By HILLEL ITALIE, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) – Jonathan D. Spence, a British-born historian who went on to become a longtime Yale University professor and eminent sinologist and drew a large following with his 1990 bestseller “The research of modern China, “died at the age of 85. .
Spence, who retired from Yale in 2008, died Saturday at his home in West Haven, Connecticut. His wife and fellow Yale professor Annping Chin said the cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease.
A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Los Angeles Times Literary Award, and numerous other honors, Spence has written more than a dozen books on China, as well as reviews, essays, and lectures. He was best known for “The Search for Modern China,” an 870-page publication that began in the 17th century, at the height of the Ming Dynasty, and continued through the 1989 protests in the square. Tiananmen.
As the title of the book suggests, Spence approached China as if he was writing a detective story, deciphering for Western readers one of the largest, most populous, and most complex countries in the world. Drawing on dozens of previous books and original articles, he documented China’s history in terms of extreme upheaval and enduring traditions. He noted the âmodels of generational deference and concepts of obligationâ and the rebellions designed to break them, whether it was the dismissal of Beijing in 1644, the fall of the last emperor in 1911, or the Communist triumph of late 1940s.
âWe can see how many times the Chinese people, operating under difficult and even desperate circumstances, have seized their own plight and threw themselves against the power of the state,â he wrote. âWe see how in 1644, again in 1911, then again in 1949, the disillusionment of the present and a certain nostalgia for the past could combine with a passionate hope for the future to bring down the old order, opening up the way to an uncertain transition to the new.
Spence’s book has received critical acclaim, reached the New York Times bestseller list, remains widely used in classrooms, and is often credited with popularizing Chinese studies.
“It tells a story that is always alive, always concrete, always understandable, no matter how complex the problem is,” wrote the Times’ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who added that the book “will undoubtedly become standard text on the subject.” .
Spence’s other works included a short biography of Mao Zedong for the Penguin Lives series; âLe Grand Continent du Chanâ, which examined how Westerners viewed China, and âThe Palace of Memory of Matteo Ricciâ, about one of the first Jesuit missionaries in China. A 1996 book, âThe Chinese Century: A Photographic History,â was co-authored by Spence and Annping Chin.
Survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Helen Alexander, and two stepchildren.
Born in Surrey, England, Spence grew up in a family of book lovers: his father was a publisher, his mother a reader of French literature. He was an undergraduate student at Clare College, Cambridge, where he edited the student newspaper and co-edited the student magazine Granta, today one of the most prestigious literary journals in the world.
After graduation, he received a scholarship at Yale and befriended Chinese researcher Mary Wright, who became a mentor. Through Wright, he met biographer Fang Chao-ying and gained special access to documents in Qing Dynasty Taiwan, materials used in his dissertation and his first book, “Ts’ao Yin and Emperor K’ang -hsi: Bondservant and Master â, which came out in 1966, the same year he joined Yale faculty.
“I was able to hold the original writings of the Emperor of China in my hand,” he said in a 2010 interview with Humanities magazine, the internal publication of the National Endowment of the Humanities. “It was something that is still very moving for me, and it was a major moment for my reflection on the past.”
Spence was one of Yale’s most popular teachers, and much of âThe Research of Modern Chinaâ spanned his class talks. One former student, award-winning Chinese journalist and scholar Susan Jakes, would remember Spence speaking at a measured and fascinating pace, touching on big themes and precise details.
âThe lectures felt like finely crafted short stories and sometimes complete novels. They were seductively titled “The View from Below”, “Everything in the Translation”, “In the World”, “Bombs and Pianos” – and they built in intensity to end with startling revelations or verses. of quietly delivered poetry, âJakes wrote. in 2008 for the site www.thechinabeat.com.
âHis lectures promised that China and its past might be, if not entirely within our grasp, at least a little closer than it seemed. … I am sitting in Shanghai as I write these lines, as certain as one can be about the historical causes and effects, as if I had not found my way to this conference hall in the spring of 1995 , or if Spence had given a talk on astrophysics or Luxembourg, I wouldn’t be here.
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