ethnic rule and identity, A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology, Pamela Crossley, Spence’s doctoral student at Yale, now professor of history at Dartmouth and a leading scholar of the Manchu period, notes that Lü was one of the absolutist Chinese nationalists who

came close to unqualified assertion that there were virtually no historical forces capable of turning barbarians into civilized people. Instead, they saw civilization locked in a life-or-death struggle against its surrounding barbarities.

In April 1729, Zeng Jing, under guard, was on his way to Beijing. Now starts the strangest part of Spence’s story. The Emperor, as we have seen, had already decided not to execute Zeng but to overwhelm him, to persuade the traitor to

rebut himself: to win him over to the imperial side and transform him from an uncommon criminal into a willing accomplice and mouthpiece of the throne. Not punishment but education will be the path to Zeng’s redemption.

The Emperor was willing to allow breaches of imperial security to do this. He made available to his prisoner—the two were never to meet—hundreds of official documents demonstrating how well the government was run. They showed how Yongzheng, while he was scrutinizing his files, noticed the smallest errors in words or numbers. He even sent Zeng documents showing how he dealt with sentences of capital punishment, every one of which, from whatever part of China, had to be decided by the ruler. These documents were usually considered to be top secret, with the Emperor’s comments in the ink only he could use.

According to Spence, Zeng was bowled over. Up to then, he conceded, he has been “like an ant who cannot see the size of the sky.” Groveling, he commented on the Emperor’s tremendous appetite for work; this was true enough: the ruler rose early every day and worked his way through mountains of documents. Now he could see, Zeng Jing conceded, that Yongzheng was a ruler of highest morality, with plenty of feeling for others.

A year had passed since Zeng’s letter was handed to General Yue. The Emperor now sent copies of his new edicts for his higher officials to read. Most of them were Chinese but, he insisted, geographical origins of rulers are unimportant. Among China’s earliest sage rulers, some were actually of “outer” or barbarian origin, while some of the worst were “inner” or Chinese. Therefore, he wrote, it was the Manchus who had “‘rescued the Chinese people from the boiling cauldron’ in which they were plunged at the end of the Ming.” The Emperor asked his highest officials what should be done with Zeng Jing; they unanimously advised that he suffer the usual death for such a criminal:

lingering execution by slicing for the traitor himself, with summary execution by beheading or strangulation for all his close male relatives aged sixteen or over, and exile and enslavement for all the women and minor males in the criminal’s family.

But the Emperor had come to believe in Zeng Jing’s remorse. (Reading his thousands of remorseful words, I must say that they are eloquent but they seem just what such a man in his position would say to save his life and his family’s.)

The Emperor freed Zeng and published not only his own triumphant views but a twenty-seven-page essay by his reformed captive entitled “My Return to the Good.” It was now appropriate, Zeng Jing wrote, that

later sages should come from more distant lands, as the rulers of the current Qing dynasty had also done…. Arguments about the Chinese being inherently different from those living in the so-called barbarian regions were without merit. Lü Liuliang was wrong.

Zeng Jing was given a splendid send-off and returned home—although he remained under light surveillance. “The two fifty-year-old men have still never met face-to-face, and perhaps they never will,” Spence writes. “but surely they will not forget each other.”3

The Emperor decided to publish a huge book of 509 pages on the entire affair, to be called A Record of How True Virtue Led to the Awakening from Delusion. In April 1730, it was ready. Consisting of four parts, it included all Yongzheng’s refutations, his attacks on Lü Liuliang, and justification of Manchu rule. Then came a verbatim dialogue in which the Emperor asked Zeng Jing thirty-seven questions in writing and Zeng answered them. The Emperor’s words were printed twice the size of his prisoner’s, but “the one hundred and seventy-eight pages dedicated to these exchanges…give Zeng Jing an astonishing opportunity to share his own thoughts with his countrymen at large.” In the last section there were long quotations from the treasonous writings of Lü Liuliang—which everyone could now read—together with the Emperor’s denunciations. Finally came Zeng Jing’s “carefully rendered statement of contrition…, My Return to the Good.”

As Spence points out, while the apology shows Zeng’s need to win the Emperor’s clemency, the earlier dialogue “allowed a very different Zeng Jing to make his presence felt.” Pamela Crossley takes the analysis further: the Emperor’s fundamental point, in her view, was that

the Qing had successfully assumed the vessels, rituals, and functions of the emperorship in China; the people were cared for; the natural processes were facilitated; and the peoples of the earth were united in their awe and love for the ruler…. It must be that the Manchus had been morally transformed in the course of their history. They could not be condemned as the barbarians that their ancestors had been…. The victories of the Qing court were in fact the victories of Chinese civilization and of the march of morality generally.4

What the Emperor had decided in sparing Zeng but condemning Lü, says Spence, was that although Zeng was wrong and misguided, he was capable of moral transformation. Lü Liuliang, by contrast, was destructive and evil.

Published in tens of thousands of copies, the Emperor’s gigantic work (the major source for all Zeng Jing research) was to be discussed at bimonthly meetings throughout the land. The Emperor had decreed that

one copy is to be deposited in every local school, so that all future scholars embarking on the road of learning can read it and absorb it. Should I later discover that there is anyone who has not read this book, and not heeded my instructions, then the full weight of punishment will fall on the educational commissioners of the provinces concerned, and on the educational supervisors in the counties affected.

As Spence rightly says, “For years, Zeng Jing has been seeking an audience for his words. Now he has found one, and on a scale that could never have occurred to him, even in his maddest dreams.” Furthermore, the Emperor rewarded Zeng for his “recent services” with one thousand ounces of silver, “a true fortune by any standards of the time.”

