China Scholar Jonathan Spence Dies at 85

HONG KONG—Yale University historian Jonathan D. Spence, who brought China and its past alive to a broad audience through widely read books and popular lectures, died Saturday. He was 85.

In 1990, Mr. Spence published “The Search for Modern China,” an account both sweeping and detailed of China’s history from 1600 through the late 20th century that became a foundational text for generations of Americans studying the country.

The book grew out of Mr. Spence’s undergraduate survey course on Chinese history, which was so popular it was often held in Yale’s biggest halls—the campus chapel or the law-school auditorium.

Susan Jakes, now a senior fellow at the Asia Society in New York, remembers joining her classmates to give Mr. Spence a standing ovation after a lecture. “It had just been so mesmerizing,” she said.

Mr. Spence was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985, made a MacArthur fellow in 1988 and delivered the prestigious Jefferson Lecture at the Library of Congress in 2010. “The Search for Modern China” won the first Lionel Gelber Prize for best English-language book on foreign affairs.

“His stories never fit what China would tell about herself or what Westerners expected it to be,” said Tim Snyder, a professor of European history at Yale University.

Jonathan Spence, second from left, participating in a panel in Beijing in 2011.


HOW HWEE YOUNG/European Presshoto Agency

Many of his 14 books and dozens of his essays were unified in their efforts to convey China and the lives of Chinese people in their own voices or on their own terms.

In “To Change China,” published in 1969, Mr. Spence said his aim was to profile foreigners throughout history who “kept insisting on having the right to alter China” only to find this wasn’t the case. Mr. Spence also wrote “The Chan’s Great Continent,” describing how views of China in the West were often based more on the West’s own projected hopes and fears.

Jonathan Dermot Spence was born the son of a book editor in Surrey, England. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge University in 1959. After going to Yale on a graduate exchange fellowship in the late 1950s, he took an interest in China, according to a 2004 address by Frederic Wakeman, a fellow China scholar who, like Mr. Spence, served as president of the American Historical Association.

Encouraged by China historians Arthur and Mary Wright, Mr. Spence wrote his doctoral dissertation about a bondservant in the Qing Chinese imperial court. He joined Yale’s history faculty in 1966 and taught there until his retirement in 2008.

Mr. Spence continually worked to refine his survey course, jotting down ideas on a yellow legal pad, said John Delury, who completed his doctorate under Mr. Spence and now teaches at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Mr. Spence and his wife, fellow Yale historian Annping Chin, frequently hosted meals for students at their home, serving cocktails from a penguin-shaped martini shaker and raving about baseball’s Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, for whom Mr. Spence named their dog.

Mr. Spence’s Chinese name, “Shi Jingqian,” was also an homage to a hero, meaning “the historian who admires Sima Qian”—a reference to the revered Han Dynasty historian.

“Sima Qian was a master of narration, absorbed by the craft of storytelling, the use of vivid detail and telling dialogue—often reconstructed or fabricated to make the story succinct and emotionally charged—and endlessly inventive in his choice of topics,” Mr. Spence wrote in 1993.

Some accused Mr. Spence of taking similar license in his 1978 book “The Death of Woman Wang,” in which he drew on literary imagery found in the stories of Qing-era writer Pu Songling to describe a dream the woman of the title might have had before her husband beat her to death for adultery.

The dream passages were rendered in italics, marking to readers that they were not based on historical evidence.

Zhang Taisu, who once worked as Mr. Spence’s research assistant and now teaches at Yale Law School, argues this criticism misses the point. “For history, you always need some imagination. It’s just that his imagination was that much more vivid,” said Mr. Zhang.

Mr. Spence, died in West Haven, Conn., from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his wife, Ms. Chin, two sons from his first marriage to Helen Alexander, and two stepchildren, Mei Chin and Yar Woo.

In the closing sentence of the last chapter of his final book, 2007’s “Return to Dragon Mountain,” Mr. Spence wrote of Zhang Dai, a historian who preceded him by nearly four centuries: “We can remember him sitting bent over the study table, as so many of his family had sat before, staring fixedly at his final collections of images from the past: an old man who, without his having willed it in any deliberate way, found suddenly that his hand and feet were dancing.”

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