China Beat Archive



Susan Jakes

Date of this Version


Document Type



June 25, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright June 25, 2008 Susan Jakes. Used by permission.


I first heard Jonathan Spence give a lecture thirty minutes or so after the first time I heard his name. It was the beginning of my fourth semester at Yale in 1995 during the chaotic week known on campus as “shopping period,” when students are allowed to attend any classes they choose. My roommate had announced that she was going to “shop Spence” and invited me to join her. Fortunately, she wasn’t too aghast to bring me along after I’d replied, “Sure, I’ll come with you, but what’s Spence?”

I don’t remember precisely how she answered, but whatever she said persuaded me to get dressed in a hurry and follow her to Yale’s largest auditorium a full half hour before the first lecture of History of Modern China was scheduled to begin. As my roommate had predicted, the huge room filled up quickly. A few minutes after we arrived, a figure in a hooded coat slipped through the crowd toward the blackboard and began, silently, to fill it with a list of unfamiliar words written in slender uppercase letters. When he took the lectern, he made no sales-pitch to the assembled shoppers. He said only, “I’d like to start now” and began a lecture he called, “Ten Things I Find Fascinating About China.” I’ve lost the notes I took that day—though I’m fairly certain the list included the Three Gorges Dam, the future of the one-child policy and the legacy of June 4th—but what has stuck with me, indelibly, is how quickly after Spence began to speak I knew that anything he found fascinating was something I needed to hear more about.