Courtesy of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences

For more than 40 years, Jonathan Spence GRD ’61 GRD ’65 lit up packed lecture halls with vivid stories of emperors and everyday people that brought ancient Chinese history into the present. 

Spence, the Sterling Professor emeritus of history who retired in 2009, drew many to Yale and to the study of China. His courses, which included the “History of Modern China” and “The Qing Dynasty,” had so many interested students that they had to be admitted in separate cohorts during shopping period. The historian wove narrative detail into larger cultural themes in his lectures, which would become the building blocks for more than a dozen books, including “The Search for Modern China,” a seminal text published in 19990 that informed the field’s next generation. Former University President Richard Levin called him ”a towering figure, a scholar of unique insight and imagination.”

“No event worth mentioning was too large to be refracted through a single human life and no life was too minor to have its humanity summoned up from the past alongside the abstraction of its historical significance,” his 2009 retirement tribute reads. “He could ‘catch the essence,’ as he sometimes describes it, of people and of historical moments so they lit up like lightning bugs in a jar.”

Spence, 85, died in his West Haven home on Christmas Day after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his wife, retired lecturer of Chinese history Annping Chin, as well as a brother, four children and stepchildren and three grandchildren and step grandchildren.

An Englishman and graduate of Cambridge University, where he had been a magazine editor, Spence came to Yale in 1959 as a Mellon Fellow and studied under professors Arthur and Mary Wright, the first woman to be a tenured and full professor at Yale. The “true genius” and “gentlemanly mensch,” as classmate Ron Heiferman GRD ’65 described him, joined the faculty himself in 1966, leading what many academics saw as the second generation of Sinologists in the United States. 

In a time before China became a mainstream field of study, Spence began zooming in on individual lives and stories, from an unknown woman in the 17th-century province of T’an-ch’eng in “The Death of Woman Wang” to a pseudo-Christian prophet in “God’s Chinese Son.” That lens of vivid detail popularized his books among the general public and among a generation of undergraduates at Yale.

Year after year, Spence’s lectures filled the law school auditorium to the brim; he would often print out 500 copies of his syllabus, which were still not enough for the students shopping his class. His close mentorship, too, piqued many students’ fascination in studying China.

“A single teacher can change your life and Spence changed mine,” CNN anchor Jim Sciutto ’92 wrote on Twitter. “As a freshman in college, he seeded my interest in China post-Tiananmen and, later as my advisor, sparked my desire to go there and explore. I haven’t stopped exploring since. Thank you, Professor. I’ll keep at it.”

For four decades, Spence was a steady presence on campus, moving between his office in Timothy Dwight College, where he was a fellow, and the now-closed Naples Pizza on Wall Street, where his regular order was coffee and one scrambled egg. Spence spent five hours a day at the eatery’s window booth, drinking “tens of thousands of cups” of coffee, he once said, and drafting “The Search for Modern China.”

The professor remained a prolific writer throughout his life, and near the end of his career served as president of the American Historical Society. Spence earned the DeVane Medal for scholarship and teaching from students, and was also named a fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as a companion of the Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George by the Queen of England.

Spence discovered a curious link between Chinese history and the University: he told the News in 1972 that Yale-in-China, a missionary organization now known as the secular Yale-China Association, played a part in the rise of Mao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China. In his early rise to prominence in the party, the future dictator was invited to edit a journal for Yale-in-China, which also rented him rooms that would house his Marxist bookstore.

Years later, as director of graduate studies for the history department in the 1990s, Spence established new categories for ranking prospective graduate students. He is remembered for poring over applications and vigorously debating applicants’ merits, fellow professor of Chinese history Valerie Hansen wrote in a statement to the News. He also actively recruited women into the department and always provided a welcoming presence, Hansen added.

“When I first met Jonathan Spence in 1988, I assumed that he would have less time for students and colleagues because of his outside writing and speaking commitments,” Hansen wrote. “In fact, he always made time for the undergraduates, graduate students, and colleagues who sought his help.”

When he retired in 2009, generations of his graduate mentees, now academic giants at top programs around the country, returned to campus for a conference in Spence’s honor. Faculty in attendance recalled that Spence enthusiastically cheered on each of his students’ scholarly works which, in a testament to Spence’s mentorship, varied widely in methodology and perspective.

I knew him mostly as the kindest and most decent of senior colleagues and someone whose teaching I regard as a model,” professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures Tina Lu said. “Every conversation I ever had with him he would remember to ask about my kids. He was a delightfully modest, kind person — polite to the point of courtliness.”

Over his career, the long-serving steward observed China opening up to the world and its rapid rise as an industrial engine, and in turn his historical surveys became a fount of contextual knowledge for those analyzing the modern power. Yale’s flow of ideas to and from China and its increasing ranks of Chinese students were a drastic change from the days in his early scholarship when China was a mysterious, closed-off land, Spence wrote in a 2001 essay for the News. 

“The resulting flowering of Chinese studies has been a delight for me and has made me more joyful each year that way back in 1959 I got the chance to come here,” Spence wrote. “We will try to ensure that you have a chance to study this fascinating civilization in all its bewildering diversity, wherever you may go.”

The University has announced that it will host an in-person memorial service for Spence when circumstances permit. Colleagues are sharing memories of him on this website.

ISAAC YU
Isaac Yu writes about Yale's faculty and academics. He is a production and design editor, leads the News' social media team and previously covered transportation and urban planning in New Haven. Hailing from Garland, Texas, he is a Berkeley College sophomore majoring in American Studies.