Treason by the Book

by Jonathan D. Spence
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

Although Treason by the Book is fiction, the novel is based on a historical incident that occurred in eighteenth-century China. Jonathan Spence, a professor at Yale University, is a specialist in Chinese history who has written numerous other nonfiction studies. Through the fictional format, he brings the people and events to life for modern readers.

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A chain of incidents is set in motion by one event: the 1728 delivery of a letter about potential treason to China’s Qing rulers. The empire was divided among those who supported Emperor Yongzheng, factions that called for reform, and still others who aimed to overthrow the emperor and in so doing end Qing (also called Manchu) rule. One governor, Yue Zhongqi, is the most likely leader for this rebel force. When he receives the letter from a messenger, Zhang Xi, Yue instead affirms his loyalty to the empire by capturing Zhang and informing the authorities of the plot.

Rather than a straightforward resolution, the actions involve numerous intrigues. Under guise of supporting the rebels, Yue learns their identity and location from Zhang. One prominent rebel is revealed as Zeng Jing, a peasant schoolteacher. The emperor embarks on a far-reaching, violent campaign to eradicate the rebels and discourage future resistance. As he sends spies as well as soldiers, the emperor realizes the greater value of information and gains insight into the far-flung empire he controls.

The intelligence network reveals that the dissenters’ instigator has already died: Lu Liuliang was a revered scholar of Confucian philosophy, and his followers base their views in a backward-looking vision of China’s former glory. Subjected to a sustained education campaign conducted by correspondence, Zeng Jing is not only persuaded to recant but also writes a treatise about his newly found loyalist convictions. Awakening from Delusion is one of the actual historical tracts that prompted Spence to write this novel.

The last portion of the book shows the aftermath of the publication, and introduces one of Spence’s key themes: the birth of modern state-generated propaganda. The emperor frees Zeng Jing and Zhang Xi and has the Awakening mass-produced and distributed. At the same time, however, he comes down hard on Lu Liuliang’s family, putting his descendants to death, and even targets his corpse, which is disinterred and disgraced. He also has the scholar’s other followers put to death. The two freed conspirators live under surveillance and a cloud of suspicion as likely continued informers. The combination of apparent mercy, fierce punishment, and the nascent propaganda apparatus was apparently effective, as the Qing stayed in power. Upon Yongzheng’s death in 1735, the new emperor, his son Qianlong, did have Zeng executed.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1759

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 behind Zeng Jing’s rebellious actions. This sets in the motion the multilayered, impossible attempt to find the original sources of such far-reaching, mutinous rumors. The lengthy investigation, which encompasses several high-ranking investigators and the ransacking of several libraries, results in dozens of arrests. Among the additional characters that come under investigation are a Buddhist monk, a cluster of court eunuchs, a group of convicts being transported to prison, and a scholar wearing a purple jacket who impersonated an imperial official.

Ultimately, the Emperor’s relentless investigation leads to apprehension of the dissidents who had dared impugn the imperial system. In the end, the roots of the rebellion lie with a deceased, formerly venerated Confucian scholar named Lu Liuliang, whose transgression lies merely in a form of nostalgia for the fallen Ming dynasty. Again, rather than calling for the heads of the conspirators, Emperor Yongzheng attempts to persuade Zeng Jing, through a detailed correspondence, of the many virtues of Manchu rule. Zeng Jing is ultimately convinced by his teachings, realizes that he has badly misjudged the emperor, sees the errors of his ways, writes a detailed confession renouncing Lu Liuliang’s ideas, and begs the emperor’s forgiveness. All these communications between prisoner and emperor are ultimately published with the title Awakening from Delusion (Dayi juemi lu). The book contains Zeng Jing’s original treasonous letter, a summary of his radical ideas, his recantation, and, it would seem, his deep apologies. It also contains the emperor’s attempts to address Zeng Jing’s beliefs, along with his own extensive imperial commentary.

