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Carol Lee Hamrin


China and the West

Jonathan Spence's Jefferson Lecture

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Speaking in Washington, D.C., on May 20, the eminent Yale historian Jonathan Spence, who might rightly be considered a national treasure, kept the close attention of an audience of several hundred in the historic Warner Theatre, sharing the latest findings in his lifelong exploration of the interaction between China and the West. The occasion was the 2010 Jefferson Lecture, continuing a series begun in 1972 as "the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities." Introducing Spence, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman James Leach described him as "a story teller and a fact finder," qualities that have given him a large and loyal fan base among generations of students, China scholars, and a broader readership that is rare for a historian. Spence's skillful use of words and facts, so compelling in written form, was not embellished in the lecture by visual aids, joking, or even frequent eye contact. With a simple thank you and a brief reference to this year as the "50th birthday" of his first Chinese language class, which "hooked" him on China, the professor launched into a reading of his text.

Spence's title, "When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century," seemed to promise a summary of "lessons to be learned" from the past, but instead the lecture offered a demonstration of a brilliant intellect and painstaking detective work. Magnifying glass in hand, Spence followed the track of his latest all-absorbing pursuit: how did the first Chinese scholars to visit the West engage with their counterparts?

The audience was swiftly caught up in Spence's masterly use of tiny puzzle-pieces of information to fit together a picture of one of the first such exchanges—perhaps even the very first. His focal point was a letter dated July 26, 1687, in which Thomas Hyde, an Oxford scholar of Oriental languages, wrote to Robert Boyle in London to request a meeting for Fuzong Shen. A member of a prominent Chinese Roman Catholic family, Shen (whose Christian name was Michael) had obtained advanced education in both Confucian and Latin learning. He was helping Hyde understand and organize Oxford's Bodleian collection of Chinese texts on a brief foray from Paris. There he and his Jesuit mentor were cataloguing Louis the XIV's Chinese collection while working with a French publisher on the final manuscript of the first European (Latin) introduction of the Confucian classics.

Spence then detailed the special intellectual interests of both Hyde and Boyle as revealed in correspondence about conversations among the three, which ranged widely over comparative linguistics, climates, governance and foreign relations, the game of chess, units of measure, medicine, and alchemy. Other listeners like myself may have been surprised to learn more about late 17th-century Britain, and about these two Britons, than about China and Shen, likely the result of limited information. I was left wondering what questions and observations Shen had in his mind as he answered the queries of his interlocutors.

For me, the most interesting topic of the lecture was the portrait of Shen by Godfrey Kneller, shown on the program's cover, the first full-body portrait of a Chinese painted in Britain, perhaps in the West. The great expense of such a portrait as well as the artist's frequent Royal patronage suggest to Spence that it may have been commissioned by King James II himself, or another highly placed backer of the revival of Catholicism underway in Britain during his brief reign. The king in fact told Hyde that he kept the portrait near his bed. Spence ventures a guess that the portrait's depiction—Shen holding a crucifix in one hand and gesturing toward it with the other, as he looks out of an open window to the distant Eastern horizon, his face and hands shining in the day's early light—was seen as "the symbol of a new dawn for the Catholic faith, of which the mission to China was a manifestation." Whatever the aims of British Catholics, the portrait seems to capture Shen's own heartfelt longing to prepare for return to China as a priest serving in the Jesuit mission. This primary pursuit—as reported by Spence—was never accomplished, as Shen died in 1691 after intensive study in Portugal when shipboard fever prevented him from reaching home.

Spence did not acknowledge, however, the very real possibility that Hyde and Boyle were as interested as Shen in religion, not just in what we think of as secular topics. Boyle expended much energy, time, and wealth (sometimes at the request of Hyde) in promoting the accurate translation of the Bible into many tongues—including Malay, Turkish, Irish, Welsh, and American Indian languages—for the sake of conversion. Hyde recalled at Boyle's funeral how the latter had always carried with him to church copies of the Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew. Yet Spence seems to view these commitments as evidence of interest in linguistics rather than in faith and missions. Boyle in fact was known as much for his theological writings as his scientific experiments, but, more important, he viewed these as parts of a seamless whole. He abhorred the divisions within Christianity as an obstacle to its advancement around the world. His admiration for and respectful treatment of his Chinese visitor may have reflected a meeting of their hearts as well as minds.

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