China Beat Archive



Robert A. Kapp

Date of this Version


Document Type



July 1, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright July 1, 2009 Robert A. Kapp. Used by permission.


In early May, a conference was held at Yale for retiring Chinese historian Jonathan Spence, with several China Beatniks in attendance. Here, Robert Kapp, one of Jonathan Spence’s first graduate students, reflects on the shifts in the stories we’ve told and heard about China during the time that Spence has been active in the field.

The retirement of a distinguished scholar and doctoral mentor sometimes goes insufficiently remarked, but in the case of Jonathan Spence’s recent retirement from the Yale History faculty, something better happened. Happily, several of Spence’s Ph.D. students decided to throw their efforts into a conference and celebration in his honor, on the Yale Campus, in early May. The result was a most interesting and varied set of scholarly presentations, a warm and enthusiasticdinner event seasoned with warm reminiscences from generations of young and mid-career Chinese history scholars who received their early training from Spence, and a great many reunions of old friends with shared experiences of graduate life at Yale.

Four attendees in particular – Robert Oxnam, Roger DesForges, Sherman Cochran, and I – represented the original tranche of doctoral candidates who finished their degrees under Jonathan’s benign and helpful guidance. We were far and away the oldest Spence “products” in attendance; all of us began our graduate school lives as students of Spence’s own academic mentors, Professors Arthur F. and Mary C. Wright. Jonathan essentially inherited us from Mary Wright, in particular, as both we and Yale lost an inspiring senior scholar and came to know a brilliant and promising one at the start of what would become a brilliant career in the China field.

While most of the panels at the conference honoring Jonathan Spence consisted of research presentations – many of them on topics, and using tools of scholarly sleuthing – reminiscent of Jonathan’s own compelling works, the last session addressed “China Beyond the Academy,” in the form of a round table with five of Jonathan’s “products” who, over the years, either left academia altogether or who, while remaining active academics, engaged with broader audiences as a part of their China commitment.