Jonathan Spence Biography

By Frederic E. Wakeman Jr., University of California, Berkeley
From the General Meeting Booklet, 2005 AHA Annual Meeting

Jonathan D. Spence, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, was born in England on August 11, 1936, the son of Dermot and Muriel Crailsham Spence. His was a lettered family. Professor Spence’s maternal grandfather taught at Clifton College in Bristol during the Great War, and his mother, who attended finishing school in London, was a passionate student of French language and literature. Dermot Spence had attended Oxford and Heidelberg universities in the late 1920s and spoke excellent German. He also worked at a publishing house and art gallery, and was editor of one of Joseph Conrad’s works. One of Jonathan Spence’s two older brothers was a classicist and the other a chemical engineer. His sister, a filmmaker, is also a professional translator of French, German, and Italian.

When he was 13, Professor Spence matriculated at Winchester College, one of the oldest public schools in England, founded by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and High Chancellor of the Realm. As Jonathan once pointed out to me, in 1382, the very year Winchester was established in Hampshire, on the other side of the world in Jiangnan the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368–98) was suppressing the Hu Weiyong uprising and abolishing the post of Chief Councilor of the Ming dynasty. Somehow Jonathan’s world-spanning historical consciousness seemed all the more appropriate when I remembered that another global historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, had been an Old Wykehamist as well.

Raised in the “soft” Anglicanism of the college, he attended compulsory chapel eight times a week, amusing himself by reading the services in French and German psalters that he slipped into the oratory. Summer holidays were typically spent in France with an exchange family living in a rural chateau where he spent long afternoons at tennis and watched the bats swoop for insects in the dusk.

Back at school he pursued his studies passionately. Even now, Professor Spence remembers Winchester as an intellectual hothouse, a kind of “high octane preparation for Oxford and Cambridge.” Though only a fees-paying “commoner” while his father and older brother were stipended “scholars” (to use the college’s own medieval distinction), Jonathan survived at Winchester, winning the History Prize. He read widely and composed poetry, but considered himself a better literary critic than a creative writer. By the time he graduated from the college in 1954 and completed a two-year tour of military duty as a second lieutenant stationed in Germany, he was ready to go up to Clare College at Cambridge.

Clare College was “magical.” “Excited and reckless,” young Spence quickly became a member of the top intellectual stratum of the university. Not only was he a co-editor of the literary magazine Granta; in his second year he was also named editor of Cambridge’s student newspaper, Varsity. The outgoing editor facetiously wrote of him: “Jonathan Spence is slim, sallow and vague.” At that time he wanted most to be a novelist. He later modestly claimed that he realized he had “nothing to say,” and instead turned to writing parodies, a form he had mastered at Winchester. He was not yet clear about his métier by the time he took his BA degree in 1959.

Spence arrived at Yale University with a Mellon Fellowship that supported an exchange of top-ranking students between Yale and Clare College. Though mainly working in history, he was still uncertain about his calling until he took a course with Professor Mary Wright. Arthur and Mary Clabaugh Wright had only recently left Stanford for Yale, where they each accepted chairs in Chinese history. John King Fairbank later described the intellectual dynasty that was being formed at that time:

When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a PhD candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study international history but turned to China when she heard about it. She married another Harvard graduate student in Chinese history, Arthur F. Wright. Twenty years later, when both Wrights were invited from Stanford to come to Yale as professors of history, Mary Wright found her brightest student in the person of Jonathan Spence, a young Englishman from Winchester College and Cambridge University, who had just come to Yale. Hearing Mary Wright’s lectures he chose Chinese studies, and she arranged for his unusual talent to be specially trained under the master of Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty biography, Fang Chao-ying. Fang was then in Australia, where Jonathan Spence was sent to work with him.1

Under Fang Chao-ying’s guidance, Spence became the first scholar in the West to make use of the Qing secret memorials collected in the Palace Museum in Taiwan. His PhD dissertation (1965) received the John Addison Porter Prize and was published by the Yale University Press under the title Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master (Yale University Press, 1966). I remember how excited my own mentor, Joseph R. Levenson, was by Jonathan’s precocious masterpiece. “Qing historical studies,” he told me, “will never be the same. Besides,” he added, “the man writes like an angel.”

