Jonathan Spence: A Western historian's search for modern China

Professor Jonathan Spence (1936-2021) was a prolific historian who deepened Western readers’ understanding of China’s history and culture through his artful mastery of narrative history grounded in rigorous research. From the inner world of Emperor Kangxi to Jesuit missionaries' voyage to China, to the plight of Chinese intellectuals and literati and the arduous mission of reform and opening up, Spence’s unique writing style brought to life the complex historical figures and events of China. Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai, one of his earliest students, and translation academic Jackie Yan pay tribute to Spence and his contribution to the study of Chinese history through this preface to a collection of Spence's translated works published by the Guangxi Normal University Press.
Jonathan Spence (1936-2021), master storyteller of Chinese history. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)
Jonathan Spence (1936-2021), master storyteller of Chinese history. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

For nearly half a century, while the Westerners have stopped invading and colonising China, their understanding of the country is still shrouded in a colonial mindset and befuddling myths that speak in large part of novelty, contempt and sympathy, and a small measure of hostility too. 

When we think about China’s vast mountains and rivers, massive population and rich history, the picture we form in our minds seems to be both real and illusory. It feels as though we're on a hunt in the wilderness, sitting in a jeep with binoculars in hand, peering at the bears, tigers, leopards, lions, elephants, apes, gorillas, zebras and antelopes. In one moment, the beasts seem to fill the earth in a flurry of activity, in the next, there is only grass and silence. 

China is like a kaleidoscope — it has everything and can become anything. Its history is like magic; imagination can turn into reality and reality can become an illusion. Its cultural traditions are mysterious. Think of the beliefs in yin-yang dualism and that all beings become one; the Taoist belief that all things in the world are produced by being and being is produced by non-being; and the Confucian belief that change is the only constant. 

Not only are these confusing to the audience, they are perplexing to the one who speaks of them as well. Hence, China becomes a mysterious, bewildering and elusive place where “truth becomes fiction when fiction’s true” (Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber).               

The dense fog of Chinese history

Europeans and Americans who really want to understand Chinese history and culture can read the many academic writings written in Western languages. Every major historical figure from Confucius to Mao Zedong has been meticulously studied, and these writings are generally historically accurate. 

If readers are interested in modern China, they can also read various academic monographs and textbooks to get to know the great figures in history. For example, they can read about how foreign powers began coveting and encroaching on China’s territorial resources during the Opium War; how China transformed from a monarchy of several thousand years into a republic; China’s warlord era and the Second Sino-Japanese War; and the Chinese civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang, and the CCP’s eventual victory. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves above a giant portrait of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong at the end of the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo/Reuters)
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves above a giant portrait of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong at the end of the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo/Reuters)

If they were to patiently read some intellectual history or economic and social history, they would also learn about the Jesuit missionaries that had brought along with them new scientific knowledge to China; the early contact between Chinese and Western cultures that had nourished the Age of Enlightenment; how the Qing dynasty’s literary inquisition changed China’s academic traditions; the backdrop of population mobility and growth since the Ming and Qing dynasties; and how the introduction of American silver and crops changed China’s economic structure. 

Readers would even realise that there are in fact so many academic monographs discussing events and specific figures in modern Chinese history, exploring the disintegration of the relationship between traditional social production and ethics, studying the changes in the forms of government and in urban-rural structures, and explaining how Western ideology has affected Chinese cultural traditions, ways of thinking and education systems, among others. 

However, academic monographs are often too difficult for the average reader to understand and textbooks are too boring. Unfamiliar names, places, events and disputes can be confusing, often leaving readers in a daze. 

Those who tried simply could understand why ancient China refused commerce, opposed free trade and did not want to open its doors. Neither did they understand why the common people who have always valued etiquette and peace would suddenly revolt — just what were the Chinese people thinking? 

The more they read about historical figures and events, the more confused they became, as if they were finding their way through a dense fog.

Using the traditional historical method of “telling a story”, he wrote tirelessly and vividly, unveiling the mysteries of Chinese history to Western readers and helping them to gain a sense of China’s history.  

