By subtly interweaving the lives of a series of Chinese writers, Yale historian Spence (Emperor of China, The Death of Woman Wang) has given new meaning to the passage from Imperial to Communist China--and produced one of the more original and distinguished books of recent times. Usually, the story of Imperial China's fall is told through the life of Sun Yatsen; Spence shifts the focus to the scholar Kang Youwei, who, following a more traditional Confucian path, was Sun's rival among young rebels. Kang succeeded in convincing the Emperor of the need for educational and other reforms, but both Emperor and Kang were overthrown by an Empress Dowager-supported coup. Kang then traveled the world in the aimless Tao fashion with thoughts of a new "Great Community" in his head, writing poems in the classical mode. After revolution broke out in 1911, he was a moderate force--continuing to exert an influence even as events outraced him. By the time he died, in 1927, Communists and Nationalists were at each others' throats; but Kang died wearing his ceremonial robes. Spence meanwhile picks up the threads of other lives--like that of Qu Quibai, an impoverished poet until the May 4 rally, in 1919, sent him off to the Soviet Union, where his poetry fused with the study of Marxism; and of Xu Zhimo, a poet from a protected background who, untouched by these same events, went instead to Cambridge to study literature, becoming a self-sufficient aesthete. The poetry of both was important to other young people. But the dominant figure of the middle section of Spence's story, and perhaps the central figure for the entire flow of people and events, is Lu Xun (more familiar as Lu Hsun). Though Spence avoids such categories, Lu is probably the greatest Chinese writer of this century. A humble, unassailably honest man, Lu was a radical of no easy description, and a nuisance to both the Nationalists and the Communists. His unwillingness to simply follow the Communists, while remaining a foe of the Nationalists, makes him representative of an ambiguous circle of intellectuals whose stories are seldom told. After his death in 1936, the central figure for Spence is the woman writer Ding Ling. Before she became a Communist, Ding had already made her mark as a feminist author. In Yanan, following her escape from Nationalist arrest in 1936, she edited literary journals and kept the spirit of Lu alive--writing stories that were implicitly critical of the motivations of some Communist cadres, and generally painting a shaded, realistic image of life. After great success in the late '40s (she won a Stalin Prize for literature in '51), Ding ran afoul of the Party again; and the last section of Spence's account uses her and her acquaintances as threads through the factional fights of the last quarter century: Ding herself was banned from publishing in 1958 and "rehabilitated" 20 years later. These are nuanced human stories, encompassing great events--and illustrative, implicitly, of the difficulty of choice: for literary people, of being true to their art and doing right. Exceptional.