In 1735 Yongzheng suddenly died. His son, Qianlong, age twenty-four, began one of the greatest reigns in Chinese history, retiring only in 1796. One of his first acts was to reverse his father’s pardon of Zeng Jing. “Even if the treacherous and immoral actions of Zeng Jing were to be treated as the most grave of crimes,” the new emperor proclaimed, “that still would not suffice to cover the full extent of his guilt.” He swiftly ordered that Zeng Jing and his messenger Zhang Xi be sliced to death, and their families also killed, except for those under sixteen and some women, who were enslaved and exiled. Those orders were carried out. Moreover, all copies of his father’s great compilation were to be collected and destroyed—a gigantic task.

But some copies survived, hidden by historically minded scholars and booksellers. Myths grew up around the Zeng Jing story. In one of them, Spence relates, one of Lü Liuliang’s granddaughters inveigled her way into Yongzheng’s bedchamber—as if to recall the rumors of the Emperor’s sensuality—and stabbed him to death. Yongzheng had imagined that by publishing the great rebuttal, he could quash all the rumors about his personal life. But his people, Spence observes, remembered the rumors and forgot the disclaimers. His son, Qianlong, thought that by destroying the book he could erase the rumors about his father. Many Chinese, Spence writes, “thought that the reason he wanted to destroy the book was because so much of what it contained was true.” Spence concludes that both emperors were wrong.

Professor Crossley goes beyond Spence’s account of this sudden reversal. Spence’s view is that Qianlong wanted the Zeng Jing case to be expunged and forgotten. Crossley suggests that Qianlong rejected “the proposition of the Qing emperor as a Confucian sage-king.” He insisted that the Manchus had not been transformed through their contact with Chinese civilization but had been chosen, divinely, even before the conquest. They ruled, the Emperor argued, “because of their unique and inherent favor by Heaven.” This was an absolute endorsement and required neither explanation nor justification.

With Treason by the Book Jonathan Spence has written another work that will captivate and inform a wide audience. As usual, too, Sinologists will admire the broad scholarship and inquisitiveness which led him to libraries in Beijing and Taipei and to Zeng Jing’s home county. The documents he presents, which earlier scholars have also used, tell us what was being said by and among officials, and give a strong indication of their doubts and suspicions. His book provides a picture of aspects of “a world most of us have lost,” and makes it come alive. When the Emperor’s agents dig up the corpse of a possible rumormonger, Spence tells us what was left in the coffin, right down to the socks that served as a pillow for the skull. He tells us, too, how a traitor awaiting “death by slicing” could bribe the official executioner at the last moment so that before he began slicing he would stab his victim through the heart. Spence writes that in addition to telling us “how unlikely things can be,” the Zeng Jing story is also about the importance of words and texts, and about rumor, gullibility, and insecurity, from the lowest level of society to the palace itself. He says he discovered a great deal about investigative procedures, “something I had not originally anticipated.”

Then, just at the end of his foreword, Jonathan Spence makes an intriguing point about the story he is about to tell. “To us now, this has a somewhat modern ring, and evokes memories of later regimes in China and elsewhere.” Indeed. He might have expanded on this theme. Take his acute observation in Treason by the Book about the written word. No country in modern times has placed more importance on the written word, or scrutinized texts more carefully for intellectual sedition and “black ideas” than Communist China, where almost all writers and many readers have been punished for their association with “wrong” words. In Treason by the Book Spence shows the Emperor’s determination that all China should know and accept his rulings on ideology and race. Those who avoided such indoctrination were regarded as criminals. In The Search for Modern China, after outlining Yongzheng’s national indoctrination campaigns, Mr. Spence comments:

Such patterns of moral indoctrination would become a recurrent theme in later Chinese history, both after the great rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century and under the successive governments of the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists.

Professor Spence explicitly drew the comparison with today’s China in a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times. Similar considerations would have added a missing dimension to his book. After considering the Zeng Jing case, he says, “It doesn’t take too huge an imaginative leap to see similar forces at play in Chinese political life today.” He notes that mid-Qing “political practices…were to be renewed by the Communist party just over 200 years later.” The state now, as then, demands “total abnegation of the individual’s right to self-expression,” but by such oppression, Spence observes as well, the state revealed “heightened anxiety…as to its own legitimacy.”

In present-day China, too, as in the Manchu period, artists and writers still disguise their political feelings with oblique allusions and ambiguous images. Rumors and counterrumors, called “alley-way news,” sweep the country, partly because people distrust the official news and partly because China remains a country in which people love the supernatural, the weird, and the macabre. The rulers in Beijing still fear their subjects, especially those along the frontiers who are not Chinese, and they still distrust foreigners. They still proscribe or tightly control “superstitions” and “cults,” like the Falun Gong, and religions not controlled by the State Council such as Roman Catholicism, which adheres to Rome, and Tibetan Buddhism, which reveres the Dalai Lama.

Spence speaks of Yongzheng’s investigators as “tough and focused,” and with vast resources and manpower. He describes their “constant pressure on reluctant witnesses, repeated cycles of questioning, demands for written confessions, torture and threats of torture, family pressures, isolation, deception…” Two hundred and fifty years later such methods are still employed by Beijing, with electric torture now added to the regime’s repertory.5 And the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party still live in the Forbidden City, where Yongzheng once devised his meticulous schemes to test his subjects’ loyalty, tell them what to think, and destroy his enemies.

This Issue

May 17, 2001