(WeChat/玉茗堂前)
Jonathan Spence was a prolific writer of Chinese history. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

Over the past few decades, Jonathan Spence rose to prominence as a master of Chinese history in the West. His greatest contribution was his beautiful and smooth prose when describing the complex and intricate figures and historical events in modern China, based on his own rigorous historical research and that of other experts. 

Using the traditional historical method of “telling a story”, he wrote tirelessly and vividly, unveiling the mysteries of Chinese history to Western readers and helping them to gain a sense of China’s history.            

A writing style of his own

Chinese historian Fang Zhaoying gave Spence his Chinese name Shi Jingqian (史景迁) when the latter was studying for his PhD in history at Yale University. The meaning of the name was clear and the aspirations high — those who study history should aspire to be like China’s greatest historian Sima Qian (司马迁). 

Sima’s Records of the Grand Historian (《史记》) boasts of rich material, rigorous examination, clear narrative, coherent style and vivid writing. It seeks to “explore the relationship between Nature and Man, understand the changes between ancient and modern times, and form an academic writing with unique insights and systems”. 

Unlike Sima, Spence was a modern historian and did not live in a time of astrology, geomancy or divination. While Sima had the mission of “exploring the relationship between Nature and Man”, Spence studied history from the late Ming dynasty to contemporary China. Nevertheless, he inherited the spirit of the Records of the Grand Historian in terms of his narrative style. 

Spence indeed understood the changes between ancient and modern times, and developed a form of academic writing with unique insights and systems.

He fully portrayed Emperor Kangxi’s emotions and showed Western readers a Chinese emperor of flesh and blood. 

In his first book Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master, Spence shed light on Emperor Kangxi’s style of governance and the inner world of an emperor during the Qing dynasty by combining archival materials with all kinds of literary and historical materials on Cao Xueqin’s ancestors. 

Through his rigorous study of primary sources and solid research foundation, Spence was able to put himself in the shoes of Emperor Kangxi in his third book Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi, where he wrote in first person and allowed his historical imagination to run wild. He fully portrayed Emperor Kangxi’s emotions and showed Western readers a Chinese emperor of flesh and blood. 

Imperial painter, Emperor Kangxi in his casual outfit at his writing desk (《康熙帝便装写字像》), The Palace Museum. (Internet)
Imperial painter, Emperor Kangxi in his casual outfit at his writing desk (《康熙帝便装写字像》), The Palace Museum. (Internet)

To write about Emperor Kangxi and turn all objective historical materials into an “autobiography”, the author would have needed to see the world from the perspective of a Son of Heaven. An emperor must consider all kinds of world affairs, while possessing a comprehensive grasp of things from a macro perspective for the sake of the long-term peace and stability of the Qing dynasty. 

Thus, while it appears to be a biographical account of the emperor on the surface, the book actually takes into consideration all aspects of the Chinese empire and presents a full picture of its governance from a macro perspective.          

When cultures collide             

Spence’s second book To Change China: Western Advisers in China,1620-1960 explores how modern Westerners participated in and promoted China’s historical transformation. It covers early missionaries such as Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest; the late Qing dynasty’s Charles George Gordon, Robert Hart, William Alexander Parsons Martin and John Fryer; as well as the Republic of China era’s Mikhail Borodin, Norman Bethune, Claire Lee Chennault and Joseph Stilwell. 

The research piqued Spence’s interest in cultural contact and exchanges between China and the West, and spurred him to write a series of related books later on. 

His interests expanded from recording the activities of Westerners in China to the igniting of and changes to ways of thinking through contact between Chinese and Western cultures in his discussion of the understandings and misunderstandings that arise when different cultures collide. The characters described in Spence’s book all had unique and fascinating experiences based on the specific historical environment they were situated in. 

It is not only the Westerners who had all kinds of strange encounters in the Chinese empire during the late Ming dynasty; the Chinese also had mind-boggling experiences in Europe in the early 18th century. 

Taking advantage of his mastery of several European languages, Spence put on his detective hat and channelled his inner Sherlock Holmes, entering the labyrinth of Chinese and foreign historical materials in search of clues. 

He imagined how travellers to foreign lands lived in the gaps between Chinese and foreign history and culture, and how their experiences could be preserved as historical memories. Using a combination of Chinese and foreign historical materials, he wrote The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, The Question of Hu and The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds.

