Paul Kennedy's Jonathan Spence Memories
"What he saw were human beings: their vicissitudes, their anxieties, and their real life."
Prepare a nice cup of tea and put your feet up for a special edition of stories and anecdotes from Paul Kennedy about the late American historian and Sinologist Jonathan Spence.
He takes us through:
What made Spence such a fantastic historian and writer;
Why the worst thing about being stationed in Germany was the drunk British soldiers;
Conversations about Chinese history with Henry Kissinger;
How archaeological digs win you contracts with provincial governments;
Spence's approach to research and scholarship.
GiveDirectly, a non-profit, is transferring cash to low-income families impacted by Hurricanes Ian & Fiona to spend on what they need most.
Right now, millions of Floridians and Puerto Ricans have been displaced from their homes and are facing rising expenses associated with food, shelter, transportation, and health care.
By giving cash, you can enable families to directly meet immediate needs.
GiveDirectly uses aerial storm damage imagery and poverty data to identify the highest-need communities. Then they target, enroll, and pay people remotely -- all within 48 hours.
Cash aid is fast, efficient, and empowering for recipients.
Spence the Humanist
Jordan Schneider: Paul, I wanted to open with a quote from The Chan’s Great Continent:
As a historian, I'm interested in the ways that levels of reality intersect and overlap. It is my implicit belief that bold generalizations are usually wide of the mark and that the individual experience rarely matches the allegedly universal trend. It is in that spirit that I offer these sightings of a great but distant culture. We must imagine our pilots and navigators—and perhaps also our cheats, and those with broken hearts—holding rather simple instruments in their hands as they make those sightings. Furthermore, the hands that hold the instruments are often chapped with cold or sleek with sweat. Our guides are standing on sloping decks that shift angle without warning, and are often blinded by a burst of spray or dazzled by an unexpected dart from the previously beclouded sun. And the target of their curiosity remains distant and often somber—“the color of mourning,” as Loti wrote. And then, too, they cannot even be sure that they have come to the right place. But that, after all, is a risk that all of us must take.
Paul Kennedy: I think of a conversation I had with him about his time as a young second lieutenant in the Green Howards, or the famous Yorkshire Regiment, where he did his National Service after he had finished his education at the famous Winchester College. This was before he went to Clare College, Cambridge to start doing Tudor and Stuart history.
I asked him what the scariest episodes in his time as a young British officer were, thinking it would be something to do with manning the borders with Russian troops on the other side. His reply was very firm. He said, “Nothing so frightening as having to go out every Saturday evening with six very large military policemen to downtown Bielefeld to separate the Yorkshire troops from the Lancaster troops as they spilled out of the pubs and bars; and then to go round the next day, as a responsible junior officer, to talk to the outraged German inhabitants about the damage which had been done to their front gardens or shop windows by the drunken British troops.”
What he saw were human beings: their vicissitudes, their anxieties, and their real life. When he went on to study as an undergraduate student at Cambridge, and then as a graduate student at Yale, he never lost sight of the fact that there was a really interesting lower-life, human dimension to the great sweep of history. I think it gave him an ambition to try to write at least some of his books on “history-from-below” history, from real atmospheric circumstance.
Spence the Writer
Jordan Schneider: Let's stay on his mastery of atmosphere and the novelistic way in which he approached a lot of his subjects. How was he able to pull this off? Why don't more people do it? Does everyone who have this gene in them just go off and write fiction? What about history kept Spence in that mold, as opposed to just going off and writing stories?
Paul Kennedy: Bear in mind that this is also somebody who can write the big books: he can write the rise of modern China; he can write a brief biography of Mao; he can do big history. But he can also do — miraculously, I think — small, atmospheric history, and get it right. Many, many people can have a lovely late-evening conversation about what your favorite Jonathan Spence book is. I'm going to go for The Question of Hu.
It was only a year or so later after The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci came out. I think we were back again at his house, or at his little place on Block Island. He said, “I'm interested in this little Chinaman, who nobody knows about. He got onto a French warship and came all the way back to the Gironde, and stayed there as assistant to a French Bishop — then everything fell apart. Eventually he had to be sent back home, and everybody was puzzled by what this guy was doing and what his mission was. I think I'm going to call the book ‘The Question of Hu’.” Now, when you get into this mere 175-page book — Jonathan could do exquisite slimline books, as well as big, hefty ones — he tells the story from the beginning of this French prelate of a church, under instructions to return home and needing a Chinese-language assistant secretary to take notes. They recruit Hu almost at the last moment, and then they set off for the long, dangerous, six-or-eight-week trip in this small warship back to Western France.
