Remembering Jonathan Spence

A ChinaFile Conversation

Two months ago, as the hubbub of the holidays was winding down, I received a phone call I had been dreading. Jonathan Spence, the celebrated historian of China and my teacher and friend, had died on Christmas. In the days that followed, there would be tributes to his towering achievements as a scholar, the precise balletic grace of his prose, his spellbound Yale classrooms. But I couldn’t absorb them. “Jonathan’s gone,” his wife Annping Chin had told me on the phone from New Haven, and for several weeks it felt like he had taken 27 years of my memories with him.

It wasn’t until these reminiscences from Spence’s doctoral students and colleagues began to arrive—brimming with the kind of detail he’d have relished—that the blankness started to recede, and I found myself retrieving pieces of my own memories in theirs. Now I could picture my 19-year-old self, learning my way into China under the enchantment of his lectures. I could feel my surprise and gratitude, when drafts of the essay I’d wedge into his overflowing mailbox returned just hours later, covered in his slenderly penciled notes. I could hear him slicing apart a defective argument, lethal in his gentility, or marveling at a fellow student’s discovery in the archives. I could see the flash of sun on the water as we rode the Star Ferry across Hong Kong’s harbor, Jonathan leaning out over the rail to catch the breeze and scan the view as he told me tales of Ming connoisseurs of paper lanterns.

The most obvious, if flawed, metaphor for a portrait of Jonathan Spence in which each of many compartments contains its own deliberately stored treasure is a memory palace. But what follows strikes me as more of a “roundabout,” the word Spence used in the title of his 1992 essay anthology, which “attempts to sort out, with some kind of logic, the conveyances converging on a given point from many directions.” I like to imagine Jonathan’s students and friends, each of us holding our own picture, coming into a circle, when all of a sudden we catch a glimpse of him standing at the center. —Susan Jakes


In the 1970s and 1980s, Jonathan Spence almost single-handedly made Chinese history vividly real to a general reading public. There were already well-known experts on Chinese history like John King Fairbank, whose interests were in 19th and 20th century Chinese history, or Theodore de Bary, who made “Confucianism” a by-word of Chinese studies. Unlike Spence, none was celebrated in literary magazines, and none had made Chinese historical experience the fabric of their writing. It is not usual for writers with wide impact to be also at the forefront of scholarly influence and credibility, but Spence was; his first book (Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor), which went very directly to a book from his dissertation in 1966, reshaped the field, drawing an astonishing portion of new Ph.D.s into Qing history, particularly into the 17th and 18th centuries. Like several Yale faculty of the time, he explored the cultural and psychological dynamics of narrative, whether sequential or mosaic. He even contributed his own post-structuralist tract in The Death of Woman Wang.

Unlike many of his contemporaries among Ph.D. directors, Spence never assigned topics to his students. His Ph.D.s have worked in art history and Chinese literature, as well as a great variety of sub-disciplines: economic and trade, global, social, architectural, science, medicine, intellectual among them. One thing inspiring them all, I would guess, was his celebration of wide-ranging erudition, and his own unfailing ability to imagine the possibilities for new work in any frame of reference. He seemed never to hear a bad idea. For graduate students who did not learn to critically and objectively judge their own research plans, dissertation work could be a little bit of a minefield. But for those in need of this kind of freedom and trust, it was a precious gift.

Equally important was Spence’s peculiar ability to deal with difficult people. Whether co-editors, researchers, graduate students, or undergraduates, there are many people in the field today (I among them) who would not be here without his patience and ability to suspend judgment. “Wait and see,” with heavy emphasis on both verbs, has been my way of capturing the essence of this Spence skill, which came naturally to him and for many of the rest of us is only clumsily acquired.

In the end, what I think Spence brought to his Ph.D. students, transformatively, was his sensibility for the lives of early modern people, the people whose worlds became global. His office in Yale’s Timothy Dwight College, below street level, was streaked with the angled sunlight of Vermeer. With jumblings of books in three languages and curious objects (some of which turned into gifts on special occasions), it had the mood of “Saint Jerome in His Study”—without the lion, though there was occasionally a dog. Through Spence’s mediumship, we shared that study with emperors, Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, imperial concubines, philosophers, bannermen, poets, provincial governors, painters, physicians, mathematicians. Many a wandering China historian settled there, in the Qing, a place to find out where our world comes from.

As one of Jonathan Spence’s first doctoral advisees, I would like to contribute a recollection from the early years of his teaching.

In the spring of 1971, more than 50 years ago, I served as Jonathan’s teaching assistant in Yale’s introductory course in modern Chinese history.

On the first day of classes, I settled into a seat at the back of the room and surveyed the undergraduates as they wandered in. I remember being struck by how dreary the weather was and by how passive the undergraduates looked on that dull gray January day. As Jonathan stepped up to the lectern, I wondered how he or any other teacher could possibly brighten the atmosphere in the dimly lit room and lift the undergraduates out of their lethargy.

“Mary Wright is dead and the Cultural Revolution is over,” Jonathan said in his opening words, which seemed to tumble softly from his mouth in an English accent that caused us all to lean forward for fear we would miss something.

For a moment I thought that Jonathan’s words were aimed exclusively at me. After all, in the fall of 1969 I had taken the last course given by Mrs. Wright (as we graduate students all called her). Most of the undergraduates in Jonathan’s introductory course, by contrast, had probably never heard of her even though she had been teaching modern Chinese history at Yale since 1959. Or if they had heard of her, they had no idea that Jonathan had worked closely with her and done his Ph.D. under her supervision. And yet, as I looked around the lecture hall, I could see that I was not the only one who had been struck by Jonathan’s first words. Virtually all the undergraduates had snapped to attention and become as curious as I was about Jonathan’s reference to Mary Wright and the Cultural Revolution.

What did Jonathan mean by this unlikely juxtaposition? I didn’t know for sure, and I couldn’t imagine that the undergraduates knew either. But something about Jonathan’s delivery made us want to learn more not only about Mary Wright and the Chinese Revolution but also about whatever else he had to say. After hearing nothing more than his first sentence, we were already on the edges of our seats. Like many others who have taken his courses and read his books, we could hardly wait to hear where his imagination would take us. We were, in a word, hooked.

