Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

November 24, 2000

In the summer of 1984, I was trying to decide what subject to read at university, searching for something a little further off the beaten track than my sixth-form language and literature courses.

Nearly everyone to whom I mentioned doing Chinese studies thought it was a terrible idea, so, all the more determined, I went down to the local library in search of support for my hunch that China might be for me.

It turned out that Wetherby Library had only one book on China, but to my great good fortune that one book was Jonathan Spence's The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolution, 1895-1980 .

I was not impressed simply because this was my first encounter with the story of China's 20th-century transition from an imperial dynasty to a people's republic.

The book's power is that it is a brilliant example of what Spence does best: a rich and sympathetic recreation of China's intellectual life in a crucial period of change, which, through its exploration of the careers and work of literary and cultural figures, gives a far more nuanced, engaging and insightful introduction to China's political history than conventional history textbooks.

Spence was my introduction to writers such as Lu Xun, Ba Jin, Mao Dun and Wen Yiduo. After reading about how successive generations of China's intellectuals had grappled with the bewildering pace of cultural, political and social change and with the dilemmas of modernisation, I knew these were questions I wanted to explore.

After reading Spence, I could not think of anything else to study other than China: here was one of the most intriguing and compelling stories of the 20th century and I had hardly known it existed until I opened The Gate of Heavenly Peace .

Although Spence's book is probably at its best on the pre-1949 period, and my work has been almost exclusively on post-1949 China, I can still trace his influence on my research and teaching.

The concern with those individuals who do not fit in with the tidy dogmas and orthodoxy of the party faithful (of any party), but who persist in asking awkward questions about democracy, freedom and how best to change society - without in the process creating worse injustices than the ones that have been swept away - is one aspect of the book's abiding influence.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace is a beautifully written, witty and moving tour de force of intellectual history and I owe its author a debt of gratitude for putting me on the professional path that I have followed for the past 16 years and hope to follow for many more.

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

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