Portrait of Matteo Ricci. (Wikimedia)
Portrait of Matteo Ricci. (Wikimedia)

In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence traced Matteo Ricci’s voyage across the ocean from the West to the East in the late Ming period and discussed how the Jesuits had come to evangelise in China, how they adapted to China’s cultural environment, and how they used the popular European mnemonic as a stepping stone to enter the literati community that valued imperial examinations and the memorisation of poetry and books. 

His book The Question of Hu described the journey Chinese Catholic John Hu Ruowang made to France with the support of Jean-François Foucquet. Due to his eccentricity, Hu was left to fend for himself in a foreign land and even got locked up in a mental asylum. He could only return to his hometown in Guangdong after three years. Using materials from the Vatican archives, the British Library archives and France's foreign ministry archives, Spence was able to piece together the extraordinary story of a Guangdong resident in France during the early days of Emperor Yongzheng’s reign.              

Spence’s The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds provides an overview of how Westerners had imagined China’s history following the Mongol invasion of Europe. From William of Rubruck and Marco Polo of the Yuan (Mongol) Empire period to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger of the contemporary era, Spence not only wrote about the experiences of Westerners who visited China, but also how literati and writers who have never been to the country had imagined it and affected the general public’s impression of China. 

To Chinese readers, these carefully combed-through historical materials from European and Western archives as well as from literary and historical books have become beautiful stories stitched together with impeccable finesse, like rows of delicate tapestry. 

They are fascinating to read, but they also broaden horizons and help people understand the complexities and intricacies when different cultures meet, collide and interact. Such stories are thrilling and even more bizarre than fiction.     

He was lauded for his wisdom in picking out and piecing together historical materials, and for never being too over-the-top in promoting new theoretical frameworks. 

Weaving literary and historical material

Emperor of China became a publishing sensation after its publication in 1974. It was well received by readers and became a bestseller, with American journalist Theodore H. White hailing it as a classic work elevating academic writing to the realm of beauty. 

Western historians began paying attention to Spence’s rhetorical strategies in writing history, praising his literary form as having a unique style. He was lauded for his wisdom in picking out and piecing together historical materials, and for never being too over-the-top in promoting new theoretical frameworks. 

Instead, he presented in his vivid narrative style the historical and cultural thoughts that historical figures and incidents can spark ever so unintentionally. 

A general view shows the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, on a snowy day at Jingshan Park on 20 January 2022. (Jade Gao/AFP)
A general view shows the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, on a snowy day at Jingshan Park on 20 January 2022. (Jade Gao/AFP)

In 1978, he published his fourth book The Death of Woman Wang, based on the compendium of legal cases, the local gazetteer of Shandong’s Tancheng (郯城), Huang Liuhong’s Fuhui Quanshu (《福惠全书》) and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. The book explores the common people’s living environment and imagination in the early Qing dynasty, and puts a spotlight on farmers living in remote villages from a macro perspective and the observations of Chinese and Western cultures. 

Pu’s literary imaginations in the form of dreams are scattered across the book which reconstructs the living conditions of rural Shandong in the 17th century with close-ups of reality and illusion from different perspectives. The most widely discussed part of the book was the use of Pu’s elusive expressions of literary imagination in the dream of Woman Wang before her death. 

While Spence’s use of literary materials to write history is certainly not to present a factual account, it prompts readers to imagine a Shandong in the early Qing dynasty, and suggests “what could have possibly happened” in that specific historical context in terms of historical insight.                   

The most important aspect of historical writing is to rely on existing literature and evidence. But what if literature does not provide factual evidence? Can we then use our imagination to reconstruct history based on the imagined consciousness that existed in that specific historical time? 

This is the most peculiar and ambiguous part of modern history writing, and also what postmodern historians constantly question and deconstruct. They question the lack of historical data in general and criticise that such works have no referential value, and that there may be more material missing than remaining. They say that such data are not adequate reflections of history, which calls into question the reliability of all historical materials. 

Historian Hayden White said in his magnum opus Metahistory that all historical materials, including first-hand data and archives, were recorded by people. And whenever people are involved, there would be subjective thinking and emotions, as well as the person’s historical limitations.

