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Treason by the Book Paperback – March 5, 2002
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From The New Yorker
Is it possible to find out where rumors come from? Sometimes. In early-eighteenth-century China, Emperor Yongzheng deployed his vast bureaucracy to ferret out the origins of certain slanderous statements. The gossip proved to be part of a disinformation campaign run by rebels bent on overthrowing his dynasty. He quashed it by publishing a volume of some of the rebellious writings that had inspired the malcontents, along with rebuttals by a team of scholars, and then distributed it throughout his enormous empire as compulsory reading––the Little Red Book of its day. In this fascinating detective story, many aspects of Qing society seem startlingly modern, such as the government's use of spin control and affirmative-action quotas.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
Praise for Treason by the Book:
A History Book Club Selection
“Compelling . . . reads like a medieval whodunit.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A fascinating, beautiful book.”
—The Washington Times
“Near-cinematic suspense . . . Spence’s depiction of the investigation is mesmerizing.”
—Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
“An infectiously readable narrative . . . on par with bestselling works of historical reconstruction such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude . . . Eighteenth-century China springs to life.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“A slice of history told in the lively manner of a novel . . . A novel of ideas.”
—Ian Buruma, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] fascinating detective story.”
—The New Yorker
“A work of history that pulses with emotion, with vital characters re-created vividly, with complex situations lucidly unraveled, with irony underscored. His straight forward prose style and use of the historic present give his work an engrossing immediacy. It is history of the best kind.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A delicate spider’s web of a book, deft, fascinating, and precise as Chinese calligraphy.”
—The Los Angeles Times
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One person said something ,someone else misheard it and repeated it, someone heard the new version for the first time and believed it to be true.
A good recent example , Yue observed, was the rumours swirling around that the current emperor was a heavy drinker, ... an initial statement by a senior official ...that the emperor now found wine bad for his health, had been transformed by the rumour mill into the fact that the emperor drink immoderately.
-extract from `Treason by the book' by Jonathan Spence 2001 Penguin edition page 79. An interesting read on the astonishing true story of a plot to overthrow the Manchurian Emperor in 1728. A lot of fascinating insight into the mind of a Confucian ruler.
The book is a revelation. It shows :-
a) how hardworking was Emperor Yongzheng,
b) how even in early 18th century the Chinese officials can trace a rumour to a group of prisoners in a chain gang seen on a certain road at a certain time several years earlier, and then check the files to locate and interrogate every single suspect,
c) how Emperor Yongzheng struggled with the critical questions ,"What is a good ruler? " "What is the law ?"
Yongzheng has always been overlooked by historians who highlighted the achievements of his father and his son. A book that to a certain degree redeems Yongzheng's reputation is this book.Jonathan Spence has written an outstanding history book.
The Qing emperor, Yongzheng, had a brief and stormy reign from 1723 to 1735. He succeeded his father emperor Kangxi, who had ruled from 1662 to 1722 and had consolidated the Qing Empire. In turn he was succeeded by his fourth son, Emperor Qianlong, who ruled from 1736 to 1799, the longest in the history of China. The means by which Yongzheng ruled is summarized by Professor Spence: "He gives enormous power to his favorite officials, both Chinese and Manchu, but watches them with endless care and infiltrates their staffs with spies who report back to him on his favorites' words and conduct. He strikes them down mercilessly if he feels they are wavering in their loyalty." ... "He feels the morals of the nation are lax and must be corrected with a mixture of Confucian teachings and legal restraints."
One caveat, this is a historical narrative. What Spence has constructed comes from historical sources. Indeed, the Chinese appear to have saved everything, at least in the Qing. Evidence of the emperor's thoughts can be seen as notations on the memorials that have been sent to him by high officials. They are insightful and instructive in conveying the concerns of Yongzheng and are indicative of his defensiveness. However, the downside of being true to the written record is that the characters in this story are flat. To the extent that emotions are displayed, they are cursory and summary, especially with regard to subordinate government officials. We may be impressed with the patience and consideration of the emperor, but he is portrayed as a two dimensional figure. That was perhaps unavoidable. This book only has the historical record as its source. Contemporary investigative reporting, which this book clearly resembles, is a Western invention and has not been practiced to any great extent in China.
