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

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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 doc 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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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 doc 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.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    William2

    I think lawyers, prosecutors, investigators of all kinds, as well as writers, litterateurs, critics, and academics would like this book. It's about sedition in imperial China In the early 18th century. But It's also about the astonishingly literary investigative procedures of the day. It is not a thriller, more a documentary. It can be a little dry at times. Recommended. I think lawyers, prosecutors, investigators of all kinds, as well as writers, litterateurs, critics, and academics would like this book. It's about sedition in imperial China In the early 18th century. But It's also about the astonishingly literary investigative procedures of the day. It is not a thriller, more a documentary. It can be a little dry at times. Recommended.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Harrison

    Spence is one of the giants of Chinese historians, but his real skill is as a story teller. This book looks at a case of treason that was wrapped up in literature. It is a fascinating insight into Chinese culture under the Qing, which Spence tells very well. It looks at how the imperial bureaucracy works and how seriously they took the writings of scholars, going so far as to try a dead scholar for treasonous writing, banning his books and punishing his descendants. The imperial response to the Spence is one of the giants of Chinese historians, but his real skill is as a story teller. This book looks at a case of treason that was wrapped up in literature. It is a fascinating insight into Chinese culture under the Qing, which Spence tells very well. It looks at how the imperial bureaucracy works and how seriously they took the writings of scholars, going so far as to try a dead scholar for treasonous writing, banning his books and punishing his descendants. The imperial response to the treasonous plot was to write another book showing the errors of the conspirators. The emperor even pardoned the conspirators and had one of them contribute to the book, showing how he learned from his mistakes. Both the plot itself and the response reverberated throughout China, inspiring other treasonous acts as well as support for the emperor. This is written almost as a novel, with no footnotes and a short discussion of sources at the end. It is meant to be enjoyed and provide some ideas of Chinese government and society at the time, particularly on issues of family and filial piety. I loved it and recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese history.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Revanth Ukkalam

    One must praise China for its historical consciousness when one reads this book. Spence writes about the case of treason and its trial like a novel would run. With fantastic details and sometimes insights into what the historical characters were thinking. How impressive for a civilisation to preserve such detail of its past. The book is a fascinating story of ideology and treason. After reading this book we can comfortably define ideology as a set of ideas that justify a course of action. It is One must praise China for its historical consciousness when one reads this book. Spence writes about the case of treason and its trial like a novel would run. With fantastic details and sometimes insights into what the historical characters were thinking. How impressive for a civilisation to preserve such detail of its past. The book is a fascinating story of ideology and treason. After reading this book we can comfortably define ideology as a set of ideas that justify a course of action. It is Mencian Ideology that leads Zeng Jing to turn into a rebel and again Tang and Imperial Chinese ideology that drives the Qing Emperor? At the heart of all such clarifications is a difficult-to-crack mystery. Spence takes us through the maze of Chinese culture - about nation, food, history, religion, economics - using this one event from the eighteenth century. A must-read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Andre

    Treason by the Book starts off very well. It has been very hard for me to find literature that carry the subject of governmental policy and process (of any kind). Jonathan Spence is exceptional at crafting an interesting narrative on what can be considered a boring subject. This book isn't so much about policy as it is sacrifice and influence. It reveals that the measure and weight of our sacrifice is what's most important. Treason by the Book starts off very well. It has been very hard for me to find literature that carry the subject of governmental policy and process (of any kind). Jonathan Spence is exceptional at crafting an interesting narrative on what can be considered a boring subject. This book isn't so much about policy as it is sacrifice and influence. It reveals that the measure and weight of our sacrifice is what's most important.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tim Robinson

    An interesting account of an interesting case, and one that shows the inner workings of Manchu government at the height of its power: organised, efficient, firm yet merciful. But the book drags on too long. The pardon of the traitor is not the end of the story, but it *is* the climax, and the remainder should be wound up in two chapters at most.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Vicki Beyer

