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Certainly a history and not a novel
on January 31, 2010
The Question of Hu, written beautifully by Jonathan Spence, should be considered an important contribution to the broad field of humanities. However, the question remains if Spence's research fits within the strict confines of historical literature, or whether its narrative-driven style is more characteristic of a historical novel. Spence's tale about the travels of Jean-Francois Foucquet, a Jesuit priest, and his culture-shocked Chinese copyist, John Hu, blurs the line that arbitrarily divides the various fields that constitute the humanities. While The Question of Hu seemingly lacks the detached analysis that most historians infuse into their works, Spence's tale, nonetheless, has to be considered an imaginative and exciting contribution to historical literature, which in its own subtle style, provides a platform for criticizing European cultural chauvinism during the 18th century
Throughout his work, Spence efficiently uses proven literary devices to speed along the story and provide a sense of suspense for the reader. Spence begins in medias res with Hu- a Chinese copyist -being visited by a concerned Jesuit clergyman. The two years that Hu had spent within a French insane asylum, after being abandoned by his own employer, proved harsh; even leaving one clergyman to comment that Hu looked like an "exhumed corpse" (Spence, 6). From this literary hook, Spence expertly details how Hu, who faithfully traveled with his employer on a ship from China to France, had met this unfortunate end. Unlike most histories, where the author's thesis is clearly stated and the sequence of events is laid out completely within the introductory pages of a book, Spence merely explains that he didn't, "think Foucquet [Hu's French employer] was right in the way he treated Hu," (Spence, XX). In this, Spence's analysis seems weak and undeveloped. But this is misleading. Spence's slight touch allows the audience's to read further into the seemingly truthful narrative that Foucquet has set aside, and for which Spence has neatly organized into an excellent historical narrative.
The argument against The Question of Hu being considered a truly historical work lies in the belief that Spence avoids providing a detailed analysis about the themes that could be gleaned from Hu's experiences. Of these themes, the perception that European Christian practices were superior to Chinese traditions, can be seen throughout the text. Spence, while not obnoxiously moralistic in his criticism, does open the door for judgments against the actions of Foucquet. With a close examination of Spence's narrative it can been understood that Foucquet's racially demeaning relationship with Hu serves as an example of cultural arrogance that pervaded European Christian thought during the 18th century . Was Hu's eccentric behavior in France, in which he stole a horse, ran away on several occasions, and led an outwardly misogynistic parade through Paris, proof of his insanity? Or merely the frustrated reactions of pious albeit eccentric man completely overwhelmed by his experiences within cosmopolitan France; detached from his conservative Chinese heritage; and all the while, handicapped by his inability to speak French. To attribute Hu's behavior to sudden bout of insanity detaches Foucquet of any responsibility of handling complex cultural relations between his Chinese employee and his own European culture, thus leaving his self-serving theological systems untouched by the sting of reality. Foucquet's believes that "the Chinese lack the key to their own classical writings," and that Christianity is the only way for them to truly understand their own cultural traditions. Even the intensely pious Hu, who attempted to attain Christian salvation by denouncing his wealth and possessions, was characterized by Foucquet as being a lunatic, because his expressions of Christian faith were considered primitive and ritualistic.
It is not historically responsible to attribute the actions of one man as an example of a whole society, as can be seen with the few Jesuit clergymen who were concerned with plight of Hu. However, to deny that Foucquet's actions were not a function of broad European historical mechanisms that influenced his belief systems, and thus predicted his egregious decision to abandon Hu, would be just as irresponsible intellectually. Spence's concise but brilliant history subtly examines the complex relationship between European Christian ideology and Chinese cultural practices. At only 134 pages, The Question of Hu, does not contain a preaching condemnation of European cultural chauvinism, but quiet judgment can be gleaned from Spence's tactful source analysis.