If you read it, almost everything is written as a novel. You get descriptions of arriving off the coast of Brazil, about three quarters of the journey over. Jonathan describes, in a paragraph or two, the sun setting over the tall trees at the entrance to the estuary in Pernambuco or Recife. And then later on, they arrive and drop anchor in Île de Ré in Western France. It's about the trees; it's about the time of the year; it's about the ride from the harbor to the inland town, and then onto Paris. You can follow it without needing to check what's happening in the footnotes, but if you go to the notes, [there are] notes on the ocean voyage, notes on the ride from Nantes…
On page 150, [there are] references to the roads and countrysides on page 17 “per the author's observation”; in other words, Jonathan has gone to France and had taken that journey along the small route inwards. Also, [the note says] “the 18th-century Cassini map, Sheet No. 6”; he found the map of 18th-century Gironde in the Archives nationales and was able to describe the territory and typography, which he weaves into a story of the bringing of this eccentric Chinese person Hu along the road to be interrogated by the Bishop. When the Bishop interrogates Hu, you get the full record of this in French police files because they have escorted them in order that brigands don't get at them; Jonathan makes a note about the incidents of brigandry in that part of France in the 1740s. Then you get the report of the interview of Hu in the Vatican Archives, in the Jesuit superiors’ files.
So he had gone to the countryside to see what's happening. He had gone to the local provincial and police records in Provence. He's worked in the Archives nationales, staying in a small apartment that Professor John Merriman had in Le Marais, where Jonathan could get a sense of narrow streets and Parisian life in the 1980s.
He had pretty effortless French. He picked up Chinese when he came to Yale and fell totally for Arthur and Mary Wright. He became a China historian rather than a Tudor and Stuart historian, which he had been at Clare College. He picked up the story of Hu from Chinese sources originally, then went to France and the Vatican to put it all together. It's simultaneously a lovely, almost novel, narrative, and an incredibly scholarly book about parts of Chinese interactions on the ground with Westerners in the 1740s and 1750s and the incredible role of the church and the missionaries in China at that time.
It's hard to imagine anybody else being able to do anything as good as that, but he gives this example of what scholarship and history can be at so many levels.
Spence the Historian
Jordan Schneider: The story of the research for that book reminds me of Robert Caro going out into west Texas and sleeping under the stars, trying to get into LBJ’s head. I think what ranks Spence above Caro in my book is this deeply human concern for people who do not “matter” in the grand scheme of history, unless you are a real humanist at heart and are able to find power and meaning out of really small characters on the global stage.
Paul Kennedy: Jonathan was at Winchester and Cambridge when a really significant historiographical revolution occurred: the “history from below” approach. It had originally come from the French Annales school, which Jonathan would be familiar with, as well as Braudel’s attempt to look at the Mediterranean world in the age of Phillip II. He was also probably influenced by E.P. Thompson, Hobson, Rudé, and a whole bunch of more radical British historians of social history at the bottom.
E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class might've been somewhere on Jonathan's reading list, as he struggled to do that new sort of history while being taught by the formidable professor Geoffrey Elton, the historian of the Tudor Revolution in government and the great biographer of Thomas Cromwell. Elton was Jonathan Spence’s tutor for three years at Clare, which must've been a pretty terrifying thing. I think that he came already interested in how you describe humanity in history at the lower level, as well as being very well equipped to understand high politics and the bigger issues with a great deal of ease. He was very much a historian of the simple people in the story of China.
Henry Kissinger, in his time as National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State, had used an extremely talented notetaker and historical advisor Charlie Hill. It was Charlie who managed to persuade a somewhat cautious Henry Kissinger to come and join us for dinner discussion on grand strategy, history and politics.
One of the things that Kissinger said was, “I want to talk with Jonathan Spence. I must talk with Spence about China.” So I asked a slightly amused Jonathan if he would mind coming over to meet Henry.
We left them alone and talked with the students in the Grand Strategy class in some other room. I have a memory of looking into the room where Jonathan and Henry were together, and they were talking to each other in a very intimate way. Usually Henry does all the talking, but not this time; he was asking Jonathan about the sweep of Chinese history and civilization. I thought, “This is quite extraordinary. Here is a historian of the Woman Wang, Matteo Ricci, and the story of Hu, and yet he can also write about Mao, the Chinese Revolution, and the main drivers of the leaders of China today, which was obviously on Henry Kissinger’s mind.” I thought to myself, “Is there any other historian I know who can write so much, and so well, about the low-level story of China and the Chinese on the one hand, and can be consulted by the formidable Henry Kissinger on the other hand about where China is going and how do we in the West really understand China?”
He went to Winchester College: if Eton was for the snobs and for the Prime Minister, if Harrow was for people going to the Indian civil service, Winchester was for the intellectuals. His two-year gap in the British Army probably had a very significant influence on the way Jonathan thought about human life and condition. In order to get that first-class degree with distinction at Clare College, he would've probably had to do a whole lot of extraordinarily intellectually challenging exam questions in his three-hour final exams. When he was deciding to turn his famous lectures into a history of the rise of modern China, he had this amazing, quiet confidence in being able to do it.
