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.