The first book of Chinese history that really hit me was To Change China, read in Beijing and Qingdao on my first trip to the People’s Republic of China the summer after my freshman year at Yale. Three decades later, I don’t think we’ve outgrown its premise. In all of Jonathan Spence’s oeuvre, To Change China, one of his early works, seems the most relevant for Americans today as they wrestle (yet again) with the stubborn fact that China is not up to them. For Spence, it was invigorating, not dispiriting, to disillusion oneself of the image of China in the Western mind and embark on the search for China as it was to itself.

I took “Spence,” as we called it, reverently, my sophomore year. On occasion, I’ve looked back at my notebooks and am astonished by how much detail he offered and how much it absorbed me. Spence taught modern China from the year 1600 to the present, which is how it should be done, and not at all easy to do—as a professor of modern Chinese history myself, I can only manage half that, and not half as well.

Spence was on sabbatical finishing up Treason by the Book my first year as a graduate student. Although we spent considerable amounts of time together over the next eight years, it was rare to hear him talk at length about his work-in-progress. I never learned the secret to his magic—and it was magic—although I got glimpses here and there. One evening in West Haven over martinis, which he took great joy in preparing for houseguests—especially thirsty grad students—he laid out the whole plot and meaning of the new book. Zeng Jing, the Yongzheng Emperor, the texts of philosophy, politics, and inquisition, the new vistas on the Qing dynasty that this literary treason case had opened up. I could only listen; my occasional questions were obvious; I had nothing to add. But it was a joy to hear it fresh.

The care Spence put into his teaching and his students was impressive at the time and, as a teacher now, astonishing in retrospect. From random undergraduate events in his residential college to anything China-related on campus, you would find Spence there. As a teaching assistant for Spence in the early aughts, I saw him preparing for those unforgettable lectures delivered thrice weekly. He would scribble out fresh notes on topics he knew cold. And he lavished his graduate students with attention; while some of my classmates languished in the purgatory of waiting for comments from their advisors, Spence read everything I sent him swiftly, thoroughly, incisively.

I was not his last Ph.D. student, though I was in the last bunch. I was not his favorite, but if he had favorites none of us seemed to know. There was a measure of distance Spence kept with me and with all his students, a warm and caring distance that ensured our feelings of equal claim on him and our sense of autonomy as scholars in our own right.

Spence left his stamp on the minds of a half-century worth of students at Yale and shaped the wider world of U.S.-China relations by influencing diplomats, journalists, and investors alike—Henry Kissinger once wrote that “no China scholar has influenced my own thinking more than Jonathan Spence.” But it was through his mastery of the art of historical narrative, available to any reader, that Spence achieved immortality. The words he left us will be read for as long as there exists curiosity to understand China.

I was a latecomer to the Jonathan Spence experience: I met him only in 2002, when he was writing his last book, Return to Dragon Mountain, about the Ming literatus Zhang Dai. Spence was looking for research assistants to help with document summary and translation, and offered probably the most generous undergraduate hourly wage on the Yale campus. As a frequently broke sophomore from China living on financial aid, this was a dream job.

For the next couple of years, we met biweekly to discuss documents and sources, or to go over chapter drafts. Yale’s history department was full of intellectual giants in the later stages of their careers, charismatic lecturers with massive undergraduate student followings. It is impossible to forget the thrill of Donald Kagan’s Greek history seminars or John Gaddis’ Cold War lectures, and yet, but for my experience working with Spence I don’t think I ever would have considered making a career in historical research.

Spence managed to bring historical figures and scenes to life in a way no one else could, and it was that sense of intellectual elevation—the idea that one could produce, from often mundane historical source material, something qualitatively richer and more profound than what that material appeared to contain within its four corners—that captured me. Just as importantly, he made the history of my own country feel fresh, full of overlooked connections and layers of meaning.

Reading a document with Spence was an adventure: Students would go in with one interpretation or the other, in some cases having spent days looking up every possible historical reference, but he would routinely spot something we missed, something that made the characters more human, the context more compelling. He had this talent of transportation, of making his audience “feel” history in a more direct, more phenomenological fashion, as if Kangxi or Hong Xiuquan were actually sitting across the table from us, shaking their heads in disappointment at our wooden interpretations of their writings.

I’ve often wondered what was the true nature of his gift. Many simply chalked it up to superior writing skills. More probably, his true talent lay in empathy—not the straightforward kind that we associate with common kindness, but a more complex ability to balance deeply personal understandings of historical characters with a keen and refined sense of self. Few scholars can maintain that balance. The rest of us compensate through some combination of theory, empirical method, or archival thoroughness. Spence eschewed theory and structural method not because they were necessarily anathema to his thinking, but because he could afford to: He could reliably pierce the veil of the past without those crutches.

The man did, of course, have style in spades: literary style, oratory style, but also a personal elegance of manners and movement that I’ve very rarely encountered. I like to think his style and his immense qualities of scholarly empathy were linked—that his empathy gave him a wider intellectual horizon than the rest of us, making it easier to be cool, measured, precise, and refined while dealing with the imperfections of the day-to-day.

In the corner of my own memory palace that I’ve reserved for teachers and mentors, he still sits comfortably in a booth at his beloved Naples Pizza, a roll of printed documents scattered out on the table, his trusty yellow notepad at the ready, gently speaking with Zhang Dai across centuries, as if conversing with an old friend.

The great challenge of having Jonathan Spence as a Ph.D. advisor stemmed from the simple fact that he was a genius, and I was not. We struggled mightily to bridge that chasm. To make matters worse, most geniuses are brilliant in one or at most two facets of their job, but Spence was a genius in all of them. This meant it was difficult to get advice from him on practical matters. Spence on research methods: “I put the things I find in a cardboard box; when the box is full, I write.” Spence on lecturing: “I take a legal pad and note down the most important thing I want to tell the students, then I bring it to class.” On some things he could give no advice whatsoever—he’d never struggled to find a publisher, had never really been on the job market. His counsel on the latter, “Just don’t be diffident, Norm” actually turned out to be pretty good advice. And then there was the particular genius that was his writing. Though you could literally watch him at work in Naples Pizza, his process was mysterious. We knew that he was equal parts historian and artist, and sensed that some of the history he told included elements of himself. He was the Matteo Ricci who had long ago left his homeland, but still occasionally dreamed of Macerata. He was the Kangxi emperor, tasting the air of the Mongolian Steppe as he chased Galdan. Spence was at once doing profoundly well-researched history and revealing the tenderest and truest bits of himself. I early on sensed that if you wanted to understand him, you read his writing.