Exhausting all means and combing through Chinese and Western historical data, archives and chorographies, he ensured that every word he wrote is backed by evidence from the past. 

The Great Wall of China is seen after a light snowfall at Jiankou, north of Beijing, China, on 9 January 2022. (Greg Baker/AFP)
The Great Wall of China is seen after a light snowfall at Jiankou, north of Beijing, China, on 9 January 2022. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Thus, it would be impossible to be completely scientific and objective, or to record in detail complicated situations involving people and events without incorporating some historical imagination using rhetorical logic. He even argues that there is no big difference between historical writing and literary writing, asserting that both use words, through rhetorical devices and different writing strategies, to create a fictional text. 

This extreme view towards subjective writing has its merits and is debatable, and cannot be simply dismissed as nonsense. However, it deliberately distorts the differing intentions of literary creation and truth-seeking historical writing.              

Notably, Spence’s books cannot be categorised as postmodern historical fiction because all of his books conform to traditional historiographical standards and make the most of available historical data. Exhausting all means and combing through Chinese and Western historical data, archives and chorographies, he ensured that every word he wrote is backed by evidence from the past. 

When filling the gaps and inferring possible scenarios, he always told readers what was written in literary sources and what his “possible interpretations” were. He never tried to confuse or cover up. 

Gaining popularity

As Spence took into account both academic research and accessibility, his historical works can often be enjoyed by both the professional and general reader. His books not only allow experts to consider the significance of historical exploration but also help general readers understand the history of modern China, especially the living environment of the Chinese in a specific era and their pursuit of life’s meaning. 

His books The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980 and The Search for Modern China epitomise his historical knowledge, exceptional writing and ability to stay unbiased and factual. Yet, he was able to retain a sympathetic tone and showed understanding towards history, illustrating a real and vivid China to Western readers.

While readers may disagree with China’s historical development, they are able to see that these historical figures were also real and emotional human beings who had put up a bold fight for a brighter future amid darker times. 

The Gate of Heavenly Peace focuses on the plight of Chinese intellectuals and literati over the past century, specifically the life of Kang Youwei, Lu Xun and Ding Ling, along with their teachers, students, family and friends. The book describes their historical culture and environment, and talks about their pursuits, frustrations, challenges and hopes for the future. 

Since 1990, they [The Gate of Heavenly Peace and The Search for Modern China] also became the common textbooks for Chinese history courses in Western universities, influencing several generations of college students and intellectuals. 

People walk past a 112-metre-long installation entitled "Gold Waves" by teamLab at Shanghai’s Lujiazui subway station on 26 January 2022. (AFP)
People walk past a 112-metre-long installation entitled "Gold Waves" by teamLab at Shanghai’s Lujiazui subway station on 26 January 2022. (AFP)

Meanwhile, The Search for Modern China describes the political and economic changes from the late Ming dynasty to the contemporary era in a textbook-style narration, and covers the changes from the prosperous late Ming dynasty to the Ming-Qing transition period; the Prosperous Era of Kangxi and Qianlong to the decadent late Qing era; the Opium War to the Hundred Days’ Reform; the May Fourth Movement to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China ruled by the CCP; and the Great Leap Forward to reform and opening up. 

The book also mentions Cao Xueqin and his Dream of the Red Chamber, as well as Cai Yuanpei, Chen Duxiu, Hu Shih and Lu Xun of the May Fourth Movement period, pointing out the long-term effects of cultural change.

Written in a conventional style, both books became instant bestsellers among history books across Europe and the US. Since 1990, they also became the common textbooks for Chinese history courses in Western universities, influencing several generations of college students and intellectuals. 

His following books God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, Treason by the Book, as well as his more recent Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, are also lively representations of China’s historical experience, which became bestsellers, deepening Western readers’ understanding of the changes in China’s modern history and their sympathy for the country’s history and culture.      

Only a storyteller?

As Spence’s history books gained popularity and were generally well-received, some of the more traditional historians criticised him for being a “storyteller” historian and claimed that he did not pore over historical texts or discover unknown historical facts hidden beneath piles of old papers. 

They said that his focus was too broad as he did not dedicate his life to one historical event or become an “authoritative expert” on a specific historical subject. 

