Friday, January 07, 2022

Jonathan Spence (1936-2021) RIP, historian of China

Jonathan Spence, the Yale University scholar of Chinese history, died recently at eighty-five, as noted in this New York Times obituary.

Many years ago I interviewed Professor Spence for an Ideas documentary. I was primarily interested in a small book of his called The Death of Woman Wang, about the life and death by murder of a poor, obscure 17th century Chinese woman. His previous book had been a thick biography of one of the great Chinese emperors, and I asked him about the contrast, expecting, I guess, something about the value of balancing social history and political history, the poor as well as the great.

Instead, he said that when he wrote about the emperor, he had recently received his doctorate, published some notable scholarship, and become tenured at Yale, and so he was interested in power and influence and such matters. When he turned to Woman Wang, he said, he was married and a parent, so his interests had turned to family and personal matters.

It was the first, or at least the most articulate, statement I had heard about the personal issues and concerns that historians may bring to their work, and the autobiographical elements that may be buried in historical work more often than we recognize. 

The Death of Woman Wang is not mentioned in the obituary, I see; the emperor book is.  

The Ideas series, "Four New Historians," looked into big books about little people, you might say. It was based on my conversations with Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie (about Montaillou), Carlo Ginzberg (about The Cheese and The Worms), Robert Darnton (The Great Cat Massacre), and Spence. In retrospect, I think it was a pretty good program, and maybe I should have written it up. (Where?)  Deep in the CBC Archives now, I guess. 

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