cover image Treason by the Book

Treason by the Book

Jonathan D. Spence. Viking Books, $24.95 (300pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89292-1

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.