THE QUESTION OF HU by Jonathan D. Spence
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Brilliant reconstructive history of the enigmatic relationship between an 18th-century French missionary and a Chinese convert; by the masterful Yale historian Spence (The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Emperor of China). In 1721, Jean-Francois Foucquet, a Jesuit priest and classical Chinese scholar, set sail from Canton to Europe with 4,000 ancient Chinese texts and a 40-year-old amateur copyist christened ""John"" Hu. Obsessive, paranoid, visionary, Foucquet's plan was to win favor with Pope Innocent XIII both by proving through textual explication that China's religious roots were in fact Christian and by establishing a rare library of Chinese classics in France. Hu was his own visionary--a lowly catechist in the Canton mission whose pious dream was to see Europe and meet the Pontiff. But their exotic mission was a boondoggle. On the voyage west, Hu fell ill, then mad, refusing his contractual obligations to copy texts, claiming his mother had died and pleading with Foucquet to let him traverse Europe by foot as a beggar. For his mysterious insubordination, Hu was alternately shunned, beaten, refused payment, and finally committed to an asylum at Charenton; the cunning priest, meanwhile, was made bishop and achieved his papal audience. In 1726, Hu, broken and deranged, returned to Canton, a historical footnote elevated by Spence to saintly status by his carefully measured and indicting reconstruction of the story's surviving fragments: Foucquet's written ""defense"" of his treatment of Hu, official Jesuit correspondence about the matter, and a single surviving letter from Hu. By turns thrilling, surreal, and frustratingly incomplete, Spence's carefully crafted narrative is a historial cliffhanger with a profound moral subtext. An ingenious work of scholarship.

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 1988
ISBN: 0679725806
Publisher: Knopf