Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
To understand a remote time or unfamiliar place, we need to see it in action one story can be worth thousands of undressed facts and bare charts but Spence also admonishes us as he begins this tale that "one of history's uses is to remind us how unlikely things can be." The prosperous and stable Manchu regime in 18th-century Qing dynasty China rested uneasily on Chinese concurrence as much as on terror or law; emperors were understandably touchy on the subject of disloyalty, and officials serving under them were positively paranoid. So when, in 1728, the possibility of an anti-government conspiracy appeared, officials leaped into action, jumping around like dragons on a hot tile roof. Drawing on the wealth of documents and depositions generated by the emperor's meticulous bureaucracy, Spence's story of emperor, officials, and conspirators is both rousingly unlikely and highly informative. A great treat for fans of his earlier books.[A History Book Club selection.] Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
In 1728, Emperor Yongzheng of China received a message from a distant subordinate advising that treason, in the form of a letter denouncing his regime, was abroad in the land. This new book by Yale scholar Spence (The Death of Woman Wang; The Search for Modern China; etc.) traces the intricate and surprising consequences of that disclosure. Partly a chronicle of historical events and partly an examination of a culture and a political system, this volume recounts how the emperor's relentless investigation led to apprehension of the dissidents who had dared impugn the imperial system. One of the book's surprises is the emperor's next move. Instead of imposing an immediate death sentence, he began an intensive, written conversation with the leader of the dissidents, a man named Zeng Jing. Ultimately convinced he had grievously wronged the emperor, Zeng Jing wrote an elaborate confession of error and received pardon for his crimes. Remarkably, the emperor ordered the entire chain of writings, including the original treasonous letter, published and distributed throughout all China as a civics lesson for his subjects. Spence draws on documents surviving from the Yongzheng era, and his telling of the emperor's story is anchored in a close reading of those primary sources. Accompanying the history is a sustained meditation on the power of the written word, including its uses for attack, for dialogue and for persuasion. Seen nearly 300 years later, Emperor Yongzheng's experiment with mass publication of ideas he found repugnant seems enlightened and commendable. Spence is a wonderfully accomplished writer, and in this rather slight tale he has found an intriguing character for his many readers to ponder. (Mar. 5) Forecast: While this may not have the weight of some of Spence's other works, as a miniature it offers easy access to readers unfamiliar with the Far East. Spence's reputation as one of our leading historians on China will guarantee wide coverage. History Book Club selection; six-city author tour. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Conspiracies and treason at the highest levels of government provide excellent material for novels. Spence, a teacher at Yale who has written 12 books on Chinese history and culture, uses the form of a novel to tell a fascinating but true story--an eighteenth-century plot to overthrow the Manchu dynasty of China. As in a classic spy novel, Spence reveals his story slowly, as seemingly insignificant events gradually form a pattern of serpentine plots and plots within plots. Along the way, we are introduced to a variety of heroes and villains with some characters alternating between both roles. While a general knowledge of Chinese history and culture would be helpful, Spence effectively educates the reader with finely drawn descriptions of the surrounding political and cultural milieu. This is a riveting, exciting chronicle of an obscure but significant episode in Chinese history. --Jay Freeman
Kirkus Book Review
The well-made story of a treason investigation in 18th-century China, by Yale historian Spence (Mao Zedong, 1999). Highly centralized governments churn out one product hateful to contemporaries but priceless to scholars: paperwork. The immense archives preserved by generations of Chinese bureaucrats have proved a gold mine to historians such as Spence, whose obscure but well-documented story begins in 1728 when a provincial governor was handed a letter denouncing the emperor. Arrested and interrogated, the bearer named others involved, and a torrent of paperwork followed. The loyal governor reported every detail to the emperor, who demanded more details, which the governor hastened to provide. The emperor then ordered provincial governors throughout China to arrest those named (and their familiesin China, everyone shares a relatives guilt). Their interrogations, in turn, produced more evidence of disloyalty, more names, and more reports, as a stream of prisoners poured into the capital for further interrogation. None of the accused had plotted to take action against the emperor; their offense was merely to spread unflattering rumors about him, to complain in private diaries, to read or write poetry that cast the dynasty in an unflattering light. No matter: Imperial China was positively Stalinist (or Maoist?) in its demand for absolute loyalty in thought as well as deed. Spreading a false rumor was criminal, but originating it was treason. Spence records the prodigious effort, manpower, and documentation that the Imperial government devoted to tracking down and punishing its critics (and their families). What is truly creepy about his story is how much of it was told (with a straight face) on the official record. A fascinating tale: like all good historical writing, this brings to life both the strangeness and the humanity of people from a previous era. History Book Club selection