The Question of Hu

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1753

Jonathan Spence, professor of history at Yale University, has written a number of critically acclaimed books on Chinese history, and in the process has almost single-handedly developed a new genre of historical writing. Typically, Spence’s inquiry focuses on a seemingly minor incident and brings it to life with a wealth...

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Jonathan Spence, professor of history at Yale University, has written a number of critically acclaimed books on Chinese history, and in the process has almost single-handedly developed a new genre of historical writing. Typically, Spence’s inquiry focuses on a seemingly minor incident and brings it to life with a wealth of “trivial” detail: what clothes people wore, what foods they ate, how they spent their leisure time. These studies have been both praised and criticized for their novelistic tendencies. Although every bit of evidence is scrupulously documented, Spence’s scholarship is so unobtrusive as to go unnoticed. His books read like works of fiction.

The Question of Hu displays all the strengths and weaknesses of Spence’s method. The incident under investigation has no world-historical significance. It involves what was essentially an eighteenth century labor dispute between a Jesuit missionary, Jean François Foucquet, and his Chinese assistant, John Hu, who accompanied Foucquet to France as a scrivener, or copyist. Like Bartleby, Herman Melville’s famous scrivener, Hu refused to do any work. Foucquet retaliated by refusing to pay the agreed-upon wages. The penniless, unemployed Hu, who was unable to speak French, wandered aimlessly about the countryside, creating disturbances wherever he went, until he was finally committed to the famous lunatic asylum at Charenton. When, after more than two years of confinement in appalling conditions, he was at last interviewed by a Chinese-speaking Jesuit, Hu’s first question was “Why have I been locked up?” Characteristically, Spence does not attempt to answer this question directly.

Foucquet’s long sojourn in China was clearly devoted more to scholarly pursuits than to what one usually thinks of as missionary work. Soon after his arrival in the East, Foucquet had made such rapid progress in his study of the Chinese language that he was regarded by the Jesuit community as an expert in the interpretation of Chinese classics, especially the obscure work known as the Book of Changes, or the I Ching. Foucquet had become increasingly obsessed, however, with an insight that he had been granted concerning these texts: He was convinced that they were divinely inspired. In fact, when the Chinese sages spoke of the Tao they were actually referring to the God of the Christian Bible. Foucquet found support for this theory scattered throughout the I Ching, and he was convinced that several hexagrams described the same events that are recounted in Genesis.

With the basic outline of this theory in mind, Foucquet began to neglect research and instead devoted himself with maniacal energy to assembling his own personal research library. He had been petitioning for some time for permission to return to France, and he considered that it was essential to return with the necessary source material, most of which would be unobtainable in Paris. Accordingly, he began making bulk purchases of Chinese literature, submitting all bills to the Jesuit residence in Canton. By the time his petition to return home was approved, Foucquet had accumulated thousands of volumes.

The Jesuit authorities were taken aback when they realized that Foucquet expected to return to France with this huge library, rather than leave it at the Jesuit residence. They held that since he had taken a vow of poverty, Foucquet could not be considered the legitimate owner of these books, which in any case he had not paid for himself. A heated dispute over the disposition of the library was still going on as Foucquet’s ship made ready to sail. At the last minute, Foucquet was able to get tentative permission to depart with those volumes absolutely essential to his research project. When he had packed what he considered to be the most important titles, Foucquet had filled eleven crates with nearly four thousand volumes. His handwritten inventory list was forty-eight pages long.

In order to help him decipher and transcribe these esoteric works, Foucquet decided that he had to bring back a Chinese research assistant, since it was most unlikely that a suitable one could be found in France. In the short time remaining before his ship sailed, Foucquet tried to locate a scholar willing to travel to the West. Just when it appeared that no one was available, a colleague recommended one John Hu, a Catholic convert who for three months had been employed as keeper of the gate (or security guard) at Jesuit headquarters in Canton, a compound formally known as the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

Hu and Foucquet seem to have misunderstood each other from the very first moment. To Hu, Foucquet—with his brilliantly colored robes and his magnificent beard—appeared to be a person of great authority. Moreover, it was rumored in Canton that Foucquet was close to the pope. Hu had always dreamed of meeting the pope, and when he asked Foucquet if they would be stopping at Rome on their journey, Foucquet did not say no. Foucquet, for his part, believed that Hu’s sudden appearance at just the right moment proved that he had been sent by God. He also assumed that Hu would follow orders dutifully. A contract outlining conditions of employment and wages was quickly drawn up, but neither man thought that a formal agreement was necessary.