Spence joined the Yale faculty in 1966 as an assistant professor of history. In 1968 he was appointed an associate professor; and in 1971, after publishing a second book, To Change China: Western Advisers in China from 1620-1969 (Little, Brown, 1969), he was promoted to professor. Five years later he was named George Burton Adams Professor of History.

In 1974 and 1978, Professor Spence published two extraordinary books, nearly back-to-back. Chinese historians had long hoped for a personal portrait of one of the great Qing emperors. Professor Harold L. Kahn had written a striking study of the Qianlung Emperor (r. 1736–96), but it was more about the monarch’s persona than the individual himself.2 In Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi (Vintage Books, 1974), Jonathan gave us the monarch in his own words. Kangxi spoke directly to the reader—or so it seemed. The book was controversial, because the emperor’s speech was a collage from myriad sources in different contexts. But Kangxi’s voice was vivid and compelling, and the book broke out of the confines of a conventional audience of Chinese specialists to reach a much larger public. The same was true for The Death of Woman Wang (Viking Press, 1978), which soon was featured on most college reading lists in Chinese history. Students were not only introduced to a more vivid and colorful China than they expected; they also were privileged to view Qing society from the bottom up as Spence gave voice to those who left no written records and whose lives had to be reconstructed from local gazetteers, magistrates’s handbooks, and storytellers’ tales.

Like many fine historians who combine narrative description and critical analysis, Professor Spence has a special and unique eye for the telling detail. Often he begins with an image that has captured his imagination. I remember one evening with him, walking across the Wesleyan campus in Middletown. When I asked him what he was working on at the moment, Jonathan’s eyes narrowed, as though he were looking into the distance. “I’ve discovered a marvelous source,” he murmured. “About the murder of a woman nE9e Wang: a body crumpled in the snow85.” Or later, as he was writing The Question of Hu (Knopf, 1988), the figure of a hapless man from Foshan locked up like a lunatic in the asylum at Charenton materialized in his mind’s eye. Jonathan simply sees what most of us overlook. In one of the opening chapters of God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (W.W. Norton, 1996), he describes the foreign factories along Canton’s bustling waterfront. Much of this was familiar to me, as I had perused the same sources for an earlier work of my own. But I realized, when I read Spence’s narrative, that I lacked Spence’s sensitivity to many of the sights and sounds that struck contemporaries, and especially to the frisson of seeing a baby abandoned in a basket under the pedestrians’ feet.

Professor Spence combines his critical imagination with a scrupulous attention to the sources. Whether in the essays on the Ming-Qing transition he edited together with John E. Wills, in The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980 (Viking Press, 1981), or in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Viking Penguin, 1984), Spence bases his work on solid and sedulous reading—especially of newly discovered archival materials. One of the best examples of this is his study of Hong Xiuquan and Taiping Christianity, The Taiping Vision of a Christian China, 1836–1864 (Baylor University Press, 1998). As he explains in his preface, the book was born of the recent discoveries of heretofore unknown Taiping sources in the British Library by our mutual colleague, Wang Qingcheng, the former director of the Modern History Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The same year God’s Chinese Son appeared, Professor Spence and his wife Chin Annping (who earned her PhD at Columbia in classical Chinese philosophy) also published The Chinese Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years (Random House, 1996).

At Yale, Professor Spence is famous for his undergraduate lecture course in Chinese history, which has regularly been one of the humanities offerings in the college with the highest enrollments. Although it is impossible to reproduce Professor Spence’s dazzling lecture style in book form, the content of the course reached a much larger audience when he published his Search for Modern China (Norton, 1990), now perhaps the most widely used Chinese history textbook in American universities.

