Publication Date

May 1, 2010

Perspectives Section


Jonathan D. Spence, former president of the AHA (2004) and the Sterling Professor of History, emeritus, at Yale University, will deliver the 39th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on May 20, 2010, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced.

In the lecture, entitled “When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century,” Spence will explore the many ways that one of the first Chinese travelers to reach Europe shared his ideas with the Westerners he met. Though the contacts were brief, they showed the possibilities for a real meeting of the minds between the two dramatically different cultures, and help us chart the value of the humanities in that distant era.

Spence’s immense erudition and meticulous research, cast in his elegant and witty narratives, made Chinese history accessible to the scholar and interested reader alike. Often starting with (or revolving around) a telling anecdote, his books, rich even in their brevity, have been captivating bestsellers. Whether it is The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,The Question of Hu, or The Death of Woman Wang—to name only a few of his numerous books—Spence unspools in seemingly effortless prose stories that in the end also manage to convey larger historical truths.

Spence was born in Surrey, England, in 1936. (He became an American citizen in 2000.) He studied at Winchester College and spent two years in the army for his national service, before attending Clare College, Cambridge, receiving a B.A. in history in 1959. A Clare-Mellon fellowship brought him to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to study for an M.A. in history that same year. At Yale he devoted himself to the study of the history and culture of China, going on to earn a Ph.D. in 1965. His dissertation became the basis or his first book, Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor, Bondservant and Master (1966).

Spence joined the faculty at Yale as an assistant professor in 1966, becoming the George Burton Adams professor of history in 1976 and Sterling professor of history in 1993. He retired from full time teaching in 2008.

He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, as well as 10 honorary degrees.

“Jonathan Spence’s scholarship has shaped the field of Chinese history,” said NEH Chairman Jim Leach. “In a world in which mutual understanding has never been more important, Spence has helped Americans understand the culture of one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations.”

The Jefferson Lecture is the Endowment’s most widely attended annual event. Past Jefferson Lecturers include John Updike, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Bernard Bailyn, Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, and AHA presidents Caroline Walker Bynum and James McPherson. The lectureship carries a $10,000 honorarium.

—Based on NEH web site announcement

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