For many years, he was one of the core book reviewers for Bob Silvers’ New York Review of Books. After Jonathan Spence's passing away in late December, the NYRB issued a list (which you can now read for free) of all 35 major articles on books on Chinese history, which were written as extended book-review essays by Jonathan Spence from the late seventies into the turn of the century. If we're talking about lessons for young historians, or how to move from being a younger historian to the next stages of your intellectual growth and development, I think there might be nothing more interesting than to go to this NYRB source. Do it as a late evening exercise: just go skimming through, jumping from one book-review essay of Spence's to the next one. The reviews of the remarkable volumes on science and civilization in China, for example, are just classic, but the way he's able to also dig into the life and times of the author, or authors, of science and civilization in China is also quite remarkable.
This is his polymathic way of looking at China. Through the lens of a book review, [or] through the lens of a small archival piece of fragment of evidence, he turns it into something bigger and he turns bigger things into something small.
Jordan Schneider: Other advice to people who want to write like him one day? How to cultivate the mindset or the approach.?
Paul Kennedy: I think he was a very firm believer in setting the scene: letting your reader know a little bit of the background; making sure that in the first paragraph of what you are writing, you are talking a bit about the background of a character you're looking at. You set the chronological scene a little bit more than you would. It's very common for graduate students, especially if you’ve come out of the archives and you've been working for a year or two in this particularly narrow field, to assume everybody else is familiar with what you're now going to describe. I think Jonathan gave a reader a chance.
Even if you're drafting Chapter Four of your dissertation, try to do some connectivity with the rest of the dissertation and put some descriptive parts in there. Not over-embellishing it in a purple-prose way, but making it easier for the reader's understanding of what's going on — he would approve of that.
Spence the Management Consultant?
Paul Kennedy: There was one other visitation to Yale by people who realized the value and attractiveness of Jonathan's great knowledge of China.
This was a visit by a Senior Vice President of British Petroleum: a very talented chief assistant to John Browne (who was, at that stage, the CEO of BP) called Nick Butler. Nick came to talk with myself and John Gaddis about whether from time to time, the professors in Grand Strategy and other professors at Yale might talk a little about current politics. He thought it was important for the senior business decision-makers at BP to know something about the scholarly way of looking at the world, and the importance of history to international business.
We were in a long lunchtime talk with the BP Senior Vice Presidents when one SVP let out that they wished they could have better connections in China, and be better able to acquaint with the Chinese officials in one of the central provinces in which BP had a strong interest. In the group of historians we had invited to talk with the BP executives was none other than Professor Jonathan Spence. When we quizzed the British petroleum people [on] why they were so interested in establishing links with decision-makers in this province, they confessed that they were in this rivalry with two large French oil development and petroleum companies to get the contract for the distribution of oil supplies and products. This would be a huge boost for them if they got the supply contract for central China, but they were not able to find anybody on the Chinese side who would pay much attention to BP. What on earth could they do to get an advantage here, in competition with their French rivals?
There was a silence, and then a voice came across the table: it was Jonathan Spence. He said, “You might offer to help the archeological digs to the old Chinese emperors.” There was total silence among the BP executives. Then the senior vice president said, “What do you mean the archaeological dig?”
Jonathan, scratching his chin. said, “Well, they've run out of money. This is a Beijing-centered, national archeological dig: this area in central China is where the ancient graves of some of the key Chinese emperors of the most ancient times are, and they haven't been carefully excavated. They're trying to do it one grave at a time, but it's a multi-year project and this joint China-and-UNESCO project is fading away.” The big honcho from BP said, “Well, what could we do?” Jonathan said, “If you offer to fund the continuation of the archeological dig and said that British Petroleum would be a sponsor for this valuable enterprise, you would be surprised. Because even the most diehard, communist Chinese official is proud of the history of the Han and Qin emperors. If they saw that you were reaching out in this gesture to help the archeological dig continue, in the next year when you made your competitive bid to be the distribution company, they will probably pay you back because that's the way Chinese officials think of things.”
Once again, there was total silence in the room. The head of BP leaned over the table and said, “How much would it cost to fund an archeological dig for one or two of these Chinese emperors’ grave sites?” Jonathan said, “I'm not an archeologist here, but I think perhaps a million or million-and-a-half dollars would get the whole archeological enterprise done.” Just that morning, I had read in the Financial Times that BP was going to spend up to 23 billion pounds on some huge offshore exploration off the coast of west Africa.
So the BP people went off, delirious at this idea that they could somehow get in as developers. Nobody at the beginning of the afternoon had told Jonathan Spence that BP would be making this question about their possible exploration and business enterprise in central China. Nobody has thought about these ancient Chinese archeological digs. And yet, in one person of Jonathan Spence, we had brought together contemporary matters as well as deep historical knowledge. Only Jonathan would have known the connectivity of it.
Jordan Schneider: I think we can all be very grateful that instead of making lots of money working for Kissinger Associates, he only let it take over one evening and spent the rest of his career writing books.
Paul Kennedy: I think we all can. His colleagues miss him very, very much, but what a full and accomplished life this young scholar of Winchester College brought to the profession.
ChinaTalk is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber!