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Jonathan Spence

Jonathan Spence teaches modern Chinese history at Yale. His most recent book is Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man.

Zhu Wen’s China

Jonathan Spence, 6 September 2007

What does it mean to live morally in an uncaring society? The question is deeply embedded in any culture that has an enduring creative legacy, and China is no exception. For some years, especially from the late 1940s until Mao’s death in 1976, the question was sidestepped as the Party imposed its own vision of Soviet-inspired socialist realism. But for the generation of Chinese born...

The First Emperor

Jonathan Spence, 2 December 1993

Educated Chinese and Western lovers of Chinese culture alike would have little trouble compiling a short list of the finest Chinese classical poets, but they would never be able to reach unanimity on who was the best; the same generalisation would hold true for philosophers, essayists, dramatists or painters. But with historians, there is no doubt they would soon agree that there was only one true candidate, Sima Qian (?145-?89 BC), author of the Shi Ji, or ‘Historical Records’.

News from the Old Country

Jonathan Spence, 14 September 1989

At once the simplest and the hardest question one can ask if one studies China is ‘What does it mean to be Chinese?’ The question has real immediacy as the multilayered Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, South-East Asia and Australia, Western Europe and the United States, try to make sense of what the Chinese Communist Government has just done to hundreds of its own young people.

The Manchu Conquest

Jonathan Spence, 7 August 1986

The fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, and the consolidation of its successor Qing dynasty over the ensuing twenty years, was one of the more dramatic events in human history. It is a complex story to tell, since so many aspects must be considered. The erosion of Ming power took many years, and various Ming pretenders fought on, by land and sea, until the early 1660s. In central and north China rebel groups had chipped away at Ming power for decades, as the state gradually lost its power to control the countryside and to extract revenues from it. In the far north-east the Manchu tribes had consolidated in Liaodong under their formidable leader Nurhaci by the 1620s, and it was the descendants of these warriors who inherited the mandate of heaven by ousting one set of victorious rebels from Beijing. Frederick Wakeman’s massive study is the first attempt in any language to tackle this terrific subject in a fully comprehensive way: that is, to create a narrative analysis that pays due attention to the Ming civil and military bureaucracy, to the rural rebels and the reasons for their discontent, to the rise and spread of Manchu power, and to the phases of resistance and the shape of final victory. Though there are some problems of balance between individual chapters, some overloading of the narrative line by the sheer density of the number of characters introduced, and some passages that will be opaque to all but other specialists in the field of Chinese history, The Great Enterprise is a remarkable achievement. It is rare to be presented with history on this majestic scale, and to confront the great themes so confidently presented.

The thoughts of China

D.J. Enright, 29 July 1999

‘One aspect of a country’s greatness is surely its capacity to attract and retain the attention of others. This capacity has been evident from the very beginnings of the West’s...

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Chinese Leaps

Jon Elster, 25 April 1991

Nobody really knows what’s happening in China. Analysis must proceed from triangulation, relying on a few uncontroversial facts, specific knowledge about the Chinese past and general...

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Closed Windows

T.H. Barrett, 11 January 1990

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...

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The Exotic West

Peter Burke, 6 February 1986

To anyone with a sense of irony, the history of encounters between cultures is peculiarly fascinating, so often have the consequences been the opposite of what their initiators either intended or...

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