Portraits: Jonathan Spence (Essay)

Jonathan Spence

Jonathan Spence is the towering intellectual in Chinese studies at Yale, a man who has produced generations of important scholars in Chinese history and inspired many undergraduates at Yale to study Chinese. His most important role, I believe, has been introducing Chinese culture to American intellectuals who would otherwise not take much interest. Because he writes such elegant English, and is so well versed in the Western classics, his writing makes China accessible. I took only one course with Professor Spence, his famous survey of Modern China. We established a close relationship that has lasted to this day.

Professor Spence’s lectures on modern Chinese history made a deep impression on me. I had a rather fuzzy idea of what China was when I first entered the course. Perhaps I had wanted to see China as a great unchanging tradition that had continued for thousands of years. In Professor Spence’s course we learned the specifics of what actually took place in policy in China in the Qing dynasty, including the internal policy disputes and the consequences thereof. China became a very solid and concrete for me at that point in my education, as did the individual personalities of the Kangxi and Qianlung Emperors. Spence starts modern China with the fall of the Ming dynasty, therefore implying a far longer process for modernization than is often taught.

I would not say that I spent hours with Professor Spence talking, but rather that I spoke with him before and after class and he responded always with a remarkable enthusiasm. He also posed to me new questions that forced me to take my thinking in new directions. Those conversations were brief, but they remain with me. His suggestions as to how the Kangxi emperor compared with Napoleon as a personality; his insights on the Taiping rebellion and the problems caused by inequality in the distribution of wealth.

I remember that he joined a group of undergraduates at Davenport College (where I was living) for lunch my sophomore year. We discussed Qing history and made a variety of comparisons with modern American politics. He raised questions about the ability of American leaders to put forth long term policies in the same manner that Qing leaders did. I had not thought of such a comparison before. I never stopped making comparisons between traditional China and the United States thereafter. In fact, I find that comparing the United States today with the Qing is extremely helpful for understanding deep structural problems.

It was from my relationship with Professor Spence that I started the habit of writing to professors. I wrote letters to Professor Spence with my thoughts on the readings and lectures. I did not expect him to write back, or even to acknowledge them. But I felt that he would read those letters and think about them—which is enough. In fact, at the end of the course, I wrote him a rather long essay in which I talked about the gap between what we think about as “history” (great people and amazing historical events) and the actual experiences of suffering and uncertainty of the great majority of people.I called the experiences of ordinary people “a tragedy too commonplace to be recognized by history.” Professor Spence read that part of the letter aloud as part of his closing remarks for the class, in front of 200 students, an act which I will never forget.

I continued to write to him during my time in Japan and at University of Illinois. We managed to meet up very briefly in February of 2011 when I visited Yale. I met him in front of the Hall of Graduate Studies and we talked while standing in the snow outside. He spoke of his concern for the future of Asian studies and the need to keep up the highest level of quality in American scholarship in the years to come. Professor Spence has always impressed me with his dedication not only to scholarship, but to society as well.

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