Sinologist Jonathan Spence’s unfulfilled trip to Jiangnan

January 13 18:36 2022


Jonathan Spence (1936-2021) was an English-born American historian who specializes in Chinese history. He received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Cambridge and a doctoral degree in Chinese history at Yale University, where he then taught for more than 40 years. [Photo/]

In late December 2021, Jonathan Spence, one of the most influential sinologists of his generation, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 85 at his residence in West Haven, Connecticut, the United States.

“Spence has been credited with reaching more American readers of Chinese history than any other writer,” reads one sentence from an official obituary by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the US.

“He taught us not only about a faraway country, a great feat in its own right, but also how we as Westerners have perceived and sometimes misunderstood China,” NEH Acting Chair Adam Wolfson said.

Spence’s passing also led to a widespread comemmoration among academics and general readers in China, where he is better known as Shi Jingqian, his Chinese name. “Shi” means “history” and “Jingqian” means “looking up to Sima Qian”. Spence adopted the name to show his love for Chinese history and his admiration for the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) historian.

In an interview with the Qianjiang Evening Paper (a Hangzhou-based newspaper) on Dec 28, 2021, Zheng Peikai, a close friend of Spence’s and the first doctoral student ever enrolled and supervised by him, spoke of Spence’s highly anticipated trip to Jiangnan – a Chinese word referring to a prosperous region immediately south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River – that never came to pass.

Zheng said that Spence had been interested in Jiangnan since he wrote the doctoral dissertation Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master in the 1960s. The dissertation includes many vivid details on the economy, culture, and art of Jiangnan during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that were reported to the emperor by Ts’ao Yin, a trusted official who was dispatched there.

In the 1980s, Spence published The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution 1895-1980, which gives an account of many pioneering intellectuals raised in Jiangnan, such as Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Qu Qiubai (1899-1935).

Spence’s last history book, Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man (published in 2007), is about Zhang Dai, an eminent historian and essayist during the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing dynasties who lived an eventful life in Jiangnan. Zheng reckoned the book was Spence’s personal favorite.

Zheng added that Spence was familiar with Jiangnan through historical archives but wanted to witness its elegant aesthetics for himself.

Zheng recalled that when he offered to take Spence and his wife on a tour of Jiangnan in the late spring or early summer of 2019, Spence jumped at the opportunity but stressed that the trip must involve no academic lectures or seminars, which had dominated the schedules of his previous visits to China.

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