As a fervent admirer of Professor Spence, I envy his extraordinary discipline as a writer, which helps account for his prolific output. I happened to be his and Annping’s dinner guest at their house in West Haven the day he put the finishing touches on God’s Chinese Son. After toasting the new book, I idly asked Jonathan what he planned next to write. I was surprised when he responded without hesitation. In that uniquely ruminative way of his, he said, almost dreamily: “I want to write about cold. I see a Manchu warrior skating on a frozen pond. And the steam of a war horse’s panting in the dry cold of a North China winter.” The picture was so immediately vivid that I halfway expected him to leave me at the dinner table and go upstairs to write, picking up a fresh sheet of paper for his sprawling longhand even before the latest manuscript had been sent off to the publisher. Other books have intervened since then, but I am still waiting confidently for him to bring that cold landscape to life one way or another.

Professor Spence has earned his writing time on his own. That is, he has “bought” most of his triennial research leaves with his administrative contributions to Yale University. From 1973–75, he was director of graduate studies in history. From 1977–79, he served as chair of the Council on East Asian Studies, and also as director of the Division of Humanities from 1980 to 1982. He chaired the Department of History from 1983–86, and during 1988–89 he was acting director of the Whitney Humanities Center. Named Sterling Professor of History in 1993, he currently serves on the governing board of Yale University Press. By dint of such superb university citizenship, Jonathan was able to earn leaves three years apart; if those did not suffice, he often took advances or leave without pay. For at least twenty years he has never applied for a grant. During the interim between leaves, he typically reads for the next book: The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds (W.W. Norton) appeared in 1998, Mao Zedong (Viking) in 1999, and Treason by the Book (Viking) in 2001.

The world has recognized Professor Spence’s eminence. He has received eight honorary degrees from various colleges in the United States as well as the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2003 Professor Spence received an honorary degree from Oxford University. He was also invited to become a visiting professor at Peking University and an honorary professor at Nanjing University. Four years ago he was named C.M.G. (Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George) on the Queen of England’s Birthday Honours List.

In 1978 he received the William C. DeVane Medal of the Yale Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa; in 1979, a Guggenheim Fellowship; in 1982, the Los Angeles Times History Prize; and in 1983, the Vursel Prize of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Professor Spence was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985 and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1988, the same year he was appointed to the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress. In 1993 he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society and in 1997 was named a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.

And still he continues to inspire his colleagues. Professor Spence is now completing a new book on the seventeenth-century historian, essayist, and connoisseur, Zhang Dai (1597–1684), who began as an epicure in Shaoxing and ended as an eremitic Ming loyalist in the mountains southeast of that city. Zhang is one of the most difficult and elusive writers of the period. To tackle his prose is a daunting task, but Jonathan takes on his poetry as well. Even as he serves as president of the American Historical Association, Professor Spence is about to open yet another stunning new vista on the history of late imperial and modern China.

1. John King Fairbank, “From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping,” New York Review of Books 37:9 (May 31, 1990).

2. Harold L. Kahn, Monarchy in the Emperor’s Eyes: Image and Reality in the Ch’ien-lung Reign (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).


Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man. New York: Viking, 2007.

Treason by the Book. New York: Viking, 2001.

Mao Zedong. New York: Viking, 1999.

The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

The Taiping Vision of a Christian China, 1836–1864. 1st ed. Waco, TX: Markham Press Fund, Baylor University Press, 1998.

Wen hua lei tong yu wen hua li yong / Shi Jingqian jiang yan; Liao Shiqi, Peng Xiaoqiao yi. Di 2 ban. Beijing: Beijing da xue chu ban she, 1997.

God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Chinese Roundabout: Essays in History and Culture. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.

The Search for Modern China. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1990.

Tsáo Yin and the Káng-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, 1966.

The Question of Hu. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1988.

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Viking Penguin, 1984.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

The Historical Precedents for Our New Relations with China, with Paul Cohen and Steven Levine. Washington, DC: East Asia Program, Wilson Center, 1980.

From Ming to Ch’ing: Conquest, Region, and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century China, with John E. Wills Jr. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

The Death of Woman Wang. New York: Viking Press, 1978.

Imperial China: Photographs, 1850–1912, historical texts with Clark Worswick. New York: Pennwick Publishing; distributed by Crown, 1978.

Emperor of China: Self Portrait of K’ang Hsi. 1st ed. New York: Knopf; distributed by Random House, 1974.

To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620–1960. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966.

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