Some socioeconomic historians who pride themselves on social science research methods also thought that while Spence was a prolific writer, he did not come up with a theoretical framework and made no scientific contribution to historical research. 

They claimed that he did not rely on the universality of social sciences and did not try to incorporate Chinese historical and cultural studies into the universal discipline of social sciences and can only be said to have piqued the interest of the Western audience in Chinese history and culture at best. 

People visit the Yu Garden in Shanghai, China, on 15 February 2022. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People visit the Yu Garden in Shanghai, China, on 15 February 2022. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

However, these superficial criticisms reject the basic humanistic spirit of history and the development of a diverse universality, and these critics are merely confined to their own narrow-minded views fortified by their rigid academic training.              

Writing history by recording major political events is the conventional writing style of traditional Chinese historiography. The Spring and Autumn Annals (《春秋》) records major events, while the Records of the Grand Historian is based on the records of emperors (本纪), complemented by the biographies of historical figures (列传), and supplemented by historical records of social and economic happenings, setting up the common practice in writing China’s official history. 

While Sima Guang’s Zizhi Tongjian (《资治通鉴》) and his subsequent books that record the beginning and end of historical incidents (纪事本末) are written in a different style from other traditional historiographical works, they still depict political events as a whole. 

Narrative history is not only used in traditional Chinese historiography but also in Western historiography since the ancient Greek period. For example, Herodotus’s Histories is a narrative combining various materials and anecdotes while eliminating trivial details. 

In ancient Greek, the word historein means “investigating”, similar to what Sima Qian said in the preface (太史公自序) of Records of the Grand Historian: investigating long-lost stories from all over the world, and tracing the rise and demise of emperors. 

Similar problems were faced when Sima Qian recorded ancient anecdotes in his Annals of the Five Emperors (《五帝本纪》). He reflected, "The books of the 'hundred families' speak of the Yellow Emperor. However, the words in these works are not very refined, and the cultural elites hardly ever refer to it… I have travelled westward as far as Kongtong, northward beyond Zhuolu, eastward I have crossed the sea, while southward I have floated on rafts along the Yangtze and Huai rivers, and all the elders whom I met again and again talked of the places where the Yellow Emperor, Yao and Shun dwelt, and how very different their customs and teachings were. All in all, those who are attached to the ancient literature must be familiar with their sayings.” 

The establishment of academic institutions; the separation of literature, history and philosophy into different branches of study; the specialisation of academia; the professional assessment required for academic career advancement; and the transformation of cultural and academic ideals into a good job that pays well have all worsened the tendency to split hairs in historical research. 

This photograph taken in Athens, Greece, on 8 February 2022 shows a rainbow appearing over the Ancient Acropolis. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP)
This photograph taken in Athens, Greece, on 8 February 2022 shows a rainbow appearing over the Ancient Acropolis. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP)

Herodotus’s successor Thucydides did not agree with recording ancient anecdotes and believed that only contemporary records were reliable. Thus, he wrote History of the Peloponnesian War, which was based on his personal experience that was later cross-referenced and substantiated when he interviewed other witnesses of the event. 

While his historical style is different and emphasises the reliability of the source of his materials, it presents the causes and effects of war and is still a comprehensive narration of political events. 

Whether it is Sima Qian, Herodotus or Thucydides, rhetorical devices in writing history are used to separate the wheat from the chaff through clear and coherent sentences to tell an interesting story. Even in the Age of Enlightenment, English historian Edward Gibbon followed this basic principle of narration when he wrote History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.          

In contrast, modern historians are first and foremost influenced by the Ranke School of the 19th century, which emphasises scientific evidence and examines historical facts. This is done by writing extremely long papers to highlight the specialisation of historical studies. 

The establishment of academic institutions; the separation of literature, history and philosophy into different branches of study; the specialisation of academia; the professional assessment required for academic career advancement; and the transformation of cultural and academic ideals into a good job that pays well have all worsened the tendency to split hairs in historical research. 

Serious and talented historians were forced to go with the flow and ended up spending all their energy to meet the required standards. 