The verdict in the Zeng Jing case was pronounced in 1736 and was nothing less than stunning. Indeed, despite the unanimous findings of his officials that Zeng Jing should be put to death by the slicing away of his flesh, Emperor Yongsheng surprisingly set him free, along with the original messenger Zhang Xi, in an unprecedented act of clemency. In the emperor’s estimation, it is the deceased scholar Lu Liuliang who is at fault and who was the true conspirator, not Zeng Jing. It remains the emperor’s hope that, because of his generosity, his capacity for understanding, and his enlightened attitude, posterity will revere his name. No doubt the impetus behind the emperor’s forgiveness of Zeng Jing and the publishing of Awakening from Delusion is to assuage the rumors of his ineffectiveness and to assure his place in history as a compassionate and wise ruler.

Before long, the multivolume tome Awakening from Delusion is mass-produced and distributed throughout China, not just to officials’ offices and libraries but circulated to everyone in China and made mandatory reading in all educational institutions. The mass publication of the many ideas that the emperor finds offensive does seem modernistic in a reverse-psychology sense. However, the idea of Emperor Yongsheng as representative of eighteenth century Enlightenment thinking goes out the window when it becomes clear that punishment for the revered scholar’s treason entails the “harshest possible” punishments, the execution of Lu Liuliang’s surviving children and grandchildren. In addition, when an official, Tang Sungao, proclaims the greatness of Lu Liuliang, whose teaching harkens back longingly to the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongzheng summarily orders his execution. On the one hand, therefore, through the mass distribution of Awakening from Delusion, Emperor Yongsheng attempts to portray himself as a perceptive, beneficent ruler, but he remains, on the other hand, and in hard fact, an absolute tyrant.

Although the plotter Zeng Jing receives a pardon and a generous stipend from the emperor, he is placed under constant scrutiny, given a nominal government job, and spends his days looking for something to occupy his time. The messenger Zhang Xi is allowed to return to his village. It is unclear whether both men ever met again. The reaction to the emperor’s leniency among scholars is unforgiving. They remain irate that Zeng Jing went free, while the distinguished scholar Lu Liuliang’s corpse was disinterred and disgraced. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that shortly after Emperor Yongzheng’s death in 1735, the new twenty-four-year-old emperor, Qianlong, reevaluates the infamous case and declares that Zeng Jing be executed by being sliced to death.

Treason by the Book is a scrupulously researched, fascinating tale of political discontent and absolute imperial action. Spence’s chronicle of historical events, which draws on original manuscripts from the Emperor Yongzheng’s era (1728-1735) stored in the Beijing and Taipei archives, flows gracefully despite the often troublesomely unfamiliar Chinese names. While a broad knowledge of Chinese history and culture would no doubt be useful, it is not necessary to deeply appreciate the book. The author gently guides the reader through the oftentimes complex times gone by and interjects interesting cultural tidbits. For instance, only the emperor was allowed to use red ink (vermilion), and he answered his officials’ letters by writing comments in red between the lines of the black Chinese characters.

Partly a study of the intellectual background of the early Manchu dynasty and partly an examination of a culture and the political and legal systems of eighteenth century China, Spence’s novel vividly combines history and mystery, casting light upon the world of eighteenth century Chinese scholarship, which was severely limited by bureaucratic examinations. In short, Spence explores the unstable boundaries between fact, rumor, and truth. Although now almost three hundred years old, Zeng Jing’s story of high political intrigue strongly resonates in China today, inspiring television documentaries and academic studies. Spence no doubt prefigures the culture of repression in today’s China, where any dissent is considered a threat to the state and continues to be brutally crushed.

In addition, by painstakingly deconstructing a thwarted uprising in 1728 China, Spence reveals the role that words and books have played in Chinese history. Accompanying the history of this particular era in China is a continual reflection on the power of the written word, in particular as it is used to express hostility, control, and subtle yet persistent persuasion. What also becomes apparent is the importance and the lasting magic of the written word, not just during the Manchu dynasty, but during any historical era. Treason by the Book is an entrancing chronicle of a seemingly obscure, but deeply significant, episode in Chinese history. This book is not a fast read, for it demands the reader’s total engagement—but the effort pays off.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (March 1, 2001): 1224.

Library Journal 126 (February 15, 2001): 184.

The New York Review of Books 48 (May 17, 2001): 38.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (March 18, 2001): 7.

Publishers Weekly 248 (January 8, 2001): 55.

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