    In Qing Dynasty China in 1728 a general in Xian is offered a package that turns out to be a letter inviting him to commit treason against his Emperor, Yongzheng. “Treason by the Book” is the story of events triggered by this letter. The most amazing aspect of this story is not the attempted treason but the investigation of the crime and the eventual response of the Emperor. The system of information flow—both to the Emperor and from him to his bureaucrats—in the early 18th century, is hard to bel In Qing Dynasty China in 1728 a general in Xian is offered a package that turns out to be a letter inviting him to commit treason against his Emperor, Yongzheng. “Treason by the Book” is the story of events triggered by this letter. The most amazing aspect of this story is not the attempted treason but the investigation of the crime and the eventual response of the Emperor. The system of information flow—both to the Emperor and from him to his bureaucrats—in the early 18th century, is hard to believe possible. The general’s initial report reached the Emperor by horse and rider across a distance of 850 miles in about 6 days. Other correspondence later in the investigation, dispatched to various points in a China almost as vast then as it is today, moved at a similar speed. The original conspirators are identified by locating and arresting the family of the letter carrier in Hunan and questioning them on every visitor they’ve interacted with and been influenced by in recent years. Those identified are also arrested and questioned. While the conspirators are eventually located using this method, the scholar who sowed the original seeds of dissent in their minds proves elusive. He travelled under a false name and false pretenses. But the record keeping system of the Chinese bureaucracy eventually makes it possible to track the movements of people until the man is identified. He had died and was buried long before his treasonous ideas were acted upon. While the investigation is ongoing, the Emperor is also rehabilitating Zeng Jing, the leader of the conspiracy, by having him write reflective essays on his actions to which the Emperor responds. The Emperor’s eventual judgment against Zeng Jing is not the death penalty, as the law required, but that he should pardoned and returned to his home in Hunan to work in the office of public morality. The Emperor’s decision is influenced by his own sense of guilt over the court intrigue that brought him to the throne as well as by his interpretation of the Confucian obligation to be benevolent in the face of the loyalty offered by his repentant subject. At the same time, the Emperor decided to publish his correspondence with Zeng Jing as “A Record of How True Virtue Led to an Awakening from Delusion” and mandated its distribution and dissemination nationwide. It became widely discussed but did not have the desired effect among the Emperor’s subjects of underscoring the virtue of Confucian loyalty. Consequently when his son took the throne after Yongzheng’s death just two years later, the book was recalled. Zeng Jing was re-arrested and executed. Confucian order was restored. This short tale offers profound insights into early 18th century Qing China—the system of communication, record keeping, investigation, and decision making. Yet certain aspects of the story are familiar in Confucian-influenced Asian societies even today, making this book both fascinating and relevant.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Caroline Weber

    I had to push myself to get through this, but it is a fascinating book, based on incredibly well-preserved documentation regarding a case in about 1728 in China - the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Yongzheng. An obscure, barely educated, foolish man decides to make a big statement based on hearsay, and persuades another idiot to deliver his statement to a General the foolish man admires over the Emporer. The General tries to handle the information without losing the trust of the Emperor. The Emperor decid I had to push myself to get through this, but it is a fascinating book, based on incredibly well-preserved documentation regarding a case in about 1728 in China - the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Yongzheng. An obscure, barely educated, foolish man decides to make a big statement based on hearsay, and persuades another idiot to deliver his statement to a General the foolish man admires over the Emporer. The General tries to handle the information without losing the trust of the Emperor. The Emperor decides to try to use the foolish man as a means of communicating with the populace - to address rumours and show his benevolence. However, the law says that the idiot and the messenger should be killed, and all the officials argue in support of the law. I won't go on - I don't want to spoil the story. The actions in the matter ae so well-documented that it makes it clear how things "worked" at the time in China. All writings in a suspect's house were collected and analyzed for treasonous ideas. The written word held more weight than hearsay, but then many interpretations could be force-fit to the written words. Such a detailed glimpse of the time period. Yet - like the readings a friend and I did about Tsarist Russia (inspired by the election of Trump in the USA in 2016) - I felt I could see the practices of China today in the practices of the 1700s: writing is controlled and censored, and used as proof of loyalty or treason. Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Michael Griswold

    Treason by the Book by Jonathon Spence...slogging through the first fifty or so pages I was prepared to write a scathing two star review, but then something weird and cool happened it sucked me in. The fear of treason consumes the leadership throughout 1600's China having just recently overthrown a previously corrupted impure leadership. But who has committed this treason and how ? Treason is a sickness gripping society where words, actions, the people you associate with, even the books you read Treason by the Book by Jonathon Spence...slogging through the first fifty or so pages I was prepared to write a scathing two star review, but then something weird and cool happened it sucked me in. The fear of treason consumes the leadership throughout 1600's China having just recently overthrown a previously corrupted impure leadership. But who has committed this treason and how ? Treason is a sickness gripping society where words, actions, the people you associate with, even the books you read fall under the scrutiny of the authorities often consuming many innocents. Book also provides interesting insights into the power of words and ideas to influence a population and the war of propaganda waged between the "evil books" and counter propaganda created by the state. Overall, its not an easy book to read through, its' a book that requires an exercise of free thought because there are surface ideas like what happens to persons accused of treason? And then broader ideas like what happens when a culture of fear is created amid a culture of ever shifting propaganda and counter propaganda?

