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Publishers Weekly Review
To French Jesuit Jean-Francois Foucquet, John Hua Chinese widower from Canton and a convert to Catholicismseemed like the perfect choice to serve as the missionary's translator and assistant. So Foucquet took Hu back to Paris with him in 1722, but Hu acted bizarrely on the overseas crossing and was confined for two years in the lunatic asylum of Charenton. In this slim travelogue, historian Spence ( The Gate of Heavenly Peace ) narrates their tragic tale in the form of an imaginary log, reconstructed from French, British and Vatican archives. Hu's behavior was clearly irrational: he wielded a knife, made strange proclamations, slept outdoors. But was he insane, and if so, did his journey to the West somehow trigger the reaction? Father Doucquet acted badly (he ditched Hu, who became an embarrassment to him), but to what extent was the Jesuit responsible for Hu's fate? The available evidence can't answer these questions, and we are left with a fragmentary puzzle. Reader's Subscription Book Club selection. (October) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
The Hu in question is John, an eighteenth- century Cantonese convert to Catholicism who accompanied a Jesuit scholar on his return to Paris. Employing a minimalist style, the author, chair of Yale's history department, tells an overtly simple story of a stranger in a strange land. Spence rarely interprets events; instead, he concentrates on quotidian detail. A quarter of the way through this slim book, the reader might say the real question is not Hu, but ``Why?'' The answer is that Spence has crafted a fine piece of historical research about an exceedingly obscure but interesting man into an unsettling, literary tale of ambiguity, cultural disorientation, and daily life. To be indexed. TG.
Kirkus Book Review
Brilliant reconstructive history of the enigmatic relationship between an 18th-century French missionary and a Chinese convert; by the masterful Yale historian Spence (The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Emperor of China). In 1721, Jean-Francois Foucquet, a Jesuit priest and classical Chinese scholar, set sail from Canton to Europe with 4,000 ancient Chinese texts and a 40-year-old amateur copyist christened ""John"" Hu. Obsessive, paranoid, visionary, Foucquet's plan was to win favor with Pope Innocent XIII both by proving through textual explication that China's religious roots were in fact Christian and by establishing a rare library of Chinese classics in France. Hu was his own visionary--a lowly catechist in the Canton mission whose pious dream was to see Europe and meet the Pontiff. But their exotic mission was a boondoggle. On the voyage west, Hu fell ill, then mad, refusing his contractual obligations to copy texts, claiming his mother had died and pleading with Foucquet to let him traverse Europe by foot as a beggar. For his mysterious insubordination, Hu was alternately shunned, beaten, refused payment, and finally committed to an asylum at Charenton; the cunning priest, meanwhile, was made bishop and achieved his papal audience. In 1726, Hu, broken and deranged, returned to Canton, a historical footnote elevated by Spence to saintly status by his carefully measured and indicting reconstruction of the story's surviving fragments: Foucquet's written ""defense"" of his treatment of Hu, official Jesuit correspondence about the matter, and a single surviving letter from Hu. By turns thrilling, surreal, and frustratingly incomplete, Spence's carefully crafted narrative is a historial cliffhanger with a profound moral subtext. An ingenious work of scholarship. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.