Susan Naquin
Jonathan Spence at the tomb of Matteo Ricci, in Beijing, early summer 1987.

None of this was to say he was not a good advisor; he was superb. He saw the kind of historian I wanted to become and helped me get there. And he gave meticulous feedback. He also told self-deprecating stories so his genius would be less intimidating. He claimed he’d once written a paper comparing two philosophers who were actually the same person. “Surprisingly,” he said, “I managed to find more than a couple differences between their systems of thought.” I’ve always suspected the story was a fabrication designed to put us at ease, but it was comforting, nonetheless.

There was one instant in which I believe I glimpsed the real Jonathan. I usually took his last office hour slot of the day, visiting him in his study (as he called it) in the basement of Yale’s Timothy Dwight College. Meetings were intense. I left them feeling so elated I’d literally sprint down Temple Street, or I’d feel utterly discouraged and disappointed in myself. Once when I was late and rushing to meet him, I glanced over from the sidewalk to see if his light was still on. I saw Jonathan sitting in his usual chair, but with an expression on his face I’d never seen. He looked utterly exhausted. When he answered my knock the look of fatigue was erased. But on that day, I understood that while he made things look easy, his genius was combined with an extraordinary, even super-human, work ethic, and that all that hard work took a heavy toll on him. For everything he did for me, and for the world, I am thus ever more grateful.

I feel profound gratitude for the chance to learn from Jonathan.

I suspect all the students that Jonathan Spence mentored over the years can mark time remembering both our first encounter with one of his books, and then the book that he was writing as we embarked on our own dissertation projects. The cast of historical actors we met in Jonathan’s pages no doubt visited our research, shaping it in subtle ways. I imagine Matteo Ricci reading the early stages of Pamela Crossley’s Orphan Warriors; or the Yongzheng and Kangxi Emperors nodding approvingly as they witnessed the birth of the New Qing History. Perhaps a treasonous Zeng Jing felt a kinship with his fellow Hunanese in an early draft of Steve Platt’s Provincial Patriots. Zhang Dai, the Ming historian and aesthete who was the subject of Jonathan’s last book, might not have liked many of my own conclusions about slavery in China. But I am sure, somehow, that he was there too—helping Jonathan help me to see trafficking in northern China more clearly.

Jonathan’s histories speak to the challenges China would face later. His books bring us a human message from the past, not just a cliché about lessons and repetition or rhyme, but a reminder of our responsibilities to each other and to our shared endeavor of better understanding China.

With this in mind, in recent weeks, I’ve found myself contemplating a conversation Jonathan and I had about a book review he was writing during the spring when I was wrestling with the end of my dissertation. Probably eager to dodge that awkward topic, I asked what he was working on. Jonathan replied, in his musing way, “I’ve been thinking about what it means to love China. . .” He was in the midst of planning his wonderful New York Review of Books essay on “The Man Who Loved China,” Simon Winchester’s biography of polymathic British historian of science Joseph Needham. That review exquisitely assessed Winchester’s depiction of the love triangle between Needham, his collaborator Lu Gwei-jen, and his wife, Dorothy, as well as Needham’s own abiding passion for China, the blind spots it produced, the political and personal costs it exacted.

Jonathan Spence loved China, the Chinese language, the diverse people who live there, and their stories. And so, lately, I’ve also been thinking about what it means to love China.

Earlier, Jonathan wrote of the perils of Westerners’ aspiring To Change China, and the very likely possibility that what they wound up changing most was themselves. He understood that China needed to be taken on its own terms. He wrote of the men and women who forged China’s optimistic and painful revolutions. Sometimes even the author of The Search for Modern China seemed a bit bewildered, though certainly proud, of China’s headlong race past modernity—so China found it, now what? Today, as tensions between countries with diverging systems of government climb ever higher, as we struggle to communicate with dear friends and fellow scholars across borders closed by pandemic quarantines and firewalls, as Turkic Muslims are detained in camps and forcibly relocated through labor transfer programs, and while their culture is erased at a staggering scale, optimism feels far away.

To love China—to love anything—means being open to the possibility of heartbreak. And to love anyway. But not to love blindly. So, what do we do? I wish I could ask him.

The first time I spoke one-on-one with Jonathan Spence was as a first-year Master’s student in 1995, when I met him at his office to request an extension for my final paper in his seminar. I entered the room with trepidation, hoping to quickly settle matters and not waste his time. He invited me to take off my heavy backpack and stay for a more leisurely chat. “We finally meet,” he said as he settled in an armchair across from me, backlit like a sculpture. “You have great academic potential. I don’t know what your plans for the future are, but I want to tell you: If you want to pursue doctoral studies, whether here or elsewhere, I will strongly support you.”

I was struggling in both life and school, at the time, and lacked confidence in everyday interactions. Spence’s firm gaze as he spoke the words “We finally meet” fortified me.

Our relationship deepened. Every Thanksgiving or Christmas, he would welcome me and my wife (and later daughter) to his home to celebrate. This was true every one of our seven years in New Haven. He was famously kind to students. My wife was not in the history department. The first time she gave an academic paper on Edo novels, he nonetheless came to listen and lavish encouragement. When my daughter was born, he and his wife, Annping, came to visit right after we returned from the hospital, bringing a pile of children’s books.

Being his student meant many chances to witness his interactions with others. Cafeteria cooks, janitors, secretaries—he greeted everyone with a smile, his bearded face wreathed in warmth, his eyes squinted to a seam. An administrator in another department once told me, “Spence is everyone’s sweetheart.” I once happened to tell a toy store owner I was his student and he gave me a 20 percent discount.