In fact, as Hu soon discovered, Foucquet was not an especially powerful figure in the Jesuit hierarchy. His obsession with the theory of the Christian origins of Chinese philosophy had earned for him the reputation of a crackpot in some circles, and his loudly voiced claims to ownership of the library of Chinese classics had offended and alienated many potential supporters. Furthermore, Hu did not realize the extent to which bibliomania had supplanted research in Foucquet’s life. As soon as they arrived in France, Foucquet devoted all of his energy to retrieving “his” eleven crates of books and to acquiring even more essential source material. Hu was given few specific tasks and virtually no supervision.

Foucquet, on the other hand, did not appreciate Hu’s true motives for traveling to the West. Hu, it turned out, was just as much a bookman as Foucquet. From the very first moment he learned that there was an opportunity to travel, Hu had conceived a grand scheme of returning to Canton after a few years abroad and writing a best-selling book about his adventures. With this goal in mind, Hu spent much of his time in France wandering through disreputable urban areas and depressed agricultural zones, collecting sociological data on what his own countrymen—accustomed only to the splendor of the missions—would consider the “unknown” Europe.

To a surprising extent, Hu seems to have been an eighteenth century example of what might now be called a “dharma bum” or beatnik. He always seemed to prefer the company of the down-and-out. He tried to survive on food foraged by the roadside or begged on a street corner. Poor as he was, he often tried to give his clothes away to those poorer than himself. He preached the gospel—though in a language no one could understand—to astonished passersby in the city, accompanying himself on the drum. He was forever exasperating his hosts by pulling his mattress off the bedstead and sleeping on the floor. For this sort of behavior he was locked away in a mental institution.

The Question of Hu reverses the standard traveler’s tale. Focusing on an outsider in the West, Spence is able to highlight paradoxes and inconsistencies in Western behavior. The book forces the reader to rethink conventional notions of Christian morality, of civilization, and of sanity. At the same time, it raises many questions about the nature of historical narrative.

Spence tells his story in the present tense, which gives the tale a deceptive feeling of immediacy. The point seems to be that the incident has a timeless quality, that these events of 250 years earlier might have happened today. On the other hand, however, every factual detail is carefully, indeed obsessively, footnoted. (Even a simple description of the “barren hills” of the Canton river delta is solemnly supported with a textual reference.) Spence’s text, which at first glance seems wonderfully spontaneous and free-flowing, is in fact a solid wall of quotations. Virtually nothing of the author’s personality is allowed to intrude.

The notes are gathered at the back of the book; page references send the reader from the notes to the text, instead of from the text to the notes. In other words, there are no superscript numbers marring the text. Considering the vast number of notes—they account for fully one-third of the book’s length—this is probably excusable. Nevertheless, it greatly increases the difficulty of tracking down the source of any particular passage.

The footnotes are often digressive in nature. In fact, much of what one would normally consider essential background material—information that would provide the necessary interpretive context for Spence’s parable—is to be found only in the notes. Here the reader is referred to articles and books on early Chinese visitors to Europe, to modern researches on the Paris police system, and to the groundbreaking work of Michel Foucault on the development of insane asylums. Astonishingly, it is only in the notes that Spence suggests that Hu may have been exhibiting typical symptoms of religious ecstasy—a tantalizing lead that most readers will miss. It might well be argued that in order to evaluate the Hu affair it would be necessary to familiarize oneself with all the source material mentioned in the notes. Presumably the author has done this himself. Why then does he withhold the information?

The answer must be that Spence is attempting to convey meaning through the structure of the book. He first provides a seemingly straightforward “slice of life” narrated in the present tense, which adds to its accessibility and gives it a timeless, universal quality. He appends to this a lengthy collection of pedantic footnotes, demonstrating that every word in the preceding tale has a precise historical source and a specific meaning. These footnotes effectively subvert the ostensible message of the text, namely, the notion that the past is easily understood.

The Question of Hu is a provocative example of the book as artifact: Every structural detail is significant, and meaning is conveyed as much through form as through content. Since Foucquet shares Spence’s obsession with source material, inner and outer meanings neatly dovetail. In the final analysis, this deceptively simple book may be more suitable for philosophers than for historians.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

Interview. XVIII, December, 1988, p. 141.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, August 15, 1988, p. 1229.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 20, 1988, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, December 18, 1988, p. 7.

Newsweek. CXIII, January 2, 1989, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, September 2, 1988, p. 92.

Smithsonian. XIX, December, 1988, p. 214.

USA Today. November 4, 1988, p. D4.

The Wall Street Journal. CCXI, November 29, 1988, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, October 30, 1988, p. 8.

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