Jonathan D. Spence, an eminent scholar of China and its vast history who in books like “God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan” (1996) and “The Search for Modern China” (1990) excavated that country’s past and illuminated its present, died on Saturday at his home in West Haven, Conn. He was 85.
His wife, Annping Chin, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Professor Spence, who taught for more than 40 years at Yale University, where his lecture classes were always in great demand, found the big picture of Chinese history in small details. His books, deeply researched, examined individual lives and odd moments that were representative of larger cultural forces, wrapping it all together with vivid storytelling.
“This is a delicate spider’s web of a book, deft, fascinating and precise as Chinese calligraphy,” Diana Preston wrote in The Los Angeles Times in a review of his “Treason by the Book” (2001), about a scholar who challenged the third Manchu emperor in the early 1700s. “It is also unnerving because it conjures so much that still resonates.”
Among Professor Spence’s most ambitious books was “The Search for Modern China,” which made The New York Times’s best-seller list and is now a standard text. It took an 876-page view of China’s history from the decline of the Ming dynasty in the 1600s to the democracy movement of 1989.
“Other books have attempted to cover the political and social history of China from imperial to Communist times,” Vera Schwarcz wrote in her review in The Times. “But they lack the narrative technique, the wealth of illustrations and the thematic focus of this work.”
Professor Spence wrote more than a dozen books in all, beginning in 1966 with “Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master,” based on his dissertation about a minor historical figure in the late 1600s and early 1700s.
“No great claims need be made with regard to Ts’ao Yin’s personal importance,” he wrote in the preface. “He was not one of the great officials of the Ch’ing dynasty, nor even a major figure in the K’ang-hsi reign. His importance lies rather in what the course of his life can tell us about the society in which he lived and the institutional framework within which he operated.”
That approach would guide many of Professor Spence’s subsequent works as well. “Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor,” Pamela Kyle Crossley, a China scholar at Dartmouth College, said by email, “transformed the field, and its powering of a new movement for narrative in history echoed through many other specializations.”
In “Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi” (1974), Professor Spence brought that emperor to life with an unusual technique.
“Jonathan gave us the monarch in his own words,” Frederic E. Wakeman Jr., an East Asia scholar, said in a 2004 address (reproduced in 2010 in Humanities magazine) delivered when Professor Spence became president of the American Historical Association. “Kangxi spoke directly to the reader — or so it seemed. The book was controversial, because the emperor’s speech was a collage from myriad sources in different contexts. But Kangxi’s voice was vivid and compelling, and the book broke out of the confines of a conventional audience of Chinese specialists to reach a much larger public.”
Emily Hahn, reviewing that book in The Times, said, “Jonathan Spence has punctured the translators’ balloon and let out all the gas.”
A number of Professor Spence’s other books crossed over to a general audience as well.
“In the 1970s and 1980s he almost single-handedly made Chinese history of vivid and immediate interest to a general reading public,” Professor Crossley said. “It is unusual for a writer with that kind of popular impact to also be at the forefront of scholarly influence and credibility, but Jonathan was.”
Jonathan Dermot Spence was born on Aug. 11, 1936, in Surrey, England, to Dermot and Muriel (Crailsham) Spence. His father worked at a publishing house and art gallery, and his mother was a passionate student of all things French.
After graduating from Winchester College, a boys’ school, in 1954, he served two years in the military, stationed in Germany, then enrolled at Clare College, Cambridge. There he edited the campus newspaper and was co-editor of the literary magazine Granta.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1959, he did graduate work at Yale, where the China scholar Mary Wright encouraged the interest that became his career. He earned his doctorate in 1965 and began teaching at Yale the next year.
“For a generation of Yale undergraduates, ‘Spence’ was both a legend and a legendary course,” Janet Y. Chen, a Yale graduate and now a professor of history and East Asian studies at Princeton University, said by email. “With a single sheet of hand-scribbled notes, he could hold an auditorium of 400 to 500 students rapt with attention. He seemed to spin gold out of thin air. I don’t believe he ever gave the same lecture twice.”
His Yale lectures became the core of “The Search for Modern China.” Interest in that book was heightened by the fact that it was released not long after the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Professor Spence’s long view provided valuable context to those events.
“At a time when American interest in China is still strong,” Arnold R. Isaacs wrote in reviewing the book for The Philadelphia Inquirer, “‘The Search for Modern China’ persuades us that the key to understanding Tiananmen lies in China’s past, not in our own political myths.”
Steve Forman of W.W. Norton, who was his editor on that book, said a nudge from someone close to Professor Spence was pivotal.
“There came a critical moment when he had already drafted the outstanding opening chapters but had not yet decided to commit himself to this massive project,” Mr. Forman said by email. “It was finally his mother whose enthusiasm for those chapters persuaded him to go forward.”
“He ended up drafting a good bit of the book at a table in Naples Pizza,” Mr. Forman added, naming a New Haven eatery that is now closed, “where they afterwards kept a framed photo of him on the wall.”
Professor Spence’s first marriage, to Helen Alexander, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1993, he is survived by a brother, Nicholas; two sons from his first marriage, Colin and Ian; a stepdaughter, Mei Chin; a stepson, Yar Woo; a grandchild; and two step-grandchildren.
Another Spence book that had popular as well as scholarly appeal was “God’s Chinese Son” (1996), about Hong Xiuquan, who thought himself to be the brother of Jesus and led a calamitous pseudo-Christian movement in 19th-century China that brought about a civil war in which millions died.
The story’s parallels were obvious — China has taken in countless other outside influences, including Communism and capitalism, and often given them its own disastrous spin. But, as Orville Schell noted in a review in The Times, Professor Spence didn’t beat his readers over the head with that point; as in most of his other books, he let the events speak for themselves.
“Mao Zedong used to extol the virtue of ‘a blank sheet of paper’ that begged to be written upon,” Mr. Schell wrote. “Mr. Spence’s didactic reserve evokes the same response. The monstrousness of the events he recounts in ‘God’s Chinese Son’ compels us to think for ourselves in search of some conclusion.”