The incident that Spence has researched extensively, and as to which there appears to be a considerable amount of extant recorded detail, is an abortive, sophomoric Chinese conspiracy to start an uprising against the Manchu emperor. Zhang Xi, a peripatetic student, in a naïve effort to garner support, casts a letter at General Yue Zhongqi, the accomplished governor-general of two provinces. Yue is riding in his chair in Xian at the time. In the letter the conspirators proposed that Yue join with a group to overthrow the Manchu emperor Yongzheng and return China to the rule of a Chinese. The general, although a Chinese, is loyal to the Manchu emperor. He immediately informs the emperor of the possible treasonous activities of some of his subjects as disclosed in the letter. The emperor thereafter orders the identification and arrest of all the conspirators, including Zeng Jing, the leader and master of Zhang Xi. The minor players turn out not to be conspirators at all. They are mostly just acquaintances, although some are elderly students, an occupation evidently supported by the government for years on end. Their involvement with the prime conspirators seems to be serendipitous.
The putative traitor, Zeng Jing, who is Chinese, had set forth in the letter to General Yue his numerous complaints about the emperor's character, rule and Manchu barbarism. The emperor, in what is a remarkable example of compulsive defensiveness, personally writes an 83 page rebuttal document, and has it read aloud to his senior officials. It is rather impressive in that, given his extensive arbitrary power and the customs of the time, he takes the time to justify his actions. Indeed, he is generally persuasive. Moreover, he displays great political intuition in knowing that since he has had Zeng's letter copied, its contents will undoubtedly leak out to the court and probably beyond. Therefore his rebuttal is both timely and, in the emperor's view, necessary.
As a result of interrogations of the arrested conspirators it is determined, that all of the complaints about the emperor are second hand or more. Indeed, many are rumors that Zeng Jing has heard about the emperor having killed his brothers to obtain and keep the throne. The emperor decides that the source of the rumors should be found. As must be true of all political rumors, the sources of many were close to the court and the emperor's brothers. Once stated a rumor has a life of its own, being embellished and elaborated upon with each telling. An emperor who, it is said, complains about the wine becomes an alcoholic with the endless repeating of the complaint. Such is the nature of rumors, especially political ones. While the emperor may have believed himself to be falsely accused, some of the accusations of Zeng were founded upon the writings of Lü Liuliang and his followers. Lü, a scholar, was born in 1629 and died in 1683, long before Yongzheng came to power. He believed the Ming were ordained by heaven and wrote letters and poems with scorn for the Manchus. He revered the old Ming emperor and mocked the customs and administration of the barbarians. The emperor not only requested that he be given Lü's writings and those of his disciple, Yan Hongkui, it appears he read them in their entirety.
Once the conspirators and their families and associates had been brought to Beijing and, in some cases released, the paranoia in the countryside had subsided. The emperor began a dialogue with Zeng Jing, the acknowledged traitor. He let Zeng read the various memorials and his endorsed comments which are associated with matters related to Zeng's accusations. At the emperor's request Zeng prepared responsive comments, mostly recognizing his own errors of thought. The emperor, in turn read those comments. In time, Zeng drafted a sincere confession praising the emperor and expressing regret for repeating the rumors and basing his treasonous thoughts upon them. As a result of Zeng's contrition, he is pardoned by the emperor, as are others. Remarkably however, Yongzheng directed that his writings, along with Zeng's accusations be assembled and published in a 509 page book entitled A Record of How True Virtue Led to an Awakening from Delusion. He further directed that it be distributed to officials and read to the people. Copies still exist and inspired Spence's research.
However, in 1735, when Qianlong succeeds his father, Yongzheng, Zeng and Zhang are rearrested, brought to Beijing, in secrecy, and sentenced to death by slicing along with some members of their families. Qianlong and some of his advisors took an entirely different view of transparency in governance. The publication of Yongzheng's writings and Zeng's accusations, was suppressed, collected and to a great extent destroyed.
Spence can be compared to Bob Woodward in his investigative reporting, digging out the facts and constructing the narrative. He follows the various individuals involved and their fates. He examines the rumors and how the emperor dealt with them. He also gives some insight into Yongzheng's views on governance. This may be an obscure and inconsequential tale, but it should be a lesson for all societies. The Yongzheng emperor opted for transparency, exposure and examination. Would that every political leader found the will to emulate him. The Qianlong emperor, in this instance, represented a resurgence of paranoia.
What does this mean for us? Has Jonathan Spence written this in order to convey a lesson? He says no. He asserts that "...it can be said that both emperors got it wrong." Yongzheng thought exposing the rumors and explaining them was wise. But the people just remembered the rumors. Qianlong thought that by burning the book he could hide the rumors. But the people believed it was to hide the truth. Therefore, perhaps Professor Spence intended to let the reader decide. However, the correctness of one decision is clear. Western countries with a free press have exposed the internal confidential discussions of government as a matter of course. Once he had written his 83 page response, Yongzheng's decision to expose Zeng's letter and his writing appears to have been prescient.
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This book once again cements my feeling that J.Spence is the best English speaker on the History of China.Read more