Will there be another Jonathan Spence?

For a few weeks earlier this spring, Jonathan Spence was everywhere. He gave lectures to packed auditoriums at universities across China; newspapers and magazines featured long interviews and profiles with him; he even made the cover of Renwu Zhoukan 人物周刊. He was in interesting company. The actress Zhou Xun(周迅) preceded him on the cover of the magazine. The message was clear. Jonathan Spence is a celebrity. Some people even noted his good looks: Jonathan Spence, the Sean Connery of Chinese history.

Judging from the various interviews he gave, Spence was a bit bemused by his reception. As he told Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo 南方周末), when he first started coming to China in the late 1970s, no one wanted to talk to him. The mathematician in his group was the most popular foreign scholar. Now, already retired for several years, he still draws huge crowds.

As Spence jetted around China China, the American academic community was still in the midst of the latest and particularly acute round of worrying about relevancy. This time the spark came for New York Times columnist Nicholas Kirstof who called on academics to stop researching narrow topics, to start writing in clear prose and to remove themselves from the Ivory Tower. His lament was part compliment: the world needs engaged academics.

By Kristof’s standard, Spence was an ideal academic. Not only did he have a score of intellectual achievements—a professorship at Yale, a MacArthur Genius grant and a term as president of the American Historical Association—but his books graced The New York Times bestseller list and he regularly penned, and pens, articles for hefty publications like The New York Review of Books.

In fact, looking at the arc of Spence’s publications, only his first book really fits into the easily identifiable category of a scholarly monograph. Based on a close reading of difficult documents and full on footnotes, Tsʻao Yin and the Kʻang-hsi Emperor; bondservant and master, examines the relationship between emperor and minister in the early Qing. For people more familiar with his later books, this first volume might feel unfamiliar, though the telltale signs of his style are still there. Credentials established, Spence went on to bend, meld and combine genres for works that were unmistakably historical but also much more. In Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi, he takes on the persona of the Qing emperor, probing the worries that came with ruling a realm. Spence carried this style and form through in the rest of his work, from The Death of Woman Wang to Treason by the Book.

With Kristof’s lament in mind, a question emerges: Will there by another Jonathan Spence? That query leads to another one: If there is not another Jonathan Spence-like figure does that mean that Chinese studies is destined to be cloistered in the irrelevance of its own echo chamber?

The realistic answer to the first question is no. First there is the matter of style. One immediately recognizes a Spence book: a novelist’s skill in setting a scene, a historian’s sense of empathy with the motivations, interests, fear and worries of historical figures and a gifted writer’s ability to build paragraphs, pages and chapters that naturally fall into place. Then there is the sheer size of his academic output. A lot of historians of China manage to publish two, maybe three, books over the course of their career. It also generally takes longer to produce these volumes then, say, works of American history. It is can be hard to find the time and money to go to China and once there, the archival work rate is quite slow, due partly to regulations about making copies and taking pictures and partly to the fact that Chinese is difficult.  Spence is apparently immune to these challenges. He published more than a dozen books. After his first work, Tsʻao Yin and the Kʻang-hsi Emperor, he went off on his own path. Not only did he do it, his was very successful at it. Someone who hoped to follow his path would have to mirror this two step process—taking risks and being successful—again and again, all the while banging out essays and reviews for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

The optimistic answer to the second question is also no. One of the many flaws embedded in Kristof’s lament about the disengagement of academics was privileging an academic presence in the types of he happens to read or thinks are important: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books. In fact, Chinese studies academics are generally quite active in the latter publication (Rana Mittler has a great review essay in the latest edition). Beyond the rarified era of these publication, a number of academics bring the complexities of the Chinese present and the Chinese past to a wider section of the public, whether it is the China blog at the L.A. Times run by Jeff Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham or the inimitable style of Jeremiah Jenne who has the uncanny ability to explain Chinese history through references to The Wire.

There probably won’t be another Jonathan Spence and that is probably ok.

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