Chinese whispers, a dangerous game

Treason by the Book
September 20, 2002

The aptness of its title becomes increasingly apparent as one reads this latest offering from Jonathan Spence. For at its heart it is about books, texts and their circulation and the power and limitations of the written word.

The treason of the title begins in western China in 1728, when a letter from frustrated junior scholar Zeng Jing is thrust into the hand of the region's governor-general. In the letter, Zeng condemns the Manchu dynasty as northern "barbarians", whose misgovernment places intolerable burdens on the people. He accuses the emperor, Yongzheng, of plotting against his late father, having three of his own brothers put to death, and persecuting loyal ministers and rewarding sycophants. Not least of Yongzheng's concerns when he hears the letter's contents is that the last two accusations are substantially true.

Zeng's mighty conspiracy theory turns out to consist of at most six people and to be based on a mixture of gossip and a fleeting acquaintance with the work of a more distinguished scholar and a loyalist of the preceding Ming dynasty, Lu Liuliang. After a painstaking investigation, the emperor takes the unusual decision, against all advice, to spare the life of the repentant Zeng and to publish a 500-page document on the case, Awakening from Delusion . Perhaps 100,000 copies of the book are produced and extracts are read to the general public. As for Lu, once the emperor decides he is the real traitor, his corpse is exhumed and exposed, while most of his family suffer execution or enslavement.

However, Awakening from Delusion fans resentment among scholars compelled to teach its contents while disagreeing with the emperor's decision to spare Zeng, and people tend to remember the juiciest bits from the book's compendium of court scandal long after the emperor's carefully argued treatises on Manchu ethnic identity and Confucian government have faded from their minds. Thus it is that Yongzheng's successor in 1736 goes against his father's instructions and orders Zeng's execution, as well as recalling all copies of Awakening from Delusion .

Particularly vividly realised in Spence's account is the world of the provincial scholar, rife with intellectual insecurity, thwarted ambition and the envy of the passed-over for those they perceive to have succeeded through toadying and connections. This is the world of the supposed conspirators, and as the investigation proceeds through the villages, tea-houses and schools of rural Hunan province, relatives, students and casual acquaintances of the original plotters find their writings impounded and pored over for any hint of heterodoxy or rebellion. In this climate, anyone who writes risks falling under suspicion, and an ambiguous phrase or miswritten character is sufficient evidence of dissent: it is a perilous time to be a bad poet.

Spence bases his interpretation of events and analysis of character throughout on the protagonists' own words, and the result is a masterly piece of historical reconstruction that is a pleasure to read. It deserves the widest possible audience.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in 20th-century Chinese history, University of Nottingham.

Treason by the Book: Traitors, Conspirators and Guardians of an Emperor

Author - Jonathan Spence
ISBN - 0 713 99449 5 and 0 14 029129 6
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £16.99 and £7.99
Pages - 300

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