Spence considered himself a humble student of Chinese culture, and greatly respected the work of colleagues. He never attempted to construct any grand framework, but believed we collectively deepened our understanding of China’s history bit by bit. He incessantly sought what else he could learn from others, and more than once remarked that research developed so rapidly, he could no longer keep up.

Though he didn’t encourage students to read his own books, he read their words with avid appetite. Once I found him in his office, excited as a child. The undergraduate who had just left had, after taking Spence’s class, found in Yale’s archives the diary and letters of a Yale alumnus who died in the Boxer Rebellion. This was the kind of historical research he admired the most: go straight to the primary source and recover the truth, and dare to explore unfamiliar territory. He recounted passages from that student’s discovery, with great animation. “Too cool!” he said again and again. ‘Too cool!”

My own dissertation concerned the socioeconomic history of the Jiangnan region. As it grew longer, its already unclear structure kept changing, and the chapters filled with technical detail. Spence always provided quick critiques, dense with questions on every detail. These critiqued drafts fill a crate, likely tens of kilos in weight.

In these days of mourning, I find myself searching for the garden of his Connecticut home on Google Maps. Those many years in New Haven, too poor to buy an airplane ticket home—this was our home. I can still see him taking us for a stroll through the beds, my wife resting in the gazebo when she was pregnant with our daughter. And even amid grief, his face with its squinting, smiling eyes, as always, leads us out of the shadows of the somber moment.

Be present on each page. Such was the advice Jonathan Spence provided his teaching assistants for his lecture class on modern China as we prepared to correct our first student essays during a New Haven autumn in the early 1990s. As one of Jonathan’s Ph.D. students, I was privileged to receive training from a scholar of astonishing gifts. Jonathan researched and wrote on a stunning range of topics, times, and people. From late-17th-century Shandong to mid-19th-century Guangxi to Beijing in the 1970s. From Jesuit missionaries and female pirates to great emperors, despots, and intellectuals. On each page, his beautiful prose brought the people and places to life—and his lectures may have been even more thrilling. Looking at my notes on his lectures, it is easy to discern the Spence style: from class to class, he recounted the tales of individuals, both common and notable, weaving together their stories—their dilemmas, choices, successes, and tragedies—to evoke the extraordinary history of modern China. Those lectures were scrumptious intellectual treats and, with 300-400 people crammed amidst the tasteful wood-paneling of Yale’s Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall auditorium, they were also public spectacles. But Jonathan wanted each of those students to know that they mattered, that they were more than just one of many in a crowded lecture hall. And, thus, when marking their essays, we were to engage with their ideas and efforts, page by page in the margins.

I’ve kept my own graduate seminar essays, each printed on a dot-matrix printer. Though 30 years old, each one still has scrawled in pencil on its cover page the telltale “J.D.S.,” signaling that Jonathan had read it. And leafing through them, there are his marginalia, also in pencil and also on every single page, providing reflections, queries, and responses to my ideas and prose. I’ve found it difficult to express in words my gratitude for such support, so, for more than two decades, I’ve sought to be present on each page for my students, albeit with Word Review these days rather than the more elegant number 2 pencil. Thank you, Jonathan.

Historians rarely encounter their subjects. Yet Jonathan Spence did meet Ding Ling, the last surviving protagonist of The Gate of Heavenly Peace, his celebrated panorama of notable women and men who helped generate and sustain revolution in China. She visited Yale in November 1981, shortly after the book’s publication. Whenever he described the occasion, his voice trembled with excitement and his eyes opened wide in astonishment at his good fortune: He had met this heroic revolutionary author, a survivor of treacherous political changes, whose work and life had captured his imagination. At their meeting, Jonathan had opened his book and showed the 77-year-old Ding Ling a photo of her young self. He said it left him “shattered.”

Jonathan depicted Ding Ling, supported by a courageous mother who remade herself, unbinding her own feet and receiving a modern education to become a school principal, as a truthteller. Living independently and in a freely chosen love partnership, Ding Ling dissects the joys and pitfalls of liberation for young women, most famously in “Miss Sophie’s Diary.” Bohemian Miss Sophie advocates for sexual pleasure, liberty, and honesty. She is thus self-lacerating when lust causes her to betray her hard-won freedom and gender ideals: “Live and die your own way, unnoticed. Oh, how I pity you, Sophie!” is the judgement she records in her diary, ending the story. Truth spares no one, oneself especially. Ding Ling was not a national political or military leader, but her forthrightness as a critic of class and gender inequities, including the patriarchal culture of the Party itself, makes her the book’s most indelible figure.

Jonathan’s conviction that her significance lay in the force of her writing and actions, not her rank within the League of Left-Wing Writers or the Party, encapsulates his intellectual, aesthetic, and empathic engagement with history. Sympathy, artistic discernment, and analytical rigor, the hallmarks of his scholarship and teaching, were qualities that he excited in the hundreds of students who enrolled in each offering of his Modern China course, and habits of mind that he fostered in his graduate students. His appreciation for Ding Ling was rooted in her identity as a seeker who remade herself, altered her own social reality, and thus contributed to the transformation of her world. His books are filled with similar figures, including Emperor Kangxi, Woman Wang, Hong Xiuquan, and Hu Ruowang, who, for good and for ill, seek to refashion their lives. These same qualities of audacious imagination and hope spoke to his optimism and enthusiasm for his students, undergrads (“Yalies”) especially, and his own life trajectory.

Jonathan’s Chinese name, Shi Jingqian—Shi, a surname euphoniously proximate to “Spence” and a word meaning both “history” and “official state historian,” the former central to Jonathan’s vocation, and the latter distant; and Jingqian, “respecting Sima Qian,” whose incisive Shiji portraits have exemplified historical and writerly craft since the 1st century BCE—was aptly chosen by his esteemed teacher Fang Zhaoying. It conveys his identity as a historian committed to capturing the brio and idiosyncratic genius of individual lives. “Jingqian” can be understood as “changing one’s situation or scene”; he did this constantly and with gusto in his teaching and writing, which ranged from the late Ming to the early 21st century. He not only sympathized with Ding Ling’s yearnings, but he shared something of her reckless faith in the possibility of changing one’s circumstances—and hence, larger social realities. He did not do this through revolutionary self-sacrifice or modernist feminist fiction. He was a non-fiction storyteller, a historian, and with every book he moved through time and space, changing the scene, and thus transforming himself and educating students and readers about China’s myriad realities through the alchemy of research, historical imagination, and writing.

