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On the death of the historian and sinologist Jonathan Spence

Jonathan Spence was a peculiar sinologist and historian, perhaps a peculiar scientist in general. Even the most enthusiastic admirers of his colleagues sometimes wondered what question of the subject this great scholar with all his admirable knowledge was actually answering in this or that book. This was because, in a way, he was not treating his area, China, as an opposing subject at all. But rather merely as the framework for the résumés, which he reconstructed with extraordinary density and precision on the basis of the available sources, whether that of an emperor (“Ich, Kaiser von China”, in the original 1974), a Chinese convert, a Jesuit priest to Europe brings and ends up in the insane asylum (“The little Mr. Hu”, 1988), or a private scholar in the transition between the Ming and Qing dynasties (“The return to the Dragon Mountain”, 2007).

The difference in perspective is considerable: In his works Spence did not want to create the projection of an entity called China himself, but wanted to depict concrete biographies under their concrete Chinese conditions. “As a historian, I am interested in the way in which the levels of reality cross and overlap,” he once wrote: “It is my tacit belief that bold generalizations are usually far from reality and that individual experience is rare This is how Spence succeeded in depicting China not as a fixed entity, but in motion – in historically guaranteed figures, in whose experiences readers can recognize themselves as a matter of course through the precise interpretation of their social, cultural and political circumstances . The questions that these characters ask are ultimately directed, across the supposed cultural boundaries, to their own life and how it deals with historical contingencies.

In this way, science and literature easily merged with one another. Students who listened to the professor at Yale, where he has taught since 1971, reported that his lectures often resembled short stories. Spence was born in 1936 in Surrey, England; After two years as a soldier in Germany, he first studied history at Cambridge before coming across China through a historian at Yale. To understand the present, his overall presentation “China’s Path to Modernity” (1990) and above all “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” (1981), in which he traces the intersecting lives of reformers and revolutionaries since 1895, are essential. Jonathan Spence died on December 25th in West Haven, Connecticut, at the age of 85.


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