Treason By The Book: Traitors, Conspirators and Guardians of an Emperor

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9780141027791: Treason By The Book: Traitors, Conspirators and Guardians of an Emperor

In 1728 a stranger handed a letter to Governor Yue calling on him to lead a rebellion against the Manchu rulers of China. Feigning agreement, he learnt the details of the plot and immediately informed the Emperor, Yongzheng. The ringleaders were captured with ease, forced to recant and, to the confusion and outrage of the public, spared.

Drawing on an enormous wealth of documentary evidence - over a hundred and fifty secret documents between the Emperor and his agents are stored in Chinese archives - Jonathan Spence has recreated this revolt of the scholars in fascinating and chilling detail. It is a story of unwordly dreams of a better world and the facts of bureaucratic power, of the mind of an Emperor and of the uses of his mercy.

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Review:

What most Europeans--and Americans for that matter--know of 18th-century China could easily be written on the back of the hand. But that need be no barrier to enjoying Treason by the Book, the latest offering from US Sinophile and Yale history academic, Jonathan Spence. The book starts with a letter written by unknown dissident sin 1728 urging General Yue Zhonqi, commander of the Sichuan province, to lead a rebellion against Emperor Yongzheng. Knowing which side his bread was buttered, General Yue declined the offer and reported the existence of the letter to the emperor, who in turn instituted a ruthless investigation into its origins. After a lengthy process involving intimidation of witnesses, torture, deception, isolation and insinuation, a man named Zeng Jing was correctly identified as the leader of the dissidents. So far so normal for the Qing dynasty. But it is what happened next that lifts this story above the ordinary. Rather than opting for the obvious course of action--executing the rebels in the most unpleasant way imaginable--the emperor entered into a prolonged and intimate correspondence with Zeng Jing, who ultimately came to realise that he had made a mistake about the Emperor, whereupon he was promptly pardoned. Furthermore, the Emperor then had the entire correspondence, including the original letter, published and distributed throughout China. Even by today's standards, or perhaps that should read especially by today's standards, this was an extraordinary and unprecedented act of liberalism from a regime associated with formality, rigidity and autocracy. That so much documentary evidence still remains is in itself remarkable. The Emperor ordered the correspondence to be kept in his archive and it has managed to survive countless political and ideological upheavals to the present day and in Spence's hand it doesn't just become a compelling narrative but a metaphor for the power of books to change lives. Unfortunately for Zeng Jing, this power was short lived. When Yongzheng died in 1736, his successor Qianlong promptly ripped up the pardon and had Zeng Jing sentenced to death. For the rest of us, the power is--quite literally--in our own hands.-- John Crace

About the Author:

Jonathan D. Spence, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, is the award-winning author of a remarkable body of work on Chinese culture and history, including THE SEARCH FOR MODERN CHINA, GOD'S CHINESE SON and THE CHAN'S GREAT CONTINENT.

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