At a 2009 conference honoring Jonathan Spence’s Yale career, an unexpected (at least to me) recurring question emerged among his former graduate students: Had we been scared of Jonathan while we were studying with him? Everyone agreed that he had never tried to be intimidating—quite the opposite—but several people remembered that they couldn’t help being overwhelmed by his accomplishments and a feeling that they would never measure up. What spared the rest of us, we concluded, was that what Jonathan did was so inimitable that nobody could expect us to match it—and so we were free to be whatever kinds of scholars and teachers we could be, with the full support of an advisor who never gave even the slightest hint of wanting anything else. Jonathan’s enthusiastic engagement with dissertations ranging from art and philosophy to number-crunching social and economic history was, I now realize, extraordinary, but at the time I took it for granted; that was, apparently, what great historians did.

This seemed to flow naturally from Jonathan’s positive attitude towards all sorts of things—from great poetry to less-than-great pizza—rather than being something he explicitly theorized. But it did seem to reflect a view that historians, like novelists, should recreate a world, and that anything that would have mattered to somebody in that world was worth knowing about. He wrote and taught history to create empathetic understanding, and he knew that fostering such understanding across the great gulf in time and space separating his readers and students from most of his subjects required not stripping out the “exotic” to get at something more “universal” but showing how, since we all live in particular times and places, what we perceive as the exotic and the universal are always intertwined. In this sense, Jonathan was very much part of his scholarly generation’s move to create what Paul Cohen called “China-centered” Chinese history, even though he stood apart from that cohort in other ways. While foreigners featured prominently in many of his most memorable works, his emphasis was always on the Chinese context within which they acted, on how China changed them (usually more than they changed China), and on how they would have looked to their Chinese counterparts. It is easy today to forget how much harder it was a generation ago for people to move beyond stereotypes of China: Almost no Americans or Europeans had spent time there or spoke Chinese, let alone had read anything Chinese (except perhaps the Little Red Book or a New Age-infused translation of the Yijing). Of course, even scholarship like Jonathan’s, which reached audiences far beyond the academy, is only a small part of why so many Westerners now have much better informed understandings of China. But it was hardly inevitable that geopolitical and economic entanglement alone would stimulate serious engagement with Chinese culture, or that many people’s engagements would go beyond seeking pragmatic, managerially-useful knowledge (already an ambitious goal) to also seeking intellectual enrichment and perspective on their own cultures. Jonathan’s work did as much to encourage that broader, deeper engagement as any one person’s work could.

Now that Jonathan is gone, it’s important to remember what we learned from him.

We certainly all learned Chinese history from him. But it was done in a different mode from what is expected today. In this era of instantly searchable databases and Google hits, Jonathan showed us the value of the slow gesture. Like when he would take a 19th-century reference down off the shelf in his office, open its well-worn pages, and show us sources that could open doors in our research. Jonathan taught us the value of sharing, slowly and quietly, the knowledge contained in books.

The history we learned was important, but the most important thing we learned was how to be a person. He never ever said it explicitly, but this is what I took it to mean: to moderate your initial reaction, consider, to the best of your ability, the position of the other person, and to respond with empathy and compassion. Jonathan obviously employed this in his history writing. But this approach to life, tutored by humanistic inquiry, was something he employed on a daily basis for his students to see.

Jonathan taught us always to extend empathy to fellow scholars. In graduate school, if we learned to do anything, we learned to expose faults in the arguments of others, and we could become quite ruthless in our papers. Jonathan always reminded us, with a few strokes of his correcting pencil [never pen], to be generous when addressing the work of another scholar: note, he would say, that this was “pioneering” work, “insightful”work, before you go on to offer your appraisal.

Jonathan taught us to extend this empathy and respect to undergraduates. As we teaching assistants gathered in his apartment overlooking the New Haven Green with piles of bluebooks, overwhelmed (and potentially resentful) of the number of essays we had to grade, Jonathan would remind us to always begin our feedback with some observation of what was right about the essay and to always be precise and measured in our criticism. These words of wisdom were undoubtedly designed to help ensure our professional integrity, but they were based on the recognition that students are people too.

Jonathan even extended this humanistic empathy to our beloved but sometimes vexing city of New Haven. Since Jonathan’s passing, I keep coming back to one memory, vague, but certainly true. Walking one afternoon with Jonathan and Annping on Chapel Street, we passed a group of men in the middle of a full-blown violent fight. Jonathan was certainly dismayed and disapproving, but I’ll always remember his response: as we walked past the scene, he looked directly at the men and uttered a few remarks—“rebellious subjects, enemies to peace…”—it took me a moment to realize that he was quoting Shakespeare. For Jonathan, these men mixing it up on Chapel Street shared a historical connection to the Montagues and Capulets. This fight was nothing new. These rowdy denizens of New Haven were just displaying the same all-too-human behavior that had animated the world’s most revered literary works. Somehow, that understanding—that sense of connection born of humanistic study—was a valuable way of navigating the world.

This is what I learned from Jonathan. Now that he’s gone, it’s important to remember.

As I think back on Jonathan Spence’s many sterling qualities, there are two that stand out in my mind. The first was his wonderful, very British, and understated sense of humor. The second was his deep sense of humanity in recording and analyzing the fate of his fellow human beings.

In 1964, I was a first-year graduate student who had just met Jonathan for the first time, and I casually introduced him to another graduate student as “Jon Spence.” Jonathan quietly admonished me with the words: “It’s Jonathan, if you can manage it.” A couple of years later, on my way to Jonathan’s lecture course on what he and my chief advisor Mary Wright called “modern China,” I crossed paths with Mary, who was on her way to substitute for Jonathan whose father had just died. Mary asked me why I was auditing a course which I had already taken with her. I replied that I was interested in how the interpretations of history can change. Mary thought my response good enough to share with the students in the class, but I soon learned that Jonathan was less interested in historiography than in simply, with Leopold von Ranke, “telling what happened.”