As a result, narrative history became ostracised by institutions and was reduced to the level of history textbooks and run-of-the-mill history texts that were written with little in-depth historical knowledge and perspective. 

A Yue opera performer dances at Yu Garden in Shanghai, China, 15 February 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)
A Yue opera performer dances at Yu Garden in Shanghai, China, 15 February 2022. (Aly Song/Reuters)

By the second half of the 20th century, the scientific objectivity of historical research was challenged, and many historians went from one extreme to the other, turning to “perspective-” and “awareness-” oriented explorations. 

Such discussions were full of political correctness and social consciousness, and emphasised class, race, gender and the disadvantaged. From various cultural criticism perspectives, they tried to “reverse what history has flipped upside down” and transform historical research into an ideological battleground.            

Talent, learning, insight and moral integrity

While there is value in writing history from new perspectives to expand our understanding, as well as in highlighting the limitations and biases of traditional historical writing, the narrative history genre should not be eliminated. 

And while historical research has already become an academic discipline, we must neither forgo the basic humanistic aspect of academic research, reject efforts to popularise academia, treat historical subjects that the everyday person is interested in as worthless topics, nor use the obscurity and dullness of one’s own writing as an excuse for having amassed much wisdom. 

From this perspective, it is no wonder that Spence’s work can be enjoyed by all and yet provide deep revelations for Chinese historical research. Not only did he write about Chinese history from a macro perspective, he also explored new areas of historical research in the field of narrative history, and revealed new perspectives and insight into issues with his exceptional writing.

Chinese historian Liu Zhiji said that historians must possess the three strengths of talent (才), learning (学) and insight (识). Subsequently, Qing dynasty scholar Zhang Xuecheng added the requirement of moral integrity (德). 

In Wenshi Tongyi (《文史通义》), Zhang explains that emphasis is placed on the historian’s care and understanding of cultural traditions, their literary talent in writing and narration, and the wisdom to discard what’s false and keep what’s real. 

In a full chapter of Wenshi Tongyi, Zhang explained the concept of “moral integrity”, referring to the heart of the historian. 

Renowned American historian and sinologist Yu Ying-shih. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)
Renowned American historian and sinologist Yu Ying-shih. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

However, Yu Ying-shih pointed out in a book on Dai Zhen and Zhang Xuecheng (《论戴震与章学诚》) that Zhang’s historical thought was influenced by Chinese Confucian traditions, placing too much emphasis on political ethics. Zhang’s focus on “moral integrity” was biased towards traditional morality and different from the objectivity emphasised by modern historiography.

By combining Zhang’s concept of “moral integrity” with Yu’s comment, it can be observed that Spence’s training in modern Western historiography made it impossible for him to fall into the misconstruction of Confucian morality and traditional Chinese “moral integrity”. 

Instead, he was a Western academic far removed from Chinese politics and the political ethics of modern China. Hence, he did not identify with the rise and fall of the Chinese race, had no conflict of interest and would not have concealed historical truths with his own biased views. 

Spence’s description of Chinese history is aligned with Yu’s reflection on modern historiography and provides an interesting modern interpretation of “talent, learning, insight and moral integrity” in China’s historical tradition.

***********

Authors' Note:

A disciple's labour of love

Cheng Pei-kai was Spence’s first doctoral history student at Yale University. Since 1972, Cheng had immersed himself in historical studies and thought under the guidance of Spence, and had pored over Spence’s history books to learn the techniques of historical research and writing. 

During the time that Spence wrote Emperor of China, Cheng would occasionally have candid discussions with Spence and ask him about his progress or writing strategies.

Cheng was fortunate to have been under Spence’s tutelage and part of the process when the latter wrote The Death of Woman Wang, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci and The Search for Modern China

Heeding the ancient teaching that “the young should bear the labour for the old (有事弟子服其劳)”, Cheng would help Spence locate obscure literature and resources. In turn, Spence treated Cheng kindly and allowed him to freely express himself. 

Cheng said during his studies at Yale University, the biggest lesson he learnt from Spence was balancing objective resources with subjective imagination when picking out resources, and that the key to doing this well was in the “heart”, along the lines of the “historian’s heart” mentioned by Qing dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng.   

