Western enthusiasm for China waxes and wanes on long cycles. In the early 18th century it was waxing strong. “The constitution of their empire is the most excellent the world has ever seen,” burbled Voltaire. The unfoxable Samuel Johnson scoffed at widespread popular conceptions of the “Chinese perfectly polite, and compleatly skill’d in all sciences.”
At the time these remarks were being made, the last Imperial dynasty was on the throne in Beijing. Known as the Qing (that “q” is pronounced half-way between a “ts” and a “ch”), the dynasty had been established in 1644 by the Manchus, a rough Siberian tribe skilled in the arts of war, semi-civilized by long contact with the Chinese, and favored with a succession of able and energetic leaders at a time when China’s own rulers were weak. The Manchus’ grip on China had been consolidated by the second Qing emperor, a very clever and capable man known to history as Kangxi, who had the good fortune to occupy the throne for over sixty years (1661 to 1722), the longest reign in the history of China. Kangxi left behind him a great many sons, but did not name an heir. His fourth son seized the throne and reigned for twelve years with the imperial name Yongzheng.
Yongzheng was at least as capable as his father, and much more industrious. In addition to working long hours with his ministers on the affairs of the nation, he also managed to be a serious student of Buddhism. His position as Emperor, however, suffered from two insecurities. In the first place, his people were not ethnic Chinese, and the resentment that the Chinese people felt towards their alien rulers was a key factor in the life of the nation down to the very end of the dynasty in 1911. In the second place, there were doubts about Yongzheng’s right to the succession, and many rumors about how he had seized power.
This is the background to the tale — a true one, reconstructed by painstaking research in court documents — told in Treason by the Book. It begins in the fall of 1728, half way through Yongzheng’s reign, when a powerful general in charge of two large provinces was suddenly presented with a letter criticizing him for serving under the Manchus, and urging him to rebel. The letter retailed some scandalous gossip about the Emperor, to bolster its arguments about the illegitimacy of Manchu rule.
Acting with the utmost care for his own position (ban jun ru ban hu, say the Chinese — “To attend a prince is to wait upon a tiger”) the general forwarded the letter to the Emperor. This set off a chain of events that continued for over seven years, to the end of the reign and slightly beyond. Investigations into the letter, its writer, his family, friends and influences, reached into the furthest corners of the Empire, swept up hundreds of people — many of them baffled to find themselves suddenly objects of the court’s attention — and touched on matters of scholarship and literary interpretation from decades before.
“The Qing court puts Lü Liuliang’s writings on trial,” is the terse summary of this incident in my handbook of Chinese history, attached to the year 1728. The whole business is in fact known in Chinese, so far as it is known at all, as “the Lü Liuliang affair.” This is odd in itself, as Lü Liuliang was a scholar who had died 45 years previously. A very respectable scholar, too, as his commentaries on the Confucian classics had been widely read and admired. At the time of the mysterious letter, only two of his sons were alive, and only one of his students. Lü’s unpublished writings, however, were identified as the ultimate inspiration for the seditious letter. Lü had been born in the previous dynasty, the Ming, which had been overthrown by the Qing when he was a boy. Further, one of his ancestors had married a member of the Ming ruling family, and in his heart Lü was a Ming loyalist whose writings, mainly by subtle and indirect allusions, contained criticisms of the Manchu “barbarians.” These writings had come to the attention of a country schoolmaster, Zeng Jing, the author of the letter.
At this point, the normal course of events would have been for Zeng Jing, and the messenger who had delivered the letter, and all the members of their familes, and as many of Lü Liuliang’s descendants and students who could be identified, along with all their familes, to be killed or sent to exile in harsh frontier regions. The Emperor Yongzheng was, however, much more thoughtful and imaginative than this. His handling of the issue, which resulted in Zeng Jing writing the Imperial Chinese equivalent of a best-seller, forms the main part of this narrative.
There is no better guide to modern Chinese history than Jonathan Spence. I recommend his The Search for Modern China (1990) to everyone who wants to begin a serious study of that nation’s affairs, and his wonderful, though very melancholy, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1981) as a foundation text in the intellectual currents of 20th -century China. His writing is clear, plain and unglamorous, without any affectation or chinoiserie, of the kind that tends to afflict amateur writers on China. His learning is both wide and deep.
The method Spence has chosen here, of illuminating Chinese history by putting one particular moment, or one particular episode, under the microscope, is a very good one, perfectly suited to bringing such an alien culture to the attention and understanding of Western readers. The great exemplar of this method in recent times has been Ray Huang’s 1587, A Year of No Significance, published twenty years ago by Yale. Spence has done for the early Qing what Huang did for the late Ming, bringing to life personalities both famous and obscure, showing us the actual machinery of imperial Chinese administration in its day to day operations, giving us an intimate feel for the sheer difficulty of governing that vast, unruly nation. This is popular history at its best — a fascinating, beautiful book.