A few years after Mary’s death, Jonathan became my major mentor and was tasked with reading early drafts of my dissertation. That was still the age when manuscripts and typescripts were “cut and pasted” with scissors and tape. Jonathan bravely deciphered my poor handwriting and added his own comments, which were generally more legible than mine. His observations were often very concise and sometimes sharp. In a few places, he simply inscribed a check mark in the margin of a paragraph. When I asked him what that meant, he explained that it signified that he liked the paragraph. After that, I naturally looked for more check marks but I found very few. I felt better when I learned that he did the same when reading drafts by his wife, Annping Chin. Annping and I joked that we should be pleased that we got at least a couple of Jonathan’s checkmarks. One of his critical comments on my draft dissertation followed an extremely convoluted passage in which I tried to reassure readers that a portion of the text was not essential to making the argument: “Your readers will not forgive you for this!” In another case, when I hyperbolically touted a Mongol bannerman’s strong resistance to European imperialism and twice used the phrase “on the one hand . . . on the other hand,” Jonathan wrote: “Hsi-liang, four-handed terror of the West.”

Jonathan Spence was one of the most accomplished interpreters of Chinese history in the English-language world, and he was rightly confident of his many achievements as a teacher and writer. We were probably in our 50s when he mentioned to me over lunch that, insofar as his career was concerned, he “had no regrets.” But he also identified with the great Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, and in one of his last public lectures he discussed Ricci’s limitations as well as his achievements. I was therefore not surprised when, in his 70s, Jonathan mused over dinner that he was no longer so sure of some of his historical judgments. I wondered if he was perhaps alluding to how he defined “modernity” in his magisterial textbook, The Search for Modern China. In any case, Jonathan’s recognition of his own possible limitations demonstrated his humanity and even humility. His death therefore brought sorrow to my mind and tears to my eyes.

Of all the prominent American sinologists who attracted attention in China, Jonathan Spence was indubitably the one whose work reached the broadest readership. Spence was lauded as the historian best at storytelling. Some of his work read like literature. In fact, it was a Comparative Literature professor who invited Professor Spence to lecture at Beida in 1988, and Professor Spence’s first Chinese publication was also in a Comparative Literature series.

From his unique perspective, he carried forth Sima Qian’s legacy in biography. Just as Sima Qian wrote of princes and generals, wandering vigilantes and assassins, under Spence’s pen, Kangxi and Qianlong, and commoners like nameless Woman Wang, took their turns as protagonists through which he composed one picture after another of traditional Chinese society.

The degree of Spence’s popularity in China was also visible in the response to his many lectures there. I was fortunate to have heard Spence’s lectures at Peking University many times. Each was hazardously packed, without an empty seat. There were even audience members who hurried to Beijing from other provinces, a thousand miles away. Every time he faced an overflowing hall of hundreds, he always insisted on standing, with several sheets of lecture outline on yellow letter paper in his hands. Yet he rarely glanced at the draft during lecture, recounting historical facts as if they were family heirlooms, and mellifluously carrying forth with utmost elegance. After every lecture, there would be audience members holding a bundle of his works, swarming to the lectern for his autograph.

In personal conduct just as in historical scholarship, he applied the same precision and polish as if to an artistic engraving. Although the man is deceased, his words live long.

Jonathan Spence was the last of a triumvirate (三杰, san jie) of scholars, along with Frederic Wakeman and Philip Kuhn, who shaped the study of modern Chinese history in the U.S. since the 1960s. With his passing, the curtain falls on an era.

He was a phenomenally gifted teacher. Spence’s course on modern Chinese history was legendary at Yale—it wasn’t unusual for one-quarter of graduating seniors to have taken the class. Spence’s ability to hold 700 undergraduates spellbound for an hour three times a week was something to behold. I experienced it first as a student in the course myself, and then a few years later as a teaching assistant. Each time, it was a thrilling experience; you could feel the excitement in the room when he started, everyone wondering what marvelous anecdote or surprising angle he would come up with. The course was always fresh, not just because of Jonathan’s natural eloquence and insights, but also because he put an enormous amount of energy and care into crafting every lecture.

Spence was of course also a phenomenally gifted writer: In the biography he wrote of him in 2004, Wakeman quotes Joseph Levenson as saying that “the man writes like an angel.” Spence put those writing skills to use in telling stories about people. All of his books, whether they are formally biographies or not, feature real individuals at their core. In that sense, he was a true humanist. In his writing, as in his lectures, he often turned to painting or poetry to take the reader or listener where the documents could not. He was also daring. Each book had a particular inspiration, some original narrative device or invention, that engaged the reader and drove the story forward without abandoning historical fact. Few historians can take the kind of risks that Spence took and be sure of success.

Jonathan’s greatest contribution was probably to make China familiar to Western audiences. When he entered the field in the early 1960s, China was closed to the world and Chinese history was seen as obscure, impenetrable, and inaccessible, utterly different from “regular” history. If today the study of Chinese history is more mainstream, this has a great deal to do with Spence. Not only did he bring many young scholars into the field, but in book after book, essay after essay, he succeeded in demystifying China and its past, making it intelligible, relevant, and meaningful. Especially given that China today is much more a part of our lives here than it was 50 years ago, and that knowing something about Chinese history matters in a way it didn’t used to, this contribution is of huge importance. We all have good reason to be thankful for those wonderful stories, in which he effortlessly transported us back through time and introduced us to so many fascinating characters.

For those of us who came of age focusing on China in the second half of the 20th century, there was a whole galaxy of older, venerable China hands arrayed across the country at our great universities to whom we looked up like radiant constellations fixed in the academic firmament. At Columbia there was Doak Barnett, Theodore de Bary, and Zbigniew Brzezinski; at Harvard, John Fairbank, Benjamin Schwartz, Ezra Vogel, and Roderick MacFarquhar; at the University of California, Berkeley, Joseph Levenson, Franz Schurmann, Robert Scalapino, and Frederic Wakeman; and at Yale Arthur and Mary Wright and the towering—and seemingly eternal—presence of Jonathan Spence. He was not only a prolific writer, but an elegant one who used his prodigious research abilities to tell stories that illuminated real people’s lives and the times in which they lived. What distinguished his work was its lack of reliance on academic jargon and overlays of turgid theoretical frameworks. Instead, Spence wrote simple, clear narratives about those who made history, the events in which they wagered, and the times they lived.

