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Interview by Donald Yerxa and Karl Giberson


The Picasso of Chinese Studies

Jonathan Spence talks about how the subjects of his studies find their voice.

Jonathan D. Spence enjoys a special place of eminence among historians of China. He is perhaps the leading Western scholar of China today. Born in England in 1936, he received his graduate education in Chinese history at Yale University, where he has also spent his professional academic career. At Yale he has served as chair of the Council of East Asian Studies, chair of the Department of History, and director of the Division of the Humanities. Currently, he is Sterling Professor of History.

Spence is one of the most respected writers of history in our time. Reviewers use such words as elegant and immaculate to describe his prose. He is the author of a remarkable body of work, including the following mentioned in the interview below: The Death of Woman Wang (Penguin, 1978), the tragic story of a seventeenth-century Chinese farm woman; The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Penguin, 1985), a creative portrait of the brilliant sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary; Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-hsi (Vintage, 1988), a life of the Ch'ing emperor crafted from his own words; The Question of Hu (Vintage, 1989), the story of the unfortunate trip to France in the 1720s of John Hu, a Chinese research assistant, whose inexplicable behavior resulted in his confinement in an insane asylum; The Search for Modern China (Norton, 1990), a massive text of the last four centuries of Chinese history; God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (Norton, 1996), an account of the Taiping Rebellion and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of the 1850s and 1860s as portrayed through its leader, Hong Xiuquan, "God's Chinese Son"; and The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds (Norton, 1998), a series of "sightings" that traces how the West has viewed China since the thirteenth century. Donald Yerxa and Karl Giberson interviewed Spence on November 19, 1998, in the Green Room of the Boston Public Library.

DONALD YERXA: You've spent most of your adult life in the United States, ...

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