Obituaries for Jonathan Spence: Respected China scholar unites world media in praise

The death of the celebrated sinologist was reported with warmth and respect by Global Times, the New York Times, and Taiwan’s Liberty Times alike.

Jonathan Spence. Michael Marsland/Yale University.

Jonathan Spence (史景迁 Shǐ Jǐngqiān), a MacArthur Fellow and the Sterling Professor of History at Yale, died last Saturday at the age of 85.

Pivotal to the development of sinology and the study of Chinese history, Spence’s research specialized in the hotly contested territory of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), but he tackled many other subjects and eras, too. His writing was known for its narrative-focused style, keen attention to everyday life, and a deep empathy for the Chinese experience.

Among his dozen books on China, he was best known for The Search for Modern China, an elegant 876-page survey of China’s major upheavals in the past four centuries based on his lecture notes for one of the most in-demand classes at Yale. It is still widely used in college history classes today.

Spence’s passing was mourned as a great loss in obituaries across the China aisle, ranging from Radio Free Asia, VOA, Liberty Times (Taiwan, pro-independence), the Washington Post, and the New York Times to the South China Morning Post, China Times (Taiwan, pro-KMT), China’s state broadcaster CGTN, and nationalist tabloid Global Times.

Under the shadow of Sino-American tension, the special homage to Spence testifies to how his legacy has transcended the strife and particulars of politics: His work has been imagined as a blueprint for articulating the Taiwanese identity (in Chinese) while being repeatedly quoted by CGTN’s columnists; in addition, he has been cited as a key influence by both China’s nationalist historians and the postcolonialism-driven New Qing History Movement.