TREASON BY THE BOOK by Jonathan D. Spence


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The well-made story of a treason investigation in 18th-century China, by Yale historian Spence (Mao Zedong, 1999).

Highly centralized governments churn out one product hateful to contemporaries but priceless to scholars: paperwork. The immense archives preserved by generations of Chinese bureaucrats have proved a gold mine to historians such as Spence, whose obscure but well-documented story begins in 1728 when a provincial governor was handed a letter denouncing the emperor. Arrested and interrogated, the bearer named others involved, and a torrent of paperwork followed. The loyal governor reported every detail to the emperor, who demanded more details, which the governor hastened to provide. The emperor then ordered provincial governors throughout China to arrest those named (and their families—in China, everyone shares a relative’s guilt). Their interrogations, in turn, produced more evidence of disloyalty, more names, and more reports, as a stream of prisoners poured into the capital for further interrogation. None of the accused had plotted to take action against the emperor; their offense was merely to spread unflattering rumors about him, to complain in private diaries, to read or write poetry that cast the dynasty in an unflattering light. No matter: Imperial China was positively Stalinist (or Maoist?) in its demand for absolute loyalty in thought as well as deed. Spreading a false rumor was criminal, but originating it was treason. Spence records the prodigious effort, manpower, and documentation that the Imperial government devoted to tracking down and punishing its critics (and their families). What is truly creepy about his story is how much of it was told (with a straight face) on the official record.

A fascinating tale: like all good historical writing, this brings to life both the strangeness and the humanity of people from a previous era.

Pub Date: March 5th, 2001
ISBN: 0-670-89292-0
Page count: 289pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2001


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