Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"Treason by the Book": more than a medieval whodunit

From the day I put down his masterly account of 100 years of Chinese revolution as lived by the leading intelligentsia of the times in "The Gate of Heavenly Peace", Jonathan Spence was an instant hit with me. But he just wandered off after that, meaning I didn't read anything else of this eminent Sinologist, ... till last September, on my recent China-trip, I noticed this book of his I had never heard about before in a bookstore in Shanghai.

"Treason by the Book" (Penguin Books, 2001), in a diminutive sense, could be referred to as some sort of a whodunit but in all is so much more. The story in the words of Laura Rivkin:

The story begins in Xi’an when Zeng Jing’s messenger Zhang Xi delivers a letter to Yue Zhongqi one of Yongzheng’s most trusted generals. The letter asks Yue to rise up against the emperor, but instead Yue immediately arrests the messenger and reports to the emperor. The action quickly moves to Beijing and to the emperor who, from the moment the first despatches arrive from Yue Zhongqi, takes personal control of the investigation. The action follows the continuing search for culprits, their questioning, the final reckoning between Yongzheng and Zeng Jing and Yongzheng’s resolve to teach the people of China the lessons he himself has learned as a result of Zeng’s delusions and successful thought-reform.

The entire process of Zeng Jing's rectification goes on record in the "Awakenings from Delusion" (大义觉迷录) which is subsequently spread in hundreds of thousands of copies over the entire country. The "Awakenings", a philosophical treatise, are largely based on the correspondence between Zeng Jing and the Yongzheng emperor during the former one's captivity in Beijing. The would-be traitor is at the end of process fully pardoned by the emperor who thereby goes entirely against the advice of his counselors.

What was destined to become a mere side note in the Qing history, turned into a heroic effort by emperor Yongzheng (1678 - 1735) to defend his legitimacy, a debate on the still infant legacy of the early Qing as compared to the almost mythical Ming dynasty, a questioning into the status and position of the Confucian scholars of eighteenth century China ... and Spence captures it all beautifully.

With his style of writing, he positions himself somewhere in the twilight zone between the strict requirements imposed on the historian and the narrative freedom of the novelist. Spence the historian has once again dug up tons of material and sources that by it's sheer amount would be enough to scare away anyone with the faintest interest in the subject, but Spence the narrator manages con brio to distill a captivating story out of all this. Siding with none of the involved parties, he takes the reader by the hand and like Alice in Wonderland we are guided through this kaleidoscopic world where words possess still the power they were intended to have, where words and the writings and poetry they feature in are attacked as a result, where Big Brother is watching each and every one through the eye of the collective memory and through the jottings, memoirs and missives of hordes of scholars and officials who meticulously recorded anything that could bear relevance to the administration of the State. Again Laura Rivkin:

From all the thousands of years of official Chinese history, why does Spence choose this particular episode to research and write about? This story is a footnote to the great Qing histories. Although well-known among scholars of Qing history most non-academic Chinese or western scholars of China will probably never have heard of Zeng Jing nor of the great publishing enterprise that was the result of his treason. Qianlong banned the book and ordered all copies to be destroyed. Only a few were saved, buried in archives or by enterprising book collectors.

Spence’s reasons no doubt are many-fold, but for the reader the descriptions and details about the inner-workings of the Qing bureaucracy are fascinating beyond mere curiosity. This story encapsulates the imperial machinations within the Forbidden City, the emperor’s relationships with his provincial commanders, how absolute state control reached down even to the tiniest county town thousands of miles from the capital. But it is also a story about the ordinary people of a huge empire, living in tiny isolated communities where the arrival of a stranger remained in the collective memory for years afterwards, where conversations may still be recalled in precise detail. It was possible for Qing officials, without names, crimes or even proper dates, on the basis of a rheumy memory of an elderly road-side inn-keeper to locate prisoners who had passed through Hunan seven years previously en route to exile in Guangxi province.

The scope of the dynastic histories, the breadth of the (currently still available) material produced several centuries ago seems to foreshadow our urge to capture the world and put it all down in databases. The sheer amount of knowledge that was available, the way it was being shared and distributed is what makes this book a delightful learning experience.

But what has captivated me even more than the description of a highly and well organised society is the person of the Yongzheng Emperor. At the pinnacle of power, he is depicted as a hard working manager amidst a staff of trustees whom he supervises almost on a daily basis and who help him rule the country. Yet by pardoning the traitor who threatened to bring him down, against the advice of his counselors, it seems to me that this First Citizen of Beijing, this Prisoner of the Forbidden City, has tried to reach out for a freedom that was beyond his reach, the freedom to think things over, come to a decision and then act according to it, irrespective of what others think, as in some way Zeng Jing had tried (albeit in vain) by starting his insurgency.

I wonder how Yongzheng would have felt had he known that his son, the famous Qianlong Emperor, notwithstanding his fathers order that Zeng Jing could not be touched, had the traitor captured after all and with his accomplices sliced to death. I know we will never have the answer to this question, but if anybody has an idea, I'll be glad to hear it.


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