What makes Spence’s passing particularly saddening for us is that he was last of that generation of titanic figures in the field of China studies. When he died this Christmas, the lights went out not only for his family, but my generation left now with no mentors to look up to. Spence was the last constellation in the heavens by which we had so long steered.

Now, our great universities will seem more defoliated and anonymous, missing that almost mystical presence of a great scholar like Spence who generated fields of gravity around himself that radiated throughout his university into the world and to his students and readers.

With Jonathan’s passing, we’ll not only have to endure the absence of his singular voice as a historian, but of that reassuring sense that whenever we went to Yale, or even nearby, there was always a unique presence there that begged us to come by for a visit and make a genuflection.

So, farewell Jonathan. Goodbye from one friend and admirer on behalf of my generation, some only a little younger than you, but who nonetheless saw you not just as a mentor and friend, but as a beacon for how to explain Chinese history simply and intelligently and as a way to adventure into the past.

I made some choices in my 20s that were hard for my parents to accept.

That’s a sentence virtually any human might write—an individual expression of a widely shared experience. Exactly the type of starting point for historical research that Jonathan Spence delighted in finding in the archives, exploring, and displaying to the world in his scholarship.

Jonathan was of course brilliant, but for me (and I suspect for most of his students) what mattered more was that he was curious, encouraging, intellectually generous, and ready to learn new things from his students. I don’t think there is a Ph.D. he supervised who is not cited somewhere in the later editions of The Search for Modern China, his celebrated survey of modern Chinese history. Arriving at Yale in September 1991, I was blithely unaware how rare it is to have such a cluster of creative and interesting fellow graduate students in Chinese history and Chinese studies. In terms of Jonathan’s staggering output, we fell between the publication of the first edition of The Search for Modern China (1990), Chinese Roundabout (1992), God’s Chinese Son (1996), and The Chan’s Great Continent (1998). The last had its gestation in the DeVane Lectures class he taught in the fall of 1994 and 1995, for which many of us served as teaching assistants.

Another common human experience is that matters that loomed large in one’s 20s seem much less significant later in life. (That was certainly true for my relationship with my parents, and with three offspring now in that decade I hope it still holds true!) Nevertheless, it was a proud moment for me when Jonathan signed the copy of God’s Chinese Son that I was sending my father for his birthday. Patrick Dunch was born in Bermuda a few months before Jonathan, in February 1936. A lifelong reader and a follower of world news, it was Dad who first suggested to his oldest son in 1980 that a high school love of Latin and French might be turned to the study of Chinese in university. My route into graduate study in Chinese history had been a meandering one, and it felt good to be back on a path that made sense to him, as this gift signaled. With typical generosity, Jonathan’s inscription, in February 1996, read, “For Pat Dunch, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday—and with gratitude for Ryan’s remarkable abilities!”

This copy returned to me on one of my too-rare visits back to Australia, in October 2015, as my parents were preparing to move from the large rambling house in which I grew up in the Sydney suburbs. That was the last time I saw my father, as he died on January 3, 2016, a few weeks before their move.

We probably all have favorite Spence quotes. One of mine is his Chinese Roundabout image of the scholar’s life, riding a ceaseless merry-go-round of discovery, “knees gripping the painted wood, hands holding on for dear life, heads thrown back with laughter in the vertiginous wind.” It is an image the ancient Daoist thinker Zhuangzi might have coined, had he lived in our times. As I near 60 myself, I am much aware of my shortcomings, but also aware that these qualities are aspirational, and Jonathan understood as few scholars have the role of beliefs, ideals, and aspirations in the living of a life. I will always be grateful to him.

Jonathan Spence served as my dissertation advisor, principal oral examiner, professor in the keystone graduate seminars for Yale’s History doctoral program, and employer when he included me among his teaching assistants. For me, the thread running through all these experiences was that he made me feel like I was a part of his family even while it was abundantly clear that he was a rock star.

He included all of his Ph.D. students and our families in his celebrations of his son Ian’s graduation from Yale College. First, we gathered in his home for drinks. Then, we moved as a group to a Chinese restaurant for a lavish banquet where he had reserved one extremely long table for all of us plus Ian, his other son Colin, and his wife Helen.

Each of the two years that I served as a teaching assistant in his Chinese History survey course, enrollments topped 500 (it was 650 the first year, after he returned from sabbatical), and so we had to move to Yale’s Battell Chapel. While lecturing, he paced across the chancel as if he were on stage in an ornately decorated theater. Every week or two, to outline his expectations for our writing and grading of the exams, he collected his teaching assistants together either for lunch at Mory’s, where he held a membership, or in his cavern-like basement office. When he got free copies of books from The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, he took them from piles on his office floor and distributed them to us, adding as a barely audible aside that if he chose a book to review it automatically raised its prominence.

To give me his comments on several chapters of my dissertation, he met me in the humble Yenching restaurant in Cambridge, where I was living while a Harvard Academy Scholar, and went over portions of the printed chapters with me over dinner. He was in town for something important, yet had generously chosen a place that was convenient for me.

As if taking a page out of the book of China’s imperial system, familial relationships pervaded his sense of the academic world and his special place in it. He spoke about Mary Wright, his own advisor in Yale’s doctoral program in Chinese History, as if she were a mother figure, at the same time making clear that he was her sole and beloved heir.

Beijing University hosted the president and representatives of Yale in November 2003. As chair of the Beida History Department, I facilitated Jonathan Spence’s lecture. At dinner after the lecture, I inquired if there was any possibility of establishing some kind of exchange between history Ph.D. students at Yale and Beijing Universities.

When he returned to the U.S., Professor Spence continued to communicate with me about this, and, after tremendous effort, Yale began to accept selected Beida Ph.D. students starting in spring 2005.

