- The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence
Faber, 187 pp, £12.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 571 14118 8
At the dawn of our cultural traditions lie accounts of men alone among strangers who, by luck or guile, triumph even though uprooted from their own societies: men such as Joseph or Odysseus. The fascination of this theme seems as strong as ever, perhaps affecting our curiosity about Robert Maxwell, as well as our taste for the works of Thubron or Theroux. But today, when jumbo jets deposit increasing numbers of ordinary people in the middle of totally unfamiliar cultures which are now only a few flying hours away, it may be time to start reflecting on a very different type of tale. John Hu, the Hu in Jonathan Spence’s latest book, was a man without guile, and without luck. He travelled to France from Canton in 1722 as the employee of Jean-François Foucquet, a Jesuit missionary, but behaved in such a bizarre fashion that in 1723 he was committed to an asylum. In 1726 he was shipped back home alone; meanwhile Foucquet had distanced himself both from his Chinese assistant and from his own missionary colleagues, and had become a bishop in Rome.