(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Renowned Yale University historian Jonathan D. Spence, one of the greatest contemporary sinologists, uses the form of the novel to tell this riveting true story. In characteristic spy novel structure, Spence discloses bit by bit what at first seems an insignificant story. Although somewhat interesting, at the onset the reader wonders why he has bothered to construct a whole book out of such a paltry incident. It takes a while to catch on to the fact that there is a lot more going on in the scrupulously researched Treason by the Book than initially meets the eye. It is not until about halfway through the book that Spence’s brilliant narrative structure, the circuitous pattern of plots within plots, emerges. Just when it seems that the consequences can be glimpsed, another complication arises. Indeed, it is not until the last chapter, the last page, in fact, that the reader brings together the true significance of what seems to be, at first glance, such an unimportant event.

The event in question concerns a large envelope passed, on an October day in 1728, into the hands of Yue Zhongqi, the commanding forty-two-year-old governor general of Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces. The far-reaching consequences of this single act make up Spence’s book. The envelope, which is delivered by Zhang Xi, a mysterious messenger, contains a letter detailing a secret, treacherous plot to overthrow the Manchu (or Qing) dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. Scholarly nonconformists, it seems, are deeply embittered against the rule of Emperor Yongzheng, the third Manchu emperor, who ruled China from 1723 to 1735. In particular, the dissidents cry out against his callous absolutism and centralization of power, and call for his removal. The non-Han-speaking Manchus, who eighty years earlier had ousted the Chinese Ming dynasty, are barbarians in the plotters’ estimation. Governor Yue Zhongqi, they hope, will head up their proposed rebellion, because his eponymous ancestor had attempted six centuries earlier, in the time of the Song dynasty, to rally the Chinese to reclaim the northern lands they had lost to the Manchu conquerors. However, Governor Yue, intent on climbing up the political and social ladder and realizing full well his undisputed dependency upon the emperor, wants no part of their nefarious scheme. He imprisons Zhang Xi and immediately informs Emperor Yongzheng of these rebellious stirrings against him.

After rereading the hostile letter, however, Governor Yue pretends to join the revolutionary’s attempt to regain for China her “mountains and rivers” in an attempt to trick Zhang into naming his cohorts. Governor Yue’s plan works, and Zhang soon names his coconspirator and mentor, Zeng Jing, a Hunanese peasant schoolteacher whose misconceptions about the Manchu dynasty are based on rumors and lies, and whose seditious ideas are far-reaching. Upon learning about the conspiracy, Emperor Yongzheng, who rules a people who literally do not speak his language, embarks on a systematic, painstaking investigation to unearth those involved. Officials are dispatched to arrest the family members and colleagues of Zeng Jing, and the emperor closely scrutinizes their investigations by constantly dispatching extensive written directives. In a short time, corpses are dug up, suspects are beheaded, mothers and children are enslaved, all in an effort by a ruler to root out dissent.

Treason by the Book offers a dramatic picture of life as it was lived in the outlying provinces of eighteenth century China. It offers fascinating insights into imperial China’s political, legal, and communication systems, in which much of the investigation takes place. It examines the backbiting world of Chinese scholars and government officials, and ultimately the workings of the emperor’s absolute power, its efficient machinations, its cold precision, and the violence of a single ruler’s extraordinary ability to administer and monitor such a vast geographical area. As the investigation speeds up, Emperor Yongzheng emerges as a very complex, introspective, and some would argue, enlightened scholar-ruler. Indeed, rather than summarily pronouncing death sentences on both plotters, the emperor utilizes the situation as a learning opportunity and becomes intent on attempting to understand the influences...

(The entire section is 1759 words.)