Left to right: Cornell University Hu Shih Professor Emeritus of Chinese history Sherman Cochran, Jonathan Spence and Cheng Pei-kai.
Left to right: Cornell University Hu Shih Professor Emeritus of Chinese history Sherman Cochran, Jonathan Spence and Cheng Pei-kai. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)

Following the publication of The Gate of Heavenly Peace in 1981, Cheng was in awe of Spence’s mastery of complex historical materials. Cheng immediately used the book as supplementary teaching material in his modern Chinese history classes. Not only were the materials in the book tailored to perfection, a sense of compassion for the historical events was also expressed in his exceptional writing, bringing the historical figures to life. 

Cheng had once volunteered to translate the book and suggested that Spence could apply for funding to translate and publish the book in Chinese. Spence was very interested in the proposal, as he believed that having his own student translate his work would guarantee the faithful representation of his writing style and historical work. 

However, there was no funding in the end, and Cheng already had too much on his plate with his teaching and research duties. He had no time to translate the book and eventually abandoned this project of great academic merit. It became an anecdote that few people know about. Cheng always felt apologetic about this. 

Despite the missed opportunity, Spence was inspired to write a textbook on modern Chinese history that is supplemented by a collection of translated works on modern Chinese social and cultural history. He discussed the idea with his two students, Cheng and Michael Lestz, who happily obliged. 

The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection was published after more than five years of hard work, translations and curating various works.

A collection of Chinese translations of Spence's works. (WeChat/玉茗堂前)
A collection of Chinese translations of Spence's works. (WeChat/玉茗堂前) 

In recent years, almost all of Spence’s works have been translated into Chinese, but not all of them are of high quality. Editor-in-chief of Guangxi Normal University Press Liu Ruilin came up with a plan to collate all these Chinese translations, select the outstanding and accurate translations, and republish them, with Cheng as editor of the project. Cheng discussed the idea with Spence and he immediately agreed. 

After much effort, Guangxi Normal University Press managed to obtain the copyright of all the Chinese translations of Spence’s works. Cheng could now redeem himself and complete what he attempted to do 20 years ago. He was able to personally supervise the revisions and be part of the translation process.

As this was a big endeavour and Cheng was concerned that he would not have the capacity to take care of everything and review every single word of each chapter, he engaged Yan Xiu, a scholar of translation studies, as co-editor.            

During the review process, errors were found in even the most outstanding translations. Typos or typesetting issues could be directly corrected, while other issues such as misinterpretations of the original text would only be tweaked to ensure that the original meaning is conveyed while still maintaining the translation’s integrity.   

The greatest challenge was to faithfully represent Spence’s writing style in the translations. Spence wrote with elegance and beauty, his words were vivid and readable, and highlighted the characteristics of historical figures and key events, such that readers are able to understand in an impressive but not exaggerated manner. 

Faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance

While some of the translations were unable to rid themselves of Europeanised grammar, they were generally faithful to the original text and checked the boxes of “faithfulness" (信) and “expressiveness" (达). However, when it comes to “elegance" (雅), even the best translations seemed overly bombastic and repetitive due to the excessive use of fancy and redundant words, making them miles apart from the style of the original text. 

People visit the Yu Garden in Shanghai, China, on 15 February 2022. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People visit the Yu Garden in Shanghai, China, on 15 February 2022. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

As the collection of translations were done by numerous translators, each with their own writing style, only the typesetting issues or misinterpretations were amended during the review process. The different styles were left untouched.

Translation is a challenging task. Even the 19th century Chinese translator Yan Fu said that the creation of a word or name requires ten days to a month of deliberation (一名之立, 旬月踯躅). There would be no end if one was to nitpick every detail. 

The editors of Spence’s works have a responsibility towards the original author, translators and readers, and would need to complete this project to the best of their abilities as an academic merit, providing the most refined and accurate set of translations to Chinese readers. 

Hopefully, Chinese readers of this collection of translations will understand the limitations of translation, and by reading beyond the words, they can experience the charm of the original books, see the blood, sweat and tears behind them, and be awed by how Spence has told the story of modern Chinese history in such a natural and unrestricted way.

The story is ours to begin with, and Spence has told them in such a beautiful, exciting and mesmerising way.

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