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sillyrabid

    I'm donationg this one fast. Second worst book ever. Maybe third. No no, second. If you're wondering: the first worst is The Great Gatsby, the third worst is Under the Tuscan Sun. I threw aside Under the Tuscan Sun with ten pages left and Treason by the Book still sucks more than Under the Tuscan Sun. This is like on the show Chopped when one of the chefs forgets to plate one of the ingredients and still doesn't get chopped because somebody else sucked so much more. This book is that chef who suc I'm donationg this one fast. Second worst book ever. Maybe third. No no, second. If you're wondering: the first worst is The Great Gatsby, the third worst is Under the Tuscan Sun. I threw aside Under the Tuscan Sun with ten pages left and Treason by the Book still sucks more than Under the Tuscan Sun. This is like on the show Chopped when one of the chefs forgets to plate one of the ingredients and still doesn't get chopped because somebody else sucked so much more. This book is that chef who sucked so much more. I feel bad donating this book and inflicting it on another human being. I can only hope it falls into the hands of somebody I dislike intensely or maybe just possibly it will make its way into the hands of someone who can appreciate it. Maybe. Just maybe. But I doubt it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bill Hammack

    Enjoyed, but not as much as the reviews lead me to believe. Well-written,interesting, although abstract subject, but too many proper names to keep track of. To be fair I read this a bit fast toward the end because I wanted to finished it before leaving for Sweden. This is a true book of history, although highly narrative. I've read other books by Spence and enjoyed them - The Rise of Modern China and The Question of Hu. Enjoyed, but not as much as the reviews lead me to believe. Well-written,interesting, although abstract subject, but too many proper names to keep track of. To be fair I read this a bit fast toward the end because I wanted to finished it before leaving for Sweden. This is a true book of history, although highly narrative. I've read other books by Spence and enjoyed them - The Rise of Modern China and The Question of Hu.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Polito

    Another scholarly and literary tour de force by Spence. The author has an incredible talent for pulling engaging stories from ancient records and source materials and rendering them as well written and entertaining books. When you stop to really think about what it took to research and write this book it's incredibly impressive. Another scholarly and literary tour de force by Spence. The author has an incredible talent for pulling engaging stories from ancient records and source materials and rendering them as well written and entertaining books. When you stop to really think about what it took to research and write this book it's incredibly impressive.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    Spence does it again. He pulls a truly obscure figure from history and creates a highly readable story, all without abandoning scholarly rigor. Unlike so many authors, Spence keeps the story in history.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Marshall Vandegrift

    Well-written, full of meticulous detail while still keeping the thread of an overall narrative moving. Ultimately though I was left mostly with a sense of futility -- the underlying events involved so much furor over so little.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Eleanor

    A very impressive piece of historical research, but not the most compelling read.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Liam

    "Zhia's crime was that in one of the examination questions on the classical text The Great Learning he had told the students to comment on a phrase in Book One, Section Three, 'where the people rest.' Anyone could see, the charge ran, that this was not an innocent textual choice, for if one juxtaposed the first and last characters of the four-character phrase, one came up with two characters with the reign name of the current emperor, but in each case missing the top stroke. Zha Siting, in other "Zhia's crime was that in one of the examination questions on the classical text The Great Learning he had told the students to comment on a phrase in Book One, Section Three, 'where the people rest.' Anyone could see, the charge ran, that this was not an innocent textual choice, for if one juxtaposed the first and last characters of the four-character phrase, one came up with two characters with the reign name of the current emperor, but in each case missing the top stroke. Zha Siting, in other words, had been luring the students to think of beheading their emperor." (50-1) "It is true that the relative hierarchical positions of the two authors are dramatically shown by the size of the type in the book: that used to record Zeng Jing's thoughts is half the size of that given to the emperor, and his answers are printed sixteen vertical columns to the page, a opposed to the emperor's eight. It is also true that Zeng Jing, in his responses to the emperor's questions, never uses his own name, but always refers to himself, using a derogatory four-character term, as 'the man whose crimes reached to Heaven.' But the one hundred and seventy-eight pages dedicated to these exchanges in Sections One and Two give Zeng Jing an astonishing opportunity to share his own thoughts with this countrymen at large." (160)