From January 2005 to July 2017, Beida sent 29 Ph.D. students across the fields of history, Chinese literature, foreign languages, philosophy, international politics, government, sociology, and law. What moved the Beida students most at Yale was the warm care they received from Professor Spence and his wife, Annping Chin. It was the first time they had stepped onto foreign soil, and they were often surprised to find Professor Spence personally welcome them, even drive them to his home. After they settled in, Professor Spence and Professor Chin would introduce them to the library and facilities, as well as their academic advisors. Over the course of their studies, they were often invited as guests to Professor Spence’s home. This truly made them feel a familial warmth.

During this period, I invited Professor Spence to Beijing University numerous times to deliver lectures or participate in colloquia. He often asked to only hold small-scale seminars with graduate students and scholars, rather than large-scale lectures. We tried to comply, but sometimes the news spread and large crowds came from within and beyond campus. We had to keep changing the classroom, until even the largest step-tiered auditorium was packed to hazardous levels, with people filling the aisles and stage. Professor Spence was always accommodating and forgiving in these instances.

In 2014, Jonathan and Annping visited the Beida History Department again. I invited students who had participated in the exchange program to a happy reunion with them. Some had already graduated and worked elsewhere, but still hurried in from all directions. Everyone gathered at a restaurant, with appreciation and nostalgia.

Like them, I offer my sincerest gratitude. Professor Spence was a teacher and friend to many at Beijing University.

I was a Ph.D. student in the History Department of Yale University from 1981 to 1987, and taught in the same department from 1987 to 1988. Jonathan Spence was the advisor for my secondary field of Modern Chinese History. I also worked for him doing research on local communities during the Qianlong reign. He seemed to have had an idea of writing an Annales school-type macro-history of the era. Although the main work I did for him didn’t result in any major publication, it gave me insight into how Jonathan looked at his data and conducted his research. I read for him two groups of local gazetteers, one from a southeast region and the other from Yunnan province. He might have told me what topics he was interested in, but essentially, I only needed to report notable materials, that either informed the basic characteristics of a community or were eccentric. Jonathan was always looking for a big picture through a collection of significant and diverse details.

I returned to my home country of Taiwan in 1993 after five years of teaching at the University of British Columbia. In Taiwan, I had further opportunities to see Jonathan. As far as I know, during the last two decades or so, he came to Taiwan three times.

I was involved in the first two visits. I helped arrange his schedule, and talked with him often during his stays. On the second visit, I agreed to serve as the interpreter for his lecture at National Taiwan University, which was open to the general public. After he arrived, I asked him for his script. He didn’t have one. “I never prepare scripts for my speeches,” he told me. I was surprised, as he did have copious notes for his lecture classes. I needed to know something about what he was going to say, so he allowed me to accompany him before the lecture to talk to me about what he planned to say. We were in a car, and as he was still suffering from jetlag he would sometimes fall asleep, and then start speaking again immediately after waking up. It was more like listening to him think than a rehearsal. He weaved different kinds of information and ideas together, and they always formed pictures of one kind or another. I guess he did this constantly.

Only after Jonathan’s passing did I come to know that his books in Chinese translation have had an important influence on the reading public in Taiwan. The reason seems to be similar to the case in the English-speaking world. Jonathan’s books allow readers to see things in the past in ways textbooks and regular academic work cannot. A commentator said that after the 1990s, when Spence’s books came to Taiwan that told sharp stories embedded in profound sociopolitical backdrops, they changed completely how Taiwanese readers viewed and expected works of history. He referred to this as “the Spence phenomena.” Jonathan’s contribution to the enterprise of Chinese history is unique and continuing.

I learned much from Jonathan Spence over the years I knew him, but two bits of wisdom stand out. The first was shared when, as an earnest young graduate student, I was trying to articulate the different fields of inquiry my proposed dissertation would “make a contribution” to. “Yes, yes,” he said, that mysterious silver gleam in his eyes, “but what was it like to be there? That’s the question I always start with. What was it like to be there?” It was a marvelous question—but an absurdly difficult one to answer. You need to immerse yourself not just in the sources pertinent to your problem, but in others: ones about weather, geography, the daily chores of life. Then you need to sit back and picture a world far removed from yours, and then you need to recreate that world on the page, all the while trying to tell a story. It is stunning that Jonathan pulled it off as many times as he did. It was a question that defined the key facet of his historical genius. At his best, he functioned as mediums are supposed to. Much has been said about his skill with words; this, though true, misses what truly set him apart. He was a gorgeous writer, but so too were several of his contemporaries (at Yale alone, he overlapped with Robin Winks, William Cronon, Linda Colley, John Demos, and John Gaddis, all of whom could turn a phrase). What Jonathan did better than anyone else could do was to bring an individual alive. My own favorite Spence book is Emperor of China: There are points where Spence actually turns you into Kangxi, nostrils flaring as you ride the steppe to hunt down the dastardly Galdan. The emperor comes alive inside you—and Jonathan made it happen.

Every good intellectual project has a principle, a vision at its core, even if unarticulated. Jonathan’s work was animated by the faith that if you could live as another person had lived, your experience of the world, its possibilities, was broadened—and that was what good history was meant to do. His lectures did something similar; listening, you sensed that Charles Gutzlaff or Li Hongzhang or Zhou Enlai were not mere historical figures, but people he had met and come to know at New Haven’s Naples Pizza down the street. One emerged from a Spence book or lecture having, as Harper Lee would have said, walked around in another person’s shoes.

The second bit of wisdom came in a moment of twinkling confidence. “I’ve never seen the point in trying to do what people are interested in,” he said. “By the time you’re done, they’re interested in something else. I’ve always thought it’s best to do what I’m interested in and then get them interested in it.” It sounded easy at the time, but now, thinking of all the committees and judgment and reviews an aspiring academic faces, I think about the iron will it must have taken to cleave to that principle. He could not have written those wildly original books without it.

Zhang Taisu wrote movingly of the place Jonathan occupies in Taisu’s own memory palace. I hope that in that memory palace, Jonathan, like Kangxi, is twinkling and saying, “As for my own life, one can say it is happy. One can say it’s fulfilled. One can say I’ve got what I wanted.”