China Beat Archive



Date of this Version


Document Type



June 9, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright June 9, 2008. Used by permission.


Jonathan Spence’s elegant writing and his creative efforts to test the limits of standard genres of historical presentation have secured him a special status within both the interdisciplinary field of Chinese studies and the American historical profession. His reputation—as many or perhaps even all readers of this blog know—is based primarily on a string of successful books. These range widely in format, running the gamut from slim volumes that try to bring to life obscure or famous figures from the Chinese past to a large textbook. And while most of his publications focus on events and individuals of the opening centuries of rule by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), he also shows great temporal range, as he has written compellingly about both earlier and later periods as well. But even though it is his writing that has earned him most of his many honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship and election to a term as President of the American Historical Association, the special series of “China Beat” posts on Spence that I am using this piece to introduce will not focus on what he has written but what he has said. We will focus on the writer as orator, in other words, looking at lectures he has given at Yale University, where has taught since the 1960s, and ones that are currently being aired on British radio, as Spence serves as the latest in a sixty-year line of BBC “Reith Lecturers,” the first of whom was Bertrand Russell.

Spence’s ability to hold an audience’s attention and enlighten his listeners has been well known for some time, albeit within a smaller circle than were aware of his gifts as a writer. His modern Chinese history undergraduate survey at Yale, which he offered for the last time this spring, has for decades been one of the most popular classes offered at that New Haven campus. It has routinely boasted enrollment levels in the hundreds, and at one point, at least according to what I heard on a recent visit to Yale, had close to a thousand students sign up for it in a single semester. Having been lucky enough to sit in on one session of the class back in the early 1980s, when I was visiting graduate schools trying to decide where to go, I can easily understand why the course drew the crowds it did. I don’t remember the topic he lectured on that day, as it was over a quarter-of-a-century ago, but I do recall finding the presentation inspiring. It was thus no surprise when, passing through New Haven a few weeks back, one thing that several people wanted to tell me about was what a special moment it had been when, just before I arrived in town, Spence had given his last lecture ever for that famous course.