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    Another fantastic history by Spence. He does a fantastic job of not at all dumbing it down while simultaneously being able to present information to the average reader. As a scholar of Chinese, I found this fascinating, but it is a book that I could hand to my wife, or any other intelligent person who knows little about China, and feel like they would find it equally fascinating. A great exploration of a treason in Qing China and the role that the book played in society. Does everything a good mi Another fantastic history by Spence. He does a fantastic job of not at all dumbing it down while simultaneously being able to present information to the average reader. As a scholar of Chinese, I found this fascinating, but it is a book that I could hand to my wife, or any other intelligent person who knows little about China, and feel like they would find it equally fascinating. A great exploration of a treason in Qing China and the role that the book played in society. Does everything a good microhistory should do, explores a particular event while concommittantly echoing the larger problems of the age.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Beau

    Fantastic!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    couldn't be bothered to finish - Spence has the annoying habit of writing of just not making me give a [email protected]%# about his subject couldn't be bothered to finish - Spence has the annoying habit of writing of just not making me give a [email protected]%# about his subject

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ee-Ling

    This book highlights the intricacies of politics in the Qing dynasty and many of the challenges that the Qing rulers faced as a conquest dynasty. It shows how the Yongzheng emperor is eager to stifle dissent but at the same time, he wants to be looked upon as a benevolent ruler. Despite his effort, it seems that there's no way to really stifle dissent. Even though the emperor engages in a "debate" with the "conspirator", and manages to "win over" the conspirator, in the end, it proves ineffectiv This book highlights the intricacies of politics in the Qing dynasty and many of the challenges that the Qing rulers faced as a conquest dynasty. It shows how the Yongzheng emperor is eager to stifle dissent but at the same time, he wants to be looked upon as a benevolent ruler. Despite his effort, it seems that there's no way to really stifle dissent. Even though the emperor engages in a "debate" with the "conspirator", and manages to "win over" the conspirator, in the end, it proves ineffective because it creates as many problems as it tries to solve. Spence writes history like fiction, and I mean it in a good way. It does feel a little slow moving at times with all the details thrown in but overall, it's a good read for anyone interested in Chinese history, particularly, the Qing dynasty. My only gripe is that it seems incomplete at times because Spence never really questioned the validity/sincerity of Zeng Jing's confession. Can we really believe someone who confesses to his "errors" after extreme torture and imprisonment? Was Zeng Jing forced to make such a confession under duress? Was he tempted by the monetary reward offered? Or was he sincere? I guess we can never really know.

  20. 5 out of 5

    bkwurm

    One of the enduring stories about Emperor YongZhen is how he had his father’s will altered to change his father’s choice of heir from the fourteenth prince to the fourth prince (only one additional stroke needed to be added to the Chinese language characters). My mother, for example, certainly believed this to be true. (spoiler) In this book, Emperor YongZhen is shown to be a diligent administrator and the Manchu empire to be incredibly efficient at internal security. A treasonous plot is reported One of the enduring stories about Emperor YongZhen is how he had his father’s will altered to change his father’s choice of heir from the fourteenth prince to the fourth prince (only one additional stroke needed to be added to the Chinese language characters). My mother, for example, certainly believed this to be true. (spoiler) In this book, Emperor YongZhen is shown to be a diligent administrator and the Manchu empire to be incredibly efficient at internal security. A treasonous plot is reported and the conspirators are promptly rounded up and the source of the scurrilous tale is hunted down. The emperor takes a personal interest and instead of having the plotters executed, sets out to convince the chief plotter of the error of his ways. The chief plotter eventually recants and the emperor orders that both the plot and the recantation be published to all his subjects. An intriguing and engaging story. The irony is that the emperor’s plan backfired as all his subjects appear to have remembered is the scurrilous plot and not the recantation.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Bobby

