Treason by the Book By Jonathan Spence Viking 300 pp., $24.95
Imagine that the new ruler of a powerful nation assumes command under a cloud of suspicion and faces opposition to his rule. How might he consolidate his power and silence his critics? And what if the year is 1728, before the era of faxes, e-mail, and telephones. How might the emperor keep in touch with his deputies and regional rulers?
Emperor Yongzheng responded creatively to this challenge, and Jonathan Spence recounts the story in "Treason by the Book."
The real-life drama begins when Zeng Jing delivers a note to a general in western China. The inflammatory message outlines a plot to overthrow the Manchu government. The treasonous note is sent by courier to the emperor, who outlines an intricate response. Dozens of officials are dispatched to arrest the family members and colleagues of Zeng Jing. The books and personal diaries in his library are confiscated and searched for subversive material. The emperor keeps close watch over the proceedings and dispatches lengthy instructions to his far-flung deputies.
The plot thickens when, instead of executing Zeng Jing and his associates using any of the torturous methods condoned by law, the emperor decides that this is a teachable moment: He publishes the private writings of Zeng Jing along with his own extensive commentary, which points out the error of Zeng Jing's thinking.
The resulting tome, "Awakening from Delusion," is made mandatory reading in all educational institutions. Hoping to assure his place in history as a compassionate and wise ruler, Emperor Yongzheng then pardons Zeng Jing. But his successor, Emperor Qianlong, re-evaluates the case and decrees that Zeng Jing is to be executed by being sliced to death.
This scrupulously researched work reads more like a mystery novel than a history text. Spence, author of "The Search for Modern China" (1990), reconstructs the story behind the plot to overthrow the Manchu government with rich detail, and treats his readers to fascinating insights into imperial China's political, legal, and communication systems.
Throughout the narrative, Spence seamlessly provides the historical and cultural information readers need to understand the significance of these various plots and subplots.
The flow of the story is not interrupted by numbered endnotes, although all sources are clearly identified in the back of the book. Readers are free to immerse themselves in the story of how a messenger, an author, several regional officials, and the emperor made history in 18th-century China.
Spence has already received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship for his previous works on China. Who knows, his next award could be for a screenplay of this intricate and riveting tale.
Kim Risedorph taught Chinese history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society