The Question of Hu

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...

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