    I was initially slightly skeptical of this book because of it's non-fiction category. Don't get me wrong, I love a good non-fiction book, but I was looking for a light read. As it turns out, this was a light read. Rather, it could be a light read or it could be read more in-depth. The one sentence summary of the book is: "Emperor fights intellectual civil war." Really, that is what happens. This book is an amazingly well-put-together consolidation of Chinese court documents from the 1700s. The res I was initially slightly skeptical of this book because of it's non-fiction category. Don't get me wrong, I love a good non-fiction book, but I was looking for a light read. As it turns out, this was a light read. Rather, it could be a light read or it could be read more in-depth. The one sentence summary of the book is: "Emperor fights intellectual civil war." Really, that is what happens. This book is an amazingly well-put-together consolidation of Chinese court documents from the 1700s. The result is a narrative that is far more gripping than most historical books, despite the lack of action. The only action in this book is intellectual as the emperor fights the ideas that might usurp his power.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Nichols

    A mind-blowing and endearing vignette from Chinese History. In the Eighteenth century, the Chinese Emperor Yongzheng learns of a tract denouncing his regime that was circulating through the land. Using his vast police network, he sought and captured the writer. But instead of executing him, he endeavored to persuade the traitor of the error of his ways. Then they wrote a book together, about how easily one can fall into erroneous ways of thinking. Amazing, well researched, and compelling reading A mind-blowing and endearing vignette from Chinese History. In the Eighteenth century, the Chinese Emperor Yongzheng learns of a tract denouncing his regime that was circulating through the land. Using his vast police network, he sought and captured the writer. But instead of executing him, he endeavored to persuade the traitor of the error of his ways. Then they wrote a book together, about how easily one can fall into erroneous ways of thinking. Amazing, well researched, and compelling reading.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Trask

    An outstanding work of history. Professor Spence relies on contemporaneous testimony to establish what criminal law looked like in a very specific period of Chinese history, but also what investigative techniques looked like as well. Both of these comparative efforts offer very specific insights into how technology and culture affect how people accept what is "truth," as well as what is "loyal." The fact that he then is able to wrap it up in a fascinating and well-documented story is just a bonu An outstanding work of history. Professor Spence relies on contemporaneous testimony to establish what criminal law looked like in a very specific period of Chinese history, but also what investigative techniques looked like as well. Both of these comparative efforts offer very specific insights into how technology and culture affect how people accept what is "truth," as well as what is "loyal." The fact that he then is able to wrap it up in a fascinating and well-documented story is just a bonus.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Christian

    Great if you are interested in Chinese history. A curious set of interwoven political and criminal cases provides an introduction and examination of Manchu governance in the early 1800s, and provides insight into Emperor Yongzheng's personal style. The style tends toward dryness and unfolds along a clear timeline. However, it is enlivened byt the odd cast of characters: indignant emperor, naive bumpkin, mysterious fake scholar and furious magistrates. Great if you are interested in Chinese history. A curious set of interwoven political and criminal cases provides an introduction and examination of Manchu governance in the early 1800s, and provides insight into Emperor Yongzheng's personal style. The style tends toward dryness and unfolds along a clear timeline. However, it is enlivened byt the odd cast of characters: indignant emperor, naive bumpkin, mysterious fake scholar and furious magistrates.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Amber Berry

    I own this. I'm not sure where or when I purchased it. Maybe at a library book sale? It's in excellent condition. Personally, I think it's good for those studying law or bureaucracy. Interesting, but tedious. I own this. I'm not sure where or when I purchased it. Maybe at a library book sale? It's in excellent condition. Personally, I think it's good for those studying law or bureaucracy. Interesting, but tedious.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Madeleine McLaughlin

    If you like Chinese history you'll find this a wonderful addition to your reading pile. A true case history of a man charged with treason and the others involved. You get to know the emperor's mercy and the people's opinion and how stuff worked in 1720s China. If you like Chinese history you'll find this a wonderful addition to your reading pile. A true case history of a man charged with treason and the others involved. You get to know the emperor's mercy and the people's opinion and how stuff worked in 1720s China.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    One of the most interesting ways to read about the supremacy of the emperor in China's great dynasties. One of the most interesting ways to read about the supremacy of the emperor in China's great dynasties.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    Interesting history based on a single episode in Qing China, well-written like a slice of life in history. A little tedious after a while, though. Better to read a summary article.

  29. 4 out of 5

    John

    Ridiculously boring. I suppose for those obsessed with Chinese imperial history this might be interesting.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Pj Mensel

    Very unusual look into Chinese government. An emporer pubically debating with a supposed traitor in full view of the governmental elite

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